Germans often say that Cologne (or Köln as it’s spelled in German) is not a beautiful city, but that it is a very friendly city. After living in Cologne for nearly 3 years now, I think there is some truth to that, although I am not nearly as harsh on my beauty standards for city. From an American perspective, I think Cologne is quite lovely, certainly more so than a number of cities in the US.
Regardless, Cologne has a strong and distinct local culture rooted in open-mindedness with a quirky sense of humor and a love for celebration. The annual Carnival (Karneval in German) celebrations in Cologne are epic, shutting down the city for 6 days and attracting over a million visitors. Germans aren’t typically know for their openness, but as a foreigner in Cologne, I feel the hospitality from local Kölners. I feel welcome here. I feel at home here.
As one of the largest cities in Germany, Cologne is a great place to explore for a few days as a visitor. I think a 2 day visit to Cologne is sufficient to hit all the major highlights, but you could stay for up to a week if you wanted to explore the surrounding areas. I have created this comprehensive 48 hour Cologne itinerary from a local’s perspective, making sure that you experience the touristic attractions and discover some of the more local hidden gems.
How to spend 48 hours in Cologne, according to a local
MORNING: Kölner Dom
On every single itinerary of Cologne, you are going to find the Köln Cathedral (Dom in German) recommended as one of the top activities to do. The Dom is the attraction to see in the city! In fact, there is a local saying that ‘Home is where the Dom is’ because the gothic twin peaks of the church are the city’s icon. It is absolutely beloved and receives nearly 4 million visitors per year!
If you arrive in Cologne via train, the Kölner Dom is going to be the first thing you see. It is located directly next to the Main Train Station (Hauptbahnhof in German) which lies in the center of the city along the Rhine River. The jaw-dropping scale of this cathedral looms over you from the second you arrive, and you will undoubtedly be impressed.
This cathedral is one of the tallest and largest churches in all of Europe! The massive bell towers are so easy to spot that the Allied air forces used them as a navigation marker during WWII, so they were largely preserved from destruction. Have a look at the photos of Cologne directly after the war and you can see that everything around the Dom was completely flattened from bombing but those tall towers are still standing.
Anyway, the cavernous interior of the Dom boasts a number of large stained-glass windows and a massive alter. In the back, it is rumored that the remains of the three wise men are buried here. The tile floor in the back is especially noteworthy, creating massive mosaic pieces of art on the ground. Entrance to the Dom is free and without a ticket, but if you want to learn more about the history, there are guided tours of the Dom offered every day in several languages. You can also climb the 500+ stairs to the top of the bell towers for a truly amazing view, but it has been closed due to Covid for over a year.
EARLY AFTERNOON: Old Town Cologne
Before wandering around the Old City of Cologne, grab a bite to eat at Café Reichard just across Dom Plaza. They have a big assortment of cakes and coffee drinks with the Dom as the backdrop. On a sunny day, it is hard to find a spot to sit on their spacious patio.
As I mentioned above, most of Cologne was bombed and destroyed during WWII. A majority of the traditional Old City (Altstadt in German) was rebuilt in the postwar period. The rebuilt portion is much smaller than it previously was. It is also smaller than many other cities in Germany. If you’ve explored charming German Altstadts before, the one in Cologne is likely to disappoint. Nonetheless, wandering the narrow streets south of the Dom is a nice way to experience Cologne, especially if this is one of your first German cities to explore.
It won’t take more than an hour or two to walk through Cologne’s Altstadt, so this is an easy activity to do on your 2 day itinerary. A few of the highlights to see are the Old Market, which is home to my favorite Christmas Market in Cologne. You’ll also notice Germany’s oldest city hall at the Cologne Rathaus. I love the engraved details of this Gothic-style building because the statues display politicians and mayors from Cologne’s past. If you look up from the bottom, each statue will have an emblem symbolizing what that person is known for and some of them – such as the man trying to suck his own dick – are pretty funny.
Continue towards the Rhine River to visit Fish Market, whose colorful facades and lovely view of St. Martin Church makes for a nice Instagram backdrop. Rather than walking along the river (which you’ll do below) turn down Buttermarktstrasse to continue meandering through cobblestoned streets lined with bars, restaurants and even a beer museum! Finish your walking tour at Heumarkt, one of the largest squares in the city. You’ll see a massive statue of Friedrich Wilhelm III near one end with the sides of the square lined with Kölsch beer halls and restaurants. If you are in the mood for some bigbox chain retail, walk down Cologne’s most famous shopping street – Schildergasse — which starts at one end of Heumarkt.
