Cologne, or Köln as it is known in German, is local for us. We live about 32 km (just over 35 minutes in good traffic) or a short train ride away from the city centre. We go there to shop, visit with friends, see an exhibition or a concert or to have lunch. It is really only when we have visitors over from Australia that we go as a tourist. Here are our tips of what to do in a day in Cologne.
Thanks must go to our Best Man for many suggestions on this list. He lived in Cologne for many years and showed various family members his Cologne. Many of these activities are based on his expertise.
As we live so close, we are also not the right people to offer tips on where to stay. There are numerous hotels and hostels for every budget.
Getting to Cologne
As we live so close, we caught the train to the Cologne-Messe/Deutz station to start our day. Of course, the first top was the Deutzer Brauhaus to meet up with our Best Man for a warm-up drink (Vorglühen) of the local Kölsch. Their food looks great and very typical for Germany and it is a popular lunch spot.
Don’t worry if you get off at the main station. It is right next to the Dom, so you can start your tour there. It is even close enough to run out and snap a photo if you have a 15+ minute lay-over at the station.
When those of us who were not comfortable with heights had gathered some Dutch courage, we headed up to the panorama viewing platform of the KölnTriangle. This gives a great view of the cathedral and the old town from the 29thfloor of the building. Obviously, this is a view you can’t get from the cathedral itself. Entry is EUR 3 for adults. Children 11 years and under are free.
After visiting the tower, we made our way across the Hohenzollernbrücke (Bridge) towards the main train station and the old town.
Have you heard of love locks? It’s a tradition, where newly married couples write their names (and sometimes wedding date) on a lock, attach it to a bridge and then throw the keys into the river to symbolise their unbreakable love. In Cologne, the Hohenzollern Bridge is covered in love locks.
At one stage, Deutsche Bahn, the German railway, tried to remove the locks. Public outcry was so great that it has now become a tourist attraction.
In case you have any railway enthusiasts in your group: The Hohenzollern Bridge is the most heavily used railway bridge in Germany. More than 1,200 trains cross it daily.
Kölner Dom – Cologne Cathedral
The gothic Cologne Cathedral (officially known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter) is the highlight of any trip to Cologne.
The people of Cologne are very proud of their cathedral. It pops up in various songs, including carnival songs. Apparently, apartments with a view of the cathedral (Domblick) are worth more, even if you have to stand at an odd angle and look through a really small window to see it.
You can visit the cathedral on your own, but the best way to visit is part of a guided tour. There are multiple guided tours each day, with tours in English at 10.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. most days (except Sundays) during summer. Tickets cost EUR 8 for adults and EUR 6 for concession. More details can be found here.
If you have the energy (and the knees), you can climb up the southern cathedral tour. The views are great, but there are 533 steps to get there – and there is no lift. The viewing platform is 97 m above the ground and parts of the stairwell are very narrow. This is not an activity for anyone with claustrophobia or acrophobia.
The tower climb is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (May-September) and costs EUR 5 for adults. More information can be found here.
Old city and Rhine River
Once you have seen enough of the cathedral, wander through the old part of the city and along the Rhine River.
Around 70% of Cologne’s old town was destroyed in World War II and was painstakingly rebuilt. Despite this, the old town has a distinctive historical charm.
Stroll along the narrow, cobble-stoned alleyways lined by traditional old houses, stop to consider the various fountains and statues and marvel at the Great St Martin romanesque church and the historic city hall.
Enjoy a beer at one of numerous pubs or breweries, or stop for something to eat at one of the many restaurants.
Continue to the banks of the Rhine until you get to the Chocolate Museum (Schokoladen Museum).
The museum covers all aspects of chocolate production and trading, from cocoa beans to pralines. It looks at the Aztecs and how chocolate came to Europe and became part of everyday life. There is even a mini palm house.
The highlight though is the production area – and the free samples. It starts with wafers dipped in chocolate from the golden chocolate fountain – for hygiene reasons a staff member hands out the samples.
For a fee, there is also ‘make your own chocolate’ facilities. You don’t actually make the chocolate, but choose between white, milk or dark chocolate. You can then choose up to 4 ‘toppings’ from a list of nuts, fruit, and other toppings. I chose dark chocolate with cashews, pistachio brittle, salted caramel balls and coffee nibs. You can watch it getting made and then by the time you have seen the rest of the museum.
