The annual Karneval celebrations turn Cologne upside down. People wholeheartedly give in to the madness of festive music and booze. Pubs, bars and clubs are usually crammed, and while euphorically swaying back and forth to the music, people eventually step on each other’s feet and spill their drink. None of this spoils the overall exuberant mood, just make sure you wear shoes you’ll happily say goodbye to after the festivities.
If you’re out celebrating on the Thursday and Monday of the Karneval week, layer up. You’ll most like spend a good chunk partying outside, and temperatures can drop below freezing in February. As with your shoes, don’t wear your best jacket. The potential drink-spilling aside, a lot of venues don’t have cloakrooms, and if they do, they fill up quickly. In smaller bars, people just throw their jackets and sweaters on a pile in the hope that they’re still there when they leave. Often enough, things get mixed up, stolen or forgotten, so keep that in mind.
Despite the fact that Karneval is such a happy celebration, pickpockets do see the festival as an opportunity to get rich at the expense of revellers. Karneval veterans have learned to leave anything valuable they don’t necessarily need at home, going as far as taking an old phone rather than their brand new iPhone X. It’s best to store your essentials (cash, ID, phone) in an inside pouch or similar.
Germans – Karneval fans, in particular – can hold their drink and usually have a few years of training under their belt when it comes to drinking masses of Kölsch before midday. Having a sumptuous breakfast before you head out also helps getting you through the first few hours of Karneval fun. But don’t worry, takeaways, food stalls and supermarkets are all around, albeit very busy.
Getting up early is the best advice we can give if you’re planning on joining the Weiberfastnacht street party on Thursdays. Hardcore fans throw on their costume as early as 7am to get ready for the official 11:11am opening ceremony. That might be a bit of stretch for you, but queues at the pubs and bars get longer and longer throughout the day. The same goes if you want to snatch a good spot to watch the parade the following Monday – getting there earlier than the masses doubles the fun later on.
In Germany, cash is king. Not just during Karneval but in general. The vast majority of bars and takeaways will only take cash, as do taxis. Make sure you have enough money on you for the entire night – safely stored away in a secret pouch, your socks, bra or a purse you cling onto. Cash points are available all across the city, but those near the party hubs often run out of money before the night ends, so make sure to take out cash early on.
The local brew Kölsch goes down easily but don’t let that deceive you. The unimpressive 200-millilitre glasses are quickly empty, and before you know it you’ve had a litre of beer. Order a Zwischenwasser (water in between) to stay hydrated.
Thursday is the busiest day of all, and with millions flooding Cologne’s city centre, mobile phones often can’t get reception in busy areas. If you’re in a group, make sure to arrange to meet beforehand and agree on a fixed meeting point in case you lose each other in the crowd.
Cologne’s favourite festival lives through its traditions, customs and, of course, the songs. Karneval music is its own genre with its own superstars and hits all sung in the local dialect. Even though learning German is relatively difficult and understanding the local dialect Kölsch poses a challenge to even people from outside of the city, it’s worth trying to learn a few of the biggest Karneval hits.
The Thursday street party is something else. Music blasts from speakers and the adjacent bars and pubs, main roads are shut off from traffic and costumed revellers dance in the streets. Bathroom breaks can quickly turn into an hour-long venture when you have to queue up at one of the venues, so it’s wise to plan ahead – or snatch a spot in one of the places early on and celebrate inside.
Lastly, there’s not much else to say other than you should embrace the festivities and go with the flow. The Cologne people are very welcoming and friendly and love to share their crazy tradition with visitors. Linking arms, chinking glasses and singing along to the songs is usually all it takes to befriend locals.