Old Town Cologne Germany, everything you need to about the historic Cologne Old Town and why it should be on your list of must places to see in Cologne
Cologne is a modern, well-designed and functional German city and a popular tourist destination.
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But sitting alongside the river Rhine in the city centre is a completely different picture to the rest of Cologne, and a magical one at that.
Rambling, narrow alleyways twist and turn to make up the maze that is the historic Altstadt of Cologne.
Getting lost in these alleyways lined with traditional houses will take you on a historical journey. Through famous museums, landmarks and archaeological zones.
Read my travel guide for Cologne if you are planning your trip to visit Cologne Germany.
Cologne was almost entirely destroyed during World War Two and the old town was rebuilt in 1945.
It gives visitors a glimpse into what the city used to look like, and what a fascinating and gorgeous glimpse it is.
There is so much to explore in the old part of the city. History boffins, beer connoisseurs, lovers of art and food tourists will find themselves in heaven when they visit Cologne, Germany.
I am going to take you through everything wonderful about the old town. I’m sure by the end of this post it’ll be high up on your Cologne travel itinerary.
Historic Old Town Cologne
Cologne Old Town Must-See Old Town Attractions
Maybe you’re just going to pop into the old town for a quick stroll rather than dedicate the many days it deserves.
I get it, as much as we’d all love to have infinite exploration time, we’re often on a tight travel schedule thanks to our 9-5s.
If you need to blitz through a quick old town tour then these sights are highly recommended. They are the landmarks of Cologne and encapsulate the history and culture of the city.
No trip to a European city is complete without at least one cathedral tour. The gothic St Peter and St Mary Cathedral is Cologne’s formidable landmark and one of the largest cathedrals in Europe.
So large, in fact, that it was considered the most ambitious building project of the middle ages.
It is an international pilgrimage destination and UNESCO site, as well as being a breathtaking cathedral.
The twin steeples tower 157m into the sky and if you think the exterior is impressive, prepare yourself for the exquisite interior. Inside the cathedral is a marvel of art. Stained glass windows from the 16th century and a Gero-Kreuz crucifix dating to the 10th century.
As well as a black marble high altar from the 1300s carved with intricate images from the Coronation of the Virgin.
But the pièce de résistance is the gilded shrine of the Three Kings dating back to 1164. It is a spectacular triple sarcophagus ornately decorated.
The cathedral is a wonder. From outside, to inside, to the panoramic views 500 steps up past the bells.
Cologne Germany Old Town Kölner Rathaus (Townhall)
This 16th-century building is the oldest public house in Germany and an architectural journey through the ages.
The Rathaus has been a focal point of ruling classes for the past 900 years.
Different centuries have left architectural marks, resulting in an interesting sight today.
The main building is from the 1300s, while the tower reflects 15th-century architecture.
The renaissance is visible in the loggia and cluster. And even the 20th century has crept in, influencing the creation and style of the atrium.
It’s a fascinating combination of 900 years of history imagined in a single building.
Groß St. Martin Church
This Romanesque-Catholic church was built on the remains of a Roman chapel. The central spire of the church has been a recognisable feature in Cologne’s skyline since the 12th century.
The church, much like the rest of the city, was damaged in WW2 and the church was reconstructed in typical 12th-century Rhenish architecture.
It is easily one of the most beautiful buildings in Cologne and towers over the Fischmarkt in the old town. Simply enjoy the architecture and history or explore the interior, including the crypts.
Crossing over the river Rhine, Hohenzollern bridge was originally a railway and road bridge.
Now it can only be crossed by train or by foot and a staggering amount of trains cross the bridge every day – almost 1200!
Much like many bridges across the world, it is adorned with love locks making it a romantic spot for couples to swear their eternal love. And if you’re not quite at the ‘forever’ stage yet, or single and (hopefully) loving it, the locks still make for a gorgeous sight.
But they also add about two tons of weight to the bridge which is somewhat dangerous. So I would avoid adding another lock, as the city has no love for the love locks.
The views of Cologne from the bridge are amazing. And taking a wander across it is a lovely way to see the river and the city from a different perspective.
Old Town Cologne Germany Alter Markt
Translating to ‘the old market place’, the Alter Markt was originally the site of an old Roman port at a tributary of the Rhine. Over the years, the port began to fill with silt and eventually became the central market square in the 10th century.
The square has a distinctive historic charm and is now a lively square lined with cafes and restaurants. Enjoy a coffee or locally brewed beer while imagining the jousting competitions that once went down in this historic spot.
Cologne Old City – Making Your Way Through the Museums of Altstadt
Whether you’re mad over museums, or picky about visiting the more interesting ones, the old town has a couple of real goodies.
If 20th-century art is your thing, then this is arguably one of the best museums in the world to enjoy it.
It’s named after Irene and Peter Ludwig who donated their collection of art from the 1900s, worth millions of dollars.
