Carnival in Cologne: The Complete Guide

Cologne's Carnival

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The city of Cologne, Germany declares Carnival (a deep-seated, carnival-like festival) the "fifth season" in its city. The planning for this celebration traditionally begins at 11 minutes past 11 on November 11, then party planners take a break over the Advent and Christmas holidays before festivities start in early February. During the celebration, street parades, balls, and stage shows are aplenty and Kölsch (the beloved local beer) flows freely. Children and adults adorn themselves in ridiculous masquerade costumes and the party takes to the streets. All the neighborhoods of the city seem to participate in this very Catholic holiday.

The dates of the Cologne Carnival have been canceled through February 2021. Please check the city's website for updated information on late 2021 and 2022 festivities.

Carnival in Cologne

Carnival gives German Catholics a chance to get a little crazy before going pious for Lent. If you're visiting Cologne, you can surely hang in the background and watch this over-the-top holiday event, but participating is much more fun. The lavish festivities include parades, costumes, and fancy evening balls. The most common costume is a jecke (or clown), but people can also be seen in animal or pirate costumes. Drinking is always a favorite activity, as most locals tend to imbibe on either glühwein (a famous German après-ski drink similar to mulled cider) or Kölsch. Sweets, a frequent indulgence during Carnival, include the krapfen (doughnut) and muzemandeln (almond-shaped pieces of fried dough). Enjoy Carnival-inspired music during this time, too, including local bands that sing about the city, the party, and the general friendly vibe of the Kölsche. Don't forget to listen closely for cries of "Kölle Alaaf" from the crowds. This rallying cheer translated loosely means, "Cologne above everything else."

Rose Monday Carnival Parades, Cologne. Germany
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Carnival Events in Cologne

Carnival is not considered a national German holiday, but in Cologne, many shops, schools, and offices will be closed (or will close early) on Weiberfastnacht (Silly Thursday) all the way through Veilchendienstag (Violet Tuesday), with the exception of Friday, which is a regular workday. Even if shops and businesses are open, don't be surprised to find people dressed in costume and exuding a festive spirit that can be found throughout the city.

  • Weiberfastnacht (or Silly Thursday) typically takes place before Ash Wednesday and is reserved as a day for the ladies. Costumed women gather in the streets, gleefully attacking the men by cutting off their ties. For their compliance, men are rewarded with a bützchen (little kiss). People meet up at Alter Markt (or Alder Maat in the Kölsch dialect) at 11:11 a.m. and three Carnival parade characters, the Prince, the Peasant, and the Virgin join the crowds. Beer is enjoyed by all during the merrymaking. Then after a booze-filled afternoon, masked balls and parties take place in various locales, come evening.
  • Carnival weekend carries on in its intoxicated manner under the valor of tradition. A Frühschoppen, or early-morning drink, is a respected custom enjoyed on many a morning. For this, locals meet around 10:30 a.m. at Funkenbiwak in Neumarkt. By midday, the tipsy city of Cologne will be covered in jecke, followed by more formal balls and gatherings in the evening.
  • Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) takes place the following Monday and is a loud wake-up from the hangovers of the weekend. At 11:11 am, marching bands, dancers, and floats strut down the streets, with performers tossing sweets, known as kamelle (caramels), and tulips to the boisterous crowds. In a show of pointed humor, floats often depict caricatures of politicians and famous German personalities. 
  • By the time Veilchendienstag (Violet Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday) rolls around, things begin quieting down. While a few parades and goings-on still exist in Cologne's suburbs, the city's main event turns its focus to a ceremonial Nubbelverbrennung (burning of the nubbel—a life-size straw figure). This man-sized form is strung in front of many bars and is lit on fire just before Ash Wednesday as a ceremonial offering for the people's sins. The largest of these ceremonies takes place Kwartier Latäng, the student district.
  • Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday) marks the end of a near-week of partying in Cologne. Locals soothe their spirit with a visit to the church where they receive an ash cross to wear throughout the day. Then, they heal their tired bodies with a fish dinner that evening.

When Is Carnival in Cologne?

The carnival season in Germany officially begins months before the actual party. On November 11, at 11:11 a.m. the "Council of Eleven" gathers to plan next year's events. Though planning is serious business, an air of playfulness can already be seen in the planners' outfits and jaunty fool's caps, complete with bells.

The actual party begins 40 days before Easter and usually sometime in February. For 2021, however, the Cologne festivities have been canceled.

Tips for Attending Carnival

  • Many German cities host their own Carnival celebration, but few are on par with Cologne. Düsseldorf, Münster, Aachen, and Mainz all feature large celebrations complete with grand street parades.
  • Kids are welcome to take part in Carnival festivities (especially in places set deep in tradition, like Berlin). Children are commonly dressed in costume and have special celebrations at Kita (preschool) or school. Halloween is usually reserved for scary costumes (if celebrated at all), so Carnival children dress up as clowns or other pleasant characters.
  • If you're not up for the full-blown festivities, you can watch the fun on German television, as multiple channels televise the ceremonies, parades, and festivities.