Cologne, Germany is one of those must-visit cities for anyone interested in history. Look past its trendy boutiques and vibrant street art, and you’ll find a beautiful city that’s essentially a living museum, a place where every cobblestone and cathedral echoes with stories that could fill countless history books.
From Roman ruins to medieval masterpieces, Cologne serves up German history, not as a subject, but as an experience. Are you ready to journey back in time? Cologne will give you a history lesson you won’t soon forget.
Hands down the most well-known attraction in the city is Cologne’s striking Gothic cathedral. This Catholic church, known as Kölner Dom in German, is less than a 10-minute walk from Cologne central station. It’s also a great place to start your exploration of Cologne’s Old Town and history at-large.
The iconic Cologne Cathedral (Köln Dom) is the epitome of Gothic architecture. As a history buff, you’ll be intrigued by the sheer detail and intricacy of the cathedral’s design. Construction began in 1248 and, after various interruptions, was finally completed in 1880. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and serves as a testament to the architectural advancements of medieval Europe.
Shrine of Three Kings
One of the main attractions in the Cologne Cathedral is the Shrine of the Three Kings, aka the Magi. This dazzling gold box is located within the Cathedral’s altar and is believed to contain the bones of the Three Wise Men. Emperor Barbarossa gifted these relics to the Archbishop of Cologne in 1164 as a token of gratitude for his support during the Siege of Milan. Depicted on the reliquary are scenes from the Old Testament, adding further historical significance to the shrine.
This landmark is a must-see for art lovers and history buffs alike.
History Museums in Cologne
Cologne boasts a wide variety of history museums with impressive collections and special exhibitions.
Art History at Wallraf-Richartz Museum
The Wallraf-Richartz Museum is a must-visit for art lovers and history buffs. With an extensive collection of German and European paintings dating back to the 13th century, you’ll find some truly historic masterpieces. Along with works from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, discover art by renowned artists like Rubens and Rembrandt. There’s one way to describe this museum’s permanent collection – historic.
Ancient History at Romano-Germanic Museum
If you want to go all the way back to ancient Rome, you can do it at the Romano-Germanic Museum. This museum is home to a wide array of fascinating artifacts from Cologne’s Roman past like the Dionysus Mosaic. The rich history of the city is on full display at the Roman-Germanic Museum, from the time it was a Roman trade center to its transformation into a bustling metropolis in Germany.
While the permanent museum at Roncalliplatz is under renovation, the Romano-Germanic Museum remains open at its temporary location at Cäcilienstraße 46.
Chocolate History at Schokoladenmuseum (Chocolate Museum)
Now, who doesn’t love chocolate? How about a museum full of it?
In Cologne, you can satisfy your sweet tooth while also learning the rich history of chocolate at the Schokoladenmuseum (Cologne Chocolate Museum). Dive into the world of cocoa, from its origin to its industrial processing. Don’t miss the chance to indulge in mouth-watering chocolate samples as you explore this unique museum.
Duftmuseum im Farina Haus
At the Duftmuseum im Farina Haus, also known as the Fragrance Museum, you’ll literally be at the birthplace of Eau de Cologne. Housed in the historic Farina House, you’ll learn the cultural heritage of what has now turned into a generic term for fragrances.
Historical Buildings & Structures
Cologne Germany is a city rich in history and architecture. As a history buff, there are some must-see landmarks you won’t want to miss. Two of these fascinating historical structures are easily accessible from Cologne’s central train station: Cologne Rathaus (City Hall) and Römerturm.
Cologne Rathaus, or City Hall, is an architectural marvel that stands as a testament to the German city’s long and storied history. Dating back to the Middle Ages, it’s one of the oldest city halls in Germany. You’ll be in awe of the intricate details that still remain on the exterior of the building.
The Gothic-style tower of Cologne Rathaus is utterly breathtaking, and it’s easy to imagine what life was like in this thriving city during the medieval period. While wandering around, take note of the picturesque courtyards and stunning statues that adorn the premises.
Köln has gone through quite a bit of history, but this iconic landmark, like the Kölner Dom, has remained throughout the years. So, when you visit Cologne Rathaus, you’re not just seeing a beautiful building – you’re stepping into the city’s rich heritage.
Not the only Roman leftover in Cologne, the Römerturm is one of the city’s most central and accessible.
