Anyone who’s ever wondered where cologne came from need not worry any more. This type of fragrance is named after Cologne, the German city where it was invented. Germany’s fourth largest city with 1 million residents, was heavily bombed during World War II. As a result, Cologne is a quite modern city, though remnants of its rich history, dating from Roman times, can still be found.
Straddling the banks of the Rhine, this city is one of the most-visited destinations in Germany and there are plenty of great tourist attractions in Cologne, both ancient and new. As well as a colossal cathedral, it has lots of excellent museums, interesting historic sights and top-class eateries to enjoy.
Located in the northwest of Germany, not far from the border of Belgium and the Netherlands, it was founded about 2,000 years ago by the Romans. In Medieval and Renaissance times, Cologne was one of the largest cities in Europe and a valued member of the Hanseatic League. Much of its historical center was sadly destroyed though by fierce bombing during the Second World War.
Pockets of well-preserved buildings still survive here and there however, with Cologne being renowned for its twelve Romanesque churches. Roman ruins, Baroque palaces and the resplendent Rathaus can also be found alongside many art-filled museums.
Now a thriving cultural hub for North Rhine-Westphalia, among the best things to do in Cologne are discovering its magical Christmas Market and fun-filled Karneval. With plenty of cool neighborhoods, stylish pubs and heaving shopping streets to explore, Koln is much more than just its giant cathedral.
Map of Tourist Attractions in Cologne
In this post, we'll cover:
One of the last remaining parts of the city’s once formidable fortifications is the huge Hahnentorburg on Rudolfplatz. Now a nice photo stop, it was through the gate that royal guests used to pass on their way to the cathedral’s Shrine of the Three Kings.
Once numbering twelve in total, the lovely landmark is now one of just four medieval city gates still standing. Renovated and reconstructed after the Second World War, it was originally built in 1235. Nowadays, two crenellated towers guard the gate’s entrance above which Cologne’s coat of arms is proudly displayed.
After snapping some photos, there are tons of restaurants and bars to try around the surrounding square. While we personally found Severinstor way more impressive, the historic Hahnentorburg was undoubtedly the most important in centuries gone by.
Just one of the city’s many scenic cobbled squares is the atmospheric old Heumarkt in the Altstadt. Famed for its massive Christmas Market, it is lined by countless cosy cafes, cool contemporary brewpubs and enticing restaurants from around the world.
Although the spacious square is mostly bordered by modern buildings, a couple have been restored to their picturesque pre-WWII appearance. In its innumerable eateries, you can sit for a coffee, sip Kolsch beers or sample some traditional German fare. At its center, there is also a superb statue to see of the Prussian King Frederick William III atop his horse.
Heumarkt also hosts many of Cologne’s most popular cultural events and community festivals during the year. These include not just its carnival and Christmas Market but Pride too. In addition, it lies just a stone’s throw from the Great St. Martin Church and Cologne City Hall.
21. St. Gereon Basilica
As the city is renowned for its twelve Romanesque churches, you have to see at least a few when in town. Arguably the most unique and interesting is St. Gereon’s Basilica due to its unusual design and decagonal dome.
Actually built atop the ruins of a Roman chapel, its current appearance mostly dates to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As it was slowly erected over different stages, the basilica showcases an intriguing mix of architectural styles. Its defining feature is of course its giant dome which was once one of the largest in the Western world.
Aside from admiring the ten-sided structure, you can inspect its medieval murals and long, charming choir. The church’s striking size, shape and serene atmosphere made it one of the best buildings we saw in Cologne.
If after days of sightseeing you want to kick back, relax and unwind, then Neptunbad is one of the best things to do in Cologne. Lying just a fifteen minute bus journey or car ride northwest of the center, the spa has numerous saunas, steam rooms and pools to enjoy.
The oldest bathhouse in town, it was first opened in 1912 to provide the residents of Ehrenfeld with a place to bathe as people didn’t use to have running water at home. Now a spa, the large complex contains an attractive Art Nouveau area and soothing section inspired by Japanese interior design.
Other than soaking in its steaming pools, you can book massages, spa treatments or work up a sweat at the fitness center. There is also a peaceful outdoor area to hang out in and an outstanding on-site restaurant to try. Remember to take a bathrobe and towel with you as spas in Germany tend to be clothing free.
19. Wallraf-Richartz Museum
Home to an amazing collection of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Impressionist artworks is the wonderful Wallraf-Richartz Museum. Located just around the corner from the city hall, all its dramatic old oeuvres really are extraordinary to examine.
