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German destinations A-Z: Cologne

Cologne has so many faces it is difficult to characterise. How does a city become known for both beer and perfume, both carnival and culture? What matters to the traveller is that Cologne is an intriguing place to visit, a German city known to English-speakers by a French name that goes back to Roman times.

The city’s place on the Rhine and transport connections make it one of the first stops in Germany, which was part of its attraction for the French before Prussian expansion finally secured a German border west of the river. But the political story goes back much, much further.

Cologne was a creation of Rome’s power in the region about the time of Christ. From the plans of the emperor Augustus to dominate Germania a garrison town was born, elevated to city status at the petition of a native, the empress Agrippina the younger. That city, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, has left many remains for archaeologists and museums and today visitors can follow fragments of the still-standing Roman wall, including towers.

The plan of the Roman city is clear in the modern street plan and a surviving arch of its north gate stands before the cathedral. The surviving north-west tower of the Roman town wall is today incorporated into a building at the west end of Zeughausstraße between Am Römerturm and St-Apern-Straße. The stones of the tower, which was fought around during the last street battles of World War II, preserve their almost mosaic appearance. Parts of the Roman north wall stretch back toward the cathedral along Burgmauer, where remains of a fountain are at Appellhofplatz.

Successive medieval wall circuits also left their mark on Cologne’s street plan and remain in the form of preserved towers and gates.

Ecclesiastical power was also established early and by medieval times Cologne’s prince-archbishops were power brokers in a new German empire. Their cathedral’s shrine of the Three Magi became an essential part of the rituals of imperial coronation.

But Cologne’s magnificent Gothic cathedral took more than 600 years to take shape, one of the world’s biggest churches with a vast interior space and treasures that require books of description. The first church buildings were from early in the 4th century, built over a Roman building. The towers today top out at 157m but in 1869, 11 years before completion, were still just over 50m high – meaning the cathedral is a mixture of Gothic and Neogothic. It took a great effort in the Prussian era to complete the towers. The view from the south-west tower at almost 100m is two-thirds of the way up, a prime perch for viewing the old town. The observation platform in the south-west tower is at the top of more than 500 steps.

The cathedral’s inner space is more than 400,000 cubic metres and the plan is about the same size as London’s St Paul’s. Much of the stained glass is from the 19th century, but the 14th century windows are the biggest of their period in Europe and the choir stalls and high altar are contemporary. The precious golden shrine (1225) is the central treasure and the floors commemorate the burials of centuries of bishops and archbishops. What seemed miraculous after World War II was the sight of the cathedral scarred but unbroken amid city ruins. What seems remarkable today is the gilt appearance it often takes on in photographs. Five or six masses take place daily as well as special events and the cathedral is closed to visitors during these. Tours in English meet inside the main west portal.

Less well known are Cologne’s 12 Romanesque churches, most on the sites of Roman buildings, some heavily restored after the bombing of World War II. Each is remarkable in itself but the ensemble is without parallel in Germany.

These churches go right back to the roots of Christianity in Germany. St Severin at Severinskirchplatz houses the relics of the saint, the late 4th century bishop of Cologne, where he founded a monastery in 376. Archaeology has revealed the original building. Parts of the present church (1237), including the crypt, are from a 10th century predecessor. The present tower reaches 73m. The present reliquary shrine of the saint is from early in the 19th century.

Of all the Romanesque churches, it would be a shame to miss the Basilika St Ursula with its Goldene Kammer, a macabre display of human bones in the roof vaulting that forms symbols and spells out Latin messages, connected by legend with the church’s saint and her 11,000 virgin handmaidens. But the chamber is kept under lock and key until visitors inquire and pay a small fee. The arched interior of St Maria im Kapitol is also a compelling sight, despite the loss of its vaulting to bombing.

Beneath Groß St Martin, largest of the Romanesque churches, are the remains of Roman warehousing that may also have been used as a sports complex. The site was part of the river port

Cologne is also a museum city. Near the cathedral is the Römisch-Germanisches Museum with its collections of Roman and post-Roman finds, built over the site of a Roman house with its intact floor mosaics.

