I have seen and done so much in Germany since I arrived here nearly 3 weeks ago, it’s difficult to determine where to begin writing about my second country on the year of deviation tour. I’ve traveled from Bielefeld to Cologne to Frankfurt to Munich to Regensberg – and that’s just half of my time here so far!
Instead of going chronologically, I’ve decided to do some highlights starting with a list about things you must do in the city of Cologne (Köln). I spent 3 days staying with relatives in a small town about a 30-minute train ride into the city center. Cologne was mostly destroyed in WWII, but some historic gems remain, and many modern sights and cultural features together make Cologne a great introduction city to Germany.
1. Walk an old Roman sewage tunnel
Many completed and ongoing archaeological excavations can be found all over the city of Cologne. Construction sites found in various locations around the city are not your typical areas of urban development. Whenever something very old is found by workers, archaeologists are hired to excavate before construction continues. Sites such as the one pictured below are left open and ready to be turned into the next museum, like a Jewish Museum on its way to development after uncovering an old Jewish mikveh from the middle ages.
Currently at the Praetorium, you can go underground to view the actual Roman Governor’s Palace building walls still standing where originally built. Thanks to my cousin Erika and her husband Tom who are both archaeologists, I was guided to the other side of the zone for a truly unique experience I would have otherwise missed. Follow stairs down and then a modern tunnel underground to a stone sewer built by Roman engineers in the late 1st century AD. The sewer used to carry away waste and other water drainage from the wall of the city to the Rhine River. Once a high-capacity system and feat of urban engineering for its time, the tunnel currently stretches some 120-140 meters under Budengasse, a major street in Cologne. It is just one Roman sewage tunnel among four found in the city so far. When discovered in 1830 by a city architect, the tunnel was used to store beer for a tavern. Sounds like a good use for it to me! But I am glad it is now open to the public because it’s much more hands-on than what you have the opportunity to see at a museum.
If museums are your thing, however, you can experience even more Roman history at the Roman-German (Römisch-Germanisches) Museum. This museum was built right over a very well-preserved dining room floor of an old Roman hall with tiles honoring the gods of feasting and wine. This piece is easily viewed from a window above just outside, but the best, detailed view is from the inside. The rest of the museum holds all sorts of amazing artifacts. From whole building structures and pottery to tiny pieces of jewelry and military gear, there is a ton of beautiful, amazingly well-preserved items worth a gander and a read (both in English and German).
2. Get a Kölsch beer from a Brauhaus
Cologne is known for brewing its own light and flavorful beer called Kölsch. Customarily served in a 0.2 liter glass, locals drink it all the time and especially in the afternoons. It pairs nicely with their big, hearty, lunchtime meals. But be careful! Köbes are special Kölsch servers armed and ready to serve you again and again from their kranz, a spinning wreath or tray with multiple glasses for easy pouring and serving. They keep the tradition of immediately replacing your empty glass with another Kölsch unless you put your coaster over the top to signal you’ve had enough.
While you’re having a cold Kölsch, grab yourself a plate of traditional German food. Try the “Decke Bunne met Speck,” a traditional meal of beans, potatoes, and bacon I had at Peter’s Brauhaus. Yum!
3. Search for the most unique love locks on the Hohenzollern Bridge
In the last several years, couples in Cologne started a tradition of declaring their undying love for each other by attaching an engraved padlock to the Hohenzollern bridge and throwing the key into the Rhine. Love locks actually started in Italy as a result of a scene in the 2006 book I Want You by Federico Moccia. The fad has spread across the world to almost every continent, but not without a bit of controversy in its wake. In Paris, many are against the locks for ruining the aesthetic of the city’s bridges. The weight from so many metal padlocks was argued to have caused the collapse of part of the parapet on the Pont Des Arts. The city replaced the parapet with special glass to prevent locks from being attached in the future. In Cologne, the Deutsche Bahn threatened to take the locks down but the people fought against their removal and the Deutsche Bahn decided to let them stay.
