Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany (after Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich), but it feels decidedly provincial. Perhaps it’s the way that its famous cathedral owns all the other buildings in town, or maybe it’s because the locals speak their own funky dialect, called Kölsch. Cologne became a major pilgrimage destination in the 12th century, after relics of the Three Wise Men were transferred to its cathedral. Many know “cologne,” thanks to Eau de Cologne, an 18th-century perfume that was all the rage back in the day and now makes for the perfect passive-aggressive gift. The city center was almost completely razed by bombings during World War II and has since been meticulously reconstructed.
The city never regained the power it once had in the Middle Ages, but that doesn’t mean that it lives in the past. Trade fairs and conventions regularly bring in throngs of businesspeople. The city is also home to many art museums, and the nightlife scene stays vibrant thanks to the presence of the University of Cologne (Universität zu Köln), one of Germany’s largest universities. Known as the “Gay Capital of Germany,” Cologne is also the site of an enormous Pride parade every summer. Don’t be fooled: Kölsch beer may be served in the smallest glasses you’ll find in Germany, but people here like to enjoy life in big gulps.
The Rhein runs north to south through the middle of the city. The historic center is located on the west bank, where a semi-circle of streets, made up of the Hansaring, Hohenzollernring, Hohenstaufenring, Sachsenring, and Ubierring, separates the city’s Altstadt (Old Town, inside the ring) from the Neustadt (New Town, outside the ring). On the other side of the river is Deutz, home to Cologne’s trade fairs.
If you thought Cologne was too focused on its past to collect modern art, you were wrong. The interesting exterior of this building is a work of art in itself that contrasts beautifully with the historical cathedral next door. Cologne also had its own share of Nazi history, and this museum documents that very powerfully. The former Gestapo headquarters and jail here were converted into a museum that educates visitors on the city’s history under the Nazis. Lastly, Cologne’s Chocolate Museum is every child’s dream and is equally interesting for adults.
We’ve picked our three favorite destinations to visit in Cologne. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
The typical German Frühstück (breakfast) consists of coffee or tea with a selection of Brötchen (rolls), butter, marmalade, wurst (cold sausage of myriad varieties), Schinken (ham), Eier(eggs, usually soft- or hard-boiled), Käse (cheese), and Müsli (granola). Mittagessen (lunch) is traditionally the main meal of the day, consisting of soup, sausage or roasted meat, potatoes or dumplings, and a salad or Gemüsebeilage (vegetable side dish). Abendessen or Abendbrot (supper) is a re-enactment of breakfast, with less Müsli and coffee, and more wine or beer. Dessert after meals is rare, but many older Germans indulge in a daily ritual of Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cakes), analogous to English “tea-time,” at 3 or 4pm.
Since the 1970s, vegetarianism has steadily gained popularity in Germany. Approximately one fifth of Germany’s population now eats little or no meat, and in most cities vegetarian and Biokost (health food) restaurants and supermarkets are common. Be sure to mention ich bin Vegetarier(en) (“I am a vegetarian”) when dining, or simply say kein Fleisch (“no meat”). While most vegetarian food relies heavily on cheese, vegan cuisine may have a more difficult time.
Germany’s bakeries produce a delicious range of Brot (bread). Vollkornbrot is a heavy whole-wheat, Roggenbrot is rye, Schwarzbrot (black bread) is a dense, dark loaf, and Bauernbrot (farmers’ bread) a lighter, slightly sour country recipe. Go to a Bäckerei (bakery) and point to whatever looks good. Bread is usually sold as a whole loaf; for half, ask for ein Halbes. German bread does not contain preservatives and will go stale the day after its purchase, so Germans typically make the Bäckerei a daily stop. Brötchen (rolls) come in a staggering number, starting with the simple, white Wasserbrötchen and extending to the hearty Kürbiskernbrötchen (pumpkin seed rolls). No visit to Germany would be complete without a taste of a Bretzel, the south German soft pretzel that puts ballpark vendors to shame, and that in larger bakeries also comes in roll and even baguette shapes.
