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When in Cologne

When in Cologne

This often-overlooked city is one of the gayest (and paradoxically most Catholic) in all of Germany

The appointment of Germany’s pope Benedict XVI brought to light what most people don’t realize: There are indeed Catholics in richly Protestant Germany. And the most Catholic city in the country is Cologne—which paradoxically is probably the gayest city in Germany after Berlin.

You’ll know just how gay and how Catholic the city is if your visit happens to coincide with the city’s famous Carnival (usually in February). The same party-hearty, warmhearted air that wafts through Rio or New Orleans infuses the city, with queers everywhere shouting the traditional greeting of Alaaf! and kissing each other on the lips. The city is “Cologne-style” Catholic, meaning priests can be found drinking in gay bars and condoms are tossed to merrymakers during the Carnival parade. It is said that over a million people crowd Cologne’s streets during Carnival, making it much larger than the more American-popular Oktoberfest in Munich.

Carnival gets a head start in January with the gay Rosa Sitzung, translated as the “Pink Sessions”. Held in a former porn cinema called Gloria, these boisterous parties are as queer as they come, with a stage full of cross-dressing performers and hundreds of audience members standing on tables singing German songs. On the Saturday before the huge Monday Carnival parade (called Rosenmontagszug), you can also visit the leather-clad Panther Ball or the Rosa Funken Ball dressed in your skimpiest costume.

Beyond Carnival, Cologne offers many other queer-popular annual events, like Popkomm happening this September 14-16. It’s a three-mile street concert with over 400 hours of live music attracting more than two million spectators, making it the world’s largest business fair for music. Cologne is Germany’s music and TV capital, with its own national gay and lesbian song contest called Gay Grand Prix in the fall. The gay pride festival during the first week of July, called Christopher Street Day, attracts almost three quarters of a million revelers as well. There’s also the Rainbow Festival in September, with comedy, music, and performing arts.

Cologne residents are proudly “Kolsch,” speaking their own distinct dialect and churning out gallons of Kolsch beer, a highly fermented, foam-heavy “blond” brew served in rather dainty narrow glasses. What makes Cologne residents even more unstereotypically German is their warm and easygoing nature, open to conversation and ready for a party at a drop of a hat (who says all the Germans are workaholics?).

A former Roman settlement, Cologne was thoroughly bombed during World War II until there was nearly nothing left. It was decided that the grid of medieval lanes would be followed in the rebuilding of the city, lending the city a cozy feel not found in every German city. Miraculously left standing was a section of the Roman Gate, as well as the famous Kolner Dom, the Mount Everest of cathedrals with its dark twin spires, intricate stonework, and monolithic feel. It’s the first thing visitors see when they step out of Cologne’s train station, and it’s quite a sight. Inside the immense cathedral are three coffins stacked like a pyramid behind bulletproof glass, said to contain the remains of the Three Wise Men.

The pedestrian Hohe Strasse, the city’s popular shopping promenade, begins just south of the Dom and runs straight through the city center from north to south. The main gay area is called the “Bermuda Triangle” near Rudolfplatz, with gay bars of every persuasion and theme and wonderful art museums to be found around the historic center, called Altstadt. In true German fashion, over 30 leather venues are sprinkled throughout the Heumarkt area.

No matter what preconceptions you may have of Germans being rather cold and gruff, all biases fly out the window upon encountering the convivial people of Cologne. Few other places in Northern Europe have the same laid-back lifestyle and sense of festivity. So don’t let the German pope scare you away from Catholic Germany.


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InterContinental Köln (Pipin Strasse 1, 49-221-280-06) is one of the best hotels in the city, with all modern amenities, a sleek atmosphere, and within walking distance of all the sites. Hotel Cristall (9-11 Ursulaplatz, 49-221-16300) is a modern 30-room gay-run boutique hotel in the heart of Cologne, right next to the train station, featuring bold colors and striking design elements. Hotel Germania [] (Aachener Str. 1230, 49-221-257-6849) is the oldest gay hotel in Cologne, located in the heart of the Altstadt near most of Cologne’s sights.


Quo Vadis (8-10 Vor St. Martin, 49-221-258-1414) is a large café with windows, couches, plants, and an ice cream counter from 1910. People from all walks of gay and lesbian life come here to munch on sandwiches and sausages since the gay centers are just next door. Fondue (49 Kleiner Griechenmarkt, 49-221-240-5177) is located in the middle of gay Cologne, with rhubarb wines, meat cubes, and of course, Swiss fondue and even a Greek shepherd fondue with sheep’s cheese and pita bread. Nana’s (15 Pfeil Strasse, 49-221-257-3070) is an always-packed neighborhood eatery with an immaculate staff and dishes like shoulder of lamb in a red wine sauce, not to mention other top quality international specimens. Whistle Stop Café (18 Flandrische Strasse; 49-221-257-0730) is yet another example of the American conquest of the universe, with the best burgers in Cologne and Southern specialities like fried chicken that will make you feel like you’re in sweet home Alabama.


Bernnerei Weiss (22 Hahnen Strasse) is a former brewery, with gay customers cozying up to old chatty ladies. The wooden interior and warm atmosphere feels authentically German. Transfert (16 Hahen Strasse; 49-221-258-1085) is a new two-level bar with house music, an upstairs lounge, and a young friendly crowd in mod German dress. Vampire (5 Rathenauplatz, 49-221-240-1211) is a cushy cocktail bar with red walls, disco ball, lipstick lesbians, tall tables, and excellent concoctions. It’s one of Cologne’s few mixed gay and lesbian venues and well worth visiting. The monthly gay cruise party down the Rhine is appropriately called the Loveboat.


The Centre of Gay History (61 Vogelsanger Strasse, 49-221-529-295) offers gay sightseeing tours on weekends, starting from the town hall. Checkpoint (7 Pipin Strasse, 49-221-9257-6868) is a gay and lesbian switchboard and shop near some gay cafés., And be sure to pick up a copy of RIK magazine, written in German but containing vital calendar info on current parties and happenings.


Lufthansa (800-645-3880) is by far the classiest and best way to get into Germany, and although there are no direct flights into Cologne, you can easily transfer from direct flights to Frankfurt or hop on an hour-long train ride to Cologne directly from the Frankfurt airport. In 2004, Lufthansa introduced the world’s first wireless Internet service on commercial airplanes, and now flights into and out of Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Portland, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Denver, and Los Angeles all offer this service flying into Munich and Frankfurt.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.

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