Founded in 1824, the museum’s galleries are largely organized around the priceless pieces bequeathed to the city by Franz Ferdinand Wallraf. Of these, the Gothic works painted by the Cologne-based Stefan Lochner in the fifteenth century are among the most eye-catching. Having never heard of him previously, we were really taken by the gorgeous scenes and bright compositions he created. Highlights for us included both his Madonna of the Rose Bower and The Last Judgement.
Besides these beautiful paintings, its three floors display masterpieces by everyone from Degas and Durer to Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Gogh. With so many arresting art pieces to see, we couldn’t recommend the Wallraf-Richartz Museum enough.
Long a firm favorite with families, Phantasialand has lots of fun rides, rollercoasters and games for everyone to enjoy. The super popular theme park can be reached in half an hour’s drive from Cologne center, just past neighboring Bruhl.
Since opening in 1967, its grounds have expanded considerably with there now being six themed worlds to explore. Each part of the park, whether it is Berlin and Mexico or Fantasy and Mystery, has new attractions, foods and shows to discover. Particularly hair-raising rides are the inverted Black Mamba and steampunk-inspired F.L.Y.
As the rollercoasters are great, the queues aren’t too long and the quality of food and entertainment is so good, Phantasialand is often listed amongst the best theme parks on the planet. Although much smaller than Disneyland, its incredibly detailed worlds and exciting performances make it a must for thrill seekers.
17. Fish Market Square
Overlooked by the ginormous tower of Great St. Martin Church is one of the prettiest squares in town. Lined by loads of colourful old buildings, Fish Market Square offers divine views over the Rhine and its delightful bridges.
Due to its setting alongside the river, it is here that fishermen once sold their catch in centuries gone by. Despite suffering heavy bombing in the Second World War, all its Gothic-style structures miraculously survived, with many now being painted in bright colors. Occupying them are a whole host of top-class restaurants and bars to try.
Aside from enjoying the vibrant atmosphere and snapping some photos of their fine facades, you can gaze out over the peaceful river. To either side are the Deutzer and Hohenzollern bridges with relaxing cruises along the Rhine also departing from here.
16. Christmas Market
Other than carnival, one of the best times to explore Cologne is during its enchanting Christmas Market. For one magical month, hundreds of cute chalet-style stands pack almost all the squares and streets surrounding the cathedral.
One of the largest and most well-done in Europe, the very busy Christmas Market now covers an enormous area. Each section is dedicated to a different theme with the one in Rudolfplatz containing the fun, kids-focused Village of Saint Nicholas. Wherever you end up, you’ll find stalls selling Christmas decorations, hot food and art and crafts from all around Europe.
Visitors can also go ice skating, listen to live music performances or sip some strong, hot gluhwein. Special Advent-related river cruises are also put on while people select presents from the city’s bright shop windows. With everything so colorfully lit up and the colossal cathedral’s spires looming above, Cologne really has one of the biggest and best Christmas Markets around.
15. Cologne City Hall
Certainly one of its most important and impressive buildings, Cologne City Hall lies right in the heart of the Altstadt. Since Medieval times, it has acted as the city’s seat of government with the Lord Mayor’s office still based here.
The oldest city hall in Germany still in use, the Rathaus was built in the twelfth century with its Renaissance-style loggia and Gothic-style tower having only been added later on. Coating their exterior are 130 intricately-detailed sculptures, many of which depict influential figures from throughout the city’s history.
Another highlight is the Hansasaal which hosted Hanseatic League meetings and is decorated with stunning statues of prophets and heroes. Depending on the time, you may hear the 48 bells of the joyful glockenspiel in its tower ringing out over the city.
Travelers who love to shop need to visit Schildergasse, the busiest shopping street in Europe. This pedestrian-only street draws about 15,000 shoppers an hour. Running between Hohe Strasse and Neumarkt, the street dates back to Roman times.
Artists painted coats of arms here during the Middle Ages. Located in central Cologne, the street features numerous department and chain stores, and trendy boutiques, including clothing store inside a glass building that is shaped like a whale.
Shoe stores are especially numerous on Schildergasse . Streets around Schildergasse also offer good shopping.
13. Fragrance Museum
Right next to the Rathaus and Wallraf-Richartz is another fantastic museum to check out all about fragrances. It was here back in the early eighteenth century that Eau de Cologne was invented. Informative and engaging tours now cover the invention of the scent, copycat smells and perfume production over the ages.
The oldest intact fragrance factory in the world, it was established by the Italian-born Johann Maria Farina in 1709. Across several floors, guests can now see replicas of old distilleries and the original cellar vaults where all the sweet-smelling scents were produced.
After inspecting all the artifacts on show and hearing stories about Farina, the factory and fragrance production, you actually smell different samples at the end. You’re also handed a thoughtful freebie and can buy gifts in its stylish shop before heading off.
