Summary: Don’t go here unless you like churches or obscure German beer.
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.
Answering the Big Question
A Lost Heritage
Let’s start with the obvious, why is Cologne so ugly? On paper, the city should have a rich collection of architecture from various European history periods. However, this architectural heritage suffered thrice in modern history, first at the hands of Prussian urban planners, then from allied terror bombing, and then again from post-war German urban planning.
After the city became Prussian following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the population grew rapidly. With the industrialization of the Rhineland, by the end of the 19th century, the population exploded. Urban planners during this period sought to renew the cityscape and increase living standards. Most of the medieval city center disappeared during this period, along with most of the city’s small parish churches. To service the growing population, the large churches, which before 1815 had been closed to the public, took the place of the parish churches. The churches often underwent a significant renovation, losing much of their historical heritage.
As such, by the time the first allied bombs fell, large sweeping avenues of 19th and 20th-century architecture characterized the cityscape. This characterization is visible in pre-war photographs, especially compared with pre-war Frankfurt or Nuremberg. As with both of those cities, Cologne was utterly devastated by the war, and the options for reconstruction were limited. The modern planners opted for Tabula Rasa or a clean slate. This meant the city would be planned anew, with no regard for its past state.
So this brings us to today. It should be evident from the picture that there would be very little worth seeing, even in an optimistic scenario. If you must see Cologne, I recommend using it as a base to see the rest of the Lower Rhine Valley.
For this guide, I will highlight the main monuments to see and explore the little historical context that survives. Note that Cologne does us no favors, and this will require a lot of walking.
To rebuild or not to rebuild?
Cologne, in particular, made no effort with the reconstruction of the historical center. Elsewhere in Germany, historical reconstruction took several forms. The most common strategy was to preserve and move individual buildings where possible and to create “cultural corners” with gaps filled by highly stylized modern architecture. Almost every German city preserved or reconstructed a few corners of the city to develop a sense of the pre-war visual context. These corners vary in quality but typically comprise multiple buildings and extend beyond just a single monument. In Cologne, this guide points to five locations of poor quality that fall into this reconstruction paradigm.
- Old-Town: The two small streets on the waterfront beneath St. Martin offer mostly nice post-war architecture mixed with reconstructed buildings from the 17th century. This is the main tourist center, and it’s fairly underwhelming.
- Severin’s Gate: The tiny bit of street right at the medieval Gate of St. Severin, with its collection of 19th-century tenement houses and the large Renaissance merchant house, is probably the nicest part of the entire city.
- Hahnen Gate: Several street corners near the Hahnen Gate have nearly fully preserved 19th-century architecture but lack any greater context beyond individual buildings or specific viewing perspectives.
- St. Agnes: The area around the church of St. Agnes and some street corners around the Eigelstein Gate are quite nice. The advantages of preserving the original street plan are evident here, as even without the old buildings, there is a lot of ambiance to enjoy.
- Latin Quarter/Ring Road: There are numerous streets along the ring road with preserved Historicist and Art Nouveau architecture, especially on the south side of the city. You will have to go hunting for the best ones through.
- Ehrenfeld/Nippes: The only parts of Cologne with multiple connecting streets of old buildings can be found outside of the Ring Road in the suburbs of Ehrenfeld and Nippes. I find Ehrenfeld underwhelming, though it is often listed as having an old district. Nippes offers several nice streets and a mostly preserved town square full of late Historicist architecture.
The other, less common reconstruction approaches focus on total reconstruction, like in Potsdam, or stylized reconstruction, like in Dresden or Frankfurt. You will find neither of these strategies in Cologne.
The Tabula Rasa approach is all too common in German cities. Typically the historical plan is abandoned entirely, and the cities are built on a modern grid. The success of this approach varies from the abysmal, e.g., Cologne, to relatively successful, e.g., Stuttgart. One of the problems with this strategy is the question of significant historical landmarks, which may interfere with a modern street plan. Rotterdam famously tore everything down except for the Cathedral and the city hall, Hannover moved them around, but Cologne seems to have not really had a plan for them.
Lacking a coherent strategy, the new plan in Cologne is a mess. The street grid does not facilitate foot traffic across the city, which is bisected by a highway and several major roads. A car-first city is now passe, and Cologne has to live with the consequences. Similarly, the 12 Romanesque churches in Cologne were all destroyed to the foundation. However, their reconstruction was deemed important enough to start but not important enough to finish. Some of the churches were only rebuilt in theory and must represent some kind of joke. Some houses preserved their facade, like the spectacular Romanesque Overstolzenhaus, but other, probably more exciting buildings, like the City Hall, were not rebuilt.
Finally, as was the fate of many German cities in the post-war period, there was the decision to build an autobahn through the city center. Indeed, Cologne was especially hard hit by the decision to widen roads and increase road traffic. The city is, in many parts, not navigable on foot, and, taken as a whole, is probably the worst example of urban planning in Germany.
A Global Tourist Destination
This brings us back to the main point: why would you ever go here?
And this is a good question, why would you go here? And the answer is you probably shouldn’t. But since there are a few things to see here, let’s discuss them.
The typical reasons include the chocolate museum, the German-Roman Museum, and the Cathedral. Less typical reasons include the beer and the Romanesque churches, even though these two are probably the only legitimate reasons to go here.
For starters, in Cologne you are only two hours by train from Brussels, if chocolate is your thing, go there. The chocolate will be better. The Museum of Roman Archaeology is probably one of the best in Germany, but it’s not the only one. Both the Pergamon in Berlin and the Landesmuseum in Trier offer comparable collections in more exciting cities. It’s also nothing compared to the collections housed in London or Rome.
Kölsch, the local tipple, is a cool experience. The beer style gets its name from the city and is only really found in Cologne. There are several major and minor breweries across the city, many with distinctive flavors that offer more than a generic German Pilsner.
The Cathedral is worth seeing, but a trip to virtually any second-tier French city will yield an experience of similar magnitude. Less survived in the Cologne cathedral than popular legend will have you believe. France is a better destination if you want to see towering gothic spires.
A Glimpse into a Forgotten Past
If you are interested in church architecture in more depth, Cologne is probably one of the best destinations in Germany. The Cathedral represents a critical moment in German architectural history, as the definitive end of the Romanesque. But the 12 Romanesque churches offer glimpses into a different architectural history and are essential to understanding trends in Rhenish architecture and the development of the Staufen architectural image program. Some, like St. Gereon, St. Maria Himmelfahrt, and St. Andreas, are probably among the most beautiful churches in Europe. It’s a shame that some of the most important monuments, such as St. Maria im Kapitol, were only partially reconstructed and received a simple renovation.
If you are interested in this side of Cologne, I have a much more detailed itinerary planned out here, and I plan to write a short guide to each of Cologne’s churches in more detail.
For more detail on opening times and accessibility check out this table here:
If none of that sounded interesting to you, then neither should Cologne.
- Clemens Kosch, Ulrich Jacobs, and Celia Korber Leupold. 2005. Kolns Romanische Kirchen : Architektur Und Liturgie Im Hochmittelalter. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
- Wolff, Arnold, and Barbara Schock-Werner. 2015. Der Dom Zu Köln : Seine Geschichte – Seine Kunstwerke. Köln Greven Verlag.
- Christoph Bellot. 2015. Köln, Ehemalige Jesuitenkirche St. Mariae Himmelfahrt. Lindenberg: Kunstverl. Fink.
- All Maps made with Datawrapper
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