Aside from breads, the staples of the German diet are wurst (sausage, in dozens of varieties), Schweinefleisch (pork), Rindfleisch (beef), Kalbfleisch (veal),Lammfleisch (lamb), Huhn (chicken), and Kartoffeln (potatoes). Sampling the various local specialties around Germany gives a taste of diverse culinary traditions. In Bavaria, Knödel(potato and flour dumplings, sometimes filled with meat or jam) are popular, as is Weißwurst, a sausage made with milk. Thuringia and northern Bavaria are famed for their succulent grilled Bratwurst, a roasted sausage eaten with potatoes or bought from a street vendor clasped in a roll and bathed in mustard and sauerkraut. Southwestern Germany is known for its Spätzle(rough, twisty egg noodles), and Maultaschen (pasta pockets) are popular in Swabia. Hessians do amazing things with potatoes; be sure to sample the grüne Soße (green sauce). The North and Baltic seacoasts harvest Krabben (shrimp) and Matjes (herring), as well as other fresh forms of seafood.
When Turks began immigrating to West Germany in the early 1960s, the German palate was first treated to such now-ubiquitous delights as Döner Kebap; thin slices of lamb mixed with cucumbers, onions, and red cabbage in a wedge of Fladenbrot, a round, flat, sesame-covered bread. Other well-known Turkish dishes include Börek, a flaky pastry filled with spinach, cheese, or meat; and Lahmacun (also called türkische Pizza), a smaller, zestier version of Italy’s staple fast food. Turkish restaurants and Imbiße, popular and cheap fast-food stands, also offer Kefir(flavored yogurt drinks) and Baklava for dessert.
With few exceptions, restaurants expect you to seat yourself. If there are no free tables, ask someone for permission to take a free seat by saying Darf ich Platz nehmen? (DAHRF eesh PLAHTS nay-men; “may I sit here?”). In a less formal setting, just say Hallo. It’s standard for perfect strangers to sit next to you—they may or may not be interested in conversation. At the table, Germans eat with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right and keep their hands above or resting on the table. While eating, it is polite to keep the tines of your fork pointing down at all times. When you’re finished, ask the server Zahlen, bitte (TSAH-len, BIT-tuh; “check, please”); it’s considered rude to bring customers the bill before they have asked for it. Taxes (Mehrwertsteuer) and service (Bedienung) are always included in the price, but it is customary to leave a small tip, usually by rounding up the bill to the nearest euro.
Beer and wine are the popular meal-time beverages. Saft (juice), plain or mixed with mineral water, is an alternative. Germans do not guzzle glasses of water by the dozen; instead, they will sip a (small) glass of carbonated mineral water—ask for Wasser ohne Gas to get the non-bubbly kind. If you ask for water in a restaurant, you’ll get the expensive bottled type, so be sure to ask for Leitungswasser (tap water) if that’s what you want.
Germans have brewed frothy, alcoholic malt beverages since the 8th century BC, and they’ve been consuming and exporting them in prodigious quantities ever since. The state of Bavaria alone contains about one-fifth of all the breweries in the world. Germans drink more than 120L of beer per person every year. According to legend, the German king Gambrinus invented the modern beer recipe when he threw some hops into fermenting malt. During the Middle Ages, monastic orders refined the art of brewing, imbibing to stave off starvation during long fasts. It wasn’t long before the monks’ lucrative trade caught the eye of secular lords, who established the first Hofbrauereien (court breweries).
Churches and castles around Germany manifest stunning Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque styles. The Romanesque period, spanning the years 800 to 1300, arose from direct imitation of Roman ruins.
Gothic style, characterized by pointed rib vaulting, gradually replaced the Romanesque from between 1300 and 1500. Secular architecture at the end of the Middle Ages is best remembered through the fachwerk (half-timbered) houses that still dominate the Altstädte of many German cities. In the South, the Renaissance influence can be seen in the Augsburg Rathaus and the Heidelberg Schloß.
