Open any guide to Cologne, and no doubt its Dom will be the first thing it mentions. “No other Cathedral is so perfectly conceived, so uniformly and uncompromisingly executed in all its parts,” UNESCO writes. Thus did this world heritage site become the highlight of most Cologne tours.
But I'm not sure it was the highlight of our day in Cologne.
Cologne shore excursion
We docked during breakfast. All the midtown docks were occupied so Bragi had to dock a little bit out of town. This, of course, required a 10-minute bus ride into the city center. For passenger convenience, Dewi told us that the buses would run back and forth between ship and city center all day. The last bus would depart Cologne and return to the ship at 5:30 PM.
Our Cologne walking tour
I would have liked to give you a play-by-play of our walking tour, but our guide showed us little beyond the cathedral and its square. We were surprised, actually, because our other tours had been more thorough. I actually felt compelled to tell our Program Director how disappointed we were when we returned to the ship. Dewi apologized, made a note of it and thanked me for letting her know.
One day in Cologne
We’ve spent a day in Cologne twice before, so let me show you some of the highlights myself, along with favorite photos from our three visits. Actually you can see a lot in one day, though that would depend on how fast you walk and how much time you spend shopping!
Let’s start with the city’s crown jewel, Cologne Cathedral, which has exquisite stained glass windows. It’s probably not the only cathedral that’s taken centuries to build (begun in 1248 and completed in 1880), but it is unique in that the plans never changed; they stuck to the original design.
In the 1100s the Holy Roman Emperor awarded Cologne Dom a reliquary said to contain the remains of the Three Wise Men. The coveted treasure made the dom one of Europe’s most important places of pilgrimage (a.k.a. donations) during the Middle Ages. The reliquary is still on display in the sanctuary.
This is also the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and its two massive towers dominate the city’s skyline. That being the case, it might seem a miracle that the cathedral didn't get blasted to smithereens during World War II. Actually, it’s precisely because it was so easy to spot that it was spared: Both sides preserved it because it made a good landmark for pilots on bombing missions!
Tip: The Tourist Information Office near the cathedral is a convenient place to find toilets, though as in most of Europe, you’re expected to tip the washroom attendant. The customary tip is 50 cents. Handicap facilities are available.
Cologne was once a Roman settlement called Colonia Agrippina. You can still see fragments of Roman ruins in some parts of the city, and the Roman gate that stands in the Cathedral’s square is one of them. It’s in good shape for being 2000 years old.
Also in the Cathedral square is a museum that holds many artifacts from Cologne’s early days, and passengers who visited said it was quite interesting. You can look through the windows from outside and see an intricate, intact mosaic floor on display. Obviously, someone very wealthy once lived on the spot.
(Apologies for the photo quality; I took these with my cell phone and had a challenge getting it to focus through the glass.)
Tourist Information Office
When the tour ended we all visited the Tourist Information Office across from the Cathedral. Besides offering the usual tourist maps, advice and lodging assistance they also have a nice gift shop and a restaurant. We bought a book of walking tours for a euro but it wasn’t as useful as we’d hoped because our interests are all over the place. It did, however, have working plumbing.
Tip: The Tourist Information Office has clean public toilet facilities. As is common in Europe you are expected to tip the washroom attendant. The customary amount is 50 cents (half a euro).
Lunch in Cologne
Our Viking Daily had recommended that we try Cologne’s typical Halver Hahn. Oddly for a German city, the sandwich doesn’t contain a single pork product. Rather, it’s a buttered rye roll that has been halved and topped with Gouda cheese and mustard and comes with pickles and onions. Unfortunately for people like me, they aren’t gluten free so that wasn't an option. I'd still like to know how it tastes so if you have tried it, please share your thoughts.
Plan B. I have a “thing” for visiting Hard Rock Cafés in cities all over the world, just to say I’ve been there. Silly, I know, but there you have it. And there, too, was Cologne’s Hard Rock. Dan didn’t mind, as long as they served Kölsch, a brew unique to Cologne. (He has a “thing” for that beer. So we’re even.)
We each had one of the restaurant’s specialty burgers and saved just enough room for our next destination.
Never mind the cathedral; this was the highlight of our day. Cologne is the home of the Chocolate Museum, situated right on the banks of the Rhine River, only a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral.
Inside is a fabulous gift shop, a restaurant overlooking the water, and a museum of the history of cocoa around the world, chocolate uses, and more. The most popular part of the exhibit was the 10-foot high chocolate fountain – complete with samples.
We watched the chocolate-making process and took advantage of a unique opportunity to order our own custom-flavored chocolate bar.
On our way out we filled a sack full of those round Lindt chocolate truffles in the gift shop. At least two of every available flavor ended up in our bag.
Walking around old town Cologne
Cologne is full of Roman ruins, Romanesque churches, a Renaissance city hall and more than its share of breweries, pubs and restaurants. It also has an Archaeological Zone that includes the remnants of an ancient Jewish mikveh. We spent the balance of our afternoon looking at the excavations, wandering through its twisting streets and alleyways admiring the traditional architecture and fountains, and menu reading. Here are a few highlights from Cologne photo albums.
Back on board
We returned to the ship just before the 5:00 presentation on Germany Today, given by a guest lecturer. It was quite interesting and especially nice to relax with a cocktail and rest my feet. Following that, Dewi gave the daily briefing, which I didn’t like because it included disembarkation details. Nooo! I have had far too much fun on this cruise to want it to end.
Viking went all out with tonight’s dinner: A Taste of Germany. Staff dressed up in traditional costumes and a musical duet paraded through the dining room serenading us throughout the meal. The meal itself was served buffet-style and there were choices galore.
Between the pork and wheat, I would have preferred to order one of Viking's “always available” meals off the menu … but that wasn't possible tonight because the galley had been prepped for visitors and staff were busy in the dining room. Chef Zsolt took me around personally and made sure that I didn’t take anything I shouldn’t eat.
Touring the kitchen
Guests were welcome to visit the galley during the dinner so Dan and I went to see where all the food is prepared.
Prost! Brauhaus Culture excursion
Call it a German pub crawl, if you will. We took this optional excursion the last time we cruised and enjoyed it so much we signed up for it again. It was so worth the €29.
Kölsch is the local brew of the city of Cologne (Köln in German) and is one of the palest German beers made. It has been called Germany's answer to the British pale ale.
A local guide took us to three brauhausen (beer halls), each of which served a different brand of the famous Kölsch beer.
Prost! is the German way to say cheers! and we said it a lot this evening. In Kölsch culture they keep the beers coming until you place a coaster over your glass as a signal to stop. We all had so much fun that we didn’t want the evening to end and begged Dewi, who had accompanied us on the tour, to let us visit just one more brauhaus. Pretty please?
Needless to say, we were the last group to return to the ship, laughing and chatting all the way like old friends. I think the captain had been waiting for us because we left Cologne only a few minutes later.
- Next stop: Kinderdijk