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.
The Ring begins at Chlodwigplatz and ends at Ebertplatz, following the contours of the old city wall. It forms a giant semi-circle around the center of town and supplies one with ample sources of amusement. You could spend months just going from place to place along this road without getting bored. This guide follows the Ring from South to North through the various quarters, then further out to Nippes and Ehrenfeld.
The center of the Südstadt is Chlodwigplatz, and a network of streets and lanes extends from it, hiding a multitude of bars and theaters. Good drinks can be found at the Fiffi Bar . The Südstadt is also a good part of town if you like rock music. In addition this quarter has plenty of bars for gays and lesbians. During Karneval , the Südstadt goes wild, but otherwise it is usually pretty mellow. There is plenty of theater on offer, notably the Theater am Sachsenring and the Theater der Keller .
Cologne's main student hang-out is found around Barbarossaplatz and Zülpicher Platz. Masses of bars and pubs are located here, and it is hard to decide where to leave your money. There are also plenty of good clubs in the area like Prime Club and MTC for rock fans. Bars like the Blue Shell and Stereo Wonderland are located close together and ideal for part of a bar crawl. Rathenauplatz is surrounded by many good cafes and bars including Jonny Turista and the Vampire .
The Hohenzollernring is another busy area for bars. It is also home to many bistros and restaurants, and excels in inexpensive Italian cuisine. Quite a few Mexican restaurants can be found near here, such as Poco Loco . Joe Champs is also worth a mention, for American and sports bar fans. After a filling dinner, head over to the UFA Palast Kino Center to catch a flick.
One cocktail bar after another. You won't stay thirsty for long in the Friesenviertel. With an emphasis on elegance, there is a tendency towards slightly more expensive restaurant-bars such as Heising und Adelmann , as well as stylishly decorated scene bars. Media-types and artists seem to congregate around Friesenstraße.
The best way to find the Belgian Quarter is from Rudolfplatz. The names of the streets will let you know you're in the right place. This is an interesting part of Cologne with attractive old buildings and expensive apartments. Many bars and restaurants have made this their home, hoping to bring in the media crowd. Easy listening sounds and the feel of the '60s are to be found at Hallmackenreuther . The Six Pack draws in crowds from among Cologne's music scene, while the M20 normally offers excellent DJs.
The closer you get to Ebertplatz, the more sparse the bars, but there are still a few gems to be found, like the classic Elektra , Cafe Spitz and Cafe Schmitz . Some of the best cinemas in town are also located here. The Metropolis , offering English language films, the arty Filmhaus , the massive Cinedom and the tiny Filmpalette .
Nippes isn't quite so central, but still has a lot to offer. The Kantine is found here, as well as various bars; Rosenrot and the Froschkönig , to name but a few. Those who make the short journey from Ebertplatz will be pleasantly surprised.
Lots of students live in this area. What was once a bit run down has since been revived as an area of cultural activity. Lots of bars and cafes can be found in the side streets off the long Venloer Straße, which runs right through Ehrenfeld. Cafe Sehnsucht is a well-loved place for Sunday Frühstück-breakfast. The area around Herbrands with the Cinenova cinema and cafe offers a full program of events. Ehrenfeld's live music venues, Underground and the Live Music Hall can be found further down towards Gürtel. If you turn right at the corner of Venloer Straße / Gürtel you will come to the Artheater . Besides being a theater, it also offers art, readings and a club with various theme nights.
Cologne is not a beautiful city in the classic sense, wide streets and outstanding architecture are scarce, except of course, in the case of the cathedral. What makes Cologne interesting and attractive is its denseness. It is not very hard to explore the different areas of the city in one morning. At the same time, Cologne is also a young city and its charm is partly due to the diversity of ethnic groups calling it their home. This is also reflected in the variety of restaurants - culinarily speaking almost every country of the world is represented here. The influence of a young clientèle and students have, however, had the most pronounced effect in forming the gastro-landscape of the city. Therefore, the dominant form of entertainment is not only at restaurants but also bars and coffee shops.
Even though the nightlife areas are situated close together, each has its own atmosphere and clientèle. The focal point of Cologne's nightly entertainment used to be the South of the city, but has gradually shifted to the center and now the North, around the Ebertplatz, has gained the upper hand in nightly entertainment. The majority of new restaurants and bars in this area have no cause for complaint as far as volume of custom goes; however, this development does not mean the veteran areas have now fallen by the wayside, they may just be a bit quieter nowadays.
This area around the Chlodwigplatz, still has a certain appeal - although not necessarily for wild nightlife. A lot of good restaurants are located in this area. The well-established La Patata on Alteburgerstraße is as popular now as it ever was. The Galestro , star of Cologne's pasta universe, can still hold its own.
Student life rules around Zülpicherplatz. Along Zülpicherstraße the glittering array of bars is only interrupted by a few snack bars. Just a side street away from this backbone of student nightlife, is a downtown oasis of culinary delights.
This area, between Rudolfplatz und Friesenplatz, becomes the playing field of media folks after dusk, artists and those who are on their way to becoming one or the other. By day a rather peaceful neighborhood with coffee shops and galleries, by night it becomes a veritable Eldorado for restaurant enthusiasts and clubber. Even though the interesting part of Friesenstraße is only 200 meters (656 feet) long, you will find everything you need for a night well spent: Sushi , Tapas , Kölsch and beautiful people, the latter can be frequently encountered at places such as Arkadia . The Stadtgarten is the place for small but high quality concerts and boasts the most popular downtown beer garden.