German art first broke its Gothic fetters with Renaissance painters like Matthias Grünewald and Hans Holbein the Younger, who gave depth and realism to secular subjects. Their prolific colleague Lucas Cranach churned out pieces with historical and mythological themes. Albrecht Dürer’s series of self portraits were among the first, and most influential, in Western art and his engravings and detailed work A Young Hare are highly recognizable.
During the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, the visual arts suffered from lack of financial encouragement, but by the 19th century German critics were advocating Romantic painters’ return to traditional, spiritual German masterworks. This idea was easily incorporated into the melancholy landscapes of Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich, who painted Rügen’s chalk cliffs and Eldena’s ancient ruins.
In the 20th century, German art boomed. German Expressionism recalled the symbolist tendencies of Viennese Jugendstil and French Fauvism. Founded in Dresden in 1905, Die Brücke (The Bridge) was the earliest Expressionist group. Its artists, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, used jarring outlines and deep color to make artwork loud and aggressively expressive. A 1911 exhibition in Munich entitled Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), led by Russian emigré Wassily Kandinsky, marked the rise of a second Expressionist school.
WWI and its aftermath forced politics onto German art. Max Ernst started a Dadaist group in Cologne expressing artistic nihilism with collage and composition. The grotesque, satirical works of Otto Dix juggled Expressionism and Dadaism; ultimately, the artist embraced Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), an anti-fascist movement that sought to understand the rapid modernization of life through matter-of-fact representation. Perhaps its best-known proponent, Max Beckmann, expressed a tortured view of man’s condition. The smaller German Realist movement devoted itself to bleak, critical works such as the social reform posters of Käthe Kollwitz. Sculptor Ernst Barlach infused realism with religious themes, inflaming Nazi censors.
Nazism drove most artists into exile. Themes of Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) dominated Nazi visual arts, depicting mythical union of folkish blood and German soil through idealized images of workers, farmers, and soldiers. In 1937, the Nazis’ infamous Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) exhibit ridiculed pieces by Kandinsky, Kirchner, and other masters by displaying them with paintings by psychotics and mental patients.
After the war, German art made a quick recovery. In East Germany, state-supported Socialist Realism dominated, while West German art was characterized by abstraction. As time went on, installations, “happenings,” and other new media art pieces, especially video, edged out painting, although Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and a few other masters kept the medium alive. Richter gained renown for his paintings of photos of the criminal Baader-Meinhof group, entitled “October 15, 1977.” Polke also studied with Josef Beuys, known for his performance art happenings, at his Constructivist sculpture school at Düsseldorf.
Today, Germany produces and exhibits a huge range of modern art, from video and multimedia installations to avant-garde painting and sculpture. Kunstfonds (art funds) have supported artists since 1980, and the modern art school in Leipzig enjoys international renown. Kassel hosts the acclaimed “Documenta” exhibit every five years, showcasing contemporary art in installations throughout the town. Other museums to see are Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, and Düsseldorf’s Kunstsammlung im Ständehaus. Wolfgang Laib, a minimalist artist who uses materials from nature, and the unconventional painter Günter Förg, are among Germany’s dynamic and prolific contemporary artists.
German literary history begins around 800 AD with Das Hildebrandslied (The Lay of Hildebrand), an epic poem describing the fatal struggle between the heroic Hildebrandand his son Hadubrand. The next several centuries showed an intriguing mix of Christianity and Germanic myth. As chivalry took hold in Germany, lyric poetry focused on unrequited love emerged, best represented by the work of Walther von der Vogelweide. In the 16th century, Martin Opitz and Andreas Gryphius insisted on strict rules for meter and stresses in poetry. The first significant German novel, Hans J. C. von Grimmelshausen’s roguish epic Simplicissimus, was written during the Thirty Years’ War. The long war hampered German literary efforts, which would slowly revive in the 18th century.
