Cologne may be best known for its massive cathedral, but there is so much more to this city like small beers and big festivals. Cologne, or Köln in German, knows how to party. A major German city, there is truly never a bad time to visit. Still, the very best time may be in February for its legendary Karneval (Carnival) celebrations that touch every corner of Cologne and beyond.
That said, there are highlights throughout the year in Cologne. Find out when to visit one of Germany's oldest and liveliest cities with a complete guide to the best time to visit with a breakdown by season on weather, crowds, and festivals.
Weather in Cologne
Cologne has four distinct seasons, each with its own unique attractions.
Though cold and dark, the winter season has two of the city's biggest draws of Christmas markets and Karneval. So people brave the average temperatures of 37 degrees F (3 degrees C), frequent low-accumulation snow, and icy winds to participate in these top events.
In spring (frühling), the city opens up with warmer weather as the clouds open up (sometimes) to sunny skies and temperatures rise to 40 to 65 degrees F. Rain is still frequent, and there can be epic thunder and lightning storms, so bring your umbrella (regenschirm)!
All of Germany lightens up in summer. The days are warm and long, with light lasting until 11 p.m. Temperatures are usually between 65 to 75 degrees F but can feel much hotter with the area's humidity and lack of air conditioning. People cope with visits to the parks and lakes and drinks at the biergarten.
In autumn (herbst), the days shorten, and the weather cools. Temperatures range from the low 40s to high 50s until late November, when the weather really begins to turn cold. Rainy days often happen, with low temperatures sometimes resulting in early snow flurries.
Crowds in Cologne
The fourth biggest city in Germany, Cologne has its fair share of visitors throughout the year. Thousands of visitors crowd around the cathedral every day, staring up at its piercing spires with mouth agape and blindly bumping into each other. Other attractions in Cologne that draw a crowd include the cobbled streets of the Altstadt, views along the Rhine, the prestigious Philharmonic, and its many fine museums.
The top event of the year, Karneval, draws the largest crowds. It happens in February, typically the off-season for Germany, but it can be quite crowded in Cologne with hotels booked out and restaurants fully reserved. If you are planning on visiting during this time, reserve well in advance.
Christmas to Silvester is also a busy season in Cologne. The Christmas markets beneath the cathedral draw big crowds, and Silvester celebrations have gone from rowdy to out-of-control in past years. There is better security in recent years, but if you like things on the quiet side, avoid visiting during these events.
Top Festivals in Cologne
The Cologne calendar is full of events, but two festivals draw the city's biggest international crowds.
- Karneval in Cologne: Cologne is the home to its very own version of Mardi Gra. This joyful, silly celebration has a long history in Catholicism but is more party than piety. For this week of activities, visitors can expect street parades with pointed political commentary and spirited costume balls.
- Christmas in Cologne: Christmas in Germany is a magical time, and Cologne is home to some of the country's best weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets). The markets open in late November after the first advent, and many run through New Year's Eve.
Cologne in Winter
Christmas consumes all of Germany from late November through December, and Cologne is no exception. Christmas markets, parties, and time with family dominate the season ending in a spectacular New Year (Silvester) celebration. Expect peak prices and booked OUT hotels and restaurants.
Popular sites are frequently closed for Christmas Eve, as this is a family-centered holiday. Expect closures of government offices, museums, and grocery stores on the national holidays of Dec. 24-26, as well as Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. Smaller shops may also close during this time.
Things quiet down after Jan. 1, but only until the biggest party of the season: carnival! In February, practically every man, woman, and child celebrate a week of different events through costumes, parades, and festive events before Lent's observance. It is a time of decadence and excess with the consumption of many of the city's beloved small Kölsch beers.
Events to check out: Christmas markets abound in Cologne. Take your pick of the best near the center or try and visit them all. For New Year's Eve, you can tip a glass of Sekt at midnight in your hotel or try to get on the list for one of the many nightlife venues in the city. For Carnival in February, the top event is Rosenmontag (Carnival Monday), where a kilometer-long parade makes its way through the city.
Cologne in Spring
The first days of spring remain chilly, but people are already eager to get outside. Expect to see people in the parks, biergartens, and lining up at the ice cream (eis) stands on the first sunny days. Join the Germans in their eagerness awaiting the arrival of the cherry blossoms.
Erster Mai (May 1) celebrations can result in chaotic demonstrations for labor rather than dancing around the maypole. Easter is a major holiday in Germany, though it is family-centric so expect to find things closed on the Friday and Monday surrounding Easter Sunday and perhaps further than that. This is also school holidays so expect higher than usual crowds at tourist attractions.
Cologne in Summer
Sommer in Cologne is a wonderful time to enjoy the city's relaxing riverfront promenade or take a cruise, catch a movie at an outdoor cinema, go to one of the sandy beach bars, or walk Cologne’s green belt. And this is the ideal time to enjoy Cologne's Kölsch at a biergarten.
However, just as everywhere in Germany, this is a peak travel time, airfares, hotel rates, and even some attractions will be at their peak price.
Events to check out: Christopher Street Day (Gay Pride) in July draws half a million participants, second only to Berlin's festivities. Also, in July, there is Kölner Lichter with an impressive firework display on the Rhine. In August, there is the world’s largest computer games trade show, Gamescom.
Cologne in Fall
The colors of herbst (fall) bring about a cooling of the weather, a slow down after the busy tourist season, and raising a glass to local wine. While Oktoberfest dominates in Bavaria, this is a quieter shoulder season in Cologne. That said, the party vibe never quite leaves, as on Nov. 11 at 11:11, the planning for the next Karneval begins.
Events to check out: Tag der deutschen Einheit (Day of German Unity) is a national holiday every Oct. 3, which means closures of grocery stores and businesses and a celebration in a different city each year. The Köln Marathon is another big event that takes runners along the Rhine and by the Cathedral.