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Cologne, the Rhineland's largest city and Germany's fourth-largest, dates back to 38 B.C., when the Romans first started to settle in the area. By 50 A.D., "Colonia" was a major city, which would later become one of the most important trade and production centers in the Roman Empire. Significant Roman ruins can still be found in Cologne today, especially near the city's wharf area, in addition to 12 Romanesque churches.
Cologne's location on the river Rhine placed it at the intersection of the major trade routes between east and west, which was the basis for its continued growth through the Middle Ages. Construction of the famous Kolner Dom, the city's Gothic cathedral, started in 1248, consolidating its position as a place of great religious significance, as well as a trade hub (despite the fact that work stopped on the cathedral in 1473, leaving it unfinished until the 19th century).
Today, Cologne is the cultural heart of the Rhineland, with a vibrant arts scene, celebrated opera house, more than 30 museums and hundreds of galleries. The city has spread to both sides of the Rhine River, with the cathedral and Altstadt (Old Town) both located on the left bank. The cathedral is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and became a poignant symbol of the city's survival of the Allied aerial bombing during World War II. While some 95 percent of the city center was destroyed during the war, much of its medieval heart and churches were rebuilt according to original plans. Because of this, Cologne retains an authentic feel, with attractive open squares, pretty beer gardens and cozy wine taverns lining narrow, cobbled streets and the attractive riverfront.
Cologne is celebrated for its locally brewed beer, called Kolsch, with about 30 traditional brewing houses creating their own versions and selling them on-site in lively beer gardens and cellars. (Kolsch is also the name for the local dialect, resulting in the joke that Kolsch is the only language one can drink.) Considerable quantities of Kolsch are consumed each November, when carnival season transforms the city into one of Europe's biggest street festivals, with the numerous bars and pubs on Neumarkt square, Heumarkt and Zulpicher Strasse packed with people in costumes, dancing and drinking.
Whether you visit Cologne during the summer to make the most of the beer gardens and pretty landscaped riverbanks or during winter for the raucous Carnival or magical Christmas markets, you'll discover an intriguing, cosmopolitan city with bags of character. Furthermore, Cologne has a compact heart, which is easily navigated on foot, making it the perfect destination to explore from a cruise ship.
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Other Europe River Cruise Ports:
Antwerp • Arnhem • Berlin • Brugge (Bruges) • Brussels • Bucharest • Budapest • Cologne • Dresden • Ghent • Heidelberg • Honfleur • Koblenz • Lyon • Passau • Porto (Leixoes) • Prague • Rotterdam • Rudesheim • Strasbourg • Vienna
Buy a bottle of the original Eau de Cologne, the citrusy perfume first launched in the city in 1709 by the Italian perfumer, Giovanni Maria Farina. Today, Farina's eponymous shop on Julich's Square is the world's oldest fragrance factory and still sells bottles of what used to be called its aqua mirabilis (Latin: miracle water). Fortunately, while vials of Farina cost half the annual salary of a civil servant back in 1709, you can pick up little sample bottles today for a just few euros.
German is the local language, but English and French are widely understood and spoken in this multicultural city. A few handy phrases in German will always enamor you to the locals though, so try these:
Hello / good afternoon: Guten Tag (GOO-ten tahg)
Please / Thank you: Bitte / Danke (BIT-tuh/DAHN-kuh)
Yes / No: Ja / Nein (yah/nine)
Excuse me: Entschuldigen Sie (ent-SHOOL-de-gen zee)
Beer: Bier (beer)
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Germany's currency is the euro. Visit XE.com for current rates. ATMs and banks are plentiful, particularly around the cathedral, which is within walking distance of most river cruise mooring points, and credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants, bars and shops.
Where You're Docked
The precise mooring point given to river cruise ships arriving in Cologne is determined by the local port authorities upon arrival, but the locations basically stretch about a mile along the embankment between the Chocolate Factory and the city's central railway station. This location ensures the cathedral will be about 5 to 10 minutes' walk from your ship's berth and places you in the heart of the Old Town, perfect for popping out for a pre-dinner drink or post-prandial stroll.
