The German city of Cologne conjures up images of perfume and beer - but it's also a dream destination for chocoholics
Scrumptious beer, sedate river cruising and a majestic cathedral are the first things most folk think of when Cologne is mentioned. Eau de Cologne perfume may feature too. But chocolate? Well it should, because this German city is a dream for all potential Willie Wonkas.
A striking, glass-fronted building designed to look like a ship dominates the riverside just south of the cathedral and the old city. This is the Chocolate Museum - a must destination for all chocolate lovers. Don’t let the word 'museum' put you off - the unctuous stuff is made here too and offered freely to all who sidle past the massive, three-metre-tall, chocolate fountain. And I dare you not to creep back for another sample; after all, with 200 kilos of milk chocolate flowing daily, there is more than enough for everyone.
But before this ultimate treat, you pass through the three-storey museum, which, with the aid of hands-on displays, tells the story of chocolate. Watch chocolate bars, Easter eggs and hollow Father Christmasses being made, and head for the shop for supplies to take home. And for real chocoholics there is the chocolate school - but it is necessary to book.
Reluctantly departing this choccy heaven, I headed along the Rhine into the old town with its cobbled streets, tall, narrow houses and striking Gothic cathedral. Work on this enormous edifice began in 1248 and it took 632 years to complete, though you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s unfinished. War damage and the ravages of pollution mean that work is still in progress but it doesn’t hinder the visitor.
You’ll marvel at the stained glass, most of which survived war damage by being removed and stored safely elsewhere. But the one window in the South Transept that was damaged has been replaced with a stunning modern design, 100 metres square, created by Gerhard Richter, a Cologne artist. It's well worth a visit - and don’t miss the opulent Golden Tomb for the relics of the Three Wise Men.
And if churches are your particular interest, there are a dozen Romanesque churches throughout the city to explore, including the impressive Groß St Martin in the Old Town.
Being situated next door to the main railway and bus station ensures that the Dom is at the heart of this vibrant city. The area is bustling with locals and tourists who perch on the steps leading up to the cathedral. It is a great place for meeting people and, in warm weather, watching the world go by.
Better still is taking a pew at one of the pavement cafes to enjoy a Kölsch. This light and tasty beer, served in small glasses, is the local tipple and there are around 20 micro breweries throughout the city, with the main brewery on the outskirts. The small city brewhouses or brauhäuser, which are usually olde worlde in appearance, are a great place for a hearty meal that won’t break the bank. Try Himmel un Ääd, which means Heaven on Earth and is a novel twist on bangers and mash.
For a pub with a difference, make for Papa Joe’s Biersalon in the Alter Markt. This roaring 20s-style pub is crammed with mechanical music machines, which spring to life when fed with a Euro. Food is on offer here too and jazz events are frequently organised.
Cologne is a year-round destination. Summer is the time for leisurely cruises down the Rhine, while Christmas markets are the main attraction from the end of November. There are seven markets, including one aboard a ship, a medieval market outside the chocolate factory, the Angel’s at Neumarkt, Cathedral Market by the Dom, Fairytale at Rudolfplatz and, my favourite, Heinzelmännchenmarkt in the Alter Markt. All have their own character and themes, and individually designed mulled wine mugs that change annually and make an unusual souvenir.
Shoppers can rejoice, for Cologne is one of the most popular shopping destinations in Germany, with large department stores as well as a good choice of more specialist boutiques. Don’t miss a trip to the futuristic Peek & Cloppenburg shopping mall on the Schildergasse. This glass and steel structure, designed by Renzo Piano, one of the world’s leading architects, covers an area of 22,000 square metres.
With over 3000 restaurants and bars, 40 museums and 100 art galleries, this dynamic city offers something for everyone. But in between rushing around to fit everything in, leave some time to savour a hot chocolate or Kölsch down by the river in the Old Town with its narrow gabled houses and panorama of the cathedral, the Old City Hall and Groß St Martin’s. One thing is for sure - the atmosphere of Cologne gets under your skin and you’ll be back.
Where to stay
Cologne Marriott Hotel: ideally placed, comfortable, four-star hotel within easy walking distance of the Dom and city sights. (Johannisstrasse 76-70)
Hotel Viktoria: a former music museum, now a small hotel over a kilometre from the centre. Easy for parking and close to metro line. (Worringer Strasse 23)
Where to eat
Eat at any of the many Brauhãuser throughout the city. At the Fou Brasserie, Cologne Marriott Hotel, guests can watch their food being prepared on CCTV.
Shanks's pony is best but Cologne has an efficient, easy-to-use and cheap Metro system.