Situated along the Rhine River in western Germany, the city of Cologne has at its centrepiece landmark the High Gothic architectural masterpiece of Cologne Cathedral. Dominating the topography, the cathedral’s twin spires serve as a major focal point for the bustling city life taking place around it, with workers and tourists mixing together to create an atmosphere of commercial energy and cultural vibrancy.
There are a vast number of great things to see and do in Cologne – certainly enough to fill a week’s itinerary or more. If you’re planning a trip to the 2,000-year-old city and like the idea of diverting from the well-trodden tourist path, we’ve picked out 12 of Cologne’s most unique activities and attractions.
Explore a quirky graveyard
For two-hundred years Melaten Cemetery – also known as the “Yard of the Sick” – has been a resting place to the great and the good of Cologne, including several historical figures and celebrities. Housing an incredible 55,000 graves, most eye-catching are the macabre tombstones and sculptures that are dotted around the atmospheric site. Despite its solemn purpose, the graveyard is also a popular walking spot for locals thanks to its abundance of fauna and flora.
LOCATION A creepy statue at Cologne’s Melaten Cemetery HOURS Mon-Sun 10am-4pm
Admire one of Europe’s most impressive cathedrals
It is nothing short of a miracle that, despite extensive bombing, Cologne Cathedral survived the Second World War. And what a blessing that has been for all who visit – and live in – the city, all of whom get to enjoy this stunning example of Gothic architecture, which dominates the Cologne skyline. Beyond its magnificent exterior, visitors can also venture up the 533 steps of the South Tower where they’ll be treated to the sight of St Peter’s bell, the largest swinging church bell in the world.
LOCATION Domkloster 4
Tug at your heartstrings at a love-strewn bridge
The trend in cities for affixing ‘love padlocks’ to bridges has spread across the world – and Cologne has its own version of this quirky and endearing fad, known as Love Locks Bridge. Initiated back in 2008, hanging from the railings of Hohenzollernbrücke Bridge are some 40,000 padlocks placed there as an enduring testament to mutual love between couples. To symbolize love’s everlasting nature, the tradition is for each padlock’s key to be dropped over the bride’s edge and into the waters of the river Rhine below.
Visit a church filled with virgins’ bones
It may play second fiddle to Cologne Cathedral, but the Church of St. Ursula boasts its own unique story. The house of worship features a Golden Chamber filled with dozens of head-busts containing skulls, arm reliquaries, and walls covered in bone. These human remains were unearthed in a mass grave during the 12th century and legend has it that they belonged to 11,000 virgin martyrs – including a certain Saint Ursua – who were captured and killed while embarking on a sailing pilgrimage across Europe. Whether or not this is the truth and the whole truth is open to debate, but it certainly makes for a talking point for visitors.
LOCATION Ursulapl. 24 HOURS Tues-Sat 10am-5pm Sun 3pm-5pm Closed Mon
Check out a pair of chandeliers with an odorous heritage
It is doubtful that many chandeliers around the world owe their existence to a subterranean sewage system, but there are two in Cologne with that very distinguished provenance. The pair were erected in The Chandelier Hall, a structure for stormwater overflow, during the late 19th century to mark the presentation of the city’s much-needed new sewage system to Kaiser Wilhelm. Sadly, the emperor didn’t show up, but the chandeliers remained in place until the end of the 1980s before being replaced by replicas. Today the site – compete with chandelier imitations – is open for monthly tours and also plays host to regular concerts.
Take a look at a thought-provoking street sculpture
Perched along a bustling Cologne thoroughfare, this quirky sculpture is called Listening to the Future and grabs the attention of all who pass by. Unveiled in 2004, the piece is the brainchild of German artist Michael Schwarze and is one of a number of eye-catching sculptures throughout the city that boast exaggerated human features. This particular figure has been designed to encourage observers to consider the future and all it entails. One thing’s for sure – it certainly provokes comment.
LOCATION Hahnenstraße 18
Indulge your sweet tooth at a Chocolate Museum
Cologne has plenty of high-brow cultural attractions, but after a while there’s nothing wrong with enjoying something a little lighter. And what better than a Chocolate Museum? One of Europe’s finest institutions dedicated to chocolate, the museum takes visitors on a journey through 5,000 years of cocoa’s history, from the very earliest production techniques through to the current day. As is the case with all tours of this kind, the most eagerly awaited moment comes at the end when you get to sample some of the mouth-watering produce that you’ve just learned about.
LOCATION Am Schokoladenmuseum 1A DATES Tues-Sun 10am-6pm Closed Mon
Discover Cologne’s rich perfumery heritage
Home to the original Eau du Cologne, fragrance production in Cologne date back over two centuries – and the store-cum-museum known as House of 4711offers visitors the chance to discover the craft that lays behind the creation of our favourite bottled odours. Located within a distinctive building featuring hand-crafted Gobelin tapestry and a glockenspiel on its southern façade, the venue runs guided tours and fragrance seminars that allows visitors to create their own cologne to take away with them.
LOCATION Glockengasse 4 HOURS Mon–Fri 9.30am–6.30pm Sat 9.30am–6pm Closed Sun
Hit the bars of Cologne
Cologne has a buzzing nightlife scene with much of the action taking place in the myriad pubs, bars and nightclubs scattered throughout the city. Every Friday and Saturday night, Pub Crawl Cologne invites revellers to join a fully guided tour of Cologne’s finest nightspots, soaking up the atmosphere among like-minded party-goers and enjoying everything from authentic German Kölsch beer to wines, spirits and exotic cocktails. Included in the tour price is free entrance to all locations and a free shot in each bar. Private pub crawls are also available.
Get in the carnival spirit
If you want to experience Cologne at its buzzing best, then visit during the annual Cologne Carnival. The hugely popular and colourful event sees several days of non-stop partying between New Year’s Day and Ash Wednesday, with, singing and dancing taking place across the city’s halls, pubs and restaurants. In the city centre a huge stage is erected for live music and performances and the streets throng with marching bands and food and drink stalls. If you really want to fit in, come dressed in an imaginative home-made costume.
LOCATION Venues across Cologne DATES 20-28 February 2020
Mix with like-minded folk at a unique youth hostel
For a unique living experience in Cologne, Hostel Die Wohngemeinschaft is tough to beat. Located in the Belgian Quarter, one of the city’s hippest neighbourhoods and surrounded by bars, clubs, restaurants, galleries, boutiques and street murals, the hotel is home to sixteen individually decorated rooms, each boasting their own distinct theme. There’s also a bustling cafe-bar with outside terrace where guests can relax and socialise.
Enjoy Cologne from the vantage point of a cable-car
For the most dramatic panoramic view of Cologne, visitors can take a memorable ride on the first and only cable-car system in Europe designed to span a major river. First launched back in 1957, the enclosed gondolas cross the river beside the Zoobrücke (Zoo Bridge), affording passengers fabulous views of the city’s major attractions, including the cathedral. Trip take about 15 minutes each way.