Cologne’s 9 Underrated Festivals and Celebrations

Kölner Lichter fireworks | © Fabian Vervelde/Flickr
Kölner Lichter fireworks | © Fabian Vervelde/Flickr
The Cologne Carnival is not the only festival worth going to in Germany’s fourth-largest city. Cologne may not be a beauty architecturally speaking, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit. Throughout the year, events celebrate the best art, film, literature, music, and more. Here are 10 of the lesser known festivities.


When: January

At the beginning of each year, national and international designers put on more than 200 events to showcase ideas and trends. Visitors follow a design parkour through the city and stop at galleries, furniture shops, and museums. Every year, designers experiment with unique products made, and recyclable and sustainable materials, and Passagen is a great way to discover both newcomers and established artists.

Art exhibition by KIDS alumni in Cologne  © René Spitz/Flickr


When: March

For 10 days in spring, the who’s who of contemporary writing flock to Cologne for Europe’s biggest literature festival, lit.Cologne. The annual programme is composed of readings, panel discussions and plays, and brings together fiction and non-fiction writers. Best-selling authors such as Salman Rushdie, T.C. Boyle, and Donna Leon read excerpts from their works, while non-fiction writers and critics discuss relevant political and journalistic topics. It’s best to book tickets far in advance as most events sell out quickly.

British author and illustrator Chris Riddell at © Hpschaefer/WikiMedia Commons


When: April

Since 1967, international galleries use the ART COLOGNE festival to display contemporary art. Collectors and fans have the opportunity to buy artworks from all price ranges, but it’s worth going just to browse. If you have an appreciation for paintings, sculptures, and photography from the 20th and 21st century, and cutting-edge art, you can get tickets for the next exhibition in April.

The Cologne mayor speaks at Art Cologne © Raimond Spekking/WikiMedia Commons

Kölner Lichter

When: July

Since 2001 annual fireworks illuminate the Cologne skyline. Between Zoobrücke and Hohenzollernbrücke, 30 minutes of beautiful-choreographed fireworks synchronised to music bathe the city in neon lights. Brace yourself for large crowds, which gather on both sides of the Rhine to watch the firecrackers shoot up into the sky. Smaller events happen all day, culminating in the main fireworks being set off at 11:30 p.m. when 60 boats decorated with fairy lights pass the fireworks on the river.

Kölner Lichter fireworks © Fabian Vervelde/Flickr


When: August

The Gamescom festival has established itself as a highlight for the international gaming community and entertainment industry. In 2017, more than 350,000 visitors came to Cologne to be the first to hear about gaming trends, play newly released computer and video games, and to connect with other players from 90 countries. Events take place across the city over the course of five days. Visitors get a chance to meet professional gamers, and listen to a DJ set from Sound of Games who composed the music for Clash of Kings, Star Trek and others.

People playing World of Warcraft at the Gamescom festival © Marco Verch/WikiMedia Commons

C/O Pop

When: August

The successor of the Popkomm festival, which moved to Berlin in 2003, is a music convention, and electronic and pop music festival. Venues across Cologne open their stages to international artists at C/O Pop. Alongside renowned musicians, the festival gives newcomers a forum to play their music in front of thousands of people. In recent years, Moderat, Tom Odell, and Local Natives have played at the festival.

Moderat on stage © Matt Biddulph/WikiMedia Commons


When: September (moving to May from 2019)

Considered the most significant trade show in the fields of imaging and photography, the Photokina draws 160,000 visitors to the Cologne expo. The event has become increasingly popular and will take place annually from 2018 onwards, rather than only every other year. A lot is happening in and around the trade show, from seminars, photo workshops, shoots, competitions, and networking events. Whether you’re a professional photographer or looking to get your first set-up, heading to Photokina is a good chance to see what’s available on the market, try out gear, and have a peek at manufacturers’ new innovations.

Inside the Photokina photography trade show © Stefan Brending/WikiMedia Commons

Short Film Festival Cologne

When: November

The festival was initially created as a forum for young filmmakers and a platform for discussions about short films with industry experts. The range of films offers something for all tastes. At the core of the program is the German competition, which shows films in the categories fiction, documentary, animation, and experimental shorts. Other sections look at specific themes and regional films.

Still of the short film 'Man of iron' by A. Herta © KFFK

Street Food Festival

When: every month

Once a month, food trucks bring delicious food from all over the world to the Helios grounds in Ehrenfeld. The festival takes applications from anyone who would like to share their cooking skills. Professional and amateur chefs freshly prepare authentic dishes from pulled pork burgers, falafel wraps and paella, to sushi and vegan tacos. DJs and live bands add to the Street Food Festival atmosphere.

American panini with roastbeef, rucola, cheddar, krautsalat and BBQ sauce © Marco Verch/WikiMedia Commons