The obvious choice choices for a Carnival vacation are New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, or Venice, but don't overlook Germany for a Mardi Gras trip with a beer-loving twist. Oktoberfest may be the most famous celebration in the country, but Karneval is widely celebrated with street parades, costume balls, clown costumes, and lots of drinking.
Carnival is not a national holiday in Germany, but in towns where it is widely celebrated, it's common for locals to have the day off from school or work. The exact date changes every year and some cities throw a better party than others, so make sure you have all of the information about when and where to celebrate before planning your trip.
For Carnival celebrations in 2021, virtually all large public gatherings are canceled. Check with the individual city where you'll be to see if small-scale or virtual events are taking place.
What Is Carnival?
The name of the celebration varies depending on where you are in Germany. In the Rhineland region of Western Germany, it's known as Karneval, while in Bavaria around Munich it's called Fasching (pronounced FAH-shing). Meanwhile, the revelers in Mainz call the holiday period Fastenacht.
This is a celebration of excess. Carnival is the chance to get wild before the pious season Lent. It usually involves lots of public celebration with parades, costumes, and balls. Other than parades, expect to find other lively events such as organized food fights on the street. During the day, drink a warming glühwein or a kölsch beer, accompanied by the traditional treat, a krapfen doughnut.
People often dress up in costumes for Carnival, with the most typical outfit being the jecken, or clown. Satire is a huge part of the celebration, so you'll likely see locals dressed up in witty costumes that poke fun at political figures.
Events During Carnival in Germany
Weiberfastnacht (the Women’s Carnival or "Fat Thursday" in other parts of the world) is held before Ash Wednesday and is a day for the ladies. Costumed women gather in the streets, gleefully attacking men by cutting off their ties. For their compliance, men are rewarded with a Bützchen (little kiss). Feasting is essential as this is the last chance until Easter. After the booze-filled afternoon, there are masked balls and parties in the evening.
Carnival weekend carries on in its intoxicated manner under the valor of tradition. Frühschoppen is the name for the tradition of an early-morning drink, sometimes accompanied with brunch (and sometimes not). In the evenings, expect even more parties and elegant balls.
Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) takes places the following Monday and is a loud wake-up for those with a hangover from the weekend. Marching bands, dancers, and floats strut down the streets, with performers tossing out kamelle (sweets) and tulips to the boisterous crowds. In a show of pointed humor, floats often depict caricatures of politicians and famous German personalities. There are rallying cries of "Kölle Alaaf" from the crowds in Cologne.
Veilchendienstag (Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday) is a bit quieter. The main event is the ceremonial burning of the nubbel (life-size straw figure).
Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday) marks the end of a near-week of partying for Carnival. The pious go to church where they receive an ash cross to wear throughout the day. A traditional fish dinner is the start of healthier living for the coming season.
Where to Celebrate Carnival
While almost every German city celebrates carnival and organizes some type of street parade in its city center, the largest and most well-known festival in Germany takes place in Cologne (Köln). Its festivities are broadcast on TV across the nation, and Cologne during Carnival is like being in Munich for Oktoberfest.
But just because Cologne throws the biggest party doesn't mean it's the only one. Many other cities are known for their Carnival festivities, including neighboring towns like Düsseldorf, Münster, or Aachen. Further south, Mainz is a city right outside of Frankfurt that hosts one of the best Carnival parties in the region.
When to Celebrate Carnival in Germany
The Carnival season in Germany (also called the "Fifth Season") officially begins on November 11 at 11:11 a.m. In this magic hour, the Elferrat (Council of Eleven) of the town comes together to plan the events for the upcoming festivities. The official hats of the councils' members—fool's caps with little bells—set the tone for the events to come.
The carnival festivities take place between February and March, but the specific dates vary from year to year. Although most public events throughout Germany are canceled for the 2021 Carnival season, the holiday dates are:
- Council of Eleven Carnival Planning: November 11, 2020
- Women's Carnival Day (Weiberfastnacht): February 11, 2021
- Rose Monday (Rosenmontag): February 15, 2021
- Fat Tuesday (Veilchendienstag): February 16, 2021
- Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch): February 17, 2021
Carnival of Cultures in Berlin
Even though it doesn't occur during the traditional Carnival festival period, every summer, Berlin celebrates its own special carnival that has a distinctly Mardi Gras feel. The colorful Karneval der Kulturen (Carnival of Cultures) brings in more than 1.5 million visitors to pay tribute to the multicultural spirit of Germany’s capital with this four-day street festival of parades and performances representing countries all over the world. This is one of the highlights of Berlin's festival season.