Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany and a popular tourist destination for people passing to/from Holland. The city is known for its great cathedral, wonderful cafes and international restaurants, and the historic architecture.
I think more people should visit Cologne. Besides the above, the city has a great range of museums and free activities that make it pretty budget-friendly too. I found the city to be a bit too “modern” and less vibrant than other German cities but it does have a certain charming quick pace to it. Compared to cities like Berlin and Munich, Cologne is a lot less touristy too.
It’s definitely worth a few days.
This Cologne travel guide will give you all the practical information you need to help you plan your visit!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Cologne
1. Visit the Kolner Dom
2. Visit the Wallraf-Richartz Museum
3. Visit Grüngürtel
4. Take a river cruise
5. Visit the church of St. Kunibert
Other Things to See and Do in Cologne
1. Explore on foot
Spending time just strolling around Cologne’s neighborhoods. Agnesviertel is a bohemian area filled with shops, art galleries, bookstores, and pubs. Alte Feuerwache has a great flea market during the summer, and course, there is always the historic center to explore. Over 72% of the historic city center was destroyed in WWII, but every building was lovingly restored over the years. The Cathedral, Great St. Martin church, and the Town Hall are all here.
2. Celebrate the Winter “Karneval”
The biggest festival in Cologne is the winter Karneval, occurring every February. On opening day, crowds line the streets and watch a huge parade, which is followed by endless eating, drinking, and partying in the streets. When the sun goes down, people head out to bars to keep the momentum going.
3. Visit the Cologne Synagogue
The synagogue is notable for its neo-Romanesque synagogue, having been rebuilt after the Nazis burned it down in 1938. The Torah within the synagogue was rescued by a Catholic priest from another synagogue as it was being burned during Nazi rule. It’s free to visit here.
4. See the Museum Ludwig
This art museum has a diverse exhibit on German expressionism, but the main draw is the variety of postmodern art they have here. You’ll find works here from the likes of Picasso, Warhol, and Lichtenstein, as well as temporary exhibits. If you love modern art, this museum is for you. Adult admission is €12 EUR ($13 USD).
5. Visit the Schokoladen Museum
This museum is dedicated to the history and production of chocolate. You’ll learn about everything from the Aztecs’ production of it to modern-day cocoa-growing. The end of the tour features a chocolate fountain for sampling and a fully-stocked shop. Admission is €11 EUR ($12 USD), and a guided tour costs an additional €3.50 EUR ($3.85 USD).
6. Experience the nightlife
There are tons of bars, lounges, and clubs throughout Cologne. Places like Shepheard and Papa Joe’s Klimperkasten are a little more slow-going, whereas, Lauschgift and Alter Wartesaal are great places for dancing and theme-night fun. Live music can be found all over the city, including jazz, reggae, and techno.
7. Take a day trip to Beethoven’s Birthplace
Bonn, the town where Ludwig van Beethoven was born, is located just 16 miles (25 kilometers) from Cologne. It’s easy to plan a day trip to this city and visit the composer’s house where he was born. You’ll see Beethoven’s manuscripts, pictures, musical instruments, and mementos. Admission is €9 EUR ($10 USD) and the 20-minute train ride costs between €12-18 EUR ($13-20 USD).
8. Visit the botanical gardens
Located on the left bank of the Rhine, the gardens are perfectly landscaped and are home to more than 10,000 species of plants, including orchids, cocoa plants, and succulents. It’s free to visit!
9. Go to Phantasialand
What began as a puppet theater in 1967 has now become a full-blown amusement park on the outskirts of Cologne. Visitors of all ages flock here to ride the rollercoasters, flume rides, and other thrilling attractions along the shores of Lake Mondsee. There’s also an area for dining, drinking, shopping, and live music. Tickets are €50 EUR ($55 USD).
Cologne Travel Costs
Hostel prices – A bed in a four to six bed dorm will cost about €27 EUR ($30 USD) per night while an eight bed or more dorm costs around €21 EUR ($23 USD) per night.
A basic twin private room with an ensuite bathroom costs about €55 EUR ($60 USD) per night for one person. A standard double private room with an ensuite bathroom is about €73 EUR ($80 USD) for two people.
Budget hotel prices – Nightly rates for a budget two or three-star hotel room with a private ensuite bathroom start at about €77 EUR ($85 USD).
Airbnb is available everywhere in Cologne, with shared accommodation (like a bed in a dorm) starting at €27 EUR ($30 USD) per night. For a private room, expect to pay from €41 EUR ($45 USD) per night, while a full apartment averages about €128 EUR ($140 USD) per night.
Average cost of food – Cologne has tons of cheap food options and there’s a lively street food truck scene here too. You’ll find burgers for €7 EUR ($8 USD), and kebabs and burritos for less than €5 EUR ($5.50 USD). Wurst at a food stand is around than €3 EUR ($3.30 USD).
A meal at McDonald’s will cost about €7 EUR ($8 USD). At a traditional beer hall, you can get a sauerkraut soup for €5.50 EUR ($6 USD), while fried sausage with homemade potato salad is about €11 EUR ($12.15 USD). A stein of beer to go with it will cost about €3.50 EUR ($4 USD).
A three-course meal at a traditional German restaurant serving schnitzel and potatoes will cost about €33 EUR ($36 USD), while wine will cost from €5 EUR ($5.50 USD) a glass.
If you cook for yourself, you can spend as little as €45 EUR ($50 USD) on groceries per week, which would include some meat, bread, eggs, rice/pasta, some veggies, and fruit.
Backpacking Cologne Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking Cologne, my suggested budget is around €51 EUR ($56 USD) per day. This budget will cover a hostel dorm, public transportation, some street food, cooking your own meals, free tours, a few beers, and an attraction or two each day.
A mid-range budget of about €130 EUR ($143 USD) will cover staying in a two-star budget hotel, eating out for all of your meals, rent a bike, take a paid tour, and visit more attractions.
For a luxury budget of about €232 EUR ($255 USD) or more per day, you’ll get a nice four-star hotel, any meal you want, lots of drinks, taxis, and more attractions, like visiting the Phantasialand amusement park.
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
Cologne Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Cologne isn’t the most expensive city in Germany and you can find a lot of good deals around. Here are some ways you can save money on your trip to Cologne:
- Spend the day in the park – Cologne offers many free parks within city limits, so spending the day walking around or just hanging out is a great way to pass some time, relax, have a picnic, and get to know the city.
- Enjoy happy hour – Zülpicher Str. is the bar-hopping street in Cologne. This is where all the university kids hang out, so you’ll almost always find a happy hour no matter what time of day it is!
- Get a Cologne Pass – A one-day Cologne pass gives you free transportation and costs €9 EUR ($10 USD). It also gives you discounts on certain attractions and restaurants which is a great deal if you’re spending a bit of time in the city.
- Book your train early – Trains in Germany are expensive but you can get a saver ticket that is around 40-50% off the standard fare if you book at least a week in advance. These tickets have limited availability, so be flexible with your travel plans.
- Free walking tours – Freetour.com offers a daily tour of the city (in English). It lasts over two hours and covers all the main sites of the city. It’s a great way to explore and learn about the history and culture of Cologne.
- Couchsurf – The best way to save money on accommodation is to stay with a local for free. Not only will you save money, but it’s a great way to get some local insight into the city and discover things most visitors would miss.
Where To Stay in Cologne
Cologne has plenty of great hostels spread out all over the city. Here are some of my suggested places to stay in Cologne:
How to Get Around Cologne
Train – Cologne is well connected by its subway (the U-Bahn) and its above-ground train system (the S-Bahn). A single ticket is €1.90 EUR ($2.10 USD) and is good for up to 90 minutes. You can purchase tickets at the station or by using the KVB app. Always keep your ticket on you as random checks on the train are very common.
A day ticket with unlimited travel costs €7.10 EUR ($8 USD). You can use your tickets across the train, tram, and bus network.
Tram – Trams also connect certain areas in Cologne, but they’re not as fast or efficient as the trains. Ticket prices are the same for the train and bus system, and usually you’ll have to buy onboard the tram.
Bus – Buses will get you to anywhere you need to go, especially where the trains and trams don’t go. Ticket prices are the same as the trains and trams.
Bicycle – Bicycles are a great way for getting around Cologne, most bicycle rentals start at about €12 EUR ($13 USD) per day. Try a company like Radstation or nextbike.
