Star rating - 8/10
There's nothing better for getting you in the festive spirit than visiting a proper German Christmas market. Yes Albert Square might be fun, but it can't compete with the real thing. And Cologne, along with every other German city, town, and even small village, is getting in the Christmas swing right now in a very big way.
There are about six separate Christmas markets in Cologne, admittedly of varying qualities, ranging from the tacky Blackpoolesque ones to purveyors of fine foods, alcohol and unusual gifts. The best one I found was right by the cathedral. The smells alone are enough to satisfy. But it's impossible to resist the potato fritters, roast chestnuts, chocolate covered fruits, and of course the Glühwein (literally glowing wine - mulled wine to you and me).
And it is all a very jolly affair, with 72% of Germans (according to an odd polling result I happened to see anyway) visiting a Christmas market, alongside the many foreign tourists. There is no loutish behaviour to dull the seasonal cheer, just happy smiling faces enjoying the hustle and bustle. It's enough to make you come over all Bing Crosby.
And talking of the cathedral, with its beautiful spires, defiantly imposing themselves on the city, it is well worth a visit pre Glühwein sampling. It is one of the few surviving buildings from the Allied bombings of the city in World War II. Work to build it started in the thirteenth century, but halted in an uncharacteristically un-German way a couple of centuries later, and was finally finished in 1880. It's sweeping and impressive without being particularly ornate, and has a tower with over 500 steps to climb if you feel so inclined. As the day was not particularly clear, I didn't, nothing to do with the number of steps you understand, just the lack of a prospective view....
The other place of note I visited in Cologne was admittedly not the cheeriest of tourist venues, but a vital stop nevertheless - the former Gestapo headquarters, now known as the National Socialism Documentation Centre. Its chilling past is laid bare, and its walls remain austere, and undecorated from when it was used in such anger and hatred. Jews, Roma, and other systematic Nazi victims are remembered as groups, and most effectively as individuals, via a series of fascinating displays (only in German though - but English audio guides are available).
Cologne, or Köln as the locals refer to it, is a modern, interesting city, and the run up to Christmas is certainly a very special time to visit. Frohes Weihnachten!