Out of Town - Cologne and the 2010 Gay Games

A progressive, attractive metropolis that’s long been a playground for fans of outdoor cafes, leafy parks and extremely friendly gay bars, Cologne
(http://www.koeln.de/cologne_tourist_information) is Germany’s fourth-largest city and a hub of the country’s beautiful Rhineland. Established as a Roman settlement more than 2,000 years ago, Cologne is rife with cultural attractions and centrally located - it’s within four hours by car or train ride of Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Strasbourg.

There’s plenty to see and do year-round in Cologne (Köln in German), but summer is an especially popular time for a visit. Average high temperatures in July and August are in the low 70s, and the city’s many bars and cafes with sidewalk or courtyard seating come alive during these months. Every year in early July, the city hosts the Cologne Gay Pride festival and parade (http://www.csd-cologne.de/index_en.html) - it takes place July 2 through July 4 this year.

But 2010 is an especially important year in Cologne from a GLBT perspective — this year, from July 31 through August 7, the city hosts the Gay Games VIII (http://www.games-cologne.de/en). This well-attended event, which is held every four years, was begun in 1982 and held in San Francisco the first two occasions, before being hosted by Vancouver, New York City, Amsterdam, Sydney and most recently Chicago. It’s slated to take place in Cleveland in 2014. This is the largest GLBT sports and cultural gathering in the world, although the similarly themed, though wholly independent, World Outgames were established in 2006 in Montreal, held again in Copenhagen in 2009, and will next take place in Antwerp in 2013.

Thousands of visitors will come to Cologne to participate and watch the games, which also takes place around the same time as Amsterdam Gay Pride (http://www.amsterdamgaypride.nl). It’s expected that many travelers will make time for both events. Organizers are expecting as many as 12,000 participants from more than 70 countries — plus another 100,000 spectators. The city of Cologne, which has long been very supportive toward gays and lesbians, has worked hard to prepare for the Games, improving many sporting venues and working hard to roll out a warm welcome.

Most of the games take place within Cologne city limits and virtually all of the venues are within 20 minutes of the city center by car or public transport. The city has a highly efficient rail and light-rail system. Some 34 sporting events are featured, including basketball, cycling, diving, figure skating, inline speed skating, sailing, softball, soccer/football, track & field, volleyball and many others. The Games also feature a number of cultural events, including a cheerleading contest, band and choral festivals, a “rainbow” run, visual and performing arts, along with countless parties and social events.

The city’s skyline is marked by one of the most dramatic architectural works in Europe — the 515-foot Cologne Cathedral, which was built over the course of six centuries and merits a visit to appreciate the sheer wonder of its interior. The city has plenty of other cultural high points. Near the cathedral are the fabulous Museum Ludwig, which contains one of Europe’s most impressive collections of modern art (with Picasso a particular specialty), and the Romisch-Germanisches Museum, known for its priceless collection of Roman artifacts. The starkly modern Wallraf das Museum excels in european art over the past seven centuries, and the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst (Museum of Applied Art) is a rich trove of furnishings, decorative arts, and textiles from throughout Europe. It’s also worth looking for tickets to the renowned Cologne Opera and the city’s esteemed WDR Symphony Orchestra.

There’s also some serious shopping in the city center, with the massive Olivandenhof department store among the hot spots for retail. The pedestrian-only Schildergasse is the most popular shopping street in the city — it’s lined with brand-name shops and always abuzz with people. If you’re a fan of German snacks, don’t miss Hoss an der Oper, a justly famous delicatessen that proffers everything from sausages to fine Rieslings. Another retail highlight is the 4711 shop, which sells the product for which the city is named, eau de Cologne, a rather heady perfume with a citrus-y fragrance.

Visitors will find several enchanting places to stroll around the City Center, including the broad and open Stadtgarten, which lies just west of the city. Just follow Rudolfplatz west a few blocks and look for the soaring Colonius telecom tower, which rises 872 feet above the park. It’s also enjoyable to stroll along the Rhine, walking across the historic and dramatic Hohenzollem rail bridge (look for the triangular tablet along the river promenade just south of the bridge — it’s a memorial to gay and lesbian victims of Nazism), sauntering back down the right bank, and crossing back over via the Deutzer Bridge, which deposits you right into Old Market (Alter Markt) district.

