7 must dos in Cologne

1. Marvel at the Cologne Cathedral

domThe Cathedral, or Dom, is the single biggest attraction of Cologne – and rightly so. It is an imposing structure that dominates the skyline, starting from the minute you step off the railway station. Although the foundation stone for this imposing cathedral was laid in 1248, it was finally completed – to the shape we see it in today – only in 1880. The stained glass windows inside are stunning, especially the modern interpretation towards the left side of the altar.

The Dom was also destroyed during World War II bombings and had to be extensively restored.

Cathedral

2. Ramble by the Rhine

One of the best things you can do in Cologne is take long walks by the river. In the evenings, the pubs and cafes by the side start to fill up and the whole area comes to life, with both locals and tourists heading here. That apart, the riverside is a pleasant walk, with lots of trees and old buildings lining one side of the promenade. In certain seasons, it is also possible to do boat rides on the river.

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Rhine2

3. Explore the old city

The old city, known as Aldstadt, is the area behind the Dom and the Rhine walking path – it is a maze of narrow, cobble-stones lanes filled with charming houses and pubs. The best way is to start from the Cathedral and make your way without a map or a plan. During World War II, almost 75% of the old town was destroyed and what you see now has been rebuilt and restored with great care. If possible, go on a guided walking tour of the area, to get into its rich history, especially from the Roman times.

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4. Visit the museums

For such a small city, Cologne has a wealth of museums – start with the one that this city is known for, Eau de Cologne. The Farina fragrance museum takes you through the history of this evergreen perfume, through guided tours. Museum Ludwig is another great place to spend a few hours, with its wide collection of modern art mainly from the 20th century. The museum, houses in a quirkily shaped building near the Dom, has the largest collection of pop art outside the USA. Another favourite among visitors is the Chocolate Museum on one end of the Rhine promenade. It is fascinating tour into the history of chocolate, and includes tasting tours.

Farina

museum

5. Drink Kolsch beer

kolschYou cannot leave Cologne without a few glasses of Kolsch, the local beer. The words Kolsch itself means “Of Cologne” or refers to the local dialect. It is a pale brew with a mild taste, served in tall, thin glasses. For the best experience, it is to be had in one of the original Brauhaus (brewhouses) in the city. I had mine at the centuries old Peters Brauhaus, with its ancient wood panelling and dark interiors.

In Cologne, the tradition is that the waiters keep coming up with refills the minute your glass is empty. When you are finally done for the evening, and cannot take in one more sip, you place the coaster on top of the glass.

brauhaus

6. Shop for cologne

colognePick up some Eau de Cologne (which literally means “the water of Cologne”) to take back home as gifts (and for yourself). Many shops sell this perfume in many forms, but you are better off buying the original Farina Cologne at the Farina House (museum), which also has a small retail area. The other popular brand is 4711, to be bought at the 4711 House close to the Opera House.

If you are looking for small boutiques and designer stores, then head to the shopping area of Schildergasse, a pedestrianised street that attracts thousands of shoppers each day.

7. Make merry in the Carnival

Finally, the most anticipated event of every year – the Cologne Carnival (read my earlier posts on the Carnival: 1, 2). Although the Carnival season officially starts in November, the one week before the starting of Lent is the most boisterous. This is the time for costumed parades with music and dance, and candy and flowers thrown out to spectators. These are known as the Crazy Days, with specific days set aside for women, children, local associations and so on.

carnival

10 interesting facts about the Cologne Carnival

1. The Carnival is the highlight of Cologne’s social calendar, with the season officially beginning on 11/11 at 11.11 am. It then goes into silent mode until the new year, when the celebrations begin in full swing and go on till Ash Wednesday in February. Carnival week is usually one of the coldest spells in Cologne but also one of the best times to visit the city.

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2. The Carnival period after New Year is known as the “fifth season” of the year – just goes to show how seriously this city takes the festivities. There are private carnival parties, local neighbourhood celebrations, music performances and of course, drinking events through the weeks leading up to the final parades.

3. One of the traditions is that at the start of the celebrations in November, the “triumvirate” for the year, consisting of the Peasant, the Prince and the Virgin are presented to the public. They are all chosen from among the influential citizens of the city and are technically supposed to “rule” the city during carnival time.

4. The Carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the city itself, but in its present form, has been celebrated for less than 200 years. It may have been a homage to the winter solstice or a marker for the beginning of Lent season; the word Carnival from Carne Vale meaning “goodbye meat!”

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5. The highlight of the Carnival are the few days towards the end, with the boisterous street parades, also known (rightly) as the “Crazy Days.” It starts on a Thursday celebrated as Women’s Day, and Sunday marked for children and families, in the Schull-Veedelszoch (School and neighbourhoods) parade. There are alternative carnivals in several neighbourhoods, such as the “Ghost Parade.”

6. The big daddy of this parade is “Rose Monday” with the streets filled with celebrations for the entire day. The official parade goes on for 7 km, with over 13000 participants marching in costumes or sitting on floats, to the sounds of drumbeats and trumpets.

7. This finale has over 1 million people as audience and the best part (my favourite bit about this carnival) is that spectators are all dressed in costumes, most of them more interesting and quirkier than the marchers. From fluffy green dinosaurs to funny clowns with painted faces and groups of flower children straight from the 1970s, the audience takes costuming very seriously.

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8. Participants in the parade throw candy and flowers at the audience, who fill the air with cries of Kamelle! and Strüzjer! respectively. Think of these numbers – 300 tons of candy, 700,000 bars of chocolate and 300,000 small flower bouquets. In return, they also allowed to demand Bützje, a quick, friendly peck on the cheeks.

9. Local beer (kölsch) flows freely during carnival time through the day and authorities turn a blind eye to the high spirits floating in the crowds. On Tuesday night, a straw puppet called Nubbel is burnt in many places, marking an end to the guilty pleasures of the carnival days. Most institutions – museums, the cathedral and even many restaurants – are closed during the big parade days, to reopen only on Ash Wednesday. On that day, people go to church and eat fish for lunch before returning to their normal lives.

10. To best enjoy the carnival, paint on a clown face, wear a quirky costume or just put on a red nose and stand at any point in the heart of the city, where the parade passes. And to be an authentic Jeck (Carnival fool), be sure to shout out “Kolle Alaaf!” at full volume – long live Cologne! This term, by the way, derives from All Av! meaning a “bottoms up” toast from the Middle Ages.

Kids in the Cologne Carnival

Kamelle! The cry rents the cold, crisp Cologne air. A few thousand kids are out in cute costumes, all bundled up against the cold, eager participants in the general colour and chaos.

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The official Carnival begins on Thursday with the Women’s Day, but Carnival Sunday is when families come out in full force. The streets are filled with children, accompanied by their parents, sometimes pushed around on strollers. Around 50 schools also participate, getting their kids to march in the parade in costumes created around a central theme.

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I particularly loved it when parents and kids wore matching costumes, like this father with his one-year-old daughter.

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The Carnival starts a few minutes past 11 in the morning, passing the street by my hotel just after noon. I got there early to watch the spectators and get some photographs. There were already hundreds of families out on the streets, the kids getting impatient by the minute.

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Participants in the parade throw small chocolates, toffees and candy to the crowds, and Kamelle! is the shout for “candy! I want candy!”

And to go with the demand, kids also stood with little bags to collect the goodies for the day.

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Carnival9

All in all, great fun. My first experience of the Cologne Carnival, also been my favourite.