The ancient city of Cologne was, from its foundation by the Roman Empire until the high medieval period, one of the largest and most important cities within the borders of modern-day Germany. It is noteworthy today for being one of the ugliest cities in Europe and possessing virtually nothing of value to the average tourist. That it consistently appears on tourist itineraries is possibly the biggest joke in European travel.
No, seriously, it’s that ugly. I have spent a non-negligible portion of my life in this accursed city, and I have no idea why people keep recommending it as a destination. Germany is full of beautiful towns, and Belgium, with its rich urban heritage, lies just a few hours away. There is no reason to go here unless you:
- like Romanesque art and architecture
- like trying obscure types of beer
- are attending Carnival
Should you visit Cologne?
I try to give ratings relative to the best that Europe has to offer. For Germany, with its war-torn cities, 4 is well below average. Typically you would expect a score 7-8.
From a tourism perspective, Cologne is rated pretty low. For anyone traveling long distances without specific goals, there is simply nothing worth your time here. If you happen to be nearby, the beer, museums, and churches may offer something. That something, though, is niche. The cathedral is cool, but the other churches may be uninspiring unless you are really into Medieval architecture. The beer is also an acquired taste. It’s also worth mentioning that the restaurant scene in Cologne is awful. If you are in doubt for whatever reason, go to Düsseldorf.
Cologne wins some points back because it is a major trade-fair city. As such, you will always find accommodation and the transport infrastructure is acceptable. I give Cologne a 3 out of 10.
Regarding historical preservation, Cologne is at the lower bound with a 1. Even cities like Dresden have more to offer, and only a handful of obscure cities like Pforzheim or Ludwigshafen would rate equivalently.
Cologne wins some points with cultural immersion, which I rate at a 7. The advantage here is that large events like Carnival are still fun and authentic in a large city like Cologne. It’s easy to feel like a local at virtually any pub.
Likewise, as a German city, Cologne scores highly with interaction, also at a 7. All relevant travel information is easily accessible, with regular opening hours published online. Almost everything will be open to the public. It loses points for not having a wide selection of restaurants and a lack of things to do.
Should You Visit?
Overview of Cologne’s “Old Town”
On the one hand, the central station is located right in the middle of the city, so visiting the central bits of the old town is easy. On the other hand, trying to see anything else is an odyssey that takes you across some of the ugliest urban landscapes in Europe. If you are legitimately interested in the Romanesque Architecture of the late Salian and Staufen Dynasties, then Cologne does actually have a lot to offer. For those people, I would suggest you read my travel guide on the city.
For a more detailed guide to Cologne
For everyone else, I list everything worth seeing within a 15-minute walk of the central station:
- The Cathedral
- The Central Old-Town
- St. Andreas
- St. Maria Ascension
- Great St. Martin
For more detail on opening times and accessibility check out this table here:
I would never recommend Cologne as a city to visit. A guide to Cologne should be consulted only when you are trapped in the city and have no option to leave.
Once you are able to escape, I have several pages dedicated to exploring the region around Cologne:
Explore the region around Cologne
Traveling East on the ancient road from Cologne, the landscape transforms from the flat and fertile plans of the Rhine into dense and rugged woodland. This mountainous woodland landscape deterred first the ancient Romans and later Germanic settlers who preferred…