By Jack Grocott
Each Christmas I seem to be unable to escape Cologne, whether it’s the noxious woman repellent I receive every year in the Lynx Africa gift set I never ask for, or this bloody German city everyone seems to go on about visiting for a “Christmassy weekend away”. So, with a stinging splash of the former, a few years ago I thought I’d go and see what the fuss was about. And then I went again. And again the next year. Each time returning with full bags, an empty wallet, a lingering aroma of cinnamon, and a resounding belief that sometimes you just gotta trust the hype.
Cologne (or Köln to the locals) is visually, something of a curious entity. Straddling the Rhine River like a bun around a bratwurst, the city is a confused mish-mash of architecture. From modernist glass creations to traditional German townhouses and concrete post-war monstrosities, all of which are loomed over by a stunning gothic behemoth.
The Second World War played a big factor in Cologne’s present state. It was hit pretty bad. And by ‘pretty bad’, I mean almost entirely obliterated, enduring over 250 RAF air raids, the largest of which involved 1,047 bombers. It’s a marvel that any buildings were left standing – let alone the largest target in the city.
So, Cologne’s uglier, concrete-laden areas can be forgiven their intrusion in an otherwise beautiful city. Home to more museums than you can shake a Flammenschwert at, and a huge annual trade fair, this is a vibrant, interesting place to visit at any time of year. However, of the 6 million tourists than visit Cologne annually, a third of them come for Christmas.
Nobody quite does Christmas like Germany. Take a look at your neighbour’s house – go on, have a look – that one across the road with the flashing reindeer and the inflatable Santa that looks like it should be put on the sex offenders register. Well, in comparison to Germany, your neighbour is basically the Grinch – if the Grinch shopped at Poundland.
As such, it’s a no-brainer that Cologne is a great place to visit in December, but what should you do while you’re there? Here are a few suggestions:
1. The Kölner Dom (The Cathedral)
As mentioned earlier, the Kölner Dom is pretty damn eye-catching. I could tell you that it’s Germany’s most-visited landmark, that it’s 515ft tall, or that it’s the largest gothic church in Northern Europe – but I’m sure that you have access to Wikipedia yourself.
All you really need to know is that this cathedral is an awesome feat of architecture. Its twin spires can be seen across the city – which is probably the best way to view them, as you’ll get a crick in your neck if you’re standing at the front doors.
The construction of the Dom surely stands as the best example of un-German-like engineering. Universally known for their speed and efficiency, they didn’t half dilly-dally on this one. Building commenced in 1248 and was not finished until 1880 – 632 years later! Although for 400 years of that the builders seemed to be on some sort of extended pretzel break. It’s astounding to think that the people who started building it did so knowing that they would never see it completed within their lifetimes.
The slow and steady approach to bricklaying clearly counts for something, though. The Dom was hit fourteen times during the aforementioned bombings, and it came out the other side still looking fairly magnificent.
This is a great spot to take photos, particularly at night when spotlights atop the surrounding buildings light up the cathedral like a … simile less obvious than a Christmas tree.
2. The Schokoladenmuseum (Chocolate Museum)
What child, or adult child, doesn’t get excited at the thought a chocolate museum? Willy Wonka fantasies aside, this is a genuinely informative place, being more focused on the history and production of chocolate than the kid-orientated cash cow you’d expect.
The gift shop is pretty impressive, and may be a good place to buy presents to take home, although you will be paying extortionate prices for stuff you can get much cheaper elsewhere in town. The highlight of the trip, though, is definitely the huge Lindt fountain, where you can try to pull an Augustus Gloop and be immortalised forever.
3. Galeria Kaufhof
One of the aforementioned places in which chocolate gifts are cheaper, Kaufhof is a massive department store in the city centre that provides a bit of something different to the high street stores dotting the shopping districts and is a great place to do some Christmas present buying.
Make sure you also have a gander in the windows that span the exterior of the building. Much like Selfridges in London, every year the store sets up a themed window display revolving around the highly collectible, highly-priced Steiff bears that originated in Germany. There is generally a long queue going past these windows, but you can walk around the outside of the queue and still get a decent look with less fuss.
4. Ice Skating
The ‘Heimat der Heinzel’ Christmas market, set in Cologne’s Old Town, is arguably one of the better markets in the city. The theme is gnomes – which will become immediately clear, as they are fucking everywhere – but the focal point is the ice rink that runs a loop around a horse and rider monument and a circuit through the market.
