One of the things that I was looking forward to most about living in Europe generally, and western Germany specifically, was the accessibility of local travel opportunities. Cologne feels like it is in the heart of Europe. Major cities like Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are all just a train ride away, and with major airports in Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, I have never felt like travel was more accessible.
But you don’t need to go far to find awesome things to do around Cologne either. There is an abundance of local travel opportunities nearby. From castles to charming towns to beautiful natural areas, day trips from Cologne have become a favorite pastime of ours since moving to Germany. Plus with the travel restrictions from the pandemic stopping us from leaving this area, we have taken lemons and turned them into lemonade by using this time to (safely) explore our corner of the world.
I have no idea what tourism will look like at the end of this Coronacrisis, but I think we will see a resurgence of hyperlocal travel. People will feel too scared to get on a plane and too nervous about being stranded to go far away, let along the economic limitations that people’s budget will feel; yet the desire to travel will remain. Humans are wanderers by nature and we need some escapes, which is why I think that local weekend trips and day trips will become a dominant form of traveling. Personally, I think this is really exciting because this form of travel is much more sustainable but also allows people to see beauty and wonder in their own backyard. I hope this local guide will help to inspire some of that local travel in your own area.
These are my favorite day trips from Cologne, Germany!
Augustusburg Palace in Bruhl
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 18km
- Mode of Transportation: Train (30 minutes), Car (20 minutes), Bicycle (40 minutes)
- Time Required: 2-3 Hours for tour and gardens
If you are a lover of Rococo style architecture, then a visit to the jaw-droppingly beautiful Augustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces in Bruhl is a must-do day trip from Cologne. It used to be the residence and hunting lodge for Cologne’s Archbishop, and in more recent history, hosted receptions and state dinners for the Western Germany state. Dating back to the 18th century, this massive palace has been painstakingly restored with marble pillars, gold décor, and hand-painted murals. It is really a marvel!
The French gardens at the palace are another highlight with tree-lined boulevards, well-manicured flower beds and of course, a variety of fountains and busts to discover along the walking paths. The gardens are open and free to the public year round, but the only way to see the interior of the palace is on a guided tour in which photography is strictly forbidden (and enforced by surveillance cameras). In true German fashion, I am always an advocate for responsible and rule-abided tourist behavior. Please do not try to sneak photos of the palace interior.
Drachenfels Castle + Ruins
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 40km
- Mode of Transportation: Train (70 minutes), Car (45 minutes)
- Time Required: 3-4 Hours for castle tour and hike around the trails
Towering over a slight bend in the Rhine River with a stunning view of the 7 Hills Nature Preserve, Drachenfels Castle in Konigswinter is an ideal day trip from Cologne if you want some time outdoors, a pretty beer garden and some history sprinkled on top.
You are welcome to hike up the hill, but an easier way to get up is via the funicular. Buy a one way ticket and you can meander your way back down on foot. At the top of the funicular, you will find a large viewing platform offering sweeping views of the region along with a perfectly placed beer garden and cafe. We visited on an ideal fall day in October, and the beer garden was packed with young families, friends and doggos spending a lovely day in the sun.
As you make your way down the hill via the well-marked walking paths, you will stumble upon castle ruins and garden houses until you reach the main Schloss Drachenburg. The castle was built privately by a wealthy family in the 19th century, but it has changed ownership many times since then. It fell into disrepair during the post-war period, and was only restored within the last few decades. If you want to see the gardens and interior of the castle, you’ll need to purchase a ticket at the entrance for a marginal fee.
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 45km
- Mode of Transportation: Train (30 minutes), Car (50 minutes — can be lots of traffic)
- Time Required: Minimum of 6 Hours, but could easily spend a few days
I’ve already written about Dusseldorf on the blog a few times, but it is worth mentioning again here. Dusseldorf is a lovely day trip from Cologne, because these two cities have a fierce rivalry to be the best and most famous city in North Rhineland Westphalia.
Check out my guide to seeing the best of Dusseldorf in 48 hours for a full rundown of what to do there, but if you’re only going as a day trip, the highlights would definitely be the Mediahafen, Carlsplatz Market, drinking altbier, and eating Asian food, specifically ramen! In reality, Dusseldorf and Cologne have completely different vibes and it would be a shame to come to the state without visiting both cities.
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 35km
- Mode of Transportation: Train (35 mins), Car (45 mins)
- Time Required: 6-8 hours depending on how much you want to see
Compared to its more famous neighbors, Bonn is often overlooked but I think it actually has a lot to offer on a day trip. It is the home of Beethoven and hosts a huge Beethoven festival each spring. Bonn was also the capital of West Germany during the Cold War between 1949 and 1990, and still has many consulates and diplomatic functions along with historical museums.
A simple walk around the old city is charming thanks to the candy-colored facades of the homes. You have most likely seen Bonn on your Instagram feed, thanks to the annual cherry blossom bloom on Heerstrasse near the old city. Most importantly to my sweet-toothed husband, Bonn is home to the Haribo Candy company and a visit to their factory outlet store is quite the experience — Germans get REALLY excited about their candy.
Eifel National Park
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 60km
- Mode of Transportation: Car (60 minutes)
- Time Required: 4 Hours to relax and hike around the trails
For an escape from the city, the best place to visit near Cologne is Eifel National Park. This 110 square km park is the only national park in North Rhineland Westphalia, which has made it a local favorite for social distancing during the Coronacrisis. This densely forested park sprawls over mountain ranges, making for some dramatic and beautiful vistas. You’ll find deep blue lakes and rivers which have been shaped by volcanic forces over the millenium.
