Cologne at Christmas: Experiencing the German city’s magical markets and culture

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Boasting a variety of Christmas markets with everything from mulled wine to local delicacies and handicrafts, Cologne during the festive season is a must, writes Clodagh Dooley. Here’s why

Cologne Cathedral

It’s 6pm on a Tuesday in December. I’m standing under a sparkling tent of starlight, surrounded by charming wooden Christmas chalets, with a mug of Glühwein (mulled wine) gently heating the palms of my hands. 

The bells of the nearby Cologne Cathedral ring out across the large square, known as Roncalliplatz, amidst the sounds of Christmas music and people chatting and laughing. Everyone’s in high spirits.

And that’s exactly how I feel at this moment in time. It’s my first visit to a festive market outside of Ireland, and as I look around at the intricately decorated stalls and twinkling lights, it feels like I am in a real-life fairytale. 

Cologne is a delight. A city filled with charm and wonder, and at Christmas, there’s something to discover beyond each turn.

Whether you’re thinking about a last-minute city getaway, or want to plan ahead for next year’s Christmas markets, Cologne is the perfect destination for couples, families and solo travellers. 

Here’s what you can expect and what to know about planning your trip:   

Visiting the Christmas markets

Did you know that Christmas markets, which are associated with the celebration of Christmas during the four weeks of Advent, originated in Germany, dating back to the Late Middle Ages? So no better place to take in the festivities than the actual country of origin! 

When you visit Cologne, it’s not just to see one Christmas market – the city has an impressive seven Christmas markets! 

During my two-day trip, I experienced four of the Christmas markets. And while German Christmas markets all typically contain traditional attractions, such as a nativity scene display, and delicacies such as Glühwein (hot mulled wine), Gebrannte Mandeln (candied, toasted almonds), and Bratwurst (German sausage), each market has its own unique theme and atmosphere.

Glühwein and Christmas stalls!

Here’s a snapshot of the markets I visited:

Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom Located right by Cologne Cathedral, this is one of Germany’s most popular Christmas markets, with more than four million visitors each year. With the towering Cathedral as its backdrop, the market’s location alone truly makes this an enchanting atmosphere. I visited the Christmas market at Cologne Cathedral both during the day and at night, and while equally as beautiful, it really is a wonderful sight lit up in the dark. Especially the giant, 25m-high Christmas tree that sits in the centre of the market, and the lights that are draped like a tent ceiling over a stage featuring live entertainment.

Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom

There are over 130 stalls to browse, all in a distinctive red shade with a shooting star at the top serving as a nameplate. Each stall featured gorgeous crafts and decorations, and delicious local produce. I tasted my first ‘Currywurst’ at this market, a German delicacy consisting of sausage chopped up and served with curry and a bread roll. And for ‘dessert’, I enjoyed a tray of melt-in-your-mouth Donut Balls topped with melted chocolate and sprinkles. All washed down with a mug of Glühwein! (If you pay an extra euro or two, you get to hold onto the festive-themed mug as a keepsake. This is the case at all the Cologne Christmas markets). Opening times for Cologne Cathedral Market is 11am-9pm daily until 23rd December, 2023.

Doughnut Balls and Currywurst
Heinzels Wintermarchen

Heinzels Wintermarchen Translating to Heinzels Winter Fairytale, when you reach the entrance to Heinzels Wintermarchen, it feels like you’re about to step into a storybook, with its woodland/elves theme. Dedicated to the legend of ‘Heinzelmännchen’ (or ‘elves’) of Cologne, the market is situated in the heart of Cologne’s Old Town, and is only a five-minute walk from Cologne Cathedral Market. So you can easily get from one to the other.

Heinzels Wintermarchen

It’s worth noting that Heinzels Wintermarchen is spread over the neighbouring squares of Alter Markt and Heumarkt, with the Heumarkt entrance located near a pretty Ferris wheel. When I was walking through to the Heumarkt section, a man dressed in a black suit and top hat playing Christmas music on a Straßenorgel (traditional street organ) added to the festive feel! Across the entire market, the rustic wooden stalls are adorned with beautiful ornaments, jewellery, handmade wooden goods, plenty of treats and freshly-brewed Kölsch (Cologne beer).

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Ice-skating at Heinzels Wintermarchen

And in the Heumarkt part, you’ll also find a spectacular ice-skating rink which is great fun for young and old. It has a large surface for skating on, areas for ice-stick shooting, and a bridge running across the ice for spectators. Heinzels Wintermarchen is open daily from 11am-10pm, while the Heumarkt section stays open beyond Christmas, until 8th January 2023, from 11am-9pm (closed Christmas Eve and Day). 

Markt der Engel

Markt der Engel The first thing I noticed about the ‘Market of Angels’ was the beautiful sea of star-shaped lights hanging from the treetops – it really was picture-perfect. And with this market’s theme being angels, it made sense to see two ladies roaming around the alleyways dressed as angels! The Market of Angels is located on the square Neumarkt, between the city’s most popular neighbourhoods and shopping streets. From both Cologne Cathedral and Heinzels Wintermarchen, the Market of Angels is approximately a 15-minute walk, but you can also take the Christmas Market Express, a festive train which conveniently runs between Cologne’s markets.

Christmas gifts at Market of Angels

The stalls at the Market of Angels are elaborately designed as Alpine-style houses, and there’s a variety of local specialities to try. These range from Belgian waffles and churros to Reibekuchen (fried potato pancakes) and freshly baked Flammkuchen, which is essentially a bacon and onion flatbread/pizza. There are also mulled wine and cocktail stands, as well as locally created handicrafts and art. There was an Alpine-style house which you could actually enter and it was filled with fab Christmas tree decorations and snow globes – needless to say, I bought a few myself to bring home! The Market of Angels is open daily from 11am-9pm.     

Kölner Hafen-Weihnachtsmarkt

Kölner Hafen-WeihnachtsmarktTranslating to ‘Harbour Market’, the Kölner Hafen-Weihnachtsmarkt is located by the Rhine River, right beside the Cologne Chocolate Museum (more on that below!). The Harbour Market is about a 17-minute walk from Cologne Cathedral and it really is worth walking to for the breathtaking, picturesque river views alone. As you approach the market, you’ll spot its impressive 55-metre-high Ferris wheel, which is even more spectacular lit up as the sun goes down.

Evening walk along the Rhine to the Harbour Market
Wooden ship bar at Harbour Market!

Also known as the ‘Christmas Market on the Water’, the Harbour Market has a maritime theme throughout. There’s even a bar embedded into a massive wooden sailing ship, serving everything from mulled wine to traditional beer! The tent stalls reminded me of sails and the maritime theme carried through to the food. On offer is a variety of fish specialities and fine foods, while artisanal crafts include handmade stools and wine holders, art, speciality knives, toys, and beeswax candles. The convivial Christmas atmosphere, harbourside location, unique gift ideas, and live performances make a visit to the Harbour Market well worthwhile. Open daily from 11am-10pm until 23rd December. And after a short renovation, their New Year’s Market started from 26th December until 8th January, 2023. 

If visiting Cologne, I’d highly recommend adding all four markets to your ‘must-visit’ list. And all are very easy to get around on foot. 

But there are other amazing Christmas markets to check out too, such as Nikolausdorf (Nicholas Village) on Rudolfplatz Square in the centre of Cologne, which has the historic Hahnen Gate as a backdrop. And smaller, hidden gems like the rooftop market at Brückenstraße, a winter village with outstanding views of Cologne Cathedral.  

Experiencing the city’s culture

While the Christmas markets will provide an immersive food and culture experience like no other, there are also a host of attractions and food places to visit also within walking distance of the festive markets. 

