We recently finished a 29 day stay in Köln, Germany. When I was stationed in Germany, Köln was one of my favorite cities. We had friends who lived there and worked as translators, so we often went and stayed with them. I also went to Weiberfasching or Weiberfastnacht every year I was there, so I had a lot of good experiences with Köln. The problem was that I’d never actually done much in Köln itself, so, while I had great memories of it, I actually had no idea what life would be like as a long-term traveler staying there for nearly a month.
It felt like we stretched a week’s worth of activities (for what a regular traveler would do) into a month of staying there, which, if you’re a long-term traveler, is a pretty good ratio. There are places that we’ve been, like Manchester, England and Istanbul, Turkey, where we felt like we had left plenty of things to do on the table and would be happy to return and stay again; however, to us, Köln felt more like our time in Split, Croatia (even though Köln is much larger), where we did everything that we wanted to do, and we might not want to return as compared to choosing somewhere new to go.
That’s not to say that we didn’t thoroughly enjoy ourselves there. We stayed in a fantastic AirBnB in the Deutz area. It was roomy and great value with a very attentive (but appropriately distant) host. The neighborhood was convenient. We were 6-7 minutes away from three different stations, and we could walk to the Köln Cathedral (Dom) in about 20 minutes. The Rewe grocery store was a 3 minute walk, so, even if we ran out of something and needed to make a quick store run, it was not inconvenient at all.
Cologne Starts With the Cathedral
Köln (which I shall call by its Anglicized [Francophone?] name Cologne from here out) is a city that is dominated by its cathedral. It is the highest twin spired cathedral in Europe and dates back to at least the 800s. It is so predominant that there was once a rule that Gaffel Kölsch could only be served by bars if the bar had a view of the Cologne Cathedral. With the growth of the city, naturally, they had to adjust the rules, and now, the rule is based on a radius from the Cathedral rather than being able to see it.
That said, on the west side of the Rhine river, the Catherdral is the focal point of what you do and where you go, so, naturally, that was one of our first adventures. We did a GuruWalk (#aff) free tour, but this one was, easily, the most disappointing one that we’ve been on. The guide was a recent arrival from Brazil, and he offered very little insight into the city. I’m sure there are other, better guides and tours, but our guide was really no better than Googling the top things to do and doing it yourself. In fact, we used GPSMyCity for several walking tours and found them more informative than our tour guide.
There are two main parts to seeing the Cologne Cathedral. The first part is the interior of the church, which is grand and beautiful. There is a shrine to the three wise men which was built somewhere around 1200 A.D. We were not able to get too close because we did not take the guided tour, but it was still quite impressive from a distance.
However, before going into the cathedral, we decided to brave the climb to the top of one of the towers.
It has 533 steps and is 475 feet high, with most of the trip up a narrow, circular staircase with very few landings to take a break or to stop off to let screaming middle schoolers by if the deafening sound of their screaming is convincing you that the cathedral has been haunted by demons.
Also, there is no elevator up or down. If you go, you’re committed.
A bonus along the way is the largest free-standing church bell in the world. Once you get up there and see how huge it is, you’ll really appreciate the engineering necessary to lift something so large so high.
Beer and Wine in Cologne and the Region
Afterwards, and after many of the activities in Cologne, it’s good to treat yourself to a Kölsch beer. It’s a light beer that is only brewed in Cologne. Don’t go to Dusseldorf and ask for a Kölsch. Also, don’t ask for an Altbier in Cologne. The beers are served in 0.2 liter tall, narrow, cylindrical glasses.
However, it does take a couple of times to a bar (or Kneipe, as they’re called in German) to realize that the servers will continue to bring you Kölsch until you put a coaster on top of your beer. Also, they keep tabs of your tab on a separate coaster, which they usually mark up with a grease pencil. Losing that coaster will cost you dearly, so guard it with your life. Think of it like a parking ticket. If you lose your parking ticket, you’ll pay a hefty price. The same goes with your tab/coaster.
