Exploring Cologne Cathedral

20070605 Cologne Dom

We have just entered the enormous Cologne Cathedral when an order in long red robes clears his throat. “Please, would you take off your hat,” he advises a tourist heading into the nave of the gothic church. It is a few days before Christmas and quite cold. But while it is disrespectful for men to wear a hat or woollen cap inside the Cathedral, women can keep theirs on. Good for us! These guards are called Domschweizer, the “Swiss Guard” of the Cologne Cathedral. But the Domschweizer are much more than security guards. They are guardians of morale and etiquette, they give directions and collect donations from all those tourists and travellers exploring Cologne Cathedral.

One of the most visited places in Germany

Front view of Cologne Cathedral - always touristy, always under construction

The Cologne Cathedral is one of the most-visited places in Germany, with at least 6 million visitors each year. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the gothic cathedral which took over 600 years to build (from 1248 until 1880) still marks the centre of the city of Cologne. It stands next to the railway station and is still one of the tallest buildings around. In a way, this is similar to the famous temple roofs of Kyoto, another one of our favourite cities. Even now, when you approach Cologne by car from the hills around the city, someone will notice it and point it out:

Look, there is Cologne Cathedral!

We have passed it and been inside quite often – Isa grew up in Cologne, after all – but taking a guided tour of Cologne Cathedral has been on our mind for quite a while.  At 2 pm, five people are waiting with us near the entrance for the tour to begin.

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A guided tour of Cologne Cathedral

With such a small group, the tour turns out very intense and packed with information. And overall it was a more exclusive and private experience than we had expected in such a top-notch sightseeing attraction. Huge sandstone pillars are holding the nearly 20 m high roof of the side aisles. Below this, we learn, the mediaeval architect thought it safe to build the foundations just as deep. That meant: up to about 17 m into the ground. Building that high was a new thing in the 13th century and nobody wanted the church to collapse. Did they build other big cathedrals such as the (similarly old and impressive) Aachen Cathedral with such foundations, too, we wonder?

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We also take a closer look at some of the colourful stained-glass windows. Most have symbolic scenes from the Renaissance period. But we also see the huge abstract window by Gerhard Richter in the south transept, installed in 2007. Back then it was reason for heated discussions, mainly because the ultraconservative archbishop considered the design too modern.

The holy shrine of the Three Magi

Eventually, we are even allowed into the inner choir to have a closer look at the huge Shrine of the Three Magi. It is the largest and most ambitious reliquary shrine of the Middle Ages, covered with gold, silver and precious stones. The relics of the biblical Magi (well, three ancient skeletons, in any case) came to Cologne during the 12th century. A bishop from Cologne had looted the skeletons from Milano, where they had supposedly been since the time of the Byzantine emperors. The Three Magi immediately made the town a pilgrims’ destination. The floor mosaics in the choir, as well as the detailed carvings of biblical stories on the 14th-century choir stalls, are also amazing.

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At the end of the tour, we all walk to the Dom Forum information centre opposite the main entrance to watch a documentary. This is included in the ticket price. The introduction shows some breathtaking shots of the Cathedral from above and high inside the nave. And then there’s some more beautiful pictures, accompanied by some general remarks about the church, its history and the major artefacts kept there. We realise only after a couple of minutes that this is not the introduction to the film but the film itself: Not particularly informative but beautiful to watch.

We thoroughly enjoyed the guided tour and although we knew much about the building already, it was interesting to hear some of the facts, stories and explanations in a different context. Our excellent guide also made us aware of some smaller details of the church we hadn’t properly noticed before. And without a tour it is rarely possible to enter the inner choir.

A rare image of Cologne Cathedral without tourists when we visited during the Corona pandemic

Have you ever taken a guided tour in your home town? If so, why? Did you enjoy it?

Guided tours exploring Cologne Cathedral

The Domforum information centre conducts public guided tours. We did the tour in German, but on most days there are two tours in English. Reservations are not necessary. The tours cost 8 € and last about 45 minutes.

Reading recommendation: The historic crime novel “Tod und Teufel” by Frank Schätzig gives you a lot of background information and is fun to read!

How to get to Cologne Cathedral

Classic view of Cologne Cathedral with the River Rhine and the train bridge, Hohenzollernbrücke

Exploring Cologne Cathedral is super easy! It is situated right next to Cologne’s main station. It is also right next to the River Rhine. So, after your visit to Cologne Cathedral, do cross the train bridge (Hohenzollernbrücke) to get that iconic photo from the best viewpoint opposite the Cathedral.

And while you are in Cologne: Try Kölsch, the local beer. If you happen to be in Cologne in February, also read our travel blog article about the Cologne Carnival!

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