Sentimental, unusually personalized verse arose in the mid-18th century, about the time Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was writing his early poetry. Goethe later turned to the Bildungsroman (coming-of-age tale) and to themes of classicism and orientalism. His masterpieces include his retelling of the Faust legend, often considered the pinnacle of German literature.
In the early 19th century, Romanticism gained momentum, with the poetry of Novalis and J. C. Friedrich Hölderlin, who wrote mythical poetry until he succumbed to insanity. The Brothers Grimm documented fairy tales for the first time. E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote ghost stories. Romanticism gave way to realistic political literature around the time of the revolutions of 1848. Heinrich Heine was the finest of the Junges Deutschland (Young Germany) movement and also one of the first German Jews to achieve literary prominence. Dramatists Georg Büchner and Gerhart Hauptmann had an influence at the turn of the century with characteristic fin-de-siècle realism.
Hermann Hesse incorporated Eastern spirituality into his writings (his 1922 novel Siddhartha became a paperback sensation in the 1960s), while Thomas Mann carried the Modernist novel to a high point with Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), using the traditional Bildungsroman to criticize German culture. Also vital to the period were German-language writers living in Austria-Hungary, among them Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, and Franz Kafka.
In the years before WWI, Germany produced a violent strain of Expressionist poetry that mirrored developments in painting. The style was suited to depict the horrors of war, and several of its masters were killed in battle. The Weimar Era was filled with artistic production. Its most famous novel was Erich Maria Remarque’s bleak portrayal of the Great War, Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front). Bertolt Brecht presented mankind in its grotesque absurdity through literature. The Third Reich burned more books than it published and the Nazi attitude toward literature was summed up by Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels: “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun.”
Famous authors who are themselves victims or survivors include Elie Wiesel, Jean Améry, Edgar Hilsenrath, and Anne Frank. Though philosopher Theodor Adorno pronounced that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” poets such as Paul Celan have proven this statement false. Celan’s famed Todesfuge (Death Fuge) exemplifies a powerful attempt to express that which is beyond expression.
While the literature of the Weimar period seemed to succeed WWI almost effortlessly, WWII left Germany’s artistic consciousness in shambles. To nurse German literature back to health, several writers joined to form Gruppe 47, named after the year of its founding. The group included such renowned authors as Günter Grass and Celan. Much of the ensuing literature dealt with the problem of Germany’s Nazi past, while the poetry of Hans Magnus Enzensberger and the novels of Grass and Heinrich Böll turned a critical eye towards post-war West Germany’s overly-bureaucratic tendencies.
Many expatriates, particularly those with Marxist leanings from before the war (such as Brecht), returned to the East with great hopes. But the communist leadership was not interested in eliciting free artistic expression, causing many talented writers to emigrate. Nevertheless, the literature produced during Soviet occupation from 1945 until 1989 has become a field of interest for scholars.
Günther Grass’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999 provided the newly reunited Germany with its first literary icon and propelled German literati back into an international spotlight. W.G. Sebald’s novels pushed the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction in their focus on German history. For further happening German literature, look for Monika Maron, Peter Schneider, and Bernhard Schlink.
German contributions to music have always been marked by three characteristic tendencies: striking creativity, thorough exploration, and a penchant for theory and explanation.
Charlemagne introduced the Roman liturgy and its chant to German parts of his empire. German theorists aided in the development of Western musical notation and polyphony, which started as the addition of new musical lines to the original chant. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic, writer, composer, scientist, and correspondent with popes and kings, composed elaborate chants and liturgical dramas. The love poetry of the Minnesänger was written around the same time as the narrative epics Tristan, Parzival, and the Nibelungenlied. Together with the northern French trouvère songs and Provençal troubadour songs, they expressed chivalry and other medieval ideals of love.
