One of my guilty pleasures in life is Taylor Swift, I bloody love her. And it’s because of Taylor Swift that we ended up spending a few days in Cologne earlier this year – I bought tickets for the 1989 tour date in the city (at a much cheaper price than the Manchester tickets were) with the intention of combining it with a bit of a boozy holiday, so that’s what we did.
One of the joys of Cologne is that they basically only sell one type of beer – Kolsch – which makes ordering so much easier and quicker. It’s basically a pale lager and is served in 0.2l glasses as it goes flat quickly. In the city’s beer halls, it’s served by waiters who wander round with a specially-designed holder for the glasses popping a new drink down for customers when their glass is looking a bit empty. All drinks are marked down on beer mats, and when you’ve had enough the idea is you put your mat on top of your glass. In practice, you don’t really need to do this in most places as they can usually tell when you’re an idiotic tourist who can’t speak the language/understand how it works and they ask you.
During our time in Cologne, we explored many of the city’s drinking establishments so here’s a little guide to some of the places we visited and the ones I’d say are the best bars and beer halls in Cologne.
It’s one of the more famous brewers of Kolsch, and one you can probably get here in the UK. The beer hall is just opposite the main train station, so it does attract a large number of tourists. But we didn’t see any coach parties/tour groups, which is good, and there were also a few regulars who looked like they came in every day for their lunch. A good place to start off in Cologne, and plenty of seating.
Probably the other internationally-known Kolsch producer, Früh’s beer hall was absolutely huge with a number of different rooms and areas (although some are reserved just for diners) along with a beer garden. As the name suggests, it is very close to the Catherdral. We only visited once as it was OK, but we felt there were better places.
This was a much less touristy spot as it was further out and was one of our favourites. It has a large conservatory style seating area with long benches, plants and a fountain, and as we’d heard it was very popular we got in there early for dinner. The food was excellent (hearty portions – as you get everywhere in Germany!) and unlike other breweries in Cologne, they make more than one type of beer! Alongside the Kolsch you could get a Pils, an Altbier (controversial!), a Weiss (which is not a wheat beer, it’s an unfiltered version of Kolsch) and a Weizen. One absolute joy I discovered on the menu was Weizen with additional banana juice – I’m a huge fan of banana flavours so I loved it but I don’t think it would appeal to everyone. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in Cologne.
In the area around Hellers, there’s also a few bars which we visited – Stiefel, Umbruch and Tankstelle. I’m still not 100% sure if you’re meant to go to the bar or wait for table service at these types of places and they usually only have one type of beer on offer (Kolsch from one of the bigger breweries generally). If you want to avoid the tourists and hang out with the locals, these are the places to do it.
This was probably the German equivalent of going to an Irish-themed bar in the UK – it was dedicated to all things Bavarian. It had Hefeweizen on offer (nice beer) but it was very quiet and the staff seemed bored. I guess it’s just not the type of thing they’re into in Cologne, and if you’re after somewhere with a bit of atmosphere, you’d probably want to look elsewhere.
This is another centrally located beer hall that’s quite popular with tourists. It was another one we only popped into for a drink and Sion seems to appear fairly regularly at Piccadilly Tap, so I’d already tried it but felt we had to go for it while we were there. Food looked pretty good, but probably not somewhere we’d rush back to.
This is up there as one of my favourite beer halls in Cologne.It gives nothing away from the outside – you can’t see through the windows and it’s an old, wooden rotating door to enter. But it was fabulous. It was traditional, atmospheric and full of lovely features and most importantly, excellent Kolsch – and a Weizen! We also tried the food which was absolutely huge and delicious. It’s a pretty special place – and if you get a seat by the front, it’s fun to watch the reactions of people as they come through the door.
This is one of the nicest looking beer halls in Cologne – if you want to have a look they have a full tour on their website. The decor was lovely, in particular the large, brightly-coloured dome in the main room. We ate there one evening and the experience was only slightly marred by the fact that we seemed to have been placed in a designated tourists’ room and the only other people in the room were a large family with a baby (who we were seated right next to which was a bit frustrating when there was plenty of space and no one really wants to be near someone else’s child in a beer hall) and a group including one American chap who wanted the whole room to hear his boring story. But, we liked the place and returned again for a drink. This time it was standing room only at the bar, so it felt a bit more like what we’re used to!
