The world-famous Cologne Carnival (AKA the Kölner Karneval) in Cologne, Germany is a wonderful unhinged booze-fest that draws millions of visitors to the city every winter.
Known as one of the best parties in Europe, I’ve always had my eye on attending. After all, you guys know my utter fangirl fascination with Oktoberfest, so pouring beer down my throat while shimmying with strangers in fun outfits? Hardly out of my comfort zone.
But wow, trust me when I say I was NOT PREPARED.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place where the city center has completely transformed into one giant street party for a week…
The best part? There’s something unshakeably friendly about the Karneval spirit and atmosphere. Turns out, the drunk Duffman trying to get you in his Conga Line doesn’t care whether you’re a local or a tourist, and the Köbe dishing out non-stop refills of Kölsch will keep loading you up whether you speak the language or not.
Hands down, the Kölner Karneval is one of the friendliest celebrations I’ve ever attended in Europe.
SO, if you want to know what this celebration is all about, and how to enjoy it to the fullest, this guide is here to spill the beans on navigating the Cologne Carnival like a pro. Here’s everything you need to know about Karneval, from what it is, what to wear, where to celebrate, and how to scheme your way to limitless free candy.
… You heard me.
First: What is Cologne Carnival Exactly?
In a nutshell, the Cologne Carnival or Kölner Karneval is a celebration period leading up to Lent. Officially, Karneval season begins on November 11th at 11:11 each year, but the Straßenkarneval (Street Carnival), or so-called Crazy Days in the week before Lent are what attract millions of partygoers annually, including stumpy ol’ me!
Carnival may be celebrated around the world, but Cologne is one of the most famous places in Europe to partake in the festivities. In fact, Carnival traditions in Cologne are so beloved that this period of time is often referred to as the Fifth Season, which I do think sounds nicer than “Getting messy on Kölsch in a clownsuit for months on end”.
And getting messy has never been so fun and inclusive! From fancy ticketed masked balls to spontaneous dance parties in the streets, the ‘Crazy Days’ of the Kölner Karneval have a little something for everyone. Literally just step into the center and you’ll find rogue bands performing on every corner and clusters of Minions, Marios and Messes having the time of their lives. Besides parties, there are also a variety of organized events and celebrations, including parades and performances, so there’s really something for everyone.
A Brief History of the Cologne Carnival
Before we get into all the nitty and gritty practical details, why don’t we start with some * blows trumpet * historyyyyy!
In fact, the history of Carnival goes almost as far back as the history of Cologne itself. Back in the Roman times, Spring festivals were hugely popular, and gave residents an excuse to honour Dionysos and Saturn with plenty of wine and indulgence… because getting schwasted on wine is an activity that transcends barriers of time and culture.
Anyways, these wine-fuelled customs continued into the Middle Ages, albeit with a Christian twist, and celebrations became a final chance to feast and run wild before the fasting and sacrifice period of Lent.
(In fact, the name Carnival even comes from the Latin phrase, “carne vale” which effectively means goodbye to meat)
And so, for centuries, these pre-Lent festivities raged onwards, even fighting through occupations, wars, and disease to always claw their way back into the social calendar.
In 1823, the establishment of a formal committee would turn Carnival into the blob of organized chaos that we enjoy today, a celebration fuelled by booze, sweets and and reckless indulgence. After all these years, Karneval continues to go strong, with millions in attendance every year.
Where to Stay in Cologne during Karneval
If there’s one thing I can recommend, it’s to not stay in the Cologne Old Town. I know this may seem like the most convenient base location-wise, but this whole area becomes a giant party zone and I’d bet you ten Kölsches you won’t get any sleep.
The truth is, hotel prices in Cologne tend to surge around this time, so it may be tough to find a good place to stay without booking well in advance. We really lucked out with this hotel about 20 min walk away from the center (or a very cheap taxi ride less than 10 euros!) and I can highly recommend it if you want an affordable but still very clean and chic base.
Otherwise, the Belgian quarter of Cologne is also lovely, with plenty of great restaurants but still within walking distance to the central Karneval party zones. I stayed here once during another visit, and the location was great but I didn’t love the hotel itself. Next time, I would probably pay a tiny bit extra to stay at this property with its awesome rooftop bar.
