The Ultimate Guide to Carnival in Cologne

The Ultimate Guide to Carnival in Cologne

Living in Cologne for over two years now, and having spoken with several of our local friends, you find here our ultimate guide to Carnival in Cologne.

First, we give a short background, followed up by the 11 most important things to consider for your visit, and end the post with the ultimative party locations.

Note: the long carnival celebration weekend in 2017 starts Thursday, 23.02., and ends on Tuesday, 28.02.2017.


Carnival / Mardi Gras – in Cologne it’s also called “Fastelovend” – is one of the biggest carnival gatherings in the world. It’s an old historic tradition and was meant to celebrate the time before the fasting for Easter. It starts on Thursday and goes on until Tuesday, just before Ash Wednesday, which is 46 days before Easter. Although carnival is celebrated in most German regions, the Cologne carnival is the biggest and most famous of them all. During this long weekend, the whole city turns into one big street carnival. Which means that several roads in the city are closed, and partly also public transportation is down. You will find partys, celebrations, people with colorful costumes and lots of laughter everywhere in the city. Plus a lot of drunk people 😉 Cologne’s carnival turns the whole city into a big festivity. It’s also the only German city where you will usually get off on “Rosenmontag”, Rose Monday. In Cologne, we also call this period the “5th season” of the year.

We will give you some tips at hand so you can plan your trip to Cologne and celebrate like a local.

11 most important things to consider for your visit

1. Get a costume
And by that we don’t mean one of those ordinary costumes everybody is wearing, like a police uniform, a pilot onesie or a cat. Get creative and have fun! There are endless possibilities, the last good ones we have seen were some traditional theatre costumes which looked like right from the medieval times or “bar” costumes for a group, where everyone was a different drink – e.g. Jack Daniels, Hendricks Gin, as well as tonic water 😀

2. Be curious and open minded
The locals are known for being very friendly and outgoing. Likewise you should be easy going and open to meet new people, locals and foreigners that come to Cologne to celebrate as well. Normally it’s pretty easy to meet new people and party with them, at least for the evening.
Anyways, it doesn’t hurt to bring some friends. The more, the merrier – that’s even more true for carnival. Period.

3. Dress properly
During this time of the year, it might be still very cold, and also rainy. Usually, you will spend a long time outside, applauding one of the several parades and wandering around the city.
Also, rather wear an old jacket and bring an old phone: like all mass events, things easily get lost or stolen.

4. Plan ahead of your visit
Carnival is always at a different date – dependent from Easter. Book your accommodation well in advance, as it will get more expensive and sold out rather quickly (similar to Oktoberfest season in Munich).
In case you don’t make it to Cologne during that time, you are lucky: each year on the 11th of November, at 11:11 am, you can celebrate the start of carnival season in Cologne. During that day, the whole city is on its feet as well, celebrating in the many brewery pubs and bars.
Also, from the official start of carnival season on 11.11. onwards, there are a lot of events taking place. Usually, these are called “Sitzungen”. There won’t be any street carnival though. These events are limited to a specific venue each, but still you will get soaked into the carnival vibe for sure.

5. Don’t have specific plans while in Cologne
You will end up somewhere else while you’re wandering through the city and make stops in various bars. Just go where it feels right, it’s not about a specific place to be but more about the vibe. We’ve have included some tips where you could go below just to give you some ideas.

6. Try local drinks and food and experience the kiosk culture
Cologne is famous for its kiosk culture. When walking around Cologne, you never need to worry about finding something to drink or eat: There is a kiosk in each corner, open long hours, selling snacks and chilled drinks.
Not only in kiosks, but in each pub and bar you will find “Kölsch”, the local beer. It comes in very small glasses (at least from a Bavarian – Theresia’s – perspective): 0,2 litre.
Nevertheless, you will probably drink a lot of those during carnival. In particular because celebrations start already around 10-11 am. Therefore, make sure to drink enough water in between the alcoholic drinks, to keep your body hydrated.
Also, a typical sweet pastry to have for carnival is a “Berliner”, stuffed with jam. It has nothing to do with the city of Berlin 😉

7. Carnival music
Be aware: music played at carnival is mostly songs from Cologne, sung in the local dialect. This means as a foreigner, and even as a German from another region, you will hardly understand a word.
You can practice beforehand to sing the songs anyways 😉 Famous carnival bands are Kasalla, Brings, Querbeat, or Cat Ballou.

8. Useful expressions
Kölle: stands for Cologne
Alaaf: The carnival shout in Cologne is “Alaaf” (mostly used in “Kölle alaaf”). Never say “Helau”, as this shout is used in Düsseldorf. Cologne and Düsseldorf have a playful (?) faud with each other…
Zoch: A “Zoch” stands for a carnival parade.
Kölsch: local beer

9. Some traditions
Carnival plays a very big role year in Cologne. It’s very prestigious to be a member of a carnival club. They work year round for carnival, and the biggest festivity is definitely the parade on Monday.
During the parade, sweets (Kamelle) are thrown into the visitor crowd. Also, you might get kisses on the cheek (Bützchen), or a small flower bouquet (Strüßje).

10. “Nubbelverbrennung”
Carnival ends with the “Nubbelverbrennung”, which translates into burning of a straw man. All across the city, these straw men will be burnt in the night from Tuesday to Ash Wednesday. This kind of symbolic burning has historic roots, and is not limited to Cologne. Nowadays, the meaning of the burning is symbolic for the straw man atoning everybody’s wrongs during carnival. This brings us to the next point:

11. Walk of Shame
Although the walk of shame is not limited to carnival or Cologne, it’s particularly funny during these days. We have all been there, right? 😉 Isn’t it adorable seeing the wobbly gait of lions, fairies, or cowboys on their way back home, after a long (party) night? Carnival is the perfect time for people watching, according to several of our local friends. Moreover, all things are possible with carnival. What happens during carnival, stay in carnival 😉



Where to party?

Carnival is all over the city, hence you can find some smaller and bigger celebrations in every quarter, on the streets and from just a small bar to the bigger concert halls and breweries. Make sure you check out more than one spot during you time in Cologne. Depending on the day, there are different things to see.

Main areas where you will find something going on are the following:

The biggest carnival parade in whole Germany is the one on Rose Monday, which attracts over a million visitors. You can find the route here.
We do not recommend to get tickets, as those are quite costly and you will surely find a place to stand and cheer somewhere along the route. In case you don’t want to stand too long, just hop into a bar or cafe, or bring your own folding chair and picnic. You could even integrate a picnic basket into your costume by dressing as Little Red Cap.
Other parades take place throughout the long carnival weekend, like the parades in the different “Veedel” of Cologne (=quarters), or the “Geisterzug” (ghost parade). Latter is, by our knowledge, the only parade happening in the evening (Saturday evening).
Here is a website covering all dates (in German).

“Heumarkt” or “Neumarkt” , the historic city centre and one of the main areas of the street carnival. Head over there and enjoy – there is a lot of celebrations going on with local musicians and other stuff.

“Zülpicher” is one of the areas with younger people, a ton of students and some cheaper bars. We recommend the Flotte, Bei Oma Kleinmann, Stiefel, and in case you get hungry: Habibi (which offers the best falafel in town).

In the quarter Südstadt there are also a lot of small bars and pubs. We like this area as it’s not very touristic. “Friesenplatz” and “Friesenstraße” is definitely a place you shouldn’t miss out neither! You will find a nice mixture of easy going and more fancy bars here, we recommend “Päffgen”, the “Friesen”, “Heising & Adelmann” and “Goldfinger” (although we haven’t been to those places during carnival).

Last year, there was an outdoor rave at the “Aachener Weihner” – we’re still not sure if it will be there this year but in case you’re near that area you can check it out.

We hope you will have a blast while in Cologne! Please get in touch with us in case you would like more recommendations for your holidays in this colorful city.

When you have already participated in carnival in Cologne, we would be happy to hear about your experiences!

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