I’m always on the hunt for free things to do in any new city and Cologne in Germany is packed full of fun activities that won’t cost you a penny. Throw in the fact that you can pick up return flights from the UK from £35 with Ryanair and you have yourself a super cheap city break!
From riverside walks to spotting colourful street art, here’s 10 of the best free things to do in Cologne.
1. Visit the Cathedral
The Cathedral (or Kölner Dom) is the most iconic sight in Cologne and the most visited attraction in Germany. But unlike in most European cities, it’s completely free to visit. The real “wow” factor comes from staring up at the Gothic architecture of this historic world heritage site but it’s also well worth a peek inside to see the towering stained-glass windows and grand altar.
2. Explore Fischmarkt
Located on the banks of the Rhine River, Fischmarkt offers up your typical postcard views of Cologne. These narrow, coloured houses, set within a cobblestone courtyard, look like they’ve been plucked straight out of a fairytale and are a must-see on any Cologne itinerary.
3. Wander through the Old Town
Fischmarkt is tucked away in Altstadt (the “Old Town”) – a maze of cobbled alleyways with timber-framed buildings and traditional style German beer-halls. It’s a charming part of the city to get lost in and somewhere you’ll want to return to again and again before leaving Cologne.
Be sure to visit in the evening when the old-fashioned street lights illuminate the streets and the bars and restaurants come to life.
4. Cross Hohenzollern Bridge
“Lovelock” bridges can be found all over the world but Hohenzollern Bridge must be one of the most impressive, with more than 40,000 padlocks brightening up its railings.
Leave a message on your own love-lock, or simply admire the sea of colour as you wander across the bridge. You’ll also get some of the best views of Cologne Cathedral from here, so be sure to cross right over to the other side.
5. Take a riverside walk
The Rhine runs right through Cologne and you can spend a couple of hours walking along the riverside, seeing many of the city’s highlights as you go.
Start your walk from the newly developed Rheinauhafen district, passing underneath the Kranhäus buildings until you reach Fischmarkt and the Old Town. From here, continue across Hohenzollern Bridge and follow the path along the other side of the river, for unbeatable views back towards the Cathedral and Old Town. On this side of the river, you’ll also find the KolnTriangle skyscraper, with its panoramic viewing platform, which you can visit for €3.
6. Spot street art in Ehrenfeld
Whilst many of Cologne’s attractions are clustered around the Old Town, it’s worth venturing a little further out to experience a more creative and authentic side to the city.
Located a 40-minute walk from the main city centre (or a 5-minute train ride on the S-19 from Köln Hauptbahnhof, if you can bear to part with €2.70!), Ehrenfeld is fast becoming “the place to be” in Cologne. Here, you’ll find hipster coffee shops, vintage furniture stores and incredible street art around every corner.
Read more: Spotting street art in Ehrenfeld, Cologne
Download a self-guided map of the artistic hot-spots, or take a free walking tour with Freewalk Cologne or Alternative Cologne Tours, to understand more about the graffiti culture and history of this vibrant district.
7. Get a feel for the modern architecture
What makes Cologne so unique is its perfect blend of historic and modern architecture. One minute, you’re staring up at centuries-old Gothic-inspired churches, and the next you find yourself face-to-face with luxury riverside offices and shiny skyscrapers.
Perhaps the most famous modern building is the KolnTriangle, with its panoramic viewing platform on the 29th floor, whilst the Colonius T-mobile Tower also makes up an iconic part of the Cologne skyline.
But if you make time to visit just one modern architectural masterpiece, make sure it’s the crane-house buildings (Kranhäuser) located in Rheinauhafen. These luxury apartment buildings were designed to replicate the loading cranes that used to line the docks. They provide some great photo opportunities, thanks to the unique perspectives they offer and this whole area is full of lively waterfront bars and restaurants.
8. Take a free walking tour
Free walking tours are always a great way to explore a new city and Freewalk Cologne offer English-speaking tours twice a day, every day (plus an additional route on Saturdays).
A local guide will take you around the main sights and fill you in on the city’s history and culture. Tours last 2.5 hours and you should book your place in advance, as groups are fairly small. You can find out about the different tours available and how to book from their website.
Please note: although these tours are technically free, it is expected (like with other city walking tours around the world) that you tip what you feel is an appropriate amount at the end of the tour.
9. Live like a local in Südstadt
We stayed in a lovely Airbnb apartment in the Südstadt Quarter and fell in love with the local, chilled-out vibe of this neighbourhood.
Not many tourists venture out to this part of the city but it’s a charming area to explore, with its leafy side-streets, medieval city walls and weekend flea markets. Südstadt also has its fair share of street art and is full of cheap eats and bars, thanks to the nearby student campuses. We found some of our favourite brunch spots and coffee shops around here, including Sabor Ermoso and Geschnitten Brot.
10. Relax in the park
We visited Cologne in January, so didn’t get to make the most of the city’s parks, but there are plenty of green spaces to enjoy when the sun comes out.
The most famous is Rheinpark – a massive urban park, with unparalleled views of the city and river. Stadtwald Park and forest is also a great place to relax, with its beautiful ponds, picnic spots and free animal park (ideal if you’re travelling with kids). And finally Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park benefits from a beautiful lakeside location and far fewer crowds and is an ideal place to pass an afternoon without spending a penny.
Looking for the perfect day trip from Cologne? Take a look at my guide to visiting Schloss Drachenberg – a fairtyale castle located in Germany’s beautiful Rhine Valley.