Germany’s fourth-largest city is known for its culture, shopping, brewpubs, and Gothic cathedral. But most intriguing right now is the Belgian District, an area that could be compared to New York’s NoLIta.
For the past year and a half the neighborhood has been on the upswing. The small shops that previously congregated along the centrally located Ehrenstrasse have migrated here, having been pushed out by chains such as Zara and H&M. The Belgian District is only several blocks to the west of Ehrenstrasse (you’ll know you’re there when the street names become Maastrichter Strasse, Limburger Strasse, and so on), but in spirit it feels very far from the cookie-cutter commercial stretches at the city’s core. Particularly around Brüsseler Platz, a leafy square lined with handsome rowhouses, the streets are dotted with smart boutiques, stylish cafés, and restaurants. It’s also a short walk to some of the best cutting-edge art galleries in Cologne. Even the waschsalon (Laundromat) here is hip, with Pop-print wallpaper and a recently opened trendy clothing shop in the back.
"The people who come here are young professionals," says jeweler Marcus Götten. "They are in publishing, the art world, the film business."
Jewelry boutiques are plentiful, most of them catering to con-temporary tastes, like Marcus Götten Goldschmiedemeister, 2plus Galerie, Form-Werk, and the elegantly minimalist shop of Kaya Wilbrandt. The latter offers classically inspired pieces—say, a gold ring set with an emerald-cut aquamarine and brown diamonds.
At Magasin-Populaire owner Barbara Petry sells skirts, jeans, shoes, and jewelry by designers from across Europe. A tiny storefront called Boutique Fraukayser does bags, baby clothes, and clever fabric- covered buttons; owner Stephanie Kayser and bagmaker Kiki Hops can often be found at the sewing machines in the shop.
In fact, in the district it’s common to find designers using their work spaces as shops. Alexander Kalman makes adventurous be- spoke evening gowns, suits, and wedding dresses. His neighbor, Michaela Schleypen, was recently named best new designer at the Elle Deco International Design Awards for the playful, aggressively contemporary rugs she sells under the name Floor to Heaven; we fell for Popskull, an embossed, carved, and beveled rug with a pixilated red skull pattern on hot pink.
From the sixties to the mid-nineties, Cologne was the epicen- ter of Germany’s contemporary art scene. Though the city has ceded that title—and a number of its finest galleries—to Berlin, it remains a major art spot, in part because of the concentration of wealthy collectors in the surrounding Rhineland. In the Belgian District, Figge von Rosen and BQ are two of the most dynamic young galleries in Cologne. Veteran dealer Christian Nagel, who also has a space in Berlin, repre- sents international artists such as Zhao Gang, Mark Dion, and Catherine Sullivan.
When you’re ready to call it a day or just need a break, there’s Salon Schmitz, a lively place for cappuc-cino or cocktails. After dark, head to Hallmackenreuther, a retro-mod café bar that hosts events during Janu- ary’s international furniture fair, Europe’s premier design event after Milan. For dinner, walk across the square to Bali, a candlelit Indonesian restaurant serving dishes like Ayam Bumi Angus, a tangy crispy chicken dish that the staff will explain—in broken English—is one of the house specialties. A few doors away Green Card features a small menu emphasizing seasonal ingredients in an urban loft–style setting.
When it comes to accommodations, Cologne’s modest size makes it easy to stay just about anywhere without feeling out of the way. The novel Hotel im Wasserturm occupies a 130-year-old brick water tower, while the Excelsior Hotel Ernst, facing the cathedral and steps from the train station, offers old-world appeal. There are a few options in and around the Belgian District, among them the Hopper, a no-frills boutique hotel (be sure to ask for the largest room) that was once the cloister of the Montabaur Brothers of Mercy.
For art world types, the place to stay—especially during April’s Art Cologne fair—is the Hotel Chelsea’s top-floor Kippenberger Suite. Named after the late legendary artist Martin Kippenberger, who lived at the ho-tel for years, the small, spartan duplex isn’t for everyone, mind you. But thanks to the jutting, asymmetrical windows and small terrace, it opens onto sensational views of the neighborhood. Continental offers daily nonstop flights between Newark and Cologne, from $550; 800-231-0856; continental.com.
Excelsior Hotel Ernst
From $360. 1–5 Trankgasse; 49-221/2701
Hopper Hotel et Cetera
From $340. 26 Brüsseler Str.; 49-221/924-400
From $200. 1 Jülicher Str.; 49-221/207-150
Hotel im Wasserturm
From $485. Kaygasse; 49-221/20080
Bali Dinner, $95. 2 Brüsseler Platz; 49-221/522-914
Green Card Dinner, $80. 2 Neue Maastrichter Str.; 49-221/589-3725
9 Brüsseler Platz; 49-221/517-970
28 Aachener Str.; 49-221/139-5577
23 Brüsseler Str.; 49-221/169-8889
47 Maastrichter Str.; 49-221/823-2007
Floor to Heaven
21 Brüsseler Str.; 49-221/998-6826; floortoheaven.com
7 Antwerpener Str.; 49-221/938-6982; form-werk-koeln.de
Kaya Wilbrandt Goldschmiedemeister
55 Maastrichter Str.; 49-221/510-4485
8 Brüsseler Platz; 49-221/594-9704
Marcus Gotten Goldschmiedemeister
10 Brüsseler Platz; 49-221/513-746
Figge von Rosen Galerie
65 Aachener Str.; 49-221/2705-6840
46 Brabanter Str.; 49-221/250-8891; 2plus-galerie.de
14 Jülicher Str.; 49-221/ 285-8862
Galerie Christian Nagel
28 Richard-Wagner-Str.; 49-221/257-0591; galerie-nagel.de