German culture and I have never quite hit it off. I can appreciate their timeliness and efficiency but personally I have always been more drawn to places where you kiss upon greeting and invite strangers you just met to dinner. However I can still have a really amazing time when visiting the country, like I surely did in Cologne, even if I know I don’t want to pack up and move there.
I knew we were in Germany when on the way to Cologne from Amsterdam, Alex was in the bathroom and this old German woman asked me in German if she could sit in the empty seat next to me. I neither understand nor speak German but of course I knew what she meant. “Someone is sitting here and no you can’t sit here sorry”, I motioned to her and said aloud in English. It took her a second, but she understood my point finally and sat in the seat behind and diagonally across. When Alex took longer than expected coming back from the bathroom, the old lady got my attention and scolded me in German like I have never been scolded. She accused me of lying about the seat being taken and I’ve never seen someone so physically upset before. There was nothing I could say of course except nod my head vigorously and insist that “yes” there is someone coming while pointing towards the back of the train but she didn’t buy it. Anxiously I waited for Alex to get back and then finally when he did I got her attention and pointed at Alex and gave her my best bitch face. That only made her more upset since she had incorrectly accused me of lying and proceeded to angrily say more things to me in German. Fortunately she got off at the next stop although I can’t really understand why she needed to make such a scene about the situation in the first place. Welcome to Germany.
Our three days in Cologne were the perfect amount of busy and relaxed. As far as historical buildings and sites go, there is a very manageable number. There is a reason for this of course. In case you don’t know, between the years 1942 and 1945 Cologne was left in ruin. Nearly 90% of the Old Town was destroyed and around 72% of the entire city area. Incredibly, almost no time was wasted to start rebuilding the city after the war. Today the city is a lovely place to visit and I imagine a comfortable place to live. Getting around the city is unbelievably convenient. The metro is massive, the trams are clean and efficient and the bike lanes are extensive and safe. There is endless fresh Kölsch, the style of beer unique to Cologne, affordable bars and restaurants, a lot of diversity and many students. Many young Germans in Frankfurt even refer to Cologne as the “cool city”.
We were fortunate to stay with one of Alex’s friends who is originally from Seattle, but living in Cologne with her boyfriend for the foreseeable future as they are both attending school. It was so nice to have her showing us around the city and she took us to her favorite places. Their spacious and nice apartment was about a 25 minute tram ride + 15 minute walk outside the city (area called Porz), but getting out into the lush, green nature was a breath of fresh air after city life in desert-climate Madrid this whole year. And it was so nice and quiet! There is a benefit to their city-wide mandatory quiet hours-those silly Germans. Below are some top places/things I recommend in hopes of convincing you to check out Cologne.
Where to Eat
I think this just might be the best falafel I’ve had outside of Israel. A falafel wrap was only a couple Euros and filled with eggplant, carrots and a few other veggies and with a spicy sauce. Alex and I each got one to go and then walked a few minutes to the university campus and ate in the enormous and beautiful grassy park/field.
I wouldn’t expect to find a goulash restaurant in Cologne but the place is practically an institution having opened in 1948. There is only one item on the menu- goulash, a spicy meat stew with paprika and served with a roll. It only costs about 4 Euros for a bowl and you get a refill of the soup, no beef the second time around though. I tried the broth and it was really good, but since I don’t eat meat I passed on my own order and just enjoyed a fresh kölsch instead. My friends I was with though loved it.
Kölsch is Cologne’s signature beer. It is a clear, all-barley pale ale with a bright, straw-yellow hue and is similar to your standard German pale lager. If you have had bottled kölsch before, whether you liked it or not you absolutely have to try it fresh in Cologne. It is refreshing and delicious. You are served kölsch in small glasses and until you cover your glass with your coaster, servers will walk around carrying trays of kölsch, checking for empty glasses, giving you a refill and adding a tally marker to your coaster to indicate how many glasses you have had. When it’s time to pay, your tallies are counted and each glass is usually no more than a couple Euros.
We had lunch at two of the beer houses while we were there. Gaffel which was perfectly situated for a bike ride there and then sitting out front on a quaint street and people-watching. We also ate/drank at Brauerei Päffgen where we watched one of the EuroCup games outside in their lovely courtyard.
Matrosen Grill for Currywurst and Fries
This is your basic German currywurst stand. We ended up going here twice because it is so conveniently located along the Rhine and right off the bike path. If you aren’t familiar with it, currywurst is Germany’s iconic fast food dish of steamed, then fried pork sausage and normally cut into slices with curry ketchup on top. I have had a vegan version in Munich that I was crazy about but I know from meat-eaters that the normal version is also great. For me, I just stuck to fries, you can get your bratwurst here as well (German sausage).
If you happen to find yourself in Porz then you should certainly stop by this bakery. We went there for breakfast two mornings and bought some delicious pastries and coffee cake to take back to where we were staying and eat out on the terrace. Even if you aren’t going to Porz, then still try to hit up a German bakery because their breads and pastries and especially coffee cakes are all amazing. I am a huge fan of hearty, brown German bread. The link in the name is its closest location I can pinpoint. I can’t for the life of me remember the name but it’s right next door to that Google maps location. But really just go to a local bakery in Cologne and you will be very glad you did.
What to See
As soon as you walk out of Cologne’s train station you are confronted with a massive cathedral right in front of you at 515 ft tall (157 m). Construction of the church began in 1248 and wasn’t complete until 1880. It is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and likely the most impressive cathedral I have ever seen. Entrance is free and the inside is also remarkable where you can appreciate it’s extreme height. Although the cathedral suffered 14 hits by bombs during WWII, it still remained standing amongst a city that was almost completely flattened.
It’s cheesy sure, but it’s worth a walk across and the views are fantastic. This is Cologne’s famous love lock bridge and also the most heavily used railway bridge in Germany. Fortunately the bridge was built for train travel so the heavy locks shouldn’t cause it to collapse anytime soon. You will have a difficult time finding available space to place your lock if that is your aim.
The parks surrounding the campus are green and inviting. On a nice day everyone is outside having a picnic, tossing frisbees and just hanging out. It is legal to drink outside so grab a couple beers and go chill in the lush grass. Also check out some of the really cool modern architecture like one of the campus buildings pictured above.
Biking Along the Rhine
Cologne is such a bike-friendly city! It is flat, there are safe bike lanes throughout the city and beautiful trails to ride along the Rhine River. We were fortunate to have two friends in Cologne that lent us their bikes and it was the ideal way to get around the city. From our friend’s place out in Porz, we would bike into the center of Cologne through some beautiful nature trails and ride directly next to the Rhine with the water nearly splashing up on us as we went past. We rode about 10 miles each day and it made me miss Seattle and living not only in a green city but a city that has some idea of bike lanes (unlike Madrid).
Almost 90 percent of the Old Town was destroyed during WWII but has been rebuilt with narrow, cobble-stoned alleys lined with traditional old colorful houses. It is very pleasant to stroll through the Old Town and check out the shops, museums, restaurants etc. I also recommend stopping by this handmade candy shop called Ciuciu where you can choose from dozens of flavors of their artisan sweets and also see how they are made.