You could think of Cologne as a sixth-form college to Berlin’s infinitely cooler art school. In comparison it feels as if it is all student cash bars and puppyish idealism, spider plants at every turn, and still a lot of love for the Beatles – Germany’s fourth largest city has been twinned with Liverpool since 1952.
Go into any street in the centre and you’ll see a glorious muddle of architecture, 19th-century mansions next to 1950s tiled houses and new-builds in steel and glass. Very little feels sacred here, apart from the Romanesque churches and, of course, the Dom – Cologne cathedral which mixes in Gothic arches with Gerhard Richter’s dreamy, pixelated, stained-glass windows. Built in 1248, it’s the fourth-tallest cathedral in the world. Cologne seems really good at never quite topping the statistics, although it does have Germany’s largest mosque, the Cologne Central Mosque, a modern design with its concrete and glass dome and glass walls.
The modernist theme continues with my hotel, the 25hours, repurposed from a 1960s insurance building. This curved concrete gem has a futuristic retro feel. Step inside and there’s a robot gliding around the lobby and a giant vintage Lego spaceman. There’s also a co-working space and a record shop. On the top floor is Neni, a plant-filled (but not entirely plant-based) restaurant offering a very au courant Middle Eastern menu, as well as impressive views across the city.
25hours is conveniently just off the Belgian quarter, a grid of streets that does the full pop-up and sustainable double act, with entire shops devoted to reducing your environmental footprint, plus nice splashes of restaurant and bar humour. Cleanicum is both a laundrette and a bar. Yes, the combination exists in other cities, but I’ve never seen beer-sipping people fold their laundry as neatly as in Cologne. Nearby Hallmackenreuther on Brüsseler Platz combines midcentury furniture with a good-value menu that’s strong on the carbs, but partners it with a collection of great German wines.
Even Cologne’s hippest restaurant, NeoBiota, which has just been awarded a Michelin star, takes an admirably relaxed approach to its food. Headed by chefs Erik Scheffler and Sonja Baumann, who can be seen at work in the open kitchen, the restaurant doesn’t serve lunch. Instead breakfast is on offer until a very civilised 3pm with a menu of small plates that takes in pancakes, bagels and shakshuka. In the evening, the food is equally feel-good. Mains include pork with kimchi and Savoy cabbage, and start at £16. There are no starched linen tablecloths here; it’s a tiny restaurant tucked away on a side street in the centre.
Like nearly everything in Cologne, NeoBiota feels accessible and so, too, does the Ludwig Museum. Built in 1986, few would call its exterior beautiful, but it houses one of Germany’s most significant collections of modern art. If the outside is a bit Brutalist, the light-filled interior feels as serene as the art sequence in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – it’s awash with Picassos and Kandinskys. Pop art is strong, too, with a wall of Lichtensteins and copious Andy Warhols, including a stack of Brillo boxes on the floor.