16 Best Free Things to Do in Cologne, Germany

Cologne and Rhine river, Germany

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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 many of the famous attractions charge admission fees, like the Museum Ludwig and the Cologne Zoo, there are fantastic activities in this city that won't cost you a single euro. Sniff scents at a historic perfume museum, stroll the cobblestone alleys of Old Town, or go window-shopping on Schildergasse, a street dating back to ancient Roman times. Lastly, visit the city in the winter to enjoy a bustle of activity at the street festival during Carnival.

01 of 16

Take in the View from the Köln Triangle

Cologne skyline

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Ottopl. 1, 50679 Köln, Germany
Phone +49 221 355004100

The Köln Triangle (Cologne Triangle) is to Cologne as the Empire State Building is to New York. While its height pales in comparison to the Big Apple's famed building (the Cologne Triangle has only 29 floors, whereas the Empire State Building has 102), it's still an impressive part of Cologne's skyline. Head up the 565 steps to the viewing platform (during the warmer part of the year) to take in a bird's eye view of the famous Cologne Cathedral, the Hohenzollernbrücke in the distance, the Rhein River, and Old Town.

02 of 16

Experience Carnival in Cologne

People dressed up for Carnival in Cologne

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Every year the city of Cologne hosts Carnival in Cologne, a seasonal celebration of the culture of the city and the spirit of the holidays. It starts on November 11 (specifically at 11 minutes past 11 a.m.), and then breaks for Advent and Christmas, before picking up again after January 6. During this time, the city hosts numerous events, like art shows and performances (that typically charge admission), while also displaying seasonal sights that are free of charge. Check out the Cathedral all lit up for the holidays, or stroll a street fair that takes place between Fat Thursday and Ash Wednesday (also called "the crazy days").

03 of 16

Stroll the Harbor District

A modern building in the Harbor District of Cologne

Jorg Greuel / Getty Images

Rheinauhafen, Cologne, Germany

Rheinauhafen, the harbor district in Cologne, is among one of the most modern locations in the city. Here, modern architecture blends with historic old-town charm. Check out the newly restored Rheinauhafen waterfront complex, located right on the banks of the Rhine. This complex houses a mix of modern residential and office buildings, alongside cafés, restaurants, galleries, and a walking promenade. In the evening you can take a sunset stroll, admiring the boats in the marina. Then, when you're done, pop into a trendy riverside bar or restaurant.

04 of 16

Climb the Cologne Cathedral

A shot of the Cologne cathedral reaching up into the sky and people walking around the base of it

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Domkloster 4, 50667 Köln, Germany
Phone +49 221 17940555

This Cologne Cathedral, or Kölner Dom, is situated in the heart of Cologne, and is the tallest twin-spired church and the third tallest cathedral in the world, at 157 meters (515 feet) tall. This Gothic masterpiece is one of Germany's most important architectural monuments and one of the top 10 sights in Germany. On average, this UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts 20,000 people a day and is among the most visited sites in Germany. 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 more than 500 steps to a viewing platform about 100 meters (330 feet) over the city.

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05 of 16

People Watch by the Historic City Hall

People sitting on benches and walking by in front of City Hall

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Rathauspl. 2, 50667 Köln, Germany
Phone +49 221 2210

Visit the oldest city hall (or Rathaus) in Germany at the Alter Markt (Old Square) in Cologne. This is a prime people-watching spot, as many facets of city life take place in this central meeting point. The building is Germany's oldest city hall—dating back about 900 years—and contains over 130 statues adorning its elaborately decorated façade. The loggia in the front of the building represents 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.

06 of 16

Walk Across the Deutzer Bridge

A shot of the view from the Deutzer bridge and people walking across it.

 Christopher Larson / TripSavvy

Brassertufer, 53113 Bonn, Germany

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. Here, young people gather on basketball courts, musicians busk, and strollers stroll. Walk down the Rheinuferpromenade (or Rhine Promenade), and then cross back over the Deutzer Bridge, which offers stunning views of the city, especially at sunset.

07 of 16

Window-Shop on Schildergasse Street

The sign for the start of the Schildergasse Shopping street

 Christopher Larson / TripSavvy

Schildergasse, 50667 Köln, Germany

Schildergasse Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in Europe, offers a bustling car-free pedestrian zone full of 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.