LATE AFTERNOON: Rhine Promenade
Genuinely one of my favorite things to do in Cologne is walk along the Rhine River Promenade. It straddles both sides of this major river, and each side offers a variety of things to do and see. To really act like a local, pack yourself a small picnic to enjoy on the river. I regularly meet friends for a walk and beer on the river, since Germany has open container laws and the Rhine promenade is such a nice way to enjoy the outdoors.
The densest stretch of the Rhine promenade runs from Hohenzollernbrücke (the Lock Bridge) in front of the Dom south until the Chocolate Museum which lies just in front of the Severinsbrücke. The west side of the river runs along the city while the east side of the river is more of a park, especially south of the Severinsbrücke.
If you’re feeling especially adventurous, rent one of the city’s bike share bicycles for the afternoon and take it for a spin along the river. The paved path is flat and totally manageable for all skill levels. This is my favorite way to explore and you’ll get a real sense of how Kölners spend a sunny day in the city. I would recommend biking southwards on west side of the river, crossing over the Rhine at either the Südstadt bridge or the Rodenkirchen bridge (if you’re up for a longer ride). Then, head back north on the east side of the river. The views of the Dom are spectacular from this east side, especially at golden hour.
EVENING: Kölsch Beer Halls
Since moving to Cologne, my husband and I have become very familiar with the local beer — Kölsch. I even wrote a whole guide about Kölsch that includes the best places to drink it, what makes this beer special, and where you can find micro and macro breweries. Sampling a Kölsch (or 5) is a must-do activity on a 48-hour visit in Cologne! It is basically the only beer you’ll drink while here because it has a special protected status that stipulates the brewing methods, locations of the breweries and several other regulations in order for a beer to be named a Kölsch.
Experiencing a German brauhaus is on many people’s bucketlists when visiting Germany, and there are plenty of them available in Cologne. Most of the major Kölsch purveyors offer food at their breweries and restaurants, so this is a perfect way to end your first day in Cologne. If you follow this itinerary, you’ll be near the Altstadt and Heumarkt areas. There are a few Kölsch brauhauses to note in this area, including Fruh am Dom, Mühlen and Gaffel, but you can find Kölsch at just about any restaurant in the city.
MORNING: Brunch and Coffee
Start your second day in Cologne with a delicious brunch and coffee at one of the many great restaurants in the city. If you are staying at one of my recommended hotels (details below!), then you’ll be staying near the Stadtgarten area. In that neighborhood, there are a number of brunch and coffee places I can recommend.
Pick up at coffee at the cute and vibey Kaffeesaurus on Friesenplatz. This place is always buzzing with energy! Then enjoy a Michelin star brunch at Neobiota. This stylish restaurant on a quiet street near Neumarkt serves up globally influenced German fare prepared to perfection. If you’re looking for something more casual, consider Cafe Buur. This Instagrammable brunch restaurant specializes in decadent and over-the-top breakfast dishes with a flair for funky plating.
EARLY AFTERNOON: Visit One of Cologne’s Museums
There are a number of worthy museums in Cologne, so this afternoon is a choose your own adventure activity! Learn about the entire process of chocolate making, from bean to bar, at Cologne’s most popular museum – the Lindt Chocolate Museum. This is genuinely such a fun museum, thanks to the lighthearted and yummy subject matter. You’ll see nostalgia inducing old candy wrappers and marketing campaigns sprinkled in between fun facts about the cacao plant and how chocolate is produced.
For a darker side of German history, schedule a visit to the EL-DE-Haus. This building was used as a prison and execution center by the Gestapo during the Nazi era. Today the museum catalogs Cologne’s SS documentation center and hosts exhibitions about the 3rd Reich, with a significant number of photos showing the city during that time period. It is a sobering place to visit, but one that remains immensely important so as never to forget how something so horrific can happen.
If you’re an art lover, the Ludwig Museum next to the Dom has a world famous collection of modern art. It is named after Peter Ludwig, whose private collection serves as the foundation for the museum. It has the most extensive collection of Pop Art in Europe, including a number of pieces by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. It also has a large Picasso wing in addition to rotating exhibitions throughout the year.
LATE AFTERNOON: Shopping in Belgian Quarter
A lot of tourists shop along Schildergassestrasse in the Old City area, but as a local, I much prefer shopping the independent stores and boutiques in the Belgian Quarter. You can proudly support local business owners and window shop unique offerings that you can’t find in the more commercial areas. Plus, the Belgian Quarter is my favorite neighborhood in Cologne! It has such a good vibe with lots of shops and restaurants to enjoy, making it the perfect place to spend an afternoon during your 2 perfect days in Cologne.