Taxi – Taxis are not cheap here, and you’ll rarely need to use one. The base rate is €3.50 EUR ($3.85 USD), and it’s an additional €1.70 EUR ($1.90 USD) per kilometer afterward. A five-kilometer drive shouldn’t cost more than €14 EUR ($15.50 USD).
Ridesharing – Uber is available in Cologne. You can save $15 off your first Uber ride with this code: jlx6v.
When to Go to Cologne
Cologne can get pretty cold in the winter months, with temperatures dropping as low as 34°F (1°C). You’ll avoid the tourist crowds during this time, although February’s Karneval and the Christmas markets are well worth coming to town for.
Spring and summer (from May to August) is the busiest time to visit Cologne, with temperatures averaging about 77°F (25°C) each day. The shoulder seasons (fall and spring) are also excellent times to visit, with mild temperatures, lots of sun, and fewer tourist crowds.
How to Stay Safe in Cologne
Cologne is very safe to visit. Your greatest risk is petty crime like pick-pocketing. Be careful on public transit and around crowded tourist attractions, including flea markets, and try not to be out alone after dark (especially in the Red Light District).
If you’re worried about getting scammed, you can read about the 14 travel scams to avoid right here.
Remember to always trust your gut instinct. Avoid isolated areas at night, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID, and don’t keep a lot of valuables on you.
And be sure to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Cologne Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Cologne. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. (If you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay!)
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all bookers.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around the Caribbean, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts when you click the link!
- STA Travel – A good company for those under 30 or for students, STA Travel offers discounted airfare as well as travel passes that help you save on attractions.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price), but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
Cologne Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading to Cologne, here are my suggestions for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack for your trip.
The Best Backpack for Cologne
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Cologne
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Cologne Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
When in Germany, Do as the Germans Do, by Hyde Flippo
This light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek read will have you feeling confident about fitting into Germany! (Or at least you’ll have some good laughs in the process.) It’s like a crash course in German tradition and customs so you can navigate Munich (and the rest of the country) without embarrassment. Topics include appropriate small talk subjects, how to tell the difference between sausages, and also more practical things like what to do in case of an emergency.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
This book was an instant classic when it came out, and now it’s a movie. It’s about Liesel Meminger, a young girl living just outside of Munich in 1939. Nazi Germany is in full force, and little Liesel manages to keep herself alive by stealing. There’s one thing she can’t resist, though: books. She learns to read and then shares her stolen books with neighbors during air raids…as well as the Jewish man hidden in her basement. This book will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.
The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass
The Tin Drum is a huge deal in Germany, and it’s definitely considered a classic there. In short, it’s about Oskar Matzerath: a young boy who stops growing when he’s a child and takes up drumming instead. This is Oskar’s narration from an insane asylum as he recounts his life of a young boy who stands up against the Nazis – armed only with his tin drum and his piercing voice. Using his drum, he recalls memories from the past – including the strange death of his mother, and his equally strange deaths of his father(s). It’s dark, twisted, and so very weird.
Two Brothers, by Ben Elton
This is the heart-wrenching story of two brothers growing up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. Both born in Berlin in the 1920s, the boys are raised by the same parents…but one is Jewish, and his adopted brother is German. This doesn’t matter to the two boys at first, but as the Nazis grow in strength, the boys and their family are forced to make some difficult decisions with terrible consequences. Two Brothers is a really unusual book about Nazi Germany and makes for a great travel read.
Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada
Here is one of my favorite reads from a German author. It follows the story of Otto, an ordinary, play-by-the-rules kind of guy who lives in a rundown apartment with his dear wife and tries to stay out of trouble with the Nazis. When he learns his only son has died in combat, his grief turns to resistance: he starts dropping anonymous postcards defaming Hitler all over Berlin. He knows he faces execution if he’s found out, but he doesn’t stop. A Gestapo officer Escherich catches wind of the postcards and sets out to find the perpetrator. This is a real page turner!
My Must Have Guides for Traveling to Cologne
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Kristin Addis writes our solo female travel column and her detailed guide gives specific advice and tips for women travelers.
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Cologne Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling the Caribbean and continue planning your trip: