I admit, I was guilty of it myself: I’ve travelled to quite a few other German cities and towns before, but never really considered going to Cologne, the largest city of the German Bundesland of North Rhine-Westphalia, until I was heading from Berlin to Bavaria this spring and happened to pass through during carnival time. I totally loved my stay! Cologne might not be as well-known as Berlin, Hamburg or Munich, but its friendly, talkative locals will have you forget about being a stranger in no time. Just like in my other favourite cities of Dublin and Glasgow, you can have a brilliant time in Cologne if you immerse yourself in its lively festival, culture, café and pub scene.
Festival City All Year Round
Kölner, as the locals in Cologne are known, are always up for a party and the city offers an enviable number of festivals throughout the year. From the famous Kölner Karneval in February and a smaller, but equally busy summer version at the end of August, there are always some great events on. Apart from a few of them, you don’t need to be able to speak German to join in and they often even have a website or programme in English. The most popular include Lit Cologne (March), Cologne Pride (the city is very LGBT friendly) and the Film Festival Cologne. While I was visiting during the first weekend of September, there was an urban arts festival on, City Leaks, and I also found a small world music festival, Festival der Kulturen in Troisdorf, which was only 30 minutes away on the train.
It’s all about ‘Veedel’ Culture – Meet the Neighbours
Cologne has a number of distinct neighbourhoods and its locals strongly identify with where they live. Ehrenfeld has an East London or alternative Berlin feel to it, the Südstadt is quieter (but not at carnival time!), Nippes and Agnesviertel has lots of cafes and parks and the Belgisches Viertel is the place to head for boutique clothes and designer shopping. Just like London has its cabmen’s shelters, Cologne has its ‘Büdchen’, little stalls/snack bars where you can purchase a coffee and a bite to eat or some sweets. The Büdchen am Nikolausplatz (tram stop 18 nearby, see pic below) in Köln Sülz (near the University) is especially lively, it’s run by a group of six people who take turns with the shifts and also sometimes organise outdoor live music and little literature events around their stall. The Weisshaus Kino is only 5 minutes down the road on Weisshauptstrasse. If you don’t speak German, don’t worry, some of the cinemas show movies or documentaries in the original version (marked with OV behind the title and Monday is usually the cheap cinema day, expect to pay around €5 or €6 for a ticket).
While I was visiting I joined a local walking tour, which was part of the City Leaks Urban Arts Festival and it took us around the streets and alleys of the Eigelstein quarter, where prostitution has been thriving for hundreds of years up to this day. But you’ll still find hotels, kindergardens and playgrounds nearby. While you might want to stay clear of Ebertplatz at night, the Eigelstein-Torburg square right beside it has some lovely restaurants (burgers, a gelateria, Thai food, coffee) for a sunny afternoon on the terrace or a cosy dinner in wintertime.
Café Culture and Brunch Spots
The city has a huge number of cafés and bakeries with a lot of veggie and vegan options. You can basically start wherever you are and pick any nice-looking place. Zeit für Brot in Ehrenfeld is great for people watching (or pet dogs that are passing by) while you munch on one of their super yummy cinnamon, walnut/maple syrup or plum buns (see pic below). Nearby is Café Goldmund, a book café with walls lined with endless number of second hand books. I also love the BadenBaden in the basement of the Neptunbad (spa) in Ehrenfeld (mixed menu including Flammkuchen). But beware, only the ones marked with a green sticker on the back are for sale. Another lovely coffee place is As If Records in the Belgisches Viertel, a record store, vintage store and café rolled into one with very friendly staff.
On Sunday we went for breakfast at the local ‘cat café’ Café Schnurrke, in Ritterstrasse, less than 10 minutes on foot from the Hauptbahnhof. The two black and white resident rescue kitties, Millie and Merlin, might join you on the sofa while you enjoy your breakfast (both veggie and vegan options available) or a cake and a smoothie. Going for breakfast or brunch (usually a buffet or choice of sweet and/or savoury combos) is very popular in Germany, especially at the weekends, and many cafes have special breakfast menus available.
