When I visited Cologne for its world-famous Christmas Markets, I was also on the hunt for other fun things to do. Germany’s fourth-largest city did not disappoint. In fact, with its UNESCO-listed Cathedral and over 30 museums, I was rather spoiled for choice. If you are looking to soak up some culture on a city-break weekend, Cologne is an excellent choice. Its relatively compact size makes it easy to explore on foot, and it offers many great shopping and dining options as well. While I spent most of my four days in the city hopping between the dazzling holiday markets, this is the itinerary I’d follow if I had two days in Cologne.
This impressive Gothic cathedral is the most visited attraction in all of Germany and the centerpiece of any visit to Cologne. The spires reach 157 meters into the sky and are visible from all across the city. (Supposedly you can climb one of the towers, but I didn’t see an entrance or any information about this inside the cathedral.)
Construction began in 1248 and finally wrapped up in the late 1880s. The interior is a compelling mishmash of styles, with the medieval choir being the most ornate. Impossibly thin columns support the vaulted ceiling high over intricate mosaic floors. Beautiful stained-glass windows flood the carved stalls with light. It’s surprising how many of these original details are preserved considering the bombing and near total destruction of Cologne during the Second World War. (I thought the cathedral’s blackened façade was leftover damage, but it’s actually a reaction to sulfuric acid in rainwater.)
Pride of place inside Cologne Cathedral goes to the Shrine of the Three Kings. This gilded reliquary holds the remains of the Three Wise Men who visited Jesus at his birth and gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Dombild Altarpiece, a 15th-century triptych featuring the biblical Magi, is displayed nearby.
Cologne Cathedral Treasury
The cathedral treasury requires a separate entrance ticket and it is worth every euro. Located deep below the cathedral, its cases are filled with an amazing number of precious objects. Most notable are monstrances holding pieces of the True Cross and St Peter’s chains. The treasury also displays fine examples of Limoges enamels, silk vestments, and illuminated manuscripts.
One of Germany’s best art museums sits just behind the cathedral. Museum Ludwig is entirely dedicated to Modern Art. It boasts the most Pop Art outside of the USA and the third-largest Picasso collection after Paris and Barcelona. In addition, you’ll find many important works of German Expressionism and Russian 1920s avant-garde. Masterpieces on display include Harlequin with Folded Hands by Picasso, M-Maybe by Lichtenstein, Two Elvis by Warhol, The Station of Perpignan by Dali, and Five Women on the Street by Kirchner, among many others.
For dinner, walk north along the Rhine River to Gruber’s. This chic restaurant offers a modern take on classic Austrian cuisine. There are two set menus available, one with traditional meat dishes and the other with Asian-fusion vegetarian fare. Diners can choose three, four, or five courses, and can mix and match between the two menus. I love a place with flexibility! I went with the five-course traditional menu to get the full experience. Highlights included fried chicken with cranberry jam, buttery snails with a warm spinach salad, and apple strudel with vanilla sauce.
Cologne Chocolate Museum
Stroll south along the Rhine River promenade to the Cologne Chocolate Museum. This ode to Lindt is the realized dream of Hans Imhoff, an entrepreneur who claimed to have a “heart of chocolate.” The exhibit begins with a history of chocolate cultivation and includes a tropical greenhouse with several cocoa trees. Next you will watch the various stages of chocolate production through glass-sided machines. The tour continues in a workshop where master chocolatiers handcraft truffles and hollow figurines. There is also a lovely collection of antique chocolate boxes and vending machines. The museum’s main claim to fame is a fountain dispensing an unending stream of warm Lindt chocolate, which is produced onsite. However, I preferred the café where I enjoyed a delicious slice of Black Forest cake and pretty river views.
Since Cologne was all but leveled during WWII, its “Old Town” is a bit of a misnomer. Reconstruction began in 1947 with a heavy focus on restoring the twelve Romanesque churches. Great St Martin Church is the most notable, with its massive tower dwarfing the surrounding buildings. The row facing the river is especially picturesque with its restored facades. But unlike Warsaw, which was painstakingly recreated in astonishing detail, Cologne has a more modern feel. That’s not to say it lacks charm, however! Definitely spend some time wandering through the narrow lanes around the Altstadt.
Fans of Medieval art should head to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, which has one of the most extensive collections in the world. Many of its paintings and altar pieces were rescued when German monasteries were abolished during a period of secularization. The museum also boasts many works by Baroque masters such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Jordaens, and van Dyck. Completing the journey through art history are the 19th century Impressionists and Expressionists, including Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Munch. For artwork created from 1900 through the present day, you’ll find it at the Ludwig.
Bei Oma Kleinmann
End your two days in Cologne at one of the most popular restaurants in the city. Bei Oma Kleinmann specializes in schnitzel like grandma used to make. It’s a bit of a hike from Cologne’s historic district, but you’ll be glad of the exercise when you see the heaping portion sizes. I ordered the pork jagerschnitzel with mushroom sauce over fried potatoes and devoured every last crumb. Be sure to wash your feast down with Kolsch beer, a Cologne specialty. The small 0.2 liter serving size may seem counterintuitive, but ensures that the beer is always fresh and cold. Reservations at essential at Bei Oma Kleinmann.
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