Germany’s fourth-largest city is a great destination for slow, stress-free travel. It’s a laid-back city that feels unassuming, yet surprising. Cologne (Köln in German) is the opposite of pompous. It’s a city of clowns, Kölsch (locals), and immigrants.
Don’t come to Cologne for beautiful architecture and sophisticated art. Come to Cologne for vibrant local culture, lots of celebration, and Kölsch beer.
In winter, when Christmas markets are in full swing and Karneval (Carnival) festivities are underway, Köln is especially vibrant. When you plan your winter trip to Cologne, timing is everything.
I recommend either coming to Köln specifically for the Christmas Markets (late November – late December) or for Karneval (Shrove Thursday – Shrove Tuesday: the days leading up to Ash Wednesday).
Cologne is about “Experience,” not “Sites.” And winter is the perfect season to experience Cologne in all its revelry. Here’s a no-BS guide to things to do in Cologne in winter, based on our experience living in the city for one year and subsequent visits.
What to Do in Winter in Cologne
Bathe in Claudius Therme
Drink Kölsch in a Brauhaus
Eat Turkish Food on Keupstraße
Visit Cologne’s Christmas Markets
Participate in Karneval Festivities
Where to Stay in Cologne:
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Cologne Winter Map
1. Bathe in Claudius Therme
It doesn’t snow in Cologne in winter, but it does rain. Rain can be a huge bummer when you’re on vacation, but it doesn’t have to be. If the weather forecast isn’t promising, head directly to Claudius Therme.
Claudius Therme is a thermal bath and sauna complex sprawling across Cologne’s Rheinpark. This large wellness facility comprises numerous thermal pools, indoor and outdoor saunas, relaxation rooms, and several cafés and restaurants.
You can spend a whole day sauntering between pools and saunas (see map).
Visiting a Therme in Germany is an experience in and of itself. If it’s your first time, read this post about Sauna etiquette.
And, if you’re inspired to visit more thermal spas in Germany, we highly recommend Carolus Thermen in Aachen (we wrote about it in Best Cologne Day Trips) and Palais Thermal in Bad Wildbad, and Friedrichsbad in Baden Baden (we wrote about these bathhouses in our Black Forest travel guide).
2. Drink Kölsch in a Brauhaus
Another winter-appropriate activity to do in Cologne is drinking beer in a traditional Brauhaus. Cologne without its brewhouses is like Vienna without its Kaffeehäuser, or Istanbul without its Lokantas.
In Cologne, there’s only one beer you can (or ought) to drink. That beer is Kölsch, and don’t even try to order something else.
Kölsch is a light beer served in a small cylinder-shaped glass. You never have to worry about ordering another glass, because servers will typically bring you fresh glasses of Kölsch until you place a Bierdeckel (coaster) on top of your glass.
Here are some of our favorite Brauhäuser:
Lommerzheim in Deutz (Siegesstraße 18, 50679 Köln)
Früh am Dom in the Innenstadt(Am Hof 12, 50667 Köln)
Die Hausbraurei Päffgen near Friesenplatz (Friesenstraße 64-66, 50670 Köln)
3. Dine on Keupstraße in Mülheim District
Keupstraße is a vibrant, commercial street brimming with Turkish and Kurdish owned businesses.
Catering to Turkish residents, but welcoming to everyone, this immigrant street is one of our favorite places in Cologne for food.
Every shop window entices you with fresh pastries, baklava, pide, and of course kebab.
When you want a really delicious Turkish feast, head to Büyük Harran Doy Doy (Keupstraße 40, 51063 Köln). Their Adana kebab is phenomenal.
4. Visit Cologne’s Christmas Markets
Cologne is a city that loves festivities and celebrations, especially during Christmas. You can easily participate in the merriment of the advent season by attending a Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt in German).
Cologne flaunts 7 different Christmas markets, each boasting a unique theme and vibe.
Though each market is worthy of a visit, make sure you don’t miss the Heinzelmännchen market at Alter Markt, the Cathedral market at the Kölner Dom, and the Angel’s Christmas Market at Neumarkt.
Grab a mug of hot Glühwein (mulled wine) and a slice of Raclette-Brot, and soak in the festive atmosphere.
Entrance Fee: There’s no entrance fee at any of the markets
When are the markets open: Late November until December 23rd.
Best time to visit: Early December (it’s not as crowded as mid-late December).
5. Participate in Karneval Festivities
The people of Cologne love a good party. And, luckily for them, the ultimate party – Karneval – lasts a whole season.
Karneval starts on November 11th each year and ends at midnight before Ash Wednesday.
Though the “fifth season” lasts several months, the main Karneval festivities take place between Weiberfastnacht (Shrove Thursday) and Shrove Tuesday. Depending on the year, that could be late February or early March.
Watching the official parade on Rosenmontag (Carnival Monday) is a must. But our favorite Karneval tradition is the Nubbelverbrennung or the burning of the Nubbel.
On the evening before Ash Wednesday, locals gather to burn the Nubbel, a symbolic straw figure representing all sins committed during the Karneval season. After the burning, participants link arms and sing Karneval Lieder (songs) for the last time.
It feels like a pagan sacrificial ritual and IT’S AMAZING!!!!!!!
Read Next: Favorite Day Trips from Cologne
Where to Stay in Cologne in Winter
Budget | Art Rock Downtown Hotel 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.
25Hours Hotel Köln The Circle
Where We Stayed | 25hours Hotel Koeln The Circle is a fun hotel that dazzles with its futuristic space-themed interior design. From the lobby entrance to the rooftop bar, every detail has been carefully crafted to create a cheerful and playful space.
A delicious breakfast buffet is served on the top floor in the restaurant Neni. From this light-filled dining area decked in plants, you’re treated to views of the city and even the Dom.
If it’s raining during your stay, head to the hotel’s sauna and wellness area. It’s small, but it’ll warm you up in a hurry. You can request a free sauna bag, containing a bathrobe and towel, when you check-in.
While our room was lovely, it felt a bit tight. The bedroom space is utilized very economically, so there’s not a lot of extra room. Also, it was noisier than we expected. We could hear running water and other noises from other floors/rooms. Other than that, we really loved our stay here.
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Germany Travel Guides:
I hope you enjoyed this round-up of the best things to do in Cologne in winter. Here are some other guides about Germany travel you may be interested in:
- Germany Travel Guide
- Black Forest Travel Guide
- Upper Middle Rhine Valley Travel Guide
- Moselle Valley Travel Guide
- Eifel Travel Guide
- 10-Day Bavarian Alps & Tyrolean Alps Road Trip
- Best Things to Do in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
- Lake Eibsee
- Partnach Gorge Hike
- Alpspitze Via Ferrata
- Kreuzeck to Höllentalklamm Gorge Hike
More European City Guides:
European Travel Guides: