Cologne

Ultimate Guide to Germany’s Best Festival: Carnival in Cologne 

Everybody knows about other famous German festivals, such as Oktoberfest in Munich or Nuremburg’s Christmas Markets. But there is one German festival that is flying under the radar – Carnival in Cologne. 

Prior to moving to Cologne in 2019, I had absolutely no idea that Carnival (or Karneval as it is said in German) was a big thing. Turns out, it is the BIGGEST thing. It is the single most important festival in Cologne, attracting over 2 million people per year. Cologne is the undisputed hub of Carnival celebrations in Germany, and it should not be missed.

If you’ve never visited Cologne during Karneval, then you need to add it to your bucket list – this is truly something special! 

Carnival in Cologne is one of those experiences that you have to do one time in your life. The Carnival spirit runs deep in the blood of Kölsch people. You can feel the enthusiasm around the city as Karneval approaches. It is a week long series of street parties, parades, and special events. After living in Cologne for 4 years now, I can proudly say that I feel the Karneval spirit. I have really grown to love this festival!

This is the Ultimate Guide to Carnival in Cologne, Germany’s Most Underrated Festival 

What is the Cologne Carnival?

Not to be confused with a pop-up fair or carnival, Karneval in Germany is the equivalent to Mardi Gras in the United States or Carnivale in Brazil. It is a week-long party leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of the Lent season. There are street parades, people dressing up in costumes and masks, partying in bars and in the streets all over Cologne. 

Cologne is a stronghold of the Karneval tradition. As is Rio in Brazil, Venice in Italy, and New Orleans in the US, Cologne is the beating heart of Karneval celebrations in Germany. In fact, Cologne has the largest Karneval celebrations in all of Germany with over 2 million visitors expected at the major parade. If you want to celebrate the real thing in Germany, you have to come to Cologne!

Why is Carnival so important in Cologne? 

Karneval as we understand it today dates back to 1823 with the founding of the Cologne Carnival Festival Committee. But actually, the roots are far deeper, dating all the way back to Pagan times before Christianity. The inaugural Carnival parade happened in 1823 as a protest against the Prussian occupation of Cologne.  Partiers wore pompous military uniforms as a way of perverting the symbol of the Prussian military. 

Right from the start, the whole atmosphere was somewhat tongue-in-cheek with hints of dark humor. This feeling is alive and well today. During the parade, you will see floats depicting current political and social themes, often in a dark or joking kind of way. For example, Vladimir Putin as a devil or floats against church abuse scandals.

Despite this long history, I think the really important thing about Karneval is the energy. Karneval is an expression of joy and pride in Cologne — in the place where you live. People come together to have fun, to celebrate, the meet new people. It is all about pride in this place.

When is the Cologne Carnival? 

You’ll sometimes hear Karneval called the fifth season throughout the Rhineland area. In its broadest meaning, Karneval is a whole season – the “5th season” which starts on November 11th at 11.11am every year and runs until Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent). 

The Christian calendar is based on the lunar cycle, so the exact dates for Karneval vary each year. Typically it happens between the middle of February to early March. 

Now you might be wondering – how the heck do these people celebrate Carnival for months? While there is a festive spirit throughout the 5th season, the high point of Karneval is a 5 day stretch from Silly Thursday (Thursday before Lent) to Fat Tuesday. More on those below, but those are the key days for visitors to experience the true magic of Carnival in Cologne.

Important Traditions You Need To Know About Cologne Carnival

There are several key traditions that occur during Cologne Karneval, or Fastelovend as it is called in local dialect. 

Kölle Alaaf

Perhaps the most important tradition of Carnival in Cologne is cheering. During the festivities, you’ll hear people shout “Kölle Alaaf!” at seemingly every opportunity.  It is the unofficial Karneval slogan and this is the primary phrase that you should learn before attending Cologne’s Carnival. It’ll be heard in bars, on the street, in the train. It translates as ‘Cologne Above All Else’. It is a simple and easy way to declare one’s love for Cologne. 

Karneval Music

It is said that there are more songs written about Cologne than any other city in the world. That is because each year, Cologne’s local bands write and produce music that is specifically dedicated to Karneval. And this has been happening for over 200 years! There are over 10,000 songs on Spotify about Cologne and Karneval.

Similar to Christmas music, Kölsch Karneval songs will start being played around town a few weeks prior to the holiday. The music is typically about proclaiming one’s love for Cologne and the people who call it home. New songs are added each year. For a newbie, the sheer volume of music can be bewildering, so check out a playlist like this one to give you an idea about what the music is like. Try to learn the chorus lyrics of a few really popular songs, such as Stadt mit K, Nie Mehr Fastenlovend and Kölsche Jung.