The Old Town's strip of lively bars and restaurants along the Rhinegarten embankment makes for a perfect place to enjoy a drink or meal. Follow the steps and footpath that lead from the north end of the strip, just before the Hohenzollern railway bridge crosses the river, to the cathedral and Cologne's pedestrianized shopping street, Hohe Strasse.
On Foot: Virtually all of Cologne's tourist attractions are within an easy 15-minute walk of the river cruise moorings.
By Tram: Cologne has an efficient, safe underground tram and bus network. Short journeys (up to four stops) only require a "Kurzstrecke" (short trip ticket), but if you're planning to explore farther afield, one- and three-day passes are available for use across the system.
By Bike: If your cruise ship doesn't have bicycles you can use, you can hire one for the day very easily from the "Radstation" (bike station) in the city's main railway station from 5 euros for three hours.
By Taxi: Taxis are fairly easy to find near the Cathedral square. They run on meters.
Transport from / to the airport: Dusseldorf Airport is the best international hub for Cologne, located a 40-minute train ride from Cologne central station. Direct train services run frequently between the airport and central station and cost approximately 30 euros. Visit www.bahn.com for train times and costs and to pre-book your tickets.
Watch Out For
The tradition of Love Locks is said to have originated on the Ponte Milivio in Italy. Sweethearts stroll across a bridge together, afix a lock inscribed with their names to the structure and then toss the key into the river. Indeed, the Hohenzollern Bridge is so covered with padlocks that the bridge's operator threatened to saw them off until public outcry forced a change of heart. Local lads will often tug on the padlocks as they cross the bridge, so if you and your sweetheart do fix a Love Lock to Hohenzollern, make sure it's well attached, or your heart will be broken!
The Kolner Dom, Cologne's imposing cathedral, dates back to the 13th century and, as recognized by its UNESCO world heritage site status, is one of the world's finest examples of Gothic architecture. The biggest cathedral in Germany, the Kolner Dom is home to the Three Magi shrine, which holds the reliquaries of the Three Magi, brought to Cologne from Milan in 1164. It's also home to the Gero Cross (Northern Europe's earliest monumental cross, dating to 1000) and a 300-ton modern organ. The Dom's intricate towers became a haunting symbol of Cologne's survival of the Allied bombing raids during World War II, being one of the very few structures to survive. It is possible (and worth the effort) to climb the 509 stairs to the top of the south tower for stupendous views across the city and the Rhine. (Entry costs 3 euros.) If you're lucky, your visit might coincide with Night Fever, when the Dom is open to the public from 6 p.m. until midnight on the third Saturday of each month. Every visitor is given a candle to light, creating a sea of tiny flames at the base of the altar, and invited to enjoy the peace.
Enjoy a "Stangen" (0.2-liter glass) of local Kolsch beer at the authentic Paffgen Kolsch brewery, bar and restaurant. Kolsch has been brewed on these premises since 1884, and the same family still brews and serves its beers in this atmospheric spot, located on Friesenstrasse, just off the Heumarkt square. Not only can you sample the beer, but you can also enjoy a tour of the brewery itself.
There are no fewer than 12 beautifully preserved Romanesque churches to be found within Cologne's ancient city walls, more than any other German city. If you don't have time to see all of them, be sure to visit St. Gereon's Basilica -- a beautiful and unusual Roman Catholic church built on the remains of (still visible) Roman walls -- which boasts the largest dome built in the West between the erection of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia in the 6th century and the Duomo of Florence in the 15th century.
Shopaholics should head directly for the pedestrianized Hohe Strasse, which is lined with boutiques, international high street stores and cafes. Be sure to visit the celebrated Cologne chocolatier Stollwerck and Leonhard Tietz, the flagship store of the upmarket German department store Galeria Kaufhof.
