x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Cologne: Welcome for travellers

My kind of place Easy-going, liberal and cosmopolitan, this city on the Rhine reminds Andrew Eames of a kindly, unflappable hostess.

Medieval town houses in Fischmarkt square in St Martin's quarter, Cologne.
Medieval town houses in Fischmarkt square in St Martin's quarter, Cologne.

Germany's city centres have a tendency to be shiny but sterile, and at first sight Cologne is no different. Viewed through the camera lens, it doesn't leap out as anything unusual - World War II is responsible for that. And yet this is one of the most unconventional of German cities; its residents are creative, cosmopolitan, liberal and easy-going in a very un-Teutonic way. They like to laugh, to hang out, to dress up, to eat out, and at times, on a summer's evening, the embankments of the river Rhine - which flows through the heart of the city - feel more like the shores of a Mediterranean city than somewhere that is far closer to the chilly North Sea. There's a buzz and a friendliness here which still takes me a bit by surprise, even though I've been here many times.

Of course, a lot of people are passing through, as I usually am. The city's location on the Rhine makes Cologne the start and end point for many Rhine cruises, and its railway station, right next to the stupendous (and Unesco-recognised) cathedral, is also one of the busiest in Germany, with high-speed connections to Brussels, Paris and London. But besides being a gateway city this is a city of big occasions, in particular Carnival, in late February, when the whole place comes crashing to a halt for several days. And the Cologne Messe, a trade fair centre, hosts several of the world's largest events, showcasing everything from food to furniture. For all these events Cologne is like a rather unflappable and indulgent hostess: tolerant, amused, and keen to make sure guests have been adequately fed and watered.

A creative city implies creative accommodation, and Cologne has a couple of notable examples. The Hotel im Wasserturm (www.hotel-im-wasserturm.de; 00 49 221 20080) is exactly what the name implies: a hotel in a former water tower. The rooms are imaginative (they have to be, with curved walls), the furniture is custom-made and the location is excellent. This is where the top CEOs and TV stars stay, the former attending trade fairs and the latter making programmes with the TV companies based here. Double rooms cost fromUS$230 (Dh846), not including breakfast.

In the early days of the Hotel Chelsea (www.hotel-chelsea.de; 00 49 221 207150) guests used to be able to pay with art work. A lot of that art still remains on the walls, and the hotel is still popular with young designers and media people, who gather in the downstairs bar. The best rooms are up in the curiously-designed roof extension. Doubles cost from $120 (Dh440). Breakfast is extra.

The obvious starting point is the cathedral - the Dom - whose 157-metre twin towers somehow managed to survive the war and retain most of the mesmerising waterfall of carvings on the outside, where they are mostly visible only to God and passing microlights. Cologne's city fathers have ensured that their giant cathedral is still unchallenged as the tallest building in downtown, and it requires an 80-strong team of masons to keep it in good condition.

Towards the river, in the cathedral's shadow, is the first of Cologne's multitude of museums, this one the Museum Ludwig, which specialises in contemporary modern art. Below that is the riverside walkway, a lively parkland in summer, with a terrace of restaurants leading to a little maze of streets that represents a slice of old Cologne. Walk inland from here, through the old market square - you'll find street musicians and performers in summer - and you'll come to the main pedestrianised shopping area, which is not really any different to any other shopping area in Germany, except that it is built on Roman Cologne, and if you go downstairs in the town hall or even in the McDonald's in Schildergasse, you'll come across proper Roman rubble.

The Belgian quarter, in a nest of streets just to the west of the city centre, is the trendy place to be. In the evening, locals gather in Brussels Square, in the lee of St Michael's church, to sit, talk and drink in a civilised, impromptu street gathering that happens virtually every day of the year, provided the weather is kind. When I was last here, I had a conversation with someone who knew the whole second series of Blackadder off by heart.

The best designer shopping is housed in what the locals have nicknamed "the whale", the giant glass Peek and Cloppenburg department store on Schildergasse, which looks like a cross between an airship and a greenhouse. Elsewhere, there's an unusual shopping centre on Breiterstrasse in the form of the WDR Arkaden, which has television studios on the ground floor, so you can watch programmes being made and then pop into the Ossiladen (East Germany shop) opposite for communist-era chocolate bars.

"Be careful of the half chicken," muttered my neighbour in Peters Brauhaus (www.peters-brauhaus.de; 0049 221 2573 950), a traditional restaurant in the older quarter of the city. "It's actually just a bread roll with cheese." There are other oddities on the menu of this traditional, convivial eating place: "heaven and earth" (mashed potatoes and apple sauce) and "Cologne caviar" (blood sausage with onions), but the food is hearty and the welcome is friendly. Expect to pay $20-26 (Dh73-97) for a main meal.

Beware cyclists! This is a big cycling city, and pavements are shared with cycle lanes. Cologne's liberal attitudes mean that two-wheelers can be even more of a law unto themselves than elsewhere in Germany. As one cyclist said to me, "What's the point of travelling by bicycle if you have to obey red lights?"

The new residential district, the Rheinauhafen, on an island in the river (which it shares with the Chocolate Museum). The reinvention of former docklands for living space is a well proven formula in many European cities, but doing it in a former river port is a bit of a first. Interesting architecture, riverside cafes, and the longest underground car park in Europe. travel@thenational.ae Andrew Eames' latest book is Blue River, Black Sea (Bantam Press).