But this is not the only archaeological interest, as the remains of the Praetorium and part of the Roman sewer are nearby. Recent old town excavations continued unravelling the story of the medieval city, including its Jewish baths, the mikveh, the medieval synagogue and the associated Jewish quarter. A museum has been planned around these, expected to open in 2019.

Above all this, the old town hall next to Alter Markt was extensively damaged in World War II and the early 15th century tower of 61m, with its many statues of historical figures including Agrippina and St Severin, was completely rebuilt. The facade of the Italian-influenced Renaissance portico (1573) at Rathausplatz survived with parts of the 14th century Hansasaal, used for Hanseatic League meetings.

The art museums present their own variety, an extraordinary array of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and treasures of ethnography. The collections of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum sweep from medieval works to the 19th century with many great masters in between. Museum Ludwig picks up the story in the 20th century and about 700 Käthe Kollwitz works have their own museum.

Strangely joined are the Museum Schnütgen in the shell of the Romanesque Cäcilienkirche, with its delicate devotional sculpture, and the extraordinary Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, a modern complex that combines precious cultural objects collected during the exotic travels of German adventurers in the late 19th century. The exhibits have been added to since to create a rare assemblage for anthropological curiosity.

Completely different, in true Cologne fashion, is a museum of chocolate, including both its history and manufacture.

The carnival period leading up to Ash Wednesday in February is the signal for street celebrations, a city parade and extended opening hours for bars and pubs.

An 11-page guide to Cologne is available for download at the Great Cities of Germany section below.

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Culture Encounters

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Great Cities of Germany

Füssen

The tiny town at the foot of the Alps has its own medieval castle and Baroque monastery as well as being the jumping-off point for visits to the nearby Romantic castles of Schloß Neuschwanstein and Schloß Hohenschwangau. A short ride from Füssen is the Wieskirche, a UNESCO-listed Rococo pilgrimage church. This concise guide includes all castles, sites, churches and museums as well as the essential services and transport information necessary to visit these treasures. Hyperlink access to accommodation websites included.

Aachen

The 2018 Raven Guide to Aachen, city of Charlemagne, is available for free download now. Even earlier than the Romans, the local hot springs was highly valued, but 1200 years ago the Frankish king who set up his court there, leaving buildings that still stand and making Aachen eventually the centre of an empire. Charlemagne's church, which grew to become the present cathedral, was one of the first world heritage sites.

Eisenach

The new Raven guide to the Thuringian town, birthplace of Bach, with its museum of the life of the great composer, history of car manufacture and one of Germany's best preserved medieval castles, is now available for travellers for free download. Eisenach, as a hiding place of Martin Luther early in his revolt against the established church, also played a key role in the Reformation.

Lutherstadt Wittenberg

More than 500 years after Martin Luther's Reformation, Raven Guides presents its free guide to the place where it all began. The town now known as Lutherstadt Wittenberg was the cradle of the religious movement that threw off the the structures of the Catholic church and shaped now ideas and ways of worship, but also more than a century of bitter conflict that shaped Germany forever. Key sites associated with this revolution have become listed world heritage monuments, including Luther's house, the church where his revolt began, and the place he preached.

Bamberg

The layout of the UNESCO heritage-listed old town and a range of Baroque and medieval architecture makes Bamberg one of Germany’s most beautiful cities. The 5-page guide covers the Romanesque cathedral, the opulent episcopal palace the Residenz and the old town hall in the middle of the river – summaries of 35 historic sites and museums in all. Information on essentials for travellers, tours, parks and musical performances. Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.

Trier

The Roman Trier was at one time second only to Rome. It was home to one of the most powerful Roman emperors, Constantine the Great, as well as Karl Marx. Signs of its past greatness remain, including the ancient city gate Porta Nigra, Roman baths, an amphitheatre and Constantine’s former imperial palace, plus the buildings of the medieval city. This guide of 7 pages includes more than 30 sites and museums, with essential services, transport links, transit services, tours and hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.

