It was the third time we'd arrived at Köln HBF (Cologne Central Station). The first two times, one year earlier, we'd simply changed between Thalys and Deutsche Bahn trains and continued on our way. The third time, we decided we'd actually break the journey with an overnight stay in Cologne.
Arriving at quarter-past-six in the morning, we got off the City Night Line train and sleepily made our way on foot to the Meininger Hotel on Engelbertstraße, about a half-hour walk from the station. We weren't due to check-in until several hours later, but for a fee of a few Euros we were permitted to check-in and go to our room, of two single beds and two bunk-beds, straight away. With this fee, the cost per person was €28.40 (£25.16 at the exchange rate we got for our money). The room was bright and clean, and the beds very comfortable after so little sleep.
After snoozing for a few hours, we emerged and headed out across Cologne. For breakfast we found a shop called Merzenich which sold excellent baked goods, sandwiches and hot drinks, with a seating area at the back. Then we walked to Appellhofplatz to enter the EL-DE-Haus (the Nazism Documentation Centre), the entrance fee being €3.20 (£2.84).
The EL-DE-Haus was seized by the Nazis before World War II, and used as a headquarters for the local Gestapo. The Gestapo used the basement to imprison and interrogate anyone who was suspected of being counter to the goals of the Nazi party. The basement is now a museum to their torture and cruelty, with notes in German and English detailing the history of the place. Visitors can see the small, bare cells in which prisoners would have been held. On the walls are boards that name prisoners, both those who survived and those who met their death in the prison, and describe the circumstances that led them to be interrogated by the Gestapo. Graffiti engravings in the walls by prisoners reveal their fear, anger, and despair, and their love for people they would likely never see again.
The basement of the EL-DE-Haus is a grim and fascinating place, but the rest of the museum, on the ground floor and above, was sadly lost on us as the exhibits, about the Nazi party, have descriptions only in German. It is possible to pay a little extra to get an audio guide in English, but the audio tour lasts for two hours, so we foolishly turned it down and wandered about the upper floors without any real idea what the exhibits, photos and videos from the Nazi era, were trying to say.
Ten minutes' walk from the EL-DE-Haus is Cologne Cathedral. A huge, gothic structure, the cathedral is right next to Cologne Central Station. Entry into the cathedral is free, but for a small fee you can ascend the tower, or enter the treasury to see religious relics. My friends opted to climb the tower, a feat that requires you make your way up more than five-hundred steps to a viewing platform almost one-hundred metres above the ground. I opted to rest my weary legs, but I'm told that the view from the top is impressive.
Cologne is known for its local speciality beer, Kölsch (pronounced without the l, kuh-sh, according to one local) and there are plenty of places to try it. Früh am Dom is an interesting beer hall with plenty of seating indoors and outdoors. A 200ml glass of Früh Kölsch cost €1.60 (£1.42) while 200ml of Coke cost €2.30 (£2.04), and we ended up staying longer than intended because the eager serving staff will snatch an empty glass and replace it with a full one in the blink of an eye, unless you place a beer coaster on top of your empty glass to indicate that you want no more.
We got more beer than we actually ordered at Bier Museum, then ate at Bier-Esel (beer donkey), had a few drinks sat outside Brauhaus Reissdorf, and ended up in a bar called Stiefel at about half-eleven. Stiefel was full of teenagers and young twenty-somethings, and the place looked like a renovation project that was abandoned halfway through, holes in the walls, no paintwork but graffiti and posters acting as a substitute, barely any lighting, loud music. Not my sort of place, but it was certainly popular that Friday night.
Cologne isn't really a town aimed at tourists, and I have to admit that I'd find it hard to recommend a trip to Cologne in itself. But if your travels take you through Cologne Central Station, and your train times leave an awkward gap, or you have time to spare, then Cologne is a fine place for a short stopover, with plenty of bars to keep you hydrated.
Prices from Summer 2009.