The Perfect Weekend in Cologne

A photo of Cologne cathedral across the Rhine


The city of Cologne (Köln in German) brings to mind two things immediately – the magnificent cathedral, and its legendary Christmas markets. But a whole trove of other treasures to see and experience awaits at any time of the year – more than you can fit into just one perfect weekend in Cologne, but we tried! To truly appreciate the layers of history and art across the millennia, you need a quick recap of the city’s timeline. Let’s dive in to this very short and to-the-point history!

Cologne History in a Nutshell

Roman and Frankish

In 50 AD, the Romans arrived, expanding their empire and transforming the settlement into “Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium,” named after Agrippina, mother of Emperor Claudius. (You can see why “Cologne” stuck. It’s a lot easier to remember!)

By the 5th century, the Roman empire was in decline and the Franks took over. By the 10th century Cologne had grown into a powerful religious and commercial center. Magnificent Romanesque churches were built which you can still visit today.

High Middle Ages and Reformation

The High Middle Ages was really Cologne’s time to shine. The city joined the “Hanseatic League” a confederation of trading cities, becoming a true hub for international trade. The wealth of the city poured into the most magnificent project it had ever seen – the Cologne Cathedral. It took six centuries to complete.

Architectural plan of Cologne Cathedral

Then came the reformation in the 16th century, along with massive religious and political turmoil. Cologne was staunchly Catholic, which isolated it from other growing Protestant powers, and eventually caused a downturn in trade and influence.

French Revolution and Napoleon

An etching of Cologne cathedral in the building process, by Johann Paul Josef Ritter in 1806

In 1794, French revolutionary forces occupied Cologne, secularizing its ecclesiastical lands and abolishing its free imperial city status. Napoleon’s wars further disrupted trade and stability. Then in 1815, Prussia annexed it and a new era of industrialization began. Locomotive production and its status as a critical shipping port on the Rhine brought Cologne renown.

World War II and Reconstruction

Cologne Germany after the Allied bombing raids of World War II
Cologne after the bombing raids of World War II

And as you can imagine, any city which is a manufacturing and trade center was a prime target for the Allies in World War II. Most of the Medieval city which hadn’t already been destroyed in the name of industrial expansion fell prey to devastating bombing raids. Cologne suffered the most damage of the war with 90% of the historic city center turned to rubble. Remarkably the cathedral, though heavily damaged, survived.

A remarkable post-war reconstruction effort has put the city back together. While it’s true that the overall Medieval character is all but lost, there are many buildings including the massive cathedral that managed to spring back to life. That’s a lot going on – even over a span of 2000 years.

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The Perfect Weekend in Cologne – Friday night to Monday morning

Travel by train is easy, no matter where in Europe you’re coming from. Just like in the old days, lots of train traffic moves in and out of the city! But we brought our dog, who has more luggage than either of us, so car travel was the much easier option for our weekend in Cologne.

The main train station in Cologne
Cologne’s bustling train station in the heart of the city

Wasserturm Hilton Hotel

We arrived in Cologne Friday night, and checked into the Wasserturm Hilton Hotel. As the name in German suggests, it is in fact an old restored water tower! I wrote a whole review of our experience HERE. We enjoyed a late dinner and drinks at the Bar Botanik, the hotel’s rooftop bar, taking in the views of the city. We even spotted the cathedral (how can you miss it) which whetted our appetite for our first stop in the morning!

Exploring the area

Up bright and early, we took Helga for a walk in the area around the hotel and let her sniff to her heart’s content. During our walks with her, we discovered some interesting things nearby. There were even several segments of the old Roman wall just a block away.

We also found several old buildings that had survived the war, with the year of construction indicated with metal numbers on the front. These gave a tantalizing glimpse at what the old city must have looked like.

On a very somber note, we came across many stolpersteine (stumbling stones) which are bronze markers commemorating a person’s last-known place of residency before they fell victim to the Nazi regime of terror. There are more than 100,000 of these markers across Europe making the Stolpersteine Project the largest decentralized memorial in the world.

Most of the markers commemorate Jews who were taken from their homes and deported to concentration camps. But there are others for the Roma, LGBT people, the handicapped or mentally challenged who met the same fate. Whenever I see them in my travels, I always stop and read the names. Often I take a picture and try to learn a little about the people later.

