Situated in the north-west of Germany, Cologne (or Köln in German) is one of the more interesting and diverse cities in Europe. Almost completely flattened during World War II, this involuntary renovation gave the city a chance to modernise its architecture and town planning. Seeing as Cologne was first settled by the Romans in 38 BC, it’s possible some major updates would have been gratefully received.
Situated on both the banks of the major arterial river Rheine, Cologne may at first glance seem to be plain, and just another example of German building efficiency, at the expense of a stimulating and visually exciting CBD. But spend a little time exploring the back streets and will be rewarded with memorable experiences.
Without doubt, the single most impressive landmark in Cologne is the ancient cathedral or Dom. It is a massive testament to the creativity and vision that humans can have – and to their patience, for it took over 600 years to build! All the photos in the world can’t do it justice. There is nothing comparable to standing at the base of the 157m high twin spires and gazing up their height as they stretch towards the heavens. The size and intricacy of the structure is incredibly impressive. For those that don’t impress easily, there is always a trek up the innumerable stairs within the spires for an unrivalled view of the city that takes your breath away…literally!
The Rheine is one of the most important waterways in Germany, and also one of the largest in Europe. The amount of traffic utilising its broad flow is non-stop, from hotel-type cruise ships to barges full of whatever it is they carry. You can spend hours watching the river community peacefully chug by. A decent day trip by boat can be had down river to Düsseldorf, a similar sized city not too far from Cologne. A stroll down the riverbank from the Dom is a must, especially for those in a romantic mood.
Like any city, Cologne has its urban spread, with a population of over one million. But cutting through this maze of houses are several parkland areas set up for human enjoyment. There is the Stadtpark, a very popular area next to a square, man-made lake that the locals love. At the slightest hint of sunshine and raised temperatures the hillside adjacent to the lake becomes a sea of euro-tanned bodies as they make the most of it. You could be forgiven for thinking that no-one works on summer days in Cologne!
A little further out of the city is an area simply known as the Wald, or Forest. This is a huge area (for a major city anyway) of woods, meadows, lakes and trails stretching for kilometres. Your only indication of nearby human inhabitation is the train tracks that cut through the trees and the random football fields in the middle of the forest that you unexpectedly come across during a pleasant stroll.
Also, neatly ensconced within the forest is the German Sports University, a sports facility that would come close to being one of the best of its kind in the world. There you can find a world-class athletics track, Olympic swimming pool, several gyms, a velodrome, synthetic hockey and football fields and so on…get the picture…? Oh, and there is also a library with literature on every sport known to mankind.
Not a nature lover? Cologne also boasts an comprehensive Zoo with a SkyRail, a Chocolate Museum (with no free sample handouts unfortunately, but still well worth a look, if not only for the delicious smell in the place), Mini-Golf courses, art galleries, Roman remains and even part of the old town wall.
Next to the sports university is the Rhein Energie Stadion, where the Cologne football team plays its Bundesliga matches. Attendance at one of these games would be mandatory for any sports nut, as the atmosphere rivals that of an English Premier League match, without question.
If it’s shopping that you desire, then Cologne possesses some great locations for splurging, with a funky area to the west of the CBD where funky shops sell funky clothes to funky people. For those on the prowl for more mainstream browsing, a large mall-like street section leads south from the Dom.
There are several performing arts centres to be found in Cologne as well, with the Dome on the river presenting theatrical acts from all around, and the Live Musik Hall providing just that – live music, though of a more contemporary bent.
All these places are easily accessed by the intricate, yet efficient and reliable public transport system in place in the city. There isn’t a street in Cologne that isn’t within reach of a tram, train or bus. And the fares are reasonable too. If you fancy a bit of activity whilst you see the sights, Cologne, like most major cities in Europe, is bicycle friendly. Summer nights are sometimes best spent with the wind in your hair, it’s true. Especially if you’re on the Beer Bike. Intrigued? Look it up…
The rumour is that Cologne is one of the more open minded and bohemian cities in Germany, and with one of the oldest universities in the country situated there; the positive and forward thinking vibe is tangible. The locals are friendly and hospitable, and even more so during the Karneval, a week long festival that usually starts late February that is purported to rival its famous big sister in Rio De Janeiro. Stories abound of locals and tourists alike, who go the whole week without sleeping!
A Word of Warning
In Cologne they drink their delicious local beer, called Kölsch, traditionally in small 200mL glasses. This might sound easy enough, but the ever attentive waiters fill it up as soon as you’re empty. Before you know it, you have consumed more than you can remember counting – and it’s all you can do to stumble home to your hotel, wondering where the night went…But this is how it rolls in Cologne, and it’s all part of the charm of this friendly, vibrant city.