In November, I went to Cologne at the weekend for my first solo trip. It was partly a holiday and partly to see if we’d enjoy living there as there was a potential job opportunity. For those who don’t know, Cologne (“Köln” in German) has the country’s greatest Gothic cathedral, an impressive collection of Roman artefacts and some well-regarded museums and art galleries. I only visited the frst of these during my short visit (as I was living in Rome, I got my fix of Roman artefacts there!).
It was a weekend of firsts – my first time staying in a hostel with strangers, my first time eating dinner alone in a formal restaurant and my first time in complete control of my whole itinerary. I have had many holidays with friends, family and my boyfriend, but this was the first time I could do just as I pleased without needing to check or consult with anyone else.
My hostel and roommates
When I landed at the airport, I realised how little German I remembered from my GCSEs! Luckily I managed to get from the airport to my hostel without too much trouble. I was staying in Ehrenfeld, which is one of the most popular areas of the city for restaurants, bars, clubs, concerts and live music. I didn’t really make the most of the Ehrenfeld nightlife as I was there alone and feeling a little shy in the evenings, but I could tell it was a lively area.
I checked in at my hostel – Weltempfanger Hostel – and was pleased to find the room was clean, well-heated with a modern bathroom. There were lockers in the room – I brought my own padlock but you could hire one from reception. The hostel staff were friendly, helpful and spoke good English. I asked for some local restaurant recommendations in the neighbourhood and they were happy to help.
I was a little nervous about sharing with strangers (what if they snored? Sleepwalked? Stole from me?). On the first night, there was only a German woman who used to live in Cologne and was back visiting friends. She introduced herself by telling me she was severely hungover and had just been vomiting in our bathroom. Nice! Luckily she had cleaned up well. She spent the whole of Friday in bed – eating crisps, drinking Diet Coke and looking sad. No snoring or weird habits luckily!
She left on Saturday night and was replaced by three nice women who I briefly met – an Estonian girl who was studying in Germany and on holiday, a Russian lady who spoke barely any English and a woman from Vienna who was here for a conference on Monday. All very quiet, polite and respectful. The only weird thing was at 23.45pm when the Austrian lady arrived, she wanted a shower. She hadn’t read the hostel’s website properly and known to bring her own. So any rational person would go to bed and rent one from the hostel staff at 7am when they reopened. However she was so adamant she needed a shower (clearly a sink-wash wouldn’t suffice) that at midnight she went off to a friend’s for a shower. Luckily none of us heard her sneak back in. I like being clean but sleep wins. Everytime. No snorers, sleepwalkers or thieves in the bunch – result!
After I had settled into my room, it was time for dinner! The hostel staff suggested a nearby kebab house which smelt like meaty goodness and was full of Germans. I felt a bit awkward, surrounded by loud, chatty groups of friends, so I asked the girl next to me if she could help me translate the menu.
We started talking as we queued and she helped me order. As many of the tables were taken, and it was really crowded, she invited me to her apartment across the street to eat. That would never happen in London – the invitation or the acceptance. If I did go to a stranger’s apartment after meeting them in a kebab house, I wouldn’t make it out alive. Turns out she wasn’t a lunatic or the stranger danger Liam Neeson (and my mum) warned me about – just a really sweet, generous person. We ended up having our kebabs (delicious!), sharing wine and German biscuits, getting to know each other and exchanging numbers. I left with a written list of her favourite German biscuits and cakes that I HAD to try during my visit and that nice, warm feeling brought on by the kindness of strangers.
It was my only full day in Cologne so I woke early and had breakfast at Zeit fur Brot. Amazing cakes, pastries, savoury tarts and snacks. Good coffee, friendly staff and a relaxed environment. Try the schnecke – large cakes with different flavours like apple and cinnamon, white chocolate, cherry, walnut, dark chocolate. €2.70 each and delicious!
After I had eaten, I started sightseeing. I walked into the city centre – making a bee-line for the cathedral. It is the largest Gothic church in Northern European, a UNESCO World Heritage site and is staggeringly dramatic, intense and imposing. Construction began in the 13th century and was finally completed in 1880. While 95% of Cologne was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War, the structure of the cathedral withstood the onslaught. Inside there is a contrast of light shining through stained glass windows and murky, shadowy corners and crevices.
After going inside the cathedral, I visited Hohenzollernbrucke bridge. I don’t personally get the hype about leaving lovey-dovey padlocks on bridges (maybe I’m too cynical!) but a lot of people disagree with me – the bridge was heaving with padlocks!
