It is impossible not to be impressed by Cologne in northern Germany, also known by its German name of Koln. Whether arriving by car, train or a Rhine river cruise ship, the dominant cathedral serves up a brooding Gothic welcome, while the pedestrian-friendly Altstadt awaits at its feet, poised for exploration.
Rambling through the old section of the city, however, a visitor could be excused for being less than overwhelmed by the selection of drinking destinations. Once past the Cathedral-side Fruh brewery and beer hall, the main streets of the Altstadt are dominated by faux Irish pubs, ersatz pizza joints and cheesy nightclubs.
But for those willing to go a little farther, far superior options also exist.
Cheap and cheerful
The city is known for its signature beer, a crisp and golden ale called kolsch, and nowhere is it better presented than at Malzmuhle, found just off the beaten track at the south end of the Altstadt. Enter via the old revolving door and you will find yourself temporarily, if slightly distressingly, plunged into darkness before being delivered into the well-lit beer hall. Dark wooden walls contrast with a cream-tiled floor and long, light wood tables mean it looks like the farmhouse it once was. But the room is as warm and homey as the servers are brusque and efficient. Once seated, a simple "ein kolsch," or sometimes merely a nod, will deliver an almost comically small cylinder filled with a delicate yet masterfully nuanced beer. Finish it and your empty glass will be wordlessly replaced until you signal an end to your visit by topping it with a coaster. Heumarkt 6; 221-21-01-17; muehlenkoelsch.de
It's not all breweries and beer halls in Cologne, though. Head downstairs to Capri Lounge, near the site of the old city wall. In a space reminiscent of an ancient wine cellar, spirits and cocktails reign, with emphasis placed on variety and rarity in the former, and creativity and imagination in the latter. While the Capri is laid-back, the mixologists are serious about their craft, painstakingly preparing and garnishing each drink until it is just so. Order the house special, a Truffle Sazerac, which combines XO cognac, vintage port, absinthe, bitters, sugar and truffle oil, and is served topped with white-truffle shavings. No wonder the German magazine Mixology once awarded it "drink of the year." Benesisstrasse 61; 221-820-33-60; capri-lounge.com
Heading back toward the train station, you might pass unaware the relatively modest entry to the five-star Excelsior Hotel Ernst. Once inside, you could easily miss the discreetly signed hallway that leads to the Piano Bar. But neither should escape notice. The Old World charm of the room transports you to a time long ago, when propriety was the norm and a hotel bar was more than just a place to grab a quick quaff. No better drink to enjoy, then, than Dom Pérignon, unusually offered here by the glass. At $48.00 (€38.50) a glass, it's certainly an indulgence, but given the setting, it still seems the obvious selection. Trankgasse 1-5; 221-27-01; excelsiorhotelernst.com
The author travelled with the assistance of the German National Tourist Office.