Rothenburg

Completely walled with more than 40 towers, the cobbled pedestrian streets of the Romantic Road town above the Tauber valley are little changed since the 17th century. The 4-page guide includes 17 sites and museums and an excursion to the Franconian open-air museum at nearby Bad Windsheim. Essential services, transport links, food and tours with hyperlink access to further tourist information and websites for many of the town’s small accommodation houses.

Potsdam

The Stadtschloß palace was the first Prussian royal residence and palaces and pavilions eventually multiplied in extensive parklands. This guide of 8 pages covers the many sites, chiefly the Rococo palace Schloß Sanssouci, the Dutch quarter Holländisches Viertel, the Russian colony Siedlung Alexandrowka and its Orthodox church, 10 museums, the Nikolaikirche, the surviving ornate city gates and the Baroque streetscapes. Essential services, transport links and fares, accommodation, food and tours with hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.

Regensburg

The medieval streets, archways and buildings of this former Roman camp remain. One of Germany’s classic Gothic cathedrals, several medieval churches, rare Gothic tower houses and one of Germany’s oldest bridges combined to justify the city’s world heritage listing. Information on essential services, transport links and urban transit services and fares plus listings of travel essentials are part of this 6-page guide. Almost 30 sites and museums, including the nearby Walhalla gallery of great Germanic figures of history, with hyperlink access to accommodation websites and further tourist information.

Würzburg

The prince-bishops who controlled Würzburg for centuries built wealth, power and influence expressed in Baroque by their huge palace the Residenz. Their medieval castle still commands the city, reached by an ancient stone bridge. This 7-page guide includes more than 30 grand residences, churches, museums and galleries, including one of Europe’s prominent Jewish museums. Essential services, transport links, transit services and fares, food and tours plus hyperlink access to accommodation and further tourist information websites.

Passau

This 4-page guide to the city of three rivers includes the Baroque cathedral of St Stephan, with one of the world’s largest organs, the fortress Veste Oberhaus and the well preserved old town. In all there are 13 sites and museums, including the exhibits of Passau’s Roman past and glass manufacture. Details of essential services, transport links and urban transit services including fares, accommodation, food, tours and views. Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.

Dinkelsbühl

This short guide covers a tiny medieval walled town, left in its unchanged state by a royal decree and now a favourite of artists and a small number of travellers. Dinkelsbühl’s walls and many Gothic and Renaissance buildings keep its historical atmosphere alive and its small hotels, pensions and restaurants complement this scene. Essential services and transport information are included with hyperlinks to most accommodation.

Augsburg

The wealth and influence of the city’s powerful families brought the Renaissance to Germany at a time when Augsburg was also the centre of key events of the Reformation. First a Roman settlement, it also has some of Germany’s oldest remains and is known for its many onion-domed towers and magnificent works of art. This 6-page guide includes more than 30 sites and museums plus essentials, transport links and fares, accommodation, food and tours with hyperlink access to further information websites.

Heidelberg

The most common description for Heidelberg is Romantic. This comes from its valley location, half-ruined castle, and the towered stone bridge across the Neckar. But this 8-page guide also explores the city’s cobbled streets in search of the essence of the city – Germany’s oldest university, the churches that are monuments to its religious struggles, and its restaurants and cafes. Find out about the funicular railway that makes the climb to the castle – and vantage points above the city – much easier, and several of the budget hotels and private hostels that help make accommodation in Heidelberg affordable. The 2017 Raven Guide to the Romantic charms of Heidelberg is downloadable free here now.

Goslar

The medieval town has a colourful array of half-timbered houses, Romanesque churches and the Kaiserpfalz, one of Germany’s oldest palaces. Its ancient Rammelsberg mines are partly responsible for the town’s world heritage status. The 5-page guide covers 19 sites and museums, a town walk, Rammelsberg tour and an excursion to the nearby half-timbered Harz town Wernigerode. Information on transport links plus listings of travel essentials and hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.

