By OUTTraveler Editors
You should always arrive in Cologne by train. As the spires and buttresses of its gargantuan cathedral (which miraculously survived the World War II bombing) rise up next to the central station, it's easy to see why it's Germany's most visited attraction. If you're not careful, however, the sacred monument could overshadow your stay, dominating almost every view (and conversation). Once you've visited it, move on to see what contemporary Cologne has to offer.
The best base for exploring the sophisticated side of the city is the Belgian Quarter (Belgisches Viertel). Don't be confused by the name -- it refers to the streets, named after cities in Belgium. You're best to wander toward the Brüsseler Platz, the area's main square. Along the way, you'll find a string of small shops, tattoo parlors, and clothing boutiques, such as Monsieur Courbet (Maastrichter Str. 49), which not only carries indie designers but has a record store in its basement. The Belgischer Hof (Brüsseler Strasse 54; Belgischer-Hof.de), a brasserie with excellent Alsatian cuisine, shows off that low-key Cologne aesthetic and outclasses the touristy schnitzel palaces in the center of town.
Dine outdoors on the flagstone patio and order the flammkuchen, a tart cooked in a wood-fired oven that resembles a pizza and has savory toppings (try the goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, and olives). Do as the Kölners do and order up a glass of inexpensive Kölsch. It's the people's beer, and it's light enough that you can continue ordering late into the night. --Jerry Portwood
Hotel im Wasserturm
A luxurious renovated water tower located outside the city center, it's one of the most stylish and unique hotel experiences you'll find. Kaygasse 2; Hotel-im-Wasserturm.de
Stern am Rathaus
To be more central, closer to the cathedral and the rest of the activity, try this boutique, the second location from the fashionable crew that brought the popular Hotel Domstern to the scene. Bürgerstrasse 6, Stern-am-Rathaus.com
For a truly local vibe, try this divey gay bar near Rudolfplatz, which feels like it hasn't changed since the '80s. You can order up a Kölsch for as little as 1.50 euros. Mauritiuswall 43; Schampanja-Koeln.de
Peek & Cloppenburg
This stunning store (Schildergasse 65-67; Peek-Cloppenburg.de), designed by Renzo Piano, has been dubbed the 'Walfisch' by Kölners because it resembles a shiny stranded whale. The Antoniterkirche (Schildergasse 57; AntoniterCityKirche.de) in its shadow houses the Stanton Café, a bright oasis of peace among the bustle.
Housing the collection of the Archdiocese of Cologne, this museum was built on the former site of the St. Kolumba church, and the structure was designed by iconoclastic Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Along with displaying parts of the Gothic original, it also houses kinetic sculptures by Rebecca Horn and work by Joseph Beuys. Kolumbastrasse 4; Kolumba.de