12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Cologne
This extremely old cathedral city on the river Rhine is one of the most important commercial and cultural centers in western Germany. Cologne (Köln in German) is famous the world over for its 12 great Romanesque churches - especially the magnificent Cologne Cathedral - all an easy walk from the historic Old Town, and its university is one of the oldest and largest in Europe. Dissected by the mighty River Rhine, Cologne can trace its roots back to the first century AD when it was established as a Roman provincial capital and military stronghold. This importance never really slowed, and today, the city remains one of Germany's most important cultural centers, home to numerous arts and entertainment facilities, along with more than 100 galleries and some 36 museums.
See also: Where to Stay in Cologne
1 Cologne Cathedral
Near the left bank of the Rhine, Cologne's towering landmark, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Mary, is a masterpiece of High Gothic architecture. One of the largest cathedrals in Europe, it was started in 1248 and is considered the most ambitious building project of the Middle Ages. As impressive as its 157-meter tall twin towers is the cathedral's incredible interior. Covering an area of 6,166 square meters and boasting 56 pillars, highlights include the 12th-century Reliquary of the Three Kings created by local goldsmiths; the famous relief of the Adoration of the Kings from 1440; the Treasure Chamber with its many precious objects, including ancient reliquaries and manuscripts; and the panoramic views from the south tower, reached by more than 500 steps that pass the cathedral's famous bells (ear protection is provided on Sundays). A variety of excellent guided tours are available, as well as events, including concerts and services (be sure to check for closures prior to arrival).
Address: Domkloster 4, 50667 Köln
2 Cologne's Old Town
As you explore Cologne's numerous historic churches and museums, you'll crisscross the city's lovely Old Town quarters with its many unique charms. In addition to old churches such as Great St. Martin, you'll find yourself traversing countless quaint alleys lined with traditional old houses, many now home to boutique shops, galleries, cafés, and restaurants. And with its many pleasant paths along the Rhine, you'll find ample opportunity to enjoy great views as you plan your route through this ancient city. You'll also find yourself in awe of the countless monuments and fountains that adorn the area, along with its Archeological Zone with its many ancient ruins and artifacts.
3 The Wallraf-Richartz and Ludwig Museums
Art lovers will want to visit both the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and the Ludwig Museum when in Cologne. Housed in one of the city's newer architectural structures, these two excellent galleries cover a wide range of European painting, with works by Rembrandt, Manet, Renoir, Leibl, Liebermann, and Slevogt. The Wallraf-Richartz Museum is particularly strong in the work of the Cologne school, while the Ludwig focuses on modern and contemporary painting. In the same building is the Agfa-Foto-Historama with its displays of photographs and cameras dating back to 1840.
Address: Obenmarspforten, 50667 Köln
4 The Roman-Germanic Museum
Just a few minutes' walk from Cologne Cathedral, the Roman-Germanic Museum offers a fascinating insight into the city's rich archaeological heritage from the Paleolithic period to the early Middle Ages. Exhibits of interest are the Dionysus Mosaic dating from the 2nd century and the 15-meter-high funerary monument of Poblicius from the 1st century, both discovered during excavations in the city. The museum also displays other mosaics, Roman glass, domestic pottery and sculpture, and Roman and Germanic jewelry. Also of interest is Kolumba, the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, notable for its art and antiquities.
Address: Roncalliplatz 4, D-50667 Köln
5 St. Gereon's Church
Romanesque St. Gereon's is perhaps Cologne's most unusual church. Built on the site of a former 7th-century church, which was itself constructed on a ten-sided domed structure dating from Roman times (and still visible) beginning in 1151. Dedicated to Saint Gereon, this visually appealing structure includes highlights such as its unusually long choir as well as its numerous medieval murals, mosaics, and ancient relics.
Address: Gereonskloster 2, 50670 Köln
6 Editor's Pick The Cologne Cable Car
Since its establishment in 1957 as the first European cable car to cross a river - in this case, the Rhine - the Cologne cable car has carried a whopping 15 million passengers. The views are, of course, the big draw, particularly those of the Old Town and Cologne Cathedral. Easily accessible by public transport, one of the best ways to tackle this fun attraction is to consider it a one way trip, walking back to your starting point on the east or west bank of the Rhine. For more great views, a visit to Cologne Telecommunications Tower is worthwhile. Located northwest of Cologne's Old Town, Colonius, as it's known locally, is 243 meters high with a superb viewing platform and a revolving restaurant.
Address: Riehler Straße 180, 50735 Köln
7 Old Town Hall
Cologne's Old Town Hall, the Kölner Rathaus, is the oldest such public building in Germany. With a rich history dating back more than 900 years as the focal point of the ruling classes during medieval times, the building you see today reflects a number of different architectural influences, including the 14th-century main building, the 15th-century tower, and a Renaissance-style loggia and cloister. Even the 20th-century influences are pleasing, as seen in the atrium. Other highlights include the Hansasaal, or Hanseatic Hall, with its Gothic figures of eight prophets, the nine "good heroes" (pagan, Jewish, and Christian), and its sonorous carillon that plays three times each day.
