Cologne (Köln) has long been on my list of places to visit, but I can’t exactly point my finger to why. I don’t have much experience travelling in Germany, bar debauchery during Oktoberfest 2006 and an all-night bender in Berlin the same year. But something about Cologne must have grabbed me to put it on my bucket list a few years back.
Perhaps because the colourful, pastel houses that line the Rhine River are beautiful, despite that fact that about 75% of Cologne was destroyed by bombs during WWII and much of the city had to be rebuilt. Or the fact that it’s a university town, one of the oldest and largest in Europe, so it’s young at heart. But after spending a weekend in this abruptly charming city, I’ve learned so much more than anticipated.
Going in with no expectations was the trick. For both me and my Aussie travelling companion Hannah, our goals were quite simple – eat hearty German food, drink delicious Kölsch beer and surprise ourselves with who we might meet or what we might learn by wandering aimlessly throughout the small, 2,000-year-old city.
We positioned ourselves at the recently launched 25 Hour Circle Hotel. It’s in the northwest corner of the city centre, just on the edge of the trendy Belgian Quarter, and easily walkable to any of the main sites such as the famous Cologne Cathedral, Old Town and the student bars on Zülpicher Strasse.
Ultra-hip is a start to begin to describe this unique and futuristic, Berlin-designed hotel. Robots roam the lobby (for-real!), rooms are fitted with retro gadgets and the rooftop Monkey Bar screams urban chic, with cathedral views and amazing cocktails to support its claim. Plus, staff were super nice and helpful, bikes are available to rent, and there’s even a sauna for guest usage.
I’m also a huge fan of tours when it comes to getting to know the more intimate details of a city, and so we booked with The Kölsch Guys when we arrived, one of the few tours running in winter as well as English speaking. Our host Ariane, a local university student, spoke impeccable English (thanks to her Canadian mother) and was very useful in teaching us about Cologne culture, Kölsch beer and local history and architecture.
Kölsch Beer & Brewhouse Facts:
- The first rule of a brauhaus, put your coaster down in front of you to indicate you would like a Kölsch.
- When you want them to stop coming (and they will keep on bringing them!), place your coaster on the top of your glass to indicate you’re finished.
- The koebes (waiter) will keep track of how many Kölsch you drink by marking a tick on your coaster for each drink.
- They’ll also be deliberately rude until you’ve ordered your fill; it’s part of the tradition.
- Each brauhaus has its own Kölsch or family recipe. This comes from a barrel (not a keg, as the carbon dioxide would change its unique taste). It has to follow a proven formula, a similar concept to the French DOC for Champagne, to officially be called Kölsch.
- “Prost” is the way you say cheers before taking your first sip.
- 4.8% ABV is the average for Kölsch, served in a 200ml skinny glass and distributed from a wreath holding 11 Kölsch glasses.
The Kölsch Guys Beer Tour:
We learned quite quickly that Cologne has its own arrogance about it, but balances it with a dry sense of humour that really is a teddy bear at heart. Koebe’s want your service, they want to speak English and they appreciate your patronage but they’ll act like they’re doing you a favour at the same time. It’s part of the charm and their mentality to be rude and up front, and notably more forward than other German cities.
Kölsch in itself is unique. It’s a light, easy drinking beer that’s part of the local life and culture. Residents grow up drinking Kölsch quite young, and people decide where they are going to hang out based on the brewhouse whose Kölsch is to their preferred taste.
It was at our first stop Brauerei zur Malzmühle where we had our first Mühlen Kölsch and learned the basics about how to approach this local beer (see above).
Our second stop, Gilden im Zims, is an original brauhaus built before the war, with antiqued Roman remains stored behind glass windows in the floor. This is also an exception to Kölsch predominately being family owned, as this one is a franchise.
I personally found the Sünner Kölsch at our third stop Sünner im Walfisch a bit more flat tasting than the others, but the overall atmosphere very cosy. It was on our way here that we learned about the importance the number 11 has to the city, with their traditional Carnival (fifth season) starting at 11 am on the 11th of November, and even the beer wreaths holding 11 Kölsch.
Finally, at Brauhaus Sion, a 700-year-old brewhouse, we saw our first example of how the locals dress for Carnival, from fancy dress to sophisticated traditional garments.
For a quick way to get your head around how important Kölsch is to those from Cologne, this tour was friendly, affordable and worth it. How else would we have learned not to take locals too seriously? As Adriane said, “Cologne humour is only funny to Cologne.”
Where to eat in Cologne:
Peters Brauhaus is one of the more famous “must go” to for traditional Kölsch, and equally for some satisfying local grub. The same can be said for many of the other traditional brewhouses. But we came to Peters for one thing, pork knuckle! Crispy, juicy and cooked to perfection, with savoy cabbage and fried bacon-potatoes, it was out of this world massive and delicious.
Plus, we loved our waitress. She optimised the quintessential Cologne wait staff, even before we really knew what it was about. With bright red lipstick and short curly grey hair, for a woman in her 60s, she had all the sass I would expect. She was beautiful, acted fed up, with a brisk, no-nonsense attitude that was charming at that same time. I liked her and didn’t want to do the wrong thing by her.
She perfected the dry sarcastic humour we were told about. “Can we please order food?,” I asked politely. “Why not?” was her abrupt reply. I desperately wanted a photo but was too intimidated that she wouldn’t have stood for it.
More importantly, though, can you imagine devouring a pork knuckle hungover? The dream for any fried and grease loving meat eater.
Bei Oma Kleinmann
Next up is known as the best schnitzel in Cologne, you don’t have to ask me twice. Bei Oma Kleinmann, situated in the buzzing student area, is a must stop when visiting. I recommend to book ahead or join the queue for when they open at 5 pm daily to try and snag a seat at the bar while you wait for a table. I have no regrets about our “early bird special”.
The staff are great and speak English, the Sünner Kölsch is free-flowing and even the wine list was above average compared to what we found in other brewhouses. The whole restaurant has so much character, the walls covered floor to ceiling in photos, both real as well as wallpaper that they had custom made with original photos after being fed up with them coming down all the time. My favourite was one of Carnival dating back to 77’.
When it came to the schnitzel though, I bow down. You have options of traditional veal or pork as it is, or can choose from one of the ten or so sauces on the side, from mushroom to pineapple curry. Honestly, they’re not needed as the veal was fried to such perfection, each bite was followed with “OMG it’s soooooo good.”
The homemade potato salad was a great accompaniment, as were the fries, and it worked well to order one of each to share between us. I didn’t think we’d manage, but both smashed our whole plates till not a bite was left. There’s always the children’s option (only 1 cutlet instead of two) for those less inclined, but my suggestion is to come hungry and enjoy! There’s a reason they’re number 1.
Rated as a place “to be seen” in the trendy Belgian Quarter, Salon Schmitz is a laid back cafe, bar and salon wrapped into 3 separate buildings offering regional food with their own Kölsch on tap. It was a bit of a strange concept to have to place your order through the window next door, but order your drink seated at a table from the waiter in the 60’s themed bar, but we were satisfied none of the less. Their English was friendly, the menu more of a guess!
Cafe Waschsalon was a great spot to stop in for lunch. This concept cafe is a converted old laundromat, eccentric and friendly, despite minimal English speaking, they tried really hard – in a good way. They specialise in light fare, coffees and juices during the day and are known to have good cocktails in the evening. I was in love with the goat cheese and walnut salad and would happily return.
All Kölsch’ed out? Here is where to drink cocktails in Cologne:
The rooftop bar at the 25 Hour Circle Hotel is one of the hottest new cocktail bars in town. In fact, when we arrived at 7 pm expecting it to be quiet (as were the other bars in the neighbourhood at that time), we were surprised to find it pumping. The Negronis were strong and on point as well as their own version of a pisco sour was impressive. “It’s the best Negroni I’ve ever had,” said Hannah. 112 Euro later, and her hangover the next morning would beg to differ.
Cafè Restaurant Feynsinn
Just down the street from the best schnitzel in Cologne (Bei Oma Kleinmann), this casual restaurant is a hot spot for dinner, as well as, they produce a great cocktail menu. In the heart of the student area overflowing with bars, this place stands out as a more sophisticated, healthy option to schnitzel and Kölsch.
Hidden down a few steps with a foggy glass door with Shepheard clear across its surface, this is one of the most popular cocktail bars in the city. Despite being hard to find, it was a pleasure to sit at the bar chatting to the friendly bartender Adrian as we worked our way through their music-themed menu.
The Grid Bar
Based on a recommendation from our friends at Shepheard, this is where bartenders in Cologne come to drink. We rang the bell to be let into this sophisticated speakeasy, situated next to an amateur night club with music pumping and a long line out front, I wouldn’t have known it was here with our referral. In the end, it was another win for a great spot to try interesting cocktails with a good vibe.
In fact, we met a friendly local who talked us through his two cents on what makes Cologne so unique. “Cologne is not beautiful but a great place to live, if you want beauty go to France.” He also shared that the local “politeness” could be offensive even to other Germans who aren’t local.
“In normal places, you order your next beer, here we tell them to stop bringing it.” Thanks Tilly, great to make your acquaintance.
Time to relax…naked?
On our last day, we have had our fill of beer and schnitzel. Theoretically, many are still staying strong to their post-Christmas diets and dry-January obligations, which don’t seem to exist in Cologne. So, we thought what better way to reward ourselves and come back to London more refreshed than ever with a nice relaxing spa.
Searching “Best Spas” in Cologne we came across a few that were central to the city. We had our eye set on Claudius Therme, but due to the rain and poor timing, we didn’t feel we could make it across the city. We also passed Bathhouse Babylon on our first day, only to learn it was one of the hottest gay spas in town – we dodged a bullet there. So, we were left with one final option, the Mauritius Hotel and Spa.
Aside from the service being quite curt and unhelpful, the bigger confusion came with a German custom we frankly weren’t aware of, nor prepared for. Shocked isn’t the word to describe our disbelief as we entered the spa area to find men and women in their 70s straight in the buff! It’s not every day an old grey-haired man enters the same swimming pool as you, slowly making his way down the stairs, bit by bit (literally). That was my cue to exit the pool, asap!
Before entering one of the many saunas, there was a clear sign stating it was nude only. We thought nothing of it and carefully entered one where we knew no one else was present and stripped down to our bathing suits. During a refreshing dip in the jacuzzi after, where we were politely asked to keep the volume of our voices down as it was echoing and distracting to guests who were sleeping, we were pretty sure the guard on duty had it out for us. That was proven just moments later as Hannah was called out for wearing her knickers in the ‘strictly nude’ sauna and was asked to refrain from future use.
It was easy for us to walk away at that point. What might be part of the local culture was frankly getting just a bit too weird. When is being dressed frowned up and nudity required? Someone only from their local customs can explain better than I can at this point.
So, clothed or naked, when is the ideal time to visit Cologne? So what if it rained the whole time we were there, any time is the right time! Carnival in February is their busiest season, but otherwise, there’s nothing stopping you for taking a weekend getaway to drink Kölsch, eat great food and mingle with the locals. They really are friendlier than then on first impressions! Plus, there are some great museums to try too (if you can find the time).