Cologne, Germany, or Köln in German, is renowned for its magnificent cathedral, its distinctive Kolsch beer, and, of course, cologne, the scented toilet water that borrows its name from its birthplace.

As Germany’s fourth largest population center, this historic city was an early port visit on a recent Viking Rhine River Cruise. During my short, but memorable time there, I was delighted to discover the lively cultural scene, its most famous sights, and learn more of its storied past.

Roman Heritage

My wife and I opted for a guided tour of the older historic portions of Cologne. I am a history buff, but even I was surprised by Cologne’s ancient Roman heritage. Founded in Germanic Ubii territory in the 1st century CE, the frontier settlement was originally named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium.

Over time, the Agrippina portion of the name was dropped and the Colonia name developed into modern German as Köln or Cologne.

The city served as the capital of the Roman province of Germania Inferior and as the region’s Roman military headquarters until the frontier fell to the Franks in 462.

We noted evidence of Cologne’s Roman past as parts of the city’s old Roman wall still stand today. A city monument features the she-wolf raising Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. Near the cathedral, the side portal of the Roman North gate has been rebuilt on the preserved remains of the original Roman city gate. Roman lettering can still be seen carved in one of the portal blocks.

Cologne’s Roman-Germanic Museum (Römisch-Germanisches Museum) showcases a large collection of Roman artifacts from Cologne’s early history. Items on display include Roman mosaics, sculptures, and a variety of architectural items.

Ancient Roman Road in Altstadt.
Ancient Roman Road in Altstadt. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Hohenzollern Bridge (Hohenzollernbrücke)

Our trek to the city center took us over the Hohenzollern Bridge. This span is famous for the thousands of padlocks commemorating everlasting romantic love clipped along the bridge railing.

Love may be ethereal, but the locks themselves are heavy, creating concern over the structural integrity of the bridge due to all this unplanned weight. However, this “Love Bridge” certainly provides lovers and other visitors impressively picturesque views of the cathedral and the Rhine River.

Old Town (Alstadt)

Most of our tour covered the Old Town (Altstadt) in Cologne’s historic center which is filled with narrow, cobbled streets, charming shops, eateries, and old beautiful buildings of varied architectural styles. Here we discovered the fascinating Heinzelmännchen Fountain.

On a site near the Cologne Cathedral and the Früh brewery, Cologne sculptors Edmund Renard and his son Heinrich Renard created a memorial consisting of a fountain and sculpture showcasing an old legend to commemorate the 100th birthday of the poet August Kopisch.

Wonderfully restored, the memorial fountain features a towering sculpture and four long paneled sandstone relief walls depicting busy dwarves, so common in German fairytales.

Another Alstadt monument honors Edith Stein-Denkmal, a beautified German Catholic nun of Jewish heritage who died in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The poignant tribute to this remarkable woman features three sculptures of her depicting the three stages of her life. At the far end of the sculptured monument are bronze cast footprints and a pile of empty shoes memorializing the thousands of innocents murdered at Auschwitz.

A City Famous for its Cologne

Next on the tour was a stop at the Farina Fragrance Museum. Here, the original Eau de Cologne was launched in 1709 by Giovanni Maria Farina, an Italian perfume maker from Santa Maria Maggiore. Farina’s formula has been produced in Cologne since 1709 and to this day remains a sacred guarded secret.

Renowned as the world’s oldest fragrance factory, the shop’s signature product, The Original Eau de Cologne 4711, is named after its location at Glockengasse No. 4711. At one time it was reputedly delivered to nearly all royal houses in Europe.

Post World War II Preservation

While Cologne was largely destroyed by allied bombing in World War II, much of the city, including most of the Alstadt, has been rebuilt with a desire to preserve the past. As we strolled the historic district and beyond, we were able to enjoy the city’s diverse architectural influences, each reflecting both its history and its various periods of development. 

Gothic, medieval Romanesque, Roman, Renaissance, Baroque, Gürzenich, Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic and Historicism, Cubist, as well as contemporary and modern architecture can be seen in its most iconic structures such as its cathedral, ancient ruins, various churches, governmental and commercial buildings.

Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom)

Vaulted Ceiling of Cologne Cathedral Interior.
Vaulted Ceiling of Cologne Cathedral Interior. Photo by Michael Kompanik

There are cathedrals and then there are Cathedrals. I was vaguely aware that Cologne was home to a famous cathedral, but nothing could prepare me for the absolute magnificence of this amazing structure. Words cannot fully capture the depth of the awe it inspires. Colossal, gargantuan, towering, soaring, imposing, incredibly ornate. The list of superlatives applying to this architectural masterpiece could go on and on.

I was left utterly breathless at its sight.

