The city of Cologne knows how to party. So much so that each year for the past 200 years, its welcomed millions of revelers chanting Kolle Alaaf Alaaf, Kolle Alaaf” (Cologne above all) in search of merriment to its streets to celebrate Karneval or Carnivale. 

Declared the city’s fifth season thanks to the four-month-long festivities, Cologne Carnival kicks off at 11:11am on 11/11 each year and comes to a climactic end on the following Ash Wednesday. 

Read on to discover what to see and do at Cologne’s Carnival, and why you need to visit during the Crazy Days.

Carnival Float Berlesconi Credit Ruck Sack Kruemel

Credit: RuckSackKruemel

Cologne Carnival: How Did It Start And Why Is Carnival Celebrated In Cologne 

Officially it all started in 1823 with the formation of the Cologne Carnival Celebration Committee, who even today as the event’s official body, govern the parades, masked balls and other related jubilations that take place over the Carnival season. 

Its origins, however, can be traced back centuries across cultures. Ancient Greeks and Romans were known to put on sweeping festivities to welcome in the springtime in honour of the Gods, Dionysus and Saturn. Both deities were associated with agriculture and the harvest, and Dionysus as the God of wine, vegetation, pleasure, festivity, madness and wild frenzy, paved the way for the carnival to become a hedonist’s paradise. Separately, Germanic tribes celebrated the winter solstice by worshipping their gods to drive away the demonic spirits of winter, and over time, Christians adopted and fused all these customs with the pre-Eastern fasting period ahead of lent to celebrate carnival as we know it today. Even the words carne” and vale” mean farewell to meat.

Crazy Days Cologne

Cologne Carnival: When Is Cologne Carnival 

On 11 September, the streets of the city are filled with tens of thousands of partygoers, known as Jecken, counting down the minutes until the official kick-off. Once the clock strikes 11:11am, all hell breaks loose. 

Different bands from around the area perform well-loved anthems to rile up the crowds as they compete in a series of challenges for titles such as the best link-your-arms-and-sway-to-the-music” song and most rousing party hit”. 

Kölsch flows liberally from enormous barrels to hydrate the bacchants while they do schunkeln” — link arms and dance — or bützen” — the local term for kissing — which is the customary way to acknowledge and welcome each other. 

11/11 is just the harbinger of greater things to come. The maddest of events take place on Straßenkarneval (Carnival Week), aka The Crazy Days. 

During these six days, normal life is suspended, and many public institutions are closed. Most importantly, the Prince of Carnival rules and whatever he says, goes. The key rule? Closing times for pubs and bars are erased for the duration of the festival so be sure to keep up the Kölsch. 

Karnevale Cologne

Cologne Carnival: What Are The Crazy Days 

The climax of Carnival in Cologne is the six-day street party known as the Crazy Days”. From Weiberfastnacht hosted the Thursday before Rosenmontag, to Veilchendienstag, there is no end of traditional sessions, balls and parades. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of the main events that take place in the week:

Weiberfastnacht AKA Women’s Carnival Day — Thursday 

This is the first big event of the season and it’s typical to witness women dressed up in their best costumes heading to work. At 10:00 am, head to Alter Markt to secure a good spot to watch the Dreigestirn officially kick off the party at 11:11 am, ushering the entire city into a state of joyous chaos. 

At 1:30pm, performers reenact a local legend: the unrequited love story of Jan and Griet based on the life of German Count Johann von Werth, at the Torburg at Chlodwigplatz. 

From then on, street parties take over the city’s spirit both day and night. The brew houses in Alter Markt and Heumarkt are sure to draw in the crowds, while the younger merrymakers congregate on Zülpicher Straße or near Chlodwigplatz. 

Friday

Most people take the Friday to recover from the madness of the previous day but traditional sessions such as the Sternmarsch, where different groups converge to show off their parade costumes from the last season, can still be enjoyed at Alter Markt. 

