If you are looking for some unique things to do in Cologne, Germany then you have landed in the right place. Having lived in Cologne (Köln in German) for 2.5 years, I had the privilege of playing both tourist and resident in this vibrant Germany city!
Cologne is truly a city unlike any that you will experience in Germany. The people are among the friendliest and most liberal in Germany. It is not the prettiest or most preserved city in Germany due to the extensive bombing during WWII. However, please don’t let that deter you from visiting.
If you know where to look, you will find that Cologne is overflowing with character and charm. Let me give you a peak into the real Cologne that many people don’t get to see.
In this post, I am going to show you the the unique, off the beaten path things to do in Cologne including where to eat, grab a drink, and stay in Cologne!
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- Getting to Cologne, Germany
- Best Things to Do in Cologne
- Visit the Famous Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral)
- Admire the Colorful Fischmarkt Cologne
- Walk Along the Rhinegarten
- Seek History at Time Ride Virtual Reality Cologne
- Explore the Belgisches Viertel (Belgian Quarter)
- Shop on Schildergasse Street
- Visit the Cologne Botanical Garden (Botanischer Garten Köln)
- Quick Visit to the Augustusburg and Falkenlust Castles at Brühl
- Try Your Hand at Kegel in Cologne
- Drink Kölsch at a Traditional German Brauhaus
- Catch an FC Köln Football Game
- Watch Sunset from the Rheinpromenade Köln-Deutz
- Seasonal Events in Cologne, Germany
- Best Places to Eat in Cologne, Germany
- Where to Grab a Drink in Cologne
- Best Area to Stay in Cologne
Getting to Cologne, Germany
If you are flying into Germany internationally, you will likely make your first point of entry in the Frankfurt airport. From there, the main ways to get to Cologne are by air, train, or car.
Getting to Cologne by Air
The major airport in Cologne is Cologne Bonn Airport, and it is one of my favorite airports in all of Germany. It is extremely easy to get to and from, and almost never has a wait at security. It is a relatively smaller airport, but all the major airlines in Europe fly here so you can find flights to most cities within Europe. The only downside is there are not direct flights from the US.
From the Cologne Bonn airport, you can very easily get to the city center by train. You will want to catch the S19 train that comes through the airport metro station every 15 minutes. In 4 stops, you will arrive at the Cologne Central Station (Cologne Hbf).
Pro Travel Tip: While traveling within Germany, the main stations in any German city will be the Hauptbahnhof (Hbf). This will be the station closest to the center of town.
Getting to Cologne by Train
Germany is very well connected via the train system, however, in our experience train tickets are not that cheap. Depending on your planned itinerary, I would do some research between train versus plane prices. Trains do have the time advantage because you don’t have to go through security like at the airport, but its possible a train ticket could be more expensive than a plain ticket.
Getting to Cologne by Car
Depending on how many cities you plan to visit in Germany or surrounding countries, renting a car may be the most convenient and cost effective option. Renting a car in Europe is dramatically cheaper right now than it is in the United States.
If you are looking for additional resources on renting a car in Europe, check out My International Travel Planning Process guide for more details.
Best Things to Do in Cologne
Visit the Famous Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral)
OK, visiting the Cologne Cathedral is not a unique attraction in Cologne at all.
Actually quite the opposite.
At 6 million visitors a year, it is the most visited landmark in all of Germany. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t include it on my list of things to do in Cologne.
The Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) is the pride of Cologne. Ask any local what their favorite part of Cologne is, and not far from the top of the list will be the Dom.
While most of the historic Cologne was demolished during the second World War, the Cologne Cathedral remained standing tall amidst the destruction.
There are two main schools of thought for why the cathedral remain untouched during the war. First, it is said that the Americans felt that bombing a place of worship was not ethical. The second, reason is that due to it’s impressive size, it was a good landmark from the air for the American to use to know where they were. Which ever you believe, we are all just glad this beauty survived largely intact!
However, what most people don’t know is that you can actually climb the south tower of the Cologne Cathedral for a panoramic view of Cologne and the Rhein. There is no elevator, so you will need to be prepared to climb 533 steps up a small winding shaft. You can purchase tickets at the gift shop on the south side of the cathedral.
Admire the Colorful Fischmarkt Cologne
The Fischmarkt in Cologne is one of the most recognizable photos of Cologne.