These stones memorialize Lieber and Hudie (Weiselberg) Geppert, Polish Jews who lived in Cologne, and fled from persecution to France. But in 1943 after the Nazis gained control of the south of France, the Gepperts were deported and murdered at the infamous Auschwitz death camp.

The “Polenaktion” (Poland Action) mentioned in the engraving refers to a series of mass deportations of Polish Jews to Nazi-occupied Poland. The deportations were carried out by the Gestapo and the SS, whose headquarters is now a museum you can visit. You can read the Gepperts’ biography HERE.

Stolpersteine memorial plaques honoring the lives of Lieber and Hudie Geppert in Cologne

Shops!

After a big breakfast at the hotel buffet, it was off to see the most visited site in Germany – Cologne cathedral! We took a little while to appreciate all the shops along the way.

Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom)

As much as I had read about it, nothing prepared me for the absolute enormity of Cologne cathedral. When we approached it, I had a feeling of unreality. The massive structure took my breath away, honestly.

This epic undertaking took more than 600 years to complete, and suffered 14 rounds of bomb damage during WWII. Generations upon generations of stonemasons and other craftspeople toiled their whole lives, knowing they would never see the project to completion. Now, more than six million people walk through its doors each year and it is the most visited tourist destination in Germany. Cologne cathedral is a wonder from its oldest parts to its 20th century fixes.

There is no charge to get in, but there is definitely a line. It was long when we arrived, but it moved fairly quickly. And it was not a boring line. It gives you a chance to absorb the enormity of the building, and really look at the sculptures and architecture, from the incredible doors to the soaring spires. I was still making new discoveries when it was time to enter.

The cathedral exceeded my expectations, which I didn’t think was possible. The huge soaring vaults, the enormity of the space, the numerous chapels, the paintings and sculptures, the ancient things and the modern. And the most impressive, of course is the massive golden reliquary of the three kings that is reported to hold relics of Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar. This is the reason the cathedral was built – a spectacular building to hold one of the most impressive and important collection of relics known.

And keep in mind, when you hear the bells toll that the bell known locally as “Fat Peter” is the heaviest swinging bell in the world!

Admission: About $7 per adult

The Cathedral Treasury

The cathedral’s treasury houses a collection of secular artifacts discovered near the site, and a wide array of religious religious artifacts. Many of these are still in use today. You can feast your eyes on intricately crafted medieval reliquaries, ornate chalices, religious vestments spun of cloth containing silver and gold that is half a millenia old!

Despite a misleading sign inside the cathedral pointing to “Treasury” which leads you into a room with a locked door, the entrance to the treasury can only be accessed from outside the building. We figured this out only after asking someone, and a good five minutes of thinking it was closed!

There is next to no signage, even on the outside. We finally figured it out because we saw an open door with someone official-looking standing by it. Sure enough, that was it! They do have a security protocol, so they will need to look in your bag. My husband had a pocket knife and the security guard kept it in a bin and gave us a numbered tag to reclaim it when we were done.

Admission: About $5 per adult, and most of the signage is in English as well as German.

Old Roman gate

The double spires of Cologne Cathedral in the rear and an ancient roman arched gate in the forefront

As you leave (or approach) the cathedral you’ll notice the ruins of an old stone archway. This is an old Roman gate! Learning a bit about the history of the city before you go will really help you appreciate moments like this where monumental remnants of history collide.

Keep your eye out for Roman ruins all over the city. We saw several arches, bits of wall, and parts of old sewage systems and aqueducts on random street corners.

Walk to Früh Brauhaus and drink Kölsch by the Heinzelmännchenbrunnen

That may be the most German headline ever. Translated, it means that after the cathedral and treasury, head to the famous historic Früh Brewery, and enjoy a traditional beer from Cologne next to a fountain covered with gnomes!

Founded in 1904, Früh serves authentic Kölsch beer, a pale, top-fermented beer that holds an important place in Cologne’s history and cultural heritage. To be called Kölsch, the beer must be brewed within 31 miles of the city of Cologne and overseen according to strict conventions by the Cologne Brewery Association.

