Living in Cologne: A Pre-Brexit Guide

Nicola McCoy

Thinking about taking advantage of all our European advantages while you still can? Consider Cologne for cathedrals, Kölsch and plentiful nudity

Home is where the Dom is

The impressive gothic ‘Dom’ (cathedral) is Cologne’s main attraction and Germany’s most visited landmark. More or less the only building in the city left untouched after WWII and conveniently located between the main train station and the buzzing Altstadt (Old Town), the flocks of tourists and stag/hen parties can be forgiven for thinking there is little else to the city. However, Cologne contains a variety of diverse neighbourhoods, each with their own unique vibe and story, and is home to over 1 million people with a striking mix of cultural backgrounds. Dig just a little deeper and you will see it thoroughly deserves its New York Times label of ‘The most underrated city in Germany.’

Right vs Left

Cologne is split in two by the Rhine river. As the cathedral, city centre, hipster quarter, party quarter and university are all on the left side, rents are in general higher. The right, however, is not to be overlooked, as many former working class and/or immigrant neighbourhoods such as Kalk, Mülheim and Deutz come to life with excellent ethnic cuisine, neighbourhood cultural centres, creative squats and alternative cafes, bars and restaurants.

Getting settled in

Stereotypes exist for a reason and the German stereotype of lots of paper pushing and bureaucracy is unfortunately the reality. This means when you first land you will be confronted with a lot of running around various city authorities collecting forms, joining some very long queues, getting the forms signed and stamped by several other authorities, running back to the first authority to find out you missed a stamp somewhere along the way and have to start again.

Yes, this will be exceptionally annoying and time-consuming but with free wifi in public service buildings and a couple of good books, you will get through it! Waiting times at certain authorities can be four to six hours so booking an appointment online first is highly recommended unless you were intending to finally get round to reading War and Peace or the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in one go. Registering your address in Germany is a legal requirement and you can be fined thousands for not registering within the fortnight deadline. On the bright side, your paper as a resident of Cologne gets you free entry to all the city’s museums on the first Thursday of every month. They even stay open til 10pm!

Finding a place to live

Flats and rooms are in high demand in Cologne. If you would like your own flat, you can choose between ‘mobilert’ or ‘unmöbiliert’ (furnished or unfurnished). In Germany unfurnished really means unfurnished. When Germans move out they literally take everything including lightbulbs, light fixtures and the entire kitchen including the kitchen sink. Constructing and deconstructing kitchens is presumably an integral part of the national curriculum. Flats are rented and given back empty and freshly painted white. In many cases, it is possible to inherit the kitchen and other furniture from the previous tenants but you will have to pay.

Another option is to find a room in a shared flat, a WG or ‘Wohngemeinschaft’ (loosely translated as ‘living community’). WGs or flatshares are not just for poor students. Professionals, older people and even families choose to live in WGs not just to save on bills and share the ‘Putzplan’ (cleaning schedule) but also for the social aspect. It’s a very serious thing and you’ll have to attend ‘Castings’ in the flats to see if you are ‘Germany’s Next Top Flatmate’.

Here your native English skills will help you get your foot in the door. Many Germans are just dying to show off the English they somehow managed to learn perfectly from watching a couple seasons of How I Met Your Mother and will love the novelty of having a ‘Native Speaker’ at home, much like having a nice colourful pet parrot. The advantage of being a parrot is they will teach you plenty of funny German expressions in return. Germans are often compared to coconuts, hard on the outside but if you crack the shell, the milk flows. This is certainly true in my experience and once you are in with a German, especially a flatmate, you’ll be hard pushed to find a more loyal companion as long as you live. WGs are without a doubt your best bet for getting integrated into German life.

When does the fun start?

Once you have jumped over the initial hurdles of flat hunting and filling in all the appropriate paperwork, you get down to discovering all the gems Cologne has to offer. In general, the quality of life in Germany is exceptionally good. Taxes and national insurance will be higher than what you are used to from the UK, but you get what you pay for. The healthcare system even occasionally covers alternative treatments such as massage, acupuncture and retreats in spa hotels! Germany boasts a great work-life balance with plenty of opportunities to take up a new hobby or just enjoy all the cultural and outdoor activities that Cologne and its surroundings have to offer.

Drinking

Of course Germany is famous for its beer which is mostly brewed locally and specific to the region or even the city. Cologne is no exception and the beer of choice is Kölsch. Served fresh from the tap in thin 200ml glasses, it goes down easy and the attentive servers will continue bringing you fresh ones and tallying them up on your coaster unless you signal it’s time to stop by placing the coaster over your empty glass. Craft beer is slowly on the rise in Germany and Braustelle in the hip neighbourhood of Ehrenfeld is the place to go for an ever-changing selection of craft beer brewed in house and some guest bottles from far and wide. They offer brewing seminars and informative tours of their facilities.

German wine is not to be underestimated or judged by the poor offerings in UK supermarkets. They keep the good stuff for themselves! Even the 2€ bottles from Aldi are very drinkable and you will find plenty of tasty bottles of local plonk for around 5€. One of Germany’s finest wine regions, the Moselle Valley is just over an hour outside of Cologne and you can spend the day touring small wineries and checking out the beautiful scenery and impressive castles.

A night out in Cologne can last until the wee small hours and beyond. Public transport runs 24/7 at weekends so getting home safely is never a problem. From the fashionable city centre clubs to the extravagant gay scene around Rudolfplatz to old warehouses turned into rock venues to electronic open air parties in scrapyards there is something for everyone. There are no limits on opening hours and some clubs even open at 6am and go all day for those who want to keep the party going all weekend.

