Cologne is a German city that rose like a phoenix from the smouldering embers of World War II. In retaliation for the Nazis pummelling London, Allied forces smashed 95 per cent of the city to smithereens.
Undeterred, the city set about putting itself back together at the end of the war. Today’s Cologne is a lively city with a rich historical legacy.
By spending just one day in Cologne Old Town (Aldstadt) you will be able to visit its key attractions, including its world-famous cathedral, and try some of the food and beer for which the city is famous. Whether you are here for the first time or are a repeat visitor, here are the best things to do in the historical heart of one of Germany’s most interesting cities.
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Best Things to do in Cologne Old Town in One Day
1. Visit Cologne Cathedral
It owes its existence to the Three Wise Men.
In the 12th Century, the bones of the Three Kings were brought to Cologne from the conquered city of Milan. This drew pilgrims in their droves and attracted funding to build a cathedral that was magnificent enough to house the Magi’s mortal remains. Their bones are housed in a lavishly gilded reliquary.
The Cathedral is also home to the exquisite 10th Century Gero-Crucifix and the Madonna of Milan, a wooden sculpture said to possess miraculous powers.
2. Peek at the Roman mosaic at the Roman-Germanic Museum
Cologne was founded as a Roman settlement in 38 BC and became a colony – Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium to give it its full name – in 50 AD. If you peer through the window of the Roman-Germanic Museum (Römisch-Germanisches Museum), you will be able to see evidence of Roman life in Cologne.
A fine mosaic floor that was once in the dining room of a merchant depicts saucy scenes from the life of Dionysus. This would have been at the original Roman street level.
When I visited in August 2022, the Roman-Germanic Museum was closed for renovation. An interim exhibition comprising a quarter of the permanent collection has moved to the Belgisches Haus (Cäcilienstraße 46).
3. Walk over Hohenzollern Bridge
Hohenzollern Bridge (Hohenzollernbrücke) may be the busiest railway bridge in the world (more than 1,200 trains daily but who’s counting), but that’s not why it is a tourist magnet. People visit this Cologne landmark for its classic Industrial Age design and for its love locks.
Although love locks are a familiar sight in cities across the globe, I have never seen as many as there are on Hohenzollern Bridge. Couples inscribe their names and date on a padlock, chain this to the bridge railing and chuck the key over the bridge as a symbol of their everlasting devotion.
I recommend walking all the way to the other side of the bridge for a fabulous view of Cologne Cathedral.
4. Get your cocoa fix at the Chocolate Museum
Walk back over Hohenzollernbrücke, pass the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who paid for the bridge, and take the steps down to the pleasant riverfront park. A ten-minute stroll along the river will bring you to Cologne’s famous chocolate museum (Schokoladenmuseum).
Chocoholics shouldn’t miss this place. The three levels of this absorbing museum trace the journey of the cocoa bean to the finished thing. It’s at least the equivalent of the ChocoStory museums in Bruges and Brussels.
This is one of the things to do in Cologne that is worth booking in advance.
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5. Explore the squares of Cologne Old Town
Retrace your steps along the river to the diminutive Fischmarkt, one of the squares of Cologne’s historic centre. As its name suggests, this was once the fish market.
Although the buildings look medieval, they are much younger.
In the early 20th Century, the Nazis rebuilt Cologne’s scruffy Old Town in a sanitised stone-and-stucco style that was more to their liking. This was their vision for old towns across Germany.
That didn’t last long. After the Second World war, Cologne was rebuilt in the faux-medieval style that we see today.
A few minutes inland from Fischmarkt is Alter Markt (Old Market Square).
In the middle of the square is a late 19th Century fountain. This was built to commemorate Jan von Werth, a victorious army general who served in the Thirty Years’ War. Its reliefs tell the story of the unrequited love between von Werth and Griet, a woman who rejected him as he wasn’t from a wealthy family.
This historic square is the setting for one of Cologne’s famous Christmas markets.
6. Take a look at Cologne’s Rathaus
Alter Markt is also home to the Old Town’s City Hall.
Thanks to construction work, in 2022 you can’t get a good look the Rathaus’s Renaissance porch, the sole historic survivor of the 1945 bombings. However, it’s worth circling the building to view the carvings on the side of the building.
7. Visit Cologne’s Romanesque churches
Twelve large Romanesque churches are set in a semi-circle around Cologne’s city centre. Built between 1150 and 1250, these predate Cologne Cathedral.
If you have just one day in Cologne, I suggest focusing on two of these: St. Gereon and Groß St. Martin (Great St. Martin’s Church).
