Your Trip to Cologne: The Complete Guide

Cologne Cathedral

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Jorg Greuel



Cologne, or Köln in German, is a fun-loving city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. It is a busy inland port and the historical, cultural, and economic capital of the Rhineland.

One of the country's oldest cities, it was founded by the Romans 2,000 years ago. They started the vineyards that still line the Rhine river and are now accompanied by the city's famed beer, Kölsch, in the city's largest festival, Karneval. Nearly all of the city's 1 million people come out to celebrate with a week of costumed and parade every February. Along with the party, there is piety at the city's massive Gothic Cologne Cathedral. Heaven and earth, all in one German city.

These are just a few of the things that draw nearly 6 million visitors per year. Now is the time to plan your trip to the dynamic city of Cologne.

Planning Your Trip to Cologne

  • Best Time to Visit: While Cologne has events throughout the year, the best time to visit is in February when Karneval fever consumes the city. December's many Christmas markets also draw many visitors.
  • Language: German is the language of Germany.
  • Currency: The euro is the currency of Germany and the European Union.
  • Getting Around: Public transportation in Cologne (KVB) includes 60 bus and tram lines. Transport is safe and easy to use with ticket machines at the stations as well as onboard. Trains usually arrive every 5 minutes in the center during rush hour but can stretch to 30 to 40 minutes at night. Riding within the center is in the "1b" zone, and a single ticket (EinzelTicket) costs 2.90 euros. The center is very walkable, and bike paths are plentiful.
  • Travel Tip: If you decide to participate in the madness of Karneval, plan well in advance as well-priced accommodations are booked out quickly.

Things to Do in Cologne

  • Visitors can't miss the Cologne Cathedral. It is in the middle of the city, right next to the train station, and dominates the skyline. The cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most important architectural monuments in Germany. For an unparalleled view over the Rhine and the city, visitors can climb to the viewing platform.
  •  A favorite for visitors of all ages is Cologne’s Chocolate Museum. It covers 3,000 years of chocolate history, culminating in a 10-foot-high chocolate fountain with individual samples straight from the tap.
  • Cologne's charming Altstadt (historic city center) was destroyed in World War II but has been reconstructed with many original features. Explore the squares of Heumarkt and Altermarkt or search out Heinzelmännchenbrunnen, a fountain with busy gnomes from 1899.

Explore more of Cologne's best with our full-length articles on free things to do in Cologne, family guide to Cologne, and best museums in Cologne.

What to Eat and Drink in Cologne

The German favorites of bratwurst, schnitzel, and spätzle can be found everywhere in Germany, but Cologne has some specialties of its own.

Black pudding gets a special twist in many German cities, and one of Cologne's favorite versions is called Himmel un Ääd with black pudding, fried onions, mashed potato, and apple sauce. Expect typical Cologne humor in the naming of beer hall favorites Halve Hahn and Kölscher Kaviar (Cologne Caviar). Halve Hahn is a rye roll (Roggenbrötchen) with butter, Dutch cheese, raw onion, and mustard—no chicken involved—while Kölscher Kaviar again features blood sausage rather than a fancier ingredient. Ähzezupp is the local name for Erbsensuppe (pea soup) and is consumed by the bowlful to warm up during the chilly Karneval season.

Cologne is famed for its small but mighty beer, Kölsch. Versions of this beer have been brewed worldwide, but only beer brewed in and around Köln get the PGI distinction (protected geographical indication ). Served in petite cylinder glasses known as Stange, this pale beer is continuously refilled until you put a coaster over your glass. The small serving still packs a punch when consumed a half dozen at a time.

Pair your beer-drinking with eating at the best restaurants in Cologne for the local Cologne experience.

Where to Stay in Cologne

Cologne offers a range of accommodation options for business travelers, families, or backpackers, from traditional pensions in historic Altbaus (old buildings) to modern five-star hotels.

Though every Kölsche Veedel (Cologne neighborhood) has its attractions, most visitors choose to stay in the endearing city center or Altstadt. There are even luxury rooms in a refurbished Wasserturm (water tower). The Belgisches Viertel (Belgian Quarter) to the west of the Altstadt is still central and known as one of Cologne's coolest neighborhoods. At the same time, Ehrenfeld is another area with vibrant cafes and nightlife. Across the river, in Deutz, there is proximity to the city center, a great view of the bridge and cathedral, and lower hotel prices.

Note that Airbnb and similar home rentals have faced legal challenges in Germany and are not as popular as in North America.

Find your ideal accommodations with the Best Hotels in Cologne Under 100 Euros.

Getting to Cologne

Frankfurt Airport is the country's busiest airport and is just 90 minutes away from Cologne's city center. Visitors can arrive by the fast, efficient, and cheap rail service (starting at $27), go by bus (starts at $9) or arrive via motorway. All major car rental companies are located within Frankfurt Airport.

Cologne also has its own small airport. The Cologne Bonn Airport (Flughafen Köln/Bonn 'Konrad Adenauer' - CGN) serves around 12.4 million passengers per year making it the seventh-largest passenger airport in Germany. It is one of Germany's few 24-hour airports and destinations include 35 countries. It acts as a hub for Eurowings, FedEx Express, and UPS Airlines. The airport is connected by rail and road to most major cities with stops at least once an hour per direction.

Nearby Düsseldorf Airport is larger than the Cologne Bonn Airport (though not as big as Frankfurt's) and serves the Rhine-Ruhr region.

The city is also well-connected by train and road to the rest of Germany and greater Europe. Deutsche-Bahn, the national railway, offers fast and easy service as well as occasional discounts, or you can travel by bus for bargain-basements prices in reasonable comfort.

Culture and Customs in Cologne

Cologne is Germany's fourth-largest city and is known for its friendly attitude. Its university is one of the oldest and largest in Europe and draws students from around the globe. Particularly family-friendly, it is also an ideal place for retirees with many parks and historic sites. Its vibrant tv industry also draws young professionals.

Cologne's people are very proud of their city, Karneval, Kölsch, and their soccer (Fussball) team. The Karneval cry of "Alaaf" can be heard throughout the year along with Cologner's unique dialect of Köbes for Kölsch server, Büdchen for kiosk, Weetschaft for pub, among others. If you prefer another German city—particularly neighboring Düsseldorf—keep it to yourself.

When eating out or engaging in any customer service, prepare for a lower standard than North America. That said, you should also tip at lower levels (around 10 percent). Also, know that dining out is usually a leisurely experience where there really is no rush. When you are ready to pay, ask for "Die Rechnung, bitte" (the check, please).

Money-Saving Tips in Cologne

Cologne is friendly at any budget, as its many student residents can attest.

  • While Karneval is a festival to behold, it is the most popular time to visit, and along with crowds, there are peak prices. Book a visit during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall to save money.
  • You have to visit the cathedral if you visit Cologne. Luckily, it is free unless you want to climb the tower and even that is only 3 euros.
  • Public transport is a cheap way to travel all over the city. However, ticket machines may only take coins so be sure to have some with you. Also consider renting a bike as it is the best way to get around town.
  • The Rhineland-Palatinate Ticket starts at 8.80 euros per person for up to five people and also provides discounts on the riverboat cruises. Cologne is a great home base to explore the region.

Learn more about the cheapest ways to have fun by reading up on the best free things to do in Cologne.

Article Sources
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  1. "Statistics for the destination Cologne." July 28th, 2020

  2. KVB. "Tickets." 7/23/2020

  3. DPMA. "Indications of Geographical Origin." May 8th, 2020

  4. "Kölsche Veedel." July 28th, 2020

  5. Stadt Koeln. "Die Kölner Stadtbezirke" July 28th, 2020