Considered one of the most significant examples of Gothic architecture, this UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most visited sights and pilgrimage destinations in Europe. The cathedral hosts over 20,000 daily visitors.

At 157 meters (515 feet), the Cologne Cathedral is the world’s tallest twin-spired church in the world, the second tallest in Europe after Ulm Minster, and the third tallest church of any kind in the world.

Renowned for its soaring spires, intricate sculptures and stunning stained-glass windows, this giant sports elaborate gargoyles standing guard over its many windows and entrances.

Construction began in 1248, but was halted around 1560, still unfinished. Efforts to complete the building resumed in the 1840s, and by 1880, the cathedral was finally deemed finished in accordance with its original Medieval plan.

The city’s medieval Catholic Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) was constructed to house the Shrine of the Three Kings and contains the remains and relics of the Three Kings, which the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, had taken from Milan, Italy.  

The interior of this spectacular cathedral is every bit as impressive as the elaborate exterior. The outer chambers are lined with massive vibrant stained-glass windows. The vaulted ceiling of the nave itself rises to an awe-inspiring 142-feet. The High Altar is made of a solid 14-foot slab of black marble.

In the side transepts and apse, various tombs of highly notable Roman Catholic and Holy Roman figures can be viewed.

Lastly, visitors can ascend a spire for a fee and enjoy an unforgettable panoramic view of the city and the Rhine River.

Many believe divine intervention spared this magnificent cathedral from destruction during the intense allied bombing of Cologne during World War II, and numerous photographs show the cathedral standing proud and tall amidst an otherwise totally destroyed city.

The truth is, despite allied bomber efforts to spare the historic landmark, the famed cathedral was badly damaged by fourteen aerial bombs during the war. Repairs of the war damage were completed in 1956 and engineering studies are routinely employed to ensure the historic cathedral retains its structural integrity.

Brauhaus Sion

Sion Kolsch Brauhaus.
Sion Kolsch Brauhaus. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Along our tour, there was no shortage of restaurants, cafes, and pubs to sample Köln’s great food and refreshing beer.

Brauhaus Sion beckoned me. Perhaps it was its sign, highlighting the fact that this particular brauhaus has been in business in Köln for a ‘mere’ 705 years. Founded in 1318, the historic venue offers their classic Kölsch beer in small, narrow glasses to keep it cold and fresh.

As my cold, tasty beer revived me, I took in the amazing atmosphere which included a stage filled with mannequins in various period dress to celebrate the brauhaus’ long and storied history. It was not time for lunch, but their menu featuring tarte flambé, various schnitzels, and Sion Sudpfannenputzer, a hearty bratwurst served on a Kampala board that will definitely bring me back.

The Rhine River

Returning to our ship from the historic downtown, we strolled along the banks of the picturesque Rhine. Here you’ll find a network of walking paths along the river where you can enjoy scenic views, dine at small cafes and enjoy the cityscape.

Along the way, the Great St. Martin Church towers over several lovely buildings facing the river. This grand church, one of 12 Romanesque churches in Cologne, was built between 1150 and 1250 with its foundation resting upon the remains of an old Roman Chapel.

Its striking architecture features a trefoil plan with three apses surrounding the crossing. Heavily damaged by bombs in World War II, it was completely restored in 1985.

Plans for a Return Trip

Heinzelmännchen Fountain in Cologne, Germany.
Heinzelmännchen Fountain in Cologne, Germany. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Again, with limited time, there were plenty of venues that could not be enjoyed, but are on our list when we return to this fabulous Queen of the Rhine River.

Among some of the most noteworthy are the Chocolate Museum (Schokoladenmuseum) where you not only learn the history and production of chocolate, you also get plenty of samples.

The Ludwig Museum houses an impressive collection of modern art, including works by famed artists including Picasso and Warhol. The Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud features an extensive collection of older European paintings, including works by famed masters like Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer.

Köln’s Botanical Garden (Botanischer Garten), located near the university, is a lovely, landscaped garden where visitors can enjoy beautiful flora in a relaxing setting.

The Cologne Cable Car (Kölner Seilbahn) was not running during our visit, but this trolley offers a unique perspective of the city as it takes you to a vantage point across the Rhine.

And if you are not already on a river cruise, take a leisurely cruise on the Rhine to view this magnificent river city and its environs.

If time permits, relax in a spa or thermal bath as Cologne sports several spa facilities where you can unwind and enjoy wellness treatments.

Remember to also explore the city’s other vibrant neighborhoods like Ehrenfeld, Belgian Quarter (Belgisches Viertel), and Südstadt, each offering its own unique atmosphere. Here you will discover there is more to Cologne than just the historic center.

Lastly, if possible, time your visit to attend a Cologne Carnival (Kölner Karneval). Held in February or early March during the lead up to Lent, their lively and colorful festivities are among the best in all of Germany.

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