Head to Cologne in winter, when this stylish, cultured city turns its attention to bustling Christmas markets, dazzling decorations, pretzels and hearty glasses of Kölsch
Cologne is brimming with history, style and joie de vivre, a refreshing juxtaposition of medieval and modern with a thriving café culture. Sixty years ago it was a completely different story: the city had been bombed to rubble by the Allies, and 90 per cent of the centre had simply ceased to exist. Over decades the city was meticulously rebuilt stone by stone, and now tall, brightly-coloured houses line the Fischmarkt and world-class galleries sit behind shining post-modern façades.
December here is a real treat; there are six Christmas markets full of interesting sights and smells, traditional wooden toys, intricate tree decorations, steaming wurst, and plenty of Kölsch. This locally brewed beer is so much more than just a drink and fuels Cologne’s three-month carnival season.
What to do
The Dom (00 49 221 179 40100; www.koelnerdom.de) is the spiritual and geographic heart of the city, which famously survived the Allied bombing. An immense, gothically ornate building, its twin spires soar 157 metres into the sky. The vast interior contains many treasures, including the gleaming and intricate shrine of the Magi; created by local 12th-century goldsmiths, it’s said to contain relics of the Bible’s three kings.
For art and museums, you’re spoilt for choice. Museum Ludwig (00 49 221 221 26165; www.museum-ludwig.de) contains a spectacular art collection spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. Its sibling, the Wallfaf-Richartz Museum (00 49 221 221 21119; www.museenkoeln.de), covers the 13th to 19th centuries and houses work by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Dürer. The Käthe Kollwitz Museum (00 49 221 227 2899/2602; www.kollwitz.de) contains a dark and haunting collection of prints, drawings and sculpture by Kollwitz, a leading German expressionist. For ancient history buffs, the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (00 49 221 221 22304; www.museenkoeln.de) is unmissable, if only for its Dionysus mosaic.
Have a look at the Rathaus (city hall), a fascinating mix of ancient, medieval and Renaissance, and St Aposteln on Neumarkt – one of Cologne’s 12 beautiful Romanesque churches. Round things off with a stroll through a Christmas market: the biggest is on Roncalliplatz, but the fairytale Rudolfplatz market is the most atmospheric and magical.
Where to stay
Hopper Hotel Et Cetera was once a monastery, but now succours a more fashionable clientele. Rooms are coolly understated with cherry wood furniture, eucalyptus floors and original art. Hotel im Wasserturm is Andrée Putman’s magnificent conversion of a 19th-century water tower. The contemporary interior has art by Warhol, plush rooms and superb views. The Cologne Marriott is a new, centrally-located hotel with supremely comfortable rooms. The Chelsea Hotel is a chic boutique. Simple, minimal and with only 35 rooms, it has a fantastic Gehry-like extension on the roof. Retro-cool Hotel Cristall is funky and very good value.
Where to eat and drink
La Vision (00 49 221 20080) is Hotel im Wasserturm’s Michelin-starred restaurant where young chef Hendrick Otto serves up exceptional French cuisine. Le Moissonnier (00 49 221 729479) is similarly starred; try its excellent roast pigeon.
Fischers (00 49 221 3108470) is run by one of Germany’s greatest wine connoisseurs, Christina Fischer. She matches excellent local wines with well-balanced ‘cross-cultural’ cuisine. The magical Capricorn i Aries Restaurant (00 49 221 323182) has only four rose petal-strewn tables and a luxurious French-influenced menu. Book ahead because it’s very popular.
For meaty Rhineland cuisine, Börsen Restaurant Maître (00 49 221 133021) is a good choice with ingenious takes on duck, venison and foie gras. Landhaus Kuckuck (00 49 221 485360) is also great for local fare, specialising in roast goose and liver.
Kölsch, the lifeblood of Cologne, is best drunk on benches in a traditional wood-panelled tavern. Peter’s Brauhaus (00 49 221 2573950) is a great place to raise a glass or two.
Time running out?
Pick up some Eau de Cologne – Farina is the oldest, first sold in 1709. The secret recipe is closely guarded.
Kölsch is served in small 200ml glasses called stangen which only cost about £1. This may seem small, but many waiters will keep on refilling it unless you ask them not to.
Currency is the euro. Cologne is one hour ahead of GMT and a one-hour 20-minute flight from London.
German Wings (0871 702 9987; www.germanwings.com) flies from Stansted to Cologne up to three times a day. Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; www.lufthansa.co.uk) flies daily from Heathrow to Cologne.
Cologne Tourism: Kardinal-Höffner-Platz 1 (00 49 221 221 304 00; www.koelntourismus.de). Monday-Saturday 9am-8pm; Sunday 10am-5pm.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.