I recommend Alter Markt square, the Old City (Altstadt), St Martin’s church and the Belgian Quarter (Belgisches Viertel). I was there too early in November for most of the Christmas markets but I was able to visit one on Saturday night. I also saw other markets being set up. Here are some of my favourite streets and sights of Cologne:
What I ate
It felt great to become more and more comfortable and content in my own company. Along with navigating my way around the city alone, I ate two lunches and a dinner out by myself, in proper sit-down restaurants. My worries about potentially being judged as sad and friendless were unfounded – the waiters and waitresses didn’t blink at my request for a table for one. I think my fears were linked to the outdated, ignorant view (that some still hold) that if you’re eating alone, going to the cinema alone, travelling alone, you must be lonely. Far from it!
Bier-Esel (Breite Strass 114) – very traditional German food. I had schnitzel with a red pepper and paprika sauce, with chips and salad. I paid around €17 for one (enormous) plate of food and a soft drink.
Brauhaus Sion (Unter Taschenmacher 5-7) – very traditional German food and friendly staff. I had the sausage, produced by the restaurant, with potato salad. I paid €17 for one plate plus a glass of wine.
Jaely’s Cafe & Restaurant, Venloer Strass 252 – beautiful decor, comfortable and relaxed environment. A varied menu including pasta, pizza, salads and other Mediterranean dishes. €14 for a large salad and glass of wine.
Along with the more traditional tourist attractions and sightseeing areas, I spent a lot of time exploring Ehrenfeld. It is very well-known for street art, with artists from around the world visiting to display their artwork there. Each September, the CityLeaks festival takes place in Ehrenfeld, which includes art tours and exhibitions.
If you’re into street art, circle Ehrenfeld station and check out Vogelsanger Straße and Senefelderstraße. Here are some of my favourite photos:
Leaving Rome, I forget to remove my bag of liquids from my hand luggage, the Italian airport staff didn’t notice. Or care. Or both.
When I was leaving Cologne, the airport staff scanned my handbag three times. I was taken to one side and told, accusingly, that my comb is metal.
‘Errrr, no it’s plastic’ says Captain Obvious.
‘No. Metal. On the inside!’.
We both look at each other. There was an awkward pause. I wondered if they want me to throw it away, or worse, dissect my poor comb. After a stern 20-second glare, the guard nodded and I scarpered – mit comb.
Solo travel – first steps
My first solo trip came to an end. It might not seem like a big deal to some (only two nights, only two hours away by plane, where English is spoken by many) but it was a big deal to me. I used to have such limited independence, self-imprisoned by my fear of appearing sad, lonely or pathetic. I wouldn’t eat alone in restaurants or go to the cinema alone. I wouldn’t travel for a day trip out of my city alone. Holidaying alone was something I never even considered. I know many people have travelled extensively, alone, and this was my first step on that path.
In Cologne, I ticked off some accomplishments: staying with strangers in a hostel, deciding my own itinerary, navigating a new city, enjoying how flexible and free I can when I only think of myself. For example, I spent 45 minutes photographing street art, 5 minutes photographing a very pretty wall covered in vines, 10 minutes deciding between two Christmas tree decorations and a lot of time wandering around lost yet unfazed. All of those things I could have done with another person but it felt good to not have to worry about another’s impatience, frustrations or timetable for the day.
So, if you’re reading this and you can relate to how timid and self-conscious I used to feel, consider taking some small steps towards greater independence. Book a solo cinema ticket. Choose a busy film where lots of seats will be taken and you won’t stick out like a sore thumb. Remember anyone who talks during a film is a spawn of the Anti-Christ so it wouldn’t make much difference having another person with you. Have lunch alone – try somewhere where workers go on their lunch break, or a relaxing cafe, where it’s normal to eat alone and be absorbed in a book. Then build your way up – day trips in your own country, dinners in your own country (I prefer informal places, nothing too fancy or romantic, filled with couples staring adoringly at each other).
Final thoughts of Cologne
Although it wasn’t somewhere I could see Ian & I living, I enjoyed visiting for the weekend. Cologne is compact, very walkable and has a great café culture – as with many German cities. There are lots of students and young people so it felt lively and dynamic in the evenings – but during the day noticeably quiet outside of the centre. I didn’t go to all the cultural attractions but I think there is enough there to keep tourists entertained for a long weekend (not sure about longer).
I didn’t go to these places but people promoted them online.
- The Roman-Germanic Museum (must-see: the ancient mosaic floor)
- Museum Ludwig (You can see American Pop, post-WWII art, German Expressionism and much more).
- Imhoff Chocolate Museum (including samples!)
- Triangle Köln. (It costs about €3 to go up 100 meters for a great view of Cologne)
- Funkhaus Cafe Bar Restaurant – the apple tart is very popular!
- Nightlife hotspots – Friesenplatz, Clodwigplatz, Zulpicherplatz
The Curious Sparrow