While the Carnival season officially kicks off on November 11th each year, the main events are concentrated on the days between Fat Thursday and Ash Wednesday in the week before Lent. The festivals involve millions of people in fancy dress flooding the streets, adults throwing candy at each other and masses of beer and schnapps. If you’re planning to join Germany’s craziest party, have a look at our ultimate guide to the festivities.
Cologne locals absolutely love their Carnival, and they spare neither trouble nor expense when it comes to deciding on their outfit for the upcoming season. Carnival costumes are often on a par with Comic-Con cosplay, and people transform with the help of makeup, wigs, and outfits. Heidi Klum, who grew up just outside the city, is a known Carnival enthusiast and makes the news every year with her mind-blowing Halloween costumes.
The point is that fancy dress is essential if you want to join the celebrations. Saying that, if you’re just visiting to experience the Carnival once, don’t worry too much about spending hours and crazy amounts of money on your outfit.
There are several well-stocked fancy dress shops scattered across the city that can help you quickly transform into everything from a Disney princess and a Marvel villain to a clown, cowboy or a piece of fruit. Deiters has an online shop and a city-centre location with their shelves stocked with full costumes and countless accessories. The same goes for Party Discount & Karneval Discount Köln near Rudolfplatz and Festartikel Schmidt, which is a short walk from Cologne central station, plus a few smaller shops. If you’re dealing with the outfit question at the last minute, don’t worry. Most of the said shops are open during the Carnival as well.
For more practical advice, check out our article with 11 Tips for Enjoying Cologne’s Carnival From a Local.
Many foreign tourists make the mistake of travelling to Cologne for the Carnival weekend, as in Saturday and Sunday, and are disappointed to find out that the maddest of events took place on the Thursday before, followed by the parade on Monday. Another noteworthy point is that club nights are on the agenda, and you can go out virtually every night of the week. But the traditional Carnival celebrations occur in pubs and bars, on the streets or at carnival sessions where crowds are seated, and the entertainment ranges from sketches to live music and dance performances.
So let’s break down the festival by days:
Costumed revellers flood the city centre as early as 7 am, equipped with their Street Carnival survival kit of warm clothing, old shoes, snacks and tiny bottles of schnapps. Kölsch and music set the mood as the crowds anxiously await the official party go-ahead at 11:11 am. After that, the entire city descends into joyous chaos. The old town and nearby brewhouses draw tens of thousands to the area around Heumarkt and Alter Markt, though the younger generations congregate on Zülpicher Straße, the main drag of the student district, or near Chlodwigplatz. Music echoes from bars, pubs, shops and restaurants, and many are happy dancing and celebrating outside. If you’d rather be indoors, try to get to your preferred place as early as possible; otherwise, you may have to stand in hour-long queues. Parties continue all day long and until the next morning, though a lot of people surrender to too much booze and excessive dancing and singing before 10 pm.
Most people take the Friday to recover from the street Carnival madness of the previous day; others attend one of the traditional Carnival sessions, which are indoor seated events where people enjoy Büttenreden, comedic, dance and music performances. Tickets often sell out well in advance, and they’re probably not the most entertaining gathering if you don’t speak any German, or Kölsch even. A few thousand people come together on the Alter Markt square for the Sternmarsch, to light sparklers and sing Carnival songs. If you want to join and snatch a seat, it’s best to be there before 4 pm when the stands open. Other than that, you’ll find plenty of people in bars, pubs and clubs all over the city.
Similar to Friday, Saturday sees a lot of Carnival sessions and costume balls, but a handful of Veedelszoch parades march through some of Cologne’s neighbourhoods. The highlight of Saturday’s Carnival activities, however, is the Geisterzug (ghost parade) that makes its way through the city centre. In contrast to the other Carnival parades, this one is not organised, and everyone can join in. The tradition originated in 1991 when the Rose Monday parade was cancelled due to the Second Gulf War. Instead, anti-war protesters decided to march down the traditional route of the parade, and they’re were spontaneously joined by long-established Carnival groups and revellers to voice their outrage. Many of them were dressed as ghosts, monsters, vampires, the Grim Reapers and other spooky characters and inspired the now annual alternative Carnival procession and political demonstration. As on Friday, you can always head to one of the hundreds of bars and clubs for a night out in fancy dress.
More parades dominate the Carnival celebrations on Sunday. Most neighbourhoods see a Veedelszoch parade walk through their district. More Carnival sessions are on in the evenings, including one of the season’s biggest at the Gürzenich event halls.
The climax of the Carnival festivities is the Rosenmontagszug, or the Rose Monday parade. Most city-centre shops and cafés close for the day, and up to 1.5 million people head to Cologne and seam the streets along the parade route. With 11,000 participants, 100 music ensembles and even more giant and elaborately designed floats, it’s the largest Carnival parade in Germany. The procession meanders from Chlodwigplatz in south Cologne to Mohrenstraße in the city centre. You’ll hear the crowds yell “Strüßjer!” or “Kamelle!”,and they’ll be rewarded with flowers and candy being thrown at them.
Where to watch the parade
The best spots are occupied by hotels, companies or Carnival organisations who sell tickets to temporary stands. There are several ticket options – canopied or not, with catering or without – and access to a bathroom, which should never be underestimated. Prices range anywhere between €45 and €150. Most people just try to get up early and snatch a free spot by the side of the road. Severinsstraße, Hohe Straße and the plaza around Cologne Cathedral are popular yet busy spots. Friesenplatz, Appellhofplatz and the stretch between Löwengasse and Mühlenbach tend to be a lot quieter.
After about four hours in the cold, people seek refuge in the pubs and bars and set up for another night of Carnival madness.
The last day of the Carnival season sees more Veedelszoch parades with Ehrenfeld, Nippes and the Südstadt drawing the biggest crowds of people who cheer on the passing music ensembles, costumed groups and dancers.
In the evening, Cologners say their goodbyes to their favourite festival with a ceremony called Nubbelverbrennung. Across the city, straw dolls – the Nubbel – which have decorated pubs and other venues throughout the festivities are taken down and used as scapegoats on which people blame their sins and wrongdoings of the past few days. An orator reads out an indictment and asks the gathered crowd rhetorical questions along the lines of “Whose fault is it that we spent all of our money on beer and schnapps?” to which the crowd responds, “It’s Nubbel’s fault! He shall burn.” The doll is eventually burned and symbolically eradicated of the sins of the Carnival revellers.
On Wednesday morning, life goes back to normal, though the preparations for the next Carnival season begin behind closed doors.