It’s the flash of afternoon sunlight on the longest wall that first captures my attention. I’m slightly lost, wandering away from the centre in search of the leafy contours of Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park when the curious form of the Altkatholische Pfarrgemeinde church thrusts itself into my line of sight.
Opened in 1907, the church was torn apart by Allied bombs in 1944, only to be reborn in 1993 in a most unusual fashion. With total reconstruction deemed too expensive, the new structure was refashioned in its exact original shape, with the surviving belltower standing firm and a nest of apartments and offices, clad in mirrored glass, taking on the role of the nave. Two decades on, this comeback is all things to people who flit to this southwest side of town — a place of worship, of work, of abode.
It might equally be a metaphor for Cologne itself — a city rich in German traditions, badly damaged by the furious firestorms of the Second World War, that’s now proving to be bright, sharp and modern.
Of course, Cologne is not really German — at least, not in origin. It was founded by Rome in 50AD, as the settlement of Colonia, on the west bank of the Rhine. Within 35 years, it was the capital of Germania Inferior, the most northerly Roman province in Continental Europe — a vast expanse that spread its arms into present-day Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland. Cologne remained a major dot on the map during the Middle Ages, a powerful city-state with its own rules and ideas. Indeed, it didn’t really become German until 1815, entering a new era as a great European metropolis in a fine waterside location.
Cologne retains all of this in the 21st century. True, RAF bombs did their worst, but the city has leapt up from the dust of conflict. Abuzz with exotic art galleries, intriguing restaurants and inviting ale houses, as well as one of the planet’s A-list religious landmarks — Cologne Cathedral — it’s a fragment of Germany with an identity of its own. Not as cool as Berlin, not as noisy as Hamburg, not as popular as Munich, but a destination which, twinkling on the lip of one of the planet’s most feted rivers, has ample charm to frame a culture-filled weekend.
What to see
Romano-Germanic Museum: Cologne’s Roman heritage is illuminated here. The key exhibit is the Dionysos Mosaic — a parade of satyrs and nymphs that once formed the floor of a third-century villa.
Museum Ludwig: This superb gallery is graced by key 20th-century works by the likes of Dali, Warhol and Picasso. Seek out German genius Martin Kippenberger’s 1983 work Sympathische Kommunistin, a portrait of a smiling female soldier that provocatively — with the Cold War still in full effect — presented a Soviet enemy as a human being.
Käthe Kollwitz Museum: This collection of works is a tribute to a German painter who depicted the brutality of the early 20th century with unflinching clarity.
Rudolfplatz: This pretty square was an entry point to Cologne’s Altstadt (Old Town). The Middle Ages linger in the Hahnentorburg, one
of four surviving medieval gates.
St Aposteln: The city is home to 12 Romanesque churches, including St Aposteln, which dates back to the 10th century — yet mixes things up with post-war frescoes and stained glass.
Kranhäuser: Cologne’s regeneration is most visible in the three giants that soar above the old Rheinauhaufen dock. Built between 2006 and 2008, these upturned ‘L’s echo the cranes that once loaded barges here. Mainly offices and flats, they can be seen best from riverside promenade Im Zollhafen.
Kölner Seilbahn: Operating from March-October, this high-rise chairlift crosses the Rhine, tying the west bank to the Rheinpark — an east-bank family favourite in Deutz.
Like a local
Go green: Cologne has open space galore — notably the three-mile-long Innerer Grüngürtel (Inner Greenbelt), which frames the city centre. Constituent parts of this grassy semi-circle include Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park, which salutes two other war-hit cities. It’s also home to a busy summer hang-out, the Biergarten am Aachener Weiher, a beer garden with numerous outdoor tables and booths under umbrellas.
Go Deutz: If Cologne’s Altstadt is the tourist heartland, Deutz, over the river, offers more of a local neighbourhood feel. Aside from the Rheinpark, it’s home to the Claudius Therme — a spa served by a natural mineral spring that recalls Cologne’s Roman years via hot and cold plunge pools.
Where to stay
Hotel Lyskirchen: Near the west bank of the Rhine, south of the centre, this four-star retreat has a swimming pool and a gym — plus a lobby bar for late-night tipples. Double rooms from €81 (£59).
Hotel Chelsea: On Jülicher Strasse, a short walk from the Altstadt, this cool hideaway has plenty of visual flair — its rooms are decorated with works by German artists such as Martin Kippenberger, Georg Herold and Walter Dahn. Doubles from €98 (£72).
Excelsior Hotel Ernst: Opened in 1863, Cologne’s grandest hotel is located in the shadow of the cathedral. Afternoon tea — including Pierre Hermé macarons — is served in its Winter Garden lounge. Doubles from €216 (£158).
Where to eat
Freddy Schilling: The trend for gourmet burgers has found its way to Cologne. Freddy Schilling has two outlets in the city — one on Eigelstein, on the edge of newly hip Agnesviertel. From €6.80 (£5).
RheinZeit: Part of a glittering necklace of restaurants laced along the Altstadt edge of the Rhine, RheinZeit deals in German specialities with a 21st-century twist such as blutwurst (black pudding) with mashed potato and apple compote for €11.80 (£8.60).
Taku: One of Cologne’s Michelin-star brigade, attached to the palatial Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Taku delivers pan-Asian fusion fare, throwing out delights such as steak with papaya and peanuts for €35 (£25.60), plus a six-course tasting menu for €130 (£95).
Pan: Sophisticated Pfeilstrasse runs north from Rudolfplatz in a haze of chi-chi boutiques. Pan adds to the general refinement by proffering sumptuous art deco relics.
Kunsthandlung Goyert: Also next to Rudolfplatz (on Hahnenstrasse), this Aladdin’s Cave has been selling shards of creativity since 1911, from works by German visionaries Max Ackermann and Horst Antes to 19th-century maps.
Farina 1709: Why not buy a bottle of Eau de Cologne in the city that invented it? Farina 1709 sells itself as the birthplace of the fragrance (in 1709) and the venerable outlet doubles as a museum.
Die Ex-Vertretung: One of several informal beerhouses on Rhine-side Frankenwerft, this pleasant bar has walls quirkily clad with photos of political figures.
Ona Mor: Roonstrasse, in Neustadt Sud, is host to a select group of bars, including Ona Mor, which describes itself as a ‘Cocktail Crematorium’. Concoctions from €9 (£6.60); two-hour cocktail courses for €35 (£26).
Havana: In the upbeat Agnesviertel quarter, Havana sticks closely to the image conjured by its name — Caribbean cocktails, Cuban rum and tapas — but is a perfect reason to visit this lively part of town.
The 14-minute train journey from the airport to Cologne Central Station costs €2.70 (£2). Taxis to the centre take 15 minutes and cost around €27 (£20). For details of metro, tram and regional rail services, see ‘Like a local’.
When to go
One of the warmest German cities, Cologne has mild winters and warm summers. It’s famed for its many Christmas markets (late November to late December).
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€).
£1 = €1.4.
International dial code: 00 49 221.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three nights B&B at the Excelsior Hotel Ernst Köln from £749 per person (two sharing) including flights and private transfers.
Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)