The museum is home to an impressive collection of Picasso pieces and iconic pop art pieces by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
A 20th-century celebration of art wouldn’t be complete without a comprehensive collection of Russian Avant-Garde pieces. Or famous expressionist art from the likes of Kirchner and August Macke.
The museum is a beautiful ode to modern art and an interesting visit for both art aficionados and budding artists.
While building bomb shelters near the cathedral during the war, a Roman villa was stumbled upon.
Eventually, the site was fully excavated, uncovering findings from the palaeolithic period to the early middle ages.
In the 1970s, the Romano-Germanic Museum was built around the site, an archaeological museum displaying an extensive collection of Roman artefacts discovered right there.
In the centre of the museum, the exquisite and famous Dionysus mosaic is displayed, around which the museum was built.
The museum also exhibits artefacts discovered throughout Cologne from the time of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, which was the capital of the Germania Inferior province.
It is an impressive collection of archaeological artefacts and mesmerising Roman glass pieces. Visitors can enjoy searching for historical traces of the Romans in this interesting museum.
Wallraf Richartz Museum
The birth of this museum dates back to 1824 when Franz Ferdinand donated a huge amount of art to the city of Cologne.
The collection is a variety of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and impressionist art.
On display are some magnificent 15th-century Gothic paintings by Stefan Lochner, including Madonna.
It’s not all Lochner’s glory, there are some well-known names hanging on the wall such as Monet and Rembrandt.
The Farina Fragrance Museum
For lovers of Chanel no.5, or people who are all art-ed out, why not visit the very place that Eue de Cologne was invented? Unlike any museum in the world, this museum is the oldest working perfume factory in the world.
The museum is only accessible through 45-minute guided tours which takes you through different vaults.
One in which a cedar barrel has survived for 300 years. Through excellent replicas, you’ll get a glimpse of Johan Maria Farina’s laboratory. The very place where this Italian-born perfumer invented Eue de Cologne.
You’ll be shown the process of making cologne today. And by the end of it, you’ll be presented with imitation scents which you can compare to the real thing.
Basically, you’ll leave as an expert with a nose for cologne.
Finding the Best Brauhaus in the Old City of Cologne
There is one thing that pops in everyone’s minds when they think of Germany. Beer.
Kӧlsch is the style of beer which was born in Cologne, and there is no lack of traditional beer houses serving their own specialities on tap.
One way to dive into the beer culture is an educational Kölsch beer tour to different brewhouses. Otherwise, I’ll help you find a good Brauhaus on your own.
A Brauhaus is a unique experience. Buzzing with diners and drinkers, portions of traditional German food big enough to serve an army, and huge beers. It’s awesome.
Walking through the streets of the old town, you’ll happen upon a lot of Brauhauses, but here are some of the best.
Cologne Historic Old Town Peters Brauhaus
One of the best Brauhauses in Cologne, never mind the old town. Just a few steps away from the cathedral, you’d expect it to be a kitsch tourist trap. It’s not.
It is quintessentially German, not an ounce pretentious and the atmosphere is unbeatable. Of course, the favourite beer, Peters Kölsch and the amazing food is the main attraction.
Brauhaus Sunner im Walfisch
The beautiful architecture of the exterior is so inviting it is almost impossible to walk past this Brauhaus without popping in.
I would formally challenge you on that, except that I don’t think anyone should resist the temptation.
The Brauhaus has a lot of character and a friendly, welcoming vibe. Large ten-seater tables encourage sharing with strangers, a communal and jovial experience.
A big bonus is two areas: one for drinking and one for dining. This makes it a great Brauhaus for a quick beer stop on your old town excursion.
Brauhaus Reissdorf am Griechenmarkt
This Brauhaus truly is the real deal. Featuring an all-pine interior and a great spot to kick back and enjoy Reissdorf Kolsch beers (a particularly good Kolsch).
Unless you cover your glass with a coaster, the beers will keep on flowing, deposited onto your table the minute you drain your last drop.
The hearty German food is superb, and on Sundays, the brewhouse offers some pretty great food specials. This is a no-frills spot that you’ll struggle to stay away from.
Historical Sites in Cologne’s Old Town
I suppose this is a ‘double dose of history’ section because basically every attraction or site in Cologne is a historical one. But that’s what you get when visiting a city so completely soaked in recorded history.
This is really for the history enthusiast who loves to absorb every record of the past that a city has to offer.
St Alban Memorial
This site holds ruins of an old Romanesque church and monuments that were severely damaged during the war.
It now serves as a memorial to soldiers and victims of WW2. It is much like the famous Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.
The public cannot enter what remains of the 1172 church, but can only view the sobering skeleton.
‘The Grieving Parents’ statue stands in the churchyard and is a melancholic reminder of the human impact of the war.
The memorial isn’t a site that you’d plan your day around. But it’s a good spot to break up your tour of the old town and take a moment to consider Cologne’s ancient and also not-so-distant history.