4 S’s

Karneval can be summarized by four German words beginning with ‘S’: 

  • Singen (singing)
  • Schunkeln (swinging arm-in-arm)
  • Saufen (boozing)
  • Scherzen (joking)

In every bar or street party that you come across, you will see people doing one (or all four) of these activities. It is a joyous time of celebration and revelry! 

Dreigestirn

Translated as the “three stars”, the Dreigestirn are a trio of characters – a prince, a peasant and a maiden –  who function as the mascots or leaders of Karneval. Always appearing in the same pompous costumes, the Dreigestirm fully embody the Karneval spirit. They will attend events throughout the Karneval season, and you will see them prominently featured in the parade and during concerts. It is a big deal to be selected as a Dreigestirn. People will wait YEARS on a waiting list in order to be selected. 

Karneval Committees 

A unique part of Karneval in Cologne is the Karnevalsverein or Karneval Cooperatives. These cooperatives are well organized group orders, similar to fraternities or sororities, who meet regularly and represent their clubs. The societies host their own events throughout the main Karneval season from November until the last week of Karneval. Some of the events are small affairs, while others are held in massive halls or city stadiums. 

These societies are the backbone of Karneval. They also form a fundamental element of the social structure of the city. In fact, politicians running for local office disclose which Karneval society they are a part of, and almost all politicians need to be affiliated with one – or else they won’t get elected. That’s how important Karneval is to the city of Cologne! 

The most visible way you’ll experience these Karnevalsverein as a visitor are seeing the traditional costumes. Each Karnevalsverein has its own color, such as a blue & yellow or green & red, as well as its own uniform. They are all slightly different, but they will look something like a band uniform or a military uniform. My favorite part is looking at all the silly hats they have!

What Do I Need to Wear for Carnival?

If there is one thing that you absolutely need to have for Carnival in Cologne, it is a costume. A costume is essential. This is an event where everyone (and I mean everyone) dresses up. Every good Cologne resident will have a box of costumes in their house for the occasion, rotating through previous costumes or switching with friends.

Costumes can be simple, like just a wig or hat, to incredibly elaborate, like a group costume handmade over months. The costumes usually aren’t sexy like you might find during Halloween, but rather, crazy or creative. The most common costume is a jecke (or clown). You will notice plenty of multi-colored wigs, cowboys, tutu skirts, animal jumpsuits and pirate costumes. 

Usually, the costumes people wear have a meaning – such as the city pride– but many of the costumes are just for fun. Red and white are the Cologne city colors, so you’ll see LOTS of people looking like ‘Where’s Waldo’ in striped red and white clothing. 

Key Events During Cologne Carnival

Although Kölners would say that all the days of Karneval are important, there are three key events that you need to know about for your first Cologne Carnival. Carnival is not considered a national German holiday, but in Cologne, many shops, schools, and offices will be closed from Thursday through Tuesday.

Weiberfastnacht (Thursday) 

Probably the biggest party day of Karneval week, Weiberfestnacht is the unofficial ‘start’ of the Karneval street celebrations. It translates to ‘feast night of the women’. Women will gather in small groups and wander around the city cutting the necktie of any men they come across. When the men oblige, they are rewarded with a bützchen or little kiss on the cheek.

Local people will gather at Alter Markt square at 11:11 a.m. Around that time, the Dreigestirn (again, the three Karneval conductors) will emerge from city hall to join the crowds. Throughout the festivities, Kölsch beer will be flowing and cheerful dancing will ensue.

Rosenmontag (Monday) 

If there is one day you don’t want to miss during Karneval, it is Rosenmontag. This is the parade day, when more than 1 million people come into the city to celebrate. Once again at 11:11 am, marching bands, dancers, and floats stroll through an 8km route of Cologne’s historic old city. 

Over 200 floats, wagons, trailers and cars partake in the parade with approximately 13,000 people marching along. 

As mentioned earlier, the floats will typically use dark humor or tongue-and-cheek hints to caricature politicians or comment on current events. Throwing candy during the parade, especially kamelle (caramels), is a beloved tradition with an estimated 300 metric tons being given out each year. They will also throw flowers, called Strüssjer, during the parade usually carnations or tulips.

Veilchendienstag (Tuesday) 

After several days of heavy partying, things start to quiet down by Shrove Tuesday. Throughout the city, you will see life-sized strawman strung in front of bars, restaurants and even houses in preparation for the ceremonial Nubbelverbrennung or burning of the straw figure. The straw figure serves as the scapegoat for all of the partier’s transgressions committed during Karneval. Once the sun goes down, torchlight processions are held and the Nubbels are burned.

Do you have thoughts or questions about Carnival in Cologne? Tell me in the comments!

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