Cologne isn’t always the most well-known of Germany cities for foreigners, especially North Americans; but I think it should be! Spelled Köln in German, and sometimes seen as Koeln, Cologne can trace its origins back to the first century AD. It was established as a Roman provincial capital and military stronghold, and retaining it’s independence throughout the Middle Ages. Today, the city remains one of Germany’s most important cultural centers and is the 5th largest city in the country.
Germans always joke that Cologne isn’t a beautiful city, but it is a friendly city. I certainly feel that unique vibe, especially in comparison to other German cities. The people here have a funny sense of humor, will randomly start chatting with you in line for the bathroom or on the street, and they are known for loving a good time. Each year, Köln’s legendary Karneval celebration brings out costumed locals ready to let loose. In fact, Cologne is the city with the most pubs per person in Germany thanks to its beloved local Kölsch beer.
Add a mix of effortlessly cool neighborhoods, pretty parks and riverside attractions, and fabled food & drink, you’ll find yourself never wanting to leave Cologne. I certainly didn’t, and nearly 3 years later, I still live here. It may not have the iconic appeal of Munich or Berlin, but I think Cologne has a lot to offer a visitor.
Here are 15 Cool Things to Do in Cologne, Germany
When I started telling people that we were moving to Cologne, one of the most common replies that I got was “Like the perfume?”. Yes, exactly like the perfume. Cologne, Germany is the birthplace of what we know now as Eau de Cologne. There are two rival companies in the city — 4711 and Farinas — both of which offer fragrance tours and testing at their flagship stores. I really prefer the Eau de Cologne from Farinas, and I find them to be much more approachable and friendly than the highly corporate 4711. If you were only going to visit one of the two, make it Farinas!
Created by an Italian immigrant to Germany in 1708, Farinas was the first registered cologne in the city. It was said to smell like “an Italian spring morning after the rain” with lots of citrus smells like orange, lemon, grapefruit and bergamot. It was originally used by European elites in lieu of showering, and some of the most famous clients of Farina include Napoleon Bonaparte, Princess Diana and Mark Twain.
Today, the Farina family descendants are in their eighth generation of perfume production which has made Cologne world famous. The original fragrance recipe lives on today, and is kept as a tightly held secret. Even the production facility’s location is a mystery! I got a sample of the cologne on my tour and loved it so much that it is actually the fragrance I now wear every day. I love how bright and clean it smells!
Picnic on the Rhine
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. The densest stretch of the promenade runs from the Hohenzollernbrücke (aka the Lock Bridge) in front of the Dom south until the Chocolate Museum which lies just in front of the Severinsbrücke. To really act like a local, pack yourself a small picnic with bread, cheese and beer 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.
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 easy for all skill levels, and you’ll get a real sense of how Kölners spend a sunny day in the city. I would recommend biking southwards on the 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 side, especially at golden hour.
Drink Kölsch Beer
Kölsch is the beer in Cologne. Walk into any bar or brauhaus in the city and order a beer. You will be getting a Kölsch. Kölsch is a clear, light, and crisp lager that is warm fermented with top-fermenting yeast, then conditioned at cold temperatures like a lager. It is a quintessential beer-Kölsch is the beer in Cologne. Walk into any bar or brauhaus in the city and order a beer. You will be getting a Kölsch. Kölsch is a clear, light, and crisp lager that is warm fermented with top-fermenting yeast, then conditioned at cold temperatures like a lager. It is a quintessential beer-beer. Kölners are extra proud of Kölsch because it is the only beer in Germany to have a protected geographical status, similar to Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy or Champagne in France. There are a number of large scale producers in Cologne, such as Fruh or Gaffel, as well as smaller independent breweries, like Mühlen or Peters. I’ve summed up everything you need to know about Kölsch beer in my Cologne beer guide!
Explore Different Neighborhoods
I love that Cologne is a city of neighborhoods. You’ll get a totally different impression of the city depending on which neighborhoods you explore or stay in. Südstadt has more crunchy, hippy vibes while Ehrenfeld feels trendy and alternative. Belgian Quarter has the coolest restaurants and bars, while Nippes offers a more upscale and bougie experience. Zollstock offers a quirky assortment of shops and Deutz has a diverse, international community. With Cologne’s great public transportation availability, you can easily move around the city to see different corners of this lovely city. You’ll really get a sense of how local people live when you’re in the neighborhoods.
Visit the Kölner Dom
On every single itinerary of Cologne, you are going to see 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. This cathedral is one of the tallest and largest churches in all of Europe! The jaw-dropping scale of this cathedral looms over you from the second you arrive, and you will undoubtedly be impressed.
