A city in the west of Germany
, on the River Rhine, that is most famous for its grand cathedral, but also features something of special interest to the dark tourist (a former Gestapo
prison and Nazi
era documentation centre).
More background info:
Cologne is, at just over a million inhabitants, the fourth largest city in Germany
) and part of a larger metropolitan area of the densely populated Rhine-Ruhr region, which also includes the neighbouring former capital city of the FRG
The roots of the city go back to Roman times and over the centuries it has had a very chequered history, between being a free city (and city state) and one-time member of the Hanseatic League to being incorporated into France
(in Napoleonic times), and then into the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire and rose to a significant status in the Industrial Revolution too.
Cologne was heavily fortified at the time of WW1
(being close to Verdun
and Liege) but only suffered minor damage through air raids.
This was to change dramatically in WWII
, though. On the night of 30/31 May 1942, Cologne was the target of the first “1000 bomber” air raids by the RAF
(it was code-named “Operation Millennium”). In total the city was subjected to over 250 Allied air raids. In the end 95% of the city centre was destroyed and the city largely depopulated (mostly because the inhabitants evacuated the city – although some 20,000 were killed during the air raids).
The city's foremost landmark, the cathedral, on the other hand, survived the raids – not unscathed, as is sometimes assumed, but it remained standing amidst a sea of just ruins and rubble, as the famous photographs from the time dramatically testify. The cathedral was hit by over a dozen bombs, but most of the damage could be repaired in the immediate post-war years. It is the world's largest twin-spired church and a masterpiece of Gothic architecture – though it was only finished in the late 19th century (after having been begun in the 13th century).
The post-war reconstruction characterizes the cityscape of Cologne overall more than its single most famous large landmark, though. Once outside the city centre kernel around the cathedral and the “Altstadt” ('Old Town'), fairly bland residential housing streets dominate. But there are also a few modern architecture highlights to be spotted here and there.
One non-architectural thing that Cologne is famous for is the carnival celebrations which in the form of the “Kölner Karneval” are amongst the biggest and most flamboyant street festivals in the world. The week-long highlight of ceremonies, parades, fancy dress and whatnot is regarded as a “fifth season” here and is characterized by a mixture of rather formalized stage events and raucous street partying. But it's something that people from the north of Germany
(like myself) find rather hard to relate to.
Finally, a biographical note: the former mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, who was unseated by the Nazis
in 1933 and incarcerated as a political prisoner during the Third Reich
, was later to become the FRG
's first chancellor, serving from 1949 to 1963.
What there is to see: The main reason Cologne is listed on these pages for is this particular place:
- EL-DE Haus
(former Gestapo prison and Nazi documentation centre)
When I was last in Cologne in August 2016, there was an unexpected dark element on display inside the grand cathedral
(which in itself is not without its own dark, Gothic appeal), namely a real refugee/human traffickers' boat. The rather small wooden barge, probably a former coastal fishing boat, barely 20 feet (7m) long, was confiscated by Malta when the vessel was found carrying an unbelievable 100 people across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya
. The poor souls had not been allowed to take any kind of provisions and several suffocated on board due to the extremely overcrowded conditions.
Obviously, this display was a statement in the context of the ongoing refugee crisis
in Europe and especially Germany
that had started in 2015. It was certainly a very sombre counterpoint to the extreme Gothic grandeur of the cathedral as such.
Reminders of the dark days of the Nazis, who more or less eradicated the city's Jewish population, can be found all over the place in the form of the so-called “Stolpersteine
”, literally 'stumbling blocks', which are little brass plaques mounted into the pavements outside houses. These little memorials name victims of the Holocaust
persecution who had lived in the house in question before being expelled and/or deported. You can see the same thing in other cities, such as Hamburg
One could perhaps argue that Cologne's characteristic cityscape
itself has something dark about it, given that much of it is the indirect result of the fact that the city was largely bombed flat in WWII
). But that is a very indirect link indeed – none of the actual war damage can still be seen today, as far as I know. But if there are any ruins turned into memorials, as you can find in e.g. Hamburg
) or Berlin
) after all, then I'd like to know about it (contact me
Yet the city has this odd and stark architectural contrast of one of the grandest cathedrals in the world towering over everything, on the one hand, and the endless streets of comparatively drab residential housing, much of it quickly and cheaply erected in the post-war years. True, these days Cologne also has several other historical buildings (or reconstructions thereof) and its fair share of glitzy shopping malls and such like, but once you step away from the main streets the comparatively low-rise (two-to-three storey) bland residential building style is really quite dominant.
