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Cologne Travel Guide, Germany

Cologne (Köln in German) is the fourth largest city in Germany.

Situated on the Rhine, between Düsseldorf and Bonn, Köln is a destination for cathedral lovers, Karneval partakers, and river cruise passengers.

During World War II, 90% of the inner city was destroyed. As you walk through Cologne, it’s very clear that the city wanted to rebuild quickly. In other words, Cologne isn’t pretty. The beauty of the city isn’t so much in the architecture but in the people.

The citizens of Cologne LOVE their city. We haven’t experienced city pride on this level anywhere else. We lived in Cologne for one year and we can say with much assurance, you won’t understand Cologne until you’ve experienced Karneval. Alaaf!

“Circus Roncalli is everywhere, but in Cologne it’s at home.”  – Bernhard Paul

Interior of Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne
  • State: Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhine-Westphalia)
  • Population: 1.05 Million 
  • Tipping Etiquette: Round up to the nearest 1-3 Euros. Tip in Cash.
  • Water Quality: Cologne’s water is distinctly chalky, but absolutely safe to drink.
  • Public Transit. The KVB (Kölner Verkehrsbetriebe) with its trains and buses tries its best to bring you from A to B within the city. It works, but spend enough time waiting for Cologne transit, and you’ll start to question German stereotypes.
  • Biking. There are many protected bike paths, which makes biking stress-free in Cologne. If you have time to explore via bike, definitely cycle along the Rhine.
  • River Cruises. You can hop on a river cruise and go to other cities on the Rhine (e.g. Düsseldorf).
  • Interesting Fact: The original Eau de Cologne is a perfume created in Cologne in 1709 by the Italian perfume maker Giovanni Maria Farina.
  • Get the Cologne Guidebook: Only in Cologne
  • Get the Germany Guidebooks: Rick Steves Germany Travel Guide and Lonely Planet Germany

Where to Stay in Cologne

Cologne Coat of Arms

Looking for the best place to stay in Cologne? To best explore the city, we recommend staying at one of these accommodations. Each one is located close to public transit and near iconic sites.

Budget | Cologne Downtown Hostel is a budget-friendly accommodation located in Cologne’s city center. It takes 7 to 9 minutes to walk to major destinations like Neumarkt, the Cologne Cathedral, the Cologne Central Station and Heumarkt.

Midrange | 25hours Hotel Koeln The Circle is the most stylish and imaginative hotel in Cologne. Each room features a unique concept. You’ll love the rooftop bar and restaurant. And, the breakfast is fantastic.

Luxury | Excelsior Hotel Ernst occupies the most enviable piece of real estate in Cologne, as it’s situated across from the Dom (Cathedral). Flaunting 5 stars, a Michelin star restaurant, a piano bar and a wellness area, this is the finest place to stay in Cologne for a luxurious getaway.

Look for accommodation in Cologne.

10 Things to Do in Cologne

1. Celebrate Karneval

Rosenmontag, Karneval in Cologne - Winter in Cologne

Karneval in Cologne isn’t just a few days, it’s a whole season. In fact, they call it the 5th Season. It begins on November 11th each year at precisely 11:11 a.m. and it doesn’t end until midnight before Ash Wednesday.

Let’s explain the significance of the number 11. According to legend, Saint Ursula (a British princess) and her companions (ten virgins) set off on a holy pilgrimage to Rome in the fourth century.

On their way back to Britain, they passed through Cologne, which was besieged by the Huns. St. Ursula and her companions refused to bow down to and copulate with the invaders (because of their faith) and were killed.

Their martyrdom is marked on the Cologne Coat of Arms in the form of 11 black tears that look like apostrophes. Later, it became known that it wasn’t 11 virgins, but rather 11,000 who met their ghastly end in Cologne. The bones of these 11,000 virgins are visible in the Basilica church of St. Ursula.

Back to Karneval… During the 5th season, it’s very common to see people in costume, hear Karneval Lieder (songs), and see Karneval Corps troops gathered in public spaces. The main festivities to attend and see are:

Weiberfastnacht (Shrove Thursday).

The official parade on Rosenmontag (Carnival Monday). Parade participants are dressed spectacularly and throw out tons of candy (Kamelle) and flowers to spectators. Bring a huge bag to collect goodies, and be prepared to stand 4 hours.