Our trip to Braustelle was our only use of Cologne’s U-Bahn and it was very much worth the trip. This would fairly be described as a ‘craft beer brewery’ as it’s not just Kolsch you’ll get here. They do do a Kolsch (Helios), but they’re quite experimental and had plenty of interesting beers on their eight taps. Herbs feature quite often, as do barrel-aged options. A number of the choices weren’t my thing at all – including sours and rye beers – but after a few days only drinking Kolsch, I was hankering for something else and this place really hit the spot. It’s only small and got very busy on our visit (and it appears to be table service, even if you’re only drinking), but it’s worth making the underground journey for. Try the Pink Panther.
A nice little neighbourhood bar which was slightly off the beaten track but close to Neumarkt. The beer was Reissdorf, the atmosphere was friendly – we were the only non-locals but no one cared. A highlight was the locals all getting up and dancing to Europop. Great if you want somewhere more authentic and less touristy.
Close to Theibalds Eck but on the main street, this was an odd little bar. Its clientele seemed mainly to be men on business trips when we were there, and Ross got laughed at by the bar man by ordering something which turned out to be the equivalent of shandy followed by a bottle of Franziskaner. The downstairs bar area looked nice with benches built into the walls with little tables, and lots of dark wood and I found myself enjoying the music as it played a selection of tracks I have on my iPod including Rick Astley, Simple Plan and Abba. The Kolsch on offer was Gaffel.
This was quite possibly one of my favourite places. It’s on the other side of the river from the Dom/Old Town but on the same side as the Lanxess Arena, so we popped in for food before the Taylor Swift gig. It was very full but we managed to squeeze on the end of a table in the courtyard sat opposite an old German chap who was merrily making his way through a number of glasses of Kolsch. The food was excellent and the portions absolutely gigantic. It wasn’t rare for me not to be able to finish German-sized meals, but here even Ross couldn’t finish. This was the only place where you definitely had to follow the coaster on glass rule – the waiters and waitresses were so efficient that a new drink would appear once you’d made it about halfway through your current one. The atmosphere was excellent with diverse customers – from families with (well behaved) kids, to couples, to older groups of men – although we were the only non-Germans. A highlight for me was aforementioned gent opposite us laughing at Ross when he burped then proceeding to tell all the waiters something which we assumed was about us English people not being able to handle their portions and then trying to explain to us in broken English how funny he found it. I liked him.
On a side note as I’ve mentioned the Lanxess Arena, the beer was OK for a gig venue. I had a few bottles of Maisel Weiss and it wasn’t particularly expensive. Compare this to the Manchester Arena which I went to a few days later (OK, I ended up getting Manchester tickets too), where I got absolutely ripped off for a a Newcastle Brown Ale and a bottle of water that I wasn’t even allowed to keep the bloody lid for.
Another centrally located beer hall full of character, we dined at this place two nights in a row as we liked it that much. It wasn’t the biggest beer hall we visited, but it had plenty of seating and was moderately busy on both our visits. We sat ourselves at the back in a tiny little table hidden under an alcove underneath the stairs. It felt private and intimate, but not cut off from the rest of the bar. Alongside their Kolsch, Sünner also make a wheat beer which was very well done and another welcome break from the fizzy Kolsch.
It’s very centrally located and as a result, gets very very busy. We tried to visit once but found it full, but a few days later we were in. I liked the look of the building as it was so old and we’d found a seat at the front of the bar by the barrels so we could see the beer being poured, but the Kolsch (Gilden) definitely wasn’t my favourite. A nice feature is the guide to Cologne heroes featured in the menu.
This is nowhere near exhaustive, and it’s not even every place we visited. Some spots we only popped in for a drink and I didn’t spend enough time in them to properly judge/remember them, so I’ve not included them. But if you’re looking for a great European city with good beer, hearty grub and plenty to do, I highly recommend Cologne.
And a little mention for Dusseldorf:
Flights between Manchester and Dusseldorf were at much better times than services to Cologne and cheaper, so we flew into Dusseldorf and got the train over. Trains to Cologne are about every half an hour and take 40 odd minutes. We decided to spend a day visiting Dusseldorf to see the famous ‘longest bar in the world’ I’d heard so much about. I’m not a fan of Altbier so I didn’t really enjoy the beer as much – with the exception of the Kurzer Alt at Brauerei Kurzer which is worth trying if you’re visiting. Another recommendation is Uerige, a really lovely old pub in the heart of the old town. We sat in the Brauhof, or Courtyard (it’s inside) and it had a great atmosphere with a mix of local older gents popping in for one on their way home, couples eating and larger groups. Dusseldorf also has plenty of cocktail and sports bars, if that’s your thing instead.