Visit Saint Gereon for its gravity-defying decagonal dome. This minor basilica was architecturally ahead of its time and has been compared with the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople and the Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence.
By contrast, Groß St. Martin has a modern, almost minimalist interior. It was built on the site of Roman warehouses, the columns of which were used in its construction.
For a small fee, you can visit the archaeological excavations in the church’s crypt.
But Great St. Martin’s Church is better known for its distinctive exterior with its ensemble of four slender turrets embracing a central spire that towers above Fischmarkt.
8. Buy Cologne from Cologne
It has to be done.
I recommend visiting 4711. Housed in a historic building on Glockengasse – it takes its name from its street number in the Napoleonic era – this iconic Eau de Cologne was produced in the city as early as 1799.
A shop on the ground floor sells a wide variety of fragrances and gifts to buy for those back home (or for yourself), and there’s a small museum on the mezzanine level.
Alternatively, head to the place where it all began: Farina 1709. It was here that Johann Maria Farina launched the original Eau de Cologne in 1709. There’s a shop and museum which you can visit on a guided tour.
9. Take a relaxing cruise along the Rhine
See Cologne Old Town from a different perspective by joining a panoramic city cruise along the mighty River Rhine. This one-hour cruise includes an audio guide.
But if you are looking for more classic Rhine views, consider taking a longer river cruise to Königswinter through Siebengebirge. For more information and to book, click here.
10. Sample the local brew
Leaving one of the best things to do in Cologne ‘til the last. Kölsch is the city’s local brew, a pale, hoppy and slightly sweet beer.
I liked it.
A visit to one of Cologne’s beer halls (Brauhaus) is an experience in itself. You will continue to be served with Kölsch until you say stop (put your beer mat on top of your glass to indicate this). It pairs extremely well with substantial portions of hearty German food.
This is not a great country for vegetarians.
I can recommend Brauerei zur Malzmühle, a traditional family brewery at Heumarkt.
If you want to understand more about Kölsch and Brauhaus culture and benefit from the insider knowledge of a local guide, why not join a beer tour? Although I didn’t have time to do this when I was in Cologne, I did join a beer tour when I was visiting Ghent which was huge fun.
Take a look at this English-language Cologne beer tour here.
Map of Cologne Old Town Highlights (+ Self-Guided Walking Tour)
If you like to map it out, here’s one that I prepared earlier. For an interactive map, simply click here or on the image itself.
For a more structured itinerary, you can use this map as a framework for a Cologne self-guided walking tour. Walking between all of the Cologne landmarks on this tour will take you 75 minutes without stops.
Where to Stay in Cologne
One of the beauties of Cologne is that you easily visit its main attractions in a day. The city’s landmarks are clustered near the train station, the main sights within a 15-minute walk of each other.
However, for a more relaxed visit and to experience a lively Brauhaus at night, I recommend spending at least one night in Cologne. For maximum convenience, stay in or close to the Old Town.
Mid-range – Hotel Domstern
I stayed in this affordable 3-star hotel in the Old Town. Cosy single rooms are available and a good breakfast is included in the room rate.
>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK RATES & BOOK
Here are a few other places to stay that may suit other budgets and tastes:
Splurge – Excelsior Hotel Ernst am Dom
Cologne Cathedral views from this 5-star hotel in the heart of the city. Reviews are superb and single rooms are available for solo travellers.
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Apartment – City Apartments in Köln am Rheingarten
Rhine views from these keenly-priced apartments. The location is superb.
>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK RATES & BOOK
>>> None of these places takes your fancy? Find other great accommodation choices in Cologne here.
Is Cologne Safe for Female Solo Travellers?
There are plenty of things for the solo traveller to do in Cologne, from exploring its cathedral and churches to trying the varieties of beer that the city has to offer. Whilst is a big city, as its main sights are within close proximity to each other it is very walkable.
I had heard a few horror stories about Cologne in recent years but as a female solo traveller, much of Cologne Old Town felt safe. That said, the area around the train station felt edgier and is best avoided late at night. The strong police presence here is a bit of a clue.
As with any big city, to stay safe as a solo traveller, a little bit of common sense goes a long way. Remain vigilant, stick to busy areas, keep your belongings close to you and use your hotel safe to store valuables.
READ THIS NEXT: 17 Essential Safety Tips for Travelling Alone
Is Cologne Worth Visiting?
Don’t visit Cologne expecting a quaint storybook city. There are better places in Germany to tick that box.
But don’t let that put you off. Instead, you will get an awe-inspiring UNESCO-listed cathedral, a clutch of first-rate churches and museums, a sympathetically reconstructed Old Town and a lively bar and restaurant scene.