Cologne isn’t like the rest of Germany. Sure, it boasts many of the identifiable hallmarks. A lot of beer. Sausages aplenty. But the city – most known worldwide because of Eau de Cologne, a perfume that gained phenomenal global success in the 18th Century – feels distinctly different from the likes of Berlin and Hamburg, and proudly so. The city is, first, warmer than the rest of the country. Both literally, in terms of the actual humidity, but also in its nature thanks to what locals call “the Cologne feeling.”
Compared to more famous German cities, Cologne is outgoing and welcoming. It contrasts with the sometimes cold or standoffish qualities often attributed – unfairly, some might say – to Germans. The locals are open and have a home-grown saying, “Jede Jeck es Anders,” which roughly translates to “It takes all sorts.” It basically means that the people of Cologne are up for, well, anything.
But before you get too swept away in the Cologne feeling, there’s one sightseeing destination that’s essentially unavoidable once you’ve arrived at the city, one of only three in the world to be declared a holy city by the Vatican. And that iconic landmark is, of course, the famous Cologne Cathedral. It’s hard to think of another building in the world that possesses such dominance over the landscape of a single city than the cathedral commands over Cologne. Viewing the colossal, Gothic-looking structure – which is the third tallest cathedral in the world (and home to the world’s largest functional bell, the 24-ton “Peter”) – from endless different angles from around Cologne never dilutes its impact one iota.
The awe-inspiring cathedral is what might result if Tim Burton were to take a break from employing Johnny Depp and design a Disney castle, thanks in part to the dark soot that is continuously being cleaned from the building – soot which routinely regathers before one full-scale cleaning completes, resulting in a never-ending cyclic task. Perhaps much of its power derives from the fact it’s somewhat astounding that the Cologne Cathedral still even exists. Like much of Germany, 85 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II. That the city’s most important structure fell in the 15 percent is quite miraculous. And it’s a miracle any visitor will surely be thankful for when gazing up at those sky-high ceilings from inside.
For the more ambitious, there’s also the steep walk to the top. It’s not easy, but it does offer the grandest view of the city. At three euros, it’s unlikely you’d regret this experience if you have the stamina.
Locals will joke that once you’ve seen the cathedral, you’ve seen all there is to see of Cologne, but fortunately this isn’t true. A brisk walk from the cathedral over to the river Rhine takes you to the eye-catching Hohenzollern Bridge. Since 2008 couples from around the world have left thousands and thousands of “love padlocks” on the bridge’s footpath and railways in the hope that their romance will be every bit as sturdy and resilient as the steel superstructure. All those locks together create the effect of glittery pebbledash and make for a heartwarming and inspiring experience.
Another fun way to cross the river is by cable car. Only 6.5 euros gets you a smooth ride over the city, where you can be dropped, handily, right next to two of the city’s leading attractions.
First there’s the Cologne Zoo, which allows you to get closer to the hippos, rhinos and giraffes than many other international zoos (for 18 euros a ticket). Secondly, and perhaps even more irresistible, is the Flora/Botanical Garden, which helps the city’s oldest public park attract more than a million visitors annually.
Traditional German restaurants such as Frueh, Paeffgan and Lommerzheim all offer authentic local cuisine. More than just bratwurst, they pride themselves on the ever-popular pork knuckle and the white asparagus that the locals go crazy for when in season - all washed down with Kölsch, the local brew, giddily drawn from the barrel as quickly as it is consumed. The seemingly never-ending swilling and refilling of Kölsch in the traditional bars is where the aforementioned Cologne feeling becomes most evident. The atmosphere is truly special.
So, although the city might not be as sexy as Berlin, or as historically fascinating as, say, Dusseldorf or Nuremberg, Cologne actually feels like real Germany. There’s an authenticity and heart that really makes it stand out - offering a feeling quite like no other.And yes, you really can almost smell it.