This time of year always puts me in the mood for traditional German Christmas markets and one of my favourites is in Cologne. This beautiful city on the Rhine (named Köln in German) is full of life and history. Cologne has wonderful Christmas markets that rival Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna and Hamburg. After the quiet 2020 holiday period we all need a bit of seasonal cheer.
The city was founded in the first century CE under the name of “Colonia Agrippina”. It was named after Agrippina the Younger, one of the most extraordinary women in ancient Rome. She was the granddaughter of Augustus, the first Emperor, the wife of the Emperor Claudius (who was also her uncle!) and finally the mother of the Emperor Nero. Cologne was where she was born and, at her request, it was raised to a “Colonia” status and was thus favoured for development. It’s strategic location on the Rhine means that Cologne has been a place of commerce and the exchange of ideas since its founding.
My favourite kind of marketing!
Cologne Bonn Airport (CGN), located just 15km (9 miles) southeast of the city centre, is a modern and convenient facility. The airport has its own train station, making public transport a convenient option. Train tickets from the airport to Old Town, where many people stay, costs around £2.50 for adults and will take 30 minutes for the ride. Taxis are also available. You can expect to pay a fare of £30 – £40 for the same distance, making the train a real value!
There is so much to see in this wonderful and historic city. Here are some of my recommendations:
- The Cologne Cathedral or “Kölner Dom” is the city’s biggest attraction and an absolute ‘must-see’. Built in 1248 it’s located a short walk away from the historic Old Town. It is one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, a masterpiece of High Gothic architecture, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ascend the 500 steps to the top of the spire and you’ll be rewarded with a breath-taking panoramic view of the city.
- As you tour the city’s multiple churches make sure to also spend some time walking through Old Town Cologne. Its alleys are lined with picturesque traditional old houses, boutique shops, galleries, cafés, and restaurants. Tucked in amongst these old buildings, you’ll find the city’s ‘Archaeological Zone’ dotted with ancient Roman ruins and artifacts.
- Art lovers will enjoy a visit to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and the Ludwig Museum for a chance to view some of the cities more modern architecture and a wide range of European artworks.
- Römisch-Germanisches Museum is home to an impressive collection of Roman art and artifacts retrieved from along the Rhine.
- Hohe Straße is one of the most exciting areas of the city for shopping, with Schidergasse being its most popular street. Find anything your heart fancies from clothes to gifts. During the run up to Christmas this pedestrian only area can become quite busy!
- Chocolate lovers will satisfy every sweet tooth with a trip to the Cologne Chocolate Museum (Schokoladenmuseum) and delight in the interactive displays, antique collections and, of course, free samples from the chocolate fountain. Guided tours are also available.
- This time of year, the biggest attractions are the Christmas markets. Cologne offers seven different major markets including; Nicholas Village, the Cologne Cathedral Christmas Market, the Harbour Christmas Market, Heinzel’s Winter Fairytale, Heavenue, Angel’s Market and the Stadtgarten Christmas Market. All of these are wonderful ways to be filled with the festive spirit!
Here’s a Pro tip: The Flora and Botanical Garden provides a wonderful nature-inspired break. Located in the north of the city you’ll find more than 10,000 species of plants and a wonderful time all year-round.
The local food in Cologne is simple and hearty, often with very poetic or sarcastic sounding names. Cologne is also home to 27 Michelin-guide restaurants, bucking the assumption that simplicity is boring or unrefined. Here are three of my favourite places to eat:
- Michelin-starred restaurant Astrein Essen and Trinken, run by chef proprietor Eric Wernen is where to head for a modern and elegant take on German traditional recipes, perfected through French techniques.
- Germany’s answer to Britain’s ploughman’s is the Halve Hahn, often served throughout local Brauhäuser or breweries. The name, meaning ‘half chicken’ is said to have originated as a joke for guests in the beer houses who couldn’t afford a chicken. This open-faced rye bun topped with butter, gouda cheese and raw onion is a popular snack. Find this along with other local dishes at local favourite Max Stark.
- For those looking for variety and atmosphere, Salon Schmitz is a treat. Spread over three traditional row (or terraced) houses with salon décor, chandeliers, and beautiful couches, guests are invited to choose from an extensive menu. Options range from decadent cakes, quiche or salad at the deli counters, a well-made cocktail at the bar or a full brasserie-style dinner.
Cologne comes alive in the evening, showcasing some of the city’s best cultural events and customs. Here are three of my recommendations for what to do at night:
- Enjoy an evening on the water, coupled with live music and mulled wine with a boat trip along the Rhine. This is a wonderful way to enjoy an unparalleled river view of this sparkling city.
- Beer gardens and breweries are a way of life in Cologne. 100-year-old Peters Brauhaus is one of the best and serves 26 different kinds of Kölsch, Cologne’s local beer. Do be aware, in keeping with German tradition, they’ll keep refilling your stein until you place a beer mat over it to say ‘stop’.
- For those looking to enjoy live music, The Kölner Philharmonie is home to two world-class classical orchestras; the Gürzenich Orchester and the WDR Sinfonieorchester. Book an evening performance for a sublime experience or catch their free, weekly lunchtime concerts.
Here’s my final Pro-tip: Biergarten Rathenauplatzis is a wonderful community-run beer garden. A portion of their proceeds go to help maintain the wonderful leafy park in which it’s located. It is family-friendly and worth a visit.
Cologne offers great places to stay. Here are three of my favourites:
- Excelsior Hotel Ernst puts you right in the action, located just minutes from Old Town and within walking distance from Cologne Central Station. Rooms are luxurious and modern.
- The Savoy Hotel offers views of the Cathedral, unique and beautifully decorated rooms as well as a full spa for those looking to add a few treatments onto their ‘to-do’ list whilst in this historic and beautiful city.
- Known for its epic breakfast buffets, that will give you plenty of energy for a day filled with sight-seeing, Stern Am Ranthaus is in Old Town and within walking distance from eight of the largest Romanesque churches in the city.
Much like its traditional food, Cologne will stick to your bones and warm your heart. This wonderful city is vibrant and welcoming for a short visit or a longer stay.