Yes, Germans take their beer and brewing very seriously! So, when in Cologne, do as the locals! I’m not a huge beer drinker, but I found this one to be absolutely delicious.

The glasses may look small, but eagle-eyed servers notice as soon as you finish one, and they’re back to give you a refill. They keep track of how many glasses you drink by making marks on one of the coasters. We had six total, in case you were wondering! You can also order traditional German dishes and bar food from the menu. Inside is quaint, cozy, and rustic, and the outdoor seating area is large with festive red umbrellas.

And as for the Heinzelmännchenbrunnen, check it out as you leave. The fountain sits right next door, covered with little gnome-like creatures performing various tasks like brewing beer, or preparing wild game. It has kind of a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves vibe. Supposedly, these little house gnomes used to perform household tasks during the night for the citizens of Cologne. Now why can’t I bring one of them home as a souvenir?!

The story goes that the tailor’s wife wanted to see the mysterious Heinzelmänchen so badly that she scattered dried peas on the floor so they would slip and fall. I’m not sure I get why the peas, but apparently they were so incensed that they never returned and now everyone in Cologne has to do their own chores.

Merzenich Bakery – what’s a weekend in Cologne without a sweet pretzel?

With all that beer in us, we stopped off at this fabulous bakery to sample some local delights and get something on our stomachs. We shared a sweet pretzel with almond slivers, and some kind of amazing sticky whatever this was!

Closed for Renovation

*Roman-Germanic Museum (Römisch-Germanisches Museum): The Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne is a treasure trove of artifacts and exhibits that delve into the city’s rich Roman history, including the famous Dionysus mosaic made of uncountable fragments of glass, stone, and ceramic. The mosaic was once part of a Roman villa which was discovered in 1941 while digging an air raid shelter.

Because of the size and complexity of the mosaic, moving it was not an option, so the museum was built around it!  It remains where it was created around 220 or 230 A.D. Unfortunately the famous mosaic and most of the collection cannot be viewed because the museum is closed for extensive renovations. From what I can tell, it should reopen after 5 years of renovation in 2024 or 2025. In the meantime, some of the items can be seen at the Belgian House at 46 Cäcilienstrasse, which is a 15-minute walk. And as soon as the museum reopens, I’m planning a trip back!

*Jewish Museum of Cologne (Jüdisches Museum Köln): The Jewish Museum of Cologne stands as a testament to the city’s Jewish heritage and contributions throughout its history. Located in the historic district right near the Roman museum, exhibits cover various aspects of Jewish life, culture, and history, with a focus on the impact of the Holocaust and the resilience of the Jewish community. However… you guessed it, it’s also closed because of extensive renovation. As frustrating as this is, it’s going to be absolutely spectacular when the whole area comes together.

Cologne Town Hall (Kölner Rathaus)

The Cologne Town Hall is a glorious focal point in the central market square. Again, renovations were happening when we were there, so we couldn’t see the entire facade. It is impressive, though, adorned with dozens of intricately carved sculptures. And if you happen to be there at 9am, noon, 3pm, or 6pm, this guy will stick his tongue out when the bell chimes!

The original building dates back to the 15th century, but many of the sculptures were destroyed during the war. After careful reconstruction, you wouldn’t know that only 5 are original. Cologne’s craftspeople clearly have not lost their talent! It is still a functioning government building, but you can pop inside when it’s open and explore.

The Notorious Kallendresser

The infamous kallendresser sculpture of Cologne moons city hall from a building across the street

And speaking of reconstructed sculptures, the “Kallendresser” is one of the most notorious and amusing ones in Cologne. “Kallendresser” means… wait for it… “one who poops down the pipe” and it’s not on the Rathaus, but the business end is pointed directly at it.

There are several interpretations, but the best two include citizens who were not happy with the local government sending a direct message to city hall, and a trumpeter who got tired of the townspeople telling him not to practice, so he took revenge on the neighbor’s roof. The one you see today at Alter Markt 24 is a reproduction of the original from the 17th century which was destroyed during the war. Cologne and it’s unique sense of humor apparently couldn’t live without the pipe pooper!