Been There, Done That
Attend a concert at the Kolner Philarmonie. Cologne's impressive concert hall is consistently rated among Germany's top five and offers a selection of world-class performances from diverse international artists. The annual Summer Festival, which runs from July to August, has been running for more than 25 years, with music and dance performances in venues across the city.
Visit the NS -- Dokumentationszentrum (Museum of the History of National Socialism); located in the former Gestapo (secret police) prison, which operated in Cologne from December 1935 to March 1945. The permanent exhibition deals with political and social life in Cologne during Nazi rule and makes for a deeply moving experience. (Tel. 0221/2212-6332. Appellhofplatz 23-25. Open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Take a ride on the Kolner Seilbahn (Cologne's gondola) for unbeatable views of the city, including the cathedral and the Rhine snaking its way through. The gondola operates from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from mid-March to early November (check www.koelner-seilbahn.de for precise dates), with special nighttime rides offered on select nights. The gondola is located at 180 Riehler Strasse, by the zoo -- it's a 30-minute walk along the left bank of the Rhine from the cathedral, and you can walk back on the opposite bank, through the attractive Rhine Park. Alternatively, take the number 18 tram or 140 bus to the Zoo/Flora stop.
German food has a reputation for being hearty and somewhat stodgy, with an emphasis on meat ("Wurst" or sausages, in particular), potatoes (Germany is one of the world's top potato-consuming countries) and bread. There is considerable regional variation, with the culinary influences of the country's international neighbors reflected in local dishes. Thus, in the Rhineland region, you'll pick up hints of Belgium and the Netherlands in dishes like Halver Hahn (a giant slab of Dutch gouda with a Roggelchen or rye roll) and Dicke Bunne mit Speck (boiled white beans with hefty boiled bacon slices on top).
Cologne boasts a decent selection of international restaurants in addition to traditional ones, but you shouldn't miss enjoying at least one locally brewed Kolsch (beer) and some nibbles in one of the city's old brewery taps in the Old Town, preferably sitting in the sunshine on the Rhinegarten embankment.
The brewery taps in the Old Town and along the Rhinegarten embankment are all atmospheric, if touristy, and serve traditional Rhineland dishes. They are more expensive than similar establishments located deeper in the city, such as the excellent Paffgen (see Don't Miss). The pick of the bunch there is Fruh am Dom, located just behind the cathedral for more than 100 years. The property now comprises the traditional brewery, a cozy Keller (bar in the cellar), attractive beer garden and the contemporary HOF 18 Restaurant. Classic local cuisine -- such as "Himmel und Ad mit Flonz" (fried black pudding with mashed potatoes, apple sauce and fried onions) and "Reibekuchen" (flat fried potato cakes served with a variety of sweet or savory toppings) -- is served. (Am Hof 12-18. Tel. 0221/2613-215. The brewery and bar are open Monday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to midnight; HOF 18 Restaurant is open Monday to Saturday, noon to midnight; and Sundays, noon to 10 p.m.)
Brauhaus im Walfisch is a charming restaurant located in the Old Town near the Heumarkt in an atmospheric gabled brewery, which dates back to 1626. The food is consistently good, with a wide selection of brewery classics, succulent steaks and an entire section of the menu dedicated to Schnitzels (breaded cutlets). Portions are generous and prices very reasonable. (Salzgasse 13. Tel. 0221/2577-879. Open Monday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Fridays from 3 p.m. to midnight; weekends from 11 a.m. to midnight.)
The charming Stapelhauschen (the little pile house), located on the Rhinegarten embankment, is one of the few medieval houses in Cologne to have survived World War II, and it dates back to 1100. Today, the popular wine tavern and restaurant serves imaginative local dishes, such as poached trout with parsley potatoes, Pfifferling (mushroom) risotto and Rheinischer Sauerbraten (marinated and roasted meat) with almonds, raisins and potato dumplings. (Fischmarkt 1-3. Tel. 0221/272-7777. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.)