Geisterzug AKA Ghost Parade — Saturday 

On Saturday, revelers traditionally meet at 10:30 am at Neumarkt to see the Funkenbiwak”, a show with the Red Sparks, one of Cologne’s oldest Carnival Corps. The highlight of the day however is undoubtedly, the Geisterzug – the Ghost Parade. 

In contrast to the other parades, the Ghost Parade is not organised so anyone who shows up in a ghostly costume can get involved. 

While the tradition dates to the Middle Ages, it was revived in 1991 when the Rose Monday parade was cancelled due to the Gulf War. In outrage, anti-war protesters decided to march down the traditional route of the parade dressed as ghosts, goblins and ghouls, inspiring an alternative procession to take place. 

Shrove Sunday

The day is dominated by Veedelszoch parades navigating through every district but is generally a more low-key affair in anticipation for the season’s biggest event: Rose Monday. 

Rosenmontagszug AKA Rose Monday — Monday 

The climax of the festival is the Rosenmontagszug parade. Most restaurants, shops and cafés close for the day, and up to 1.5 million people head to the streets to line the parade route. 

At 10:30 am, giant and elaborately decorated floats and more than 11,000 participants and 100 music ensembles display the largest Carnival parade in Germany. 

Meandering from Chlodwigplatz in to Mohrenstraße, the crowds yell Strüßjer!” or Kamelle!” as a flurry of flowers and candy are thrown from the stages. 

Veilchendienstag AKA Violet Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday — Tuesday 

In one last hurrah before it’s time to give up alcohol, sweets or other vices for Lent, the Jecken host more parades in Mülheim, Nippes and Ehrenfeld districts. 

In the evening, Cologners say their goodbyes to their favourite festival with a ceremony called Nubbelverbrennung. Across the city, straw dolls called Nubbel” that represents the collective sins that have been committed throughout the debaucherous season, are taken down from pubs around the city and burned in a glorious ceremony. 

The drama begins when a representative asks the gathered crowd: Whose fault is it that we spent all of our money on beer and schnapps?”, to which the crowd responds, It’s Nubbel’s fault! He should burn!”. 

Ash Wednesday- Wednesday 

On Wednesday morning, life goes back to normal, though the preparations for the next Carnival season begin behind closed doors

Cologne Festival

Cologne Carnival: Who Are The Dreigestirn 

Every year at the opening of Carnival, three people are granted titles of: Carnival’s Prinz (Prince), Bauer (Pauper) or Jungfrau (Maiden). The Prince, also known as Seine Tollität” (His Madness), is deemed to be the highest representative of the festivities, leading the main parades throughout the week and setting the ground rules for this season. His float is the final one in the Rose Monday parade. 

The Pauper called, Seine Deftigkeit” (His Heftiness) symbolises the strength of the city and readiness of the inhabitants to defend themselves, whereas the Maiden, Ihre Lieblichkeit” (Her Loveliness), is the representation of the city’s beauty. Traditionally, she was played by a man however, from 1936 – 43, the maiden was ordered by Nazi authorities to be played by a real woman.

Dreigestirn Cologne Carnival

Cologne Carnival: What To Wear 

Enter the city during carnival and you could mistakenly think you’re at Comic-Con. Cosplay outfits, eccentric makeup and outlandish wigs don every street corner so make sure you come dressed up if you want to fit in. 

Cologners give it all when choosing their garbs for the upcoming season but if you don’t want to spend an excessive amount on a costume, you can easily pick up some face paint and a few accessories at one of the many fancy dress shops scattered across the city.

Koln Carnival

Cologne Carnival: Where To Eat 

Many pubs and restaurants are open intermittently during the main week and so street food will be your best friend in seeking something to soak up the Kölsch . 

Most stalls will offer kebabs, falafels or the popular, currywurst, but smaller institutions throughout Zülpicher Straße serve Pizza and Pan-Asian cuisine.

Looking to extend your trip? Discover what to do in Cologne.

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