Nubbelverbrennung. The burning of the Nubbel is the final celebration that marks the end of the carnival days in Cologne. Everywhere around the city, people gather to burn the Nubbel, a symbolic straw figure that represents all sins committed during the season. After the burning, participants link arms and sing Karneval Lieder for the last time. This is our favorite Karneval celebration.

2. Visit Basilica of St. Ursula

Remember St. Ursula from the coat of arms? The remains of her 11,000 martyred companions can be seen in the Basilica. To see the chamber of relics, visit the Goldene Kammer (Golden Treasury) room within the church. The church builders found the mortal remains of the virgins in a Roman graveyard directly below the church foundation.

When we visited, the resident guide told us the story of the British-Roman princess St. Ursula. According to this guide, St. Ursula’s parents betrothed her to a pagan. She was a devout Christian and begged her parents to sever the tie. They didn’t allow it but did grant her a wish to go on a pilgrimage to Rome.

She set off with 10 virgin companions to Rome. When she arrived, she pleaded with the Pope to let her join a convent. Her request was denied. On her journey back, she received a visit from an angel. The angel told her that she must choose between giving her life in the service of God, or marrying a pagan.

She confirmed that she wanted to serve God. So, the angel instructed her to go to Cologne. When she arrived, Cologne was under siege by the Huns. She and her companions were instructed to serve their new mortal masters, the Huns.

St. Ursula refused and told Atilla the Hun that he could have her body, but never her soul. Atilla pierced her heart with a dagger. Shortly thereafter, all of her companions who expressed belief in the one God were massacred. As these women met their death, their souls visibly ascended to heaven.

The Huns were so frightened by the ascension scene that they fled the city. St. Ursula saved the city of Cologne.

St. Ursula Basilico Visitor Info

Address | Ursulaplatz 24, 50668 Köln | Google Maps

Fee | There’s a small fee to enter The Golden Treasury. 

Opening Times | The Basilica is open Tuesday through Sunday. From Tuesdays to Saturdays, visiting hours are between 10 am and 12 pm as well as between 3 pm. and 5 pm. On Sundays, visiting hours are only between 3 pm and 5 pm. Please double check opening times before going.

3. Drink Kölsch in a Brauhaus

Drinking Kölsch inside Brauhaus Sünner im Walfisch, Cologne, Germany

Kölsch is a light beer that is made and consumed in Cologne.

Served in a small cylinder-shaped glass, Kölsch is the beer of choice and most likely the only beer offered in a Kölner institution.

The best place to drink Kölsch is in a Brauerei. Commonly, servers will bring you fresh glasses of Kölsch (without you asking) until you place a Bierdeckel (coaster) on top of your glass.

The most important thing to know about Kölsch is that it’s the best beer in the world. Okay, It really isn’t, but when locals ask you, please just say it’s delicious.

Kölsch is as sacred to Cologne as is the Three Kings reliquary.

Our favorite Brauhäuser in Cologne:

Join a guided Cologne Brewery Tour.

4. Watch 1. FC Köln Play at the RheinEnergieStadion

1.FC Köln is Cologne’s professional Fußball (soccer) club that plays in the Bundesliga, which is the highest Fußball league in Germany. Given the Karneval tradition in Cologne, it’s no surprise how communal and festive the RheinEnergieStadion feels during a game.

From the Höhner’s Mer stonn zo dir, FC Kölle hymne (anthem sung at the beginning of the game), to Hennes the Goat’s stately appearance (mascot of the team), to the battle-like drums and voices of the jumping fan section, watching a game in Cologne is anything but passive.

The stadium holds 50,000 fans, which becomes a sea of red during a home game. 

5. Visit the NS Documentation Centre (EL-DE House)

The El-De building was the headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo (secret state police) from December 1935 to March 1945. The Gestapo was responsible for keeping the population under surveillance and persecuting the political and “racial” opponents of the Nazi regime.

The Gestapo in Cologne deported and murdered thousands of people. Several hundred were executed in the inner courtyard of the El-De Building during the last few months of the war.

Today, the El-De Building is an excellent museum that houses the Memorial Gestapo prison and the permanent exhibition “Cologne during National Socialism.” The prison, located in the basement of the former Gestapo headquarters, still retains its prison cells and the wall inscriptions written by its former inmates.

