10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

Cologne is one of those cities that I didn’t mean to visit but ended up being more interesting than I expected. It doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourist attractions: most people who visit snap a few pictures of the massive cathedral in between switching trains at the international station, conveniently located a stone’s throw away. If you’re a particularly ambitious Cologne tourist, you can climb the ~250 stairs to the tower of this lurking structure that took 400 years to construct.

Cologne Cathedral, Germany

Cologne Cathedral, Germany

You may even walk across the lovelock bridge and snap a few pictures to the other side. But then you’re basically done. As the city was nearly destroyed during the Second World War, there’s very little notable or attractive architecture around town and only a handful of relatively generic museums. But what Cologne lacks in beautiful buildings (even the rathaus (town hall) and the opera are pretty ugly), it makes up for with spirited inhabitants with a strong city identity, different than you’ll find anywhere else in Germany. Do I recommend that you travel far out of your way to see it? Probably not. Even its residents admit that it’s the perfect place to live but not the most exciting city to visit. But if you happen to be in the neighborhood, I do recommend finding a local and talking to the special traditions surrounding this city. If you can’t find someone like Thomas (my host) to enlighten you, here’s a few things I learned about what makes this place unique:

Home of the Gnomes Christmas Market, Cologne, Germany

Home of the Gnomes Christmas Market, Cologne, Germany

1) Gnomes Everywhere!
You’ll notice that the people of Cologne tend to be pretty lazy and legend has it that little house gnomes enabled their slothfulness. Supposedly, the heinzelmännchen used to do all the work of Cologne’s citizens during the day until a tailor’s wife tried to see these gnomes. She spilled peas on the ground to catch them by causing them to slip and fall. The infuriated trolls left and never came back… except to decorate the Christmas markets! Find the fabled fairytale creatures in full-force in the Old City Heimat der Heinzel – the “Home of the Gnomes” Christmas market where they take the ski lift to the top of a rustic beer hall, peek out at skaters sliding around the rink and judging matches of eisstockschiessen (a form of curling).

Downtown Cologne, Germany.  Photo courtesy of Panoroma.

Downtown Cologne, Germany (not so pretty but nice to students). Photo courtesy of Panoroma.

2) It’s Student-Friendly
As home to the University of Cologne, the city has plenty of good bars, restaurants and bookshops to their 80,000 students. I scoured the downtown for a good café with wifi to hang out in and didn’t have much luck because they either didn’t have Internet or looked too fancy (Thomas later reassured me that although they might have linen tablecloths, the people of Cologne don’t judge so I could show up to the Opera in jeans and people won’t blink an eyelash. So the cafes may not be as fancy as they appeared to me). So I didn’t find too many neat spots to curl up downtown but the area near the university (Zulpicher Str. is where I mostly walked up and down) had plenty of cute bookshops, affordable and informal eateries and bars to chose from. Even better, the pubs operate on a student schedule so you’ll find places open until 6 AM even on weekdays. Thomas mentioned one, owned by a 63-year-old woman which is open from 7 PM-4 AM six days a week.

3) You Can Ride Public Transport For Free!
I’ve never been in a city with this policy but inhabitants of Cologne have an automatic guest pass that allows a friend to ride for free: all the time that a citizen accompanies them, if I’m not mistaken. He said for certain hours on the weekend, the guest pass can extend to all your family members. Although this policy still seems a bit bizarre and too good to be true for me, it frees up extra cash that you can spend on beer instead of U-bahn tickets.

Old ROman arch, Cologne, Germany

Old Roman arch, Cologne, Germany

4) Its Past Is Left Up To The Imagination
Cologne was a Roman city, developed in 50 AD, but it has very little visible history left since the Allied Troops killed 95% of the population and destroyed most of the city during WWII. You can walk paths paved by the Romans in “old town” by the river but you need to imagine what Cologne looked like centuries ago. The only remnant of real “history” I found was an arch left over from a Roman gate, near the cathedral.

Lock bridge, Cologne, Germany

Lock bridge, Cologne, Germany

5) It Has a Lock Bridge That Wouldn’t Break
Having recently come from Paris where bridges have begun to break under the weight of “love locks”, when Thomas told me to check out the version in Cologne, I asked him whether the weight of the locks might endanger the structure. He laughed and remarked that a bridge built by Wilhelm doesn’t need to worry about a few locks. So while city officials in Paris are starting to cover their bridges with plastic shields to prevent you from tying your eternal love to their structure, there’s still room for your lock on the main bridge in Cologne!

6) It’s The Birthplace Of Kölsch
Big drinkers should go to Bavaria where they serve strong beer in steins but Cologne’s Kölsch’s help to keep your nights out a little classier. This dainty light beer is served .2 L “chemistry test tubes” and with its low alcohol percentage, you can drink quite a few before you feel it. Thomas warned me that the beer is so light that it tastes like water or piss, but it definitely had more flavor than that. According to the German Purity Law of 1516, a true Kölsch is a top-fermented, light-colored, clear, highly fermented, hoppy full ale and must be brewed in Cologne or the surrounding area. In an authentic brauhaus (brew house), the bartender will automatically refill your glass so be sure to cover your “test tube” with your coaster once you’re finished.

Thomas and I at a beerhaus with kolsh in hand and my Colognian dinner!

Thomas and I at a brauhaus with kolsh in hand and my Colognian dinner!

7) Cologne’s Palace Guards Were Vegetarian
Well, maybe not but Thomas and I stopped at Gaffel am Dom, a famous Kolsch brewery for dinner and Cologne’s signature beverage. Pursuing the German menu of flönz (“Blutwurst” black pudding, a bloody meat stews), bratwurst (which come in serving sizes a half meter long), rheinischer soorbrode (a beef dish with a special sauce of raisins, dumpling and red cabbage) boiled pork knuckle and other items that haunt vegetarians’ nightmares, the “best of Cologne” section included a vegetarian option. Titled “the signature dish of the Palace Guards”, I was able to dine on authentic German (and Cologne) food without meat! This simple dish of potatoes, creamed spinach and fried eggs may not be fancy but it was delicious! Vegetarians can also feast on the typical Cologne dishes of Halver Hahn (a rye roll with Dutch cheese, butter and mustard) and Himmel un Ääd (Heaven and earth: apple pieces (heaven) on mashed potatoes (earth)).

Cologne Pride Parade, Germany.  Photo courtesy of Harold R Cologne.

Cologne Pride Parade, Germany. Photo courtesy of Harold R Cologne.

8) It’s Warmer Than Berlin
Cologne is one of the warmest cities in Germany, both with regards to weather and the culture of its people. I visited in early December so I appreciated having an extra 6-7 degrees Celsius of warmth when temperatures in Berlin were diving below zero. However, the more easy-going and social atmosphere of Cologne’s citizens warmed my spirit even more. Germans, with their practical, uber- efficient mentality, aren’t the most welcoming people to meet on the street however Cologne is regarded for its laid-back, relatively open-minded and social townspeople. It’s the 4th largest city in Germany but it has a small town feel, where everyone knows everyone and different generations drink together. I experienced the small town feel when I bumped into my rideshare driver, as I explored the city (and during the two minutes of bumping into him in the city, he said more words than during the 8 hour car ride and invited me out for beer). Cologne is also Germany’s “gay city”, where having a different sexual orientation is normal. The people of Cologne weren’t overwhelmingly friendly by any means but it feels like a nice, accepting, and laid-back place.

9) The People Of Cologne Love 11/11 too: Carnival Time!
As a more Catholic city, Cologne loves a party and hosts one of the largest street festivals in Europe during Carnival. Cologne kicks off their carnival season at 11 AM on November 11th, when people officially start preparing for the performances and parades. The actual party begins with “Tolle Tage” (crazy days) the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. The city is filled with people in costumes, eating, drinking and dancing until the wee hours of dawn.

10) It’s The Perfect Place For A Sing-Along
Partially because of Carnival, Cologne has thousands of songs unique to the area and its occupants love to sing along. Thomas estimated you would need six hours of continuous singing to deplete the selection of city’s songs.  It’s an indication of how much the people of Cologne love their city and over-the-top, borderline-cheesy gaiety during celebrations.

Song of the Moment: Viva Colonia! De Höhner (One of the most carnival songs)

If YOU want to go to Cologne:  It’s a pretty big international train hub so its not hard to get there!  Maybe try to come during Carnival so there’s something to see?  The Christmas markets are some of the best I’ve seen so far, too.

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