Our experience at Cologne Carnival, one of the craziest parties of our lives!
Kolle Alaaf Alaaf, Kolle Alaaf!
(Curious what that means? Just keep reading!)
Super Mario and Luigi, holding hands, sat next to us on the train from Hamburg. We briefly alighted at Messe Deutz. I looked outside the window and saw Scooby Doo’s family (complete with a brown Great Dane) walking down the platform. At the Hauptbahnhof, we walked out the train with princes and princesses, Pharaohs and monsters, zombies and beauty queens.
Right out of the station, the huge tower of the Dom greeted us, almost intimidating in the darkness of the winter night. But the atmosphere around the Dom was anything but intimidating. People in fancy dress of all kinds filled the streets, sipping Kolsch, chewing on bratwurst and laughing.
Everywhere I looked, there were colours, happiness, fun.
Welcome to Cologne. If there’s a town that is pretty much a synonym of fun, that is Cologne. True, I can’t say I know it really well – we’ve only visited once, last summer, in occasion of Cologne CSD and the #mygaypride campaign. I wrote of how surprised I was that Pride love seemed to have completely overtaken the town, and EVERYONE spent the weekend dancing away at Vengaboys and waving rainbow banners.
Cologne is a city that loves a good party, I said to my Cologne friends several times during Pride. Their answer was always the same – you need to come during Carnival. Now that’s a party.
I’m no stranger to Carnival madness – in recent years I’ve taken part in some weird celebrations in Italy and beyond, like the Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea, the dance of Mamuthones in rural Sardinia, elegant Carnevale di Venezia and the revelry of Brazilian-style Carnaval de Gualeguaychu in Argentina. We love Germany, we love Carnival, we love Cologne. How could we say no to the opportunity to enjoy Cologne Carnival?
I’ve decided to give a practical angle to this post, and complement our narrative with information on how to make the most of your Cologne Carnival experience.
So… let’s start from the beginning!
Cologne Carnival Calendar and Basic Info
Cologne locals are completely obsessed with Carnival – and with a reason, as the Carnival tradition has been part of the town for nearly 200 years. In 1823 the Cologne Carnival Celebration Committee was created, the ‘official body’ governing Carnival parades, masked balls and related events. In town there are 160 carnival societies, with approximately 30,000 people involved – and every year there’s over a million people attending Rose Monday, the largest Carnival event.
Cologne’s Carnival season, known locally as the ‘fifth season’, traditionally starts at 11.11 am on November 11th. However, there are no celebrations till January 1st, and then the festivities get in full swing during Carnival Week, or Straßenkarneval.
The Straßenkarneval starts on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, the date that marks the beginning of Lent. The first day of Carnival is Women’s Carnival – you’ll see plenty of women (but not only!) in fancy dress, going to work or heading to the Alter Markt to attend the official Carnival opening ceremony – which, of course, takes place at 11.11 am.
The three main Carnival characters, part of Cologne carnival since the 19th century are the ones that open the festivities on Thursday – the Prince, clad in peacock feathers, the Peasant (‘His Heftiness’), a portly guy that holds the keys to the city, and the Virgin (‘Her Loveliness’), traditionally played by a man, representing Mother Colonia. The Prince is the king of Carnival itself, the Peasant symbolises the strength of the city and readiness of the inhabitants to defend themselves, whereas the Virgin is the representation of city’s beauty.
Carnival Friday is usually a quieter day, but there’s no shortage of parties and masked balls – just head to any bar around the city centre to have a good time.
On Saturday, revellers traditionally meet at 10.30 at Neumarkt for pea soup and kolsch, and to see the “Funkenbiwak”, a show with the Red Sparks, Cologne’s oldest Carnival corps. Another Saturday event is the Ghost Parade, the only one where spectators are actually allowed to join the parade – provided they’re wearing a ghostly costume.
The Ghost Parade isn’t part of official carnival celebrations. In 1991, the police forbade the Rose Monday parade because of the Gulf War. People didn’t want to give up the Carnival tradition and created a spontaneous carnival celebration – the Ghost Parade, that still includes political elements.
