Cologne is the metropolis on the Rhine. One of Germany‘s largest and most historic cities, Cologne is a destination that’s packed full of exciting places to visit and exciting things to do!
You might already know that Cologne is where Eau de Cologne (everyone’s favorite perfume!) was invented in the 18th century, but the city’s origins can be traced back much further to the 1st century BC, when it was found as a Roman settlement, or “Colonia.”
You’ll discover all this, and much more, as you explore all of the best things to do in Cologne. The first thing you’ll see, though, no matter how you arrive in the city, is Cologne’s impressive cathedral. It’s the tallest twin-spired church in the world, and you can climb hundreds of stairs to the top for an astounding panorama of Cologne.
You can then stroll through the beautifully restored Old Town, visit a fragrance museum, a chocolate museum, art museums, and even a mustard museum! After that, you can discover the top things to do in Cologne as you journey through this ancient city on the banks of the mighty River Rhine.
With so many fantastic things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Cologne for you. Stick to these fun and unique Cologne bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this incredible German city!
Don’t forget to check out our web story: The 15 Best Things to do in Cologne, Germany
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15 Things to do in Cologne
1. Follow the Pilgrims (and Tourists) to Cologne Cathedral
You can spot the twin spires of Cologne Cathedral from almost any vantage point in the city, and that’s because no other building is permitted to be taller!
At 154 meters in height, this is the tallest church with twin spires to be found anywhere in the world, and you’ll be impressed by its staggering height when you stand in the square below the cathedral and look upwards.
This is one of Germany’s most beloved and visited tourist attractions, and you’ll love taking a tour through its hallowed halls to learn more about the cathedral’s fascinating past. The cathedral was designed in the Gothic style that was popular across Europe when construction began in the 13th century. Plus, you’ll be intrigued to discover that despite work beginning on the cathedral way back in 1248, it wasn’t officially completed until 1880.
Throughout the centuries, the builders always stayed faithful to the original, medieval architectural plans, and today, the cathedral is home to the revered Shrine of the Three Kings, which was the original intention way back in 1248. To honor the cathedral’s importance and heritage, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
If you love viewpoints, then you’re going to love the panorama at the top of the twin spires. You can see for miles across Cologne, but given there’s no elevator, you might not enjoy the steep medieval stairwell (consisting of upwards of 500 stone steps!) that you have to climb first.
2. Take a Stroll through Cologne’s Old Town
The best place for Cologne sightseeing is always going to be the Old Town. Stretching along the banks of the River Rhine, this is the historic heart of an ancient city, and there’s so much for you to explore.
Cologne’s Old Town has its roots in the Roman settlement that was founded here over 2,000 years ago. The name of that settlement was Colonia Agrippina, from which the modern name of the city has since been derived. Cologne became an important trading hub on the Rhine and grew to become one of the wealthiest cities in Europe through the medieval era.
You can learn more about this as you stroll through the often cobbled and narrow streets of the Old Town, much of which dates back to the medieval period. The Old Town you see today, though, is largely restored because the city suffered tremendous damage during bombing raids in World War II.
At the center of the Old Town is the cathedral, but there are many more sights to put on your Cologne bucket list. Cologne’s 12 Romanesque churches are all superb examples of medieval architecture, while the City Hall is the oldest such public building anywhere in Germany.
3. Delve Deep into the Past at the Romano-Germanic Museum
If history is your thing, then we’re confident that you’re going to love the Romano-Germanic Museum. And even if you only have a fleeting interest in the past, then this excellent museum is still one of the best things to do in Cologne.
The museum, like much of the city, is built on top of Roman ruins dating back as far as the 1st century BC when Cologne was founded. The museum was designed to protect the ruins of a large Roman villa and the villa’s colorful mosaics, which were discovered during the Second World War.
The villa is thought to have been built in the 3rd century AD, and the central mosaic was so fragile that the decision was made to preserve it by building the modern museum over the top of the ruins.
As well as being able to see the Dionysis Mosaic preserved here, you can see a vast collection of Roman archaeological finds that have been unearthed across Cologne. The Romano-Germanic Museum is a beautiful insight into the hidden history buried below the very ground you stand on – and we highly recommend a visit!
4. Take a Break at the Flora and Botanical Gardens
Who doesn’t love a botanical garden? Particularly when you’re exploring an urban metropolis like Cologne. You’ll quickly realize that despite being one of Germany’s largest cities, there are many places where you can escape the concrete, and one of the best is the Flora and Botanical Gardens.
You’ll find Cologne’s most diverse green space in the north of the city, where over 10,000 different species of plants from all over the world are nurtured and cared for in a unique outdoor and indoor environment.
First, take a walk through the outdoor area, where you’ll find an array of temperate plant species arrayed around several hectares of landscaped gardens.
Next, move inside to the greenhouses, and be prepared to sweat, because it’s going to be hot! You’ll find palm trees, tropical plants, and exotic flowers, all in the middle of a vast German city.
