It was the end of the summer (August 2018) and we were looking for a destination to meet up with friends in Germany for one last holiday trip before school started. We decided to meet in Cologne (Köln).
Cologne is a modern city. Many of its historical elements were destroyed during World War II. After doing my pre-travel research, I got the feeling that while it doesn’t have a strong reputation as a “must see” travel destination, visitors usually leave with an appreciation for its unique personality. With that in mind, I entered Cologne with no expectations other than to have a nice weekend with family and friends. It was an added benefit that we were doing it in a new city to explore.
Cologne ended up being a perfect destination for this trip. There was just enough to explore without feeling overwhelmed. It offered a nice blend of historical sites (yes, not all the historical features are gone), cultural elements, and family-friendly activities to keep our entire group happy.
Most surprising to me was Cologne’s lively energy. Particularly as day turned to night, the city buzzed with a lively, party atmosphere. So, while Cologne may not be on the top of everyone’s travel lists, it was a great place to visit, at least for a night or two, and it has something to offer everyone.
What We Did
Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom)
Undoubtedly a main attraction in the city, our first destination in Cologne was the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). We toured the inside first, where one of my favorite features was a stained glass window with a design by Gerhard Richter. I gained an appreciation for his work after seeing an exhibit here in Gent, so was pleasantly surprised to see this window in Cologne.
We also went to a viewing area at the top of one of the Cathedral spires. Here we got a 360-degree view of the city. We also passed by the Cathedral bells. If you time it right, you might pass by them while they ring – cool, but loud! It took a lot of narrow, winding stairs to get to the top. Visitors should be ready for some physical exertion and heights!
The Cathedral was undergoing exterior renovation/repairs, which is probably a never-ending activity. This detracted from the views a little bit, but also showed us how much of a feat it must be to properly maintain a cathedral of this size and age. Everywhere you looked you could find architectural and archaeological pieces on, or stored around the base of, the cathedral.
Cologne Praetorium, Archaeologic Zone and Judaic Museum
The Cologne Praetorium and Judaic Museum are on the archaeological site of a Roman Governor’s Palace and the old Jewish Quarter of Cologne. A visit allows you to walk among the Roman ruins, and see many artifacts found during the archaeological explorations of the area, which seem to be ongoing.
Nearby, we also saw the Historic Town Hall (Rathaus) which is adorned with many interesting characters!
While not much is still truly “old”, we enjoyed walking through the Old Town.
Schokoladen (Chocolate) Museum
We planned to visit the Schokoladen Museum (owned and presented by the chocolate company, Lindt). However, after seeing very long lines and considering the cost of entry, we decided to just visit the museum’s chocolate shop instead. We left with some treats to sample. I am sure it is a lovely museum and it seems quite popular, but living in Belgium, we have no shortage of chocolate or opportunities to learn about chocolate, so this was a last-minute change in plans I didn’t mind!
Deutsches Sport & Olympia Museum
One museum we did visit, and the kids loved, was the Deutsches Sport & Olympia Museum. We were travelling with four active kids between the ages of 6 and 12. This museum, which tells the history of German Olympic sports, has many hands-on displays and activities, so it was perfect for the kids to get some energy out. For some reason, most areas of the museum had restrictions on taking pictures, so I don’t have any to share, but I do recommend the museum to sports fans and families.
Rhine Boulevard and Bridges
From the museums, we walked over the Deutzer Bridge so that we could enjoy Freitreppe am Deutzer Rheinboulevard, or, Rhine Boulevard. Unfortunately, we were met with a passing rain shower at the same time. Somehow, in the midst of dodging raindrops, my son also got bird poop on him. So, our walk along the Rhine Boulevard was less than pleasant. (If you ever wondered why Moms carry giant Mom purses, it is because we know we always need to have tissues, wipes, and various sanitizers handy so we can be prepared for moments like these.)
Luckily, the rain passed and we all cleaned up and dried off quickly. We walked back to the other side of the river by crossing the Hohenzollern Bridge. The Hohenzollern Bridge is one of many bridges in the world that tourists have decided to turn into a “lock” bridge.
