Exploring Cologne

It’s been a while, but I never got another post in after I rushed the Cologne Carnival post to coincide with Mardi Gras. We are now in the height of Basel’s Fasnacht and I have just recently returned from a whirlwind trip to London, meaning that it may take a little work pulling out the details from the second half of the Cologne trip. Cologne, or Köln, is a city that I’ve wanted to visit for a while. I kept on planning weekends and then rescheduling, either due to weather or some other reason. The weekend I finally made it happen managed to be during Carnival (as I’ve previously posted). This meant that a lot of museums and activities I had planned, such as climbing the Cologne Cathedral, ended up being closed during my visit. It all worked out, though, because I still ended up with a pretty full trip to the city.


I went to Cologne via train and took the Friday evening train. The direct train takes just around four hours from Basel and was a generally uneventful time that I spent reading and playing games on the phone. I got in pretty late when the city was still wide awake for Carnival celebrations. One of the coolest things about arriving into Cologne by train is that you are almost immediately greeted by the city’s massive cathedral.


As I usually do when I go to a new city, I booked myself on a walking tour of the city for Saturday morning. The tour wasn’t until 11, which gave me time to take in some of the Carnival festivities and try out one of the city’s famous sweet Bretzels (holy sugar load, Batman).


Now, I had my whole agenda for the morning pretty well-planned. I would spend some time watching some of the carnival shows and leave with enough time to make it back to the Cathedral area that was listed as the tour starting point. And I did that very well. I was even at the Cathedral with 20 minutes to spare. The problem was that I was not finding a tour group. I creeped out on a few people who really were just telling their traveling companions stories. I checked the email I got and found out that there was an update sent with a different meeting point, closer to the place that I had just been hanging out at. This is typically a 20 minute walk, but I managed to cut out about five minutes and get there just 5 minutes late with some speed walking. I think I just missed introductions, really. It was exhausting, though.

I have to say, though, this was a pretty enjoyable walking tour via Can You Handle It Tours. I was with a pretty social tour group, which made the tour more interesting. There was even a stop at a corner store to try some of Cologne’s famous Kölsch beer. We started with the old. While a lot of the city was destroyed during the war, you can still see little touches of Cologne’s Roman history scattered through the town. We also passed by the big golden car (a Ford as there is a nearby Ford factory) that’s been around for decades.



We learned about the city’s art scene and the rivals for the title of eau de Cologne. We went to 4711 first, where they have a fountain of fragrance that clung to me for the rest of the trip. Later in the tour, we did a quick stop by Farina to get the comparison.



We also saw the city’s Rathaus, which famously has a butt in on it.


After lunch and a post-tour break to escape the rain, I made it back out to see the cross the lock bridge over the Rhine. It started raining again, of course, but it was a nice way to escape the crowds at least.


The rest of the day was the hike out to see the Ghost Parade and a very delicious dinner of Cologne-style ChiMek (Korean fried chicken and beer). I say it’s Cologne-style because the beer part was, of course, Kölsch.


I left the hotel relatively early on Sunday morning. It wasn’t that early at the end of the day (9ish), but early enough to walk into a quiet and hungover city reeling a little from the night before. It made it easier to navigate squares that were packed the night before (like Fishmarkt).

I started in the Cathedral, however. It closed early on Saturday after the mass, but was still open when I left that morning. Cologne’s Cathedral is enormous. You don’t really get the sheer size of the Cathedral until you cross the river and see it tower over everything else in the city. I did want to climb to the top of the Cathedral, but it was closed. It was still pretty to walk around inside, though.



From there, I walked to see the Tünnes and Schäl statues near the St. Martin Church and touched their noses for good luck before heading to a much quieter Fishmarkt where I didn’t look like a complete nerd taking a picture of the colorful houses.



I continued along the Rhine until I got to the Kranhäuser, the three buildings along the Rhine that look like cranes. They’re near the Cologne Chocolate Museum, so the intent was to kill two birds with one stone. Unfortunately, the chocolate museum was closed for Carnival, so I got my inner Instagrammer on and took some photos of the building.



From there, I made a somewhat long journey to the Belgian Quarter, where they had a lot of cute restaurants and boutiques. The boutiques did look cute, but were closed and the restaurants were more on the bar side. Also, I had reservations at a restaurant so I’m not sure what good the restaurants would have been. It was nice to walk around, though.

My restaurant reservations were at Hof 18. I knew with Carnival that all of the actual breweries would have been jam-packed (and they were). Früh Am Dom is one of the big brew houses of the city and they happen to have a small Michelin rated restaurant tucked away in where the family’s old residence was. All of the food was delicious, but my favorite part was the truffle popcorn that they served with my Kölsch. I was pretty done with eating for the day after that meal.



After lunch and with some much-needed time to walk around, I hopped onto one of the trams to visit the statue park.




