We leave Aachen behind and drag our germs to Cologne. With seven Christmas markets to explore, a twin-spired cathedral, a mighty river, an observation tower and a myriad of cobbled back streets and alleyways, we have no time to be ill. It’s time to visit Cologne at Christmas time.
Cologne is served by Cologne/Bonn airport, and it’s also possible to arrive in the city by train from a number of major European cities such as Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels, meaning that the Eurostar is also a good option from the UK. Düsseldorf and Frankfurt Airports are also within an hours train ride away, so it’s possible to compare costs and flight times to find the best combination for you. We flew in and out of Düsseldorf as it was most convenient for us to fly direct from BHX.
There’s a direct train which connects Aachen and Cologne. We caught the ICE High Speed train which took about 35 minutes. As usual, I used Trainline.com to book tickets on the go. (Not an ad, just find it really easy and convenient!). The main station Köln Hauptbahnhof is right next to the cathedral.
Cologne accommodation was limited for the weekend we wanted to go. How dare the Christmas markets open at the same time as our wedding anniversary! But I found a centrally located hotel for just over 100€ a night, with good TA reviews. On first glance, XII Apostel Albergo was perfect. After all, our front-facing, first floor room has wonderful views over Heumarket and its Christmas Market. And there are Haribo on our pillows. We were soon to find out however that being so centrally located had its drawbacks…
With a Christmas market right on our doorstep – quite literally – our first stop is to test out the quality of the Cologne Glühwein. The market on Heumarkt is wonderfully traditional, and the gnomes (Heinzelmännchen) that provide the theme of this market and its neighbour Alter Markt are everywhere. Even on the Glühwein mugs. We watch the ice skaters and the curlers, and share a portion of reibekuchen – fried potato pancakes. We already like the Cologne vibe. I message a blogger friend who lives locally and arrange to meet her and her husband for a Glühwein or two later.
Warmed by our first Cologne Glühwein, we head down the narrow cobbled streets towards the Rhine. I love a city with a river, and Cologne is no exception. Bars and cafes have outside terraces, furry blankets and shawls thrown over the backs of chairs. Heat lamps provide a welcome glow on this sunny but chilly afternoon. That famous view, seen on a million Instagram pics is behind us, the pastel buildings with Great St Martin church looming behind. Step back too far and you’ll be in the river.
The scent of chocolate in the air leads me by the nose to our second Christmas market of Cologne. The maritime-themed Hafen-Weihnachtsmarkt is located right outside the city’s Chocolate Museum on the banks of the Rhine. The snow-white pagoda stalls are designed to imitate the sails of a ship. There’s even a pimped up galleon serving as a bar. There’s also a stall selling excellent quality seafood – I can never resist a crab roll.
We head back along the riverside promenade watching passengers from the river boat cruises embark and disembark. It’s late afternoon so we decide to take a stroll across the famous Hohenzollern Bridge. It’s famous because of its “love locks” and although I’ve seen these before across Europe, I’ve never seen a bridge so fully covered with inscribed padlocks. Two tons of love locks in fact. The far side of the bridge is a wonderful place to catch views back over the city, but we’re planning on going one better.
The KölnTriangle is an unassuming skyscraper from the outside, but hosts a panoramic observation deck on its top floor. It’s 3€ per person, and an elevator shoots you up 29 floors – no effort required. From here there are stunning views back across the city, with the impressive cathedral spires piercing the sky. For those of a nervous disposition, there are thick glass walls preventing you from tumbling over the side. This is definitely the best place to get city views. Why expend lots of effort climbing 533 steps to the top of the cathedral only for views which don’t include the cathedral itself? We capture various cityscapes as the sun sinks to the west and the lights start to twinkle across Cologne, camera pressed up to the glass to reduce reflections.
Reluctantly, we leave this vista behind and head back down to ground level. We cross back over Hohenzollern Bridge and pay a swift visit to Christmas Market No 3. This is the Cathedral Xmas Market, sitting pretty under a giant Nordmann Fir wearing a skirt of fairy lights. With its location right next to the train station it’s noticeably busier than the other markets so we don’t stop to partake of a gluhwein. Instead we head on through to one of Cologne’s famed brewhouses, Früh am Dom.
The concept is simple. Find a table (or if busy, a spot to stand). Waiters will bring you a glass of the local beer, called Kölsch. They will mark a beermat with a pencil. And then they will continue to bring you more and more beer, marking your beermat each time. Until finally, all Kölsch-ed out, you place your beermat on top of your glass to indicate that you wish to pay. Although only served in small skinny 200ml glasses, it’s very easy to forget whether it’s your first, third or fifth Kölsch…
We head back to our hotel for a rest. The expensive lozenges I purchased at a Cologne pharmacy are doing nothing for my sore throat, and my voice is now little more than a squeak. The noise from our local Christmas market is decidedly louder than earlier. This is the point that we determine that our room may lack any sound-proofing. Still, it’s nice to hear a brass band playing christmas carols. Even if it does sound as if they’re in the bedroom with us. The markets are only on til 10pm though, so we can put up with the noise for now.
We wrap up warm and head out to find a suitable meeting spot on Heumarkt. Via the bar of course for a gluhwein. This is the busiest we’ve seen any of the markets yet, and I fear for my light grey wool skirt with all this gluhwein sploshing around. We carve out a gap near the ice rink, nestled behind the hot chestnut stand. And begin the awkward process of scanning everyone that passes to see if they look vaguely blogger-like. There a couple, similarly scanning. It’s Cherie and Dirk!
Despite my voice being at peak squeak, we all get on a like a house on fire. There’s another round of gluhwein to be had – this time with added alcohol – and Dirk proudly tells us tales of his home city. If he ever gives up being a tattoo artist then he should think about becoming a tour guide. Keen to show us his favourite pub in the city, we end up at Barney Vallely’s Irish Pub. Yep, when in Germany…drink like an Irishman. Although I do stick to Kölsch, now thankfully served at a sensible rate. Eventually we say auf wiedersehen to our new buddies and go in search of late night food. Unusually for us, we’re lured in by the bright lights and sticky tables of a fast food joint called Buon Appetito, where I devour a wonderful doner kebab. Just what the doctor ordered.
A relaxing night’s sleep and I’ll feel right as rain tomorrow. Cologne’s night owls have other ideas though. The Christmas market may be closed for the night but Heumarkt turns out to be nightlife central. There are bars and pubs in the back streets all around the square. And without fail, every single reveller appears to congregate outside our window. By 3am I am ready to tear my hair out. Mr Fletche tries dragging his duvet into the bathroom (not comfortable apparently). It takes us both wearing headphones and listening to the sound of “English Rain” on a tinnitus app to get any sleep. The external noise stops at about 5am. When the chair scraping from the restaurant below us starts. We search online for alternatives, but Cologne appears to be completely full this weekend. We can get a suite for 1200€ though. Momentarily we consider if its worth it for a good night’s sleep. But we decide that forewarned is forearmed, so it’s going to be another uncomfortable headphone wearing night ahead.
Day 2 of our Cologne itinerary is to follow, as well as a much more succinct Cologne city guide…