It is one of the few remaining parts of the historic downtown that showcases the gothic architecture of the middle ages sparred during the WWII bombings which nearly leveled the city.
Located right next to the St. Martin Church, the Fischmarkt got its name because it was the center of the 13th century fish trade in Cologne as it is prominently located along the Rhine River. Today the Fischmarkt is full of pubs, restaurants, and inns and is a great place to grab a table on a patio and people watch.
The Cologne Fischmarkt is one of my favorite photo locations in Cologne. If you are interested in more photography spots, check out my guide to the Best Photo Spots in Cologne.
Walk Along the Rhinegarten
The Rheingarten is the place to be on a beautiful day in Cologne. On a sunny day in Cologne, you will find everyone out at restaurant patios or laying in the grassy areas of the Rheingarten. You may even run into a pop up street festival on the weekend.
The Rheingarten follows the Rhein River, starting at the Hohenzollernbrücke and ending at the Deutzer Brücke. You will pass by the Fischmarkt Cologne, the river cruise boats, and lots of places to grab a drink or a bite to eat.
You can truly spend as little or as much time here as you would like. That’s the beauty of the city of Cologne, nothing is rushed!
Seek History at Time Ride Virtual Reality Cologne
If you are interested in learning more about the history of Cologne, check out Time Ride VR Cologne.
The experience starts with a movie depicting historical events in Cologne and then continues with a virtual reality ride an electric streetcar through historic Cologne.
The tours are conducted in both English and German.
You can purchase your tickets in advance here for 14.50 EUR for general admission.
Explore the Belgisches Viertel (Belgian Quarter)
The Belgian Quarter neighborhood is where you can find the young and artsy vibes in Cologne. There are many independent shops, art galleries, trendy bars and restaurants in this area.
The Belgian Quarter is about a 20 minute walk from the Cologne Cathedral. You can also reach the Belgian Quarter easily on the metro taking any major line towards Friesenplatz.
If you find yourself in this neighborhood, enjoy just walking the streets and popping into any shops that peak your interest. One of our favorite biergartens is also located nearby at the Stadtgarten (location: Venloer Str. 40, 50672 Köln, Germany).
Shop on Schildergasse Street
Schildergasse Street is where you go to find high-end shopping department stores, with the up-scale shops on Mittelstrasse between Neumarkt and Rudolfplatz. For more shops, continue one block north to where Breite Strasse turns into Ehrenstrasse.
Continue down Ehrenstrasse and this eventually leads straight into the Belgisches Viertel (Belgian Quarter), which is full of artsy independent galleries and small shops.
Visit the Cologne Botanical Garden (Botanischer Garten Köln)
There actually used to be a botanical garden at the base of the Cologne Cathedral that was removed to build the main train station. The city of Cologne moved the botanical garden just north of the city of Cologne right next to the Cologne Zoo.
At the Cologne Botanical you can find exotic trees, native Rhine plants, and gorgeous flowers.
You can easily get to the Cologne Botanical Garden from the city center by taking the 16 or 18 line towards Zoo/Flora. Admission is free and the park is open daily from 8am until sunset!
Quick Visit to the Augustusburg and Falkenlust Castles at Brühl
If you are itching to visit a castle, but don’t have time to see the castles in Bavaria on your trip, there is actually one close by to Cologne.
The Augustusburg and Falkenlust Castles at Brühl can easily be visited from Cologne by taking metro line 18 from the Cologne Main train station towards Brühl Mitte station. The Brühl Mitte station drops off right in front of the entrance to Augustusburg Castle (pictured above).
The grounds of the castles are free to visit, you can walk around, enjoy the gardens and fountains. Pets are even allowed on the grounds of the castles.
If you want to go inside the Augustusburg Castle to see the ornate staircase, you can purchase tickets in advance here for 9.5 EUR for general adult admission.
Try Your Hand at Kegel in Cologne
Kegel is a little Cologne secret not known by the typical tourist. So I’m letting you in a well kept secret here.
Kegel is 9-pin bowling that is typically played in Germany and other European countries. You can play Kegel at a Kegelbahn in Germany, which are usually hidden at the basement of a pub. This is what makes this activity so authentic, secret, and fun!
Renting a Kegelbahn usually costs around 10 EUR per hour and typically includes a private room in the basement with one bowling lane. A server will periodically check on you so you can order beers and food right to your room.
