Although Cologne is Germany’s fourth largest city and somewhat spread out, it’s easy to navigate and explore using public transportation as well as on foot. Most tourists who visit Cologne don’t tend to venture out of the city center and Old Town, but you can find amazing areas chock full of boutique shops, hip bars, trendy restaurants and street art if you venture slightly off the beaten path. Here’s a rundown of the best sights, entertainment and accommodation the city has to offer.
What to do
Cologne’s vibrant history is reflected in its architecture. One of Germany’s most popular tourist attractions is the Kölner Dom, the spires of which dominate Cologne’s skyline. The famous Gothic cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and although its construction began in the 13th century it wasn’t completed until 1880. Aside from this Gothic landmark, you’ll find countless other medieval churches and a Roman wall, as well as more avant-garde buildings. Don’t forget your camera when you take a wander through some of the narrow alleyways of Cologne’s picturesque Old Town (Altstadt) located along the Rhine River. And if you fancy checking out some independent shops and cafes, and perusing some street art head to both the Belgian Quarter (Belgisches Viertel) and the Ehrenfeld neighborhoods. If you’re in town in September, the urban street art festival called CityLeaks has tours and exhibitions going on in both these neighborhoods.
For contemporary art, the Museum Ludwig is a must-see. Its collection includes Pop Art and Surrealism, and it’s home to one of the largest Picasso collections in Europe.
Located on the Rhine River a stone’s throw away from both the Cologne Cathedral and Museum Ludwig is the Rosa Winkel Mahnmal, a memorial for gay and lesbian victims of Nazism. Once a meeting point for gay and queer Cologne residents, the memorial’s design was based on the “Pink Triangle” badge used in Nazi concentration camps to identify male prisoners who were sent there because of their homosexuality. It’s just at the foot of the Hohenzollern Bridge, now a popular spot for visitors to leave love locks.
If you like chocolate (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?) learn about the entire history of chocolate, from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs to today’s production methods at the Chocolate Museum. Since 2006, the museum has been a partner of Lindt chocolates and you get a free candy with your entrance ticket.
Where to Eat, Drink and Party
Cologne has earned the reputation as being Germany’s “Most Gay City” due to it’s large LGBTQ populations and it’s warm embrace of gay culture. There’s even a so-called “Bermuda Triangle” of gay life in Cologne, comprised of the Belgian Quarter, Rudolfplatz and Heumarkt neighborhoods. If you’re in need of any advice on what to do for a night out in the triangle, I’d recommend taking in a drag show at Katt-Winkel on Greesbergstraße, hitting happy hour at either Ex Corner or Iron Bar (or both) on Schaafenstraße, and then hitting a couple of clubs. Die Mumu (on Schaafenstraße) has what could be described as a ”campy” younger crowd but if that’s not your thing there’s an all-night club with a young clientele called Sixpack on Brüssler Platz. More mature visitors might prefer the Altstadt (Old Town) with beer halls aplenty. Head to Cox at Mühlenbach 53 or Baustelle 4U on Pipinstraße for a drink with a friendly crowd, then Station 2b (also on Pipinstraße) if you’re in the mood for some cruising.
Most of Cologne’s more famous gay bars including LeCarrousel can be found around Heumarkt near the Deutz Bridge. This area also happens to be the epicenter of Cologne’s Christopher Street Day gay pride—one of Germany’s largest—held every year in June. CSD sees LGBTQ revelers from all over the world, and around one million people also visit Cologne for its famous Carnival which takes place in February each year. While it may not be a gay event in itself, Carnival has a super gay-friendly vibe, and the city’s gay bars and clubs throw events to celebrate the holiday.
After a fun night on the town head to Cafe Rico on the corner of Rudolfplatz for one of Cologne’s best brunches. Sample the local version of the German dish sauerbraten (marinated, pot-roast beef) at Brauhaus Sion if you’re in need of a hearty lunch or dinner, or hit the cheap and cheerful Beef Brothers, a small burger joint on the popular Aachner Straße.
Where to Stay
Art aficionados should stay at the Hotel Chelsea, conveniently located in the downtown area of Cologne, not far from the historic Roonstrasse Synagogue and the Millowitsch-Theater. The 3.5 star hotel has a chic minimalist aesthetic. Rooms feature flat screen-TVs and free high-speed WiFi and most have their own little balcony. Founded by a local artist, Marin Kippenberger, the hotel exhibits contemporary art created by artists (many of whom are from Cologne) in each room. The collection was originally developed when artists offered their works in exchange for a place to sleep! In the ‘80s and ‘90s legendary parties took place in the hotel’s Cafe Central.
Those in need of a bit of luxury should book a few nights in the Excelsior Hotel Ernst. The 5-star, family-run hotel is located in the Old Town, just a stone’s throw away from the cathedral. In addition to the grand yet elegant rooms, guests can enjoy a sauna and fitness area, free pick-up from the station, two top-notch restaurants (one of which was awarded a Michelin star), and a piano bar.
For backpackers on a budget you can’t go wrong with the Pathpoint Cologne Backpacker Hostel, located in the Old Town, right next to all the restaurants and nightlife you could want. Part of a chain of hostels found across Germany, facilities are basic but the staff are friendly and guests are offered luggage storage, a 24-hour reception and free Wi-Fi. All of the 34 rooms have a bathroom with a shower and there’s also a restaurant and small BBQ area.
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