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Cologne : The Lovable Metropolis on The Rhine

Cologne (Köln in German) is the fourth largest city in Germany. Situated on the Rhine, between Düsseldorf and Bonn, Köln is a destination for cathedral lovers, Karneval partakers, and river cruise passengers.

During World War II, 90% of the inner city was destroyed. As you walk through Cologne, it’s very clear that the city wanted to rebuild quickly. In other words, Cologne isn’t pretty. The beauty of the city isn’t so much in the architecture but in the people.

The citizens of Cologne LOVE their city. We haven’t experienced city pride on this level anywhere else. We lived in Cologne for one year and we can say with much assurance, you won’t understand Cologne until you’ve experienced Karneval. Alaaf!

Celebrate Karneval

Karneval in Cologne isn’t just a few days, it’s a whole season. In fact, they call it the 5th Season. It begins on November 11th each year at precisely 11:11 a.m. and it doesn’t end until midnight before Ash Wednesday.

Let’s explain the significance of the number 11. According to legend, Saint Ursula (a British princess) and her companions (ten virgins) set off on a holy pilgrimage to Rome in the fourth century. On their way back to Britain, they passed through Cologne, which was besieged by the Huns. St. Ursula and her companions refused to bow down to and copulate with the invaders (because of their faith) and were killed.

Their martyrdom is marked on the Cologne Coat of Arms in the form of 11 black tears that look like apostrophes. Later, it became known that it wasn’t 11 virgins, but rather 11,000 who met their ghastly end in Cologne. The bones of these 11,000 virgins are visible in the Basilica church of St. Ursula.

Back to Karneval…During the 5th season, it’s very common to see people in costume, hear Karneval Lieder (songs), and see Karneval Corps troops gathered in public spaces. The main festivities to attend and see are:

  • Weiberfastnacht (Shrove Thursday).
  • The official parade on Rosenmontag (Carnival Monday). Parade participants are dressed spectacularly and throw out tons of candy (Kamelle) and flowers to spectators. Bring a huge bag to collect goodies, and be prepared to stand 4 hours.
  • Nubbelverbrennung – The burning of the Nubbel is the final celebration that marks the end of the carnival days in Cologne. Everywhere around the city, people gather to burn the Nubbel, a symbolic straw figure that represents all sins committed during the season. After the burning, participants link arms and sing Karneval Lieder for the last time. This is our favorite Karneval celebration

Visit Basilica of St. Ursula

Remember St. Ursula from the coat of arms? The remains of her 11,000 martyred companions can be seen in the Basilica. To see the chamber of relics, visit the Goldene Kammer (Golden Treasury) room within the church. The church builders found the mortal remains of the virgins in a Roman graveyard directly below the church foundation.

When we visited, the resident guide told us the story of the British-Roman princess St. Ursula. According to this guide, St. Ursula’s parents betrothed her to a pagan. She was a devout Christian and begged her parents to sever the tie. They didn’t allow it but did grant her a wish to go on a pilgrimage to Rome.

She set off with 10 virgin companions to Rome. When she arrived, she pleaded with the Pope to let her join a convent. Her request was denied. On her journey back, she received a visit from an angel. The angel told her that she must choose between giving her life in the service of God or marrying a pagan.

She confirmed that she wanted to serve God. So, the angel instructed her to go to Cologne. When she arrived, Cologne was under siege by the Huns. She and her companions were instructed to serve their new mortal masters, the Huns.

St. Ursula refused and told Atilla the Hun that he could have her body, but never her soul. Atilla pierced her heart with a dagger. Shortly thereafter, all of her companions who expressed belief in the one God were massacred. As these women met their death, their souls visibly ascended to heaven. The Huns were so frightened by the ascension scene that they fled the city. St. Ursula saved the city of Cologne.

St. Ursula Basilico Visitor Info
  • Address: Ursulapl. 24, 50668 Köln
  • There’s a fee to enter The Golden Treasury (2-4 EUR).
  • The Basilica is open Tuesday through Sunday. From Tuesdays to Saturdays, visiting hours are between 10 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. as well as between 3:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. On Sundays, visiting hours are only in the morning between 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m

Drink Kölsch in a Brauhaus

Kölsch is a light beer that is made and consumed in Cologne. Served in a small cylinder-shaped glass, Kölsch is the beer of choice and most likely the only beer offered in a Kölner institution.

The best place to drink Kölsch is in a Brauerei. Commonly, servers will bring you fresh glasses of Kölsch (without you asking) until you place a Bierdeckel (coaster) on top of your glass.

The most important thing to know about Kölsch is that it’s the best beer in the world. Okay, It really isn’t, but when locals ask you, please just say it’s delicious. Kölsch is as sacred to Cologne as is the Three Kings reliquary. Not Kidding.

Our favorite Brauhäuser in Cologne:

Watch 1. FC Köln Play at the RheinEnergieStadion

1.FC Köln is Cologne’s professional Fußball (soccer) club that plays in the Bundesliga, which is the highest Fußball league in Germany. Given the Karneval tradition in Cologne, it’s no surprise how communal and festive the RheinEnergieStadion feels during a game.

From the Höhner’s Mer stonn zo dir, FC Kölle hymne (anthem sung at the beginning of the game), to Hennes the Goat’s stately appearance (mascot of the team), to the battle-like drums and voices of the jumping fan section, watching a game in Cologne is anything but passive.

The stadium holds 50,000 fans, which becomes a sea of red during a home game.

Visit the NS Documentation Centre (EL-DE House)

The El-De building was the headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo (secret state police) from December 1935 to March 1945. The Gestapo was responsible for keeping the population under surveillance and persecuting the political and “racial” opponents of the Nazi regime.

The Gestapo in Cologne deported and murdered thousands of people. Several hundred were executed in the inner courtyard of the El-De Building during the last few months of the war.

Today, the El-De Building is an excellent museum that houses the Memorial Gestapo prison and the permanent exhibition “Cologne during National Socialism.” The prison, located in the basement of the former Gestapo headquarters, still retains its prison cells and the wall inscriptions written by its former inmates.

Walking in the prison is a vivid reminder of the atrocities carried out by the Gestapo and Nazi regime.  The permanent exhibition, which occupies the first and second floor of the building, thoroughly investigates and reveals the way National Socialism developed in Cologne.

Recommendation: Get the Audio Guide. It’s available in German, English, French, Dutch, Hebrew, Spanish, Polish and Russian (2 EUR).

Time you’ll need: At least 3 hours.

Address: Appellhofpl. 23-25, 50667 Köln

Visit the Dom, Cologne’s Cathedral

Der Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) is the symbol of the city and a magnificent representation of Gothic architecture. Its gothic spires dominate the skyline and can be seen from multiple vantage points within Cologne. The kölner lovingly say, “Home is where the Dom is.”

Remarkably, it took over 600 years to complete the construction of the Cathedral (1248- 1880). It was actually the Prussians, who occupied the city in the 19th century,  that directed the completion of the Dom.

The cathedral’s most valuable possession is the reliquary allegedly containing the skulls of the Three Kings. There is also a notable modern stained glass window, created by the German artist Gerhard Richter in the south transept.

During World War II, the cathedral endured fourteen hits by aerial bombs. 90 percent of the inner city of Cologne was destroyed, but the cathedral survived because the twin spires were an easily discernible navigational landmark for the Allied forces.

No visit to Cologne is complete without a visit to the Dom.

Guided Tours: We took the guided tour, conducted in English, and it was worth it.

Entrance: Free

Christmas Markets

If you’re visiting Cologne in late November, or December, don’t miss out on the various Christmas Markets throughout the city. They’re fantastic!!! 

  • Kölner Altstadt, Heimat der Heinzel at Altern Markt & Heumarkt – this is the best one.
  • Markt der Engel at Neumarkt – beautiful lighting, spacious.
  • Nikolausdorf at Rudolfsplatz – pretty, lovely, easy to get to.
  • Weihnachtsmarkt im Stadtgarten – this has a more alternative, local feel.
  • Harbour Christmas Market in front of the Chocolate Museum – this is nice, but definitely frequented by the most tourists (especially American river cruise passengers).

Unravel Cologne’s Ancient Roman History

The story of Cologne begins with Agrippina the younger, who was born in Cologne in 15 AD. As the wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, she was able to convince her husband (who was also her uncle) to elevate her birthplace to Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Colony of Claudius and Altar of the Agrippinians). By giving Cologne the status of a Roman colony, the fortified settlement on the Rhine benefited from imperial rights. Fun fact: this is the only Roman colony to be named after a woman.

While Cologne was able to profit from its relationship with Agrippina, those closest to her were not as fortunate. Most scholars believe that she poisoned her third husband, Emperor Claudius, in order to make her son Nero (yes, the crazy, notorious one) Emperor.

Her first two husbands also met unexpected and sudden deaths (rumored to be poison). And, because what goes around comes around, Agrippina met her own end at the hands of her son Nero.

Agrippina is forever immortalized in a statue on Cologne’s Old City Hall. She’s the one standing on a black widow spider.

Source: moonhoneytravel