Welcome to Europe’s best party. I’m sure none of you are strangers to the revelries of Carnival, to fancy dress parades, giant floats and the madness happening before Lent begins. Carnival can be dated back to Roman times, and every city, town and village in Europe celebrates its own way.
I’ve been touring Carnival celebrations for years now, and nowhere have I seen it celebrated with as much passion and sentiment as in Cologne – locally known as Kölner Karneval. The town is literally swept away in a sea of colors, music and dance for six days. Over a million people take the streets and locals won’t miss the celebration for anything in the world.
It’s the party to end all parties – and here are 7 tips for you to enjoy Carnival in Cologne at its best.
1. Choose when to visit
Carnival parades in Cologne happen over a course of 6 days, with every day different celebrations. Festivities kick off on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday with ‘Women’s Carnival’, and conclude with the burning of the ‘Nubbel’, a straw figure, on Tuesday night.
On Friday there are parties and parades all over town, and on Saturday evening the ‘Ghost Parade’ takes place, the only parade the public is allowed to join. Sunday is Family Day, when groups of schoolchildren from all over Cologne march around the city with their floats. The biggest parade is the one happening on Rose Monday, with over 70 large floats from Cologne’s official carnival groups.
The Rose Monday parade is definitely impressive, with marching bands and groups of cheerleaders opening each float, but crowds can be overbearing. Sunday is another great day to visit as the atmosphere is more subdued.
2. Choose where to watch the parade
Being close to the parade is part of the fun. You’ll get to appreciate the colorful floats and costumes, the music and festive atmosphere, with people screaming Kolle Alaaf – the carnival motto, meaning Cologne above all – and throwing Kamelle (sweets) to bystanders. Make sure you bring some bags along to take all the Kamelle home with you!
With up to a million people in the streets, picking a good spot to watch the parade can be a challenge. The area around the Dom is indeed scenic, but it’s also where crowds are at their worst. We recommend avoiding the Dom and the Heumarkt area, and heading instead to the backstreets just off Neumarkt, or near the beginning of the parade. Check this map for the details of the carnival parade.
3. Pick a fancy dress
You simply cannot visit carnival without fancy dress. You can bring your own or rent/buy one when you get to Cologne, or even just grab a wig or a silly hat from one of many stalls around the city center. If you opt for a full-blown fancy dress, remember you’ll be on your feet for most of the day, so choose something practical – an 18th century Venetian-style dress will probably be hard to manage.
Also, don’t forget that Carnival happens in the middle of winter so be prepared for temperatures that can dip below zero – a Monsters Inc style jumpsuit or cavemen’s outfit should do the trick!
4. What to do at night
The parades happen in the afternoon, and after they’re over the party continues at pretty much every single bar, restaurant and home around the city. Parties in bars and restaurant usually follow a similar format – copious amounts of Kolsch, Cologne’s very own beer, streamers and confetti and Carnival music playing all night long. If you speak a bit of German, don’t worry if you can’t make any head or tail of the songs – they’re all in Cologne dialect.
Bars around the city center are likely to be packed – head out of the city center to a place like Agnesquarter, Südstadt or Ehrenfeld for a more manageable situation.
5. What to eat and drink during Carnival
Do you want the short answer? Eat street food (think currywurst, doner kebab, falafel and the like) and drink Kolsch, Cologne beer served in tiny glasses. There will be stalls serving beer all over the city, or you can pick up some bottles at a corner store.
If you’re planning on partying the whole day and whole night, make sure you eat a good breakfast as those Kolsch add up really quickly and you don’t want to get too drunk too soon!
6. Burn the Nubbel
On Carnival Tuesday, the Nubbel is ceremoniously set ablaze in Cologne. This straw effigy must take responsibility for all wrongs committed during the carnival season.
People congregate outside numerous pubs to absolve themselves of their past transgressions- setting fire to this figurine symbolically relinquishes them from any misdeeds they may have indulged in throughout that period, as per popular superstition.
7. Getting to Cologne and around
Carnival is super high season in Cologne, and flight prices tend to be steep. We recommend taking the train instead – the city is a very busy railway hub with lots of trains coming from every corner of Europe, so they’re not likely to be sold out. Most German trains don’t require reservations – we travelled into Cologne from Copenhagen and out to Paris and didn’t need to book our seats in advance.
To get around Cologne you can use the excellent public transport system, with trams and U-Bahn reaching every corner of the city. The carnival area is compact enough to be navigated on foot – it takes about 20 minutes to walk from Neumarkt to Heumarkt, and a further 15 to reach the Dom and Hauptbahnhof.
8. Is the carnival in Cologne safe?
The atmosphere of Carnival in Cologne is festive, relaxed and welcoming, and locals will be more than willing to help you if you’ve lost your way or your group. I have never felt threatened or endangered in any way – there’s lots of police and security around the parades.
However, as always with crowds, pickpockets are rife, so keep your belongings close.