Cologne Cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark, with more than 6 million travelers visiting it every year.
But Cologne has a lot more to offer for visitors than just the Cathedral. Even if you only have one day, you can explore the Old Town, stroll along the river Rhine, learn about local history and try traditional food from Cologne.
Plus, it’s easy to get to Cologne! If you’re coming from Frankfurt, the high-speed train only takes an hour and a half. As an alternative, you can integrate Cologne into a road trip and see the nearby Rhine valley or visit the famous Eltz Castle afterward.
Here are some highlights of Cologne you need to check out during your stay:
How to spend one day in Cologne
How to get around Cologne
Even though the city of Cologne has more than one million inhabitants, the center is surprisingly compact. You can walk between all sights mentioned in this itinerary. If you get tired or want to leave the city center, the best way to get around is by taking the subway.
Consider getting the KölnCard if you’re planning on taking public transport. It only costs 9€ for a day, gives you free access to all subway and bus lines and also offers discounts at some museums and restaurants.
The best things to do in Cologne in one day
As we already mentioned, visiting Cologne Cathedral is not just one of the most popular things to do in Cologne but also in all of Germany.
The Cathedral is the third tallest church in Europe, and you can spot its twin spires from far away already. Construction began in 1248 but didn’t finish until 1880. Locals joke that it will never be fully completed, as the soft sandstone requires a lot of maintenance and renovations at all times.
During your visit, start by exploring the interior of the Cathedral. As long as no mass is in progress, you are free to walk around as you like.
Next, head to the side entrance that leads up to one of the towers. You need to climb 509 steps to get to the top, and there are no elevators here, but the effort is well worth it. From the tower, you have a fantastic view of Cologne’s Old Town and can already spot some of the places where you’re going later today.
Plus, you can see St Peter’s Bell along the way, which is the second-largest free-swinging bell in the world. It weighs around 24 tons, so imagine how challenging it must have been to lift it up here.
Walk along the Rhine
After exploring Cologne Cathedral, head down to the waterfront and go for a walk along the river Rhine. The promenade here offers you the chance to enjoy the view of the river and see some traditional houses along the way.
Make sure to take a slight detour and explore the Hohenzollern Bridge. If you arrived by train, you have crossed this bridge before. Next to the train tracks, you can find a footpath that you can follow. From here, you have a fantastic view of the Cathedral, and you can admire the many locks attached to this bridge.
The German train company initially wanted to take them off (estimates say that they weigh a minimum of 40-50 tons) but changed their mind when people started protesting. As the locks have become a local attraction, they are now allowed to stay.
Go for a boat ride
While walking next to the river, you might have noticed some ships already. Going for a cruise on the Rhine river is an excellent way of exploring Cologne. You’ll get a different perspective, and most of the ships offer audioguides, so you can also learn about the city.
Plus, when the weather is good, it’s lots of fun to relax in the sun with a drink while cruising up and down the Rhine.
Boat rides usually last one hour and are perfect if you want to take a break from walking. If you have more than just a day in Cologne, you can also consider taking the boat to Düsseldorf in the north or down to Bonn in the south. Both are fantastic day trips.
If you have even more time, consider renting a car and traveling down the Rhine Valley. Cologne is a great starting point for a Germany road trip along the river and then further south.
Try traditional food
By now, it should be around lunchtime – the perfect time to try traditional food from the area.
Cologne is home to a few dishes you can only find here, but it’s also a great location to try typical German food in general.
One of the most classic local dishes is Himmel und Ääd, which translates to Heaven and Earth. The heaven in this dish is represented by an apple sauce, whereas mashed potatoes symbolize the Earth. Together with the potatoes and apple sauce, you’ll often get blood sausage on the side. If that sounds weird to you, don’t worry. The dish is much more delicious than it sounds and a favorite with locals and tourists.
Another traditional dish from the area is Suurbrode or Sauerbraten. It consists of meat marinated in a mixture of wine, vinegar, herbs, and spices. While you can try variations of it all across Germany, the one from Cologne and the Rhine area is most famous.
If you’re only looking for a snack, then you should either try the Currywurst, sausage served with curry sauce or a Halve Hahn. Even though the latter translates to “half a rooster”, it doesn’t contain chicken. Instead, it’s a sandwich made from a rye bun and a thick slice of cheese.
Stroll through the Old Town
During World War II, heavy bombings left most of Cologne’s Old Town destroyed. As you walk around, you will notice many buildings from the 50s and 60s, especially if you walk down the pedestrian shopping streets.
Nevertheless, you can also see some of the older buildings that remained intact or were restored after the war. The Rathaus, the city hall, is one of them. The oldest parts of the building date back to the 14th century, with various expansions, added since then.
Make sure to also stop by the Alter Markt, the old market square, and the Heumarkt. You can still see some historic buildings in this area. Plus, if you come in winter, the Christmas market here is well worth a visit.
Visit a museum
For the rest of the afternoon, you should visit one of Cologne’s many museums. The two most remarkable ones are the Romano-Germanic Museum and the Chocolate Museum.
The Romano-Germanic Museum is perfect for anyone who loves history. The Romans founded Cologne 38 BC, and in the museum, you can see many artifacts from their former settlement. In fact, the museum itself stands on the foundations of a Roman villa, and you can still discover a giant mosaic here.
The Romano-Germanic Museum does not just hold items from the Roman period but covers anything from the Paleolithic Period to the early Middle Ages. Some of the stone tools on display are around 100,000 years old.
If you prefer chocolate to history, you should head to the Chocolate Museum instead. Here, you can learn everything you’ve always wanted to know about chocolate – where the cocoa comes from, how it gets processed into chocolate, and much more.
One of the highlights is the giant chocolate fountain. You also get to taste a piece of Lindt chocolate when you enter the museum. And of course, you have the chance of stocking up on as much chocolate as you want in the museum shop!
Taste the local beer
Did you know that Cologne is famous for its local beer? It’s called Kölsch, and it’s a pale yellow, light beer. Its name is protected, and only beer made within a radius of 50 kilometers around Cologne can be called Kölsch.
When you order it, you will receive it in a tall and slim glass that only holds 200 ml, with lots of foam on top. This is the traditional way of serving Kölsch. Waiters will often bring you another drink once you’ve finished, so make sure to put the beer pad on top of the glass. This signals that you are done and don’t want to drink more.
One of the best ways to enjoy Kölsch is by going to one of the many breweries you can find in the Old Town. You can, for example, visit the Brauerei Zur Malzmühle just next to the Heumarkt. It serves excellent Kölsch, and it’s also a great location if you want to try more local dishes.
An alternative is to go to the Päffgen Brauhaus. It takes 15 – 20 minutes to walk there from the Old Town, but the large outside seating area makes it well worth the effort. In winter, when temperatures drop, the owners cover the gardens with glass and install heating, so you can keep sitting there.
If you have more time in Cologne, consider visiting one or two more museums. The 4711 museum, for example, gives you an insight into the history of the perfume. Or head to the Carnival Museum, where you can learn more about carnival season and why locals go crazy for a few days in February.
With more time, you could also go to the Botanical Garden. You can stroll amongst palm trees here or take a ride across the Rhine in the nearby cable car. Or you could head to Ehrenfeld, one of Cologne’s most interesting neighborhoods, which is famous for its street art, cafes, and nightlife.
But even if you only have one day in Cologne, you have enough time to enjoy the city. The Cathedral alone makes it worth the trip, and as you can see, there’s lots more to discover afterward.
Bio: “Daniel and Ilona love going off the beaten path, learning about other cultures, and discovering local food. On their website Top Travel Sights, they share travel advice and stories from all around the world.”