12. Koelner Zoo
Home to all kinds of exotic animals, birds and reptiles is the outstanding Koelner Zoo. One of the oldest in the country, its spacious enclosures and state-of-the-art exhibits occupy romantic-looking menagerie buildings from the nineteenth century.
Despite having been established in 1860, the zoo is amazingly up-to-date with brand new facilities being added all the time. These modern features have been retrofitted into old buildings such as its Moorish-style elephant house and ornate birdhouse. On show are over 10,000 animals including orangutans, gorillas, lions and hippos. There is also an immense Asian elephant park, big cat enclosure and ape island to explore.
As we feel the animals often appear happier and better looked after in Germany, we often include a trip to a zoo if we can. Koelner Zoo was no exception with the elegant old menagerie buildings being an added bonus. Fun feeding sessions and interesting keeper talks also take place all the time.
11. Chocolate Museum
For those with a sweet tooth, the Cologne Chocolate Museum is an absolute must. In addition to tasting some delicious products, terrific tours explain how cocoa beans eventually become chocolate. Its gigantic, glittering facility occupies the very tip of the Rheinau peninsula in the city center.
Once home to the Stollwerck chocolate factory, its big building was bought by Hans Imhoff and turned into a museum in 1972. Its interactive exhibits explain the craft of chocolate making with antique boxes, molds and wrappers all on display. These take you from its origins in Central America 5,000 years ago right up to the present-day.
Guests can even observe its working production line and design their own chocolate bar too. On top of this, samples are often handed out from its giant, three meter-high chocolate fountain. Tasty treats and gifts can also be bought in its huge on-site shop.
10. Gross St. Martin
Gross St. Martin is one of twelve Romanesque churches in Cologne. Thanks to its massive tower, the church is also one of the most imposing. Were it not for the crosses on top, visitors might easily mistake Gross St. Martin as a medieval castle.
The church is considered one of the best looking buildings in Cologne, and is very popular with tourists. The Romanesque church was built between 1150 and 1250, after a fire destroyed the earlier church.
Restored after being heavily damaged in World War if, Gross St. Martin with its trefoil choir still dominates the skyline in Old Town.
9. 4711 Cologne House
The 4711 Cologne House is undoubtedly the prettiest smelling house in Cologne. Located at Glockengasse no. 4, it is the birthplace and flagship store for the most famous brand of eau de cologne (water from Cologne).
The number 4711 refers to a house number assigned during the French occupation at the end of the eighteenth century. Made since 1792, the original fragrance was known as Echt Kölnisch Wasser.
The same formula is still being used today. The ground floor of the house is home to a store selling the famous perfume. On the first floor is a small museum about the history of Cologne 4711.
8. Trip to Augustusburg Palace in Bruhl
When in town, it is well worth taking a trip to the ostentatious Augustusburg Palace in the nearby Brühl. Home to loads of artistic treasures, its stately apartments, halls and gardens are amazing to amble around. Only accessible on guided tours, it lies twenty minutes south of the center by car or public transport.
Certainly one of the finest Rococo creations in the country, the palace was erected by the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne in 1725. Ornately decorated and furnished, its endless rooms each have their own unique theme and color. The highlight though is undoubtedly its majestic main staircase – probably one of the most spectacular rooms we’ve ever seen.
Once you’ve finally managed to take your eyes off all its phenomenal statues, painted ceiling and colourful pillars, you can explore the lovely landscaped garden outside. A combo ticket also includes a visit to the nearby Falkenlust hunting lodge. Every bit as elegant, it too is sumptuously decorated with historic paintings, statues and furniture.
7. Cologne Cable Car
For some of the best views imaginable of the city, take a relaxing ride on the Cologne Cable Car. Known in German as the Rheinseilbahn, it connects the botanical garden and zoo to the enormous green expanse of Rheinpark.
The first cable car in Europe to cross above a river, it was first unveiled in 1957. It has since proved a popular attraction with locals and tourists alike. Now stretching 930 meters in total, it takes six minutes to get from one side of the Rhine to the other.
From the glass windows of its gondolas, you can drink in delightful views of the river, city and Cologne Cathedral in the distance. Other panorama points include its two towers and the Koeln Triangle building’s lofty observation deck.
6. Botanical Gardens Flora
Full of colourful plants, flowers, trees and shrubs, the Botanical Gardens Flora is an absolute treat to stroll around. Immaculately maintained, its lush grounds and lovely greenhouses cover a huge area on the northeastern outskirts of the center.
Nestled alongside the Koelner Zoo, its almost endless lawns and fetching flowerbeds were first opened to the public in 1863. At its center is a glass and iron-clad orangerie modeled on the famous Crystal Palace in London. This creates a beautiful backdrop as you wander its winding paths past ponds, fountains and pergolas.
