Cologne, Germany is known for its gothic cathedral and its unique Kölsch beer. It's also the birthplace of the world's first eau de cologne and home to some of the best shopping in the country. Bring a big appetite and good walking shoes when visiting this German city because there's lots to eat and explore.
1. Climb to the top of Cologne Cathedral.
Located in the center of Cologne's Old Town, it'd be hard to miss the behemoth Cologne Cathedral with its two massive towers. Construction on the gothic structure began in the 13th century and it can hold more than 20,000 people. It is said to house the remains of the biblical Three Wise Men, making it an important pilgrimage site for devout Christians. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. Pay a small fee to climb the 533 steps to the top of the highest spire for a panoramic view of the city.
2. Taste Kölsch Beer.
When you envision drinking beer in Germany, images of dirndl-clad, sturdy women wielding giant mugs of beer in raucous beer gardens may spring to mind. In Cologne, however, the city's signature Kölsch beer is served in elegant thin glasses. The light, slightly fruity brew is cool-fermented and then aged and mellowed (or “lagered”) near the freezing point. It's Germany's only true, all-barley, pale ale and is difficult to find outside of the country.
Every brewhouse in town makes their own version of Kölsch, making brewery tours a popular activity for visitors. My husband and I signed up for an optional Cologne Beer Culture shore excursion during our Viking River Cruise and had a ball sipping cold beers with our fellow cruisers.
3. Stop and smell the Eau de Cologne.
Have you ever wondered why perfume is sometimes called eau de cologne, or simply cologne? It all started with a very spendy scent created in this German city by the Italian Farina family. The perfume was named originally named Eau de Cologne, or “Water from Cologne” in French. One of the oldest fragrances in the world that is still produced today, Farina's perfume was created in 1709. It was originally sold exclusively to royalty and the extremely wealthy for an exorbitant price tag. Sign up online in advance for a historical tour of the Farina Fragrance Museum in English (or German or other languages). Or simply pop in to the on-site store to buy a souvenir bottle of the unisex citrus-scented fragrance, now affordably priced so mere commoners can make the purchase.
The most well-known eau de cologne is 4711 Eau de Cologne, so named for the perfumerie's original street number. Today you can attend a fragrance workshop and purchase the 4711 original scent and many newer perfume options at the flagship store in Cologne.
4. Eat German specialties.
Pork knuckles are all the rave in Cologne and THE place to try this delicacy is at Haxenhaus (or Knuckle House). Expect river views, singing and dancing, cold Kölsch beer, and tender pork knuckles served with dumplings and cabbage. Although I didn't partake in this specialty, my Viking cruise friends raved about the dish.
A Viking River Cruise tour guide pointed us to Sion Am Ring for lunch, where we enjoyed huge sausages served with a heaping plateful of potato salad for me and saurkraut and French fries for my husband. I was so taken aback by the large portion sizes that I asked the waiter if we were supposed to order one serving between the two of us. When he said no, I asked if most diners actually finish their meals. He laughed and said, “Of course, we're German!” Even the table of German diners sitting next to us found our meager appetites laughable. Although we weren't able to clean our plates, the food was delicious and we later determined that Sion was home to the tastiest Kölsch from our samplings in town when we returned here during our brewpub tour.
Hungry for a little snack? Nothing in Germany is small, so indulge in a huge handmade pretzel to tide yourself over between sausage and pork knuckles.
If you're craving something sweet, grab a berliner (jelly-filled doughnut). Although this is a specialty of Berlin (hence the name), these sweets were ever present in Cologne. Our Viking River Cruise tour guide pointed at this tempting display of goodies and said, “Look! It's the Berliner Wall.” (Get it?!)
5. Shop in Cologne, Germany.
Whenever we mentioned shopping to Viking staff during our Rhine Getaway cruise, they would get almost giddy with the prospect of making purchases in Cologne. Indeed, this city will delight any shopping lover with everything from souvenir shops and well-known name chains to high-end clothiers and jewelry stores. Cologne is home to the self-proclaimed best-loved shopping streets in all of Germany, Hohe Straße and Schildergasse.
6. Relax at Fountain of the Elves.
Heinzelmännchen Fountain, or Fountain of the Elves, is named for the mythical house gnomes of Cologne. According to legend, miniature elves did all of the work of the citizens of Cologne during the night, so that the city's inhabitants could relax during the day. A curious housewife accidentally scared off the industrious gnomes, forcing Cologne residents back to work. The fountain depicts the housewife searching for the elves with a lantern.
7. Find good fortune.
Be sure to get a dose of good luck before departing Cologne, Germany. Just outside the city's popular Hänneschen puppet theater, you'll find bronze statues of Cologne characters, Tünnes and Schäl. It is said that rubbing the bulbous nose of Tünnes will bring good luck. His proboscis has been shined from the many hands of those seeking good fortune.
Which of these tasty and fun things to do in Cologne, Germany appeals most to you? Let us know in the comments below!
A Note from The Travel Mama: Our cruise and optional excursion were hosted by Viking River Cruises. All opinions are mine, as always.