Over the summer, I learned I would need to go to Cologne, Germany for a conference in October. I texted Cory and asked if he wanted to join me. To my pleasant surprise, he said yes. And so we embarked on what we later realized, would be our last grown up adventure together (just the two of us) for some time.
Cologne is a small, beautiful, hip city bursting with hidden gems (like record stores, thrift stores and coffee shops) once you leave the city center. Completely demolished in World War II, the city rebuilt itself in the decades after. All that remained after the war was its amazingly impressive cathedral, which started construction in the 1200s, and continues to even this day. It is the tallest twin spired church in the world, and pictures can’t even begin to touch on its incredible height.
For our time in Cologne, the plan was that Cory would explore, and meet me for mini-adventures when I had a break from work (on days that went from 9 – 9 this was a bit tricky, but we managed!). If you want to know all the facts, hidden gems and how to navigate the city, ask Cory. He would meet me at the conference center, or later at the hotel, and would share everything he learned that day. And so, with that, here are our recommendations, tips and tricks for enjoying your time in Cologne.
We anticipated eating might be tricky (me being gluten free, Cory vegetarian), and boy were we right to assume that! If you have allergies, do some research ahead of time! English translations are not always perfect, and not all hard copy menus list allergens (though they often do online).
Bring cash because many restaurants will not accept anything but a German bank card, even if you have a chip & pin. We learned the hard way once. Also, German restaurants actually give you a time limit on how long you can stay at the table, and as you approach the end of this limit, they are very efficient at getting you out. Be aware in case you were hoping to linger.
In terms of tipping, it’s about 10% of the check. When the waiter comes over to give you the bill (tip: learn how to ask for this in German!), you let them know how much change you want or how much to charge to the card. There is no leaving coins behind on the table.
With our restrictive diets, we did find a few great places to eat, supplemented by trips to the grocery store for staples such as gluten free bread, avocados, peppers, carrots, beet hummus and cheese. I was thoroughly impressed with the German grocery options – and even brought back some of their gluten free brown bread, which I brought just about everywhere with me.
Dean & David
A juice and salad/curry chain, Dean & David was a gluten free, vegetarian dream. We enjoyed carrot ginger juice and vegan tofu yellow curry on our first afternoon in Cologne. The food was surprisingly good, and perfect for a cold dreary day. There are multiple locations throughout the city, including one in the train station. Prices are pretty fair (a large portion of curry was about seven euros).
An Asian fusion restaurant with tons of gluten free and vegetarian options. You build your own stir fry by going up to the counter, filling your bowl with vegetables and proteins and passing it off to be cooked. There are a few different options, where you can pay by weight or an all you can eat. Unless you are able to eat two giant bowls of stir fry, I recommend going the weight route.
TIP: Go to the location in the Koln Triangle, and then take the elevator up before or after to see panorama views of the city. More on that later!
Wellbeing was some of the best food we had in Germany. The restaurant was inside someone’s home (the kitchen was parsed out to be standalone with a few tables inside). Everything was vegan and there were even raw options. I had summer rolls and a rice noodle udon soup in a spicy coconut milk broth. It was divine. Cash only!
Gaffel am Dom
A cozy beer house by the Cathedral, Gaffel was our only true German food experience – but was quite good! Cory ordered creamed spinach with fried eggs and boiled potatoes (without their jackets!) and I had roast beef with fried potatoes and bacon. It was absolutely delicious, and definitely a great last night in Germany meal. The restaurant itself was massive and filled with patrons, even late on a Monday night. The wait staff will automatically bring you beer unless you tell them otherwise, so hint hint to anyone who doesn’t drink beer.
This ultra hip, amazingly good coffee house was around the corner from our hotel in a former jail that used to imprison anti-Nazi officials (including the mayor of Cologne). Cory enjoyed many pour-overs, and I favored the latte, but switched it up for a black tonic (espresso + tonic) on my last day. Great atmosphere, seating inside and out, and friendly baristas.
Cheese lovers unite! This little shop is tucked away at the end of the main shopping area of Cologne, with a cheese counter boasting products from all over Europe. I bought a comte and brie from France because both of these are “black market” in the US and because they are amazing. They also proved to be a great lunch with my brown bread on one of the many occasions that there were no or limited gluten free options for lunch during the conference.
Things to Do
The cathedral is massive and can’t be missed. In addition to a place to visit, it’s also a great landmark so that you can find your way around the city. The outside is so incredibly ornate, and its history is rich (as I mentioned above).
Inside boasts amazing stained glass, and if you’re lucky to go on a sunny afternoon, you’ll be greeted by a fabulously colored lights reflecting off the interior. One of the windows was installed as an art piece (not religious, so it’s a bit controversial) and the most amazing squares of colored light decorate the inside.
Even if you aren’t a modern art fan, the Ludwig museum is still a treat. Plenty of videos, mixed medium, paintings and photography dot the walls and floors. We went during an exhibition of Karl Schenker, a photographer from the early 1900s who was known for retouching his photographers. Think Instagram worthy pictures, but done in 1910. It was very cool (he even took photographs of mannequins and waxed figures that looked eerily real).
Tip: If you bring a backpack, you will need to check it in their complementary coat room. You can bring food and also enjoy it in the lobby.
We went to the Chocolate museum on our first day (literally hours after we landed). I think I would have appreciate it more had I not been so jet lagged, but nonetheless it was fun to learn about chocolate, how quality was instilled in the 1870s after people started using fillers in bars (chocolate and suet? yuck!) and even witness a chocolate bar making and wrapping factory. There are plenty of samples throughout.
Cory went on a three hour bike tour of Cologne through Colonia Activ. He toured all parts of the city, learned about its history and architecture and some fun facts (there are 16 tons of locks on the Hohenzollern Bridge). He highly recommended it – though keep in mind if you go in the fall, bundle up! And be prepared to have the tour given in German and English.
Walk through Cologne, get lost, find your way back (using the Cathedral or river as a landmark) and learn the streets. We spent many hours wandering and absorbing.
The barista at KaffeSapien told us about the Koln Triangle and recommended this over the dome (which we could not find, nor figure out what she meant by that!). For 3 euros, you can take an elevator to the top for panoramic views of the city. Definitely worth the fee, and I would advise you to go on a clear day.
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency on the Rhine. Apparently this is the hotel that Justin Bieber and other famous individuals stay at (I am assuming in the nice, suite rooms). Our room had its quirks – such as flickering lights, TVs that turned on randomly, noisy fans and a shower that was basically a firehose – but overall it was nice. The breakfast was definitely better than many of the continental breakfasts I’ve had in European hotels before – and I am happy to report I didn’t have a visceral reaction when eating there every morning.
The facilities have a nice spa on the first floor, with a steam room, sauna, hot tub and pool, as well as a gym – all complementary to hotel guests. They provide bath robes, locks for the locker and towels.
It was the perfect location to walk into the city center, and to take a morning run along the Rhine.