Cologne (Köln in German, Colonia in Italian and Spanish; pop. 986,000, metropolitan area of around 2 million inhabitants) is Germany's fourth-largest city after Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, and the largest city in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
It is one of the oldest cities in Germany, having been founded by the Romans in the year 38 BCE. The University of Cologne, established in 1389, is the second oldest German university (after Heidelberg), and one of the largest.
Cologne is an important media centre, with several radio and television stations based in the city, including RTL and Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR). The city is also a major cultural centre, and counts over 30 museums and hundreds of art galleries.
The local dialect is known as Kölsch, and belongs to the Ripuarian Franconian variety of German. The famous local beer is also named Kölsch and is sold under a dozen of different labels.
The world-famous Eau de Cologne (Kölnisch Wasser) was first created in 1709 by the Italian perfumer Giovanni Maria Farina (1685-1766). He named it after the Rhenish city where he was born.
Although no German cars are manufactured in Cologne, the European models of the Ford Fiesta and Ford Fusion are assembled in the city. Toyota Motorsport GmbH, Toyota's official motorsports team, responsible for Toyota rally cars, and until 2009 for Formula One cars, has its headquarters and workshops in Cologne.
The 155m-high Colonia-Hochhaus (Colonia high-rise building) was tallest all-residential building in Europe from its completion in 1973 until 2001, when it was surpassed by another tower in the city, the KölnTurm (165.48 metres with antenna).
Cologne skyline at night.
The Ubii, a Germanic tribe, established the first permanent settlement on the site of Cologne in 38 BCE. The Romans called it by the Latin name of Oppidum Ubiorum (literally "Ubii settlement"). The Romans granted it the status of city in 50 CE and renamed it Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium
From 260 to 271 Cologne was the capital of the Gallic Empire under Postumus, Marius and Victorinus. In 310 under Constantine a bridge was built over the Rhine at Cologne.
Maternus, who was elected as bishop in 313, was the first known bishop of Cologne. The city was the capital of a Roman province until occupied by the Franks in 459. In 785, Cologne became the seat of an archbishopric.
From the 9th century until 1806, the Archbishop of Cologne was one of the seven prince-electors (i.e. members of the electoral college electing the Holy Roman Emperor).
Archbishop Rainald of Dassel gave the relics of the Three Wise Men to the cathedral in 1164, and the city quickly became a major place of pilgrimage in Europe, playing a significant economic and political role in the local history. Cologne also preserves the relics of Saint Ursula and Albertus Magnus.
Cologne was a member of the Hanseatic League and became an Free Imperial City in 1475. It was a major harbour and transportation hub upon the Rhine.
Since the second half of the 16th century the archbishops were taken from the powerful House of Wittelsbach, who also ruled over Bavaria and the Electoral Palatinate, and provided many Prince-Bishops of Liège, among others. Due to the free status of Cologne, the archbishops were normally not allowed to reside in the city. They had their official residence in Bonn from 1597 to 1794, and from 1729 also kept a magnificent private palace in Brühl.
The French occupied Cologne from 1798, and in 1801 incorporated the German territories on the left bank of the Rhine to the French Republic, as part of the Roer Department (with Aachen as capital). The Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806, and Cologne lost its privileges of Free City. The region was annexed to the Kingdom of Prussia after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but the Napoleonic Code remained in use in Rhineland until the year 1900.
In World War II, Cologne endured exactly 262 air raids by the Western Allies, which caused approximately 20,000 civilian casualties and completely wiped out the centre of the city. By the end of the war, the population of Cologne was reduced by 95%, due to a massive evacuation of people.
After the war, Düsseldorf was chosen as the state's capital, and Bonn as the federal capital, leaving Cologne in between those two major administrative centres. Konrad Adenauer (1876-1963) became the first post-war mayor of Cologne in 1945, before being elected as the first chancellor of West Germany in 1949.
In 1975, the population of Cologne exceeded 1 million people for about one year, but has diminished to slightly underneath since then.
If there is one sight that should not be missed in Cologne, it is undeniably the cathedral. The city having been left into a pile of rubble at the end of WWII, there are virtually no other historical buildings, apart from a few reconstructed ones (notably the twelve Romanesque churches). The other reason to visit Cologne is for its amazing array of museums.
The main shopping street is Hohe Strasse ("High Street"), in front of the cathedral. It is one of the most important in the country. Other shopping areas include the Schildergasse, the Apostelnstrasse, Ehrenstrasse, and Rudolfplatz.
Known in German as the Kölner Dom (or more officially as Hohe Domkirche St. Peter und Maria), this marvel of Gothic architecture took over 600 years to complete.