Reservations ahead of time are required since most Kegelbahn in Cologne only accommodate one lane. However, reserving a Kegelbahn in a smaller bar can be quite challenging if you don’t know German. Either hope that the bar owner understands your English or find a friendly local willing to help you out!
Drink Kölsch at a Traditional German Brauhaus
You must stop by a traditional German brauhaus in Cologne to try the local Kölsch beer.
Kölsch is the beer that originated in Cologne therefore it is extremely popular with the locals. While you can order other types of beer at a Brauhaus, try to avoid ordering an Altbier (or dark beer) which is the favorite of the rival city Düsseldorf.
The Kölsch beers are served in a small and are relatively cheap, so it is expected to have multiple rounds. The waiter will tally your beers on your coaster (you can see I have two tallies on my coaster) and will usually bring another without asking as soon as your glass is even close empty.
The only way to make the beers stop coming is to put your coaster on top of the glass to let them know you are finished.
Here are my favorite brauhauses in Cologne in order:
- Brauere zur Mälzmuhle – very friendly staff, comfortable and cozy atmosphere, and easy to get a table
- Peters Brauhaus – closer to the city center, friendly staff, and great menu
- Sion Brauhaus – the oldest Brauhaus in Cologne, ok menu, decked out at Christmas
- Früh am Dom – right near the cathedral, more touristy
- Gaffel am Dom – huge location, right near the cathedral, more touristy
Catch an FC Köln Football Game
The second pride of Cologne, after the Cathedral, is their football team, FC Köln. If you happen to be in Cologne during a home game attending a football match is probably one of the most unique experiences you can have in Cologne.
If you aren’t able to snag some tickets, make sure to secure a spot at a biergarten or a brauhaus to watch the game and cheer on the home team.
Watch Sunset from the Rheinpromenade Köln-Deutz
The best place to view the sunset in Cologne is from the Rheinpromenade across the Rhine River from the old town, with the Cologne Cathedral in the background.
To get here, start at the main train station and follow the walking path on Hohenzollernbrücke. This bridge can be walked in 10 minutes across the Rhine for a spectacular view of the Cologne Cathedral and the Rhine River. To enjoy the view like a local, grab a bottle of wine and grab a seat on the steps along the Rhine.
Pro Tip: If you want a better view of panoramic Cologne, head up to the Cologne Triangle Observation Deck at sunset.
Seasonal Events in Cologne, Germany
Carnival in Cologne Germany (Kölner Karneval)
Karneval season in Cologne is when the city truly comes alive. Karneval in Cologne starts on 11/11 (November 11th) every year at 11:11am. Where ever you are at 11:11am that day, there will be some sort of celebration involving champagne (yes even at work!).
During the Karneval in Cologne there are many events, gatherings, song singing and speeches at “Sitzungen”, and preparations for the big event. Karneval is the time of year when the city of Cologne lets loose, dresses up, sings their hearts out, dances the night away. The events really ramp up a week before Ash Wednesday, when the entire city turns into one big chaotic party.
The main event is on Rosenmontag, or Rose Monday, when you head to downtown Cologne in your costume with a beer in hand to watch the parade, floats go by, and try to catch the flowers and candy being thrown.
The essence of Karneval in Cologne is best described by a form of tolerance that allows everyone to be happy in his or her own way. The saying during Karneval is “Jede Jeck es anders” meaning “every fool is different”, a phrase that is felt in Cologne, not only during carnival, but all year round.
Cologne Germany Christmas Markets
The magic of Christmas will be felt throughout the city starting in late November continuing through new years day.
There are seven Christmas markets spread out over the city, but all easily explored within a weekend in Cologne. The largest Christmas market is held in under the Cologne Cathedral arranged around a huge Christmas tree.
Check out the official Cologne Christmas Market website for updates, opening times, and event details.
Cologne Pride Parade
A testament to the openness of Cologne, Cologne Pride is one of the largest LGBTQ+ events of its kind in Germany and even Europe. For a week during the summer, Cologne Pride puts on parades, street festivals, and events all through out the city to promote equal rights and gay rights. For the planned 2022 schedule, you can find all the details here.