Cologne Carnival (Kölner Karneval) Dates
So again, Carnival season in Cologne officially begins on November 11, at 11:11, but if you’re coming here as a tourist, what you really want to be here for are the Straßenkarneval (Street Carnival), or Karneval Crazy Days during which the entire city becomes a giant party.
These so-called Crazy Days officially kick off on the Thursday before Lent and continue until Ash Wednesday. Of course, the exact dates change each year, but here are the known dates for the “Crazy Days” in upcoming years, with the first date being the Weiberfastnacht and the last date being Ash Wednesday.
(Note that there won’t be any actual parties on Ash Wednesday though and the festivities are pretty much over by that point!)
2021: Feb 11 – Feb 17, 2021
2022: Feb 24 – March 2, 2022
2023: Feb 16 – Feb 22, 2023
2024: Feb 8 – Feb 14, 2024
If you’re thinking Weiberfast-whaaa and wondering which days you should come to the city for, here’s a breakdown of each big celebration day, and what usually happens…
Day 1: Weiberfastnacht, AKA Fat Thursday
Weiberfastnacht is considered the official Karneval Straßenfest opening day, and at 11:11 the parties begin, with costumed partiers known as “jecken” flooding the streets.
The main ‘opening ceremony’ takes place on the Alter Markt in the morning, with the Cologne Carnival figurehead prince, farmer and virgin (known as the Dreigestirn) present to kick off festivities.
In Cologne, this is a day for the ladies, with a fun tradition of women literally running around cutting men’s neckties off… while planting little kisses, or Bützchen along the way. We didn’t arrive until Saturday, so I missed this, which is such a bummer because I feel like running around town snipping neckties off unsuspecting men would be really fun… but hey, there’s always next year.
In the afternoon, another main event is the Jan and Griet mini-play/procession at Severinstorburg. This performance is based on a famous legend about a servant who falls in love with a market woman. The performance is followed by a little procession through the city. Click here for more info.
Those events aside? You can look forward to plenty of partying all over the city center. You can find more details on this below in my Where to Party at the Kölner Karneval section.
Day 2: Karnevalsfreitag, AKA Carnival Friday
While Friday’s daytime hours are largely regarded as a time to nurse hangovers and try to recuperate before the madness of the weekend, there are still a few noteworthy events that take place on Carnival Friday in Cologne.
The first is the Sternmarsch (Star March) in the early evening during which partyers march together from Cologne’s main squares (Heumarkt, Laurenzplatz, Bollwerk and Eisenmarkt) to the Alter Markt with sparklers in hand, where a fun stage program with performances awaits! This is definitely one of the week’s more family-friendly events, so be sure to mark it down if you have young ones in tow. Here’s info from 2020’s Sternmarsch so you have an idea of what to expect.
Of course, there’s no rest for the wicked, so Karneval Friday evenings are usually a time to flock to the party pubs in the city for plenty of Kölsch and dancing.
Day 3: Karnevalssamstag, AKA Carnival Saturday
The big daytime event on Carnival Saturday is definitely the Funkenbiwak, which takes place on the Neumarkt. This gathering is organized by the Roten Funken, the oldest carnival group in the city, which was founded in 1823.
During this gathering, there’s a stage program with performances on offer, and a performance of the traditional Roten Funken dance called the Stippeföttche.
More importantly though, there is plenty of traditional pea soup to be had and a bottomless supply of Kölsch! Yup – I’ve heard that there’s a special Kölsch glass you can buy from the Roten Funken that will give you free unlimited refills… if that’s not a reason to attend, I don’t know what is.
Elsewhere in the city (outside of the city center), there are a lot of different parades and processions taking place, so if you want a smaller more neighbourhood-style parade to enjoy, or want to enjoy a parade without attending the big one on Rose Monday, be sure to pencil in some time to see these other smaller neighbourhood celebrations. Here is a great list from this past year so you know what to expect.
In the evening, just like every night of Karneval, there are street parties all over Cologne in pubs, outside pubs, and pretty much everywhere.
