The Cologne Carnival takes place every year in Cologne with the opening of the carnival season on 11th November at 11.11 am. The main festivities however take place in a six-day street festival in February, popularly known as the “Crazy Days”. Since I moved to Bonn in 2016, I have experienced the carnival twice, and can completely recommend it especially for travelers wanting to explore the Rhineland in a rather non-conventional way.
Which day should you attend the carnival?
The exact days of the carnival change every year, depending on which date Ash Wednesday falls (a week before Lent). You can choose to attend the carnival for the entire week, only on the weekend or on a particular day. The carnival spirit is the same on all days with different highlights and local traditions on each day.
The carnival festivities start Thursday morning as early as 7 am, but the official start again is at 11.11 am. The whole city looks colorful with variety of costumes and dresses. Don’t be surprised if the receptionist or the cashier at the supermarket is in a different attire – it is totally acceptable. This is also the Women’s Carnival day; one of the common traditions is for women to cut men’s ties as part of the carnival, so a highlight for this day is seeing men roaming around in cut ties.
The second day of the carnival is as wild as the day before. People start drinking again from morning and continue the festivities from the day before. There are also many masked parties and events.
Saturday is more crowded than the other days. As carnival is no official public holiday, many locals choose to participate on the weekend, not to mention the thousands of tourists that plan to attend the carnival on the weekend.
There are several parades on Sunday, with local parades in different districts, and smaller towns close to Cologne.
This is the climax of the Cologne Carnival with the Rosenmontagzug, or the Rose Monday parade. More than a million people watch the parade in Cologne which proceeds from South of Cologne to the city center. So if you want to catch the parade, and indulge in candy showers and music, make sure to get there early enough to secure a spot on the side of the streets.
More local parades continue with the madness.
This is the last day of the carnival marked with nostalgia and a lot of sentiment by the locals.
What to wear?
This is the most important part of the carnival, and I cannot stress enough how seriously showing up in a costume is taken. Locals dress up in all kinds of costumes you can imagine, ranging from onesies to DIY outfits. The more creative the better. Families and friends also sometimes plan to do group costumes. One year, I dressed up as Cleopatra, and the other, as a peacock. So you can literally be anything – the more crazy the costume, the better.
But keep in mind the weather while deciding on a costume – February is cold in Cologne, while bars and pubs get quite warm inside, so dressing up in layers is a good idea. And always carry a warm jacket. Wear old shoes, as by noon, the streets will be flooded with beer and litter. Don’t take along any valuables and try to carry a bottle of water and a snack.
Where to shop?
For travelers and tourists, dressing up for carnival can be an added expense not to add the extra space an outfit might take in your luggage. The good part is that a fancy dress does not have be an extra outfit. To join the celebrations, you can even purchase a cheap mask, or experiment looks with makeup. A popular shop to purchase fancy dresses, accessories and makeup is Dieters. They also have an online shop, as well as physical stores that remain open during carnival in Cologne. But make sure again that you don’t show up looking like a tourist in jeans and sneakers.
How to travel?
The best bet on carnival day is to travel by public transport or on foot. Driving or renting a car during this time is a bad idea due to the crowds, and expensive parking.
You can start to explore the carnival in popular areas – Heumarkt, Alter Markt, Zülpicher Straße, and make your way to less crowded areas. If you are visiting Cologne for the first time during the Carnival, note that many other points of interest like the Cologne Cathedral will remain closed during this time. So it might not be the best time if you are keen on climbing to the top of the Cathedral. Another time of the year would work better.
What to eat and drink?
Since the party continues all day long, you could choose to roam around in streets and drink and eat from the numerous stalls, but it makes sense to go to a pub, especially to experience Carnival music and dance, and see how the locals celebrate. Many pubs will have an entry fee, typically ranging from 8 to 30 euros, becoming more expensive as the day continues.
The most popular beer is Kölsch, and while raising a glass, the traditional carnival greet is “Alaaf” instead of “Prost” in Cologne.
Some last tips
The people of Cologne are friendly and happy. Take your positive spirits with you, and they will welcome you even if you are new to Germany or Cologne. Having said that, a bit of preparation never hurt.
If you are new to Germany, learning a few German words on how to greet, or how to order a beer at a restaurant or pub will go a long way. If possible, travel with a friend, and make sure you have an emergency contact number in writing. Charge your phone well in advance, and always carry enough cash to get you through the day. Being a bit prepared on what to expect out of the Cologne Carnival will help you enjoy more and have a memorable experience.
…..And you are all set for the Cologne Carnival. Alaaf!