Everything you need to know to plan the perfect trip to Cologne, including the best things to do, how to get there, how many days you need in Cologne, and more.
Cologne is one of the most historic cities in Germany. Stretching all the way back to the times of the Roman Empire, Cologne has been a city of great regional significance for quite a long time. It’s location on the Rhine River made it a strategic location for both militaries and businesses, and pieces of each part of its extensive history are still on display to this day. This post will cover everything you need to know about planning a trip to Cologne and will answer the pressing question “Is Cologne worth visiting?”
Best Things to Do in Cologne
Cologne is a city with an extremely diverse past. This past has led to the formation of several really unique places to check out during your visit. From astounding architecture to mouthwatering treats, this list of the best things to do in Cologne has a little something for everyone.
1. Visit the Cologne Cathedral
The Cologne Cathedral, or Kölner Dom in German, is easily the most iconic spot in Cologne. It is one of the most epic churches in all of Europe, and the inside is just as grand as the outside. The cathedral’s construction began almost 800 years ago, and its grandeur has persisted throughout those eight centuries without letting up. Many travelers plan a trip to Cologne just to see the cathedral!
The church deserves a visit whether you are Catholic or not, but if you are interested, it is also an incredible place to attend mass. The acoustics are unreal. If that isn’t really your speed, think about visiting the crypt underneath, were several kings and emperors and their families are buried. The Cologne Cathedral has things that would intrigue anyone, and its grandeur alone earns it the top spot on this list of the best things to do in Cologne.
2. Indulge at the Cologne Chocolate Museum
If you have a sweet tooth, the Cologne Chocolate Museum is a place you really can’t miss. This museum is the result of a new owner’s creativity a few decades ago, as he wanted to transform the traditional chocolate factory into a means of educating and preserving history alongside the chocolate production.
The chocolate factory itself is still running. So, a visit to the Cologne Chocolate Museum provides the chance to learn about the history of chocolate, watch it being produced, and even create your own chocolate bar to take home. This is a great activity to fill up an itinerary and definitely belongs on the list of the best things to do in Cologne.
3. Absorb the Stellar Views from the Cologne Cable Car
There is a lot of beauty to absorb in Cologne, and every angle of the city gives you a whole new perspective on it. Every block and alley offers its own charm, and you could wander endlessly and never run out of charming sights to see.
Still, If the downtown views themselves get boring or you seek to see the whole city from a bird’s-eye view, you need to check out the cable car. Cologne’s cable car is about 75 years old, and it was the first cable car in Europe to cross a river. Over those 75 years, the cable car has carried almost 20 million passengers and has earned the reputation as the safest means of transportation in Cologne due to its flawless safety record. For more information about the Cologne cable car, or Seilbahn in German, visit the Cologne cable car company’s website.
4. Learn about Cologne’s Troubled Past at the NS Documentation Center
The NS Documentation Center is not a fun place to visit, but it is definitely an important one. This building was used as the central headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo throughout the Nazi era. Since the end of that dark chapter in history, the building has been used as a vessel of preserving this history so that its horrible effects are never forgotten.
The museum has several floors and is highly educational, but there is none more famous or humbling than the basement. The basement was used as a prison and torture facility for over a decade, and it is considered to be one of the best-preserved Nazi detention centers in the world. The carvings and writings on the walls of the confinement cells are still fully intact, and the horrific hatred that the Nazis held towards these people is visibly sickening. This is not the most elaborate or sizable Holocaust museum I have visited, but it is certainly one of the realest and most humbling. I love history, and I think that learning about this dark part of the city’s past is one of the best things to do in Cologne. This museum is the best place to start. For more information about the NS Documentation Center, visit the museum’s website.
5. Admire Fine Art at the Wallraf-Richartz & Ludwig Museums
While we are not devoted art lovers, we certainly appreciate a fine collection of artwork. The Wallraf-Richartz Museum and the Ludwig Museum are exactly that, and are the two best art museums that Cologne has to offer. The building that they are housed in is new and marvelous in and of itself, but the artworks housed within it are worth a fortune as well.