5. Drink a Kolsch at a Kneipen
If you’re feeling thirsty after all that sightseeing, then it’s time for a Kolsch or two at a local Kneipen.
Kolsch is the local name for the local beer. It’s not a specific brand but a style of beer that originates in the city. Locals are very protective of their beer, and to be called a Kolsch, the beer itself has to have been brewed within a specific small radius around Cologne.
There are also specific laws that state exactly how the beer has to be brewed and processed. So you can rest assured that you’ll be enjoying an authentic piece of Cologne’s culinary history with every sip of Kolsch.
If you love beer, then you’ll love Kolsch, and you’ll love how it’s served, too! Head to a local Kneipe, or bar, where the servers load up huge trays with traditional stange of Kolsch and bring the beers direct to the tables.
A stange is a tall but thin glass that holds 200 milliliters of Kolsch, but don’t worry about the size because the servers continually replace your empty glass with a full glass from the fresh tray.
You don’t even need to ask, they just keep the Kolsch flowing until you place a beermat on top of the stange to let them know you’ve had enough.
6. Smell the Perfumes at the Fragrance Museum
The name Cologne is synonymous with one thing, and that’s perfume. More specifically, it’s Eau de Cologne, a type of perfume that put the city on the map and that dates back to the 18th century.
Today, we often use the word “cologne” to describe almost any type of perfume, but originally, it was prepared here in the city by an Italian perfume creator who mixed citrus fruits with alcoholic spirits.
Eau de Cologne was a hit across Europe, particularly in royal circles, and you can learn all about it with a trip to the city’s dedicated Fragrance Museum.
The museum is located within the Farina House, where Johann Maria Farina first developed Eau de Cologne. His descendants still produce cologne here, and so the museum is really a part of living history.
You can learn how the Farina family conquered the perfume world before trying out a few samples of authentic Eau de Cologne in Cologne.
7. Gorge on Chocolate at the Chocolate Museum
Are you a chocolate lover? Then one of the best things to do in Cologne is to visit the Chocolate Museum.
But what does Cologne have to do with chocolate, you might be wondering? Renowned German chocolatier Hans Imhoff was born in Cologne, and he made it his life’s dream to open a chocolate factory and museum in the city.
The museum opened in 1993, complete with a working chocolate fountain and endless opportunities to eat chocolate. The museum now partners with the chocolate producer Lindt to take visitors on a journey through the history of chocolate.
You’ll learn how cacao was first cultivated in the Americas thousands of years ago, before learning how modern factory production methods have given much of the world access to delicious chocolatey goods.
At the end of your chocolate museum and factory tour, you can enjoy the best chocolate products with a beautiful view over the River Rhine at the Grand Chocolate Cafe.
8. Get Spicy at the Mustard Museum
Opposite the extravagant Chocolate Museum, you can visit one of lesser-known but much more eccentric Cologne attractions. This is the Mustard Museum, a museum dedicated to all things mustard!
Chances are you’ve had mustard before, particularly if you’ve been in Germany for any longer than a day, but you’ll never have seen such dedication to mustard history as what you’ll find at Cologne’s quirkiest museum.
On a guided tour, you’ll discover how mustard seeds were spread across Europe by the Romans before being developed into the saucy condiment we know today. Best of all, though, is the restored mustard mill.
Dating back to the 1800s, the museum has lovingly breathed new life into an old German mustard mill. It’s not just a showpiece because the museum uses the mill to make its own unique range of historic mustard products that you can try and take home with you.
9. Try Cologne’s Best Local Dishes
If you’ve worked up an appetite visiting the best Cologne attractions, then don’t fear because the city has some delectable local dishes for you to try.
You may already have sampled the Kolsch, chocolate, and mustard, but there’s more on the way. The most famous (and popular) Cologne dish is the Halve Hahn, an open-faced sandwich that’s as simple as it is delicious: all you need is a slice of rye bread, gouda cheese, and a few onions. You’ll find the Halve Hahn served up alongside a cold glass of Kolsch in bars and pubs across the city.
For meat-eaters, there’s the Mettbrutche, another rye bread sandwich, but this time it’s served with raw minced pork. Then there’s pea soup, potato pancakes, and German classics like pork knuckles, mashed potatoes, and sauerkraut.
You won’t have to go hungry in Cologne because in addition to the hearty local classics, the city has a huge modern and multicultural dining scene. You can enjoy Peruvian fusion fare one night, German pub food the next, and Japanese-style ramen, gyoza, and sushi after that!
10. Add a Lock to the Hohenzollern Bridge
One of the best sights in Cologne is the famous Hohenzollern Bridge, an industrial but strangely beautiful bridge that spans the River Rhine.
If you arrived by rail, then you’ll have already crossed the bridge on your way to Cologne’s main train station, and if you’ve taken a walk along the river, there’s no way you could miss this imposing metal giant!
The bridge dates back to the early 20th century, although it completely collapsed during World War II and had to be entirely rebuilt again. Cars can’t drive over the bridge, but it is possible to walk over it. In the process, cross the fast-flowing waters of the Rhine from one side of Cologne to the other.
As you walk over the bridge, you’ll notice how the railings are thick in places with lovelocks, mementos, and memorials. If you’re feeling sentimental, be sure to add your own lock to the Hohenzollern Bridge!
11. Take a Cruise along the River Rhine
The River Rhine is one of Europe’s largest and longest waterways, stretching over 700 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea. Along the way, the River Rhine passes through some of Europe’s most important cities, including Cologne.
Cologne was deliberately built on the banks of the Rhine, and the city’s geography and history are both shaped by the contours of the river. There’s nothing better than taking a Cologne sightseeing cruise along the Rhine!
You can join boat tours that cruise up and down the river, offering guided commentary and spectacular views of the city’s iconic Rhine skyline. If you don’t want to take a river cruise, you can also walk or cycle for miles along the riverbank, admiring the scenery, stopping for coffee, and taking in the views.
12. Discover Cologne’s Dark Past at the NS Documentation Museum
Cologne is today a modern European powerhouse, and it’s easy to forget that much of the city was destroyed during the Second World War. It’s also easy to forget that in the not-so-distant past, the city was in the grips of the Nazi regime and their secret police.
But rather than simply forgetting the darker side of history, Cologne decided to preserve it, so future generations wouldn’t forget what happened in the city and across Europe as a result of Nazism. Visit the NS Documentation Museum, and you’ll find out a lot more.
Be prepared for a moving and often emotional journey because the museum has preserved some of the darkest stories and horrors of the Nazi regime. First and foremost, though, the museum is a memorial to the victims of Nazism both in Cologne and elsewhere.
The NS Documentation Museum is located in what was the former headquarters of the Gestapo, the Nazi party’s secret police. Inside, you can see the cellblocks where prisoners were kept while learning more about how the Nazis were allowed to gain power and what they did with that power.
It’s a difficult place to visit, of course, but the museum also tells the stories of those who resisted the Nazis while also serving as a lasting memorial to those who suffered and died under the regime.
13. Admire Picasso and Warhol at Museum Ludwig
Are you a culture vulture? Then one of the must-do things in Cologne is Museum Ludwig. This is the city’s premier museum of modern art, and it’s stuffed full of famous paintings and artwork created by the world’s most famous contemporary artists.
The museum only holds works that were produced after 1900. Among the hundreds of exhibits, you can find surrealist works by Picasso and pop-culture works by Warhol – and much, much more!
Museum Ludwig is located in the center of Cologne, and originally, it was paired up with the Wallraf-Richartz Museum. The two are now separate organizations. If you’re looking for historic rather than contemporary artwork, then the Wallraf-Richartz Museum is the place to visit.
You can also find the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne’s Old Town, close to the City Hall. The museum itself first opened in 1861, while the collection has artwork stretching back as far as the 12th century.
14. Enjoy the Views from Koln Triangle
Cologne Cathedral might be the tallest building in the city, and while the views from the top are outstanding, there’s another viewpoint to rival its panoramas.
In fact, the panorama from the Koln Triangle could even be better than that from the cathedral, and that’s because you’ll see the cathedral on the skyline!
You can find this impressive viewpoint on the eastern side of the Rhine River, on the opposite side of the river to the Old Town. The Koln Triangle is a sleek, modern building that stands just over 100 meters tall. It’s a landmark in itself, and you’ll easily spot it if you’re walking over the Hohenzollern Bridge from the Old Town.
Make your way to the observation deck at Koln Triangle, and you’ll have uninterrupted views along the Rhine and across the river to Cologne’s Old Town, where you’ll spot the twin spires of the cathedral rising high above the city.
15. Embrace the Festive Season at Cologne’s Christmas Markets
As in almost all German towns and cities, the festive period is one of the best times to be in Cologne. The holiday season is when the city truly comes alive, even if the days are short and the skies are dark.
The city is magnificently lit up by bright Christmas lights from the end of November all the way through December. You’ll find joyous markets selling traditional food, drink, and Christmas presents in every square in Cologne.
The most popular market is held right outside Cologne Cathedral, where you’ll find red-roofed Christmas stalls serving warm Gluhwein (Mulled Wine) and hot potato pancakes. There will be Christmas carols, nativity scenes, and endless opportunities to purchase gifts for your friends and family back home.
But while the Christmas market by the cathedral is always bustling, it’s by no means the only Christmas market you can visit in Cologne. Walk down to Cologne’s harbor, and you’ll find a Christmas market overlooking the River Rhine. The Angels’ Market in Neumarkt is always a favorite, while the Nicholas Village in Rudolfplatz is perfect for families.
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Cologne. What’s your favorite thing to do in Cologne?
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