For centuries COLOGNE was the German metropolis. The city's origins are Roman: the Emperor Claudius's fourth wife Agrippina – Nero's mother – was born here, and after their marriage he raised the city to Colonia status, from which it derives its name. Later, while upstarts like Munich or Berlin were still a twinkle in the eye of their founders, early medieval Cologne was the largest city north of the Alps, ruled by powerful archbishops and benefiting economically from its strategic location astride the Rhine.
This illustrious history has left its mark. Cologne may not be the most beautiful big city in Germany – it was visited too early and too often by the RAF during World War II for that – but it has a unique architectural inheritance which creates a powerful sense of historical continuity. Above all it is the cathedral, one of the most famous and instantly recognizable religious buildings on the planet, that Cologne is identified with. The city also has a highly developed sense of its own distinctiveness, expressed through the strong Kölsch dialect, the beer of the same name, and a fun-loving approach to life most apparent during Karneval. Though its museums and galleries are first-rate, there's nothing museum-like about Germany's fourth city: it's the nation's television centre, with four stations based here, and is also – despite rivalry from Berlin – still an important centre for the art world, with small commercial galleries peppering the inner city.
The local tourist office's slogan Köln ist ein Gefühl ("Cologne is a Feeling") neatly sums up the city's appeal. You could tick off its sights over the course of a long weekend or so, but if you want to discover how multi-faceted, trendy, fascinating and downright enjoyable this marvellous city really is, you need to get away from the river and the tourist haunts and explore some of the city's quarters where the locals actually live.