Here are just some you could visit during a trip to Cologne: 

Clodagh at Cologne Cathedral

Cologne CathedralIt’s very difficult to miss the impressive architecture of Cologne Cathedral – it can be spotted from pretty much any vantage point in the city! Located by Cologne Central Station, Cologne Cathedral has the largest church façade in the world and is a masterful example of Gothic style, with its spires, arches, gargoyles, and windows. A picture outside the cathedral is a must, but you can also enter for free and take in its striking interior.

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Cologne Cathedral’s impressive exterior

Standing at a height of 157-metres tall, Cologne Cathedral contains some of the most important pieces of Biblical artwork in Europe, as well as the Shrine of the Three Wise Men and the largest free-swinging church bell in the world, St Peter’s Bell. This only rings out on 11 annual holidays including Christmas. If you’re up for it, you can climb 533 steps up the tower for panoramic views of Cologne! You can visit the cathedral between 10am and 5pm, Monday-Saturday, and between 1pm-4pm on Sundays. However, the cathedral is only open for visitation outside of liturgical hours, so make sure to check the daily schedule.

Musketeer and Cupid by Picasso at Museum Ludwig

Museum LudwigSituated next to Cologne Cathedral, Museum Ludwig houses a variety of modern art, in art movements such as pop art and surrealism. The museum serves as the cornerstone of famous German art collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig’s collection, and it is home to one of the largest Picasso displays in Europe.

Currently, there’s also a unique ex­hi­bi­tion running in the museum until 22nd January, 2023 called ‘Green Mod­er­nism: The New View of Plants’. The exhibition looks at what plants mean to humans, going back to ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and ex­amining the de­pic­tion of plants in the vi­su­al arts and how they were viewed in bo­tany and so­ci­e­ty in gen­er­al. Opening hours of the museum are Tues­day to Sun­day from 10am-6pm (public holi­days in­clud­ed) and ev­ery first Thurs­day of the month, the museum is open from 10am-10pm. Tickets are €11 per adult (plus advanced booking fees) and on the first Thursday of the month, it is €7 per adult after 5pm. Kids and teens up to 18 years of age are free. Check out the website for more information and to book a ticket.

Hohenzollern Bridge

Hohenzollern Bridge – The bridge over the River Rhine is no ordinary bridge – it’s a place of pilgrimage for romantics in love! Originally built from 1907 to 1911, Hohenzollern Bridge contains thousands upon thousands of colourful padlocks with the names of visiting couples that passed by. 

While the bridge was the only bridge in Cologne not destroyed by bombs during the Second World War, it has been rebuilt since its origins. Today, it is a six-track railway bridge and has walkways and cycle paths on both sides. Hohenzollern Bridge provides plenty of perfect picture opportunities, with gorgeous views of the Rhine.

Chocolate fountain at Cologne Chocolate Museum

Cologne Chocolate MuseumChocolate lovers will be in chocolate heaven with a visit to Am Schokoladenmuseum (Cologne Chocolate Museum). Plus, a visit to a chocolate museum makes Christmas time even more magical. You can even combine the visit with the Harbour Christmas Market, which is right next to the museum.

Chocolatiers at work!

At the museum, which is based around Lindt chocolate, get an insight into the life of Hans Imhoff, a passionate maker of chocolates who founded the museum, as well as the five-thousand-year history of cocoa. You can even step into an actual Chocolate Factory and watch the chocolatiers at work, from the production phase to decorating phase. Afterwards, visit the museum’s Chocolat Grand Café for delicious cake and chocolate desserts, as well as the Chocolat Gift Shop. Cologne Chocolate Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, from 10am-6pm. Tickets cost €13.50 for an adult on weekdays and €14.50 on weekends, and €8 for a student/teen on weekdays and €9 on weekends. Children under six years are free. For more information and Christmas opening hours, check out the website.

Peter’s Brauhaus

Peters Brauhaus – Cologne’s city centre is home to a number of Brauhäuser (brew houses), which serve Kölsch, a style of beer originating in Cologne, and homemade, local cuisine. I visited Peters Brauhaus, located near Heinzels Wintermarchen and was very impressed with the level of service and food. The fact it was constantly busy says a lot about how popular it is!