The long straight of the track glides past a Bavarian lodge, which seems to be the only place in Cologne where you can drink beer from a stein. Which also means that this is undoubtedly the spot where you will fall spectacularly on your face, in full view of the appreciative drinkers. Ice skating in Germany is more popular than the once-a-year affair it tends to be in the UK, so prepare to be upstaged by just about everybody. Last year I was helped to my feet by a six-year-old girl wearing pink light-up skates, Peppa Pig mittens and a look of abject pity.
FUN FACT: the name ‘Heimat der Heinzel’ means ‘Home of the Heinzelmännchen’. Heinzelmännchen are the aforementioned gnomes, which are part of local folklore – derived from a tale similar to The Elves and the Shoemaker. Traditionally, these gnomes help the townsfolk make their wares, but at Christmas they have a different task – they ensure that none of the products being sold are mass-produced. So don’t worry about getting ripped off with sweatshop tat here; these adorable little enforcers have got your back. Just make sure you keep up your protection payments.
5. Brauhaus (Brewhouse)
I think the brauhauses (almost certainly not the correct pluralisation) are my favourite part of a Christmas Cologne trip. I can’t say what they are like during the rest of the year, but at Christmas these places do roaring trade. They are inevitably packed and you may struggle to get a seat, but the search is definitely worth the hassle.
You may find it a little daunting at first, as things are done a certain way that could throw the uninitiated, but stick with it. Upon entry it will be loud, busy, and there will be waiters darting around the tables like pinballs – it’s best to stay out of their way.
Here, you have two options. Either hunt for a table yourself, or ask a waiter to help. The latter is more effective, as they will plough you through other helpless wandering tourists and plant you at a table fairly swiftly; it is customary to tip them for this. Don’t be afraid to sit with strangers. The tables tend to be large and King Arthur-esque, or long benches. Chances are, you will be seated on a table with one or more other groups. This is part of the fun, so don’t be anti-social – make some new friends.
Next, you will be asked what you want to drink. This part is probably pretty familiar, but I recommend kölsch – this is Cologne’s local beer. It’s pretty tasty, like a light lager or pilsner, and they’re very proud of it. Each brauhaus will usually serve its own kölsch.
Now, there are three important things to remember. Firstly, when they bring around a big tray of kölsch, they will hand yours over and then start a tally on a beer mat – don’t lose this, as it’s how they keep track of your tab and they add to it when you want a refill.
Secondly, your waiter is your waiter. Don’t call a different one over to order anything. I’m not exactly sure on the economics, but all the waiters are self-employed and you are effectively their customers, not the establishment’s.
Thirdly, don’t be disappointed when you don’t get a huge traditional stein like you see in cartoons or at Oktoberfest. This is the wrong part of Germany for that. Kölsch is served in tall, narrow 0.2L glasses. That’s about a third of a pint, which is why the price seems cheap for a beer, and why you’ll be on your twentieth drink before you know it.
There are plenty of different brauhauses, and they’re mostly all good. Früh is the most well known, so this is normally the busiest venue and is slightly more expensive. The food there is great though, so don’t be put off. Peters Brauhaus also deserves an honourable mention for absolutely fantastic food.
6. The Christmas Markets
You didn’t think I’d forgotten, did you? There are four main markets in Cologne, and seven in total. They are fairly spread out, and it’s a long walk from the cathedral market to the other end, especially in the four inches of snow I encountered on my first visit. There is, however, a hop-on/hop-off shuttle service, brilliantly in the form of a miniature train, which will take you to each market for a small fee.
I would recommend doing any shopping during the daytime when the markets are quieter, and then dropping it off at your hotel before you go out in the evening. It can get extremely crowded at night, particularly around the food and drink stalls, and those glass baubles and handmade trinkets are pretty fragile.
Try the hot apple punch (apfelpunsch), with the optional tot of brandy; try the pretzels; try the candied nuts; try the waffles; try that fantastic melted raclette cheese thing on freshly-baked bread; try the numerous fried delights. In short, try absolutely everything. Drink in the atmosphere and follow your nose to each and every delicious smell that tempts you.
Try Christmas in Cologne next year.