This location is not all modern shopping, however. Schildergasse Street 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 who painted coats of arms in the Middle Ages. Their work gave the street its current name, which in English means "Shield Street."

08 of 16

Smell Eau de Cologne

Eau de Cologne

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There's almost nothing better to do in a city called "Cologne" than follow your nose to the birthplace of modern perfume. The famous Eau De Cologne 4711 perfume was named when Cologne was occupied by the French. Napoleon ordered his soldiers to count all the houses on Glockengasse, and the Eau de Cologne building was number 4711, giving the famed perfume its name. Here, on the hour, the French anthem is played. Go inside to visit the shop, a small historic exhibition, complete with fragrance workshops, and a fountain where you can dip your hands in pure Eau de Cologne.

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09 of 16

Stroll the Flora and Botanical Garden

Flora und Botanischer Garten Köln

Aniket Mone / Flickr

Alter Stammheimer Weg, 50735 Köln, Germany
Phone +49 221 560890

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. 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, and conferences, and is visited by more than a million people every year.

10 of 16

Find Medieval Gates and Walls

The medieval walls in cologne with trees growing beside it

 Christopher Larson / TripSavvy

Rudolfpl. 1, 50674 Köln, Germany
Phone +49 221 9131049

The city once boasted up to 12 medieval gates dating 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. Other impressive examples include gates at Severinstorburg, Ulrepforte, and Eigelsteintorburg.

11 of 16

Enjoy Rooftop Views at St. Gereon's Basilica

The exterior of St gereon's church

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Gereonshof 2, 50670 Köln, Germany
Phone +49 221 4745070

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. The building earned the designation of a basilica in 1920.

On the east side of the church awaits a quaint park that makes a perfect location from which to appreciate the structure's architecture. Art fans won't want to miss the giant sculpture created in 2002 by artist Iskender Yediler. It depicts the head of the decapitated Roman soldier, Saint Gereon.

12 of 16

Visit Charming Old Town

People walking down a cobblestone street in the Old Town of COlogne

 Christopher Larson / TripSavvy

Alter Markt 28-32, 50667 Köln, Germany
Phone +49 221 3100628

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. Spend your day here checking out Cologne's culture, with plenty of options nearby, like the Romano-Germanic Museum, the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, and the Museum Ludwig. Then, after a long day of sightseeing, there is no better place to grab a Brauhaus—also known as beer—than in this section of the city. A variety of local pubs serve guests a wide selection of local draft options and classic German fare. 

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13 of 16

See Street Murals

Belgian Quarter

Bourdeaux / Wikimedia Commons 

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 at it. Start out in the district of Ehrenfeld, just west of Cologne's center, filled with large murals by internationally-famed artists, various art studios, and people of many cultures. 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 even on the sidewalk. Graffiti lovers will enjoy multicultural Nippes, in the north of Cologne, and Mülheim on the Rhine's eastern bank.

14 of 16

Relax at The Stadtwald Forest

Stadtwald Forest

Oliver Henze / Flickr

Get your nature fix in the Lindenthal district at The Stadtwald Forest, a lovely park with three man-made ponds and a free animal sanctuary. This area houses deer, goats, birds, and other creatures for the whole family to enjoy. If you want to relax and get away from urban life for a few hours, The Stadtwald Forest boasts lawn areas for picnicking and trees for shade. Or, kick it up a notch and take a pony ride or go for a jog, as you watch international park visitors move about.

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Learn About History on a Walking Tour

A historical monument in the center of old town

 Christopher Larson / TripSavvy

Any day of the year—except for a few carnival days in November and in the spring—you can take a no-cost foot tour with Freewalk Cologne. Groups are usually small and the journey lasts about 2.5 hours. On this tour, you'll go by Ostermann Square and Old Town, as well as 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 mandatory and, if English isn't your first language choice, they will give you a tour in Spanish or German, too. Although the tours are free, tips are expected.

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Feel the Love at Hohenzollernbrücke Bridge

Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne, Germany

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Hohenzollernbrücke, 50679 Köln, Germany
Phone +49 221 2210

Hohenzollernbrücke Bridge, which crosses the Rhine river and boasts views of the Cologne Cathedral, is a great destination that costs nothing to see. This bridge has a notable history, as one of the most significant bridges in Germany during World War II. While there, check out the thousands of colorful "love locks" hanging from the railings, complete 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.

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16 Best Free Things to Do in Cologne, Germany