The Pokéball Fountain (the Jan von Werth fountain)

In the center of the Alter Markt is a large fountain. Ok, it’s not technically called the Pokéball fountain. It’s the Jan von Werth fountain which was built in 1884. The legend goes that Jan von Werth, a servant tried to court a girl named Griet who was above his station and wanted nothing to do with a lowly servant.

Von Werth goes off to fight in the 30 Years War and through courage and valor ends up being a successful equestrian general. When he returns home to much fanfare in the streets, they meet again. Griet basically says “Well, how was I to know you’d be a successful general?” and he gets on his horse and rides away.

But look at the base of the fountain! If that’s not a 150-year old pokéball, I don’t know what is! If you are a fan, or have kids who are, you should definitely find this. Maybe don’t tell them it’s there and just see what they do.

After a good long wander in the Old Town, it was time for dinner. Our walk took us back past the cathedral which was glorious at the “blue hour.”

Cologne cathedral in the blue hour

Wartesaal am Dom

This restaurant was really a treat – not only because of the excellent food and service, but for its history! You can find it nestled right under the railroad tracks that lead to the central railway station nearby. The building that the restaurant occupies used to be the waiting room for the station! I have no idea how something so close to the train station survived the bombing, but there it is.

The atmosphere is beautiful, and if you are seated by the windows you have a full-on cathedral view that will knock your socks off.

A map showing the relationship between the Cologne cathedral and Wasertaal am Dom restaurant
Here’s a map that may help. It was a little tricky to spot!

You can book at Open Table online ahead of time so you don’t miss out. Reservations are a must, especially during busy season.

After dinner, we did a slow amble back to the hotel and passed out!

The Chocolate Museum (Schokoladenmuseum) – a definite highlight of the weekend!

Sunday morning we headed off to the Chocolate Museum, situated on the bank of the Rhine. This place will take you on a crazy unforgettable cocoa-fueled ride to bliss! You start on an immersive journey through the history of chocolate. They cover it all, from its ancient origins, to the ecosystems necessary to grow cacao, to the importance of sustainability, to modern production methods, and more.

And yes, there’s a whole Willy Wonka thing going on at the end with vats of melted chocolate, a robot that delivers you your own tiny Lindt bar at the push of a button, and actual chocolate production happening right before your eyes! You can even order your own custom chocolate bar just how you like it, for pick-up in about 45 minutes.

We had to have lunch at the café on site! Believe it or not, we had a salad to start, but dessert was – a chocolate fondue! You can choose two types of chocolate and they bring an assortment of things to dip and devour! Too much fun.

Did I mention the gift shop? Because THE GIFT SHOP!

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but this experience was a blast, and an absolute must-do for your weekend in Cologne.

Admission: About $16.00 per adult, and includes a truffle on entry and another treat by the chocolate fountain! You can buy your tickets HERE.

Fragrance Museum (Farina-Haus)

The front of the Farina-Haus fragrance museum in Cologne

If you’re wondering by this point if “eau de Cologne” is from Cologne, wonder no more. Nestled in the heart of the Old Town, about 15 minutes from the Chocolate Museum, the Fragrance Museum, housed in the historic Farina-Haus, offers an olfactory adventure. Founded by Italian perfumer Johann Maria Farina in the 18th century, this museum claims to be the birthplace of eau de Cologne! They have English tours with a period costumed tour guide.

You can learn about the history of perfume-making, see a collection of antique distillation apparatus, enjoy fragrance samples, and visit the recreated workspace of the original perfumer. Admission is about $12 per adult.

They recommend you get tickets well in advance for a reason. Yours truly totally botched the online reservation. I blew it, and we missed the museum because the English tour was sold out when we got there!

The photo above is “our group” going in for their tour, taken while I was pouting on a bench feeling like I’d ruined part of our weekend in Cologne. It tops the list of things to do when we return, but my mistake kind of threw a wrench in our plans for the day. Don’t be me… get your tickets HERE.

So, we found ourselves with a block of time to just wing it and see what we found! Honestly, this can be one of the best parts about visiting any city in Europe. You never know what bit of history is lurking around the corner!

Great St. Martin’s Church

As we walked, we noticed another church dominating a little corner of the skyline with distinctive Romanesque towers. Great St. Martin’s Church turned out to be quite a little historic gem. Dating back to the 12th century, it almost met its end in 1945. It suffered heavy bomb damage, and after much discussion about whether to leave it as a ruin or not, Cologne decided to rebuild. The interior now features beautifully restored vaulted ceilings and gorgeous mosaic floors. Entrance is free, but donations are accepted in a little box by the door.

Tünnes and Schäl

Right near Great St. Martin stand the bronze statues of Tünnes and Schäl pay homage to two iconic figures in the city’s folklore, made popular during local puppet theater in the 1800s. Tünnes, the shorter, rounder one, represents sort of an optimistic but naive country bumpkin. Schäl, the taller thinner one who came along later symbolizes a more pragmatic and shrewd character.

He’s the guy who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, but really isn’t. There’s a storyline where Tünnes walks along the promenade next to the Rhine River. Suddenly he hears a cry, “Help! Help! I can’t swim!” He answers, “You idiot! I can’t swim either but you don’t hear me shouting about it!” The statues, created in the mid-20th century enshrine these two beloved characters in the public space. And rubbing Tünnes’s nose supposedly brings good luck, so don’t forget!

Exploring the towers and old Medieval walls

There were once 12 Medieval city gates in Cologne, but only four remain. So we decided to grab an Uber, cross town, and meander along the path that would take us by these remaining sentries of the old Medieval city.

Old Gestapo headquarters (EL-DE Building)

The former Gestapo Headquarters in Cologne stands as a somber reminder of the city’s dark history during the Nazi era. The Nazi secret police occupied this building which they made the regional headquarters from December, 1935 to March of 1945.

Their function was to keep the population under surveillance and to persecute the political and “racial” opponents of the Nazi regime. The Cologne Gestapo were responsible for the deportation and murder of thousands of people, several hundred of which were shot dead in the building’s inner courtyard.

And ironically, this place of imprisonment, torture, and death managed to be one of the few buildings to survive the war. The prison in the basement is one of the best-preserved Nazi-era detention centers in Germany. It includes hundreds of heartbreaking inscriptions on the walls, and a doorway out to the courtyard where prisoners were executed. It’s definitely an emotional experience.

There is an audioguide available in six languages, including English, which is a must. You could end up spending a couple hours here easily, and if you choose to run through the entire audio guide it takes 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Admission is about $4.50 for adults, and the audioguide is an additional $2.00. They only accept cash.

Ice Bar!

We had a solemn walk to our next location, which was a bit of emotional whiplash. To finish our weekend in Cologne on a happy note, I had booked tickets to The Ice Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like. This would be an absolute delight on a hot July day! There is an outer bar and an inner, much icier bar.

You get 3 drink tokens with your ticket. You redeem one in the outer bar for any drink on the menu. We opted for tropical!

Then you step into a world of sub-zero temperature, -4 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact. The freezer room includes tables, sculptures, and even the glasses made from ice. Guests are provided with coats and gloves at the door.

Your ticket is good for half an hour and two beers, or two shots of schnaps. I opted for the lemon cheesecake schnaps which did not disappoint! We did leave a little before our allotted time was up because I’d taken a bunch of pictures, finished my drinks, and frankly, it was freezing in there!

It was a great way to end the weekend. We headed out for home the next morning, after a good sleep-in, making the most of the incredibly civilized noon checkout time at the hotel.

Left on the Table

Between renovation closures, scheduling errors, and lack of time, there were a lot of things that we didn’t get to see, but hopefully we’ve given you a great place to start when planning your own perfect weekend in Cologne! And I didn’t feel for a minute that we hadn’t filled our time with really cool and interesting things, planned or not!

Here’s what’s on our list to visit next time: The Roman Museum, The Archaeological Zone and Jewish Museum, a brewery tour, the Farina-Haus fragrance museum, and walk the famous Hohenzollern bridge which is covered with tons of “love locks.” I’ll definitely update when we go!

2 thoughts on “The Perfect Weekend in Cologne”

  1. Love this so much! Fantastic history detail, including the sad parts which we strive to never forget or repeat. Gorgeous photos. I appreciate the details such as admission cost.

    • Thank you so much, Susan! Travel anywhere is an emotional rollercoaster if you really stop and take things in. So much to be learned, and much to never forget.

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