Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany and proudly sprawls on both banks of the river Rhine less than 80 kilometres from Belgium. Despite its modern appearance, the city was established in the first century AD and served as a capital of a Roman province. Regrettably, the Roman and later the Gothic architecture did not make it to the present day. Not only did Cologne become the biggest German fortress throughout the ages, but it also housed one of the military headquarters and several important industries for the WWII. For that, it was one of the most heavily bombed cities in 1939-45 and the 262 air raids that it suffered levelled the city to the ground. One of the few structures left standing was the famous Cologne Cathedral, whose twin peaks climb 157 metres into the sky. Unfortunately, this miracle was no act of God. The cathedral’s height made it a useful navigational landmark for the British, American and French pilots, and it was therefore purposefully left untouched. Even so, the structure did suffer 14 hits that smashed some marvellous stained-glass windows.
The city and the cathedral have persevered through those terrible trials and continue to endure and weather away modern day challenges. The debris left in place of centuries-old streets was manually carried to parks around the city and used to create artificial hills – Trümmerberg. There are eleven such hills in Cologne – find them and you can literally stand atop History. In place of rubble, the cityscape developed into a complex and unique mixture of the severe, abstract and functional building styles of the subsequent decades. Poking through this maze here and there are the remnants of the surviving, pre-war architecture – mostly churches, city halls and a few medieval city gates.
The Cologne Cathedral has acquired new windows and its soaring, stark grey arches are now complemented with a cheerful donation from Gerhard Richter – a 113 sq m window made of colourful pixels. Oddly, no one in Cologne seems to know what this design means or depicts. In fact, the Cardinal at the time refused to attend the window’s unveiling. Nonetheless, the cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark and for just €3 you can climb its South Tower and enjoy unobstructed views of the city and the Rhine below. Good luck with those 533 steps!
If climbing isn’t your thing, Cologne has over 30 museums and hundred of galleries offering anything from Roman archaeological artefacts to contemporary graphics. Perhaps the most notable, or plainly bizarre, among these are the Chocolate Museum, the Mustard Museum and your choice of the Cologne 4711 or the Farina perfume museums.
The former of these stands on a little island in the Rhine. You can enjoy a leisurely river cruise, or even a cruise lunch on the Rhine before strolling down the pretty riverbank for dessert. For €9 you can learn where chocolate comes from, how it grows, how it makes its way to the shops and its mixed history with race and inequality. Do not believe the myths of the all-you-can-eat chocolate! The chocolate fountain within the museum is guarded by a chocolatier, who gives out only 2 thin wafers economically dipped into the sweet goodness. Even so, do check out the restaurant for delicious surprises.
The Mustard Museum is just across the water – on the mainland, and here you can taste the different flavours of mustard and find out how it’s made. You can also buy some to take home, but the pots are rather large and cannot be transported in hand luggage if you’re flying. The perfume museums will offer you a glimpse at the history and social importance of their fragrant liquids. By the way, Eau De Cologne was numbered 4711 after the address of the perfumery – houses were not numbered before the Napoleonic invasion and became somewhat of a novelty when introduced. You will find a large tapestry of the house “numbering” by French soldiers in the Eau De Cologne House.
Time matters in Cologne – the cheapest accommodation can be found just after New Year with decent hostel beds starting from €10 in the city centre. Prices jump up after that, with the cheapest hostels offering bunks for €20 even in October, and these will be out of the city and with less than agreeable conditions. Needless to say, airbnb and hotels go up in price accordingly. If you do choose to stay further from the city centre, you will probably have to come to the central train station at least once. From here you can catch a number of different types of trains to local, national or international destinations. It is also where your beliefs about German punctuality will be dispelled. Expect delays for every kind of train ranging from 5 to 30 minutes. If you’re travelling in a group and plan to stay in the city, the TagesTicket bis 5 Personen provides a great value for money. It allows up to 5 people unlimited travel across Cologne for 24 hours for as little as €12.90. Make sure to stamp it before use to avoid a fine. Another easy way to accidentally incur a fine is to cross a road in the wrong place or on the red light. To avoid any unnecessary money loss, make sure to always use the zebra crossing and only use it on a green light. Regarding food, Germany isn’t as well known for its excellent cuisine as its South European neighbours. However, being so multicultural, Cologne offers a proliferation of international restaurants. If you do fancy something local try Himmel und Ääd (Heaven and Earth), so named for its two main ingredients – apples from the sky and potatoes from the ground. Another one not to miss is the Mettbrötchen – literally raw meet on bread. If you’re brave enough to try this one, it goes very well with German beer. It should also be noted that Germans are not fussy about their coffee and most places serve instant or filter coffee. If you need a proper artisan, barista coffee to start (or continue) your day, pay a visit to Espresso Perfetto. You might even walk away with a brand new coffee maker, a 5 kilo bag of luxury coffee, or catch a ride in a passing Ferrari in search of the above.