The Hanse Stube, located in the family-owned Excelsior Hotel Ernst, is consistently rated amongst Cologne's best restaurants for good reason. The tasteful decor (mahogany paneling and furniture, cream soft furnishings and pieces of original art) provides the perfect backdrop for faultless service and exquisite modern French cuisine. Signature dishes include quail filled with chanterelles on truffled summer vegetables and port wine jus and fried scallops and jelly of saffron and sepia. (Trankgasse 1-5 / Domplatz. Tel. 0221-2701. Open Monday to Sunday, 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to midnight.)
Le Moissonier has been Cologne's favorite French brasserie for 25 years, serving classic stalwarts (moules and steak frites), as well as innovative dishes like octopus fritters, braised rabbit and calf sweetbreads, and an unbeatable cheeseboard. The French owners are as passionate about wine as they are about food, so prepare for a feast. (Krefelder Strasse 25. Tel. 0221/729-479. Open Tuesday to Thursday, 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight.)
Close to the city center and port: If you want to be in the centre of the action, the Stapelhauschen (see Dining) is located in the heart of the Old Town, directly on the Rhinegarten embankment. (Fischmarkt 1-3; +41 (0)221 272 7777.) The contemporary 4-star Hotel Lyskirchen is also located on the embankment, has spacious well-appointed rooms and does great breakfasts. (Filzengraben 26; +41 (0)221 20970.)
Comfortable and good value: Located a mile's walk from the cathedral, the Barcelo Cologne City Center Hotel opens directly onto one of Cologne's most famous squares, Rudolfplatz. This is a smart, cosmopolitan hotel with good amenities and tons of atmosphere. (Habsburgerring 9; +41 (0)221 2280.) The Coellner Hof is a comfortable, traditionally styled and great value 3-star hotel on Ebertplatz, about 10 minutes' walk from the cathedral. (Hansaring 100; +41 (0)221 16660.)
Splurge: Hotel im Wasserturm is a truly remarkable hotel, not only because it's housed in Europe's tallest water tower. A lengthy, multimillion-pound conversion morphed the tower into an 11-story, avant-garde hotel in 1990, propelling it straight into Germany's top 10 luxury hotels. Contemporary interiors, dotted with original artwork by artists like Andy Warhol, make the most of the property's unusual cylindrical shape. Located about a mile from the cathedral, the hotel's two-Michelin-starred La Vision restaurant (located at the top of the tower, with sweeping views across the city) and Harry's Bar are both popular with locals, as well as guests. (Kaygasse 2; +41 (0)221 20080.)
Staying in Touch
There are plenty of bars and cafes that offer free Wi-Fi in Cologne, advertised by stickers on the front doors or windowss. The Via-Phone InternetCafe (Marzellenstrasse 3), just two minutes' walk from the cathedral, is friendly, well-priced and has several computer terminals in addition to wireless Internet access.
Many of the major river cruise lines spend a full day, and often an evening or night, in Cologne when sailing along the Rhine. With the mooring points so well located for walking into the city, the vast majority of shore excursions are half-day guided walking tours, which take in the highlights (the cathedral, Old Town, Jewish Quarter and some of the Romanesque churches), leaving passengers with free time afterward to explore other sights, such as the Hohe Strasse and Chocolate Museum, or ride the gondola. AmaWaterways offers a guided bicycle tour as an alternative to a walking tour.
Some themed cruises offer more off-the-beaten-track activities, like a string quartet recital in the late medieval castle of Burg Konradsheim, a spectacular castle located about 30 minutes' drive from the center of Cologne.
For More Information
On the Web: Cologne Tourism
Or phone the Cologne Tourism hotline in advance of your trip: +49 221 30400
Cruise Critic Message Boards: River Cruise Ports - Europe
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Germany
--by Gabriella Le Breton, Cruise Critic contributor