Karnevalssamstg is also usually the day that the Geisterzug (ghost parade) takes place, although it was held a week earlier during our visit this year which means we unfortunately missed it. This ghost parade is usually one of the highlights of the “Alternative Carnival” program and is especially notable because a) it takes place at night and b) anyone can march in it! The parade procession typically consists of “darker” figures like vampires, ghosts, and witches. You can learn more info about it here.
Day 4: Karnevalssonntag, AKA Carnival Sunday
The main event for Carnival Sunday in Cologne is the Schull- und Veedelszöch (Schul- und Stadtteilzüge), which is like a mini version of the Rose Monday parade, except with dozens of school/smaller community groups. Unfortunately, this event was cancelled during our visit due to a huge windstorm, but a few rogue paraders still marched the route anyway!
Elsewhere in the city, there are more community processions just like on Saturday, so again, you can check out this list from the past year so you know what to expect.
While there are definitely still parties in the city center, we noticed that the crowds on Sunday night were a LOT smaller than on other days, and many of the bars/pubs were closed. This could have been due to the wind storm, but if you’re looking for a crazy party atmosphere, going out on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Monday is probably a better idea.
Day 5: Rosenmontag, AKA Rose Monday
The main event of Rose Monday is of course the world-famous Rose Monday parade and trust me when I say there is no parade quite like it.
With a parade route spanning 6.5km, this is a parade that lasts three hours… during which the entire time they are hurling candy, roses and literal boxes of chocolate straight into the audience. Throughout the parade, they give away over 140 tonnes of sweets, 700,000 bars of chocolate and over 300,000 flowers.
TIP: The key to getting the goods is sweet talk. You shout kamelle for candy and strüsje for roses (check out the section below on Karneval lingo for more information!)
After the parade, the partying begins, and at this point, I think you know what to do! Head into the city center for a party on every corner, or otherwise avoid the madness and settle into a quieter pub/bar and drink your weight in Kölsch.
Day 6: Veilchendienstag, AKA Violet Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. Alternatively called Karnevalsdienstag, AKA Karneval Tuesday
After Rose Monday, the partying begins to wind down slightly, which is why I left on Tuesday afternoon… BUT Carnival Tuesday does have one very special and unique event to offer: the Nubbelverbrennung, the burning of a little straw effigy they call a Nubbel.
You’ll notice them hanging in front of certain pubs throughout the Karneval season but long story short, the Nubbel is a helpless scapegoat on which partyers blame all their sins and the wrongs of the world…
His punishment? He is burned to a crisp…. and everyone watches while singing, chanting, and getting drunk… (as you do) Here’s a list of where the most popular Nubbel burnings in town take place.
Before the Nubbel burning, you’ll still be able to find parties and drinking all over the city, but I’ve heard it’s not as intense as the weekend.
Day 7: Aschermittwoch, AKA Ash Wednesday
After the unhinged arson, festivities wind down on Ash Wednesday… when life returns to normal, the costumes go back into their sticky dressers, and many will enjoy a traditional fish dinner. No parties tonight, my friend. It’s time for Lent!
When Should I Come to Cologne for Karneval and How Long Should I Stay?
Pretty much every day has something special, so unless you plan to stay a full week in Cologne, you’ll probably have to miss something.
We personally arrived on Saturday afternoon and stayed until Tuesday. This allowed us to see the Rose Monday parade (our main event) and get a lot of partying done on Saturday and Sunday.
In hindsight, I would have loved to see the Nubbel burning on Tuesday night, and also the Weiberfastnacht shenanigans because #girlpower…. and you know, a free pass to cut neckties off random strangers.
Honestly, in an ideal world, I would love to have been there from Wednesday evening (the day before Weiberfastnacht) until the morning of Ash Wednesday, but spending a week here might not be realistic for most, so I suggest reviewing the main events for each day listed above and organizing your trip around which things you don’t want to miss.
Where to Party at the Kölner Karneval
Alright, now onto the important question: where them parties at during the Cologne Carnival?!
While doing research for my own trip, I found so little actual information that I had resigned myself to a fate of awkwardly sipping Kölsch on a street corner waiting for cool kids to notice me.
But here’s the wonderful thing about Cologne’s Crazy Days: head into the city center and the party is everywhere. The key is getting into the very heart of the Old Town though. We stayed at the Motel One Mediapark (about 20 min walk to the center) and definitely thought we had gotten the dates wrong while trudging to the center in full Mario character costumes.
BUT, don’t worry – the parties are there, you just need to dig a little to find them.
If you need some help getting started, here are some places where you’ll definitely be able to find a party! And a few random streets/squares/spots where we had a great time:
We didn’t book any special ticketed events for our visit, so I can happily confirm that you don’t need to attend fancy ticketed parties to have a good time. That said, if you want a more organized way to celebrate away from the chaotic crowds of the street parties, then you should look into securing tickets for a ball or special Karneval party.
In all honesty, this might be a bit intimidating or difficult if you are completely new to Cologne and don’t speak the language, but if this interests you, the official Cologne Tourism site has a great roundup here for 2020 (and will likely be updated for future years to come!)
If partying on the street gets too cold for you, you can always duck into one of the countless pubs of the city to celebrate.
Honestly, this is such a busy time of year that every open pub seemingly gets into the spirit somehow, so I wouldn’t worry too much about finding a place.. there will always be one!
One night, all the most famous pubs were so crammed that we ended up in a weird basement Irish pub and the Karneval spirit was going strong even in there.
If you want to make a little list of possible spots though, here is a comprehensive roundup (all in German) from the official Cologne Tourism Board of different pubs where you can get the full Karneval experience.
Not only is this square one of the most photographed spots in Cologne, it’s also an amazing party spot during the Cologne Carnival, and probably my favourite street party area we visited.
It does get busy, but there’s everything you need here: several bar stands, a few food cart stands selling fries and typical party foods, and most importantly, an ACTUAL WASHROOM that is clean and not too busy. Sure it costs a solid euro per pee, but after one visit to the porta-potties, you’ll be happy to pay a euro for real toilet paper and soap. Trust me.
Früh am Dom (and the square in front of it):
We stumbled upon a day-time party here and it was a lot of fun! They had two bars set up and lots of people dancing around on the streets, with plenty of seating space inside the actual Früh am Dom beer hall if you wanted to warm up or grab a bite to eat.
The little passageway nearby (the Stollwerckpassage) also made the perfect little covered performance space, so we saw a band perform here too. The vibe here was really relaxed and chilled and I’d recommend it if you want a place to drink Kölsch and dance a little without being completely overwhelmed by inebriated humans.
This was one of the main party strips we observed which got really crowded at night time with tons of restaurants-turned-party hotspots and plenty of parties spilling out into the street as well. This was a bit rowdy for me but if you’re struggling to find some liveliness, walking down this street is a sure bet.
Dom im Stapelhaus:
This was a fun little traditional beer hall that we went to right in the city center. I’m not a huge fan of super sloppy parties so this little pub felt like protection from the wildness of Mauthgasse just outside.
There’s plenty of Kölsch flowing here, but the vibe is cozy rather than “woo woo party”. We spotted a few of the traditional Karneval clubs having their post-parade party here too, so I’d say that’s a pretty excellent endorsement!
Another bumpin’ party strip of the Old Town is Salzgasse. This tiny pedestrianized alley is crammed with bars and clubs, and you’ll definitely be able to find a place to party here.
Note that most of these bars charge a 5 euro cover fee during Karneval and it’s pretty cramped and rowdy… but if that’s what you’re looking for (a classic messy night out), this will fit the bill.
Pubs outside of the very center:
Lastly, I leave you with this very vague suggestion! Of course, there are parties on every corner in the Cologne Old Town, but many of the cozier more “local” gatherings will be taking place in neighbourhood bars all around the city.
We stayed at the Motel One Mediapark and on our way home every night, we saw this tiny pub crammed with people so we decided to try our luck on our last night. This turned out to be the best decision ever. The pub was adorable, we met some really friendly locals who bought us a round of Kölsch and the pub even gifted us their balloon decorations when we left. Drunk me was very pleased.
SO, be sure to scope out neighbourhood bars near our hotel too or ask for local recommendations away from the very center – you might find yourself pleasantly surprised!
Cologne Carnival Lingo You Should Know
Trust me, you will not survive the Kölner Karneval without knowing the following words and phrases:
Kölle Alaaf! – (Pronounced Keu-leh Ah-laa-f) This means “Cologne above all”! You’ll hear this probably more than even hello. Some people will shorten this to simply “Alaaf!” If you’re ever in doubt about what to say, shouting “Alaaf!” is probably a good idea.
Kamelle! (Pronounced Kam-ell-ah) – Shout this during the parades and you will be given free candy. No joke.
Strüsjer! (Pronounced Stroos-yeh)- Shout this during the parades and you will be given free flowers. NO JOKE. This is the best event ever.
Jeck (Pronounced Yeck) – Each person celebrating Karneval is known as a Jeck, which basically means you’re a fool. Embrace it though! Be a Jeck! Or gather up a crew of Jecken (the plural form).
Glasverbot (Pronounced Glass-fur-boat) – This refers to the ban on glass containers/bottles in the city center during Karneval time. You’ll see lots of signs reminding you of it, so don’t forget!
What to Bring to Carnival in Cologne
A fun, colourful costume:
First thing’s first, you really can’t come to Karneval and not dress up. I struggle to think of any place in the world where NOT wearing a clown nose or glitter will mark you as out of place, but alas, the Cologne Carnival is one of those places. Make sure you have a costume before you come! NOTE: There are places in town to get some last minute costume bits when you get here, but they’re massively overpriced.
Waterproof and comfortable shoes:
Inevitably, you WILL be walking and dancing a lot. People will also be spilling drinks and other liquids near your feet a lot. Make sure you have comfy shoes that are waterproof, and most importantly, shoes that you wouldn’t mind getting vomit on. I know that’s a weird criteria to have, but trust me when I say you’ll want to leave your favourite pair at home.
Wow I cannot emphasize how important it is to have hand sanitizer! Literally everything will be sticky. The cups your beer comes in will probably be sticky, the people who randomly lure you into a dance circle will be sticky, your shoes will be sticky, everything. will. be. sticky…. So, make sure you have hand sanitizer to wash up before digging into your drunk 3am fries or döner. Did I mention none of the porta-pottys will have sanitizer left by the time you need it? On that note…
Packs of tissue:
Just building off the whole porta-potty mess, make sure you have some tissues because I guarantee you will run into at least one situation where there’s no more toilet paper left.
The weather in Cologne is notoriously horrible during Karneval time, so you can expect it to rain at least once during your trip, perhaps multiple times with no warning (plus random windstorms) if you’re me ; )
The greatest purchase we made ever were some lightweight ponchos that we could keep in our pockets and bust out whenever it started to rain. This will save your life, I promise!
A small foldable tote bag:
I have to remind you that during the parades, marchers will liberally throw free candy and flowers at you, so make sure you bring a tote bag to collect all your goodies! I also saw some some pro life hackers open up umbrellas and hold them upside down to capture more candy. Those people are very much living in the year 3020.
Cologne Carnival Practical Tips
Last but not least, let’s equip you with some practical tips for your Kölner Karneval visit!
Search for all your information in German
The Cologne Carnival may be a popular event, but English language resources on it are hugely lacking (hence why I wanted to write this post!) So, here’s a huge tip to keep in mind: if at any point you need to research parties, dates, etc. be sure to use the German language version of the Cologne Tourism Karneval site. There is a lot more detail and information compared to the English one.
The same can be said for blog info, news sites, etc. If you need to find Karneval-related info, search in German.*
TIP: I always just use Google translate and use Google Chrome to browse. It allows you to easily translate any site into English.
Dress up colourfully
Once again, if you want to get into the full Karneval spirit, you’ll need to dress up as your craziest, most colourful self. While North American costume traditions usually want you to be someone or something specific (e.g. a certain superhero or character), the costumes at Karneval seem to prioritize being colourful and bright more than anything else. That’s why you’ll see loads of ragdoll clowns running around, bright colourful wigs, and just wild outfits in general that aren’t necessarily representing something known or famous, but are just fun.
On that note, be wary that German pop culture is different from that of your home country! I threw myself in the mix as the obscure Mario super villain, Waluigi this year and literally not a single human being knew who I was. On the bright side, it was an excellent conversation starter.
Hype yourself up with some cheesy schlager music
Okay, so, the music they blast liberally throughout Karneval is special wonderfully cheesy genre of German pop music known affectionately as schlager. You will hear it everywhere, and trust me, your nights will be 100x more fun if you know some of the words or at least recognize the melodies.
One song in particular to make sure you know is this one. It’s about Cologne and you will hear it every night at every bar haha.
Prepare for the invasion of your personal space… or plan accordingly
Personal space is just not a thing at the Cologne Carnival. If you’re an introvert who doesn’t want to be randomly in contact with strangers, you need to plan accordingly and maybe organize to celebrate away from the city center.
In fact, the one constant tip I found in all my research was something along the lines of “don’t be scared if a random person kisses or dances with you! It’s totally fine”. To the detriment of my ego, I was not randomly smooched, but just know that the Karneval spirit is very carefree and you can expect a lot of contact with strangers. If this doesn’t sound like your jam, then I’d rethink attending.
Make a urination game plan
Kind of a gross Karneval tip, but a necessary one. The many porta-pottys around town are not cute. I even (for the first time in my life) saw giant plastic outdoor urinals. I mean… is nothing sacred?!
The truth is though that the combination of relentless Kölsch drinking and street partying means a few things are certain: 1) you will need to pee and 2) everybody around you will also need to pee.
While there are a lot of porta-pottys around the main party zones, the line-ups can be very long and they are truly, truly gross. I would mix up my street partying with some pub/restaurant time to ensure access to clean facilities, and also scope out where clean toilet facilities can be found. For exampke, I know that there is a really clean pop-up bathroom in the Fischmarkt with actual flushable toilets. Sure it charges 1 euro each time, but it’s really worth it! There are a few of these scattered around town, so make a mental note of them when you see them… they might just save you in a few hours’ time!
Know the laws of Kölsch
The local life source of the Cologne Carnival is Kölsch, a dangerously drinkable beer with an assumed refill policy.
That’s right – when enjoying Kölsch, they just keep bringing you more until you throw a coaster on your glass, like a quitter.
Long story short: Kölsch is usually served in a small narrow 0.2L glass called a Stange. Servers called Köbe will usually come around with a bunch of Stange in a circular holder (called a Kranz). If they see your glass is empty, or sometimes even when it’s near empty, they’ll bring you another Stange in their Kranz, make a mark on your coaster, and walk off until you need another refill. They will keep bringing you more and upping the tally until you place your coaster on your glass to say you’re done, so be sure to remember that before you drown in a vat of Kölsch.
Beware the can people
In the midst of all the Karneval festivities, you’ll quickly spot a sort of guerrilla clean-up crew that weaves through crowds in search of cans to recycle. While I’m a big fan of reducing litter, these can collectors can get a bit… scary? Aggressive? Overly “in your face”? I’m not sure how to describe it, but just know that if you are drinking with a can in hand, one of these collectors will find you and it’s either a) great because you need to get rid of it or b) really scary because they will glare at you like you’ve just kicked their puppy, and stare you down until you gift them a can.
… Yeah, it’s not great.
Partying on the street? Buy canned drinks in advance from a kiosk or supermarket
Lastly, here’s a money-saving tip. Much of the party area in the Cologne Old Town is a glass free zone, so make sure you’re not toting any glass bottles around during your predrinking shenanigans. The fine can be something like 60 euros! Since a lot of the festivities happen outdoors though, you might want to BYOB. This is completely fine if you plan to chill in some of the squares or streets before heading into a bar, so grab some kiosk beers before you head into the center. This will usually cost 1.5x less than the prices around party sites for the exact same product.
Any more questions about the Cologne Carnival?
So, what’s the best way to get into the Karneval spirit? Put on a costume, grab yourself some Kölsch, and the rest will figure itself out. I hope you enjoyed this detailed guide to attending the Cologne Carnival! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.
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