Amongst its more than 10,000 plant species are the succulents, cacti and ferns in its four exhibition greenhouses. These hail from all around the world with concerts, talks and flower shows all also being held at the scenic botanical gardens.
5. NS Documentation Centre
A very moving place to visit, the NS Documentation Centre covers all the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Cologne both before and during the Second World War. A memorial site and research facility, the artifacts, exhibits and individual testimonies make for harrowing viewing.
Actually located in the former headquarters of the Gestapo, it was used from 1935 to 1945 to detain, question, torture and kill thousands of the city’s Jewish citizens. From here, the Nazis projected their power and propaganda and organized the horrors of the Holocaust.
Its well-done displays document the rise of national socialism, its impact on Cologne and aftermath once the war was over. Particularly sobering are the jail cells down in the cellar which are covered in inscriptions left behind by unfortunate prisoners. While it is one of the best museums on the tough topic we’ve been to, make sure to pick up an audio guide as not all the exhibits are translated into English.
4. Romisch-Germanisches Museum
The Romisch-Germanisches Museum may be located in a modern building, but its interior contains parts of original Roman facilities, making it an archeological site as well as a repository for ancient artifacts.
The museum was built so as to protect the site of an old Roman villa. A Dionysius mosaic can be found in the basement, while a section of an old Roman road is outside.
The museum’s mission is to protect Cologne’s Roman heritage, which includes not only facilities but also items such as utensils and tools the Romans used in daily living.
3. Museum Ludwig
As it houses one of Europe’s most important modern art collections, Museum Ludwig really is a must for art aficionados. While its many masterpieces by Picasso normally steal the show, there are plenty of paintings, photos and prints by other famed artists to examine.
Lying alongside the cathedral and river, it occupies part of the modern, purpose-built museum complex constructed in the eighties. Named for Peter and Irene Ludwig who donated their collection, its galleries are mostly dedicated to twentieth century works.
Ambling about, you’ll see awesome pop art and expressionist pieces by Andy Warhol and Erich Heckel among others. With cool installations and creative works wherever you look, it’s well worth spending a couple of hours here if you have the time.
2. Hohenzollern Bridge
Of the seven bridges that cross the Rhine River in Cologne, the Hohenzollern Bridge is the most famous thanks to its location near the cathedral. The construction of the original bridge took place from 1907 to 1911.
In 1945, German military engineers blew up the bridge when Allied troops began their assault on Cologne. Just three years later the bridge was partially repaired and in 1959 the Hohenzollernbrücke was completely reconstructed.
Due to its location near Cologne’s main train station about 1200 trains pass here every day. A pedestrian walkway allows visitors to cross the Rhine for a beautiful view of the skyline of Cologne.
1. Cologne Cathedral
Dominating and defining the city and its skyline are the tall towering twin spires of the colossal Cologne Cathedral. Visible for countless kilometers around, the unmissable, iconic landmark boasts some astounding architecture with its enormous interior being every bit as impressive.
One of the tallest cathedrals in the world, its two towers remarkably stand 157 meters in height. While construction of the hulking great Gothic church started in 1248, it was only completed centuries later in 1880. Beneath its soaring roof supported by elegant pillars, you can now find all kinds of glittering treasures and religious artworks.
The most stupendous is of course the Shrine of the Three Kings which is believed to house the remains of the Three Wise Men. Aside from staring at the sparkling golden reliquary, there are stunning stained-glass windows, crucifixes and altars to admire.
If you clamber up the 530 steps of its spiral staircase, you’re rewarded with sweeping views over the city below. Standing at the foot of the cathedral and looking up is just as dazzling as its tall spires seemingly stretch away forever towards the heavens.
Best Time to Visit Cologne
While April to October is the best time both temperature and weatherwise in Cologne, the city also sees vast crowds visit in February and December. This is when exciting Karneval and Christmas celebrations take place; the two biggest events of the year. During this time, its streets, squares and hotels are packed with prices being at their highest.
Summer is of course another lovely time to explore the city as temperatures hover around a reasonably warm 23°C (73°F). Besides strolling about the center and taking boat trips along the Rhine, you can sit and sip Kolsch in its biergartens or relax in its pretty parks.
Spring and autumn are also pleasant though a bit cooler at between 14 to 20°C (57-68°F). The blooming buds and glittering golden foliage paint Cologne in beautiful colours with loads of people still sightseeing around the Altstadt.
With between 14 to 18 days of rainfall each month, Cologne can be rather drizzly at times. During the colder, greyer months though, the colourful parades, costumes and parties for Christmas and Karneval all bring the festive spirit!