In the 17th century, German composers were impressed by the elaborate forms developed in Italy that involved choruses, soloists, and large groups of instruments: cantatas, oratorios, and passions. Composers like Heinrich Schütz produced glorious works, sometimes called sacred symphonies. Oratorios were sacred dramas not meant for church performance. The situation in Germany was made more complicated by the different observances of Catholics and Protestants, both of whom wrote passions, narratives of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Famous Passions includeJ.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion. A cantata could be either sacred or secular. German writers around 1600 developed an elaborate correspondence between music and the classical rhetoric of ancient Greece and Rome. They thought every musical setting of a text was designed to make a particular impression and elicit an emotional response from the listener.
In the 18th century, Germany imported a great deal of Italian opera, and one of the greatest German composers, George Frideric Handel, lived in London and wrote operas in Italian and oratorios, such as Messiah, in English. Frederick the Great liked the French style in instrumental music, though he had his German composer Johann Joachim Quantz write it. He also employed Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel. When J.S. Bach visited Frederick the Great, the King gave him a theme to improvise on that couldn’t be manipulated in the way Bach was famous for doing. Driven crazy by this, Bach wrote a collection of pieces based on the theme and sent it back to the King, calling it the Musical Offering, part of which was a trio sonata in the French style.
Theory returned with a vengeance in the 18th century, when German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten invented aesthetics (coining the term aesthetica.) German composers wrote treatises on how to play instruments, compose music, and develop musical taste. Bonn became a hotbed of enlightenment thought. Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, although Austrian, were a crucial part of the Austro-German tradition of Classical and Romantic music. They developed and championed instrumental genres like the symphony and string quartet. Ludwig van Beethoven first made his name first as a brilliant improviser and pianist. When he was almost thirty years old, he wrote the long and difficult Eroica symphony, originally intending to dedicate it to Napoleon; however, with the latter’s declaration of imperial ambition, he turned the second movement into a funeral march and changed the title.
The ambition of German writers of the 1790s and early 1800s to create the “poetry of longing” (Schlegel) can be correlated with early 19th-century Romantic composers like Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, who distilled something ineffable in their Lieder (songs) and piano pieces. The era of the generalist composer was ending and the specialist composer was a new feature of the 19th century. The New German School loved music with a story or “program.” Richard Wagner wrote massive operas that reached back to the medieval German epics of Tristan, Parsifal, and the Ring of the Nibelung, as well as the stories of Tannhäuser and the Meistersingers; like Goethe in Faust, he wanted to create a uniquely national epic.
The modern era saw a fragmentation of the grand dreams of the Romantics, and strong reactions to WWI. The Austrian Arnold Schoenberg took Wagner’s chromaticism and turned it into more controlled forms of “composing with twelve tones” that he said would “insure the supremacy of German music for a hundred years.” Paul Hindemith, on the other hand, headed a group of German Neoclassicists (a school of composing inspired by Russian Igor Stravinsky) that embraced the older instrumental forms like the sonata and the variation. At the same time, the unstable Weimar economy encouraged smaller, cheaper musical forms like jazz. Music hall works bred the Singspiel, satiric operettas. Kurt Weill’s partnership with Bertolt Brecht mastered the genre with Die Dreigroschenoper (Three-Penny Opera) and the well-known song Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife). A new movement of Gebrauchsmusik (utilitarian music) engendered music for amateur players and film scores. Carl Orff, Hitler’s favorite living composer, is known for his Carmina Burana, a resurrection of bawdy 13th-century lyrics with a bombastic score. The immediate post-war period was dominated by schmaltzy Schlagermusik(pop music) on the popular side, and esoteric avant-garde “art” music of the Darmstadt school.
The newborn medium of film exploded onto the German art scene in the Weimar era thanks to a number of brilliant directors. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is an early horror film directed by Robert Wiene. Fritz Lang’s remarkable films include M., Dr. Mabuse der Spieler, and Metropolis, a dark portrayal of the techno-fascist city of the future. Meanwhile, Josef von Sternberg extended the tradition into sound with his satiric Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), starring Berlin bombshell Marlene Dietrich.
