On the eve of one of Europe’s most visited Pride festivals, I find myself hustling through the Cologne’s hauptbahnhof — “central station,” for German newbies — in search of my hotel.
This year’s Christopher Street Day (CSD) festival would turn out to be memorable for the heat, as the city experienced its biggest heat wave in recorded history, with temperatures climbing over 40 degrees Celsius. Drag queens were fainting to and ’fro as I rolled my luggage over cobblestoned streets in search of my sweet suite at Excelsior Hotel Ernst.
Cologne Pride 2015.
Cologne’s most luxurious hotel is perfectly located across from the city’s iconic cathedral, the Kölner Dom. The front steps of ‘The Dome’ is where every visitor to Cologne should start their adventure.
Lobby of the Excelsior Hotel Ernst.
I was pleasantly surprised to whisk myself through the cathedral and see a pleasant peace between the smiling priests and large contingent of LGBT visitors. Let there be no doubt about it: the best spot to cruise in Cologne during Pride is the city’s Catholic cathedral.
I spot a pair of butch lesbians holding hands while gawking at stained glass windows above; a trilogy of transgender folk chat as their heels click across the stone floors; and an endless army of dapper muscle gays snap photos of the crucifix with their iPhones. As I skipped out of The Dome, I couldn’t help but wonder if the archbishops buried here were rolling in their graves.
Majestic architecture inside The Dome.
The CSD festival all but takes over the city in July, regularly attracting between 750,000 and one million people to see the colourful parade that snakes its way through the city. I’ve been to Pride festivals all over the world and was delighted by the German-ness of Cologne’s offering. Crowds slurp fresh, local beer while devouring traditional street foods like rosti, sausage, schnitzel and doner. Boisterous boys sing in unison as traditional folk songs blast overhead, and lesbian couples tiptoe across the street in their Birkenstocks while dressed in lovely lederhosen.
Traditional German sausages served at Pride.
I ran along the bridge that stretches across the Rhine on the morning of the parade and hopped on a float where I spent the next six hours crawling through the city with the boom of disco beats. I quickly became friends with three drag queens who are known locally as “Femmes Fa-Gee” and was amazed that they managed to dance in 40-degree weather throughout the afternoon while sporting makeup, fancy frocks and diva hair.
A few of the queens of Cologne.
Cologne’s LGBT scene is one of the biggest in Europe, catering not just to city residents who identify as lesbian or gay but also to regular weekend visitors. Though club nights take place at venues all over the city, there are two main focuses for the bar scene: traditional bars attracting an older, mostly male clientele to the Altstadt area between Alter Markt and Heumarkt (the hub for CSD celebrations); and the larger, more fashionable scene focused on Rudolfplatz.
Cologne’s vibrant street scene during Pride.
That eve, after Eurovision superstar Conchita Wurst performed on stage to an energetic crowd, I headed to Rudolfplatz to check out the city’s top gay bars. During the Pride festival, the neighborhood offers a pedestrian-friendly, car-free zone where thousands of gays drink beer and wine in the street with an air for the bacchanal. I mixed and mingled with locals to find out what bars were the favourites of the moment: head to Ex-Corner for a classic watering hole experience, and try Exile for a dance-tastic late night complemented by performances from the city’s top drag queens.
Conchita Wurst performs at Colgone Pride 2015.
If you can find a spare moment during the daylight hours to enjoy the city’s tourist trappings, here are my top five must-see sites:
1. Glockengasse 4711
In 1792, a Carthusian monk presented a young couple called Mr and Mrs Muelhens with a valuable wedding gift. It was a secret recipe for how to make “aqua mirabilis” — which later became known as Eau de Cologne. Today, the 4711 House of Fragrances offers a petite museum, flashy gift shop and the 4711 Original Eau de Cologne Fountain, where guests can flash their fingers and quickly dab their necks with the 200-year-old scent.
Inside the 4711 House of Fragrances.
2. Museum Ludwig
A succession of handsome and light-flooded spaces provides a wonderful setting for an exceptional collection of modern art. Museum Ludwig’s particular strong point is Pop Art of the 1960s and 1970s, and you can feast your eyes on works from David Hockney and Roy Lichenstein, and see Warhol’s celebrated works depicting Brillo and Campbell’s Soup cans.
At Museum Ludwig.
3. Café Reichard
The perfect perch for people-watching can be found at the historic Cafe Reichard, which has been serving up frothy lattes and sweet cakes since 1855. Located directly in front of the Cologne Cathedral, grab one of the tables on the al fresco terrace and sip a cappuccino while nibbling on black forest cake.
Decadent deserts at Cafe Richard.
4. Claudius Therme
One of Europe’s most beautiful spas, Claudius Therme features indoor and outdoor thermal baths, saunas, relaxation rooms, gorgeous gardens and massage therapy treatment facilities. For prude North Americans, a visit might be a bit of a shock. You’ll have to get outside of your comfort zone (and clothes) as the majority of the space is “textile free” — yes, that means you’ll be nude with male and female strangers, honey!
5. Peteres Brauhaus
The city’s oldest and most famous beer hall, Petres Bruahaus serves up fresh, thirst-quenching glasses of Kölsch.
All photos by Andrew John Virtue Dobson