The cavernous interior of the Dom boasts a number of large stained-glass windows and a massive altar. It is rumored that the remains of the three wise men are even buried here. The tile floor in the back is especially noteworthy, creating these 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 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.
Said to be the most popular private museum in all of Germany, the Cologne Chocolate Museum (Schokoladenmuseum in German) is a fun and lighthearted museum that will satisfy even the biggest sweet tooth! The museum exhibits the entire chocolate making process from bean to bar. There are interactive displays, collections of molds, and antique chocolate boxes. The best part though? Free samples from the chocolate fountain and chocolate bar machine! Better still, you can even design your own chocolate bar to take home with you. Guided tours are available but it can be easily explored on your own. The cafe inside the museum is noteworthy for its amazing cakes and sweet creations. If it is a rainy day, this isn’t a bad place to spend a few hours.
Shopping in the Belgian Quarter
One of the things that first stood out to me when I visited Cologne, and Germany in general, was the vibrancy of local business. I noticed independently owned shops around the city, and significantly less big box retailers than I was used to coming from the US.
Now that I live here, the abundance of small retail is one of my favorite things about life in Cologne. On nearly every one of my bike rides around the city, I discover a new shop to explore! From independent design shops to creative concept stores, Cologne has a thriving boutique culture ranging from approachable to high-end shops selling all sorts of interesting products.
Never has it been more important to support local business owners than now. With the gradual reopening of Cologne after COVID-19, these boutiques are in need of clients and I want to feature some of my favorite shops, because I am proud to live in a city that has such a plethora of unique small businesses.
Views of Cologne from the Köln Triangle
For some of the best views of Cologne and the Dom, take the elevators up 29 floors to the top of KölnTriangle. The 360 degree viewing platform on the roof offers a spectacular panorama of the entire city. Unfortunately there is nothing else on the roof, so you’re really just going for the views. As such, it is only really worthwhile on a clear day. But trust me, they’re beautiful! If you come around sunset, the crowds will be larger but the sun sets behind the Dom so the photos are picture perfect. Tickets to the platform is €5.
Flora Botanic Garden
My university hosted a welcome party at Flora my first week in Cologne, so it was one of the first places I discovered in the city. With acres of sprawling lawns, individual gardens and 10,000 different species of plants, Flora is a wonderful place to spend a sunny day in Germany. Open all year-round, you can spend an hour or two meandering through the well-groomed paths and tree-lined promenades. The tropical settings of the greenhouses and the Palm House are delightful, whatever the season. My favorite part of the garden is the exquisite glass palace in the center, which was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace and built in the 1860s. There is a small cafe inside with a large patio, making it a perfect place to enjoy a mid-afternoon snack or beer.
Try a Sweet Pretzel
Nugatbretzel is a type of sweet pretzel that is famous in Cologne. It is basically a yogurt glaze-covered pretzel coated in almonds with a slightly crunchy texture. It is a perfect thing to accompany coffee in the morning and costs less than 1.5 euro. They’re a local specialty! I would recommend getting a Nugatbretzel from Merzenich. This is one of the most famous bakery chains in the city and you’ll find plenty of them around the city center.
Claudius Thermal Bad
Wellness activities are really important to German people, and one of the most typical ways they rejuvenate is in thermal baths. These are big day spas with thermal water pools at various temperatures as well as sauna areas. You can buy a day pass, or a ticket for just a few hours. I find it super relaxing to sit in the warm pools or sweat it out in the saunas, especially in the cold German winters. There are several thermal baths around Cologne, but my favorite (and the best) is Claudius Therme. Located on the edge of Rheinpark, one of the saunas even has a Dom view! There are both clothed areas and naked areas at Claudius depending on your level of comfort with public nudity. Be aware that the naked area is mixed gender.
Aachen Pond Beer Garden
In the summer, Aachenerweiher is the hangout spot for Kölners looking to relax with friends outside. The technical name is Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park, because of the Japanese cultural center located in the park; but locals don’t really call it that. They call it Aachenerweiher after the street it is on (Aachenerstrasse) and the little pond feature (weiher in German) that sits in the center of the park. Regardless, you will see crowds of people on picnic blankets, sunbathing and generally relaxing outside. You are welcome to bring your own food and drink, otherwise stop at the beer garden on the east side of the pond. This is one of my favorite beer gardens in Cologne, because it has a lovely view and friendly staff with a lively atmosphere all day long.