The park was a lot smaller than I thought, but it also happened to be next to the Cologne Zoo, so I did what any person should do and went to the zoo. The zoo was a lot bigger than I expected. I didn’t see any red pandas (depressing), but they had a pretty nice variety of animals. They even had an anteater there who would not cooperate with me taking a selfie. I have to say, though, I’m so proud of the consistent Zots I got from my fellow ‘Eaters. In retrospect, I really hope that’s just a bad sign in Italian and that I didn’t offend anyone near me.



I got back from the zoo with just enough time to figure out how to get my bag, watch the parade and get onto my train home. I was too cheap to get the direct train back, but there were no delays or missed trains on the way back.

The weekend in Cologne was a little chaotic and fun. I had way more Kölsch over the weekend than I expected to, but I hope that was negated with the insane amount of walking I did all over the city. I didn’t do all of the things there that I set out to do, but when does that actually happen? All in all, it was another fun weekend.


Crazy Days of Cologne’s Carnival

Today is Mardi Gras, which is one of those days that I’ve always kind of loved despite the fact that I don’t really partake in all of the Mardi Gras festivities. Despite the fact that it’s been Carnival fever over here in Basel and the fact that I knew that the Catholic carnival celebrations are the week before Basel’s Carnival, it somehow came as a surprise to me that the trip that I planned to Cologne this past weekend fell squarely in the height of the city’s famous carnival. I guess it’s somehow fitting in a way. Exactly a year ago, I spent the same weekend in the American capital of Mardi Gras. Granted, that was for a half marathon and not Mardi Gras, but it still checks out.


Back to Cologne, though. The city has a very long Carnival tradition and, as it turns out, a long Carnival season. It starts with a big celebration on November 11 and culminates with the “Crazy Days” that lead up to Mardi Gras. These are days filled with costumes, parades, events and drinking. A lot of drinking. Doing the trip on my own, there’s only so much of the Carnival activities that I can partake in without it being sad or potentially dangerous, but it was still a fun experience.


This is Alea having fun.


The Crazy Days kick off with Women’s Day on Thursday, but (11 pm trek across the Cologne train station on Friday aside) my first major Carnival event of the weekend were the celebrations at Neumarkt. There were musicians playing, groups performing and dancing and, of course, plenty of the local Kölsch to drink. This was a lot of fun to watch and I would have stayed for longer if I didn’t have a walking tour of the city to meet up with.


Going into the experience, I knew that people dressed up in costume for Carnival, but I didn’t realize that essentially everyone young and old took part in this experience. As soon as I stepped off of the train on Friday night, I realized that this was the Halloween experience I missed out on last fall. The problem was that I was entirely unprepared. Even the Maleficient hat that I had purchased at Disneyland just the week before would have been sufficient for a low-key costume. I couldn’t miss out on a costume event again, so I had to pull something together quick. Fortunately, the city’s colors are red and white which made it very easy to throw together a quick Waldo costume.


The other Carnival experiences on Saturday involved a lot of people watching. There were so many costumes. As the day wore on, the crowds grew. Most of the big bars and breweries in the city were also jam-packed, so I didn’t get the classic brewery experience, but I will survive. It somehow never felt overwhelming, though, and while people were clearly very inebriated, it never actually was too bad. Then again, I was back at my hotel by like 10 pm when the night was still young, so I’m sure I missed the height of the celebrations.



The other big Carnival event I tried to hit on Saturday was the big Ghost Parade, which is part of the Alternative Carnival. The event takes place closer to the university and involves a lot of people dressed up as ghosts and with lights and march in a parade. It was more participatory than I anticipated and I was cold from the rain by then (and a little hungry), so I wandered around a little before heading back to the main part of town.


While the big parade of Carnival takes place on the Monday, Sunday is also filled with a number of parades through the city center. Leading up to the big parades, there were people gathered in all parts of the city playing drums and/or making music.



I didn’t experience the height of the Sunday parade until I was getting ready to leave Cologne. After returning from a trip to the sculpture museum and the zoo, I got off at the train station and started heading to my hotel to pick up my bag. Unfortunately, this led to a bit of a panic because the parade route completely looped around my hotel. In Alea panic brain, I briefly considered whether I actually needed the contents of my bag. This was followed by a moment of clarity where I realized from navigating the intense crowds of the Chinese New Year Parade during the SF Treasure Hunt for several years that there’s always a way around the parade route. Well, in this case, it was under the parade route through the subway tunnels.

With my bag in hand, I had some time to sit and enjoy the parade before I had to catch the train.



Carnival is the type of experience that is better enjoyed with at least one other travel companion. Nevertheless, it was still a fun weekend, if anything to take in the atmosphere and crowds. There was some great people watching and even better costumes. Being in Cologne during the Carnival weekend added a colorful and vibrant element to the weekend that I’m glad I got to experience. I only wish I knew about the costume element a little sooner.


More on Cologne itself in my next post.