The construction began in 1248 on the site of older buildings, including a Roman-era church, and a Carolingian cathedral. Most of the edifice was built by 1473, apart from the towers. Some work proceeded intermittently until 1560, then all work stopped until the 19th century due to lack of funds. Driven by a romantic enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, the Prussian Court decided to complete the cathedral in 1842. At enormous expenses (over US$ 1 billion in today's money), the completion of Germany's largest cathedral was eventually celebrated under the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm I.
The imposing 144.5m-high twin spires made it the tallest structure in the world between 1880 and 1884, when it was surpassed by Ulm Cathedral. The interior closely resemble that of Amiens Cathedral, on which it was modeled.
The Treasury of the Cathedral (Domschatzkamer) is exceptional. The masterpiece is the 12th-century Shrine of the Three Kings, said to contain the bones of the Magi. Parts of the shrine were designed by the famous medieval goldsmith, Nicholas of Verdun. It is acclaimed as one of the best example of Mosan art, and is said to be the largest reliquary in the western world. Near the sacristy is the 10th-century Gero-Kreuz is the oldest large crucifix north of the Alps.
The cathedral has twelve church bells. The oldest is the 3.8-tonne Dreikönigenglocke ("Bell of the Three Kings"), cast in 1418 and installed in 1437. The largest one, the 24-tonne St. Petersglocke ("Bell of St. Peter"), was cast in 1922 and is the largest free-swinging bell in the world.
The cathedral suffered fourteen hits by aerial bombs during World War II but did not collapse, and everything was repaired by the end of 1956. It has been listed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO since 1996. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne, founded in 88 C.E.
Cologne's architectural golden age was undoubtedly the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, when its 12 Romanesque churches were constructed, namely : St. Andreas, St. Aposteln, St. Cäcilien, St. Georg, St. Gereon, St. Kunibert, St. Maria im Kapitol, St. Maria Lyskirchen, Groß St. Martin, St. Pantaleon, St. Severin, and St. Ursula.
All but one (St. Maria Lyskirchen) were very badly damaged during WWII, and reconstruction lasted until the 1990's. The most impressive by its size is Gross St. Martin, on the Fischmarkt, between the town hall and the Rhine.
The prize for the most richly decorated interior goes to St. Gereon, which is also the oldest of the 12 (along with St. Severin), founded as a chapel in the 4th century on a Roman graveyard.
Cologne was once the largest ancient city north of the Alps. Most of what has survived from this period is now in the Roman-Germanic Museum (see below). The southern wall of the museum has two Roman wells, as well as what is left of the Roman harbour street.
A few ruins of larger structures are still scattered around the city. The foundations and side arch of Roman North Gate are between the cathedral and the Tourist Information Centre.
300m south of the Roman-Germanic Museum once stood the Praetorian Palace (Praetorium). Its foundations are now underneath the medieval town hall (Rathaus), where you can also witness the Roman engineering of the municipal sewage system.
Segments of the Roman city wall can be seen west of the Zeughaus (housing the Cologne City Museum), in the so-called Burgmauer ("fort wall") and Am Römerturm ("at the Roman tower") streets.
Sections of the 95km long Eifel aqueduct are still visible on Friesenplatz (1km due west of the cathedral, in the so-called Belgisches Viertel or "Belgian district"). This aqueduct, constructed in 80 C.E., was one of the longest in the Roman Empire. It brought water all the way from the Ardennes Forest near the present-day Belgian border.
Cologne is the culinary hub of the Rhineland and possibly the best city to eat in Germany. Check out our list of best restaurants in Cologne.
How to get there
All the roads in Rhineland lead to ..., well, Cologne. A vast junction of all motorways in the region, you can come using (among others) :
- the E40 (A4) from Belgium and Aachen to the west, and from northern Hesse and Saxony to the east.
- the E35 (A3) from Bonn, Mainz and Frankfurt to the south, or Düsseldorf, Arnhem and Amsterdam to the north
- the E31 from Bonn, Koblenz and Mannheim to the south, or Düsseldorf, Nijmegen and Rotterdam to the north and west
- the E37 (A1) from Wuppertal, Dortmund, Münster and Bremen.
The Thalys links Cologne to Brussels (2h20min), and Paris (3h50min), while the ICE makes a fast connection to Frankfurt-am-Main (1h20min), Brussels (2h20min) and Amsterdam (2h50min).
There are numerous direct trains from/to Düsseldorf (30min), Bonn (20 to 30min), Aachen (50min to 1h), and Koblenz (50min to 1h10min). There are also hourly direct trains from/to Mannheim (1h30min), Mainz (1h45min), Stuttgart (2h15min), Munich (4h45min), Hamburg (4h), and Berlin (4h20min).
The Cologne-Bonn Airport is the sixth largest airport in Germany, with flights through most of Europe. Apart from destinations within Germany, Spain and Turkey are particularily well served (because of vacationers). It is one of the few airports with 24-hour flights.
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