Straddling the Rhine River in the very heart of Western Europe is one of the region’s best-kept travel secrets. Cologne is Germany’s fourth largest city, and this striking cathedral town boasts an ancient Roman past, a cosmopolitan ambiance and one of the most striking architectural marvels constructed anywhere in Europe.
To step out of a train at Cologne’s central train station is to invoke a sense of awe. It’s not the Hauptbahnhof which impresses, but rather the view from the station’s forecourt which takes your breath away. Looming over the landscape like a Gothic leftover from the Middle Ages is one of Germany’s most recognisable tourist attractions – the inimitable Cologne Cathedral.
Rambling Round A Cathedral Town
It seems like a lifetime ago now, but I used to live in Cologne and have explored much of this vibrant riverside city on foot. I’d hop on the tram into the city from Ebertplatz – usually after catching a movie at Metropolis and changing trains at Friesenplatz – and disembark near bustling Neumarkt in the heart of the city’s popular shopping precinct.
For much of the year Neumarkt is renowned for its upscale shopping, but come the dim days of December, this pretty town square transforms into Cologne’s oldest Christmas market. You won’t have to look far if Neumarkt’s popular Engelsmarkt gets too crowded, because the city boasts no less than six other Christmas markets – making Cologne one of Germany’s most visited Yuletide destinations once the Advent calendar comes out.
Sitting Down To An Altstadt Ale
Exploring Cologne on foot is a great way to see the city, particularly the faithfully restored Altstadt largely destroyed during World War II. While the city’s historic old town now mainly caters to tourists, it’s still a great place to grab a Kölsch – the locally-brewed lager which by law can only be crafted within the Cologne city limits.
Cologne’s distant past as a walled medieval city is also visible in the imposing gates which still loom over strategic corners of the city, including the well-preserved Römerturm, the impressive Severinstor on the south side of the city and the towering Ulrepforte.
Coupled with the famous 12 Romanesque churches dotted throughout the Altstadt, it soon becomes clear this historic part of town is one of the best places to get a feel for this staunchly independent city.
An Icon Of The City
When it comes to Cologne, it’s impossible to overlook the significance of the city’s iconic cathedral. After construction started in 1248, it wasn’t until 1880 that this awe-inspiring building was finally completed. Struck no less than 14 times by Allied aerial bombardments during World War II, the cathedral withstood the bombings to remain one of the few structures still standing in a devastated city.
You can climb the 509 spiral stone stairs to a viewing platform teetering high above the city, offering spectacular views of the Rhine River and beyond. Another great way to enjoy a bird’s eye view of Cologne is on the cable car between the Rheinpark and the city’s popular zoo, taking in views of the cathedral and the adjacent Hohenzollern Bridge connecting the city with neighbouring Deutz.
Whichever way you choose to explore Cologne, you’re sure to be rewarded with a trip to one of Germany’s most eclectic cities. From the remnants of its Roman past to its popular Christmas markets, an historic city centre and its breathtaking cathedral, this lively, fun-loving city in the heart of Europe remains one of Germany’s best-kept travel secrets.