Historically, the gay scene in Cologne was centered around the Old Market and nearby Hay Market (Heumarkt) areas, and you’ll still find a number of bars and hangouts in these neighboring districts along the left bank of the Rhine. Bars and clubs tend to be cruiser and more sex-driven around Hay Market and the streets just south. Popular here are Hombres, Zille, Blue Lounge (which draws more of a mix of women and men), Zipp’s, My Lord, and Station 2B fetish club, plus a few shops selling erotica, leather gear and underwear. Restaurant Mederrano (http://www.restaurant-mederrano.de/) is a very nice dining option hidden away from the crowds of Old Market but near gay nightlife.

Gay bars around Old Market generally appeal to a somewhat older — and more mixed — crowd (women and men, and some straights). These include Zum Pitter, a convivial space with outdoor seating, and nearby Comeback, a jolly gay pub.

The newer and trendier gay scene emanates from around Rudolfplatz, a 15-minute walk west of Old Market. Just south of this bustling square typically packed with students, hipsters, artsy types and young professionals, you’ll find several stylish gay bars along Schaafenstrasse and the streets just south of it. Among the hot spots, check out ExCorner, Maxbar, Schampanja, and the swish the swish X-Bar.

Restaurants worth a look near Rudolfplatz include Paul Bobotie (http://www.bobotie.de), which specializes in South African cuisine; and endearingly cool Bar Tabac (http://www.bartabac.de), which has the vibe of a cafe on the Left Bank in Paris. A good bet for a gay date, Nana’s is a comfy restaurant with a warmly lighted interior that feels rather old-school, but the kitchen turns out surprisingly modern and very tasty German fare. Just a bit northwest of here, gay-owned and wonderfully romantic Limbourg Restaurant (http://www.limbourg.mynetcologne.de) serves outstanding French and Northern Italian fare.

Within steps of Rudolfplatz you’ll also find numerous ice cream parlors, sidewalk cafes and casual eateries with a devoted gay following. Era Cafe & Bar (http://www.cafe-era.de), with its light tapas and good-looking staff, is a favorite — also check out Cafe Rico (http://www.cafe-rico.de) and Brennerei Weiss (http://www.brennereiweiss.de), a festival beer hall with a large patio. Also just off Rudolfplatz, stop inside Bruno’s GLBT bookstore for both mainstream and adult titles, as well as gifts, videos, toys and the like. It’s along Kettengasse, which has several other shops catering to the GLBT crowd.

One of the best hotels in Cologne for proximity to gay nightlife is the Hotel Barcelo Cologne City Center (http://www.barcelo.com/cologne) —rooms in this large, international hotel have large windows, many overlooking Rudolfplatz, as well as contemporary work desks, flat-screen TVs, blonde-wood floors and beds with comfy duvets. One of the city’s most famous and opulent properties is the historic Le Meridien Dom Hotel (http://www.lemeridiendomhotelkoeln.com), a posh hotel overlooking the Cathedral and Old Town. Its 124 rooms are decked out with boldly colored furnishings, marble bathrooms, and — in some cases — balconies.

Overlooking the Rhine, the 454-room Maritim Hotel Cologne (http://www.maritim.de) is quite elegant, its lobby set inside a massive glass atrium. There are four restaurants on-site, and facilities include a pool, fitness room, sauna and shopping mall. Nearby Hotel Lyskirchen (http://www.hotel-lyskirchen.de) is also quite popular with gays and lesbians and is near the gay bars in the historic city center. The 106-room property is steps from the Rhine and accommodations are sleek and airy.

Excellent, fair-priced options near Rudolfplatz include the trendy Hopper Hotel Et Cetera (http://www.hopper.de), a handsomely designed property set inside an 1893 former monastery, and the simple but cheerful Conti Hotel (http://www.conti-hotel.de), whose small but comfy rooms have rates starting well under 70 euros nightly.

Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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