Nevertheless, Cologne is a city with much appeal, not least thanks to its native inhabitants who typically display a characteristic informal cheerfulness that is really quite endearing (provided you can get the local dialect, which too is quite characteristic).
in the west of central Germany
, just 40 miles (70 km) from the borders with Belgium
and the Netherlands
, but over 200 miles (350 km) south-west from Hamburg
and 280 miles (450 km) north-west of Munich
Access and costs: quite easy to get to, not necessarily cheap.
Cologne is well connected both by road and rail, in theory also by waterway (the Rhine) and it shares its international airport with neighbouring Bonn. If coming from within central Europe, the train should be the best way of getting there
, with plenty of connections both to other cities in Germany
as well as into the neighbouring countries in the west. Many connections are served by high-speed trains (e.g. the German ICE or the Belgian
-French Thalys to Brussels and on to Paris
), making flying unnecessary. The central station of Cologne couldn't be truer to its name: it is right opposite the iconic No.1 landmark of the city: the cathedral. From here most of the inner city is walkable.
If getting around solely on foot is not what you can or want to do, there are also plenty of options of public transport, including trams, buses and regional/metro trains.
Accommodation can be quite expensive, especially at certain peak times (like when trade fairs are on), but there is a wide range available. It is advisable to plan well ahead.
Food and drink
is never far away in this 'joie de vivre
' place. There are a few items very typical for the city. On the drinks front there is even a beer type named after the city (and primarily brewed in or very near the city): Kölsch – a light lager-like beer that is less remarkable for its taste than for the peculiar style in which it is served: typically in small and very narrow 100ml or 200ml glasses (often rows or rings of them are being carried around by the servers to be distributed quickly).
In culinary terms there are also a few oddities. In general, the local cuisine tends to be heavy and stodgy, with sour roast (“Sauerbraten”) a particular local favourite. The oddly named “halve Hahn” is not, as the German name would suggest, a half roast chicken (“halber Hahn”) but something perfectly suitable for vegetarians: a rye bread roll with cheese. There's also a notable Dutch/Belgian influence – e.g. mussels are a popular dish here too.
Time required: From a purely dark-tourism perspective a day or even just half a day would do, but the city deserves a bit more exploration.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The neighbouring city of Bonn has one of the best history museums in central Europe: the Haus der Geschichte
. And a bit further south is the unique Cold-War
-era relic of the former West German government bunker at Marienthal
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The undisputed No. 1 attraction of Cologne is the cathedral, and rightly so. This World Heritage Site is certainly an awe-inspiring edifice for its incredible size alone (yes, it does matter!).
But if you look a bit beyond, there are more attractions on a smaller scale that might also be worth checking out. The Altstadt ('Old Town') has some attractive cobbled streets and a restaurant-and-bar-filled square as well as some attractive old (or reconstructed) architecture. Those with a penchant for ancient history should head for the Romano-Germanic Museum, those with a sweet tooth can salivate at the Chocolate Museum, and those who like zoos will find one of the best institutions of this type just north of the ring road around the inner city. From near the zoo you can use one of the oddest means of transport of the city, and indeed Europe: the cable car that leads across the river at a dizzying height of up to 150 feet (50m).
- Cologne 1 - cathedral
- Cologne 2 - inside the cathedral
- Cologne 3 - refugee boat on display inside the cathedral
- Cologne 4 - the most iconic sight of the city
- Cologne 5 - by night
- Cologne 6 - bits of old town
- Cologne 7 - but most of the city looks like this
- Cologne 8 - Stolpersteine
- Cologne 9 - modern art atop old armory building