Lifestyle & Culture

Quick Trip Cologne: The cathedral is nice, but start with the Rhine in this huge metropolis

Photo by Toam Jaber

(Editor’s note: Cologne is part of our Quick Trip travel series we believe better reflects the expat lifestyle in Europe where we are in and out of cities on business and pleasure. But Cologne is a giant city, deserving of a full travel post later this year.)

Most people go to Cologne – Köln in German – to see the cathedral. We recommend you go to Cologne and get away from the cathedral. The Gothic cathedral is, believe it or not, Germany’s most visited landmark, with a (pre-pandemic) average of 20,000 visitors per day. And it feels like it. The area around it, which includes the main train station, is packed even in this time of face masks and hand sanitizers.

(Editor’s note: As of August 2020, face masks are required in Germany in public areas such as train stations, in stores and in crowded indoor areas.)

Yeah, we crashed a wedding in Rheingarten Park.
Chilling in Martinsvierte with Gross Sankt Martin in the background.

Museums and churches are fine in the winter, but this summer, we needed a little of that human touch, as Bruce Springsteen once put it. And we got it on a weekend trip amid some of the best weather of 2020. The riverside in Cologne was the place to be, the center of so much activity. Wedding parties. Flea markets. River cruises and just random fun amid crowds of happy, half-heartedly socially distancing people.

In the middle of a pandemic, it was an energizing and life-affirming visit to a city we’ve been in and out of for years, but honestly still don’t know very well.

What we do know is that Cologne is a city of contrasts. Bombed into rubble during World War II, it’s hard to call Cologne “beautiful,” with a lot of unremarkable 20th century architecture. Yet there are still picturesque areas and bohemian neighborhoods if you know where to look. In the inevitable comparison because they’re so close, it’s a little like Düsseldorf, an hour away by car. And in the grand scheme of things, Cologne is one huge metropolitan area in what’s essentially the largest city in Europe, the Rhine-Rühr complex that includes Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Essen, Bonn, Duisburg and other cities with a total of 10 million population.

These are my favorite kinds of European cities – huge and varied and rebuilt after World War II into something more interesting than the Medieval originals. The center of Cologne lacks the sheen of Königsallee in Düsseldorf, but this is a huge town with nine distinct neighborhood districts including a student district with bohemian bars.

Like Düsseldorf and Maastricht, this is a river town with two distinct feels. At this point, we’ve only gotten to the Altstadt on the west bank and haven’t crossed the bridges into the Deutz, the business district on the east.

Our suggestion is, park near the cathedral, which is the center of the city, and start walking downhill, which takes you due west toward the Rhine River. Wander into the Innenstadt parks, through Rheingarten Park and Martinsvierte then south along the river to Altstadt Süd.

Museums/zoos N/A

We’ll get back to you on these after our next cold-weather visit. Right now through October, river cruises are the thing, with dozens of boats leaving from their docks along Am Leystapel.

KölnTourist is one of the big operators and you can see their tours, schedules and rates here. And you can combine a cruise with brewery tours, or go up river to Düsseldorf or the resort of Königswinter on half-day cruises. Most tours except the Kölsch tours are in English and German.

You can’t go wrong along the restaurant row on Rheingarten Park.

Drinking and dining – 8 out of 10

There are six Cologne breweries and they all make Kölsch, the light unique beer that’s only brewed in this city. It’s so prevalent that when we picked a table in the shade outside a cafe – Guilden im Zims on Heumarkt – the waitress brought three of the small glasses the stuff is always served in and plunked them down in front of us without a word – and without our ever having ordered. Okaaaay. The beer was cold, hoppy, tasty and cheap (always 1.90 euro), so no problemo.

The most famous Kölsch brewery – or at least the most commercial – is Früh am Dom, as the name suggests just a few meters from the cathedral … and close the the most chi-chi shopping area. There’s a beer garden, a huge indoor space and a snazzy brewery/gift shop where you can buy merch.

Right now, the Früh am Dom restaurant only serves from this menu, but it’s pretty complete, and the prices are a whole lot better than where we live in the Netherlands.

We’ve only tried a handful of restaurants, including several at the Opern Passengen urban food court, which includes the Donburi Style poke bowl restaurant. (We parked in the garage at this mall). All good and inexpensive.

But our big find was Karibik at am Bollwerk 9-11 on Rhinegarten Park restaurant row, which has Thai food and Caribbean cocktails, the best combo since mac and cheese. The lunch menu averaged 7 euros, the duck salad was 8 and the pad Thai was 6.50! All of it was scrumptious and the people are nice.

Karibik is one of about a hundred restaurants on the Am Bollwerk restaurant row that’s packed summer and winter. On the opposite end of the price continuum, Cologne has quite a few Michelin-starred restaurants including Le Moissonnier and, weirdly, a ton of top-end Italian eateries.

(Editor’s note: Many restaurants without outdoor seating are closed due to the pandemic, and it’s not clear how many will survive, even the most famous and highly rated. Also, expect to fill out track-and-tracing forms at restaurants.)

Architecture 7 out of 10

You know, this is very subjective, but I like Köln. I like standing amid the quaint buildings on the Altstadt side of the river and looking across at the ultra-modern buildings in Deutz. My wife and co-CEO Cheryl finds it jarring. Bottom line: The sections of the city we’ve seen don’t have the “wow” factor of Düsseldorf’s MeidenHafen. I guess what I’m saying is, one huge cathedral does not a travel destination make. But this rating could change on our next visit as we venture south and cross the river.

On the list for our next visit are the Peek & Cloppenburg Building by Renzo Piano and the actual inside of the cathedral.

Shopping 7 out of 10

This is a big city with lots of wealthy people, so the shopping is primo, with every marquee haute couture name you can think of. You can get those crazy patterned scarves at Hèrmes. Bags at Louis Vuitton. And you can get all the fast-fashion you can carry, all without leaving Hohe Strasse, the busiest shopping district. But shopping isn’t the same after coronavirus, and Cologne has never made it on any of those click-bait “best shopping in Europe” lists. No offense, the Culture Trip.

All that said, we haven’t spent much time in the Belgian Quarter, Rathenauplatz or Eherenfeld. More as we return.

General hanging out 9 out of 10

Now, ambiance ….

This city has a bit of a different buzz than, say, Berlin. Most of it has to do with having bar and restaurant districts along a body of water and a lot of green space where you can chill. And, of course, there’s the Kölsch.

It’s the kind of town where we were walking down one cool street in Auf dem Rothenburg, passed by the Bierhaus en d’er Salzgoss and heard a group of older men inside singing “Winter Wonderland.”

In English.

In July.

We tried to get inside to get a video, but they switched to German before we could hit “record.” So no one is ever going to believe us. A few minutes later, we happened upon a lady happily dunking her giggling toddler into a fountain to cool him off. In Germany.

Here’s that photo:

That’s that kind of lighthearted fun that’ll get you a 10.

Thumbs up or thumbs down:

Thumbs up.

We prefer Düsseldorf and its trendy shopping district and must-see architecture, but we sense Cologne is more of a place that’s better to live than visit. More as we explore.

See Dispatches complete Quick Trips archive here.

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