Cologne is famous for its traditional Christmas markets selling a range of handmade goods, street delicacies and gifts, and offering entertainment for adults and children alike. I was lucky enough to visit Cologne to stay with friends just after Christmas to see in the New Year. Of course, we wanted to sample one of the Christmas Markets that are such a big draw in the city, but we were delighted to discover that there were lots of other things to do too, that are there all year round!
It was still very festive when we were there as it had snowed the day before we arrived, and the kids were enchanted by the blanket of white that they could see out of the plane window as we came in to land. There was one Christmas market keeping the festive spirit alive (whereas there were 6 at the pinnacle of their popularity before Christmas).
The market was small-ish but was populated by cute Alpine-looking huts selling everything from impressively-sized hotdogs to hand-made jewellery and sweets. Children and a few nervous-looking adults whizzed around the outdoor ice-skating rink and the wandering magician Dr Marax performed tricks with people from the crowd. The participants included my son, who was entertained and just slightly bemused by the trick of the foam Mummy and Daddy rabbits who magically multiplied into about 50 tiny foam rabbits!
It was lovely to sip a white hot chocolate through a straw (a first for me!) and watch the skaters performing their best tricks, going for a spin on a vintage merry-go-round and watching my incredibly-fussy daughter demolish one of the monster hotdogs smothered in ketchup!
The Christmas markets are one of the main things that Cologne is synonymous with, and a great draw for tourists – so much so, that our German friends say that they don’t go shopping in the town centre at the height of the festive frenzy. But what else has this city of over 10 million inhabitants got to offer visitors?
When we visited on New Year’s Eve, it was very quiet, and we had the place to ourselves for about the first hour. It’s quite surreal witnessing elephants, giraffes and penguins set in an urban environment, as the zoo is surrounded by high-rise flats (whose inhabitants must have the best view ever!) and it provides a stark contrast to the greenery and space within the zoo. Cologne Zoo was founded in 1860 and is one of the oldest zoological gardens, with areas to wander the greenery amongst the different animal enclosures. Another stark contrast is between the 19th century ex-birdhouse in the style of a Russian basilica, to the modern glass-fronted enclosures without bars, which allow you a great view of the animals. The zoo’s primary claim to fame is that it is the home of Hennes VIII – who for the uninitiated is a rather pampered goat – who is the beloved mascot of FC Koln (who are newly promoted to the Bundesliga) and appears at all of the home matches. He has his own double-fenced enclosure, and when we visited, he was being visited by his girlfriend. This made front page news of the local paper! Hennes the billy goat is the only living mascot in Germany’s top-flight football league, and several incarnations have taken on this role since the 1950s. The tradition was started when the club’s coach Hennes Weisweiler was presented with a billy goat by a circus owner during a carnival party. Today he appears as the motif on the team’s football shirts. The current Hennes was catapulted from an obscure farm, into his current privileged position, by being voted for by fans in an online ballot. When we visited, I took a photo of Hennes, only to later be told, that I’d unwittingly taken a photo of his girlfriend! Aside from the cult status of Hennes, there are other pulls for visitors to the zoo:
- – Included in the admission price is entry to the neighbouring aquarium, which houses tropical fish, amphibians and insects
- – A large wooden playground area for children, with plenty for young and older children to do.
- – A wonderful tropical rainforest area, complete with lush vegetation, wallowing hippos and crocodiles, and beautifully-exotic birds that wander the area at will, walking amongst visitors and impressing them with their raucous attention-seeking cries
- – A great selection of animals to see including penguins, sealions, tigers, giraffes, elephants and primates
View from the Panorama Cologne Triangle
The Cologne Triangle is a great place to look out over the city, taking in all of its key landmarks, and enjoying the novel aerial perspective. The building is 29 stories high, and the viewing platform is 103.2m high. There is no need to pull something vital (!) climbing a multitude of steps to the viewing tower at the top, as there is a lift. I’m not sure what goes on in the rest of the building but, suffice to say, we headed straight to the viewing platform at the top and enjoyed the view offered through the glass, curved viewing panels. We visited on a windy day, and it blows quite strongly at the top, so do wrap up to be on the warm side! You can enjoy a spectacular view of the Cathedral, the Rhine and its bridges, as well as the rest of the bustling metropolis of Cologne. Our friend kindly pointed out the riverside home of Lukas Podolski, the German footballer (we later saw his fancy car parked in a multi-storey carpark in the city.) It is a good way to experience another perspective of the hustle and bustle of Cologne, as there is no roof on the Platform, you can hear the muffled noises from below, and feel connected to the amazing view that surrounds you.
