There are many things to do in Cologne but even a day is enough to get to know the city on a general level. Even so, if you have time to spend in the North-Rhine Westphalia region, spend it in Cologne. Cologne’s highlights will sway you with its rich history and an abundance of attractions, museums, and eateries.
I visited Cologne during the summer and regretted not having more time in this beautiful city. Compared to Bonn and Dusseldorf, I liked Cologne best for its sense of vastness, general mood, and layout. By the way, I also have guides on what to do in Dusseldorf in a day and things to do in Bonn. Stay longer if you can afford it, and get some inspiration for your itinerary! With no further ado, here are 10 things to do in Cologne for a day:
How to Spend One Day in Cologne:
Marvel at the 157-Meter Tall Cologne Cathedral
You won’t miss the Cologne Cathedral however hard you try. It is the first thing you will notice on your approach as the building practically dwarfs the rest of the city. While the Treasury exhibition is paid, anyone can walk into the Cologne Cathedral as long as a service isn’t in progress.
If you’re up for the exercise, you can also climb the 509 steps to the top of the Cathedral. However, you might want to hold off and get on with exploring the city instead as you’ll need the energy! There is another great viewing point which is perfect for wrapping up a busy day of travel.
Go on a Fountain Scavenger Hunt
See how many fountains you can spot while walking through Cologne’s city center. The Old City Centre alone has over 15 fountains depicting various periods of Cologne’s architecture.
Heinzelmännchenbrunnen on Am Hof 12-14 is one of Cologne’s most famous landmarks. The gnome fountain was built by Edmund Renard. He was inspired by August Kopisch’s “The Elves of Cologne”. On first glance, you might think the fountain has some relation to the story of Snow White and the dwarves.
Actually, this is the story of the little house gnomes who were doing the work of Cologne’s citizens during the night. One time, the tailor’s wife got curious and wanted to see the gnomes, so she spilled peas on the floor and hid to get a glimpse of them. The gnomes fell and got so infuriated that they left Cologne forever. And since then, Cologne’s citizens had to work hard again.
Jan von Werth Fountain at Alter Markt is another fountain inspired by the legend of Jan and Griet. In the story, Jan proposes to Griet who denies him because he isn’t wealthy enough. The devastated Jan goes to join the army and builds up his fortune and reputation in the war. Upon his return to Cologne, he meets Griet at the market where she sells fruit. He notices the now old and lonely Griet and says “Oh, Griet, whoever would have thought it?”. She recognizes him and says “Oh, Jan, had I only known it!”. Talk about closure!
Paolozzi-Brunnen on Frankenwerft is a fun interactive fountain at the start of the Rhine Promenade. It’s absolutely lovely in the summer season. You can walk through the stream, jump from stone to stone and relax next to the water feature on a hot summer day.
Petrus-Brunnen is a beautiful fountain located right at the foot of the southern facade of the Cologne Cathedral. This neo-gothic fountain has two levels and was completed in 1870.
Fastnachtsbrunnen is a romantic fountain at Obenmarspforten 9. This little fountain features four hugging couples and is a perfect stop on your explorations of the old city.
Take a Walk Along the Rhine Promenade
Cologne’s Rhine promenade is a must for a stroll. The wide embankment stretches from the train station along the whole city. The walk offers impressive views of the opposite river bank as well as a streak of restaurants and cafes. This is the point of departure for many boat river cruises that go from Cologne to Königswinter, Dusseldorf or Bonn.
Explore the 3 Squares of the Altstadt
Time to explore the Altstadt, Cologne’s cozy old center. With so many things to do in Cologne in one day, it’s going to be hard to squeeze in the whole city. I suggest you focus on the central historical area around these three squares:
- Alter Markt is the soul of the old center, its central square filled with Cologne’s historical heritage. Surrounded by streets filled with narrow medieval houses, this Old Market still functions as one even today. Don’t miss the Cologne Rathaus, the city hall. The oldest part of the building dates back to 1330.
- Heumarkt is the second largest Cologne square. During the middle ages, the Alter Markt and the Heumarkt functioned as one marketplace up to the city district restructuration. During the Christmas season, you will find the charming square filled with stalls and decorations.
