Winter is fast approaching, and all around Europe, ornate decorations are going up, ice rinks are being installed in central squares, and that festive atmosphere is filling the air.
If you’re taking a Transatlantic trip this upcoming season, I wouldn’t blame you for being unsure where to go, especially when European cities are known for going ‘all out’, and essentially competing for the title of prettiest, most magical winter destination.
Having spent a good number of years traveling in the Old World in the dead of winter, I have my own favorites, and if I may, no Euro winter trip is complete without this lesser-known gem:
Is Cologne, Germany One Of Europe’s Most Underrated Destinations?
When you think of Germany, Cologne is probably not the first city that comes to mind. I will take a wild guess here and say it’s the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin that your mind conjures up, the capital’s 368-meter-high TV tower, or perhaps Munich’s iconic Marienplatz.
Though it is a historically relevant city and the largest city in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, only more knowledgeable tourists will have heard of Cologne, and even fewer will have deliberately gone out of their way to visit.
It is too far from Berlin to make a day trip (nearly 600 km), as well as too far North from the financial mega-hub of Frankfurt. Furthermore, reaching from Munich, the Bavarian capital and perhaps Germany’s second most popular destination, takes over five hours.
So why should this mysterious city be on your bucket list for winter, and what has it got to offer to warrant such a massive detour from your usual Germany itinerary?
Christmas Markets Galore
If you’re visiting Europe in winter, odds are you’ll be visiting a Christmas market or two.
@explorewithbrandy Add Köln (Cologne) to your Christmas market bucket list! #germanytiktok #germany #christmasmarket #alliwantforchristmas #christmasmood #christmastime #germanytravel #traveltiktok #hollyjollychristmas ♬ Holly Jolly Christmas – Michael Bublé
These open-air markets have stood for centuries on end, and they are great places for socializing, sampling traditional food, and attending art performances in Northern Europe, particularly in Germanic countries, where the tradition is stronger.
Much like Strasbourg’s, a French city on the French-German border, Vienna’s in Austria, and Berlin’s, Cologne’s Christmas market (or Weihnachtsmarkt) is one of Europe’s largest and most hotly-anticipated.
On average, 4 million people visit Cologne while the Christmas market is in operation in hopes of going on thrilling rides, ice skating on a rink bounded by charming, medieval-looking buildings, and trying all the different flavors of mulled wine and bratwurst.
I have been to Cologne both in ‘normal’ periods and winter, and I’ve got to say the city truly comes alive in the colder months, morphing into both a foodie hotspot and a winter wonderland of the sorts, with the smell of roasting pork, shopfronts adorned by wreaths, objects embellished with garlands, and twinkling lights everywhere.
My favorite dishes to try include German potato dumplings, roast pork, and stollen, a candied Christmas bread you simply can’t help but to gorge on once you take the first bite.
These can be found all around the extensive Weihnachtsmarkt, as well as in the cozy, charming German restaurants scattered around the Old Town.
A World-Class Cultural Hotspot
Culture is one of the leading factors drawing Americans to Europe this winter, as nowhere in the world will they find the same concentration of ancient wonders and historical cobbled towns as in the Old Continent.
With that being said, Cologne will always have a piece of my heart for its (troubled) History and heritage.
In case you were not aware, this was one of the most heavily bombed cities in World War II and much of what you see around the Old Town today – the lean medieval buildings, narrow alleys, and colorful shopfronts – has been reconstructed following a revival project.
Cologne is a testament to Germany’s rebuilding in the aftermath of the devastation of war, and the most beautiful aspect about this sad yet inspiring tale is the tallest structure in the historic center, Cologne Cathedral. It is the single major historic structure to have survived the raids.
The 13th-century flamboyant church was hit by the Allies fourteen times, yet it stood defiant, tall, and proud.
It was built to house the Shrine of the Three Kings, and other than being a popular pilgrimage site for Christians in Europe; it is a UNESCO-protected architectural feat distinct for still laying claim to the title of tallest cathedral in the world, with a tower facade that’s 157.22 meters high.
Other cultural landmarks of Cologne – albeit reconstructed – include the Twelve Romanesque churches, dating back to the Late Roman period, and Hohenzollern, a double pedestrian and rail bridge spanning the River Rhine, commanding sweeping views of the Dom and the Old Town.
If you’re looking to base yourself in central Cologne, I can warmly recommend the centrally-located Hilton, as it offers privileged views of the cathedral, and it’s within walking distance of most of the Old Town and most major points of interest.
Overnight rates this winter average US$128 on Booking.com.
Though I could go on and on about Cologne itself, I should also mention it is the perfect home base for exploring the wider Northwestern Germany.
What To See Around Cologne
The Previous Capital Of Germany
A short half-hour drive from central Cologne, the city of Bonn is famous for having served as the temporary capital of Germany (West) during the Cold War while Berlin was still under the control of foreign forces and partially administered by the communists.
Though it is often ignored by tourists due to its historical significance, as the birthplace of Beethoven and former seat of the German Government, Bonn boasts a high concentration of world-class museums.
One Of Germany’s Top-Rated Museums
This includes my absolute favorite museum I have ever visited: The House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany.
An immersive experience, it takes guests on a journey back in time, with each level accounting for a different decade in German History, from the underground levels, which are dedicated to the Roman and medieval periods, to the middle sections (Nazi Germany), and upper levels (post-War and current times).
There is even a reconstructed 1950s cinema with showings of period films and a re-enactment of the grueling border procedures people were subjected to when crossing from the free, democratic Western into a Soviet-controlled Eastern Germany.
Fairytale Castles And Luxurious Spa Resorts
Bonn is also famous for the nearby Drachenburg Castle, a fairytale villa built by nobles in the late 19th century.
Not far from Drachenburg, nestled on a hilltop overlooking the Rhine and the conurbation of Bonn-Cologne and surrounded by lush foliage, the Grand Hotel Petersberg sits proudly.
Having been a guest at the property a few years back, I have only fond memories of the spectacular service, excellent breakfast buffet, and the in-built spa center.
I would gladly spend US$400 on another relaxing two-night weekend getaway at the Petersberg any day.
Easy Rail Links To Other Incredible European Destinations
Additionally, Cologne is connected by rail to a number of secondary European destinations that could aggrandize your European winter escape, such as the charming riverfront city of Liege, in Belgium (1h20 away), or Luxembourg City, the picturesque capital of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (2h25).
Cologne is an incredible city break, and if you’re lucky enough, you might even get to witness it in all the Germanic glory of its half-timbered houses and Christmas fair blanketed by snow – something I have never been lucky to experience myself.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com