Address: Rathausplatz 2, D - 50667 Köln
8 St. Pantaleon Church
Built in the 10th century on the site of an old Roman villa and restored in the 17th century, the Church of St. Pantaleon has many fascinating features, most notably the Tomb of the Empress Theophano, the wife of Otto II who died in 991 AD. St. Pantaleon is also famous as the former home to relics, including a collarbone, from Saint Alban. A shrine has been dedicated to the saint since the 10th century. A more modern shrine, this one dedicated to Josemaria Escriva of Opus Dei, was added in 2006. The stonework of the church is Romanesque and, along with its colorful ceiling murals, has led to the church being considered an art-historically significant building.
Address: Am Pantaleonsberg 10A, 50676 Köln
9 Altenberg Cathedral
Just six kilometers away from its famous cousin in Cologne, Altenberg Cathedral, also known as the Bergischer Dom, is one of the finest examples of Early Gothic architecture in the Rhineland. Built in 1259, its richly furnished interior is well worth a visit. Other highlights include its Gothic stained glass and its many tombs of princes and abbots. Although not strictly speaking a formal cathedral - no bishop has ever sat here - it earned the title thanks to its imposing dimensions and is unique in Europe in that both Protestant and Catholic congregations share it.
10 Augustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces
In the picturesque town of Brühl, 15 kilometers south of Cologne, Schloss Augustusburg is the 18th-century palace of the Archbishop of Cologne. Sumptuously decorated and furnished, this charming Late Baroque/Rococo palace is famous for its magnificent staircase hall. Other highlights include its large park, used for open-air concerts and festivals. Sharing the same park is Falkenlust Palace, built in 1740 and an important part of this World Heritage site. Brühl is also home to several museums and historic sites, including one dedicated to surrealist artist Max Ernst, as well as Augustusburg Castle and Castle Falkenplatz. If traveling with kids, a visit to Phantasialand is a day well spent. One of the largest theme parks in Europe, it boasts a cable car, a Viking boat trip, a monorail, and a reproduction of old Berlin.
Address: Schlosstrasse 6, D-50321 Brühl, Germany
11 The Museum of Applied Art
Southwest of Cologne Cathedral is the Museum of Applied Art. One of the city's "newer" museums - it was founded in 1888 - it's well regarded for its fine collection of more than 100,000 pieces of applied and decorative art from the medieval period onwards. Other important collections include jewelry, furniture, porcelain, arms and armor, as well as a number of interesting architectural exhibits.
Address: An der Rechtschule, D-50667 Köln
12 Cologne Zoological Gardens
Founded in 1860, Cologne Zoo is one of Germany's oldest zoological gardens, as can be evidenced in its fine collection of 19th-century menagerie buildings, including its Moorish-style elephant house and an old birdhouse (now home to chimps) resembling a traditional Russian church. Other highlights include Ape Island with its mock rainforest, an excellent big cat enclosure, and a well-stocked aquarium.
Where to Stay in Cologne for Sightseeing
For first-time visitors to the city, the best place to stay is Cologne's Old Town. Here, you can easily explore magnificent Cologne Cathedral, one of 12 Romanesque churches within an easy walk, as well as the Rhine River, which cuts through the city. The following hotels are close to the Old Town and are worth checking out:
- Luxury Hotels: Popular for its views of Cologne Cathedral and minutes from Cologne Central Station, the Excelsior Hotel Ernst offers large, sumptuously decorated rooms and suites along with a modern spa and large gym. Also handy for those arriving via rail, the Savoy Hotel offers bright, quirky décor and mood lighting in its large rooms as well as throughout its public spaces. Although located on the opposite bank of the Rhine, the large rooms of the Hyatt Regency Cologne boast superb views of both the river and cathedral, as do the indoor pool and sunbathing deck.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Popular for its large bathrooms and intimate size, the modern, boutique-style Stern am Rathaus boasts friendly staff and one of the city's best breakfasts. Another small hotel worth considering is Hotel Domstern, with hearty breakfasts and dedicated parking. Also popular is the refurbished CityClass Hotel Residence am Dom, with its ultra-modern décor and furniture.
- Budget Hotels: Affordable and an easy walk from Cologne Cathedral, Hotel Engelbertz is popular for tourists wanting a traditional German style hotel experience: small, intimate, and family-run. Other great budget choices in the Old Town include Ibis Koeln Am Dom, with its fun lounge overlooking the cathedral square, and the family-run Hotel Im Kupferkessel, with its cozy, brightly-painted rooms and homey dining area.