By now you must be convinced that Cologne old town is basically one big excavation site. And if you’re not, then I am pleased to introduce the Archeological Zone and Jewish Museum.
The Archaeological Zone is a square in front of the town hall that has been dug up for years, revealing fascinating finds.
Archaeologists have uncovered artefacts from the medieval Jewish quarter alongside Roman artefacts.
This area is still currently being excavated. While it is closed to the public at the moment, soon the zone will be home to a Jewish Museum that will be built underneath the town hall square.
If all goes well, it will be completed somewhere in 2021. Race you there!
Things to Look Out for as You Stroll Through the Old Town
Who doesn’t love roaming through a city and coming across random, interesting and bewildering things?
While Cologne’s old town has so many fascinating spots that you’ll find as you explore, here are two that you should definitely seek out.
Tünnes and Schäl
Standing opposite Groß St. Martin are two of my favourite Cologne residents, Tünnes and Schäl.
Tünnes and Schäl are two figures from the puppet theatre, Hänneschen-Theater, established in 1802. While Tünnes is good-natured and jovial, Schäl is two-faced and immoral.
These two characters are so firmly a part of the culture in Cologne that many local jokes and references are centred around them. Some say they are a personification of locals from Cologne.
They’re quirky and make for a cheesy photo opportunity. Don’t forget to rub the protruding nose of Tünnes for good luck!
Germany is filled with fairytales, and this fountain is a beautiful reminder of that. It was built in 1899 to commemorate the Heinzelmännchen and the tailor’s wife.
The Heinzelmännchen come from a folklore tale and the story goes like this:
Tiny people used to do all the work at night so that residents of Cologne could relax all day. They slaved away doing all sorts of chores in the dead of the night, and these working elves were never spotted.
The elves had made a deal with the people of Cologne that for them to do the work, they could never be seen by humans.
But the elves took a liking to a tailor and gave extra care to help the tailors family with housework. The tailor’s wife grew unbearably curious and was desperate to see the elves who had been helping the family and leaving them gifts.
She left dried peas on the steps in the hopes of causing the little people to trip and fall so she could see them when the morning came.
The Heinzelmänchen were obviously furious that the agreement had been broken and left Cologne, never to return again.
And now the poor citizens have to do all the hard work themselves. But at least they’ve got a fountain.
Annual Old Town Fun
There’s nothing better than finding yourself in a city at a time which coincides with a fantastic event. Maybe you’re the sort of person that plans your trips around seasonal events abroad. There is a lot going on in Cologne. But these two festive season fetes are the best of old town Cologne.
Cologne has a five-season calendar, the fifth season being carnival season which begins at exactly 11 minutes past 11 on November the 11th. At this exact moment, a bell is rung at the market square in Old Town.
The Cologne Carnival is the maddest festival in Germany and of one Europe’s biggest. The season lasts till March, with weeks filled with crazy parties, concerts and celebrations.
But the culmination is a week-long street festival between Fat Thursday and Ash Wednesday, just before the beginning of Lent.
The whole town immerses itself in the week-long festival and costumes are mandatory! If you’re thinking of taking part, then you should know that ‘over-the-top’ is encouraged.
Shouts of “Kölle Alaaf!”, a 1550 phrase which can be loosely translated to ‘Cologne above all’, punctuate the air throughout the festival.
The climate of Cologne Carnival is the Rose Monday Parade which starts in the south of the city and continues for 6.5km right through the old town.
More than 10 000 costumed paraders march through the city with massive decorative floats, tossing candy and flowers to the millions of onlookers.
It’s a massive understatement to say it’s a party. It’s one of THE parties.
Cologne Old Town Christmas Market
If you’re not a beer drinker, then the first thing that probably pops into your mind when you think of Germany is Christmas markets.
Oh, how the country sparkles with Christmas lights, gluhwein and merriment over the festive season.
And there are few places that do Christmas better than Cologne. The old town becomes Santa’s playground, and there is barely space free of festive booths, decorations and activities.
A stage is set up by the cathedral for live music and an ice-rink takes up Heumarkt square.
A little village of traditional huts is set up, creating the Markt der Engel (Angel Market) and there is an entire St. Nicolas’s kids village.
The old town Christmas market is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Every corner you turn holds a jolly surprise, that gets better the more gluhwein you drink.
The Magic of Old Town Cologne, Germany
There are so many hidden things to do in Cologne, it is a quaint city full of wonders. And at its centre is the symbol of the city’s history, folklore and culture. Getting lost in the winding alleys of the old town is like walking through the very heart and soul of Cologne.
Entire days on end can be spent exploring the historic city centre. It is packed with museums and historical sites offering a ton of knowledge about ancient and recent history and art.
The brewhouses, coffee shops and authentic restaurants that line the streets beg you to step inside and indulge – I dare you to resist.
There is certainly a mystical charm and pervasive historical ambience that makes the old town of Cologne so enticing.
And with so many things to do and see, it deserves a whole day (but preferable more) to explore.
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