You’ll be surprised and delighted to discover that you can drink everywhere in Germany – on the streets, in the parks and public places. There are kiosks approximately every 100m with half litre bottles of beer available for as little as a euro. This freedom is a novelty that never grows old. The 8-25 cent deposits on bottles and cans make them valuable commodities for the homeless population and ensure the streets are free of litter and broken glass.

Eating

The fast food of choice in Cologne is the Döner Kebap, thanks to the huge Turkish population in the city. Döner is available on almost every corner but for the real deal, head to Keupstraße, the centre of Cologne’s Turkish community, where the portions are huge, the tastes are authentic, the coffee is strong and you might be the only non-Turkish speaker! For traditional German grub, head to one of the breweries with huge portions of pork and potatoes at reasonable prices.

Just about every type of cuisine is available in Cologne from African to Asian to South American and beyond. Vegetarians and vegans won’t be disappointed either. In neighbourhoods like Ehrenfeld you will be hard pushed to find anything that isn’t veggie/vegan/gluten-free/raw/organic and Kalk is bursting with vegan gems like the veggie pub Trash Chic. What will set you back is having to pay for bottled water. The concept of drinking tap water is completely foreign to Germans who will look at you in a mix of horror and confusion if you make the mistake of attempting to order it. Even ordering still water will raise the odd eyebrow as they prefer the sparkling variety. German tap water is completely fine to drink, the Germans just won’t.

Another thing the Germans won’t do is sliced bread. With bakeries on every corner, you are spoiled for choice with a variety of freshly baked loafs and rolls in numerous shapes, sizes, grains and seeds. UK style sliced bread is available in supermarkets but the cashier will not even look at it as they scan the barcode and you risk shunning and abhorrence from your German friends, colleagues, neighbours and society in general.

Nudity

For lovely views over the city, you can take a ride in the scenic cable car across the Rhine. The cable car also goes over one of the city's thermal spas where if you look down you’ll be greeted with a sea of bums, boobs and more! There are plenty of beautiful and luxurious spas and saunas in Cologne but nudity is compulsory. Don’t be afraid to give it a go. Once you get over the initial shock, it can be very liberating as all shapes and sizes are on show with zero staring or body shame. Nudity in public is less common in Cologne than in East Germany but you might still see the odd topless or nude sunbather or swimmer in parks or at lakes.

The seasons

The year begins with a bang. Silvester or New Year means everyone in Cologne becomes a mini pyromaniac. Fireworks are available anywhere to anyone, as is beer so you will see the normally quite sensible Germans launching rockets from beer bottles, their hands and even their mouths(!!!) on every street corner, on the river banks and even along the underground tram lines.

Then comes the so-called fifth season of Karneval in February or March. A week where the whole city dresses up in traditional or bizarre costumes and takes to the streets for massive public drinking, parades and parties, all to just about the worst music you have ever heard. It’s worth joining the madness, especially the kick-off on the Thursday which is Ladies Day. Women are in charge and go around cutting off the mens’ ties, giving them a little kiss as compensation. The main parade on the Monday attracts millions of spectators and contains many amusing and very politically tongue-in-cheek floats. Sweets and chocolates are thrown into the crowd so bring a bag and you’ll be stocked up for a while.

May brings many public holidays, all of which fall on Thursdays or Mondays, meaning plenty of long weekends. Summer in Cologne is a lot warmer and drier than in the UK. There are plenty of green parks and lakes around the city, where you can set up a barbeque, go for a dip, crack open a few beers and enjoy the fine weather.

Cologne is one of the best cities for experiencing Christmas markets with many themed markets across the city, from the famous gay Christmas Avenue market with drag queen entertainment to the renaissance style in the Old Town with flame-smoked salmon and mead.

Sprechen Sie deutsch?

In general, you will be able to get by with English. Germans are very keen to practise the English they have learned from international music and US TV series. There are plenty of international companies in Cologne and the neighbouring city of Düsseldorf, where English is the company language and they will be happy to employ English-speaking expats in a range of fields from media to pharmaceuticals and IT. Nearby Bonn offers employment opportunities in its many UN offices. Freelancing as an English teacher is also relatively easy with many language schools in the city and the region with Business English teachers highly sought after. CELTA or TEFL qualifications are preferred.

There are many cinemas in the city like Metropolis and Off Broadway that show primarily English language films, a ton of music venues that British and American bands hit on the European legs of their tours and even small local theatre and improv groups offering English shows. If homesickness hits, you can hit one of the many Irish Pubs, The English Shop or Scotia Spirits to stock up on Marmite, HP sauce or Bird’s Custard.

Beyond Cologne

Cologne is extremely well connected with its own international airport and more flight connections from the airport in neighbouring Düsseldorf. High-speed train services like the Thalys will have you in Brussels in around an hour and half and Paris in just over three hours. Amsterdam is also within easy reach by train or bus. If you fancy a break from city life, there is plenty of nature around Cologne for hiking and biking. Drachenfels (Dragon Rock) in the Siebengebirge (Seven Mountains) region is a great spot to include on a hike, as is Schloss Burg castle, the childhood home of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife, and the picturesque medieval fortress town of Zons. Also worthy of a mention for a great day outdoors is the Neanderthal Valley where the first Neanderthal man was discovered and the Three Countries’ Point just outside Aachen where you can stand with your feet in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany all at once. There are weekend offers from Deutsche Bahn, the national German rail service for unlimited travel on regional trains and further discounts if you are travelling as a group.