That said, we couldn’t really tell a difference between the brands of Kölsch beers that were available. I personally think that you can’t go wrong. Just go somewhere, order a Kölsch, and have a good time.
If you’re not a beer drinker, there are also plenty of wineries on the Rhine river that make quite tasty and inexpensive wines. They tend to specialize in white (Riesling and Gewurtztraminer), but some are branching out into red wines as well. We met an Australian mother/daughter combo while doing our tour, and they had just come from the Bacharach wine region, which they raved about. We were meeting a friend who had an overnight layover in Frankfurt, so we drove her out to Mainz (a 1.5 hour drive from Cologne) and visited the Heinz-Lemb Winery.
If you’re used to the tours in Napa, just be aware that most wineries in the Rhine region are a different proposition altogether. They’re family run and they’re small, so they don’t have the commercial and tourist productions that you would see in, say, Sonoma. For example, when we went to the Heinz-Lemb winery, we literally walked in on the owner as she was getting ready to leave for the evening. Fortunately, she was extremely accommodating and took us into her office (we had shades of our Istanbul trip) and started cracking open wines from the refrigerator. They were all excellent, and none of them cost more than six Euros. We wound up buying four bottles, and had we more time left in Cologne when we went to that winery, we would have happily bought a case.
However, Cologne is not all about drinking.
The Nazi Past of Cologne
There is some dark history to Cologne, and we saw some of the Nazi associations in Cologne at the NS-Dokumentationszentrum. This museum is located where an old Gestapo jail was headquartered during the Nazi regime. The center has many stories of the people who passed through or died here, including their inscribings on the jail cell walls. However, the museum is not just about the jail itself. It is about how the Nazis rose to power in Cologne, and what they did once they came to power. There are, to me, certainly some instructive pieces of history that we could apply today.
Yesterday, we went to a Gestapo prison and Nazi documentation center in Cologne, Germany. One of the pictures of a Nazi rally seemed eerily reminiscent of a recent @nytimes photo. I hope that’s as far as the similarities go. pic.twitter.com/Gg52h3jLYM
— Jason Hull (@hull_j) September 28, 2022
This museum could easily take you all day long if you do the audio tour, which I recommend. Unless you understand German, you’ll want the audio tour, because many of the exhibits do not have English translations, and the audio tour is extensive. There are several sections upstairs which will require quite a while to get through. Our only issue was that tours kept coming through, which made it difficult to listen to the audio tours. We often would skip ahead to a more quiet section and then return once the tour had passed through.
After such a sobering exposure to the dark past of Nazi Germany, you’re going to want to do something fun and outdoors.
Parks and Rec, Minus Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman
We went to several parks in the Cologne area. To us, there were three that stood out:
Flora is a beautiful botanical garden right next to the Cologne Zoo. Although it was turning fall, there were still plenty of flowers in bloom. It is quite easy to spend a couple of hours here just meandering through all of the different sections of the gardens.
This is an animal park just north of Cologne with both wild and semi-domesticated animals. This is a great place to take kids, with plenty of stops along the way to buy animal-friendly feeding packets to feed pigs, goats, and sheep. There are also sections of buffalo and deer as well as other, longer trails that are more open to nature.
This park is a huge park that rings most of the northwest part of Cologne. There are plenty of places to roam, run, bike ride, picnic, and, our favorite part, stop in a beer garden to have a beer with an overview of a pretty lake. We enjoyed the Biergarten am Aachener Weiher so much that we went there three times. So much for originality in our travels.
Chocolate (and Lindt)
After all of that hiking around in parks, we had earned a few extra calories, so we spent them at the Cologne Chocolate Museum. It was a very informative tour that explained the history of chocolate in Germany and in Cologne, how it was marketed, how it developed, and probably most importantly, how it was made. In the making section, you get a chance to try a couple of freshly-made pieces yourself. The museum is sponsored by the Lindt chocolate company, so you know the quality of the product is going to be excellent. The museum also has a cafe and a gift shop so that you can stuff yourself full of chocolate goodness.
