Christmas Markets, Kölsch & Wild Pigs - A Month in Cologne
When we chose Cologne for our final month in mainland Europe, we knew it was the largest city in the North Rhine-Westphalia area of Germany and the fourth largest city in Germany. Apart from that however, we didn't really know what was in store for us!
We arrived by train into the main Hauptbahnhof. The city is well served with an efficient, clean public transport system. Tickets for U-Bahn trains can either be purchased from a machine on the platform, or on board the train. These machines accept cash or card payments and have several language options, including English, much to our relief.
We stayed in a lovely AirBnB in an area just outside of Cologne called Refrather, in the district of Bergisch Gladbach. It was about a 15-minute U-Bahn ride from the city to Lustheide station in Refrather. Spending time in city centre is great, but occasionally we find staying a bit further out works better because it gives us more choice. The village of Refrather has access to a vast forest (Königsforst) for great walks – Chelsea absolutely loved it! We saw deer and wild pigs on our daily walks. The pigs are within a large fenced off area in the forest, but do love seeing people in the hope of a treat, coming right up to the fence to say hello. If your stay in Cologne allows you to leave the city for any length of time, you’ll be refreshed and revived by spending at least a few hours lost in Königsforst.
Cologne City was razed to the ground in WWII, very little of the original buildings remain, although the city was rebuilt and buildings lovingly restored, so there is plenty to see and do.
Our stay deliberately coincided with the Christmas Market season in Cologne. We were not disappointed. Cologne has at least 10 spread out over the city.
Here are a few of the things we found to do during our visit:
You can't miss the cathedral. It's visible from almost everywhere, as it the tallest building in Cologne after the telecommunication tower, and one of the tallest church buildings in the world. Building of the cathedral started in 1248 and was finished in 1880, 632 years later. Originally the cathedral was built to house the Three Wise Men's shrine. There is no entrance fee, although entry is restricted when a service is taking place. Look out for the stained glass window in the south transept; it was designed by computer by Cologne artist Gerhard Richter and caused a stir with worshippers at the cathedral at its installation in August 2007. Aside from visiting the church's ground floor, if you are feeling fit, for €4, you can climb the 522 stone steps of the spiral staircase to a viewing platform about 98 meters (322 feet) above the ground floor. The platform offers an aerial view of the cityscape of Cologne and a scenic view of the Rhine.
The main Christmas Market is set out around Cologne Cathedral. Christmas music, arts and crafts, toys, Christmas decorations, and the scent of the Christmas bakeries create a wonderful atmosphere. The aroma of Glühwein (mulled) wine, hot chestnuts and gingerbread fills the air.
The Alt Markt in the Altstadt (Old Town) called the Heinzelmännchen (house gnomes), in front of Cologne's town hall (Rathaus) is probably the most attractive Christmas market, with a skating rink and puppet theatre. It’ a wonderland for children and adults alike!
The Angel's Christmas Market at Neustadt is the oldest one. We found a great stall selling wooden decorations, made by local Cologne graphic design company called 'Pimp My Flat'. We bought a lovely tree decoration for €4. There is a shop on Kettengasse 2, 50672 Cologne, to find out what's on offer if you visit at any other time of year.
These are 3 of the many many markets we visited and enjoyed. The cost of Glühwein is much the same at each market, around €4 plus a deposit for the mug it's served in. You have the choice of keeping the mug or returning it to retrieve your deposit.
Note: Cash is king at these markets, so make sure you have a good supply. You'll find plenty of ATM machines around the city. Use of bathrooms, as in most of Europe, is not free. Even shops can make a charge of 50 cents to €1 to use their facilities.
Take A Walk
Large parts of the city are pedestrianised, so it's easy to get around. If you enjoy shopping then Schildergasse, Cologne's best known city centre shopping, and Germany’s largest shopping street with 1 mile of shops, you will find shopping for anything- anything- from department stores to small independents and the usual chains found across Europe, satisfying.
The Rhine river runs through Cologne. There are paths you can follow to get you away from the tourist areas. We walked from the Hohenzollern Bridge, (which is where trains cross the Rhine – it's also known as the Love Lock Bridge, where thousands of tourists and locals have affixed locks as a sign of love and commitment, throwing the keys into the river. Hopefully the bridge can continue to hold the weight!). Walking across the bridge will take you to a viewing platform giving views back across to the cathedral and Altstadt.
We stayed on the cathedral side of the river continuing on to the Harbour where we found another Christmas market! It's a pleasant walk, taking you past some of the boats offering day trips along parts of the Rhine, one hour sightseeing tours from around €10, the colourful buildings of the Altstadt, cafes, bars and restaurants. During non-Christmas market season, these walks are pleasant, straightforward, and unhurried.
Walking to the middle of Deutz Bridge will give you another great spot to take photographs of the cathedral towers, Altstadt and Hohenzollern Bridge.
Cologne has plenty of parks and open spaces to walk through. The Stadt Garden is one of them, with the planting of 50 species of exotic trees and shrubs, a vibrant music venue and restaurant, so you spoiled for choice on entertainment options.
If you base yourself in the city, sometimes it's nice to escape the crowds. The number 1 Line for the U-Bahn from Neumarkt, or Heumarkt stations, in the direction of Bensburg, will take you out to Lustheide station, where you will find the forest I mention earlier. The train fare is €2.90 for a single ticket. Get off at Lustheide, when departing from the train turn left to the end of the platform, then right onto Vurfels, walk to the end and turn left onto In der Auen. At the traffic junction you will see a Lidl store, cross at the lights and go the the left of Lidl, at end of the parking lot turn right onto Flehbachmulenweg, this will lead you up to a path to a short subway that goes under the highway, bringing you up into the forest. The trails are marked – follow A2 to take you out the wild pigs enclosure and deer. You can make this walk last for about 1.5 hours if you follow it all the way around. If you feel the need for refreshment after that, you will find Nostos restaurant on In der Auen for a drink or something to eat.
Cologne's beer is Kölsch, a light, crisp beer that is served in a special glass. Every Brauhaus (Brewery)
makes their own version, with at least 180 different versions you have a good choice. We tried Gaffel at Gaffel am Dom, a Brauhaus just steps from the cathedral. It gets busy with locals and visitors alike. You can get a Business Lunch special for around €7. We tried schnitzel with fries and herb mushrooms and can highly recommend it! If you are drinking Kolsch servers will bring more until you put a coaster on top of your glass. They also use the coaster to mark how many glasses you've had. Fruh was another Kölsch we recommend.
Visit a Museum
There are plenty to choose from, the Roman-German Museum, Fragrance Museum and Museum of Applied Art being a few. We went to the Schokoladenmuseum (Chocolate Museum), located in the Harbour area. This is one of Cologne's top attractions, but we needed to go! To skip the line and avoid the lines book in advance, tickets are from 10 Euros.
These are just a few of the things we tried in Cologne. We hope it inspires you to visit and helps you make your own itinerary.