An evocative remnant of the city’s Roman past, the Römerturm stands tall as a silent witness to the epochs gone by. This ancient tower, a part of the Roman North Gate, offers a glimpse into the life and times when Cologne was a thriving Roman colony known as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium.
With its weathered stones and solemn façade, the Römerturm silently narrates tales of the once-great Roman Empire. Located on the bustling Zeughausstraße, this tower is a stark contrast to the modernity that surrounds it, reminding visitors of the ancient roots that nourish this vibrant city.
Much like the Kölner Dom and the Cologne Rathaus, the Römerturm is not just an architectural marvel but a portal to Cologne’s illustrious past. A visit here is like touching a piece of history, feeling the pulse of a civilization that laid the foundation for the metropolis we see today.
Cologne’s Old Town
When it comes to Cologne’s history, there’s no better place to explore than the city’s Old Town. This area is packed with historical attractions, with everything from Romanesque churches to traditional pubs.
Churches of the Old Town
Cologne’s Old Town is home to several stunning Romanesque churches that are definitely worth a visit. These architectural jewels are mostly characterized by their impressive towers and intricate Baroque details. Here are a few you shouldn’t miss:
- Cologne Cathedral: This iconic landmark is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also the most visited attraction in Germany. Take your time to admire its breathtaking Gothic architecture and, if you’re up for a challenge, climb the 500 steps of this Catholic church to enjoy panoramic views of the city. The beautiful views are worth it.
- Great St. Martin Church: This imposing Romanesque church, with its characteristic four towers, is a true testament to Köln’s rich history. It’s also a perfect spot to experience the serene atmosphere of the Old Town.
- St. Gereon Church: Another beautiful Romanesque church, St. Gereon is unique for its large, oval-shaped dome. Take a moment to soak in its awe-inspiring architecture and learn about the ancient history it encapsulates.
Historical Pub Tour
After exploring the sacred side of Köln, it’s time to unwind and delve into its vibrant pub scene. Cologne’s Old Town is famous for its traditional German pubs and breweries, where you’ll get a taste of the genuine, laid-back atmosphere that makes this city so special. Here are a couple of must-visit spots:
- Alter Markt (Old Market): Head over to this traditional square in the heart of Cologne’s Old Town, where you’ll find an array of cozy pubs and outdoor spaces, perfect for enjoying a refreshing Kölsch beer on a warm summer evening.
- Früh am Dom: This historic brewery, located right next to Cologne Cathedral, is an ideal place to experience the city’s brewing heritage. Take a seat in their spacious beer hall and try some of their signature brews, all while immersed in a lively, authentic atmosphere. It’s even better as a respite after climbing the towers for those panoramic views.
Cologne and World War II
As any historian knows, you can’t talk about this German city without mentioning World War II. The city has one absolute, must-visit spot for war history buffs.
The EL-DE Haus, officially known as the NS Documentation Center, is a must-see spot for remembering the human side of history. This building served as the headquarters of the Gestapo (secret police) starting in 1934. Surprisingly, it survived the Allied bombing of Cologne during World War II. Exploring this site, you’ll get a glimpse into the Nazi regime’s terror tactics.
Modern Cologne: Rebuilding After The War
While the EL-DE Haus survived World War II, much of Cologne lay in ruins, leaving its citizens with the colossal task of rebuilding their beloved city. The metropolis we see today is a testament to the indomitable spirit of the Kölners.
Brücke Köln (Cologne Bridge): Among the structures rebuilt after the war is the Hohenzollern Bridge, a vital transportation link and an iconic part of the Cologne skyline. Lovers from around the world come here to attach padlocks to the bridge’s railings as a symbol of their everlasting love.
KölnTriangle: One of the modern additions to the city skyline is the KölnTriangle. This skyscraper offers a panoramic view of the city, including the stunning Cologne Cathedral. It’s a clear symbol of Cologne’s rebirth and progression into the modern era.
Cologne is a city where past meets present, and history is not just remembered, but lived. Each corner of this German gem whispers tales of emperors, wars, art, and faith. Whether you’re climbing the towers of the Kölner Dom, sipping on a Kölsch in a historic pub, or walking on ancient Roman roads, you’re becoming a part of Cologne’s ongoing narrative.
From its humble beginnings as a Roman colony to its present-day role as a leading cultural and economic hub in Germany, Cologne’s history is vast, vibrant, and varied. When you visit, you’re not just witnessing the city’s past—you’re experiencing a living, breathing story that continues to unfold with each passing day.