Many think the message of locking in your love and throwing away a key is a bit oppressive and obsessive. But I can appreciate the simple, positive message meant behind the expression. Although I would never personally commemorate my love with a lock and key, the bridge was fun to walk along if for no other reason than just to celebrate the result of the people of Cologne winning against the Deutsch Bahn. The win to preserve a new, positive tradition on the Hohenzollern Bridge makes this place a mark of social justice and human agency. It’s also just pretty neat to look at! While many people attached a simple colored padlock with an engraving, others attached more creative pieces expressing their love. For a fun game, you can search for some of the most unique ones among the masses.
4. Have a look outside the Cathedral
One of the most obvious landmarks and attractions in Cologne is the Hohe Domkirche St. Petrus or, known colloquially as the “Cathedral” or the “Dom.” This enormous gothic giant dominates the skyline of the city and overpowers you with its presence upon emerging from the hauptbahnhof (main train station). Construction on the Dom began in 1248, but it remained unfinished from 1473 through the 19th century. In 1880, the building was finally completed. Then World War II happened. I’ve heard a mixture between two stories of what happened next: Either the Cathedral remained relatively undamaged by WWII because the allied forced used the Dom as an aerial marker for bombing the rest of the city, and/or the allied forces purposely tried not to bomb the Dom in order to preserve it as a historic landmark. Regardless, the building stands today as a remarkable work of architecture, even if scaffolding taints the image year-round due to repairs from the weather and pollution hammering away at the stones.
My German cousin, Franziska, told me she had heard on the radio about a wealthy British woman who had passed away recently and donated a large sum of her estate to the Dom as an apology for the bit of damage the allies had inflicted during the war. This story contextualized my viewing of the Dom as both an object to admire in the present, but with a very symbolic past connected to multiple groups in different ways. I love stories like this one about the deceased woman’s estate because they demonstrate how individual humans and even entire social groups can grow and progress even as we keep our eye on the past. I have found this idea of looking back and moving forward to be a bit of a theme of my time here in Germany. This is why I highlight the Dom in this list as a perfect introduction to Germany.
As a nonreligious person, I can’t say that I appreciate much more than the architecture and the history behind this building. The inside is quite architecturally astounding, too, and you can even go to the top of one of the spires for great views if you can deal with the crowd of tourists, but beyond that its basically a giant church! What I found outside of it is what I enjoyed best. Since the Dom is so centrally located in Cologne, lots of things are happening in the surrounding area. Aside from all the museums and shops, there are tons of wonderful people watching locations and other side activities in which to engage. Taking a stroll through the Roncalliplatz (the main square), I viewed a camera obscura on the south side, took a 360 degree photo of Shanghai on the southwest side, checked out the long-standing Roman archway on the west side, and had a seat on the steps for some people-watching and musical entertainment on the north side. Some of these activities were temporary sprouts which will be replaced by something else in the future. But they are examples demonstrating how easily you can spend hours here, especially if the sky is blue and the sun warms the fall air as it did during my time there.
5. Get a chocolate bar from an old-fashioned machine
This one is a no brainer. When you have the opportunity to learn about, eat, and make chocolate—you do it. Am I right? When I found out Cologne is home to the Chocolate Museum (Schokoladenmuseum), I had to check it out. In addition to the history of the cocoa bean, the processing, and distribution of chocolate, the museum boasts its own Lindt chocolate factory! While on the tour, I got to taste chocolate from a fountain like I was the fat kid in Willy Wonka’s factory. I also tried out an old candy machine which ka-klunks out a Lindt chocolate bar for 1 euro. Figuring out how the machine works is half the fun (the other half being eating the chocolate, of course!). On the top floor there are candy-related digital games to play (mostly in German) and other acknowledgements to our modern day obsession with chocolate. Finally, you can design your own chocolate bar! If you wait up to 35 minutes after your tour, they will make a chocolate bar with the ingredients you choose. I ran out of time to have mine made, but this is what I would have chosen: milk chocolate with blueberries and sour cherries, roasted hazelnuts and Amarettini biscuit chunks. Take a closer look at the list—What would you put in your chocolate bar?