Sunday is the day of the “Schull- und Veedelszöch”, the school and neighbourhood parade. It’s a day for families, but it is also one of the most fun events! Locals far outnumber tourists as mums and dads watch children parade with their schools and neighbourhood associations. The best groups are allowed to participate in the Rose Monday parade, the largest and most famous. The Sunday parade takes place from about 11 to 2.30 or so – and after that, it’s time to party and get ready for the big event on the following day.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the Rose Monday parade. This is the official parade organised by the Cologne Carnival Celebration Committee. This year there were about 70 floats from all Carnival societies, parading over a period of about 5/6 hours. Floats are accompanied by marching bands and cheerleaders, full of people in fancy dress throwing kamelle (sweets) and flowers to the bystanders. The party continues all through the night at many official and unofficial parties.
On Tuesday, Carnival revelry starts to die down – there are still smaller parades around Cologne’s suburbs as well as parties going on. At night, the event that closes Carnival takes place – the burning of the Nubbel, a straw figure that symbolises all sins committed during Carnival. During the burning, people sing sad songs and some locals even cry.
Carnival is over – until next year!
Where to Watch Cologne Carnival + Tips
We reached Cologne on Saturday evening, and sadly we were too late to join the Ghost Parade. We stayed two days, and saw the Carnival Sunday and Rose Monday parades.
The Sunday and Monday parades follow very similar routes – here’s a map, with the route marked in red. Anywhere close to Heumarkt, the Rhine and the Dom is likely to be very, very crowded. We recommend watching Carnival somewhere close to the beginning of the parade, or in the smaller streets between Neumarkt and Rudolfplatz.
Being close to the parade is part of the fun, to admire the awesome floats and costumes and grab as many kamelle as you can. Children on Sunday throw small sweets and chocolates, but on Rose Monday the kamelle size grows as the magnitude of celebrations increases – Monday kamelle are fully-sized chocolate bars and boxes, which can hurt if you’re hit on the head at full speed! Make sure you take some bags with you to collect all the sweets and gifts you’ll definitely collect during the day.
On Sunday, we joined Melvin from Traveldudes, a fellow blogger and Cologne local. He recommended we watched the Carnival Sunday parade in front of Gertrudenhof, a bar right behind Apostelnkirche, 5 minutes from Neumarkt. We met Melvin around midday and the party got started soon afterwards, with children parading, kamelle flying and people singing Kolle Alaaf Alaaf, Kolle Alaaf, the official greeting of Cologne Carnival, meaning ‘Cologne above all’.
Spending the day with Melvin gave us an insight of what Carnival means to locals. Despite being a very busy traveller, Melvin never misses Carnival, and neither does his family. Some of his friends were spent the day with are people he meets every year, ever since he was a child, because they all watch Carnival Sunday parade from the same location in front of Gertrudenhof – and they all said the same thing. They wouldn’t miss Carnival for anything in the world.
The Rose Monday parade is a lot busier than the one on Sunday, and streets that were more than manageable on Sunday were jam-packed. Scoring an invitation to a private home or a party overlooking the parade is a definite plus – otherwise, you could try picking a spot and try to edge your way forward a little at a time, or again choose one of the least frequented areas near the start of the parade.
We were lucky to score an invitation from the Cologne Tourist Board, who invited us to a party in their office overlooking the Dom. We had a killer view and no crowds to battle with. If you fancy something similar, get in touch with the Cologne Carnival Celebration Committee and book seats at their grandstands near the Dom, which get the best views of the parade. Seats are priced between 50 and 70 euro.
Is Fancy Dress Necessary?
YES! Don’t be like me – don’t be the random girl wearing a backpack and a ski jacket. We were travelling around Finland right before Carnival, and decided to travel by train all the way from Lapland to Cologne, with intermediate stops in Copenhagen and Stockholm. We had no room for fancy dress in our luggage and didn’t realise how important it was – until we got to the Carnival Sunday parade and felt like idiots.
So yes, don’t forget your fancy dress! It doesn’t have to be Venice-style fancy – even a toga, some colourful tights or a homemade caveman’s outfit like Melvin’s will do. You can buy an outfit from Deiters at the Gürzenich/Heumarkt, or you can pick up a wig, silly hat or oversized glasses from dozens of stalls all over town.
And if you still didn’t manage to find anything, just get someone to draw something silly on your face! That’s what I ended up doing.
Nightlife in Cologne and Kolsch Beer Tradition
Cologne carnival revelry continues at night, with parties going on in pretty much every single bar and restaurant in town. That’s great, right? The flip side of the coin are – of course – massive queues and crazy crowds. When we got to town on Saturday night, having missed the ghost parade, we walked around the Heumarkt and Rhine area – the streets were packed with people drinking beer and eating street food, and music pumped out of bars and restaurants.
