Cologne: three days of wind and Rhine

Hohenzollern bridge
The Hohenzollern bridge crosses the Rhine and divides Cologne. Photograph: Chris King

As I gripped my umbrella against the driving rain, I felt as though I might as well have stayed in the UK, where inclement weather is in ample supply. However, if I had, I wouldn’t be surveying the spires of Cologne Cathedral, one of the tallest churches in Europe and the city’s major landmark. Completed in 1880, after a pause of several centuries, and designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1996, this impressive gothic building was one of the only things standing when Cologne was heavily bombed by the Allies in the Second World War.

It also serves the purpose of orientating visitors, being located next to the Hauptbahnhof (central station). Besides a handful of people adopting all manner of ridiculous poses to try to get the cathedral into a frame for a photograph, there are not many tourists around in February, making Cologne feel more like a place where you can mingle with the locals, rather than batting away sightseers with iPads.

This feeling is exemplified by Cologne’s beer halls, many of which are typically German and do not appear to have changed in decades. The first I head to, having already refuelled with coffee, is Päffgen, for my first taste of Cologne’s traditional beer, kölsch. It is served in 200ml glasses, which can be emptied with varying degrees of urgency, and waiters are always on hand to bring you a new one. When I read about it, I thought that this was perhaps an old custom and may have died out, but it hasn’t. They mark the number of kölsches you consume on a beer mat and you settle up at the end. The beer itself, a light lager that is surprisingly refreshing, varies only slightly in quality and will set you back €1.40-€2 (between £1.10 and £1.60).

Besides beer halls, Cologne has a number of museums that are just as worthy of your attention. One of these is the Römisches-Germanisches Museum, which documents Cologne’s Roman history. The city became a Roman colony in AD50 named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis after the empress Agrippina the Younger, and the museum houses artefacts including gravestones, glasses, jewellery and the unmissable Dionysus mosaic, discovered in 1941 during the construction of an air raid shelter.

Besides the Romans, Cologne also gives the Greeks a fair bit of attention in the form of the German Sports and Olympic Museum. Covering the history of sport from the first Olympic Games to more or less the present day, the museum is interactive, with running tracks to hurtle along, spin bikes to pedal furiously on and gymnastics bars for those with a semblance of balance. It covers a wide variety of sports and features the “lockers” of people from every discipline, packed with their various items of kit. The museum is certainly the only one I have ever known to come with a football pitch on the roof, but alas, there was nobody to play with following the inevitable downpour about an hour beforehand.

While I was able to take in many indoor activities due to the relentlessly open state of the heavens, two attractions were sadly denied to me. One of these was the Cologne Triangle, a 339ft building with an observation deck offering panoramic views of the city. Its location, opposite the cathedral and Hohenzollern Bridge, made it a photographer’s dream, so I headed there in the morning with the intention of fashioning some suitable Instagram fodder. Sadly, the tower closes in bad weather. However, its definition of bad can be taken to include anything but bright sunshine and zero wind, so plan your trip carefully.

Another disappointment concerned one of Cologne’s most renowned restaurants; or, more accurately, a bar that serves food. Lommerzheim, a nondescript beer hall on the other side of the Rhine, was packed when I arrived at about 7pm. Regrettably, I was too late to sample the traditional German food. Fortunately, crossing back over the river in the driving rain, I found Hellers Brauhaus, and a true slice of Cologne gastronomy. Himmel un ääd, or heaven and earth, was black pudding with mashed potato, fried onions and apple sauce. The apples are the heaven, since they come from trees stretching into the sky, and the potatoes are the earth. The name is said to be derived in the 18th century from the phrase “earth apples”, meaning potatoes. Fast forward a couple of hundred years and it is a wonderfully comforting dish, in the tradition of slightly stodgier central European fare. Paired, as it was in my case, with a weissbier, it made for a very contended hour indeed.

Cologne is also well stocked with less traditional offerings. Beef Brothers, a burger bar near Rudolfplatz, was something of a revelation. They offer two sizes of burgers and although I ordered a small chilli burger, I did not feel shortchanged while eating it. Especially as the portion of chips was enormous. The burgers are perfectly cooked, juicy and well seasoned, and this place is perfect for a casual sit-down meal with friends or grabbing something to eat on the way to a football match, for example. The area surrounding Rudolfplatz also contains a number of coffee bars, including The Coffee Gang, with its pared-back decor and wooden tables in the classic hipster style, not to mention excellent coffee. A slightly cosier option is Cafecafe, which comes not with beards and checked shirts, but a warm welcome and a decent cappuccino. I must also mention my two bakeries of choice: Bäckerei Zimmermann, which sells possibly the greatest croissant I have eaten, and Bäckerei Balkhausen, a good choice if you are relatively central and looking for a decent pastry.

For a city that has had its reputation take a bit of a battering in recent months, Cologne was a very pleasant place to spend a few days. While it lacks the range of sights of other major European cities, it is a charming place to explore on foot, taking in the plethora of architectural styles and stopping for a kölsch every so often to keep your energy up. When you consider that it is also one of the cheapest places to fly to in Europe from London, you can’t really lose. Just try not to visit when it’s raining, and tell me what the view from the Triangle is like.

Best of

Beer houses

  1. Päffgen – traditional beer house with decent kölsch (€1.70-€1.80) and food available (Friesenstraße 64-66)
  2. Peters Brauhaus – popular for after-work drinks, slightly more expensive than other beer houses, but a nice place to spend time (Mühlengasse 1)
  3. Ubierschänke – shows live football, excellent atmosphere, serves good Boll Bier (Ubierring 19)
  4. Brauerei zur Malzmühle – serves very good Mühlen Kölsch (€1.80). Busy even in the afternoon, lots of people eating, family friendly (Heumarkt 6)

Restaurants

  1. Hellers Brauhaus – try the himmel un ääd for an authentic Rhineland dinner (Roonstraße 33)
  2. Beef Brothers – excellent burgers, fast service and huge chip portions for €6.50 (Aachener Strasse 12)

Museums

    1. EL-DE House – the Gestapo museum, an emotional and eery journey into the darkest corner of the Third Reich (Appellhofplatz 23-25)
    2. Romisch-Germanisches Museum – a huge collection of artefacts from Roman Cologne, as well as the Dionysus mosaic
    3. German Sports and Olympic Museum – an interactive journey through German sporting history
    4. Kölnisches Stadtmuseum – offers a fairly decent insight into the history of Cologne, but lacks truly engaging exhibits

Cafes and bakeries

  1. Cafecafe – decent coffee and charming service (Aachener Strasse 45)
  2. Bäckerei Zimmermann – sells possibly the best croissant (almond cream and chocolate) I have tasted (Ehrenstraße 75)
  3. Bäckerei Balkhausen – decent cakes and a good selection in a very central location (Apostelnstraße 27)

Get there

Ryanair flies from London Stansted from £20 return.

Stay there

Hostel die Wohngemeinschaft, from £17 per night for an eight-room dormitory. Six-bedroom dormitories and private doubles/six-person rooms are also available. Breakfast of bread, cheese, meats, cereal and fruit is served every morning and costs €5.50; let the front desk know in advance. Coffee and tea are free of charge throughout your stay.

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