Cologne Cathedral is a must-see in the city, and you can’t really help catching glimpses of this ornate Gothic Cathedral from a multitude of vantage points in the city. Our first view was of the hugely impressive front of the Cathedral, with the square in front. The Cathedral is a beloved icon of the residents of Cologne, and it is regarded as miraculous that the Cathedral survived the intense bombing of the Second World War. The cathedral’s foundation stone was laid in 1248, and after interruptions in building, it was finally completed in 1880. The sheer scale is awe-inspiring, as it towers over the ant-like people scurrying below. It is currently free of charge to enter the Cathedral, with a charge applied if you decide to climb the 533 steps up to the South Tower, where there is an impressive view across the city and the Rhine. The climb up the steps takes visitors past the bell chamber. St.Peter’s Bell is the largest freely swinging church bell in the world and weighs 24 tonnes. We didn’t make the knee-jarring walk up the tower (we were content with the view from the Cologne Triangle) but we did explore the interior of the Cathedral. It is dark and intimate in the cavernous interior, with flickering candles being one of the few light sources. This is despite the spectacular and huge stained-glass windows that are so beautiful and intricate, some are pictures on a religious theme and others are a mosaic of jewel colours. The Cathedral houses the mortal remains of the Three Kings, which were brought back from the conquered city of Milan. The relics of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (the city patrons) now rest in a shrine of impressive gold craftmasnhip. Although there are lots of tourists, and the hustle and bustle of Cologne continues outside, inside the Cathedral there is an atmosphere of calm reflection, which seems to permeate the building and those who visit.
Love Locks on the Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine
I admit that I had never heard of a love lock before I visited Cologne, but the notion becomes very apparent as soon as you step onto this bridge, leading towards the Cathedral. The entire mesh side of the bridge is adorned with padlocks of a multitude of colours and sizes, jostling for space, adorned with names, ribbons, engravings and an abundance of other decorative touches. Loved ones, family members and friends from Cologne and further afield, have attached the padlocks as a symbol of their love and loyalty and one can imagine that many people who have got married would celebrate by attaching their special padlock to the myriad already there. It is said that the padlocks are proof of a couple’s love, and the key to unlock the padlock is thrown away into the swirling depths of the Rhine, to keep that love intact. Experts estimate that the padlocks weigh over two tonnes, and whether you want to add a lock of your own, or just come and take a closer look at the padlocks – reading the names and dates on them, and looking out for interesting designs, it is an enjoyable experience, especially for children.
The Chocolate Museum (Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum)
Our visit to this Mecca of Chocolate, started well with a miniature chocolate bar being given to us as we entered – and the rest of the visit was pretty impressive too…Later on, you can see miniature versions of machines that are used in the production of chocolate, so you can envisage how this bar, and others that we enjoy as an occasional treat (!) are made. There are exhibits about the history of chocolate, about how it is produced – it’s sad to read that the majority of people involved with farming chocolate never get to taste it themselves – and also about the packaging and advertisement of chocolate. There were lots of colourful exhibits, and some interactive games for children to do (the good thing is that all information was presented in various languages, so we could read things in English). A useful tip is to arrive at the museum early, as it was almost empty when we got there, and it got considerably busier as the morning went on. Another tip that I missed out on by a day, was that you get free entry if you visit on the day of your birthday. Almost worth travelling over for! Here are some more of our highlights:
- – The 3m chocolate fountain operated by Lindt, which is cordoned off to stop inquisitive hands, but an employee helpfully (and very generously, as my daughter went back about 4 times!) dips a wafer into the delicious liquid chocolate and gives it to you to devour.
- – A small tropicarium which houses cacao trees, and gives you a great view out over the Rhine.
- – There is a shop at the entrance to the museum which is a chocoholics dream and has a great selection of chocolate products for all tastes. There is also a smaller one within the museum, where you can also see the chocolatiers creating the decadent chocolate treats.
- – There are vintage chocolate bar vending machines in the museum, and you can buy a chocolate bar from there, with some money being donated to charity.
- – It was great to see a life-size chocolate replica of the shrine of the Three Kings from Cologne Cathedral. It was fascinating to marvel at the detail and skill involved with creating the chocolate masterpiece and also to see a photo montage of the pain-staking process of creating it.
