Winter has always been my favourite time to travel to European cities. In November and December there are the beautiful European Christmas markets, while in January and February you have cheap flights, snow (sometimes) and something to look forward to after the holidays are over.
Over the last few years I’ve taken short post-Christmas breaks to Montenegro, Latvia and Lithuania, while this year I decided to stay slightly closer to home and head to the German city of Cologne. Despite 2 days of grey skies and rain (the same as it would have been in London), Cologne turned out to be an amazing winter travel destination and a fun way to brighten up one of the first weekends of 2019.
For those looking to do the same, here’s my guide to how to spend a weekend in Cologne during the winter…
WHY VISIT COLOGNE IN WINTER?
It’s cheap to get to – flying from London to Cologne during the winter can be extremely cheap. I got my flights with Ryanair for just £12 return!
It’s only an hour away – Cologne is just a one hour flight from London, so you can easily catch a late flight on Friday and return Sunday night, meaning you don’t have to ask your boss for more annual leave immediately after the Christmas break.
There’s affordable accommodation – during the off-peak months, you can find central 4/5* hotels for 2 people for 2 nights for around £200. And for those visiting Cologne on a budget, you can get beds in hostel dorms for as little as £15 per night (see more below).
It’s not overcrowded with tourists – Cologne is a popular tourist destination and during peak summer months can get particularly busy, however, visit in the off-peak winter months and there’s still a great atmosphere but you won’t be constantly queuing or surrounded by hundreds of other tourists.
A chance of snow – although it’s not guaranteed while you’re there, Cologne does often get some snow at the start of the year.
There’s plenty of indoor attractions – for those who want to travel in winter but don’t like the cold, Cologne has loads of indoor attractions for you to explore, from churches to museums and galleries. Plus there’s a great public transport network to get you around.
Cologne’s culinary scene – eating and drinking your way around is one of the best things to do on a winter city break, and Cologne certainly has it’s fair share of great restaurants and beer houses to keep you going!
SHOULD YOU INVEST IN A COLOGNE CARD (KÖLNCARD)?
The Cologne Card is the official tourist card which offers discounts at museums, attractions, tours, shops and restaurants around the city. You can get either a 24-hour card for €9 or 48-hour card for €18 (group discounts available too).
The card gets you up to 50% off tickets to many of the major tourist attractions included in this post, including the Cathedral, the Chocolate Museum, Farina House Perfume Museum and Museum Ludwig.
From my own experience, the card is definitely a cost-effective way to explore Cologne in winter as it also gives you free travel on the city’s public transport network, meaning you can escape the cold and rain and travel around the city with ease.
Cologne’s public transport network (the KVB) is regular and easy to navigate, with underground and overground trains, trams and buses running all day and late into the night. A standard all day ticket for the KVB will cost you €8.60, so for an extra 40 cent a day to unlock a host of great discounts, the 48-hour Cologne Card is a great investment for a winter weekend in Cologne.
For more information about the card, read my post ‘Should I get a Cologne Card?‘.
Already decided? Buy the Cologne Card here.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN COLOGNE IN WINTER
EXPLORE COLOGNE CATHEDRAL (KÖLNER DOM)
Cologne Cathedral is the cathedral (Episcopal Church) of the Archdiocese of Cologne. The foundation stone of the Cathedral was laid on 15 August 1248, however, the building was not fully completed until 1880.
In 1996 the impressive Gothic Cathedral was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is now the pride of the city and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole of Germany.
It is the largest Gothic church in northern Europe, with a total area of almost 8,000 square metres and twin towers that stand 515 feet (157 metres) above the city. During foggy winter days, the tops of the towers disappear into the clouds, giving the building a beautifully eerie quality.
The Cathedral is free to visit and open to the public during the winter months. With its numerous chapels, artistic masterpieces, important tombs and iconic stained glass windows, you could easily spend an hour exploring the Cathedral’s grand interior.
Guided tours of the Cathedral can be taken for an extra fee every day at 10:30am and 2:30pm (Sundays 2:30pm only).
Opening times: 6am to 7:30pm // Cost: free
The Cathedral Treasury
While inside you can also choose to pay a visit to the treasury for an additional fee. Set in the Medieval sacristan crypt, the Cathedral treasury is home to a whole host of church treasures dating as far back as the 4th century. We chose not to visit the Treasury, however, a discount is available using the Cologne Card so it’s worth a visit if this is your kind of thing.