Lübeck

Trade made Lübeck the centre of the Baltic and the red-brick Gothic old town its merchant wealth built is now UNESCO world heritage-listed. Its churches, town houses and civic institutions are preserved and restored. In 7 pages this guide describes the commercial and civic culture of the city through summaries of 30 sites, museums and galleries. Information on travel essentials, transport links and transit services including fares, tours, parks, views and food. Hyperlinks to further tourist information and to websites for city accommodation.

Berlin

A concise but detailed Berlin travel guide of 31 pages including separate sections for the districts Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (with Neukölln), Schöneberg-Tempelhof, Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf and Spandau, with local food and accommodation and quick guides to essential services. A summary of all transport links with Berlin and urban transit services including fares. Summaries of more than 50 museums of history, art and culture, more than 60 historic sites and information on all major performance groups including orchestras, opera and theatre. Included are a short history of the city with guides to walking sections of the Berlin Wall and its memorials, the city’s historic precincts, churches and public buildings, parks, views, tours and cruises. In the text are hyperlinks to websites for accommodation houses and further information.

Bremen

A guide in 6 pages to one of Germany’s oldest cities including its UNESCO world heritage monuments, the ornate Renaissance town hall and the giant Roland figure, plus 10 other sites. Among 17 Bremen museums summarised are some of Germany’s leading houses of art and the remarkable Übersee-Museum, with exhibits of the wonders of the continents touched by Bremen’s worldwide trade interests. Essential services, transport and city transit details and tours, complete with hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.

Dresden

The palaces of Baroque Dresden with their museums and galleries, highlighted by the two Green Vault museums, are among the most remarkable in Germany. This 11-page guide covers 18 palaces, monuments and other sites and 30 museums as well as information on essential services, accommodation, tours, parks and views, food and performing arts. Details of excursions to the medieval city of Meissen, centre of European porcelain, the summer palaces of Pillnitz and Moritzburg, and the fortress of Königstein are provided. Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.

Hamburg

This 8-page guide to the port city includes the unique Speicherstadt, centre of the former free port, and a range of 25 sites, ships, museums, monuments and churches that reflect Hamburg’s maritime and trading traditions. Essential services are listed with a choice of tours, the city’s best views and parks. Information on transport links and urban transit services including fares plus listings of travel essentials. Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites and a guide to Hamburg music including the city’s opera.

Nuremberg

Modern Nuremberg has preserved or restored many walled and historic areas, including the Kaiserburg, the castle of early imperial assemblies that today provides a view over the old town. The city’s leading late medieval citizens were some of the best known German personalities. This 8-page guide includes 20 buildings, streets and monuments plus 14 museums. These include the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Germany’s leading cultural history museum, and the courts of the post-World War II war crimes trials. Essential services, transport links, transit services, tours and hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.

Cologne

The city’s Roman and medieval walls, cathedral and 12 Romanesque churches are features of this 11-page guide. Walks cover the historic city centre and the remains of the Roman wall. Summaries of 25 sites and 17 museums of art, history and culture including the Römisch-Germanisches Museum of Cologne’s Roman and medieval past and its associated archaeological sites. Information on all essential services, transport links and urban transit services including fares, accommodation, tours, parks and views, food and performing arts. Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.

Stuttgart

This 6-page guide to the historic city contains summaries of 10 sites including Stuttgart’s castle complexes, Schloß Solitude and the magnificent palaces of nearby Ludwigsburg. A listing of 10 museums and galleries, a guide to essential services, tours and the city’s extensive parks. Information on transport links and urban transit services including fares, accommodation, food and views. Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites and a guide to performance art.

Munich

A concise Munich travel guide of 13 pages including accommodation, food and a quick guide to essential services. Germany’s largest museum, Deutsches Museum, and the city’s extensive palaces and palace gardens are featured. Information on all transport links with Munich and urban transit services including fares. Parks, a choice of tours and where to find views. Summaries of almost 30 museums of history, art and culture, 30 historic sites in and around the city and information on major performance groups including orchestras and opera. Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites.