We visited the beautiful and storied city of Cologne on two different weekends. The first time, the sun was out in full force and so were the crowds. It was a bit overwhelming and we ended up dizzy and thirsty from all the heat. On the second occasion, it was cloudy and windy and Cologne (or Köln in German) seemed a lot more romantic.
The city is world-famous for its cathedral and colognes and both feature on our list of top free things to do in Cologne. But there are many more hidden gems worth exploring – a botanical garden, medieval gates and edgy street art to mention a few. Here’s what you can do over 48 hours in Cologne:
1. Visit the Cologne Cathedral
Between 1880 and 1884, the Dom, located right outside the train station of its name, was the tallest structure in the world. The church interiors are lovely, with many chambers to be explored, but we were most impressed by its external architecture. Take a slow walk around the cathedral and marvel at the intricate detailing of every side. Entry is free.
2. Explore the Old Town
The streets and fountains of Cologne’s Old Town or Altstadt are charming, with their stone sculptures and colourful edifices. Of special interest is the beautiful Rathaus (City Hall) at the Alter Markt (Old Square). A wedding had just been solemnised when we arrived there. Nearby, a band drummed up an impromptu performance much to the merriment of weekend diners who obliged by twirling to the music!
3. Walk across Deutzer Brucke and Admire the View on the Other Side
The Deutzer Brucke offers the best panorama of Cologne’s Altstadt. It’s also perfect for ship-gazing on a windy day. It was hard to walk across the bridge without pausing every few seconds for a picture! Time your visit during sunset for stunning views.
4. Walk across Hohenzollern Bridge and Celebrate Love
The Hohenzollern bridge is very close to the cathedral. From here, you can gaze at seabirds and boats and most importantly, browse through the various love padlocks. If you want to leave behind your own, finding space could be an issue!
5. Enjoy nature at Flora Botanischer Garten
This is a hidden treasure that doesn’t come up in Cologne travel guides often. The garden is spread over 11.5 hectares and adjoins the zoo. Around 10,000 species of plants, leafy pathways, ponds and a tropical greenhouse invite you to immerse yourself in nature. You can also enjoy some food and drink at the restaurant at the historical Flora building.
6. Gawk at the Medieval Gates
Cologne has so much history, and the best way to walk through the ages is to make your way to its medieval gates and walls. At Rudolfplatz, the 13th century Hahnentorburg is quite well-preserved. Other notable sites include Eigelsteintorburg, Severinstorburg and Ulrepforte. As you run your hands across those ancient stones, remember that the city was founded almost 2000 years ago by the Romans.
7. Try some Cologne (and maybe buy some too)
4711 is known to be the ‘original’ Eau de Cologne and it’s sold at the shop of the same name near Schildergasse. You can try some heavenly-smelling cologne before purchasing one, if you’re so inclined. There’s also a precious tapestry in the shop, depicting the moment when the original cologne factory got the number 4711.
8. Catch your Breath at the Rhine Promenade
The Rhine promenade is delightful on both sides of the river. But the cathedral side is obviously busier (with better restaurants too), while crossing over allows you to enjoy a quieter time by the riverside. We’d recommend exploring the Old Town and then crossing across the Deutzer Brucke to the other side for some relaxation.
9. Go Jogging or have a Nap at Rheinpark
In Germany, there’s always a park surrounding the Rhine and Cologne is no exception. When we were there, a marathon was in full flow and we couldn’t explore all parts of the park. But we did enjoy lying on the lawn and watching the runners go by.
10. Feast on Street Art at Ehrenfeld
Enormous murals cover the walls around the Ehrenfeld train station. World-famous street artists as well as local talents find space on the colourful walls. We’ve still not ticked this one off our list but we definitely plan to do so!
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