Christmas markets, the cathedral, and that eponymous cologne. Just three of the reasons that millions of tourists each year make their way to the metropolis on the Rhine that is Germany’s oldest major city - Cologne. And while riverboat after riverboat packed with a more senior calibre of tourist docks alongside the city every day to bring their guests to the city for those very reasons, this city has an urban beating heart that is drawing in a younger class of travellers from around the world. And it’s not difficult to see why.

Forget the markets, the cathedral and the fragrance. Cologne’s urban quarter is all about art, music and fantastic food.

Since the 1970s the old buildings of the now Belgian Quarter have become home to countless artists and creatives who brought a real taste of Bohemia to the city all-but-decimated by the Second World War. Today that feeling lives on and creates a vibrant district – with each street named after Belgian cities and regions full of one-of-a-kind boutique shops, home to the likes of sophisticated menswear from Herr von Eden and Fenja Ludwig. Today it’s the perfect place to go and relax after a long day of shopping.

The nearby district of Ehrenfeld also found its footing in the 1970s and became a popular hang-out for countless creatives. As the industrial heartland of the city in the late 1800s, home to numerous engineering and automotive factories, the large industrial buildings have today taken on a more colourful existence, becoming a real hotbed for the creative industries. The district was doing urban revival long before London’s Shoreditch was even on the up. This summer saw the streets truly come to life once again with the arrival of the Transurban festival – an art trail through the streets of the city, utilising the very fabric of the quarter as a canvas. It’s a multi-faceted, creative and in some cases, eccentric, quarter of the sprawling metropolis, with surprises around each street corner.

A slow, quiet walk through the thriving streets of this district away from the hustle and bustle of the main shopping thoroughfares will bring you face-to-face with some of the most thought-provoking street art that make this city one of the most progressive in Europe. Keep your eyes peeled for the #urbanana among some of the inspiring graffiti murals that are intrinsic to this quarter.

Streetart may not be your thing, but approach the district with an open mind and take in the stories behind the artworks that have seen them draw countless tourists to Ehrenfeld.

The city’s impressive Hohenzollern Bridge has also unwittingly become a piece of urban art, while still serving the very industrial role of being Germany’s busiest railway bridge, carrying more than 1,200 trains across the Rhine every single day. But it is the city’s lovers and tourists from around the world who have transformed the hulking steel structure into a display of ever-lasting love, locking thousands upon thousands of inscribed padlocks onto the bridge deck, before tossing the key into the river.

If you prefer your art indoors and air conditioned then the city centre Museum Ludwig is more likely to satisfy your palette. Home to Europe’s largest collection of Pop Art and the world's third-largest collection of Picasso, the museum also boasts a gourmet restaurant overlooking the banks of the Rhine to keep you going through its expansive exhibition spaces. The nearby Romano Germanic Museum traces the city's roots back to the Holy Roman Empire, taking you below street-level to the city’s Roman villa. Meanwhile the world of play is showcased in a special exhibition at the Makk Museum of art and design. The Play Up! exhibition – taking over the top floor of the museum until February 4 – will take you on a journey back to your childhood in a world of avatars, puppets and pawns, highlighting the cultural roots of games, their impact on society and how technology has played its part.

Oh, and then there is the Chocolate Museum, which sells itself really. Take a trip by boat down the Rhine (around €10 return) and enjoy a traditional Cologne Kölsch beer on the way. Maybe skip lunch though.

But be sure to pay a visit to Bunte Burger in Ehrenfeld for dinner, where vegetarian and vegan food has never tasted so good. Even carnivores will find something delicious on the exclusively gourmet vegan menu. The name of the restaurant translates as Colourful Burger – order a meal, and you will see that this restaurant earns its name not just through the impressive use of a wide variety of colourful vegetables, but also the ingenuity behind some of their recipes. The business is the culinary creation of partners Dr Mario Binder and Ulrich Glemnitz, who after an early career in the corporate world found it wasn’t really to their taste. Tracing their roots back to the organic farms they grew up on in Bavaria they decided to cook up a storm in the forward thinking suburb of the city with a purely vegetable-based diet with gourmet characteristics, rustled up with the best and healthiest ingredients. A burger cart was first to hit the streets in 2014, before their runaway success saw them open their first restaurant just a year later. With a commitment to sustainability and keeping their environmental footprint to an absolute minimum, you can indulge in one of their delicious meals without having to feel guilty – for the environment, or your waistline.

While the cathedral (or Dom, to use the German term) is a major tourist attraction – it’s actually the most visited attraction in the whole of Germany, not just Cologne – that is no reason to ignore it, despite what I said earlier. Even if you are contending with countless river cruise passengers and their mobility strollers to get through the front doors, it is something that should be ticked off your list. Quite simply, there just isn’t any getting away from Cologne Cathedral - its twin towers dominate the skyline of not just the city, but the Rhine as well. Instgrammers in the city often affectionately use the hashtags #thatchurchagain or #homeiswherethedomis. And quite rightly so, it’s a striking piece of architecture that is sure to impress. It’s been classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, and the story behind its construction is absolutely fascinating. Nowhere else in the world would you find a cathedral that was left unfinished for more than 300 years, with a crane left on top of the stumps of the planned towers after funding and interest waned. Go inside and look for the spectacular stained glass window added in 2007 by city artist Gerhard Richter featuring more than 11,000 colourful squares of glass. It’s stained glass, but for a modern generation. Even here the city’s artistic credentials shine through. And do climb the soaring 19th century spires, which finally topped off the cathedral less than 150 years ago. There are 533 steps to overcome, but the view from up here will make it the best €4 you spend.

Where to stay

Hotel Cristall Köln offers an almost unrivalled city centre location for its 83 rooms set over five floors. Ursulaplatz 9 –11, 50668. +49 221 16300

How to get there

Eurowings operates three direct flights a day between London Heathrow and Cologne, while Lufthansa flies via Munich. Alternatively, both airlines fly in and out of Frankfurt, which is just an hour or so away by ICE (high-speed train)

For further information about Cologne and travel to Germany, visit and