Museum Night in Cologne (Museumsnacht)
Museum Night in Cologne is a fun evening where all the museums in the city stay open into the morning hours serving drinks, playing music, and allowing you to museum hop all night. The event was unfortunately cancelled in 2020 and 2021, but is scheduled to resume in 2022. Check their official website for updated dates and ticket information here.
Best Places to Eat in Cologne, Germany
Bastians – Bakery and Brunch
If you are looking for American-style breakfast options, make this a stop on your itinerary. We were pleasantly surprised to stumble across more than just fresh croissants and coffee at this brunch location with such a German feel.
The restaurant is full of big long tables, so expect to share your table with others, which is very common in Europe.
Location: Auf dem Berlich 3-5, 50667 Köln, Germany
Café Rico is an alternative to the typical German bakery experience. This brunch spot is the hip place to be. Located right on one of the famous shopping streets in Cologne, make it the start to your Saturday shopping spree.
Location: Mittelstraße 31-33, 50672 Köln, Germany
Café Wohnraum, located in a neighborhood right outside of Cologne in Nippes is a cozy, quaint cafe that translates into “living room”. If you prefer a more off the beaten path location, then definitely check out this cafe!
Location: Neusser Str. 314, 50733 Köln, Germany
Bagatelle – French style tapas
Bagatelle is one of our favorite restaurants in Cologne. There is a ton of inside and outside seating, so we have never had to wait for a table. We have enjoyed the atmosphere both inside and outside equally – just depending on the weather.
There is an extensive menu of tapas style dishes to choose from. Each plate is 4 or 5 Euros, so you can’t go wrong ordering a few dishes written in German and hoping for the best. That was our approach and everything turned out delicious.
Our favorite dishes we have tried were the Gebackener Schäfskase auf Tomaten-sugo (baked cheese in tomato sauce), Gratinierter Ziegenkäse auf Orangen-Chili-Marmelade (goat cheese with orange chili jam), Pikante Lamm-Häckballchen (lamb meatballs in rosemary and tomato sauce), and Coquille St. Jacques – Jakobsmuscheln (scallops in basil sauce with lemon and saffron).
Location: Teutoburger Str. 17, 50678 Köln, Germany
Brüsseler – Traditional Cologne style pub
Brüsseler is a pub/restaurant with a very relaxed atmosphere giving you a true sense of Cologne. There will likely not be any tourists at the pub, however the servers are still very friendly even with our poor German-skills.
The ebest thing to order here for dinner is the hänchen and pommes frites (roasted chicken and french fries) for about 9 Euros. After ordering the local Kölsch, you will leave with a 10 Euros meal for dinner!
Location: Brüsseler Pl. 1, Köln Germany
Brauere zur Mälzmuhle – German brewhouse
Brauere zur Mälzmuhle is your typical German brauhaus where you will find traditional German dishes and the servers walk around with trays of Kölsch.
This is also my favorite of the brewhouses in Cologne for its down to earth vibe. You will find many typical German dishes on the menu, but a Cologne specialty that you should be aware of is the Halve Hahn (pictured above). It actually translates into half-chicken, but you won’t find any meat here. It is something you order if you just want a light snack instead of a full meal.
Halve Hahn is a dialect expression in Cologne that means a sort of bagel. This dish is served with a Rye bun, butter, Gouda cheese slice, and slices of onion. This dish can be found in almost every bar and restaurant in Cologne.
Location: Heumarkt 6, 50667 Köln, Germany
Shaka Zulu – South African tapas
With a quirky, colorful atmosphere and killer happy hour drink specials, Shaka Zulu is worth checking out. I can’t say I have had the opportunity to try South African style tapas many times in my life, so this was a fun new experience with tons of new flavors. The menu is pretty easy – you decide how hungry you are and they will bring a corresponding number of tapas bowls. The waiters are more than willing to help, so let them know your preferences and they will explain each dish when they bring it!
Location: Limburger Str. 29, 50672 Köln, Germany
Bulgogi Haus – Asian BBQ
Bulgogi Haus is a little further out from the city center, but the extra time spent getting here is worth it ten times over!
There is no menu, and just one price per person for a full appetizer bar and an assortment of uncooked meats (beef, pork, and duck) and seafood. The raw meats and fish come in stages and every plate is cooked by you right at the table on a coal-stone grill.
You are also given the suggestion by the waiters to use the lettuce from the appetizer bar and other Asian salad sides to compile with the cooked meat into a mini pocket for eating in one bite. The waiters are extremely friendly, guiding you through the steps and best practices for having an enjoyable dinner. Dining can typically take up to two hours – so don’t rush and just enjoy the experience. Definitely make a reservation ahead of time!
Location: Neusser Str. 654, 50737 Köln, Germany
eatDOORI – Indian
EatDOORI is a really fun Indian restaurant in the Cologne city center. The atmosphere is young and vibrant, and the menu is absolutely delicious. If you come for lunch, ask about the lunch sampler where you can try many different dishes in a smaller portion.
Location: Hohenzollernring 19, 50672 Köln, Germany
Pastabar – Italian
Pastabar is a relatively newer spot open by an Italian couple, so you know you are in good hands when you step into Pastabar.
The menu rotates based on the availability of ingredients, but we were lucky enough to try the lamb ragout and truffle pasta, which were both absolutely fabulous.
Each pasta dish ranges from 14 – 16 EUR, but the quality is matched to the price.
Location: Salierring 46, 50677 Köln, Germany
Where to Grab a Drink in Cologne
Cologne is an extremely young and vibrant city. The city truly comes alive at night with students from the Cologne University and young professional alike.
Although it is not the trendiest place in Germany, Cologne does have some great local spots. If you are looking for a fun place to grab a drink after dinner, check out some of my favorite spots in the city below.
Cologne has quite the bar scene, and we are fortunate the live around the corner from one of Cologne’s top cocktail bars – Barfly. Every Thursday night the owner hosts a themed cocktail tasting which have included James Bond 007 or A trip with Ernest Hemingway. The other nights of the week come here to enjoy a laid back atmosphere with delicious cocktails.
Location: Kempener Str. 68, 50733 Köln, Germany
Ona Mor is a cozy little atmosphere awaits after you ring the bell outside to get access to this swanky cocktail bar. The cocktails you order here have won awards, so you know that you are in good hands.
Location: Roonstraße 94, 50674 Köln, Germany
The black interior gives a sophisticated and sleek atmosphere to this bar. However the real treat here are the wildly creative cocktails, blending unusual ingredients together to make something you can’t find anywhere else in Germany.
The bartender has an entire mixology laboratory next door where he dreams up these unique cocktails. Don’t pass up on the food menu either – pull pork or truffle sandwiches are what they are serving for bar food.
Location: Maastrichter Str. 20, 50672 Köln, Germany
Known as the “liquid kitchen”, this cocktail bar serves their drinks fancy glassware and decorated to the T. This bar resembled a member’s only club. The inside is small and cozy decorated with thick red curtains and wood accents. There is a doorman out front that will only let people in up to the point that the bar is comfortably full. If you make it here before 11pm you can enjoy the outdoor seating with a heated patio with garden furniture and lots of greenery!
Location: Friesenwall 33, 50672 Köln, Germany
Best Area to Stay in Cologne
For your first time in Cologne, the best areas to stay are either the Belgian Quarter in an Airbnb or the city center in a hotel.
Despite the city center being largely destroyed during the second world war, the surrounding neighborhoods of Cologne were left largely untouched. This is where you can go to feel the the charm of historic cologne.
That is why I recommend an authentic Airbnb experience in the outskirts of the city center. However, it’s best to stick to a hotel in the city center.
Here are my recommendations for the best areas, Airbnbs, and hotels to stay in Cologne during your visit:
- Airbnb in Belgian Quarter – book on Airbnb here
- Airbnb 2 in Belgian Quarter – book on Airbnb here
- Prevôt Restaurant & Hotel at Rheingarten – book on Booking.com here
- Excelsior Hotel Ernst Am Dom – book on Expedia.com here
I hope you have any amazing time discovering Cologne, my home away from home. Cologne is truly one of the most special, humble, friendly, vibrant, and accepting cities in Germany.
If you have any questions while planning your trip, just drop them in the comments below. I would love to help you make the most out of your time in Cologne, Germany!
Looking for more Germany inspiration? You may also enjoy these Germany related posts:
- 7 Best Photo Spots in Cologne, Germany
- 18 Most Beautiful Villages in Germany
- How to Visit the Cherry Blossom Avenue in Bonn, Germany
- Cochem, Germany: Discover the Gem of the Mosel Valley
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