Pop Art, Gothic architecture, and where to buy eau de Cologne. Tom Chesshyre uncovers the best of this compact German city, and bumps into Germany’s greatest sport stars along the Rhine

1. Cologne Cathedral

This is the place to begin any walking tour of Cologne. A place of pilgrimage for centuries, construction of the remarkable Gothic structure began in 1248 but took more than 600 years to complete. This was mainly due to a period of 300 years in which authorities ran out of funds. When you stand inside looking upwards, the huge stone columns are reminiscent of a Californian redwood forest, so high do they reach. The main spire is 157 metres high, and you can climb a spiral staircase to a viewing platform (€5). When work was finally completed in the late 19th century, this was the tallest building in the world. It’s well worth the climb but is exhausting – many people give up halfway up the 509 steps. The highlight of the icons in the cathedral are the supposed remains of the three kings who visited Christ in Bethlehem – kept in a gilded sarcophagus behind the altar.

2. Museum Ludwig

Next to the cathedral is Museum Ludwig, a superb modern art museum with works by Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Pollock and Lichtenstein, among many others. The Pop Art displays are particularly eye-grabbing, arranged in a large space that does justice to the brash colours and large canvasses. Jasper Johns’s American Flag works stand out, as do Warhol’s unusual piles of red, white and blue Brillo boxes. There are regular photo exhibitions of an extremely high standard. Bischofsgartenstr. 1. Tel +49 221 221 26165, museenkoeln.de/ludwig. Entrance €7.50.

3. Alter Markt

A good place to go next is Alter Markt (the old market) for a restful glass of Kolsch beer. Alter Markt is the cobbled square of what used to be the Old Town’s main market. Now it is a bustling area with café, restaurants and bars. Kolsch beer is a potent but light-tasting (slightly bubbly) brew that can only officially be made in Cologne. It is best chilled, and is served in tiny 0.2 litre glasses, which are refilled regularly by waiters in traditional costumes who keep an eye out for empty glasses. These waiters take mock offence when customers leave after just one glass – and will pull faces at those who ask for soft drinks. Try Peters Brauhaus (peters-brauhaus.de) for a friendly ambience and good food – plenty of sausages and sauerkraut as well as himmel und ad (“heaven and earth”), which consists of black pudding, apple sauce and mashed potato.

4. The Rhine

A constitutional along the river will be in order after that. Narrow passageways with yet more bars and restaurants lead to the riverfront. Take the walkway south and head towards a pale green hydraulic bridge that leads to a narrow strip of land once protected by Prussian fortifications – the red brick tower, complete with cross bow defensive slits, still stands. Beyond here is the Chocolate Museum (schokoladenmuseum.de), opened in 1993 by a local chocolate manufacturer, and the German Sports and Olympic Museum (sportmuseum-koeln.de). The latter pays tribute to Germany’s greatest sportsmen and women, with plenty of coverage on Boris Becker, Steffi Graf, Michael Schumacher and various football greats.

5. Eau de Cologne

There are plenty of shops selling eau de Cologne, which was first produced towards the end of the 17th century to keep out nasty smells (some thought it was even a remedy for the plague). The Farina company on Obenmarspforten lays claim to being the oldest producer of eau de Cologne, having begun in 1709. Farina Haus (farinahaus.de) has a shop selling a range of products, plus a small section on its history. Obenmarspforten is near the town hall; walk northwards along the river and turn left just south of Alter Markt, along Hunergrasse, then turn right.

6. Schildergasse

Turn south for a block and you’ll find yourself in Schildergasse, Cologne’s main shopping street. This is the busiest shopping street in the whole of Germany – effectively the country’s Oxford street – with fashion and electronics shops, sportswear, bookshops, food halls, jeweller’s… you name it. It connects to Hohe Strasse, from where it is a short walk back up to the cathedral.