The museum itself is in a pretty interesting architectural area by the Rhine that we enjoyed walking down. We needed the walk after the diabetic splurge!
Sport and Song Excursions
As luck would have it, the US men’s national soccer team was playing in Dusseldorf, so we took a day trip via the DeutscheBahn train system to go see the most dour 2-0 loss we could have ever imagined. After our experience watching Colchester United lose the most lopsided 1-0 game ever when we were in Manchester, I’m starting to think that we might be bad luck for the teams that we want to support. This does not bode well for the US women’s team in the World Cup in 2023…
We also went to Uden, Nijmegen, and Arnhem, Netherlands for a long weekend. We could have taken the train, but given how much we wanted to do there, we figured it made more sense to rent a car for the weekend so that we would have the flexibility to go wherever we wished. We saw Ilse Delange put on a fabulous show in Uden. We stumped up for the VIP package, which gave us seats in the theater bar, a pre-show snack, an intermission drink, and a post-show drink and dessert. That was probably the best 15 Euro upgrade we’ve ever bought!
I do wish that I had taken a better picture of when she came up into the balcony and sang one of her songs. The only picture I got looked like she was in a witness protection program, as everyone else in the picture is as clear as day, and her face is a total blur. That had nothing to do with the aforementioned VIP package that we purchased.
The big draw of Arnhem is its historical significance for World War II. For those of you with a little more life experience or for war movie buffs, you may remember the movie A Bridge Too Far, based on the Allied airborne attempt to recapture several bridges in the area, called Operation Market Garden. A young Dutch woman helped with the resistance and supposedly helped the captain of the company that was not able to take the Arnhem bridge to evacuate to Belgium. She later came to the United States and took on a new name: Audrey Hepburn.
However, for us, the highlight of the trip was the Open Air Museum of the Netherlands. If you’ve been to Williamsburg, Virginia, then you’ll know what the concept of the museum is, although, to us, the Open Air Museum of the Netherlands was much less cheesy. It’s a giant (~83 acres) park dedicated to different time periods within Dutch history. There are a lot of farms, animals, windmills, and displays dedicated to varying segments of Dutch life, particularly its agricultural past. We spent several hours there and could have easily spent more time roaming around.
Costs of Cologne (And I Don’t Mean Smelling Good)
There is a perfumerie in Cologne where Napoleon once bought stuff to smell good. We did not visit it. There’s a connection between the Anglicized name of the city and the French word for eau de parfum.
But, I digress.
Cologne is not the most budget-friendly destination in the world, but it is also not the most expensive one that we have stayed in during our travels in Europe in 2022.
We stayed for 29 nights, and, including the amortization of the costs traveling on a transatlantic cruise ship, we spent $6,001 during that time. That converts to a monthly cost of $6,283 for a long-term traveling couple to spend a month in Cologne, Germany.
Here’s how it broke down:
|Credit card spending||$2,360|
|Travel to Köln||$241|
|Amortized travel costs to Europe||$933|
|Credit card spending||$2,475|
|Travel to Köln||$241|
|Amortized travel costs to Europe||$979|
Look, I love Germany. I love being able to speak German. It was my major in college. I was stationed there when I was in the Army. I loved going to Cologne for Weiberfasching and visiting friends.
It’s a great place to spend a month. Everyone’s friendly. The beer flows freely. There are a lot of things to do.
That said, I think that we feel about Cologne like we felt about Split, Croatia: it was a great place to spend a month, but a month was enough. In future trips to Europe, we’ll probably visit Berlin and Hamburg rather than return to Cologne.
If you’re looking for a place to go and you’d like to base yourself somewhere convenient to the Netherlands and Belgium as well as to experience a different part and culture of Germany from other places, then Cologne is a great place to stay. It’d be good, for a non-retired traveler, to spend a week there. However, to us, it doesn’t rise to the level that Manchester and Lisbon have as places that we want to come back to and spend even more time.
Have you visited Cologne? What were your experiences? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!