We spent five nights in Cologne (Köln in German), which gave us plenty of time for day trips to Düsseldorf and Bonn. Cologne is geographically between the latter two cities, so each out trip required only about 30 minutes of train travel.
Our hotel was on the opposite side of the Rhine River from city central, which gave us the opportunity to see two of the city’s icons the way that they are often presented in photographs, with the bridge in the foreground and the cathedral across the river.
The Hohenzollern Bridge crosses the Rhine, and rumbles with the weight of 1,200 trains a day as they arrive and depart from the Cologne central station (Köln HBF). The fences between the pedestrian walkways and the trains are laden with love locks, more than we’ve ever seen on a bridge. They grow up the posts like ivy, in dripping clusters from cable and chain locks, wherever a place to loop a lock can be found. The fence around the plaza at the downtown end of the bridge seems to be taking the overflow, perhaps starting a new trend with some posts sporting only a single lock so far, but others showing signs that they, too, will soon be completely encased.
Next to the station is the massive Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). Originally planned to be the largest and highest church in Europe, construction began in the 13th century. Six centuries later, in 1880, a grand opening was held on completion of construction. Even then, interior work continued, and some work is always ongoing, with scaffolding perpetually in sight.
A few important museums are close to the cathedral. One is in the cathedral itself and contains a collection of paintings, sculptures, and jewelry. The Roman-Germanic Museum tells the story of the city’s origins and development, with artifacts going back 1,000 years. Some of these are positioned around the outside of the museum for all to see. We visited the Ludwig Museum, wandering for several hours among the paintings and sculptures with several by Picasso and a terrific temporary exhibit on the works of Japanese American sculpture Isamu Noguchi. A bonus is the view out of the museum’s window.
The large brick plaza in front of the Ludwig Museum was interesting. Depending on the day, you will find signs dotted around the edges and people wearing hi-vis vests in a few spots. If you wander onto the bricks without noticing the signs, you get yelled at (personal experience here). The Köln Philharmonic practices below that space and rolling suitcases or scooters, or even people walking, apparently, create a disturbance. So, every time the orchestra uses the space, out come the signs and the guards. I wonder why they don’t use a rope to block off the space rather than easily missed signs and yelling (in a tourist area where many don’t understand what’s being yelled).
Required during any visit to Cologne is a taste of Kolsch beer, the local brew of the city. Ken took care of this task more than once. Wherever you go, the beer is on tap and served in small glasses. Servers load their trays with full glasses and come around to tables to drop more off. Unless you indicate that you are done (a hand or coaster over your glass), it’s like a bottomless glass with a price tag.
Roughly half the size of Cologne, Düsseldorf is home to the kilometre-long high-end exclusive shopping street, Königsalle (or just Kö to the locals). The grand boulevard is divided by a well-treed canal with several bridges crossing it. One side is mostly brand label shops and glitzy malls dotted with sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and the other side is stately financial buildings. Not a McDonalds in sight, thanks to a hard-fought battle by the merchants in the 1990s to retain the exclusive ambiance of the street.
Leaving the ritzy Kö behind, we walked into the old town along Bolkerstraße, sometimes referred to as the longest bar in the world since one bar is connected to the next and the seating seems to all blend together. This is a good place to stop and try Altbier, Düsseldorf’s traditional fresh beer on tap. Ken enjoyed it, but in an Altbier/Kolsch (from Cologne) shootout, Kolsch takes the win for him.
Finally, we reached the waterfront area. First the Burgplatz (castle yard), which used to be home to a 13th Century castle. The castle was rebuilt to become the Royal Palace in the 16th century, and in 1872 was destroyed by fire. The Palace Tower was destroyed during WWII, but was restored by local business folks and now houses a nautical museum and cafe.
We continued to walk along the waterfront for another kilometre or so to a modern section of Dusseldorf. The regional parliament buildings’ six half-round structures sit right at the water’s edge. The views from some of those offices must be incredible.
The Rhine Tower overlooks the parliament buildings and nearby is the Neuen Zollhof (new customs yard). A single project designed by Frank Gehry (Canadian-American architect), the three building clusters are made with completely different materials and different shapes. All are asymmetrical with angled-out windows and varying heights, but one is white and round, another is silver, wavy and reflective, and the last is all odd angles and brick. They now form part of an iconic view of Düsseldorf.
Half the size of Düsseldorf (and one-quarter the size of Cologne), Bonn can easily be visited in half a day. A medieval city gate sits on its own in the middle of town, a remnant of the city’s fortification walls. The old town hall sparkles with white paint and gold adornments.
The University of Bonn is partially housed in what was the Prince Elector’s Palace, a yellow and white building that seems to stretch from one end of town to the other. The university, one of the largest in Germany, spreads far beyond this building. Approximately 32,000 young people from all over the world study in over 370 buildings throughout the city.
One of Bonn’s major claims to fame is as the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven. We were able to view the outside of his childhood home, but his statue was missing from its pedestal, presumably taken away for restoration.
Though Bonn is geographically positioned along the Rhine River, connections to the river don’t seem to be as strong as in other cities. Rather than developing from the river and heading inland, riverside activity seems to be lacking. There are a few cafes, some tour boats, and an old church, but not a lot of life, at least when we visited. This is just an impression, of course, and may not be the local experience at all.
- Trains: All train travel to Cologne from Koblenz and between Cologne, Düsseldorf and Bonn was covered by our 9 Euro Ticket (see TripBits in Trier).
- Entry fees: Ludwig Museum, €12 per adult.
- Tour guides
- Cologne: isi.Travel audio tour app, Tour Through Cologne provided just the right amount of detail for each of the 15 stops.
- Dusseldorf: isi.Travel audio tour app, Between Luxury and Tradition.
- Accommodation: We stayed at the Adina Apartment Hotel across the river, and it worked out really well for us. The new hotel is right by the Köln Messe/Deutz train station (great for coming and going with luggage), one stop from the central station or a quick walk over the bridge into town. The hotel is right beside Koelnmesse, a huge trade fair and exhibition space. On the other side of the station is a cute little village with grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants and bars (we can recommend Haus Zeyen).