Lindenthaler Tierpark and Tierpark Tannenbusch
These wildlife parks provided a welcome slice of nature and greenery to our travels to Cologne and its outskirts. Lindenthaler Tierpark is very much within the urban area of Cologne, and is right on the doorstep of some very affluent properties in the city. There were lots of people enjoying the park that the wildlife park is part of; walking dogs, jogging and taking a leisurely stroll. Within a gated part of the park, is an area dedicated to wildlife and farm animals. As you walk down a long straight path flanked by woodland and a huge field, there was a couple of hungry deer loitering nearby, and a large herd of deer could be seen in the distance. We put some money into a vending machine nearby, and got a cup of food for the deer, and the other animals (apart from the ducks, as my son was told off for feeding the ducks…) The deer and the other animals (most of the rest are behind fences) are very savvy to the best tactics to get food, the horned cattle stood expectantly at the end of his feeding chute, nostrils flaring in the cold, and the brazen donkeys eeyored mournfully and did their best to encourage passersby that they were very hungry indeed! One of the funniest sights was the tiniest goat in an enclosure ruling the roost and being incredibly rambunctious with the other long-suffering residents of the pen. One of the workers eventually had to get in the pen (or should I say ring?) with the goats and attempt to deter the little blighter. The kids loved getting the food out of the machines, and feeding the different animals. Even children who aren’t keen on hand-feeding, enjoy pouring some precious feed down the feeding chutes for the grateful recipients.
Tierpark Tannenbusch is situated more in the outskirts of Cologne, and when we visited, we were lucky enough to visit when there was snow on the ground. Some of the animals didn’t look so thrilled to be out in the white stuff, but the kids enjoyed running around in it, throwing snowballs and admiring snowmen. The kids also liked the playground, which had slides, a zip wire and lots of other equipment for children of varying ages. As with the other wildlife park, food was available via vending machines, and animals that were vying for their share included wild boar, deer, ducks and owls. An idyllic surrounding, that is the perfect setting for a family stroll at any time of year.
Cologne FC Stadium Tour at the Rhein Energie Stadion
FC Koln (Cologne) are the official football team of the city. The club was formed in 1948 and have won 3 German championships and have won the cup 4 times. There is a great passion and loyalty for the club in Cologne, and 80% of the city’s population are reportedly interested in how the club does. Supporters have had reason to celebrate of late, as the team was promoted to the Bundesliga’s top division last season. Whilst we were visiting, football was on its annual Christmas break in Germany, so we couldn’t actually go to a game (even if we had managed to get a much-coveted seat.) We settled for a tour of the stadium, which gave a good insight into how much the club is such an important and cherished part of the lives of the club’s fans. The obvious drawback was that the guide gave the tour in German, but our friend translated bits and pieces, and it was still good just to have a look around and admire the facilities. There were lots of people of all ages on the tour, who were very enthusiastic in answering the questions of the guide, and seeing behind the scenes of the stadium and its inner sanctums.
- – A look around the museum at the entrance. My daughter really enjoyed the interactive element of opening boxes and looking at various artefacts related to the club – her favourite being cuddly Hennes the goats from different eras. It was also good to see the silverware that the club had won, and imagine it on our mantelpiece at home (or even in the trophy cabinet of the English team that we support!)
- – Venturing into the changing room and baths area, where the players actually get ready before games, and seeing all the little details like the tea and coffee making facilities. Important stuff…
- – We weren’t allowed to stand on the actual pitch, but it was very impressive to stand at the side of the pitch and appreciate the scale of the stadium itself and take a look at the hallowed turf. My son enjoyed running through the glass doors out onto the pitch (with the goat’s front view on the Home side exit, and his rear-view on the Away side’s exit) to the rousing strains of the music that accompanies the players out onto the pitch.
- – It was interesting to have a wander around the VIP hospitality boxes where the rich and famous get to watch the matches in comfort, and see all of the facilities that can be enjoyed.
I hope that I’ve given you an idea of a few of the activities that are available all year round in Cologne (not just at Christmas or New Year) and inspired you to make the short trip over to Cologne. It is a short trip travelling by plane (and public transport is reasonably priced and convenient), or you may opt to take your car over by Eurostar. Cologne is also a great base for exploring more of Germany. Dusseldorf is nearby, and it is also close to other European countries. We crossed the border (no passport needed) and ventured into Holland for the day. I haven’t even mentioned the amazing food and drink offered here – from bakeries, breweries and bratwursts to Black Forest gateau – your stomach will enjoy the trip too!