If you are traveling to Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city and one of the oldest in the country, you'll have a chance to see awe-inspiring medieval Gothic architecture, stunning cathedrals, and beautiful views of the Rhine river.
While there are plenty of great museums and attractions with admission fees like the Museum Ludwig and the Cologne Zoo, there are fantastic things to do in Cologne that won't cost you a single euro, like sniffing scents at a historic perfume museum, strolling the cobblestone alleys of Old Town, or window-shopping on Schildergasse, a street dating back to ancient Roman times.
The Cologne Cathedral or Kölner Dom is one of Germany's most important architectural monuments and one of the top 10 sights in Germany. This UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts on average 20,000 people a day and is among the most visited sites in Germany.
This Gothic masterpiece, situated in the heart of Cologne, is the tallest twin-spired church and the third tallest cathedral in the world at 157 meters (515 feet) tall. The unique spires give it its iconic look and create the largest façade of any church in the world.
For an unparalleled view over the Rhine, visitors can climb the more than 500 steps to a viewing platform about 100 meters (330 feet) over the city.
Visit the oldest Rathaus (city hall) in Germany at the Alter Markt (old square) in Cologne. This is a prime people-watching spot as city life takes place in this central meeting point.
The building is Germany's oldest city hall—dating back about 900 years—and has over 130 statues adorning its elaborately decorated façade. The loggia is a quintessential example of the Renaissance era. Don't miss the grotesque wood-carved Platzjabbeck; when the clock strikes the hour, it opens its mouth and rudely sticks out its wooden tongue.
The Rhine river is a defining geographic feature of the area. For a spectacular view of the cathedral and the cityscape, leave the Altstadt (Old Town) of Cologne and cross the Rhine to the other side of the river. Young people gather on basketball courts, musicians busk, and strollers stroll. Walk down the Rheinuferpromenade (Rhine Promenade) then cross back over the Deutzer Bridge, which offers stunning views of the city, especially at sunset.
Go window-shopping on Schildergasse, one of the busiest shopping streets in Europe. This bustling car-free pedestrian zone boasts international department stores and modern architecture. An estimated 13,000 people pass through every hour, admiring the high-priced designer brands and landmarks like Antoniterkirche, the oldest Protestant church in Cologne, and the impressive Peek & Cloppenburg's Weltstadthaus designed by Renzo Piano.
It is not all modern shopping, however. This is the second oldest street in Cologne, dating back to ancient Roman times. Once known as Decumanus Maximus, Roman soldiers marched along it as an important trade route to Gaul. It was also home to artists painting coats of arms in the Middle Ages. Their work gave the street its current name of "shield street." Along with Hohe Straße (High Street), these two streets create the main pedestrian area in Cologne.
What better to do in a city called Cologne than follow your nose to the birthplace of modern perfume? Eau De Cologne 4711 on Glockengasse was named when Cologne was occupied by the French. Napoleon ordered his soldiers to count all the houses and the Eau de Cologne building was number 4711, giving the famed perfume its name.
Every hour the French anthem is played at the 4711 House of Fragrances and inside there is a shop, a small historic exhibition with fragrance workshop, and even a fountain where you can dip your hands in pure Eau de Cologne.
Cologne’s Flora und Botanischer Garten is the oldest public park in the city. Located on the left bank of the Rhine, the site covers almost a half mile and has more than 10,000 species of plants like magnolias, rhododendrons, coniferous trees, and maples. It is visited by more than a million people every year.
The Flora, a renovated historic building, is set at the center of the garden and serves as a perfect respite for tourists needing a break from walking. The Flora hosts concerts, social gatherings, conferences, and similar events.
The city once boasted up to 12 gates from 50 A.D., but only a few remain today. Luckily, the few that remain are well-preserved and decorated in natural materials like limestone, sandstone, greywacke, and trachyte.
Visit the massive 13th-century Hahnentorburg at Rudolfplatz. More impressive examples include Severinstorburg, Ulrepforte, and Eigelsteintorburg.
A magnificent example of one of the 12 Romanesque churches located in the city, St. Gereon's has impressive views from the decagonal arched rooftop. The site is dedicated to the Roman officer who died along with legionnaires in the belief of his Catholic faith; it earned the designation of a basilica in 1920.