Cathedral, Street Art & Unusual Museums
I always like getting an overview of a new city by joining one of the free walking tours (usually in English and often also in Spanish; the only city that didn’t have one was Vienna – for legal reasons – where I simply went to one of the hostels and joined theirs). The Dom (Cathedral), the fourth-tallest in the world, is a no brainer and I suggest you get there first thing in the morning or in any case plan for at least an hour as you’ll have to climb the steps all the way up for the best views. Cologne also has a number of excellent art museums, as well as a few more unusual ones, such as the German Olympic Museum and the Chocolate Museum (which sounds tempting, but I suggest you spend the €11.50 on actual chocolate). There is also lots of fabulous street art to discover, for instance in Ehrenfeld, Eigelstein and other neighbourhoods.
Live Music any Day of the Week
Earlier this year, I made a friend on Instagram, who lives in Cologne and enjoys the same kind of music I like. So she gave me lots of great tips and we met up one night for a gig at Kulturcafe Lichtung. In fact, I ended up going there two nights in a row. The musician on Friday night, Ofer Golany from Israel, also told me about a great little (and free) world music festival in Troisdorf, a 40 minute S-Bahn ride away, the Festival der Kulturen. I went there on Saturday and had fantastic homecooked Ethiopian food, listened to various musicians from around the world and met many cute dogs (see Cuddle a Dog a Day). As it was the weekend of the summer carnival, there were also lots of local live bands singing in various pubs in their local dialect, Kölsch (which is pretty much unintelligible by other Germans too, but it’s always a good idea to learn a few phrases before you go). In fact, at the Weißer Holunder pub you can join a Kölsch singalong every Sunday night from 6pm, beginners welcome. Other live music venues to try include Studio 672 (venue & nightclub), Kulturkirche (a Protestant church but also a concert venue), the Gloria Theater (both plays and gigs), Die Wohngemeinschaft (hip hostel and gig venue), Blue Shell (club, live gigs & poetry slams) and many more.
Where Should I stay?
I found a very cosy Airbnb for my first stay and returned there again as it was the perfect base for me. It is across the river in a quiet neighbourhood and was easy to reach by tram, even after midnight. Any of the Veedel (neighbourhoods) are a great place to stay, just pick it based on whether you’d prefer a quiet night’s sleep or prefer staying in a busier area with the nightlife options right outside your door. Either way, there are many choices, so you can’t really go wrong.
Public Transport, More Local Tips & Saving Money
Cologne is fairly walkable and I love discovering it on foot. To get from your accommodation or to a venue quickly though, you can use the local public transport. A single ticket costs €2.80 (buy it with coins or a credit card at a machine at a tram stop or inside the tram, make sure you have one as ticket inspectors patrol the trams and it can cost you €60 if you get caught!), so a public transport day pass (currently €8.60) is usually a good idea. You can use it in the whole city and East of the Rhine river, too. The Cologne Card is only slightly more, for €9 a day it also gives you 20-50% off some museums. As I was there for four days, I bought a weekly ticket for €25.10 (cheaper than 3 day passes). There are trams, buses and S-Bahn (commuter) trains and, in my experience, they were safe to use even at night and also run every few minutes after midnight, so you can book cheaper accommodation a little further out and still won’t have to worry about getting home. The tourist office is very close to the Cathedral and the main train station (where you can leave luggage in lockers or in a left luggage place for ca. €6 a day). There you can pick up a very clear map of the city centre and slightly beyond for about 50 cents and find out about current events. There are quite a few guide books in English, but I was glad I found a few specifically local guides, Green City Guide Köln, Basic Köln and the yearly updated Köln 2 Go (all three in German), which were more aimed at locals and had a lot of great tips for veggie places and more alternative sightseeing options.
Whatever you do, make sure you visit Cologne sooner rather than later, it’s one of the easiest cities to enjoy whether you’re a seasoned traveller or a travel newbie of any age.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author. Prices listed are as of August 2017, please confirm them before you go. All photography by Life is a Festival.