After our jaunt through Belgium, we were excited to head over to Germany. I hadn’t “prepared” much for this trip, but I knew Cologne was famous for its beautiful Christmas market positioned in front of the towering Dom Cathedral, the largest church in Germany. Jay was ecstatic to return to Germany after his study abroad trip across the Northern part of the country two summers ago. I had heard story after story of the fun times awaiting there. We opted to book all three nights in Cologne so that we could try and get a “feel” for the city. Little did we know we would regret this almost immediately after our arrival…
If you go to the city by train, your stop will be at Köln Hauptbahnhof. It’s a one hour ride from Aachen on the Belgium-Germany border. After checking into our hostel at A&O Köln (incredibly accommodating considering the price, 8EURO each night), we headed straight out to find Franziskaner Hefeweizen on tap. This was Jay’s goal for our entire time there. I’m not exaggerating when I say we walked around for thirty minutes without finding a decent bar. In this case, the criteria for decent bar is: more than one type of beer on tap, customers under the age of forty, and not dressed in traditional German garb looking very unfriendly and cult-associated– yea, that happened.
Truth be told, we never found Franziskaner on tap. We didn’t find beer gardens, we didn’t have super cheap but high-quality bratwurst, and we didn’t get to go to the Christmas market, because it closed two days before Christmas. D’oh!
My experience in Cologne leads me to believe that although there is a university located there, Cologne is mostly filled with well-established, older Germans who have money to spend in their huge shopping district and ritzy cafes. There are plenty of tourists there to see the Dom Cathedral, but I wouldn’t recommend this city for budget travelers. A glass of (non-Kölsh) beer could set you back 3,50-4,50EUROS.
Here’s what there is to do if you find yourself in Cologne, Germany:
1. The Dom
It’s visible from anywhere in the city, honestly. However, I recommend going inside and spending some time. Don’t just go in to snap a photo during mass and then walk out. Take some time to appreciate the enormous columns and how much effort it must have taken to construct and carve them. The cathedral has a unique history, construction started in the 1200’s and then people lost interest for over three hundred years. It sat, unfinished, until the 19th century when it was finally completed in 1880 featuring the largest facade in the world. You don’t have to be a fellow Art History major to be impressed.
2. Wander the streets, and on a rainy day… see a museum
The best way to learn about a city is to explore. Unfortunately I was doing this solo for the most part, because Jay had a horrible reaction to the late-night, cheap bratwurst we had. He could hardly leave the hostel the next day. I was in a sullen mood because of this, and turned-off by the city at this point, but there are some decent things to see. Cologne is situated right on the Rhein river, and it’s great to take a walk down the riverside.
However, especially if you visit in winter, it could possibly be raining. We opted to visit the modern art museum, Museum Ludwig. The Art major in me was extremely content. The museum houses one of the largest Picasso collections in Europe (his early works, not a lot of Cubism), and features plenty more artists with pieces that will make your head ache as you try to analyze them.
3. Experience the Kölsh culture
When we were there, Kölsh kind of became the bane of our existence… because it’s pretty much the only drink option. However, looking back, it’s a unique piece of the German culture and I’m glad we got to take part.
Kölsh is the specialty beer produced locally in Cologne. Each German bar in the city seems to feature one type on tap, the rest of the beer you buy by the bottle. It’s light, but not that bitter. The interesting thing about it is how it’s served. In Cologne, there are several “traditional brew houses.” These are huge restaurants, often with over 1500 seats, with traditional German food and special waiters that serve the Kölsh in a metal “wreath.” Usually, they will fill your glass without even asking. If they see you running low, they give you a refill and keep track of how many you’ve had on your coaster. When you’ve had enough, you place the coaster on your glass. Charming? It felt authentic to see the huge hall filled with long, wooden tables and full German families enjoying a meal. Plus, the food was delicious.
Our main take away from Cologne was an indulgence in American culture present in Germany and not in Spain: fast food hamburgers and Starbucks at every corner. I felt no shame, as I had opted not to fly home for Christmas and was regretting it at this point.
We also got to reflect on a few hard-learned travel lessons. These include:
1. If you are traveling with someone else and they fall ill or whatever, be understanding and have the courage to go out and explore the city yourself. You don’t want to resent them later, and it’s not fair to either one of you.
2. Do basic research on a city before you go. See if it’s the right fit for you. This saves you from the disappointment of unmet expectations.
3. You can’t assume a country will be the same in all of its cities, obviously. I honestly think that Cologne is an exception for most of Germany, but we should have gone into it more open-minded. Instead, our first full day was filled with confusion… and awkward stories.
So, that’s all for now with our explorations of Germany. I hope we get to return again next September for Oktoberfest! Stay tuned for my GAPBRAVE article for more practical travel tips in Cologne.