On the east side of the church awaits a quaint park that is a perfect location to appreciate the outside beauty of the structure. Art fans won't want to miss the giant sculpture created in 2002 by artist Iskender Yediler: The head of the decapitated Roman soldier Saint Gereon.
Take a walk through the narrow cobblestone alleys to see the charming Old Town area which was painstakingly rebuilt after the majority of it was destroyed during World War II. After a long day of sightseeing, if you don't mind spending a bit of money, there is no better place to grab a Brauhaus—also known as beer—than in Old Town. A variety of local pubs serve guests a wide selection of draft options and classic German fare.
When you are ready to get back to checking out Cologne's culture, plenty of options are nearby, like the Romano-Germanic Museum, the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, and the Museum Ludwig.
There is an abundance of creativity and street art in Cologne, from murals to stencils to stickers, and it won't cost you a cent to look. Start out in the district of Ehrenfeld, just west of Cologne's center, filled with large murals by internationally-famed artists and various artists' studios, along with people of many cultures. Also, in Belgisches Viertel (the Belgian Quarter) between Aachener and Venloer Straße in the inner city of Cologne, you'll find numerous murals and smaller works on several doors, gates, and on the sidewalk, along with galleries. Graffiti lovers may enjoy multicultural Nippes in the north of Cologne, and Mülheim on the Rhine's eastern bank.
Get your nature fix in the Lindenthal district at The Stadtwald Forest, a lovely park with three man-made ponds and a free animal park. The area has deer, goats, birds, and other creatures the whole family can enjoy. If you want to relax and get away from the urban life for a few hours, The Stadtwald Forest has many lawn areas for picnics and trees to gaze at. Or kick it up a notch and have some fun riding a pony or jogging as you watch international park visitors move about.
No matter what the weather is, any day of the year—except for some carnival days in November and spring—you can take a no-cost tour by foot with Freewalk Cologne. Groups are usually small and the journey lasts about 2.5 hours; you'll view the Ostermann Square, Old Town, and a few other notable areas of Cologne. Meet your tour guide and fellow travelers underneath one of the old city gates, the Eigelstein-Torburg, a 10-minute walk from the Cologne Cathedral.
Booking in advance is suggested but not required. If English isn't your top choice, they will give you a tour in Spanish or German, as long as it's booked ahead of time. Although the tours are free, tips are expected.
Hohenzollernbrücke Bridge, which crosses the Rhine river and boasts views of the Cologne Cathedral, is a great destination that costs nothing, plus has a noteworthy history, having been one of the most significant bridges in Germany during World War II. Another inspiring reason to see the bridge: The thousands of colorful locks hanging from the railings, with handwritten words and decorations by couples who attach the lock to the bridge as a symbol of their love and commitment. Each couple then drops their lock's keys into the river to show dedication to their unity.
You may not find any fish in quaint Fischmarkt (the old fish market), but walk around to see the beautiful and colorful tall timber-frame homes in a cobblestone alley square along the Rhine in Cologne. This is a great spot to peruse when in the Old Town area; check out the Fish Wives Fountain by sculptor Rainer Walk displaying women selling fish. It's a must-see memorable destination for taking photos, painting, or just soaking up the charming views.
If you'd like to take some snapshots of the city for your photo albums or catch a lovely sunset from a more elevated viewpoint, head to the Galeria Kaufhof department store, where you can also do some fine shopping. For an impressive panoramic glance at Cologne, including the Severinsbrücke bridge, the Antoniter church, and more, head up to the sixth floor of the Kaufhof parking structure number 1 on Cäcilienstrasse.
If you are looking for something educational and entertaining, not to mention advantageously within reach of coffee shops and restaurants, take a stroll to Bürgerzentrum Ehrenfeld, a cultural and leisure center working to promote democracy and solidarity. They also promote a blending of different cultures through free events such as concerts with DJs and live music. You may enjoy their unique educational seminars, ranging from a youth workshop on discrimination to a slackline class for seniors—a chance to work on posture and balance by walking along webbing anchored between two points (but with much less tension than a tightrope).