Got Two Hours in Cologne?
But rather than just hopping off the airport bus into Cologne central station or using the station to change from one train to the other, why not step out of the station altogether and leave it behind to explore the city that’s attached to it, one of Northern Europe’s oldest and most venerable?
Every city, after all, is worth a two-hour visit, never mind one as rich in history as Germany’s ancient gateway to the civilized world.
Two Hours in Cologne
The best thing about Cologne from a sightseeing point of view is that it is next to impossible to miss its main point of interest, the Cathedral. This, in case you were wondering, is the big building just outside the central train station. Yes, the dark one with the two mighty towers.
And the worst thing about Cologne? Bear with me; I will come to that in a sec.
Big the Cathedral certainly is – and that’s a good thing because it needs to accommodate 20,000 visitors a day, more than any other tourist attraction in Germany. Its towers are (jointly) the second highest church steeples in Europe (beaten only by Ulm), and the western facade – including the towers – represents, with 7100 m², the largest surface on any church building in the world.
Some people think it is the greatest of all great medieval churches, but one must bear in mind that much of the building was only completed in the Gothic Revival era of the 19th century, and it is a point of heated debate (although not in Cologne) to what extent and on what terms the Cathedral can be compared with the more “authentic” church buildings of the Middle Ages.
Turn left in front of the Cathedral and pass between Cologne’s two great museums, the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (history) and the Ludwig Museum (Fine Arts) and past the Philharmonic Concert Hall (“quietly”, as you may be advised, in order not to disrupt rehearsals) towards the Old Town by the banks of the Rhine. Turn right into the promenade, past the tower of Groß St Martin, one of the twelve Romanesque churches for which Cologne is nearly as famous as for its Cathedral.
Turn right into Salzgasse, which will change its name into Heumarkt and then into Marsplatz, with Cologne City Hall on your right hand side, eventually crossing – after a few more name changes – the Hohe Straße, Cologne’s main shopping street.
Walk a little further and turn right into Schwertnergasse, continuing all the way to Burgmauer. On your left hand side, you can now see the Zeughaus, a handsome 16th century building (currently accommodating the Museum for Local History), but the Burgmauer itself may be just as interesting, because it shows some carefully restored parts of the old Roman city wall, a reminder of how far into the past Cologne’s long and rich history actually reaches.
In fact, Cologne is the only German city that, throughout the nation’s history: from the Romans through the Middle Ages and the Industrial Age down to modern times, has always played in the Premier League (except in football, of course, where the recent history of the city’s beloved Geissböcke, the “billy goats”, has been a tale of rarely mitigated woe).
And this is the worst thing about Cologne, at least from a visitor’s point of view: that so much of its rich history has disappeared under the rubble of WWII – and that it has been replaced by a largely featureless, faceless and joyless townscape. For much of the walk, history or not, we had the impression that the streets might as well have belonged to any other German city – or some town in Poland, for that matter.
Now, if you have managed to resist temptation and stayed clear of all the many brewery-operated pubs along your way, you will still have some time left of your allocated 2 hours and have several options of how to wrap up your visit.
This is what I would do: Return to the train station by turning right on Komödienstraße (at the Zeughaus), step into the station and walk right through to emerge on the other side, turn left and then right into Eigelstein.
I personally love this street and its area, although it is fair, I think, to point out that this may be certain self-indulgence on my part, and I am prepared to admit that not everyone will share my feelings. (Mrs. Easy Hiker, for example, managed to resist the quarter’s charms quite heroically.)
Why do I think it’s so great? Because to me, the neighbourhood represents urbanity at its most essential, the exotic and the familiar rubbing shoulders: Turkish groceries, junk shops, questionable types greeting each other across the street in languages you don’t understand, and women in leather boots standing in front of pubs with names such as Sport-Eck at 10 in the morning, smoking cigarettes.
Areas like that are underappreciated and rarely given the credit for being what they, in fact are, namely the real backbones of our cities. The moment when our cities become reserves for men in business suits, the six-figure salary brigade, the rich and the busy, will be the moment when our cities die. When they become business-and-retail suburbs, with all the life of a shopping mall.
For an alternative trip, however, you can turn left on Komödienstraße instead and fill the time until your train departs at near-by Päffgen for meat and beers, passing on your way the famous Römerturm, the best preserved part of the Roman city wall.
I know what Mrs. Easy Hiker would do.