Walking in the prison is a vivid reminder of the atrocities carried out by the Gestapo and Nazi regime.  The permanent exhibition, which occupies the first and second floor of the building, thoroughly investigates and reveals the way National Socialism developed in Cologne.

Allow at least 3 hours to see the whole museum.

Recommendation | Get the Audio Guide. It’s available in German, English, French, Dutch, Hebrew, Spanish, Polish and Russian (2 EUR).

6. Visit the Dom, Cologne’s Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

Der Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) is the symbol of the city and a magnificent representation of Gothic architecture.

Its gothic spires dominate the skyline and can be seen from multiple vantage points within Cologne. The Kölner lovingly say, “Home is where the Dom is.”

Remarkably, it took over 600 years to complete the construction of the Cathedral (1248- 1880). It was actually the Prussians, who occupied the city in the 19th century,  that directed the completion of the Dom.

The cathedral’s most valuable possession is the reliquary allegedly containing the skulls of the Three Kings. There is also a notable modern stained glass window, created by the German artist Gerhard Richter in the south transept.

During World War II, the cathedral endured fourteen hits by aerial bombs. 90 percent of the inner city of Cologne was destroyed, but the cathedral survived because the twin spires were an easily discernible navigational landmark for the Allied forces.

No visit to Cologne is complete without a visit to the Dom.

Entrance | Free

Guided Tour | Cologne Cathedral and Old Town Tour with 1 Kölsch

7. Visit Cologne’s Atmospheric Christmas Markets

If you’re visiting Cologne in late November, or December, don’t miss out on the various Christmas Markets throughout the city. They’re fantastic!!! 

Kölner Altstadt, Heimat der Heinzel at Altern Markt & Heumarkt – this is the best one.

Markt der Engel at Neumarkt – beautiful lighting, spacious.

Nikolausdorf at Rudolfsplatz – pretty, lovely, easy to get to.

Weihnachtsmarkt im Stadtgarten – this has a more alternative, local feel.

Harbour Christmas Market in front of the Chocolate Museum – this is nice, but definitely frequented by the most tourists (especially American river cruise passengers).

8. Unravel Cologne’s Ancient Roman History

The story of Cologne begins with Agrippina the younger, who was born in Cologne in 15 AD.

As the wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, she was able to convince her husband (who was also her uncle) to elevate her birthplace to Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Colony of Claudius and Altar of the Agrippinians).

By giving Cologne the status of a Roman colony, the fortified settlement on the Rhine benefited from imperial rights. Fun fact: this is the only Roman colony to be named after a woman.

While Cologne was able to profit from its relationship with Agrippina, those closest to her were not as fortunate. Most scholars believe that she poisoned her third husband, Emperor Claudius, in order to make her son Nero (yes, the crazy, notorious one) Emperor.

Her first two husbands also met unexpected and sudden deaths (rumored to be poison). And, because what goes around comes around, Agrippina met her own end at the hands of her son Nero.

Agrippina is forever immortalized in a statue on Cologne’s Old City Hall. She’s the one standing on a black widow spider.

Learn more about Cologne’s history on a guided city tour.

9. Visit the Neptunbad Bathhouse 

Neptunbad is a spa and fitness center in the Ehrenfeld neighborhood. This Japanese-inspired adult-only spa is composed of various pools and saunas. You can choose between a 2-hour, 4-hour, or full-day pass.

With an in-house restaurant at your disposal, you can easily spend the whole day here. We highly recommend coming here in Winter.

Like most saunas in Germany, Neptunbad is textile-free (no bathing suits allowed). We recommend bringing flip flops, a towel (you can also rent one there), water bottle, and soap/shampoo.

10. Cycle Through the Forstbotanischer Garten

This Forest Botanical Garden is situated on the edge of the Rodenkirchen neighborhood. The best time to come is in Spring, when everything is blooming.

We often rode our bikes through the surrounding park and then walked into the gated garden to admire the free-roaming peacocks.

When to Visit Cologne

Rosenmontag Karneval Celebration, Cologne

To fully appreciate the city, we recommend planning your trip to Cologne at specific times of the year.

Fall in Cologne

The colors begin to change and people begin to retreat indoors. If you can’t make it to Karneval in February, try to make it to the official start date of Karneval, November 11th.

If you love wine, you could explore Cologne on your way to the Mittelrhein, Mosel, and Ahr wine regions.

