Cologne is one of those beautiful, historic cities attracting tourists from all over the world.
But what is it like to move to and build a life in a city with such rich history?
In the Ask an Expat series I interview people living all over the world but outside of their home country. I try to help paint an honest picture of the ups and downs of life abroad, share tips for other (future) expats and information about what to see and do in the city, town or country the expat now calls home.
Expat life in Cologne (Köln), Germany
Location: Cologne, Germany
Name: James Johnson
Home town: Salford, England
“In 2016 I was suffering with depression. So, as one of my ways of finding light at the end of the tunnel I decided to hike the Camino de Santiago across Spain to break the pattern and explore new opportunities.
On the first day of the hike I met my new (German) girlfriend and we walked the whole Camino together. It was a really transformative experience, and afterwards we kept seeing each other and flying between England and Germany.
At the end of the year the opportunity came up to move to Cologne and live with my girlfriend and I jumped at the opportunity. After looking at my finances it was cheaper to live here and fly back to England every few weeks than it was to do the same in the opposite direction.
Since then I’ve managed to learn German fluently, start playing rugby here and have gotten used to the way of life here in Germany.
I won’t say it’s been easy – sometimes making friends in Germany can be awkward and hard, for example – but it’s definitely been worth it. Living in a new country and having a new start gives you a new perspective on life and I wouldn’t change a moment of it.”
“Originally I wanted my girlfriend to move to Manchester, and she wanted me to move to Cologne. So, we compromised…and now I live here in Cologne.”
What do you like about Cologne?
“I’ve lived all over the world and Cologne is easily my favorite place to live.
It has this vibe of a city that has constantly had to struggle to survive. It’s always rebuilding and reinventing itself. They embrace art, culture, expression without any of the arrogance that would normally come with it. All while striking a perfect balance with industry and opportunity.
It’s not what I’d consider to be the most beautiful city on the surface, instead the beauty is found in the small corners, the old buildings and the back streets you never knew existed.
The people here are much friendlier than I’ve experienced in other cities in Germany and being social makes up a large part of the culture here.
It definitely feels like home.”
What do you dislike about Cologne?
“As a city itself I often struggle to find points that I don’t like about it. Instead the things I don’t like come from German culture itself.
Firstly, shops being closed on a Sunday gets on my nerves. It’d be nice to be able to nip out and buy milk on a Sunday.
Secondly, getting people to speak to you in German can often be hard. When people hear an English accent they automatically think, “Free English lesson!” and decide to speak to you in English regardless. It can be frustrating at times.”
What is your favorite thing to do in Cologne?
“Cologne is a super green city. There’s a lot of wide open space where people can walk, ride their bikes and just get a small dose of nature in a big city.
I’ve been a city boy my whole life, and I love the feeling of being able to get back to nature while being nestled in a big city.”
What is your favorite place to hang out (restaurant, bar, etc) in Cologne?
“Argh, this is a tough one! For food I love Bei Oma Kleinmann, it’s a small restaurant that looks like it’s in an old disused building from the outside. But on the inside it’s a cozy restaurant with a traditional feel.
They only serve one type of food – Schnitzel. But it comes in any variation you can think of and it’s almost as big as your head. Plus you get a traditional Kolsch beer to wash it down with.”
What is the expat community like in Cologne?
“Cologne is quite international, so the expat community is quite active. People are always coming together to try different activities, join clubs and speak different languages.
Any tips for moving to / living in Cologne?
“If you’re coming from outside of the EU, do your research. Make sure you’re aware of all of your visa, working and healthcare options before you make any big decisions. Germany is a country notorious for red tape, so be sure to get as much done while you’re still at home.
Finding property can be pretty simple because there is a rent-heavy culture here. Meaning people are coming, going and changing arrangements quite frequently. You can rent for the long term, or just pick up a place for a few months and then move on.
My best advice is to learn as much German as possible and make this a priority. Many of the problems most expats have melt away when they can see there isn’t a language barrier, or that you’re making the effort to ingrain yourself in the culture.
For example, it’s more attractive for a landlord to rent to someone who speaks German than it is when they need to speak English. The translation of documents and getting messages across is often extra work they don’t need!
Also integrating into German culture – to the point of having good friends – takes time. It’s one of the harder points of German culture as people are often slow to trust. But put yourself out there, turn up for events and you’ll eventually find yourself being accepted and initiated into social circles. But brace yourself for a socially awkward few months!
My closing point would be to never compare your life here to your life back in your home country. You’ll never have the same friends or the same experiences. Instead you’re here to meet new people and have new experiences, and they’ll be all that more enjoyable when you accept them for what they are.”
Any resources you found useful during the process of moving to and/or building a new life in Cologne?
“Moving from the UK to Germany, I found myself really struggling for helpful resources. There was one good article on the government website that helped me. But the rest of it came from speaking to people once I got here. And that was the main inspiration for starting my blog and to provide people with the information that wasn’t already out there.”
Is there something you just have to see or do when you are in Cologne?
“There are two things that everyone needs to do when they come to Cologne. Firstly you need go to the Cologne Cathedral and take in just how magnificent this building is.
Then you need to walk around the corner and go to the Früh brewery! It’s one of the oldest breweries in Cologne and you’ll get a fresh beer that has been poured directly from a wooden keg and tastes like no other.”
James is a Blogger trying to help English speaking people move to Germany, learn the language and navigate the culture with his blog Deutschified. But while he might be in Cologne now, a part of him will always be in Manchester.
About Cologne (Köln)
Cologne (Köln in German) is a 2,000-year-old city on the river Rhine in western Germany. In medieval times Cologne was the largest city of the Holy Roman Empire. These days it is one of Germany’s media, tourism and business hotspots.
Cologne is the region’s cultural hub and it is known to be one of the most liberal cities in Germany.
The twin-spired Cologne Cathedral, a landmark of High Gothic architecture set amid the reconstructed old town, is also known for its gilded medieval reliquary and sweeping river views. The adjacent Museum Ludwig showcases 20th-century art, including many masterpieces by Picasso, and the Romano-Germanic Museum houses Roman antiquities.
With a rich history and seemingly endless attractions Cologne is a city that has a lot to offer and is well worth a visit!
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