For your visit you need a day to explore major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable in many cases, but you may need to use public transport.
Love the cathedral.
On the other hand, aside from key edifices, city’s architecture is largely mid-20th-century plain.
Worthy attractions: Kölner Dom, imposing both on the exterior and the interior.
Left for another visit: Twelve Romanesque churches [did not tour any inside]; Museum Ludwig; Wallraf-Richartz-Museum; Imhoff-Stollwerck-Museum.
Last visit: December 2007.
Köln is primarily worth a visit because of its tremendous cathedral. The city was heavily decimated during the Second World War, and rebuilt in a way that is largely unremarkable. The central part of the city, with its pedestrianized shopping segments, is always booming and full of people; there are also quiet and attractive pockets. On balance, you can find enough sights to support more than a short visit, but in most cases, you will not linger here, unless you come for Ash Wednesday carnival or for Christmas markets.
If you come in December and aim to tour Christmas fairs, you will certainly be rewarded. While many towns in Germany are renowned for their seasonal fairs, Köln is ahead of the pack in that area, hosting several different markets in various parts of town. If you have never been to one, but have imagined what they should look like, you will not be disappointed.
Wooden stalls sell all kinds of souvenirs, trinkets, jewelry, craftwork, toys, clothes, etc. Food stalls interspersed in between vend different combinations of sausages, potato pancakes, waffles, crèpes, pizza, ethnic dishes to satisfy any hunger. Right by food stalls are the ones vending hot fortified wine, glühwein, dispensed in souvenir clay mugs specific to each particular market (you can choose to return your mug for a refund, but very few people – except those who have more than one go at a time – do). There are carousels for the kids, occasional musical performances, and interesting stuff on display to occupy your attention for hours.
The Dom market ♥♥♥ has the benefit of nestling against the monumental Cathedral on a wide square. It is seemingly the biggest and the busiest of them all, although extra space makes it seemingly easiest to navigate as well.
The market on Rudolfplatz ♥♥♥ is, conversely, the smallest. But it is decorated with scenes from various fairy tales, some with moving figurines, which goes very well with children. The location – in front of the old city gate, Nahnentorburg, – gives it additional bona fides.
The Medieval market ♥♥♥ by the Chokoladenmuseum is the only one requiring an entrance fee, which at €2.50 per adult is entirely worth it. The stalls here house artisans who demonstrate their skills in making things traditional way. The food is also less modern, and quite tastier than standard offerings. There are plenty of performances on hand, from troubadours to hand-puppet shows.
The other places – Neumarkt ♥♥, Heumarkt ♥, Alter Markt ♥ – all offer interesting browsing possibilities, but are not as distinct in appearance or ambiance. Nonetheless, you will not be disappointed to stroll around, and walking from one fair to another along streets that are decorated more festively than in many other parts of Europe is certainly a treat.
Things to See
Kölner Dom ♥♥♥ is one of the grandest cathedrals in the world, having had the distinction of being the tallest building in the world in the last part of 19th century, until Washington Monument and then Eiffel Tower were built. It is a true architectural masterpiece and it boasts one of the most vivid stained glass window collections that I have ever seen. The Treasury is worth a look, but you would be wise to skip going up the cathedral tower. The climb is long, laborious and rather uninspiring, and the top view is partially obstructed, never mind that Cologne’s roofline is hardly a matter of awe.
The other architectural attractions of the city are twelve beautiful Romanesque churches, all located within medieval city wall boundaries. On our first visit to the city, we unsuccessfully tried to visit a couple (they tend to be closed on Mondays). The ones most prominently recommended by the tour guides are Groß St Martin, St Pantaleon, St Aposteln, St Gereon, but each one of the twelve reputedly has something to offer.
Shopping area of Schildersgasse and Hohestr. has a large number of fashion and design stores.
There are also a few museums, most notably Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and Imhoff-Stollwerck-Museum (also known as Chokoladenmuseum), none of which we visited.
Places to Eat
The kneipe near the cathedral where we lunched at during our first visit in 2005 has since changed ownership. On our latest visit in December 2007, we mostly subsisted on market offerings and hotel breakfasts, with only one meal at a restaurant. It had a chain feel, a là Friendly’s, but served quite nice food, including some local specialties. More than fine for an unpretentious meal. The place is called Weidenwald, on Hohenzollernring.
It should be noted that Germans have not yet joined civilization and outlawed smoking in public places. You should expect to endure cigarette smoke no matter where you go to eat.
If you are driving into Cologne for a day trip, you will likely be able to find a parking spot at one of the large underground garages in city center. Dom parking is the most convenient.