We can also recommend the iced coffees and iced chocolates at the restaurant/café. The cakes looked delicious, too. If you just want to call in for dessert, you don’t have to pay to see the rest of the museum.
The museum gift shop is great if you are looking for an edible souvenir. It has every Lindt chocolate you can imagine, and various Cologne-theed gifts, too.
Unwind at a beer garden
Round off the day at a beer garden and try some (more) of the local Kölsch beer. In Winter, visit one of the many pubs.
Our top picks are:
- The beer garden at Rathenauplatz, which specialises in organic food and beer. Although the playground was taken down, it should be replaced in 2019.
- The beer garden in the Volksgarten. You barely even notice that you are still in the middle of a city of one million people. You can even hire a pedal boat and take a ride around the lake.
If you don’t feel like eating at the beer garden, there are numerous restaurants to choose from. We chose Hellers Brauhaus, just around the corner from Rathenauplatz. It offers both German and regional food and its own beer. They even offer brewery tours (unfortunately only for groups).
More activities for kids
We do love a good zoo and would definitely recommend the Cologne Zoo. Highlights include the elephants, gorillas and orangutans, as well as the hippopotamus enclosure, which has a viewing window to watch them swim. There is also a great playground for the kids to let off steam.
Tickets cost EUR 19.50 for adults and EUR 9.00 for children aged 4 and above.
For an additional thrill, take the ‘Zoo express‘ from next to the cathedral and see more of Cologne on the way.
For even better views take the 6-minute long cable car ride over the Rhine. The views of Cologne, the old town, the Rhine and the surrounding area are great. Tickets cost EUR 4.80 one way and EUR 7 return for adults. The cable car leaves from Thermalbad (Claudius Therme).
Lindenthaler Petting Zoo
Lindenthaler Tierpark (petting zoo) is particularly good for small children. The park has over 250 animals, including highland cattle, goats, donkeys, sheep and various birds. Entry is free. You can also buy food to feed the animals.
The park is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. from May to August. See the website for more details and other times.
For children aged 4 years and over, we would also recommend the Odysseum. It is a very hands-on science museum, with a focus on life (including a dinosaur) and the Earth. They also have a number of travelling exhibitions, such as Star Wars Identities and Brick Live (about Lego).
Odysseum is great if the weather is a little unpleasant, but is also great when it is hot. They put up a huge slip-n-slide in the courtyard where they have permanent water features and have staff giving talks on water-related things (like bubbles, water and sound, etc.) Bring bathing suits for the kids.
Tickets are EUR 16 for adults and EUR 8 for children aged 4-17 years. A family pass (two adults, two children) costs EUR 44. Additional ticket prices apply for
The Chocolate Museum also has special courses for children aged 8 years and over (and for adults). These vary in duration from 50 to 90 minutes and include making pralines or decorating chocolates, with the help of the Maître Chocolatier. Adult courses can take up to four hours and include making fillings and decorating pralines. You can find further information here.
If you have the time, take a boat trip on the Rhine. There are short, one-hour trips showcasing the Cologne skyline, as well as day trips.
When they visited Europe just after Miss M was born, Mum and Dad took a trip from Cologne to the ‘Drachenfels’ and thoroughly enjoyed it. There is also another highlight for railway fans.
In our opinion, the better views are further down the Rhine, between Koblenz and Mainz. A hop-on, hop-off day tour of the Rhine castles leaves downstream from Koblenz.
Where to shop
For high street shopping, try Schildergasse and Hohe Strasse, which starts at the foot of the cathedral.
For smaller, unique boutiques, try the Belgian Quarter, which is can be found between Venloer Strasse, Roonstrasse and Moltkestrasse. You can find everything and anything from art prints, books and home accessories, to eco fashion and pepper and other spices.
Are you travelling with a soccer fan who knows who German national player Lucas Podolski is? If you missed his Poldi-Eis in the old town, try his ice cream shop in the Belgian Quarter: Ice Cream United.
The Belgian Quarter is also a great place to go dancing and drinking in the evening.
The Cologne Christmas markets are some of the best in Germany. The most famous and popular one is right next to the cathedral (4 million visitors annually!)
In 2019, the markets are open from 25 November to 23 December.
What to do in Cologne in a day
We hope you will like our tried and true tips for what to do in Cologne in a day. Cologne is kid-friendly – check out our tips for activities for older and younger kids. And don’t forget to go shopping!