Spanning the Rhine river, the city of Cologne is an important cultural and commercial hub. For travellers, it’s considered one of the best destinations in Germany, especially for those who have a soft spot for scoping out Gothic cathedrals and sipping on fine German beer.
As soon as you slip into Cologne, you’ll quickly witness the city’s famous cathedral’s spires dominating the cityscape. There’s also a ton of museums and beer halls to explore and enjoy. The people of Cologne are known for their welcoming nature and their liberalism and the city itself is known for its art scene.
With its variety of medieval churches, museums, and lots of other interesting sites, you’ll never run out of things to do here. If you’ve only got one day in Cologne, seeing everything isn’t an option. Luckily, you can explore some of the top spots in and around Old Town.
Not sure where to begin your Cologne layover? Plan your trip with the help of this 1-day Cologne itinerary…
Table of Contents
- What to do in Cologne in 24 hours: A complete 1-day itinerary
- Stand in awe of the towering Cologne Cathedral
- Energise yourself with a coffee at Café Reichard
- Catch a wedding reception in the courtyard outside of City Hall
- Enjoy the peaceful atmosphere at Great St. Martin Church
- Take a stroll through the Rhine Garden and grab a bite
- Browse priceless works of art at Museum Ludwig
- Examine the frescoes at Basilica of the Holy Apostles
- Walk through the monumental Hahnen Gate
- Get a taste of Cologne nightlife along Friesenplatz
- Where to stay: The best hotels for 24 hours in Cologne
What to do in Cologne in 24 hours: A complete 1-day itinerary
As with most of our city travel plans, this Cologne itinerary helps you see as much of the city as you can in just 24 hours.
You won’t have time to go inside a lot of places, so be sure to appreciate the Romanesque and Gothic architecture on display as you walk around Old Town.
You’ll start at the famous Cologne Cathedral. Most of the other sites are within a few blocks of this landmark. Throughout the day, you’ll get to visit a few churches, see a museum, and try the local cuisine.
In the evening, you can explore Cologne’s vibrant nightlife and a local beer called Kolsch.
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Stand in awe of the towering Cologne Cathedral
This cathedral tops the list of things to do & see in Cologne. As you approach Cologne, the intimidating Gothic architecture of the towers and spires seems to dwarf the rest of the city.
The massive structure stands 157 metres tall and features incredibly intricate reliefs and ornate details. It’s one of the most recognisable cathedrals in the world and one of the most visited spots in the city.
The largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, the two large towers stand out across the skyline. The inside is equally impressive.
As you may expect, it includes lots of gold-plated chalices, accents, and décor along with large stained glass windows.
The cathedral opens at 6am each day. If you want to beat the crowds, try to get up and start your tour of the city as early as you can.
Directly to the right of the cathedral, you’ll find the Cathedral Tower. If you want a better view of the city, climb the 509 steps. It’s your best chance to get a panoramic vantage point – but it’s also tiring.
Instead of climbing the steps, you can tour the nearby Cathedral Treasury. The Treasury acts as a small museum, displaying a wide range of historic treasure.
Inspect centuries-old vestments, manuscripts, reliquaries, and other religious artifacts.
PRO TIP: Want to scoot around Cologne like a pro? Grab an Experience Cologne: KölnCard before you leave! The card includes free rides on public transportation and up to 50% discounts on various sightseeing, art, culture and gastronomy experiences in Cologne.
Energise yourself with a coffee at Café Reichard
The cathedral takes up an entire city block. Directly to the west of the imposing structure, you’ll find Café Reichard.
If you want to see as much of Cologne in one day as you can, you need energy. Grab a coffee from Café Reichard and enjoy the view of the cathedral.
The traditional coffee house is a popular stop after visiting the cathedral. If you’re hungry, the café also has a salad buffet, cakes, and a selection of local German dishes.
Café Reichard is one of the oldest cafes in the city, opened in 1855. Drink your coffee or eat a light meal and watch as the courtyard in front of the cathedral fills up with tourists.
PRO TIP: Visiting Cologne on a Sunday? Fuel up for the day ahead with a delicious brunch while enjoying incredible riverside views on the Cologne Panorama City Cruise!
Catch a wedding reception in the courtyard outside of City Hall
After finishing your cup of coffee, stroll southeast to Cologne City Hall. Also called Rathaus, it resembles the historic government buildings that you find in many old European cities.
The city is currently in the process of restoring the façade. Depending on when you visit, the hall may be closed to tours and part of the façade may be covered up.
Hopefully, the renovations are done by the time you visit.
If it’s open, take a tour of the interior. The main hall is close to 10 metres tall and 30 metres long.
Even if the hall remains closed to tours, the courtyard is still a popular destination. Wedding parties and couples often pose for photos outside the city hall.
When visiting during the summer, you’re likely to catch a photo session in progress. Try not to get in the shots as you climb the steps of the building.
PRO TIP: Want to learn more about Old Town? Join in on a Cologne Cathedral and Old Town Tour! This two-hour tour through the top attractions of Old Town also includes a Kölsch taste-testing at a local brewhouse.
Enjoy the peaceful atmosphere at Great St. Martin Church
From the steps of city hall, look east toward the Rhine to see the top of Great St. Martin Church. It’s a couple of blocks directly east of the hall.
Most of the churches don’t quite match the spectacle of Cologne Cathedral but the Great St. Martin Church comes close.
The interior features clean lines typical of Romanesque architecture. It’s also got a light, airy atmosphere instead of being dark and packed with décor.
The church also has some old ruins and tunnels that you can explore. The church was built on one of the original Rhine islands.
During excavations below the church, archeologists uncovered storehouses and a former pool built in the first century CE, 1000 years before the church was built. If you’re lucky, tours of the area will be open.
