Germany's fourth-largest city is an urban jewel with medieval streets laid out alongside the Rhine. Cologne is at its prettiest before Christmas, when festive markets take over its squares in a haze of lights and stalls.
Six markets will fill the centre with the rich aroma of gluhwein during the next six weeks, with the biggest (23 November to 23 December; daily 11am to 9pm, Thursday and Friday to 10pm, Saturday 10am to 10pm) set up in the vast Roncalliplatz.
Shared by the two neighbouring Rhineland cities, Cologne Bonn Airport sits nine miles south-east of Cologne.
There is no direct bus service to the centre – but a rail link to Cologne Central Station, on Bahn-hofsvorplatz, takes 14 minutes, for A$4. Taxis into town take 15 minutes.
Get Your Bearings
Cologne is the biggest city on the Rhine. But at heart, it is Roman, founded on this site in the first century. Its historic kernel, the Altstadt (Old Town), on the west bank of the river, has shifted barely an inch in the intervening two millennia, although now it is framed by the younger Neustadt (New Town) and eyed by the east-bank district of Deutz.
Public transport – U-bahn (trams and metro trains), S-bahn (regional overground trains) and buses – come under the umbrella of Kolner Verkehrs-Betriebe. Single journeys from A$2.80, all-day tickets from A$12.20.
The main tourist office is at Kardinal-Hoffner-Platz 1, open daily 9am to 8pm (except Sunday, 10am to 5pm). It sells the KolnCard – which covers travel and museum discounts: 24 hours for A$13, 48 hours for A$26.
Take a hike
You can gain a snapshot of Cologne's past in a few steps. Begin at Zeughausstrasse 13 – where the Romerturm is a fine remnant of the city's Roman walls, all intricate tiles and ancient elegance.
Then wander east along Zeughausstrasse and into Domkloster – the square that houses the Kolner Dom. The cathedral is a Gothic behemoth founded in 1248, but not completed until 1880. It was briefly the tallest building on the planet and it is as grand inside as out.
The shrine by its altar is said to hold Three Wise Men's remains. Go north on Marzellenstrasse, which cuts under the railway and becomes Eigelstein and ends at Eigelstein Torburg, a 13th-century gate tower in the city walls.
The Romisch-Germanisches Museum, at Roncalliplatz 4 is a hothouse of antiquities spread around the glorious Dionysos Mosaic – the flooring of a villa which stood on this spot 1,800 years ago and is wonderfully preserved.
Adjacent, on Heinrich-Boll-Platz, the Museum Ludwig is a striking modern art showcase with pieces by Warhol, Lichtenstein and German visionary Martin Kippenberger. It has a companion at Obenmarspforten 40, where the Wallraf-Richartz Museum is crammed with paintings from the 15th to the 20th centuries – including less-seen art by Monet and Munch.
Rambles in the cathedral city. Checking Out Cosmopolitan Cologne
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Museum Ludwig has an inviting in-house restaurant for filling lunchtime dishes such as marinated braised beef with red cabbage and potato dumplings.
Wide swathes of central Cologne are given over to retail pursuits. The enormous Neumarkt square has an outlet of German book emporium Mayersche – three floors of words, including titles in English.
The branch of fashion chain Peek & Cloppenburg at Schildergasse 65-67 is of note as much for the huge curve of glass it inhabits as the outfits it sells.
Elsewhere, Olcay Krafft revels in boutique designs at No 44 on trendy Pfeilstrasse. And Aura is a lovely toy shop – at Balthasarstrasse 48 in the Agnesviertel area.
The best riverside bars south of the Hohenzollernbrücke include Die Ex-Vertretung – light, hoppy “kolsch” beers.
Dine with the locals
The Excelsior Hotel Ernst has Michelin-starred Asian fare at its house restaurant Taku. maiBeck at Am Frankenturm 5 brings flair to the Altstadt riverside, with mackerel with potato purée.
Or hop the Rhine to Deutz, where the popular Bona'Me at Kennedyplatz 2 serves Middle Eastern fare – such as Turkish pide pizzas, with tuna and paprika.
Time for church
While the Dom dominates – and has Sunday services from 7am to noon, 5pm and 7pm – Cologne is awash with intriguing churches. St Agnes, at Neusser Platz 18 is colossal yet understated with an interior of whitewashed simplicity.
To the south, Antoniterkirche stands back from the swirl of shoppers at Schildergasse 57. This 14th-century delight was damaged in the war but sings of resurrection in its modern stained glass.
Take in the view
Return to the Dom and climb the heights of this leviathan's twin towers at 170 metres. The south tower offers incredible views at 110 metres up. Enter via a separate gate on Roncalliplatz.
Ensure you have refuelled beforehand, as there are 533 steps to tackle. Don't miss St Petersglocke, which at around 25 tons is the world's heaviest swinging church bell. The panorama reveals the Rhine valley in all its glory.
A walk in the park
Leave the Dom and wander east across Roncalliplatz and Heinrich-Boll-Platz. Cross the Rhine on the Hohenzollernbrucke, which was built between 1907 and 1911.
It was destroyed to hold up the Allied advance in 1945 but was back in service by 1948. Apart from pedestrians, some 1,200 trains roll across each day.
At the bridge's Deutz end, go north on Kennedy-Ufer – into Rheinpark, the city's prime green lung which has complemented the river since 1912.
It also offers relaxation in its chic bathhouse, Claudius Therme Cologne. It harks back to the Romans with hot waters, plunge pools and saunas.
Icing on the cake
Return to the west bank and the reborn Rheinau docks and Das Schokoladenmuseum, which looks at all things chocolate. The attached Chocolat Grand Cafe serves iced-chocolate drinks.
Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Cologne.
This article was written by Chris Leadbeater from The Independent and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.