One Day in Cologne
Over the most recent winter vacation, I went to Cologne, Germany, or Köln. I’d heard good things about the city but knew very little, so what I ended up doing I decided pretty much as I went. Here’s my day-and-a-half itinerary for the city for anyone who makes it there.
The Belgisches Viertel or Belgian Quarter is a hipster neighborhood in the city, not too far from the center. There are many cafés, independent boutiques, murals, and interesting laundromats. Siebter Himmel is a must-visit gift shop if like me, you’re a sucker for journals and seeing what sorts of English greeting cards they sell in non-native English speaking countries.
There are many Southeast Asian restaurants in the Belgian Quarter, including Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Indonesian, as well as casual German food like Herr Pimcock and Salon Schmitz. I had cheap Thai at a popular order-at-the counter local chain called Krua Thai (cash only), and though I didn’t go there, my hostel recommended a Vietnamese place, Saigon Pho.
Päffgen Brauhaus is on just about every list of what to do in Cologne. Like several local brauhauses or breweries, they make their own kolsch, the beer of the city.
They serve the beer in a thin, 20 centiliter glass called a Stange for around 1,75 Euros. Servers carry 12 glasses at a time in a circular wreath-like tray. Don’t be fooled by how nonchalantly the waiters cart around these trays. They look heavy, like they’ve been around since the Middle Ages, maybe back then used as some kind of torture device.
When you finish a glass, the server gives you another without asking. He then writes a tick mark on your coaster and adds them up at the end to figure out your bill. If you don’t want another, you are supposed to put your coaster over your empty glass — or just tell the server you are finished.
(Let me digress for a moment and say how much I love that everywhere you go in Europe, they have an option to order beer in a size smaller than a pint. In America you see this in craft breweries, but not in most bars).
You can also order classic German brauhaus food. I spent awhile scrutinizing the menu and looking up definitions, but the waiter, though initially intimidating, helped me choose what I thought was a good dish of some kind of blood sausage, potatoes, and stewed apples. As with most people in German cities I’ve visited, he spoke English and also talked to me a bit about his travels in France after finding out I was living there as well as what to do in Köln.
Third Wave Coffee
Living in a small city in France, I miss American style third wave coffee, a term I feel like a pretentious doofus using but which basically means using high quality methods to make and serve coffee. The coffee is often filtered in some kind of drip method like a Chemex rather than made as espresso, although traditional espresso machines are used.
Because these coffee shops and the American style “big” cup of coffee is one of the things I miss most about my country, every time I’m in a city, I try to go to a third wave coffee shop. In Köln, I went to Heilandt Kaffeemanufaktur in the Belgian Quarter. The café has comfortable mid-century modern style chairs and a rack of newspaper sticks with the major German papers. If I ever go back to reading print newspapers, I’m going to invest in one of these!
Walking Tour of Köln
I went to a walking tour that was advertised at my hostel from Can You Handle It? Tours. Meeting near Rudolfplatz, we walked around the center city, learning about, among other things, the city hall, why there is a gold Ford Fiesta on top of the Cologne City museum (and in the land of BMW and Mercedes of all places), and the gold stones in the ground that commemorate the former dwellings of Holocaust victims. The tour guide was a Köln transplant originally from Bolivia and admitted to not speaking great English. Though he was very nice and tried to give as much information as he could, the language was a barrier. That said, the tour was free, although with the understanding that you tip the guide, and he was especially friendly and helpful at answering questions.
The Cologne Cathedral or Köln Dom is Germany’s most visited site. The largest Gothic church in Northern Europe, this Catholic church was worked on for more than 200 years, from 1248 to 1473, until building was halted. Construction resumed in the 1800s and finally finished by 1880. Though the Dom suffered serious damage from bombing, it survived World War II, unlike most of the destroyed city. Like many city churches, you can climb it and get a view of the city, but being a little church-ed out at this point in my time in Europe, I just did a quick peak-in and peak out.
Wallraf-Richartz is one of my favorite kinds of art museums: small enough that you can get through its medieval-to-modern collection in one afternoon. This is what I did, starting with the religious scenes on the ground floor and working my way through all of the other rooms, including Dutch landscapes, German Renaissance era altarpieces, and French impressionist paintings. (For more recent art, go to the Museum Ludwig, which is the city’s modern art museum).
At the time I was there, the museum featured an exhibit about American art before 1945 called “Once Upon a Time in America: 300 Years of U.S.-American Art.” The museum noted that pre-1945 art from the United States is rarely shown in Europe, and it was interesting to see American art presented from a European and German perspective. While the exhibit was not exhaustive it presented a nice representation from many of America’s key movements and eras, including the Hudson River School, colonial era works from John Copley and Benjamin West, Native American art, and American realism like Edward Hopper.
Köln is known for its bathhouses, and one of the best rated is called Neptunebad, in the Ehrenfeld neighborhood. The first thing to know about this bathhouse if you’re a self-conscious American like me is that bathing suits are not allowed. You walk around in a robe or towel, but when entering the pools, saunas, and steam rooms, you are nude (although, you bring your towel into the sauna and steam room to sit on).
Even though I was a little reticent about going to a spa where everyone was naked, I knew that everyone else there would have less of a hangup than me, since they are raised in a culture where it’s not a big deal. I have a friend from Finland who told me that in her country, which invented saunas, it is common not only to sit in them naked but to do so at work events. This means it’s perfectly normal to see your boss naked. As horrifying as the thought of that is to me, I know equally that were I raised in Finland I would probably not give it a second thought.
Anyway, most of Neptunebad is laid out on two stories. The ground floor is arranged around a large swimming pool, around which is a shower area, three saunas of varying temperatures and three hot tubs. (The hot tubs are not as hot as what we are used to in the U.S). The second story is outside, with another (kind of) hot tub, pool, and several saunas, which made for a cosy experience in February. Off this outdoor area, stairs lead to a pool in an art nouveau-like cave, several steam rooms, and more showers. There are even classes in the steam rooms and saunas. All over the bathhouse, there are reclining, cushioned lounge chairs. You can also book massages and get food and drink from the restaurant.
A few things to note: you must have a towel, you can also have a bathrobe and flip flops. If you don’t have these things with you, you can rent them at the front desk. The total cost during the week was 19,50 Euros. The towel was 3,50 and bathrobe was 6,50. A list of all prices in English is available on their website.
Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park is part of a belt of parkland that rambles along the outskirts of the inner city. It has pond, trails, and a hill. If you’re staying in the Belgian Quarter (in German: Belgisches Viertel), it’s a convenient place to go for a walk or a jog. When the weather is warmer the Aachener Weiher Biergarten opens, which Culture Trip says is one of the city’s best beer gardens.
There are a lot of budget options in Cologne, which didn’t feel as expensive as some other cities, like Stuttgart. I stayed at one of the city’s best ranked hostels, Die Wohngemeinschaft Hostel (which means commune), which has themed rooms, quality showers, and lockers with locks — all for less than 30 Euros a night. Their 7 Euro breakfast is very good. It includes meats and cheeses, rolls, “morning oats,” cereal, fruit, and more.