This marks the northern point of the semi-circle that forms downtown Cologne. If you are looking for proof of this area's trendiness then pay Elektra a visit. The Bosporus on Weidengasse is synonymous with excellent Turkish cuisine, however this area offers plenty of other opportunities to get a great Turkish meal in any one of the many snack bars.
Otherwise this area is not really blessed with good restaurants, but it is home to both Anders and Zeit der Kirschen .
This is another blue-collar neighborhood, which accommodates the Zum Kornbrenner —a great place to get to know the locals and a genuine traditional Kneipen. In addition to the aforementioned Turkish restaurant at Weidengasse, the Merhaba also offers perfectly executed modern Turkish cuisine.
What Cologne lacks in terms of grandeur, it makes up for in its charm and zest for living.
Kölner Dom & Altstadt
Any visitor to Cologne should definitely take the time to explore the Altstadt (Old Town). There are still many old houses and lanes, and reminders of the city's long history. Starting from the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), walk across Roncalliplatz, with the Römisch-Germanische Museum to the left. Across the square you'll see Früh am Dom and the Heinzelmännchenbrunnen . Make your way down the Hafenstraße, which leads from Roncalliplatz to the Philharmonie . The huge cobblestones are from the Roman era. Go straight on and you'll come to the Alter Markt . The old marketplace is lined with cafes and pubs—particularly pleasant in summer. On the eleventh day of the eleventh month of each year, crowds gather here to Ring in the Karneval. In the middle of the square is the Jan-von-Werth Fountain . Only a few of the buildings have actually been standing since the Middle Ages. One of them, the house Zur Brezel zum Dorn , was constructed in 1580. Stop into at least one of the traditional Kölsch pubs, which are an essential part of the Altstadt experience!
Altes Rathaus & Rheinpromenade
Before exploring the many narrow lanes that lead down to the Rhine , climb the stairs to the Alte Rathaus, the old city hall. In front of the Rathaus is the Mikwe , the Jewish baths, which have been excavated and can be viewed through the glass pyramid. Now make your way toward the Martinsviertel. The quarter surrounding the church of St. Martin is home to plenty of romantic small streets. Many a charming little corner is waiting to be discovered near the Salzgasse, Rote-Funken-Plätzchen, the Buttermarkt and the Fischmarkt . Emerging from the network of tiny streets, you'll appreciate the panorama of the Rhine promenade. It's worth walking across the river on the Deutzer Brücke—the bridge provides the best view of the old houses and the magnificent Dom.
Rheinseilbahn & Rheinpark
The prelude is a ride with the Rheinseilbahn from its station at the Riehler Straße, best reached with the U-Bahn lines 15 and 16 to Zoo/Flora, to Mühlheim on the other side of the Rhine. When the weather is good, the view over Cologne from out of the little gondolas is breathtaking and one of the most beautiful point of views on the old part of the town and the cathedral. Next to the cable railway is the Claudius Therme . This wellness bath is fed by thermal waters, providing everything from sauna to mudbaths. Now relaxed, follow the Rhine upstream through the Rheinpark , the green lung of Cologne on the right hand side of the River and an eldorado for rollerbladers and joggers, to the Rheinterrassen. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the 1950s but especially on the weekends, when a mixed crowd can be found enjoying the unique view of Cologne's skyline. For about EUR 1 per person the ferry will take you from the Rheinterrassen to the promenade on the left hand side of the Rhine, just below the cathedral. The Schokoladenmuseum is located on a small peninsula, about 30 minutes from the pier. Sponsored by the Stollwerck company, a local manufacturer of fine chocolates since 1839, the museum is a paradise for the chocolate enthusiast.
Hohe Straße & Hahnentor
Apostelnstraße, Ehrenstraße, Friesenwall and Mittelstraße are forming the round course for fastidious shoppers in Cologne. A little bit off the racket of the Schildergasse/ Hohe Straße pedestrian zone, this mecca for the trend setter offers a variety of designer stores and little boutiques, interrupted only by strategically well-situated coffee shops and restaurants. St. Aposteln at Neumarkt, one of the twelve great Roman churches in Cologne, marks the starting point for the beginning of the tour. Make a stop at Gummi Grün. This store—for generations now—sells everything somehow related to rubber. It's one of a few stores along the way that are typical for Cologne. The Kunstkaufhaus features works of established and young artists. The Buchhandlung König, at the corner of Apostelnstraße und Breite Straße, is well know as the best address for sophisticated and hard-to-find books. The Broadway awaits you for a relaxing coffee break. This small movie theater offers the best view on the trendy and beautiful crowd of the Ehrenstraße. Whereby the Ehrenstraße serves the mid-prize category and the parallel Mittelstraße features more precious labels such as Gucci, Fogal, Versace, Armani etc. Before turning left at the end of the Ehrenstraße you should follow your nose into the Käsehaus Wingenfeld . It's the last of the three aforementioned out-of-place stores. Continue towards the Friesenwall and the Hahnentor . It was built in the 13th century and is one of Cologne's oldest city gates. It used to be, and in a way still is, the main entrance for Cologne merchants.