You’ll find the Belgian Quarter along the western edge of Cologne’s inner loop road (innergürtel), and it stretches west until the green loop (grüngürtel) between Aachenerstrasse and Venloerstrasse. It is easy to access the Belgian Quarter from the major Rudolfplatz transit stop. From there, you can explore on foot or by bike. There are a ton of cool independent shops in the Belgian Quarter and I summarize all of my favorite boutiques in this Cologne shopping guide. A few places to note are Schee, a print and home decor shop that has tons of cool prints by local artists, Herbarium, a friendly plant shop with a large selection of dried flowers, and Boutique Belgique, a hyper feminine and of-the-moment women’s clothing boutique.
EVENING: Dinner in Südstadt
For a more off-the-beaten path corner of Cologne, I would recommend checking out the Südstadt neighborhood. Located south of the Altstadt, this neighborhood has a laid-back and slightly alternative vibe. Think young parents with babies slung on their back, vintage shops with tons of Doc Martin boots on sale, and vegan restaurants. Südstadt feels like a neighborhood where Kölners really live, and that is why I think it is worth a visit during your 48 hours in Cologne. It’ll give you a sense of the city!
Arrive to Südstadt via public transit and get off at Chlodwigplatz. You can walk north through the market towards Severinstrasse for more shops, or south on Bonnerstrasse for more restaurants. You’ll find the best places on the side streets off of those, so don’t be afraid to get a little lost exploring the neighborhood. If shops are still open, there are plenty of cute ones to peek into, such as intothevibes vintage and keep loving… women’s clothing boutique.
There are conveniently a number of great restaurants in walking distance from Chlodwigplatz, so Südstadt is a great area to have dinner on your last night in Cologne. I summarize all of my favorite Cologne restaurants here, but in Südstadt specifically, I would recommend the following options.
- Mangal Doner – fast Turkish eats on the street
- Johan Schafer – neighborhood brauhaus with delicious food
- Pottkind – casual vibes with upscale dining and excellent quality food
- Otto’s Burger – stylish space with a great burger selection
Day 3 Bonus!
I think you can experience most of the tourist highlights with a 48 hour visit to Cologne, but if you have an extra day or two, don’t fret – there are plenty more things to see! Consider a morning walk through Flora Botanic Garden or learn about the history of Eau de Cologne on a fragrance tour. Maybe you want to relax at one of the city’s thermal baths or hunt for street art. If you enjoyed exploring the Belgian Quarter and Südstadt neighborhoods, venture out a little further to Ehrenfeld or Nippes, both of which are nice neighborhoods to walk around. My Local’s Only Guide to the Coolest Things to Do in Cologne will give you tons of ideas for filling extra time in Cologne!
How to Get Around in Cologne
Public transportation is widely available throughout Cologne, including a subway, street car and bus options. You can buy single fare tickets or multi-day packages depending on your needs. Tickets are available in the stations at automated machines or on the trains/buses themselves. I personally use my bike to get around and I find this to be a lovely mode of transportation in Cologne. The bike paths here are well-marked and well-respected by local drivers, so that you can feel safe exploring on two wheels. There is an affordable bike share program around the city, so you can easily rent a bike for 30 minutes or a whole day.
Where to Eat in Cologne
You’ll be spoiled with delicious restaurant options in Cologne, as long as you branch out from the Altstadt and Dom areas. Many of the “Where to Eat in Cologne” restaurant lists predominantly feature German beer halls and places that I would say are touristy. As a local foodie based in Cologne, I have found some delicious eateries ranging from Asian food to Turkish cuisine to homestyle burgers. There is so much more than just brauhauses!
Good restaurants and eateries are scattered throughout the city, but you’ll find the best options clustered in the Belgian Quarter, Nippes and Südstadt.
Where to Stay in Cologne
Most of the hotels and accommodations in Cologne are located within the innergürtel loop road for convenient access on foot or by public transportation. The 25 Hours Hotel near Friesenplatz is a personal favorite. I love the brightly colored stylish interior, but the real highlight is the rooftop bar with excellent views over Cologne.
For a more boutique hotel experience, check out the Qvest Hotel. Housed in a former Abby, the minimalist, monochrome rooms are perfectly designed and the hotel has been recognized for its interior design. Qvest’s small size and attentive service makes it a romantic hideaway for couples.
Day Trips from Cologne
There is an abundance of local travel opportunities around Cologne. From castles to charming towns to beautiful natural areas, day trips from Cologne have become a favorite pastime of mine since moving to Germany. There is so much to see! Cologne is a great jumping off point for exploring other parts of North Rhineland Westphalia on day trips, and I summarize all the highlights in my Cologne Day Trip guide.