- Neumarkt square is a buzzing center which offers many diversions, including the biggest shopping mall in the city, Neumarkt Galerie. Got some spare time? If you’re anything like me, you might like to jump into the Mayersche Buchhandlung book store at Neumarkt 2 for a fine selection of English literature.
Drink Kolsch Beer at a Local Brewery
Did you know that Cologne has its own signature beer? I’m talking about Kolsch: fermented with ale yeast, it’s light and will suit even those who don’t like beer as much (don’t worry, I’m the same). The best way to experience it is by going on a brewery tour or even ordering it at a local pub. Kolsch is a light beer that is region-specific.
Some of Cologne’s most popular breweries include Brauhaus Früh am Dom, Peters Brauhaus or Brauhaus Sion, Gaffel Haus am Alter Markt and Bierhaus an der Salzgass.
Having a hard time choosing? Me too. if you have time to spare, why not go on a brewery tour that will take you across several breweries? Here are some options you might like:
Visit the Church of Great St. Martin
This beautiful Catholic church is an unmissable figure in Cologne’s skyline. The church’s foundations were laid circa 960 AD, however, the structure was almost entirely destroyed during the WWII. After much debate, the church was rebuilt, referring to many of the original designs. The exterior with its characteristic four towers was restored as well. You can visit this beautiful church at An Groß St. Martin 9-11.
Discover the Secrets of Chocolate in Schokoladen Museum Lindt
An entry ticket would set you back 11,50 EUR which might not be the cheapest but is totally worth the price! The Chocolate Museum is enjoyable for kids and adults alike. It’s quite big so an optimal time to explore would be at least 2 hours. The museum walks you through the entire chocolate-making process, from growing cocoa trees and how chocolate export works to the magical technologies at work. Watch the chocolate being mixed, stirred, and, of course, poured into the many different molds.
At the entrance, you get free chocolate and you can have a taste of the chocolate fountain during your visit. There is also a confectionery where you can order a chocolate bar with bespoke toppings or choose from the pre-made variety.
Word to the wise: try to do that at the beginning of your visit as it takes 40 minutes to produce your desired chocolate and the stand is in the middle of the museum. It costs around 7 EUR per bar.
One of my favorite parts of the museum was the collection of chocolate packaging: the most beautiful tin boxes, and even chocolate vending machines from modern times back to Victorian age when drinking hot chocolate was all the luxurious rage!
Learn the True Origins of Eau De Cologne
The famous Eau de Cologne did, in fact, come from Cologne… As you step into the city, you’re immediately led to believe the 4711 brand which is so heavily advertised all around the city is “echt Kolnisch Wasser”. However, the 4711 was nothing but a copycat, taking over the market.
The original perfume was invented by John Maria Farina is still sold in the Museum of Eau de Perfume. It’s still a family-owned business, too. But the only thing you really need to know is that the Farina scent is a worthy addition to your collection! Especially since it’s been worn by a whole throng of royalty and celebrities including Princess Diana, Oscar Wilde, and even Voltaire.
I recommend taking the guided tour in the Fragrance Museum: it’s costumed, fun, and will take you into the secret depths of the historical buildings to the working rooms where ledgers are kept and perfumes are invented. Go ahead and try guessing the ingredients!
Declare Your Everlasting Love on Hohenzollernbrücke
Looking for a romantic spot with a fantastic view of Cologne? Then step onto the Hohenzollern bridge. This famous railway bridge is inundated with lover’s locks, so yours will be in good company! Ever since the merchants caught on to the custom, they sell the locks in souvenir shops.
Enjoy a Stunning Cologne Panorama From KölnTriangle
How about ending your day on a high with a panoramic view of Cologne? The KölnTriangle is situated a short walk from the city center, across the bridge on the opposite side of the river. The top of the building offers a view over the Cologne Cathedral, the promenade, and the railroad bridge. For a mere 3 euros, you’ll be whisked to the 28th floor for a classic view which is only made better by the setting sun and the city illumination.