When you originate from a giant country like the U.S. and then move to Europe, it’s practically mandatory to go online and gush about traveling to different countries in a single day without breaking a sweat. (Check.)
What no one talks about (and by “no one,” I mean “me, up until this point”) is how, once the novelty of crossing borders wears off, all you’ve really done is spend hardly any time in a foreign country. And while that can be fun, it can also leave you feeling like you’ve hardly seen anything.
Of course, that doesn’t mean quick trips across the border aren’t worth the journey. We may have only had 12 hours in Cologne, Germany — but for a single day, a minimal amount of research, and a local tour guide who wasn’t quite a local*? I think we did all right.
* My old friend Christina, who lives in a small village about 40km from the city. We first met in a hostel in Queenstown, New Zealand, where we shared a tiny overheated dorm room and drank terrible rum-and-coke RTDs together. Now we hang out in Germany sometimes. Who knew?
Anyway: here’s a look at how we spent our day.
Cologne is Germany’s fourth-largest metropolis (after Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich). The city straddles the Rhine River, and has a rather dark, industrial atmosphere — though it’s not without its pops of color. The Germans call it “Köln” and the Dutch “Keulen,” but our English version is taken, like so many words, from the French.
We drove to Christina’s village (2.5 hours one way) and took the train from there to the city (30 minutes or so). We got a group ticket that seemed almost absurdly cheap, but Christina insisted it was correct — and as she was the only one who spoke German, we kind of had to rely on her in that arena. (Take your friends to Cologne, guys! The train is a hell of a bargain.)
If you’re coming from Amsterdam, the direct train takes about two hours and 45 minutes. From Berlin, it’s closer to four and a half hours.
• Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), conveniently located just outside the train station. If you’re arriving by train, you almost need a good reason not to vist the Kölner Dom, because it practically hits you in the face when you first walk outside. (Efficiency!)
• Hohenzollern Bridge, perfect for people-watching and great views of the city and river. Just look out for the Segways!
This bridge is one of many around the world that is apparently being eaten alive by padlocks; I encourage you not to add to that problem, for the sake of visitors coming after you (and the sake of the bridge, of course).
• Museum fur Angewandte Kunst (Museum of Applied Art), which we mostly visited because it was the first museum we came across. There are many musuems in Cologne, and this one may not be on the top of your list — but if you want to see forks with tiny heads on display, it should be. (Personally, I’m still trying to work out how I feel about that one.) You’ll also find intricately decorated tea sets, uncomfortable-looking furniture, and lots of other presumably functional items.
If you’re not into decapitated heads on cutlery (no judgment), check out this list for some other options.
• The Belgische Viertel (Belgian Quarter), a “quirky” neighbourhood full of shops, bars, and cafes. Lots of the streets are actually named after Dutch places — just what we wanted during a weekend away in Germany.
As it seems to be with most cities, the hipster area — in this case, the Belgian Quarter — had the best cafes. We stopped for a coffee at Yo, a little place on a corner that also served empanadas. We didn’t try those (and I’m just as sad as you are about it), but the cappuccinos were downright dreamy, and it was a great spot to hang out and people watch.
Many bars in the city serve Kölsch — a type of beer that, by law, can only be brewed within the city limits of Cologne. The server will keep track of how many drinks you order by a tally on your coaster; they’ll also allegedly keep bringing you new beers until you put your coaster on top of your glass, signaling you’ve had enough. We didn’t experience the latter, perhaps because it was quite obvious we were tourists.
If you want to be really German, you can order your beer with Coke. (As a sidenote, Christina is the only person, German or otherwise, I’ve ever seen do this.)
It might also be worth mentioning that we went in June — meaning that even in the summer, there’s a pretty good chance Cologne will look like the gloomy setting of a horror movie. (I’ll let you decide whether that’s a pro or a con.)
12 hours in Cologne might not be enough to discover all of the city’s secrets; but it’s certainly long enough to get acquainted with its iconic architecture, wander a few of its neighborhoods, and down a beer or two. Sounds like a pretty good day to me.