The most notable artists whose works are housed in these museums are Rembrandt, Manet, Slevogt, Liebermann, and Renoir, and there is no shortage of other high quality works on display. Each of these museums focuses on curating a different style of artwork, and there are also several other museums located within the building. Visiting these museums is by far one of the best things to do in Cologne, especially for art lovers.
6. Enjoy a Dinner Cruise on the Rhine River
I personally love fine meals and having an excuse to dress up. Dinner cruises often tend to be the perfect opportunity. When you look into the best river cruises in the world, ones on the Rhine River and the Danube River are often at the top of the list. Cologne is located directly on the Rhine river and offers a great chance for you to take advantage of the romantic ambiance that a dinner cruise can offer.
Whenever I am in a city that sits along a river, I love exploring options for dinner cruises. In addition to Cologne, have been on Dinner cruises on the Vltava River in Prague, the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, the Seine River in Paris, the Huangpu River in Shanghai, and more. Each time is a unique and enjoyable experience, and I highly recommend looking into a river cruise on the Rhine if you have the time!
How to Get to Cologne
To start, I’ll answer the question of how to get to Cologne from an international origin. I’ll talk about domestic and close international travel afterwards. If you are far enough away that you need to fly to Cologne – which is most visitors – you have several different airport choices to utilize. They are Cologne Bonn International Airport (CGN), Dusseldorf International Airport (DUS), and Frankfurt International Airport (FRA).
Cologne Bonn International Airport (CGN)
Cologne Bonn International Airport (CGN) is the easiest and simplest in terms of landing and getting to Cologne. It is Cologne’s airport, after all, so it ought to be easy. Cologne Bonn International Airport is where I flew into, and it was a very practical and easy option. If money isn’t a major restraint for you, I’d absolutely just find the best flight into Cologne Bonn airport and call it a day. There are not going to be many (if any) direct flights from anywhere outside of Europe, but you can get to this airport from most places in the world with only one layover. Once you arrive, the city is only about 10 minutes away from the airport, and you can either take a bus or an Uber.
Dusseldorf International Airport (DUS)
Dusseldorf International Airport is a great option if you are looking to save time or money on the flight itself. Dusseldorf has the third busiest airport in all of Germany, meaning that you have a great chance of landing good flight options or deals. Dusseldorf is going to have a lot more direct international flight routes available, and the size of the airport could make your overall airfare decrease as well. In my guide on finding cheap flights I wrote about the benefits of hub airports, and getting to Cologne via the Dusseldorf airport is often a solid example of that.
Personally, this is probably what I would choose to do if coming from outside of Europe, but that is because I look for the most practical flight option. To me, a cheaper flight is always better as long as it doesn’t double the trip time. Dusseldorf is only a one hour train ride from Cologne, and a one hour train from Dusseldorf coupled with a direct flight is probably faster than a flight with a layover, anyway.
Frankfurt International Airport (FRA)
Frankfurt International Airport might actually be the best option of them all if you value direct flights or lower airfare. Frankfurt is one of the busiest airports in Germany and offers the most international routes in the country. If you are coming from a far origin like the Americas, Africa, or Asia, Frankfurt is your best chance of getting a direct flight. The train from Frankfurt’s central train station to Cologne takes only a touch over an hour.
Frankfurt International Airport is served by many major international airlines – it is a Lufthansa hub – as well as many top European budget airlines. If you are skeptical about flying on budget airlines, don’t be. I’m a huge fan of budget airlines! They are honestly so practical for so many situations. For tips about flying on budget airlines and avoiding hidden fees, be sure to check out my top tips for flying on budget airlines.
Europe’s train systems are very highly regarded, and arguably no country’s train system is better than Germany’s. Germany has a really strong reputation for punctuality, and usually their trains are accurate to the minute. Germany’s train system is very well connected domestically, and its cities are also very well connected to international train lines.
