Cologne in Germany is mostly known for it Altstadt, its Christmas market and its shopping streets, but there are so many more things to do and so many more cool places to visit in Cologne. During the three days that I was there, I didn't venture into the Altstadt once (well, except to get my train and cross it to another neighborhood).
Instead, I wandered around it in a big circle in search for street art, funky independent stores and open spaces where you can feel the city breathe. Unintentionally, all the places I discovered and list here are completely free to visit, except for one which is totally worth the entrance fee. Have a look!
15 funky and free open places to visits in Cologne, Germany
1. Brüsseler Platz and the whole Belgisches Viertel
Imagine a gorgeous church surrounded by trees, benches, a playground and ping pong tables. Yes, ping pong tables. And all of that in the middle of what is quite possibly the coolest neighborhood in Cologne. That's Brüsseler Platz for you.
It's a place where the young, the restless, parents and the elder come and hang, sit, talk, drink and play. It's also the center of the Belgisches Viertel or the Belgian Quarter, where you can find plenty of designer stores, pop-ups and cool cafes in streets named after Belgian cities and adorned with street art. I think I could live there.
I'd seen “Stadtgarten” marked on Google Maps when I started walking from the Belgisches Viertel to MediaPark, but as it wasn't a green spot on the map, I didn't have high expectations for it. And as it often goes, the Stadtgarten was much nicer than I'd expected. A terrace, big lawns and nice paths to walk on. This looked like a great place to simply come and chill when the sun is out – which is exactly what many people were doing that day.
The MediaPark consists of a central round square half surrounded by highrise buildings. You can find the Dance Museum there, which I visited briefly. This too is a lovely place to sit back and relax for a moment, although it has a completely different vibe than the Stadtgarten.
The numbers of the buildings surrounding the square actually stand on the square and are huge. People were taking photos with them and I kind of wanted one too, but my timidness kicked in and I didn't dare to ask anyone to take a photo. #bloggerfail.
4. August Sander-Park and Herkulesberg Bridge
Walking from MediaPark to the Ehrenfeld neighborhood, I partially walked through the August Sander-Park, a narrow stretch of green separating the lower located rail tracks from the rest of the city. I wasn't so much interested in the park itself (although that sure made my walk pleasant), but I wanted to see and cross the Herkulesberg Pedestrian Bridge.
Covered in graffiti and stretching over the train tracks, this bridge looks about as “urban” as can be. It's in itself a cool model for photographs, but also offers a good view on trains passing through underneath and the city further down the tracks.
5. Gerhard Wilczek-Platz and surrounding streets in the Ehrenfeld quarter
When I read about Ehrenfeld, it sounded like it would be a bit like the Belgisches Viertel. I have to say liked the Belgian Quarter much better, but if you're into street art, Ehrenfeld doesn't disappoint. The place to be is the Gerhard Wilczek-Platz, located adjacent to the rail tracks. In fact, the whole wall that runs underneath the hire-up train tracks is covered in street art from there onto the Stamstrasse. You can then walk a bit further onto the Heliostrasse, the Lichtstrasse and the Vogelsangerstrasse for even more cool murals.
6. Kaufhof Parkhaus
When I was planning my trip, I came across an article that gave tips on the best viewpoints from which to see Cologne from above. The Kaufhof Parkhaus (the parking lot of the Kaufhof shopping center) was one of them and as it was just a short walk from my hotel, I had to go there.
The official address of the Kaufhof Parkhaus is Cäcilienstrasse, but you should turn onto and An Sankt Agatha and take the elevator of the parking lot there up to the 6th floor. Then you can cross the street by walking over the pedestrian bridge to get into the other parking lot, where you'll need to take the stairs up to the 6th floor (yes, that strangely is higher up than the 6th floor of the other building).
The stairs are located in a column in the center of the parking lot but only go up to floor 6. From there, you can follow the ramp the cars took. It all sounds very adventurous, I know, but it's easy to get there. The stairs do also go all the way down, but when I was there, there were works going on at the ground level and you couldn't get out there.
I went up the Parkhaus in the morning and while that did provide a great view on the Dom, the light to shoot the Rheinauhafen was awful and I actually liked that view better so if you can, go a bit later in the day.
The Rheinauhafen isn't only cool from afar, it's even better when you actually walk through it. Old boat lifts contrast with small boats docked there and impressive modern architecture. Closer to the Schokoladenmuseum, the glass highrises combined with the well-maintained old brick harbor buildings add to that contrast.
It's fun to just walk up and down the Rheinauhafen alongside the water and if you're craving a little snack, you can also stop at the bakery or one of the few cafes there.
8. The Deutzer Brücke and the Rheinboulevard
For a great view of the Altstadt and the Western Rhine shore, cross the Deutzer Brücke and walk toward the new Rheinboulevard. You can get some great shots both from on the bridge as from the boulevard, which was still a work in progress when I was visiting. The pleasant steps to sit on right next to the Hohenzollernbrücke were already finished and as it was a sunny day, people were sitting there enjoying a drink and looking over the river.
The best and most extensive view over Cologne you probably get from the platform atop the KölnTriangle, a high rise building right by the Hohenzollernbrücke. The entrance fee is only €3 for adults and well worth it if you can go up on a sunny day like I did. It's a 360° platform so you can see the city from all angles. Also cool is that some of the landmarks are drawn on the glass wall surrounding the platform so you know what you're looking at.
Now, I hear you thinking: “Ugh, a glass wall”, but actually it was very clean when I got up there and I even managed to take a cool photo just sticking my phone against the glass.
Lots of cities have them nowadays, bridges huffing and puffing under the weight of love locks. Yet the Hohenzollernbrücke was probably the coolest version of this phenomenon I've seen so far. One side of the bridge is literally completely filled with all kinds of colorful locks and it's actually really pretty to see. Add to that the view of the Dom at the end of the bridge when you're coming from the side of the Rheinboulevard and the KölnTriangle, and you have one hell of a photo opportunity.
I stumbled upon Ebertplatz a bit by accident. After I'd had lunch at pop-up bar Laden Ein, I wanted to find a cool place for coffee and so I simply did a search on Google Maps for nearby coffee places. One that popped up was Jlöchlick Barista Cafe near Ebertplatz, just one U-bahn stop from where I was.
Ebertplatz is an open square by the exit of the U-bahn station and on that sunny day lots of people were just hanging there. It isn't the most chill square in the city as it's surrounded by busy roads, but I still thought it was worth a mention because of the cool art installation there and – of course – it's proximity to a nice coffee bar. Oh, and there are also several restaurants and lunch spots nearby.
12. Skating and playing volley next to the water
I already loved the Rheinboulevard and the part of the Rheinauhafen by the Schokoladenmuseum, but then I learn about the skatepark and beach volley fields a bit more to the south so I took the tram there and yup, there was a large boulevard alongside the water with right next to it a clean skatepark and two beach volley fields.
It looked like such a cool spot to hang out and that's exactly what people from all ages were doing. Some had come by bike, others were walking and many of them stopped to choose a spot on one of the benches or have a snack from the currywurst (of course) stand. The ambiance at that spot was so relaxed, especially underneath the sun!
13. Bürgerzentrum Ehrenfeld
I walked by the Bürgerzentrum Ehrenfeld (it's like a community center) when I was checking out the many cool food and coffee places on Venloer Strasse in the Ehrenfeld quarter. The center regularly hosts events, but even when it doesn't, it's garden is a nice place to get away from the busy street for a moment. Especially with kids, as there's a playground.
Rathenauplatz is located across the beautiful Roonstrasse Synagogue and right in the sudent neighborhood. Walk onto the nearby Zülpicher Strasse and Hochstadenstrasse for bars and fast food joints, or head onto Engelbertstrasse and the adjacent streets for independent fashion and design stores.
Neptunplatz is a big rectangular square along Venloer Strasse in Ehrenfeld. It wouldn't really be worth a mention if there wasn't that one special building: the Neptunbad or swimming pool and spa center. I couldn't have a look inside as I didn't have my swimming gear with me but the photos I found are quite impressive and the exterior of the building doesn't look like a swimming pool building at all. It dates back to 1912!
How to get to Cologne
I traveled to Cologne by train. First, I took an intercity train from Leuven to Liège-Guillemins and then I hopped on board a Thalys to Cologne Central Station. This journey took me less than two hours, the bus ride to the train station of Leuven not included.
Where to stay in Cologne
While I was in Cologne, I stayed at Hostel Köln in a private room. Hostel Köln offers free wifi and breakfast as well as computers to work on in the lobby. My room was equipped with a television, a small desk, and free wifi. Towels and bed linen were provided, as was soap. I loved the hotel's central location, right between the lively Aachener Strasse, the Belgian Quarter and Neumarkt where several tram lines pass.
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My trip to Cologne happened in collaboration with the Cologne Tourist Board, Germany Travel and Thalys. As always, all opinions expressed here are my own. Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you book a stay through them, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting the site!