Anyway. It's odd, but I somehow (surprisingly!) didn't have any (or many) expectations about Köln/Cologne before arriving in the city.
I've been pretty stoked on everything German/Germany for awhile, and so it would make sense that I would step off the train with inflated hopes, but to be honest, I was just happy to be there. In fact, that was sort of the theme of the trip - I kept saying "I'm just happy to be here!" and it was the honest truth.
So maybe that was why it was so easy to fall in love with Köln!
We took the 8:00 AM Thalys train from Paris Gare du Nord and arrived in Köln around 11:15 AM. It was a nice, quiet, smooth, comfortable, and very swift ride. We sat in "Comfort 2" which is second class/coach and I have no complaints. I did some research before booking the tickets as to whether or not it was worth it to spring for Comfort 1 class and the general consensus was 'no'. The main difference (that mattered to me) is that wi-fi is free in Comfort 1 and not in Comfort 2, so I bought wi-fi on board and it was a bit expensive (around $17 for the whole journey - I can't remember if that was "unlimited" or enough to cover 3 hours, though), but even with the added wi-fi fee, it was still less expensive than a first class ticket. Sitting captive on a train for a few hours is perfect downtime when you're on a trip that is go-go-go so I thought that having internet access during that time was worth it.
We got off the train and made our way to the hotel, which is so close to Hauptbanhof that you can basically see it from the station, but not too close that it's sketchy/dirty (as far as I could tell). The main train stations in Paris (Gare du Nord) and Rome (Termini) and their immediate surrounding areas are not exactly spots in which I'd want to hang out, but it seemed different in Köln. The Kölner Dom (Cathedral) and the main shopping areas (Hohe Straße and Schildergasse) are very close to Hauptbanhof and the area felt safe during the day as well as at night. Of course it's hard to say that with 100% certainty because we were only there for 2 nights, but that's the general feeling I got, anyway. The only time the area seemed less-than-stellar was late on Saturday night when the plaza next to the station was littered with glass shards from broken beer bottles, but I think that was more of a result of overzealous drunken celebration than anything threatening.
We stayed at the Marriott Köln, which was able to provide us with an early check-in and a very comfortable (read: huge!) room. However, the wi-fi wasn't free (it was free at both of our [less expensive] Paris and Rome hotels, though! Why do the chain hotels always charge for it?) and connecting was actually pretty pricey. Ugh. Also, I would've like to have had a room on a high floor with a view, but unfortunately because of our arrival time, we were put on the 1st floor. We were given the option of waiting for another room, but we didn't feel like waiting so we took the room that was available. Other than those issues, the stay was quite nice and you can't beat the location.
My friend Melanie (a native of Köln) met us at the hotel and took us out to see the city. On the way to lunch, we met up with my friend Leonie who was in nearby Düsseldorf from Vienna and we all had lunch at Keule. I had kölsch and the "Zigeunerwurst with paprika sauce, coleslaw and french fries" and it was SO GOOD. There was zero chance of me eating vegetarian on this trip, and I'm really glad I decided to just go with it, otherwise I would've missed out on some amazing meals.
After lunch, we visited the Kölner Dom (Cathedral), which was enormous and really beautiful. A weathered black stone Gothic cathedral? How could I not love that? I mean really.
Then we hit the shopping areas, namely the Hohe Straße and Schildergasse, where I challenged Melanie with a new request every couple of minutes ("Find me a hat!", "Find me some greeting cards!"). Luckily for me, she came through every time and I found a super cute hat for Sarah's wedding the following weekend, some cards, and a little gift for my Mom for Mother's Day. Yay!
After a bit of shopping, we took a break for kaffee und kuchen (natürlich!) at Cafe Fromme and I had the most delicious slice of banana-chocolate mousse cake and COFFEE. I didn't drink a lot of "regular" coffee on this trip and so this cup was a very welcome treat.
After our break, we said goodbye to Leonie who had to get back to Düsseldorf and then we did some more shopping and lots of walking around. Melanie took us all around the city, pointing out public landmarks as well as her own personal landmarks. It was a really great tour and I'm so glad I got to see so much in a small amount of time and got to spend that time with Miss Melanie!
We had some cheap pizza and burgers (and more kölsch, of course) for dinner and then stopped at a grocery store on the walk back to the hotel, where I loaded up on gummis and chocolate. Heaven.
On Saturday, we met up for breakfast with Melanie and our friend Anna, who was in town from Poland, at the Kamps by the cathedral where I had this ridiculous strawberry danish thing that was filled with vanilla pudding. WHAT? You heard me.
We chilled out for awhile and chatted and after breakfast, we said goodbye to Melanie and then headed off to the hotel for a bit because it had started to rain - but, of course, not before we stopped at the little kiosk by the train station for currywurst. It was my first time trying it and it was so good, even better than expected!
After a little rain break, we met up with Anna again and got on the U-Bahn alllllll the way out to Sparkasse am Butzweilerhof to the Coloneum Film and TV Studios for the taping of the Deutschland sucht den Superstar season finale. I'd been watching DSDS this season because my favorite person was a judge and when we got the opportunity to get tickets and realized that we could easily fit Köln into our itinerary, it was kind of a no-brainer.
DSDS was sooooo fun. It was, of course, all in German so I was a little lost on what was happening much of the time, but I also kept up with the action better than I thought I would. And I've never been to a taping of anything before and so it was cool to see the behind the scenes stuff and of course, to see all of the contestants, hosts, judges, etc. that we'd been watching all season back in the States. And, to top it all off, we got a personal wave from Bill as he walked out of the studio at the end. It was basically the cherry on top of an already amazing trip!
We got back home quite late but luckily were just in time to get another currywurst on the way to the hotel before the stand closed up for the night. This time I had it "mit Brötchen" instead of "mit Pommes" because the currywurst man had already cleaned out the fryers for the night. It was still super good, of course. We ate our very late dinner while we watched the re-run of the DSDS show we'd just been at, which was kind of totally surreal.
The next day was travel day, ugh, which meant we had to be up at like 5:00 AM to catch our train back to Paris for our flights back to Boston. I didn't want to go. I'm actually still in denial that I ever left.
So, in short, Europe was ah-may-zing. I can't pick a favorite among Rome, Paris, and Köln. There were so many chances for things to go so terribly wrong but instead, everything worked out as perfectly as possible. And I absolutely cannot wait to go back.