Once inside the park, there are an endless assortment of walking and hiking trails to meander along. The Wilderness Trail is perfect for beginners and offers good signage. If you’re looking more for a driving route, the volcanic route connects geologic sites in the region such as crater lakes, waterfalls, geysers and more.
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 60km
- Mode of Transportation: Train (90 minutes), Car (55 minutes)
- Time Required: 6-8 Hours for hiking & drinking, but also suitable for an overnight stay
Prior to moving to Germany, I must admit that I was pretty ignorant about Germany’s wine production; but I have been educated by proud Germans who like to boast about their domestic wines, especially white wines. The most important wine regions in Germany are nearby Cologne, making for a perfect day (or overnight!) trip.
Starting with the red wine region, the Ahr Valley in Rhineland Palatinate is most famous for its spätburgunder which is a type of pinot noir wine. Grapes grow on terraced vineyards in a steep and narrow valley, making the Ahr Valley Germany’s largest red wine growing region. I visited with my parents in September during the harvest period, which made our day trip extra special.
The most fun (and beautiful) way to explore the valley is with a mild hike on the Red Wine Trail. Called the Rotweinwanderweg in German, this 35 km long stretch of trails connects various towns and wineries in the Ahr. The terrain is easy and the trail is well-marked, so you don’t need to have any gear or knowledge prior to arrival. The best part about the Red Wine Trail though — drinking local red wine as you hike! Most of the wineries offer tasting rooms and terraces to stop for a rest and drink as you hike. You’ll also find little pop up tents along the walk. Moon + Honey Travel have a fantastic guide full of detailed suggestions about the Ahr Valley if you want more information.
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 175km
- Mode of Transportation: Car (120 minutes)
- Time Required: 10-12 Hours but best as overnight or multiple nights
Producing more Riesling than anywhere else in the world, many people are familiar with the Mosel/Moselle Valley’s white wine. In fact, it has been around since the Roman times! The Mosel Valley is a pretty expansive region, and even though you could do it as a day trip, I would recommend spending at least one or two nights here. There are tons of cute towns and charming wineries just waiting for you to discover them!
The Römische Weinstraße is the easiest way to get around the region, and it loosely follows the Mosel river. In addition to abundant wineries, there is a surprising amount of castles in this region. The Eltz Castle (mentioned below) is probably the most famous, but don’t miss a stop at the Cochem Castle. Conveniently located at a horseshoe curve in the Mosel River, I’m not sure there is a more beautiful vista!
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 110km
- Mode of Transportation: Car (90 minutes)
- Time Required: Roughly 2 hours
Of all the destinations on this list, Eltz Castle (Burg Eltz in German) is the most out of the way; but the challenge of getting there will be worth the reward! Of the German castles that I’ve seen so far, this one comes closest to rivaling the iconic Neuschwanstein Castle. Its tucked away location in a perpetually mist shrouded valley in the Moselle region simply screams romance. It’s relatively remote location also protected it during the war periods, which means it remains largely in its original condition.
Construction of the castle dates back to the 9th century, and this castle has been continuously privately owned by the Etlz family, whose 33rd generation of descendants still maintain the castle today. After paying for a ticket at the castle entrance, you will be whisked onto a 45 minute guided tour through the various Medieval styled rooms. Because one family has consistently owned the castle, you will find the rooms filled with original artifacts, like paintings, armor and furniture. Tours are offered in English and no photography is allowed during the tours.
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 80km
- Mode of Transportation: Train (75 minutes) Car (75 minutes)
- Time Required: 8 Hours for sightseeing + spa visit, but also suitable for an overnight stay
Sitting directly on the German-Dutch-Belgian border, Aachen is a crossroads for culture, history and even wellness! The easy train connection between Aachen and Cologne makes this one of the most accessible day trips on this list. Like many cities in the heart of Europe, Aachen has a long and storied past dating back thousands of years to the Romans and Charlemagne. The Aachener Cathedral is the most famous attraction in the city, serving as the coronation site for more than 30 German kings along with the burial place of Charlemagne. If you happen to be in Germany during December, Aachen has a lovely Christmas Market in the Altstadt.
By far my favorite thing to do in Aachen is a visit to the relaxing thermal waters at Carolus day spa. This place is LEGIT with 8 different soaking pools and an equal number of saunas. This spa is traditional German, so there is a swimsuit area and a naked area, both of which are co-ed. Plan to spend at least a few hours here as you relax and soak all of your stress away!
- Distance from Cologne City Center: 105km
- Mode of Transportation: Train (70 minutes), Car (90 minutes)
- Time Required: 8 Hours
Located at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers, Koblenz has been a strategic outpost in Germany for millennia, with Roman ruins dating back to 8 BC! For sightseeing, Koblenz’s old town hosts a variety of interesting sites, like the Basilica of St. Castor, Romanesque Church of Our Lady and the history column, a sculptural marvel that documents the 2,000 year history of Koblenz.
If you’re not one for sights, simply wandering the romantic alleys and narrows streets in the Altstadt will keep you occupied. For great views of the two rivers coming together, ride the cable car up to Ehrenbreitstein fortress. The museum inside the fortress leaves a lot to be desired, but the views are great and the patio restaurants inside are a great place to enjoy a beer and snack.
Germany is well-known for its nearly 20,000 castles, one of which sits just outside of Koblenz. Schloss Stolzenfels is a 13th-century fortress which was largely destroyed, but then rebuilt in the 1800s in neo-Gothic style. The castle can only be accessed on foot, and you’ll be required to park your car at the bottom of the steep hill. Similar to other castles on this list, you can only see the interior on a guided tour and photography is strictly forbidden, but in the various rooms on the tour, you’ll find paintings, weapons, armour and furnishings from the mid-19th century which were left when the castle was abandoned.