PRO TIP: Interested in learning more about Cologne’s illustrious history? Hop onto a Cologne Cathedral and Old Town Tour! The two-hour professionally-guided tour walks you through Altstadt. It also includes a visit to a local brewhouse where you can try out a local Kölsch brew.
Take a stroll through the Rhine Garden and grab a bite
After you leave the church, walk toward the river and Rhine Garden. Follow the garden north, enjoying the green foliage and riverside views.
With just 24 hours in Cologne, you need to eat quickly and keep moving. Luckily, several restaurants line the western side of the garden along the Rhine promenade.
Stop inside for a quick lunch and try Halver Hahn. This traditional Cologne sandwich is a local favourite. It’s basically a roll stuffed with pickles and onions and topped with Gouda cheese.
As you walk across the Rhine promenade and garden, you’ll also get a view of the bridge. It features thousands of locks with small messages and initials etched on the sides. The locks are symbols of love and loyalty, with couples placing their initials on the locks and locking them onto the bridge to signify their unbreakable bond.
A nearby kiosk sells the locks. It’s a tradition to write a short note on the lock, lock it to the bridge, and throw the key into the river.
PRO TIP: Want to check out more of Cologne in less time? Gear up for a Cologne Segway Tour! The two-hour tour includes a scenic rides along the Rheinterrassen, through Rheinpark, across the Hohenzollern Bridge, and around Altstadt.
Browse priceless works of art at Museum Ludwig
When you get to the end of the garden, Museum Ludwig stands to your left, directly west of Cologne Philharmonic.
Visiting Cologne in 24 hours doesn’t give you enough time to see all the museums. The city has dozens of them but Museum Ludwig remains one of the most impressive.
It’s a modern art museum with thousands of pieces of art. The museum also houses one of the largest Pablo Picasso collections in Europe. In fact, most of the second floor remains dedicated to the artist’s work.
Other highlights include works from Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Fans of pop art, surrealism, and other modern styles should love the exhibits and permanent collections.
PRO TIP: Want to save on your Museum Ludwig entry ticket? Be sure to pick up an Experience Cologne: KölnCard! In addition to discounts for many of Cologne’s top attractions, the card include free use of public transportation around the city.
Examine the frescoes at Basilica of the Holy Apostles
From the museum to your next stop is the longest stretch of the trip. You’ll cut through Old Town to reach the busy Neumarkt area of the city.
It’s a 20-minute walk that takes you past some great examples of Gothic, Baroque, and Romanesque architecture, including the Basilica of the Holy Apostles.
While the Basilica of the Holy Apostles isn’t the biggest medieval church in Cologne, the interior features some unique frescoes and reliefs.
Outside of the basilica, you’ll find a small market square. This is another spot where you can find something to eat, buy some flowers, or shop for local handicrafts.
PRO TIP: Want to experience beyond Cologne’s tourist centre? Pedal your way through the city on the Cologne Guided Bike Tour to see more in less time!
Walk through the monumental Hahnen Gate
After leaving the basilica, walk directly west. Several blocks later, you’ll reach one of the gates that mark the border of Old Town.
Modern structures surround the ancient gate, making its appearance even more unique. It stands out as one of the best-preserved gates in the city. The gate includes two circular towers and a wide arch that you can pass through.
It’s also one of the busiest spots. People often stop to snap photos and the street in front of the gate is often packed with cars and pedestrians.
By the time that you reach the gate, it should be getting late in the evening, the perfect time to visit the gates. The lights help illuminate the details of the architecture.
PRO TIP: Visiting Cologne during the Christmas season? Spend your evening checking out some of the city’s famous Christmas Markets on the Cologne Christmas Lights Guided Bike Tour!
Get a taste of Cologne nightlife along Friesenplatz
When you travel through the gate, Hohenzollern Ring is on the other side. Travel north on this road to reach Friesenplatz.
A Germany itinerary would not be complete without a chance to experience local nightlife in one of its top cities.
While it may not rival the decadence of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn red-light district, Friesenplatz is a lively spot. This busy street is lined with bars, restaurants, and clubs. In the evening, the streets and establishments fill up with partiers. Stop inside one of the bars and try the local beer, Kolsch.
Unlike some of the other German brews, Kolsch is a light beer. Use it to wash down dinner or appetizers before exploring more of the pubs and bars.
If you’re not into the nightlife scene, you can skip the bars and work your way back to your accommodations, stopping for a snack along the way.
PRO TIP: Looking for a fun evening out on the town? Hop onto the Cologne Secrets of Kölsch Brewery Tour! The tour stops by 4 different breweries with refreshing taste tests of various types of local Kölsch.
Where to stay: The best hotels for 24 hours in Cologne
When you’ve only got one day to spare, choosing where to stay in Cologne becomes a much easier choice for you. For most travellers, the city centre areas bordering and including Old Town are the best place to start your search. Here are a few of our top picks…
- Boutiquehotel Maison Marsil: Located in the south of Altstadt, this sleek design hotel draw guests in with its individually-designed rooms and hip, quirky artwork and photography. The Belgian Quarter, one of the best places to eat in the city, is within walking distance.
- Hotel Casa Colonia: Even if the name hints back to the city’s Roman roots, this popular mid-range hotel is anything but dated. Rooms are decidedly modern and spacious, exuding a relaxing minimalist vibe. The Hauptbahnhof is just 300 metres away.
- Excelsior Hotel Ernst am Dom: A brilliant 5-star luxury hotel located (literally) steps away from Cologne Cathedral featuring sophisticated & elegant rooms that are bound to make your stay memorable. The hotel also hosts two restaurants (including Michelin-starred taku), a piano bar, and two saunas for your relaxation.