Just Back From Cologne

Hotels, restaurants, museums and galleries

When it comes to German cities, Cologne lacks the flair of Berlin and the Gemütlichkeit of Munich. Founded in A.D. 50, the city is best known for its Gothic cathedral and its Roman origins, which are visible everywhere. But behind this ancient face lies a young soul bustling with energy, due in large part to a vibrant art scene. Home to many established and emerging artists as well as more than 30 museums and 100 galleries, Cologne unveils its newest creations in exhibits across the city during the Premieretage, the first weekend in April.

Best New Hotels

A car seems inappropriate for the drive up the long courtyard to Grandhotel Schloss Bensberg, nine miles outside Cologne. Instinctively one longs for a horse-drawn carriage. The hotel, which opened in a sprawling Baroque castle in August 2000, is appropriately indulgent: 120 rooms, 10,000 wines, an 11,000-square-foot spa, 66,000 lights imitating a night sky over the pool. Despite the numbers, the Bensberg's warm staff, careful interior design, and attention to detail combine to create an intimate atmosphere. Rooms are spacious, with high ceilings. Suite 307 has a fabulous view of Cologne and a black-marble bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub. The poetically inclined should choose the cozy third-floor rooms, whose ceilings reveal the original wood beams. Though the restaurants of the city are nearby, many guests choose to dine in. Restaurant Vendôme, run by two-star chef Joachim Wissler, offers formal French dining; Enoteca, a rustic Italian bistro, serves homemade pasta; and talented chef Walter Leufen presents international cuisine at Jan Wellem (named for the ch•teau's first owner). Private dinners can be arranged in the library or in the romantic wine cellar, complete with sloping red-brick ceiling. Rooms, $215-$1,375. Kadettenstrasse, Bergisch Gladbach; 49-2204-42-0; fax 49-2204-42-888; www.schlossbensberg.com.

French design diva Andrée Putman (Putman's Pershing Hall) has transformed Europe's largest water tower into the Hotel im Wasserturm. Seamlessly merging the 19th-century brick structure with modern interiors, Putman left spaces open and light, adding variations on the water theme in the blues of carpets, tiles, and furniture. The 88 rooms are quintessential Putman:mirrors masking doors opening onto other rooms, milky light fixtures illuminating corners, fabrics skillfully mixed and matched, and more than 140 orchids adding touches of pale pink and fuchsia to a sparse color scheme. Not surprisingly for a round hotel, room sizes vary widely, and bathrooms are often small. One exception: Suite 415, a beige duplex with spiral staircase leading to a luxurious bath. Even if you are not staying at the hotel, the Restaurant im Wasserturm, on the top floor, is the ideal place to enjoy a drink and the panoramic view, especially from the stylish rooftop garden. Rooms, $175-$725. Kaygasse 2; 49-221-2008-0; fax 49-221-2008-888; www.hotel-im-wasserturm.de.

Top Table

Though hidden away down an unflattering side street, Le Moissonnier is booked weeks in advance. Owners Vincent and Liliane Moissonnier originally opened it as a wine bar (he's a sommelier) but soon expanded. The restored Art Deco setting, evoking a Paris brasserie, provides the perfect backdrop for Eric Menchon's innovative cuisine: tender pigeonneau rôti (roast pigeon) spiced with coriander and Sarawak pepper, filet de cerf (venison) in a port-wine béarnaise, delicious foie gras de la maison. As Vincent gushes about wines and Liliane, with characteristic French aplomb, escorts someone sans reservation back to the door, one almost expects to find the Boulevard St-Germain outside instead of the Krefelder Strasse. Dinner, $100.$ Reservations are a must; no credit cards accepted. Krefelder Strasse 25; 49-221-729-479; fax 49-221-732-5461.

In the Museums

For most of its existence, the Museum Ludwig (Bischofsgartenstrasse 1; 49-221-221-22370), dedicated to 20th- and 21st-century art, was known for much potential and abysmal direction. But that's in the past. After a yearlong renovation, new director and curator Kasper König, wunderkind founder of Frankfurt's celebrated Portikus contemporary-art hall, has opened his first show, Museum of Our Desires, with "dreamworks" by Marcel Broodthaers, James Coleman, and Candida Höfer. An astonishing recent addition to the permanent holdings (which include works like Dali's Railway Station at Perpignan and Ed Kienholz's Portable War Memorial) is a 774-piece collection of drawings, paintings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, and collages by Picasso. This donation by Irene Ludwig (whose late husband, Peter, created the museum in 1976 with a gift of 300 works), combined with the 100 Picassos the Ludwig already owned, constitutes the largest assemblage of the artist's works outside Barcelona and Paris. Standout pieces: Harlequin with Folded Hands and the disturbingly forceful Woman with an Artichoke.

When the paintings arrived in the new Wallraf-Richartz-Museum (Martinstrasse 39; 49-221-221-21119) last spring, architect Oswald Matthias Ungers is said to have quipped, "Here comes the decoration." His $30 million construction may be impressive (though it often feels overbearing), but the "decoration"—a gorgeous collection of 14th- to 20th-century European paintings—outshines it. Don't miss the floor dedicated to medieval art, with masterpieces like Stefan Lochner's frightening Last Judgement and Dürer's Drummer and Piper.

As if curated by Willy Wonka, Cologne's gallery of chocolate, the Imhoff-Stollwerk-Museum (Rheinauhafen 1a; 49-221-931-8880), culminates in a room with a ten-foot chocolate fountain—one reason the exhibit, which follows the metamorphosis from cocoa bean to candy bar, is so popular with young visitors.

At the Galleries

Monika Sprüth's $ (Wormser Strasse 23; 49-221-238-0415) is off the beaten path but worth seeking out. She championed photographers like Thomas Demand and Andreas Gursky before the hype and often organizes group shows of up-and-coming artists. In her bright first-floor gallery, Gisela Capitain (Aachener Strasse 5; 49-221-256-676) shows German and American works of the '80s and '90s by artists like Günther Förg and Zoe Leonard. The Martin Kudlek gallery $ (Hohenzollernring 22-24; 49-221-729-667), though small, is one to watch. Kudlek, who opened the space in 1999, represents a group of inspired young artists.Maximilian Krips $ (Albertusstrasse 9-11; 49-221-258-0497), on gallery-rich Albertusstrasse, showsestablished artists like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. Best of all is Daniel Buchholz (Neven-DuMont Strasse 17; 49-221-257-4946), tucked behind the antiquarian bookshop once owned by Buchholz's late father (and now by him). Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, winner of the 2000 Turner Prize; Kai Althoff, Germany's current It artist; and twentysomething Scottish painter Lucy McKenzie are among the 20 or so artists whose creativity shapes the space.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.