Cologne isn’t directly connected to most major European cities, but it is usually no more than one train change away. There are direct trains from Cologne to Amsterdam and Brussels, as well as a handful of other international cities and most major northwestern German cities. To book rail travel, I highly recommend thetrainline.com. This website provides great information on train routes and gives you the ability to instantly book your trains as well.
How to Get around Cologne
U-BAHN | S-BAHN | TRAMS | BUSES | TAXIS | BIKE | ELECTRIC SCOOTER | UBER
Cologne is a relatively small city, but it is pretty well endowed with public transportation. The subway and light rail, respectively the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn in German, connect the city very well for 1.90 Euros per trip. There is also a very extensive bus network that charges the same price and is a great alternative when the S-Bahn and U-Bahn can’t get you where you want to go. Cologne has a tram system, but it tends to be slower and less well-connected than the subway and light rail while still charging the same price.
If you are trying to do the main tourist attractions in Cologne, renting a bike is a great option. The city is very bikeable and there are rental options all over the place. Another popular method of transportation is shareable electric scooters, like Lime and Bird. This is how we chose to get around most of the time, and these scooters are honestly one of our favorite transportation methods when we travel. If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, be sure to check out this post on shareable electric scooters.
If you aren’t a scooter or bike type of person and the public transportation system can’t get you where you want to go, Cologne is served by Uber and the prices are fair. This is always a great back up option and definitely can save you time in a pinch. If you are nervous about using Uber in a foreign country, make sure to read my post about using Uber safely internationally.
How Many Days Do You Need in Cologne?
I’ve said a few times throughout this post that Cologne is a really cool German city to visit, but it doesn’t necessarily merit its own transatlantic vacation.
After spending some significant time there, I would say that you can explore all of the best things to do in Cologne in 3-4 days at the absolute most.
I think visiting for 2 nights is the perfect sweet spot, as you have some time to explore on the day that you arrive, you have the full second day, and you have a bit of time on the last day to do anything on your list that you still have left.
Wondering how many days you need in Cologne is a very valid question, and the answer isn’t the same for everyone. However, unless you have a certain calling bringing you to Cologne – like family ties, historic interests, or studies – I think a weekend or a long weekend is plenty of time.
When Is the Best Time of the Year to Visit Cologne?
Cologne is in northwestern Germany, meaning it is by no means a paradise destination. Many people don’t realize that Europe as a whole is cooler and further north than the United States – for example, Rome is around the same latitude as Philadelphia! London and Cologne are approximately on the same latitude line, which is about the same as Toronto, Canada. While you can’t expect the weather to be exactly the same across the ocean, you should definitely consider that winters in Cologne are no walk in the park.
Cologne winters are pretty cold, and the shoulder seasons have the potential of not being too pretty either. While I am normally a big proponent of traveling during low seasons, Cologne is one destination where that gets a little bit more questionable.
I visited in March, and the weather was pretty dreary. I would recommend visiting right before or right after the summer, but just beware that the rest of the tourists will have the same idea! If you want a more relaxed visit with less people around, late spring – like April – might be a good bet.
Is Cologne Worth Visiting?
Cologne is a very unique city, and it is a place that I definitely do recommend checking out. I wouldn’t say that Cologne is the best destination in the country, but it did make my list of the top 5 cities to visit in Germany. It is hard to compete with the iconic museums in Berlin and the beer halls of Munich, but I think Cologne has enough unique history and culture that set it apart and make it worth your time – especially if you have extra room in your trip that you are looking to fill. From great museums and a very unique history to fantastic food and beautiful sites to see, the best things to do in Cologne can keep any tourist entertained!
Now, would I recommend going on a week-long trip to Cologne all the way from the United States? No, probably not. But if you have already checked off some other big German destinations and are looking to get a feel for a new region of Germany, the answer to our question of “is Cologne worth visiting?” is a resounding yes! The city is very unique and is worth adding to any trip itinerary for at least a couple of days.
If you’re planning a trip to Cologne, let us know! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have.