Traditional Schnitzel and traditional beer (half-drank!)

While the beer house/restaurant itself is one of the newest in Cologne, the Peters Brauhaus brewery dates back to 1847, when Peter Josef Peters received permission to brew beer in Monheim. My waiter served me a glass of a crisp, cold Peters Brauhaus beer from a cyclical tray containing a number of guests’ beers. And she was always close-by and never delayed with a top-up, despite how busy the place was! As my main meal, I decided to try traditional German Schnitzel (a thin slice of breaded meat). My meat of choice was pork, and this was served with fried bacon potatoes and a side of salad. Along with being a generous portion (there were actually two large Schnitzels on my plate!), the meal was extremely tasty. Plus, prices were reasonable. A glass of beer was €2.30 and the dish was €18. The restaurant itself had a relaxed atmosphere, with a beautiful, eye-catching glass-stained ceiling. Well worth visiting.
    

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GALERIA Kaufhof – I couldn’t come all the way to Cologne, and not check out the city’s other shopping offerings outside of the Christmas markets! In the heart of the city is GALERIA Kaufhof, a magnificent department store containing a range of brands and products from cosmetics and perfume to fashion and toys.

GALERIA Kaufhof is also based near the most popular shopping streets, Schildergasse and Hohe Straße. Around this area, you’ll find a range of top shops including Zara, Sephora, Primark, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, H&M and a Zalando outlet store.

Cocktail break at Extrablatt

To refuel at lunch after a morning of shopping, I also came across a very cool cafe called Extrablatt, located on Breite Straße nearby. It had a diner style, with memorabilia and pictures on the walls, and its food and drink menu was in the format of a newspaper, which I loved. The restaurant served a range of cocktails, breakfast, and dinner dishes, which included burgers and Schnitzels.

Some other attractions to visit in Cologne include the Schnütgen Museum, which houses a precious collection of medieval works of art in one of the oldest churches in Cologne, and the historical Cologne City Hall. 

For a unique journey back in time to 1926 Cologne, visit TimeRide in Alter Markt. This is a virtual ride on an electric Cologne streetcar, where you will experience the beauty of the city and the lifestyle of the roaring 20s! And for an Instagram-worthy photo opportunity, the Fischmarkt is one of the most well-known Instagrammable spots. The brightly coloured houses and the Great St Martin Church make for the perfect backdrop (but go in the morning to avoid crowds!).

Great St Martin’s Church

Travelling to and staying in Cologne

I flew to Cologne/Bonn Airport directly from Dublin Airport with Ryanair, which took a little under two hours. At Cologne/Bonn Airport, there’s an underground train station and I took the S19 train to Cologne Central Station, which was just four stops away.

This couldn’t be more convenient, because my hotel was actually located right by Cologne Central Station. I literally walked out the back door of the station and there was my hotel! 

I stayed at the Wyndham Köln and was greeted by a very welcoming reception team on arrival. One of them even previously worked as a magician – Cologne truly is filled with magic!

The 4-Star hotel was modern, with contemporary and comfortable rooms. The hotel also has a bar and restaurant serving snacks and cocktails in the evening. Breakfast was a generous buffet each morning, with sausages, eggs, streaky bacon, cold meats, cereals, bread, pastries, juice, coffee and more to choose from.

The Wyndham Köln really is in the heart of Cologne, as a quick five-minute walk through the train station brought me right to Cologne Cathedral, and within easy access to all the Christmas markets. I loved how easy the city was to navigate.

For anyone looking for a special Christmas break away, this Christmas or next, I’d highly recommend a visit to Cologne. It really does have it all – mouthwatering cuisine, traditional breweries, a chocolate factory, river views, culture, history, a buzzing atmosphere, and of course, a host of extraordinary Christmas markets. 

‘Ein frohes Fest!’ (A joyous holiday!)

For more Cologne travel inspiration, and holidays in Germany, check out www.germany.travel

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