Cologne (or Köln in German) offers visitors everything you’d expect to find in a European city: impressive architecture, beautiful parks, a stunning riverfront, rich history, world-class museums, and delicious food. Located in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Cologne seduces travelers with its perfect balance between old traditions and new modern influences. It’s the fourth largest city in the country and a popular tourist destination for people traveling within Germany and other neighboring countries.
It’s probably a pity to miss exploring this warm and beautiful city if you’re road-tripping across central Europe. You can easily reach the continent by plane and then rent a car to explore different cities and towns at your own pace; you’ll only need an International Driver’s Permit and a traveler’s insurance policy for you and any other passenger traveling with you. Since you’d be driving a rental vehicle in a foreign country, it is also advisable that you invest in an insurance policy for your rental. That said, there are many options available in the market, but not all of them offer the same coverage or are equally affordable. So you need to explore your options before making up your mind. If you’re traveling to Cologne from the States and plan on renting a car, you may find this option useful.
Cologne is a charming German town that you’ll definitely fall in love with. Let’s explore 10 of its most interesting highlights.
1 Kolner Dom (Cologne’s Cathedral)
Cologne’s Cathedral is architecturally remarkable and the most visited tourist attraction in the city. Towering at 515 feet tall and with the largest facade of any church in the world, you really can’t miss it on your arrival to Cologne. It’s a Gothic masterpiece, and it has been a pilgrimage site for more than a thousand years, housing the remains of the Three Wise Men when they were brought to the city following the conquest of Milan. When the original building was not considered impressive enough for this precious relics, they decided to build the Cathedral. Construction started in 1248, but only in 1880, its two iconic towers were completed!
Kolner Dom is a building of superlatives, and it’s a hallmark in the city. It covers almost 8000 square meters of floor space and can hold more than 20 thousand people. Its interiors are impressive with outstanding stained-glass windows and many important works of art. Its soaring roof is supported by 56 pillars. Being so large and striking both from the outside and the inside, it’s almost impossible to take in. Get ready to spend at least an hour exploring this magnificent building: its important tombs, iconic stained glass windows, numerous chapels, and artistic masterpieces will definitely call your attention.
While inside, you can pay an extra fee and visit the Treasury. Set in the Medieval sacristan crypt, it’s home to a whole host of church treasures dating from the 4th century. Head back out of the main entrance of the Cathedral, walk around the corner and down the stairs to reach the bottom of the South Tower. This is where you can start the 533 step climb to the viewing platform that’s located about 100m above ground level. The climb will take you past the bell chamber. There you can see St Peter’s Bell, which is the largest freely swinging church bell in the world. After climbing the 500 steps, you’ll be gifted with stunningly beautiful views across Cologne that make the climb so much worth it! Just bear in mind that the spiral cases are steep and narrow and that the way up and down are the same, so you’ll need a certain level of fitness. There are guided tours offered daily that help tourists learn interesting things about the history of the Cathedral and its important artistic treasures.
2 Schokoladen Museum (Chocolate Museum)
Chocolate fans or those with a sweet tooth can’t miss visiting the Schokoladen Museum in Cologne. It’s definitely a feast for your taste buds and your eyes! You’ll be able to learn how a humble jungle pod is turned into everyone’s most favorite sweet treat. It’s an informative and tasty museum where you can learn everything about chocolate. There are kid-friendly exhibits on cacao harvesting and chocolate production, including a tropical rainforest greenhouse. Children love the replica of an old-style candy shop that will probably remind you and them of the famous Chocolate Factory created by Roald Dahl. There’s also a nice and charming café that overlooks the Rhine river and serves up delicious and totally decadent chocolate creations!
The guided visit shows chocolate fans the entire chocolate-making process. You’ll see the chocolate being mixed, stirred, and poured into many different molds.
3 Follow Your Nose at the Fragrance Museum
Did you know that the famous Eau de Cologne was actually born in this German city? John Maria Farina invented the original perfume, and it is still sold in the Museum of Eau de Perfume. The business is still running nowadays and their scent is a worthy addition to your collection as it has been worn by celebrities as Oscar Wilde, Voltaire, and Princess Diana. The guided tour in the Fragrance Museum is highly recommended as it takes you into the depths of the historical buildings to the working rooms where ledgers are kept, and perfumes are invented.
At 4711’s flagship store, you can craft your own unique formula and have a super personalized fragrance! They have been producing perfume for centuries, and they can help you develop a customized fragrance for you or for someone you love. They have tutorials in German, but you can book one in English upon request. The tour is absolutely captivating as you (and your nose) are immersed in the world of fragrances and how this famous scent is created.
Bear in mind that the Fragrance Museum and the 4711 shops are two different buildings but they are nearby. While at the Museum, you can explore the perfume creation process, at the 4711 shops, you can create your own scented formula. The 4711 Cologne House definitely smells nice! You find it at Glockengasse n° 4 and it’s the birthplace of the most famous eau de cologne in the world. You’ll find the shop on the ground floor and there’s a small museum with the history of Cologne 4711 on the first floor.
4 Show Your Love on Hohenzollern Bridge
The Rhine splits Cologne in half and the city is united across a series of seven bridges. The Hohenzollern Bridge is not only probably the most splendid of them all but also the most famous. It stretches 410 meters across the river in three great steel arches. German troops destroyed it at the end of WWII to prevent Allied soldiers from advancing into the city but it was rebuilt in 1948, a couple of years after the war ended. Today is a pedestrian and rail bridge with 1200 trains passing over it daily and pairs of equestrian bronzes on both ends.
Paris is not the only European city with love padlocks on their bridges. Cologne has its one favorite spot for love locks on Hohenzollern Bridge. Locals can’t tell for sure when this lovely tradition started, but now there are thousands of them as more and more individuals are eager to leave a little mark of their romance for everybody to see. And despite in many other cities authorities have had to take action to remove the locks in case of structural damage, the impressive Hohenzollern Bridge has managed to withstand the weight of this love (2 tonnes of it!).
Climb up the bridge and leave your own love message on a padlock or simply admire some of the best views of Cologne Cathedral from here, so be sure to cross right over to the other side. It’s not only aesthetically beautiful but it also provides great views of Cologne across the Rhine. It’s also a great place to take great panoramic pictures of this wonderful city or admire a wonderful sunset.
5 Enjoy the Rhine River
As it splits Cologne in half, the mighty Rhine is a spectacle in itself that anyone spending some time in the city can’t miss. Fortunately, as a city that embraces the river there are plenty of possibilities and ways to enjoy it. A good way is to walk along the Rhine Promenade. Leave the Altstadt or Old Town and cross the Hohenzollern Bridge. From there you can easily join the Rheinuferpromenade where you can find families out for a stroll, buskers playing tunes, or students just hanging out. Take your time to admire the stunning views of the Cathedral and the surrounding cityscape. Then, after a 10-minute walk, you can cross Deutzer Bridge back to Old Town. It’s a must-do stroll. The wide embankments offer comfortable walking space, there’s an interesting streak of bars and restaurants and an interesting way of getting to know Cologne and mingle with the locals.
Of course, you can also explore the Rhine on a cruise! In fact, can you think of anything more romantic? The river is such an integral part of the city that you really need to explore in as many ways as you can. There are different companies that offer cruises along the Rhine. The boats take different routes and have different pick-up and drop-off points making it an enjoyable, unique, and convenient way to see Cologne. Ticket prices may vary, depending on the package you choose and the company booked with.
One of the most delightful adventures you can take is to hop on a boat cruise, starting at the edge of the Old Town near Hohenzollern Bridge and head southwards to the former fishing village of Rodenkirchen. Boat cruises are available all day long, but they are probably more beautiful and romantic in the evening when you can hop into one of these cruises to enjoy a quiet cocktail and see Cologne at its best. A boat ride makes it easier to capture the city’s most iconic landmarks and get unparalleled views of the Cologne Cathedral, the stunning buildings of the Old Town, the new Rheinauhafen district, and the Hohenzollern Bridge. A night cruise is also charming as it invites travelers to discover the city totally lit while enjoying a tasty buffet as you soak up the views.
But the Rhine River can even be enjoyed in another interesting way: the cable car or Kolner Seilbahn Car. It offers breathtaking views over the city, up and down the Rhine, and all the way to the Cologne Zoo. It’s a magnificent opportunity to admire the city from high above. Don’t forget to take a camera with you as you’ll be able to take fantastic photos of the Old Town and the Cathedral!
6 See the Old Town
Cologne’s Old Town or Aldstadt may be small compared to other European cities, but it’s equally picturesque and charming with its cobbled streets flanked by rows of pastel houses, saunter between Heumarkt and Altenmarkt where you can see the oldest City Hall. The Old Town is a lovely part of the city. Stop on Am Hof and admire its fountain that dates back to the late 1890s and admire the old churches like Great St Martin or walk into the different shops, galleries, boutique shops, cafés, and restaurants.
It’s quite a unique area in Europe, especially for its medieval neighborhood that was almost entirely rebuilt from scratch in the XX century. Located directly along the Rhine, the Old Town, together with the Cathedral, the Romanesque Church Great St Martin, and the tower of the City Hall, makes up the famous Rhine Panorama. It’s a culturally rich area as well as you’ll find many of the city’s most important museums as well as fountains and monuments.
7 Explore the Wallraf-Richartz Art Museum
The Wallraf-Richartz Art Museum is the place to be for art lovers. The first floor is dedicated to the crucifixion, but the second and third floors offer an interesting display of Impressionist, Baroque and Romantic paintings by Rubens, Dürer, or Monet to name a few. The towering central gallery on the 3rd floor is worth admiring with rows upon rows of paintings from floor to ceiling.
It’s one of Germany’s finest art museums and focuses on European art from the XIII to the XIX centuries and a prized sampling of medieval art. Amongst the highlights of the museum we can mention The Last Judgement, Madonna of the Rose Bower, and Triptych with the Virgin in the Garden of Paradise. They deserve as much attention as you can give them.
8 Museum Ludwig
Museum Ludwig is a renowned institution home to the third-largest collection of Picasso works in the world, following Paris and Barcelona. A mecca of modern art, it presents an impressive mix of works from all major genres: German expressionism, American pop art, Russian avant-garde, photography, and even abstract art. It’s a great opportunity to admire works by Picasso, Salvador Dali, Roy Liechtenstein, Andy Warhol, or Marcel Duchamp.
9 The Roman-Germanic Museum
Ruins and sculptures displayed outside the entrance of the Roman-Germanic Museum are merely the overtures to an interesting and rich assortment of Roman artifacts found along the Rhine. Highlights include the giant Poblicius tomb, the splendid Dionysus, and astonishingly well-preserved glass items. It offers an interesting insight into daily Roman life gained from lamps, jewelry, tweezers, and lamps. There are plenty of remnants of the Roman city in the museum, including a street leading to the harbor and two wells. There’s as well a Roman arch!
The Roman- Germanic Museum focuses in the Roman history of Cologne and contains objects from the Paleolithic period to the early Middle Ages. Its archaeological approach makes it a must-see in the city.
10 Explore the Belgian Quarter
Located close to the city center, between Rudolfplatz and Friesenplatz, you’ll find the Belgian Quarter. It’s probably the trendiest neighborhood in Cologne, and it’s famous for its stunning Art Nouveau apartment buildings. It’s got a charming bohemian atmosphere, and there are many bars, brunch spots, restaurants, and galleries. It’s definitely the best place in town where to grab something to eat and a glass of Kolsch! And don’t forget your purse as there are plenty of thrift stores where to spend your money!