Opening times: 10am to 6pm // Cost: €6
The Tower Climb
Head back out of the Cathedral’s main entrance, walk around the corner and down the stairs to reach the bottom of the Cathedral’s South Tower. This is where you can start the 533 step climb to the viewing platform approximately 100m above ground level. The climb will also take you past the bell chamber, which is home to St. Peter’s Bell, the largest freely swinging church bell in the world (weighing an impressive 24 tonnes).
The beautiful views across Cologne from the top of the tower are definitely worth the climb, but just bear in mind that the spiral staircases are steep and narrow and will require a certain level of fitness.
Opening times: 9am to 4pm // Cost: €4
VISIT THE MUSEUMS
Visiting the numerous museums and galleries is one of the most popular things to do in Cologne. However, there are so many great museums that visiting them all could easily consume an entire weekend on its own. This is why it’s important to scout out the ones you’re most interested in visiting before you head out to explore. Here are a few of my favourite…
Schokoladenmuseum (chocolate museum)
Step inside a real-life Willy Wonka factory and learn about the history of chocolate and the chocolate making process. Plus, what’s better in winter than a warming mug of freshly made hot chocolate?
Farina House Perfume Museum
Discover the fascinating history of the original Eau de Cologne and its creator John Maria Farina in the original house the perfume was first made in over 300 years ago. Or if you don’t feel like taking the full museum tour you can still pop into the shop and smell the original Cologne.
Museum Ludwig is home to an amazing collection of modern artwork made after the year 1900, from Picasso to Andy Warhol. As someone who is not usually a massive fan of art galleries, I thoroughly enjoyed Museum Ludwig, particularly its colourful Pop Art collection, and would certainly recommend visiting.
EL-DE House was the former headquarters of the Gestapo and is now the Cologne NS Documentation Centre with a museum tracing the roots and progress of National Socialism in Cologne. The exhibitions and prison memorial recount much of the horror which happened in Cologne, and in the building itself, during the time of the Third Reich.
VENTURE OUTSIDE AND FIND THE COLOUR
By now you may have noticed that most of the activities I’ve recommended for a winter weekend are inside, however, Cologne is a beautiful city and is definitely worth exploring on foot for a while too. Stick around the Old Town (by the Cathedral) where you’ll find some colourful spots that are guaranteed to brighten up a grey winters day.
Hohenzollern Bridge and the Cologne Love Locks
Hohenzollern Bridge crosses the Rhine River near Cologne’s central railway station and is one of the most romantic spots in the city. Why? Because this is where over the years thousands of couples have fixed padlocks to the railings and thrown the key into the river to symbolize their unbreakable love for each other.
Cologne’s love locks have become a popular attraction, with both sides of the bridge covered in thousands of padlocks and bicycle chains, engraved or decorated with the names of the couples or friends who have attached them. Experts estimate that there are now around 40,000 padlocks, which combined weigh over two tonnes.
The Fish Market (Fischmarkt)
The Fish Market (Fischmarkt) is a small picturesque square on the banks of the Rhine which is best known for its old colourful houses. During the summer months, the square is filled with outdoor seating for the local cafes, while in the winter it is still worth popping by to capture those all-important Instagram shots or head inside somewhere for a warming cup of coffee.
TRY THE LOCAL FOOD
Sack off your New Year’s diet for a couple of days and embrace all of the delicious food that Cologne has to offer. It’s still winter so you need that extra layer to keep you warm anyway!
Cologne has many local specialities, including ‘Himmel un Äd’, black pudding with potato and applesauce, ‘Halve Hahn’, a rye bread roll with a thick slice of Dutch cheese and mustard, and ‘Kölscher Kaviar’, a slice of blood sausage and mustard on rye bread.
Plus, you’re in Germany so some currywurst, schnitzel and pretzels are a must, right?
DRINK KÖLSCH IN A BIERHAUS
The Kölsch beer is a unique style of beer only brewed in Cologne, Germany. It is unusual because of its hybridised brewing process where it is warm fermented with ale yeast then conditioned at cold temperatures like a lager.
Drinking a Kölsch beer in a local ‘Brauhaus’ (the traditional German pub where the beer is brewed) is one of the most popular things to do in Cologne for both locals and tourists. Kölsch is served in the traditional long 0.2 litre Kölsch glasses and only costs between €1-2.