I’ve got to be honest here, I do not get this trend. What makes us and our love so important that we should feel the need to leave a symbol of it in a place we visit? Why do we need to leave a physical representation of ourselves and our love behind, literally consuming an existing structure that is (presumably) someone else’s creation (thinking of architecture as art) and serves a functional purpose that may be harmed by our interference? This article in The Guardian first got me thinking about this topic a few years ago.
Maybe I am just an unromantic grump, but this tradition is just not for me. I see that people are starting to do it on one of our beautiful bridges in Gent and I am so annoyed. This particular bridge is ornate and beautiful on its own and a covering of cheap, hardware store locks would destroy its beauty, and maybe its structural integrity. I hope the city is keeping an eye on it and will not allow that to happen.
Anyway, as we crossed the bridge, I muttered frustrations and judgments and the kids stopped every few steps to try to crack the codes on every combination lock they saw. They were unsuccessful, so I guess everyone’s love survived that day.
Back on the other side of the Rhine, we enjoyed some street performers, a cool water fountain, and a Flohmarkt (flea market).
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Wyndham Köln. This hotel has an excellent location right next to the Rhine and the train station. They are currently renovating and we were lucky enough to get a newly renovated room with a patio facing the Cathedral and the train station. I had so much fun taking pictures from our balcony! I had no complaints about this hotel and would stay here again.
What We Ate
Being so close to the train station, we were able to grab a some to-go pastries and coffee there on our first morning. I failed to get the name of the bakery. On our second morning, we ate breakfast at an old bakery near the Cathedral, Merzenich.
It caught my eye the day before because of its Berliners and pretzels covered in sugar and almonds. The Berliners were great. The covered pretzels were not as good, especially since they brought a constant swarm of bees! I’ll take my pretzels salted, please.
We enjoyed a great, traditional beer hall lunch at Brauhaus Früh am Dom. Here, we had the chance to experience Cologne’s kölsch beer custom, where you are served the local brew continuously until you ask for it to stop, and the server keeps track of how many you’ve consumed on your coaster.
We had another traditional German meal for dinner at Haxenhaus. This restaurant is in a very cool old building and the menu has some seriously traditional German dishes (lots of meat and potatoes!).
We did not find as many hot pretzels as I hoped we would. Also, I regret not trying a currywurst from a street vendor. When it comes to street food on this trip, we were more successful with desserts, enjoying shaved ice from a vendor at the flohmarkt and ice cream from a shop in the Old Town called Ital. Eis Café Am Pegel. We were able to enjoy both of those as we walked along the Rhine.
What We Missed
As I mentioned, we didn’t end up visiting the Chocolate Museum as planned, but that is okay. I am more disappointed about not getting to the Time Ride Köln Virtual Reality Museum or 4711 Cologne House. I think the kids would have liked the Virtual Reality museum. Actually, as an adult and a student of digital storytelling, I am intrigued by VR, too. It would have been interesting to see how they approach a VR history tour. And while I am not a huge fan of colognes and fragrances, it might have been fun to see (and smell) the home of the original cologne.
I read about the Köln Triangle Panorama located near the Rhine Boulevard. It sounds like it offers nice views of the city, but since we got those at the top of the Cathedral, I don’t think this was a huge miss for us.
Some people had recommended the Cologne Zoo to me, which is supposed to be reachable by Cable Car, but those appear to currently be out of service. Also, I have mixed feelings about zoos, and we only had one full day to spend in the city, so we decided to spend it elsewhere, seeing the actual city.
In terms of history, we could have seen the City Walls/Gates and/or the Romano-Germanic Museum if we had more time.
There were plenty of boat tours available on the Rhine that might have been fun.
While I enjoyed all our meals, there are lots of other biergartens there that we didn’t have time to visit. We learned about a few that had paddle boats and other activities that would have been fun for the kids while the parents relaxed, but they weren’t walking-distance close to us.
Having gone with no expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by Cologne. It was a casual, energetic city with enough to entertain our whole group without feeling overwhelmed by our surroundings. It was a perfect place for us to enjoy a final summer weekend with friends!