Wonder at the Cathedral and More with Two Hours in Cologne

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Got Two Hours in Cologne?

Cologne is one of Germany’s main hiking hubs: whether you are going to the Rheinsteig, the Rothaarsteig, the Eifelsteig or any other trail in the Northwest of Germany, you are likely to pass through. 

But rather than just hopping off the airport bus into Cologne central station or using the station to change from one train to the other, why not step out of the station altogether and leave it behind to explore the city that’s attached to it, one of Northern Europe’s oldest and most venerable?

Every city, after all, is worth a two-hour visit, never mind one as rich in history as Germany’s ancient gateway to the civilized world.

"Towers of the Cathedral that you will see if you walk two hours in Cologne seen from the back"

Two Hours in Cologne

The best thing about Cologne from a sightseeing point of view is that it is next to impossible to miss its main point of interest, the Cathedral. This, in case you were wondering, is the big building just outside the central train station. Yes, the dark one with the two mighty towers.

And the worst thing about Cologne? Bear with me; I will come to that in a sec.

Big the Cathedral certainly is – and that’s a good thing because it needs to accommodate 20,000 visitors a day, more than any other tourist attraction in Germany. Its towers are (jointly) the second highest church steeples in Europe (beaten only by Ulm), and the western facade – including the towers – represents, with 7100 m², the largest surface on any church building in the world.

Some people think it is the greatest of all great medieval churches, but one must bear in mind that much of the building was only completed in the Gothic Revival era of the 19th century, and it is a point of heated debate (although not in Cologne) to what extent and on what terms the Cathedral can be compared with the more “authentic” church buildings of the Middle Ages.

"See this statue in front of the Museum Ludwig when you spend two hours in Cologne Germany"

Turn left in front of the Cathedral and pass between Cologne’s two great museums, the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (history) and the Ludwig Museum (Fine Arts) and past the Philharmonic Concert Hall (“quietly”, as you may be advised, in order not to disrupt rehearsals) towards the Old Town by the banks of the Rhine. Turn right into the promenade, past the tower of Groß St Martin, one of the twelve Romanesque churches for which Cologne is nearly as famous as for its Cathedral.

" The tower of Groß St Martin to see with two hours in Cologne Germany"

Groß St Martin Tower

Turn right into Salzgasse, which will change its name into Heumarkt and then into Marsplatz, with Cologne City Hall on your right hand side, eventually crossing – after a few more name changes – the Hohe Straße, Cologne’s main shopping street.

"The Zeughaus in Cologne Germany"

The Zeughaus

Walk a little further and turn right into Schwertnergasse, continuing all the way to Burgmauer. On your left hand side, you can now see the Zeughaus, a handsome 16th century building (currently accommodating the Museum for Local History), but the Burgmauer itself may be just as interesting, because it shows some carefully restored parts of the old Roman city wall, a reminder of how far into the past Cologne’s long and rich history actually reaches.

"Remains of an old Roman wall in Cologne Germany"

In fact, Cologne is the only German city that, throughout the nation’s history: from the Romans through the Middle Ages and the Industrial Age down to modern times, has always played in the Premier League (except in football, of course, where the recent history of the city’s beloved Geissböcke, the “billy goats”, has been a tale of rarely mitigated woe).

And this is the worst thing about Cologne, at least from a visitor’s point of view: that so much of its rich history has disappeared under the rubble of WWII – and that it has been replaced by a largely featureless, faceless and joyless townscape. For much of the walk, history or not, we had the impression that the streets might as well have belonged to any other German city – or some town in Poland, for that matter.

"Refleciton of the Cathedral of Cologne on a glass fronted building in Germany"

Now, if you have managed to resist temptation and stayed clear of all the many brewery-operated pubs along your way, you will still have some time left of your allocated 2 hours and have several options of how to wrap up your visit.

This is what I would do: Return to the train station by turning right on Komödienstraße (at the Zeughaus), step into the station and walk right through to emerge on the other side, turn left and then right into Eigelstein.

I personally love this street and its area, although it is fair, I think, to point out that this may be certain self-indulgence on my part, and I am prepared to admit that not everyone will share my feelings. (Mrs. Easy Hiker, for example, managed to resist the quarter’s charms quite heroically.)

"The other side of Cologne when exiting the central station from the back"

Why do I think it’s so great? Because to me, the neighbourhood represents urbanity at its most essential, the exotic and the familiar rubbing shoulders: Turkish groceries, junk shops, questionable types greeting each other across the street in languages you don’t understand, and women in leather boots standing in front of pubs with names such as Sport-Eck at 10 in the morning, smoking cigarettes.

"A street scene on the other side of Cologne when exiting the central station from the back"

Areas like that are underappreciated and rarely given the credit for being what they, in fact are, namely the real backbones of our cities. The moment when our cities become reserves for men in business suits, the six-figure salary brigade, the rich and the busy, will be the moment when our cities die. When they become business-and-retail suburbs, with all the life of a shopping mall.

For an alternative trip, however, you can turn left on Komödienstraße instead and fill the time until your train departs at near-by Päffgen for meat and beers, passing on your way the famous Römerturm, the best preserved part of the Roman city wall.

I know what Mrs. Easy Hiker would do.

9 comments to Wonder at the Cathedral and More with Two Hours in Cologne

  • Eugene

    I have been spending about 12 weeks here in Cologne. The Eigelstein area is where I shop for food. It is a funky street for certain. Taking the road out a few miles past the Eigeltor and past St. Agnes church is a great walk as it eventually runs through the Cologne Nippes area There is nothing “touristy” about it, but you get a great idea of what the city is all about.

  • Calogero

    I was never in Cologne, but the Carnival and the Dome must be wonderful! And basically I don’t love Germany’s mix of classical and super-modern architecture.

  • I love Germany’s mix of classical and super-modern architecture. This is a handy guide and I’ll bookmark it for when I get to Cologne :)

  • Joe

    I love the photos you took Michael

    Cologne sure has interesting buildings

  • I’m with you, I find today’s glass buildings we call architecture pretty boring. What will people of the future think when they come upon these remains? Personally they don’t even compare to the beauty that is Cologne’s cathedral!

  • Jeremy Branham

    I love reading about Cologne. The cathedral is amazing. This is one of the cities on my list for Germany. I know it suffered a lot during WWII but even though it lost a little personality and history by rebuilding hopefully there is some charm found in its people :)

  • I’m thinking that I’d probably side with Mrs. Easy Hiker on the second half of the visit, but the whole city looks amazing. Somehow two hours just doesn’t seem like it would do it justice. I could spend two hours just at the Paffgen just eating and drinking.

  • I love your photos of this city. And you’re so right – two hours is nothing and it looks to me like you got a very good sense of the place in a very short time.

  • Wonderful tour through Cologne in just 2 hours…I think I need a week…just to revel in cathedral and the Groß St Martin Tower!! Wow…what architecture! Your photos are glorious too!

Leave a Reply