Important: One thing to know when drinking Kölsch in Cologne is that if you leave your empty glass on the table, it will keep getting replaced by a new one whether you ask for a refill or not. The way to signal that you are finished and don’t want another is by placing a beermat on top of your glass.
HEAD OUT TO SOME OF THE BEST BARS IN COLOGNE
Once you’ve had enough Kölsch and you’ve got your beer jacket on, head out to explore Cologne’s numerous bars and nightclubs, some of which have been voted among the best in Europe. For those who love to party late into the night, most of Cologne’s bars and clubs don’t shut until between 4-6am or sometimes even later at weekends.
Zülpicher Straße and Zülpicher Platz
Zülpicher Straße is a long street in the west of the city which is also known as ‘party mile’ due to its abundance of pubs and cocktail bars. Zülpicher Straße is where many locals will start a night out, followed by a nightclub in Zülpicher Platz and the surrounding areas. Its location close to the university means that it’s also one of the most popular places to go out in Cologne for the city’s younger student population.
Check out the likes of Soul Bar, Cuba Bar, Stiefel, Shooters bar, Red Cat Lounge and Roonberg, while Museum bar is the place to go for karaoke lovers. Continue the night at the clubland triangle which consists of the three big-hitters Blue Shell, Luxor and Stereo Wonderland. And for the late night partiers, head to Venus Celler which is open from midnight until 8am (and sometimes later) on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Belgian Quarter
The Belgian Quarter is Cologne’s chic district, with many unusual bars, 90s throwback nights, techno music and live DJs. De.Lite is a popular bar among young people, Im Leuchtturm is a quirky local spot, Little Link does great cocktails and visit Zum Scheuen Reh for electronic music.
The highlight of a night out in Cologne’s Belgian Quarter (or the whole of Cologne for that matter) has to be the legendary late night club Sixpack. Playing a mix of electronic and hip-hop music, Sixpack is one of the city’s coolest and most hipster clubs hidden in an unsuspecting facade that’s only noticeable by the bouncers and punters gathering outside.
Schaafenstraße is the gay-street of Cologne located on the outskirts of the Belgian Quarter. Start at Ex Corner for happy hour, then head onto the likes of Die Mumu or Iron Bar.
The district of Ehrenfeld is located in the north west of the city and is considered by some as too far from the centre of Cologne to bother with. However, Ehrenfeld is a cool and upcoming area and a melting pot of different alternative subcultures. Head on a night out to bars and clubs such as Underground, Sonic Ballroom or Club Banhoff.
COLOGNE CARNIVAL IN FEBRUARY
Carnival season is a huge deal in Cologne and is even referred to as the ‘fifth season of the year’. Technically Carnival starts on the 11th of November, however, the real celebrations don’t start until the so-called Weiberfastnacht (Shrove Thursday). Throughout the few days of Carnival, parades take place all over the city, there are parties on the streets and in public squares, and closing times for pubs and bars are suspended for the duration of the festival.
The cost of flights and accommodation may be more during the period of Carnival, but visiting during this time will certainly be an amazing experience and a chance to experience the city at it’s very best.
Cologne Carnival will happen this year between Thursday 20th and Wednesday 26th February 2020.
WHERE TO STAY IN COLOGNE
The Best Hostels in Cologne
Station Backpacker’s Hostel – a cheap and cheerful hostel centrally located in the touristy area just a few minutes walk from the central train station and Cologne Cathedral. Rooms are basic but the location is great and the downstairs bar, common area and garden are lovely places to drink and socialise with other guests.
Hostel die Wohngemeinschaft – a hostel which is just as trendy as the area it’s located in. Hostel die Wohngemeinschaft sits in Cologne’s Belgian Quarter and has a number of uniquely decorated rooms with different themes from elegant baroque-esque style bunk beds to a futuristic spaceship room. There’s also a popular bar with live DJs and a theatre used for cultural events.
Cheap Hotels in Cologne
Mauritius Komfort Hotel – a comfortable and affordable 3* hotel in Cologne’s Old Town with clean and modern rooms as well as paid access to the spa area at the Mauritius Hotel & Therme, 2 tram stops away, featuring 7 saunas, 2 steam rooms, a massage service and indoor and outdoor pools.
Luxury Hotels in Cologne
Excelsior Hotel Ernst am Dom – a luxury 5-star hotel located directly opposite