Winter in Cologne

Visit Cologne in winter, if you want to experience the city’s fabulous Christmas markets, which are open from the end of November until Christmas, or to participate in Karneval festivities (official carnival days in late February).

Learn More: 5 Unique Things to Do in Cologne in Winter

Spring in Cologne

Cologne rebounds back to life in Spring. The Rhine is flushed with greenery and the rapeseed flower fields are in full bloom.

Spring is a great time to come to the Rhineland, especially if you want to explore the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, or the Moselle Valley, without the crowds.

Summer in Cologne

Try to plan your trip around the Kölner Lichter (Cologne Lights), which is a light festival on the Rhine that happens once a year in Summer (we loved it).

There’s also an annual Pride celebration in Summer, which is one of the largest in Europe.

What to Eat & Drink in Cologne

Sausage and Bratkartoffeln at Brauhaus Früh in Cologne, Germany

In terms of atmosphere, tradition, and revelry, the best places to eat in Cologne are the Brauerei.

And hence, the first thing you should eat in Cologne is traditional Rhineland food.

When you’ve had your fill of German food, go find the Turkish restaurants. Cologne has a sizable Turkish community, and lucky for all of us, there’s great Turkish food in the city, especially on Keupstrasse.

Rhineland Specialties

Himmel un Äd – translates as “heaven (or sky) and earth”. The main ingredients are apples (from the sky) and potatoes (from the earth), as well as black pudding and apple sauce.

Sauerbraten – translates as “sour roast.” Sauerbraten is made by marinating a beef roast in a sour-sweet marinade for 2 to 3 days before browning it. Next, the meat simmers in the marinade for several hours, which makes it very tender.

Halve Hahn – translates as “half a chicken.” This is somewhat of a joke, as there is no chicken in this dish. Halve Hahn is simply a rye roll, halved and topped with Gouda cheese. Mustard, pickles and onions are generally served on the side.

Reibekuchen (also called Kartoffelpuffer) – translates as “grated cakes.” It’s essentially a deeply fried potato pancakes made with potatoes, onions and eggs. It’s popular to eat these on the street at Christmas markets, fairs and sports events.  They’re delicious, but don’t over do it. You’ll die.

Flammkuchen – Alsatian pizza. Thin rectangular dough topped with various vegetables, cheeses and meats (no tomato sauce).

Rinderroulade – a meat dish which consists of bacon and onions, wrapped in a thin slice of beef, and then cooked. The meat is characteristically tender and soft. The dish is presented with usually 1-2 side dishes and gravy over the meat.


Karneval Street Empty Bottles, Cologne

Kölsch beer – Sorry, you don’t have another choice.

Where to Eat and Drink in Cologne

Kebapland, Cologne

Bastian’s is a spacious café and a cake lover’s paradise. We recommend coming to Bastian’s for a slice of cake and coffee, or to pick up a fresh loaf of bread. Bastian’s Tripadvisor Reviews

Miss Päpki is a bright café in Cologne tucked away in the Belgian district. We come here for their quiche, soap and fresh tea. Service is kind, but slow, so please don’t come here if you’re in a rush. Miss Päpki Tripadvisor Reviews.

Weinstube Morio is a cozy Weinstube (wine tavern) in the Nippes neighborhood of Cologne. Their menu features regional wine from Pfalz, Rheinhessen, Baden and Nahe. Morio also has a selection of tasty Mediterranean appetizers. It’s easy to spend several hours here drinking wine and eating olives. Weinstube Morio Tripadvisor Reviews.

Weinstube Bacchus is a warm and cozy Weinstube with a lovely Weingarten located in Neustadt-Süd.

Kebapland is a simple Turkish eatery that is without exception always busy. Order the plate with a charcoal grilled skewer of meat (minced lamb, chicken and others). It’s served with a side of salad, bread, and delicious sauces. You’ll dream about it after. Kebapland Tripadvisor Reviews.

Lu is a Vietnamese restaurant that never disappoints. We loved their curries and salads. Lu Tripadvisor Reviews.

More Germany Travel Guides


Regions near Cologne:


Cologne City Guide, Germany

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Moon & Honey Travel is an independent blog created by two passionate hikers. We are able to provide free content to you, because of ads and affiliate links. When you make a purchase using one of these links, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Happy travels and happy trails, Sabrina and Kati