Heeding Hitler’s prediction that “without motor-cars, sound films, and wireless, (there can be) no victory for National Socialism,” propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels became a masterful manipulator. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) documented a Nürnberg Party Rally, and her Olympia recorded 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Germany’s film renaissance began in 1962 with the Oberhausen Manifesto, a declaration by independent filmmakers demanding artistic freedom and the right to create new feature films.Rainer Werner Fassbinder told fatalistic stories of people corrupted or defeated by society, including an epic television production of Alfred Döblin’s mammoth novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Fassbinder’s filmDie Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun) and Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), based on Günther Grass’s novel of the same title, brought the new German wave to a wider, international audience. Wolfgang Petersen directed Das Boot (The Boat), one of the most famous submarine films ever made.
East German film had to be produced under the supervision of the state-run German Film Corporation (DEFA). Slatan Dudow produced the first of the DEFA’s films, Unser täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread), a paean to the nationalization of industry. After a brief post-Stalinist thaw, few East German films departed from the standard format of socialist heroism or love stories, with the exception ofEgon Günther’s feminist 1965 film Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife). Frank Beyer’s politically daring Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones) was a reflection on corruption and intrigue in a communal construction project.Winfried Junge, Volker Koepp, and Jürgen Böttcher made prominent documentaries which primarily glorified the East and vilified the West.
Although Germans may seem reserved or even unfriendly, they are not as standoffish as they may first appear. Germans are very frank and will not hesitate to show disapproval. To the uninitiated this may come across as confrontational, but it stems mostly from honesty. Many Germans consider effusive chumminess insincere, and Americans are often perceived as disingenuous for being overly friendly.
The complex rules of German etiquette may seem excessive; however, most apply only with older Germans and in rural areas. Even so, travelers should bear a few things in mind. In general, Germans are more formal than Americans, and punctuality is a huge deal. An invitation to a German home is a major courtesy—bring a gift for the hostess. Among the older generations, be careful not to use the informal du (you) or a first name without being invited to do so. Du is appropriate when addressing fellow students and friends, or with children. In all other circumstances, use the formal Sie for “you,” as in the question Sprechen Sie Englisch? (Do you speak English)?
Addressing a woman as Fräulein is inappropriate in most instances; address all women as Frau (followed by a surname). While the average German will generally speak English, Germans will be more receptive to a traveler who knows at least a little German; learn some before you go. In any case, remember at least two phrases: bitte (both please and you’re welcome; BIT-tuh) and danke (thank you; DAHNK-uh).
The first time you see a German standing at an intersection in the rain, no cars in sight, waiting for the “walk” signal, you’ll see what a law-abiding nation Germany is. Jaywalking is only one of several petty offenses that will mark you as a foreigner (and subject you to fines); littering is another. Many tourists also do not realize that the bike lanes marked in red between the sidewalk and the road are strictly off-limits for pedestrians. The drinking age is 16 for beer and wine and 18 for hard liquor, and it is not uncommon to see young teenagers in a store picking up a bottle of wine for the family dinner. Driving under the influence, however, is a severe offense. Drug use has yet to become publicly acceptable, even where penalties are more relaxed.
Traditionally, German restaurants allow self-seating if no host is present. Water with your meal is on request and you must specify if you want tap water. Otherwise, the restaurant will rack up your bill by bringing you expensive bottled water. Note that restaurants may charge you for bread or rolls.
If you are invited to a German home, it is best to bring chocolates or flowers as a gift. Since many flowers carry particular stigmas, it is safest to bring yellow roses or tea roses. After all, you don’t want to give funeral flowers to your kind host.
When entering a room, shake hands with everyone in the room individually, including children. Until you’re told otherwise, address a person with her official title and surname. When entering a store, always greet with a “Guten Tag.” Upon leaving the store, even if you did not buy anything, it is polite to say “auf Wiedersehen” (goodbye).