There was music, fun and parties everywhere – I can’t really vouch to say what party is best, as they all seemed to follow a similar pattern, that included copious amounts of Kolsch, Cologne Carnival music and dancing all around.
If you’ve never been to Cologne before, you may not be familiar with Kolsch, Cologne’s very own beer and its related tradition. Forget Munich’s huge steins – Kolsch is served in teeny-weeny glasses, usually 0.2 or 0.3 liters. The official reason is that beer must always be icy-cold, but I suspect that drinking in a small glass makes you feel less guilty and end up drinking more!
If you’re with friends it makes sense to order a full tray of Kolsch – you get about 10 or 12 beer in a plastic tray with holes to keep the beers in place. One Kolsch costs between €1.10 and €1.50, depending on the establishment.
On Carnival Sunday, after the parade was over at around 4 pm, parties started again. We spent some time inside Gertrudenhof, and then when the crowds got too much we moved away from the centre, to Agnes Quarter. We followed Melvin and his friends to a Brauhaus Stusser, a bar packed with locals and tinsel, and with Cologne Carnival music pumped at full volume.
The same songs seemed to be playing over and over again – Melvin explained that there are Cologne bands specialising in Carnival songs, and they make a mint performing at Carnival time. The songs are all in Cologne dialect, making them near-impossible to understand for all non-locals. But who cares, the rhythm was fun and stuck in our heads, and we found ourselves singing ‘polkapolkapolka’ over and over again over the next few days.
Where to Eat during Cologne Carnival
If you’re a foodie, you may already be looking up where to eat and drink – but you may be in for a bad surprise, as several restaurants in town are either closed, packed or have been turned into bars with loud music. This was the case of Peters Brauhaus, a brewery and restaurant we had visited during summer, and where we decided to go for dinner as soon as we got to Cologne – only to find a bouncer at the door, a queue snaking around the block and ‘polkapolkapolka’ pumping out of the sound system.
During Carnival, street food will be your best friend – it’s a case of quantity over quality most of the times, as you will be needing something to soak up the Kolsch and give you some energy before the next party. Look for kebabs, falafels and currywurst joints – the kebab place at the corner of Neumarkt and Clemensstrasse is quite good, as is the currywurst place right out of the Ebertplatz U-Bahn stop.
We were told that near Zülpicher Platz is a good area to get food during Carnival. Zülpicher Straße, Kyffhäuserstraße and the surrounding area are good options, with many small restaurants serving Kebab, Pizza and Asian dishes.
Getting to and from Cologne
Cologne is in Western Germany, not far from the border with the Netherlands and Belgium, while Luxembourg and France are just a little further. You can of course fly in and out of Cologne during Carnival times, but it’s very, very high season, and flights are likely to be sold out or very expensive.
We recommend taking the train instead – we travelled to Cologne from Copenhagen and Hamburg on a train that didn’t require bookings, and there was plenty of room for us, Super Mario and all the other wonderful characters we met. When we left Cologne we travelled to Paris on the superfast and excellent Thalys train, and we were pampered for three hours with drinks, snacks and even dinner in our first class seats.
We booked our seats on the Thalys just a couple of days before our departure and there was plenty of availability, but prices were around €240 for a 3 hour train journey. However, as we were travelling with Interrail passes, we only had to pay €45 for the booking fee – still steep, but trust me, that train was pure heaven.
It was our third journey with an Interrail pass in less than a year and once again, we loved the convenience and flexibility of travelling with a rail pass. Most German trains didn’t require bookings which made planning our trip very easy – we decided to spend some hours in Hamburg because we fancied some currywurst, so we just hopped on the next available train.
Read our complete guide or more info on how to travel by train in Europe with an Interrail pass! Or visit the official Interrail site.
Where to stay in Cologne during Carnival
During both of our Cologne visits we stayed at Hostel Koln, an awesome place that is ‘hostel’ only in name, as its facilities and level of comfort are at par with those of a three-star hotel.
Let’s start with location – Hostel Koln is right next to Neumarkt, two U-Bahn stops from the Dom and about 20 minutes walk to Heumarkt (don’t confuse it with Neumarkt) and the Rhine. It’s conveniently located to watch the parade in front of Gertrudenhof (5 minutes away) or around Rudolfplatz (10 mins away). Hostel Koln is in Marsilienstrasse, a quiet side street, meaning you’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep!
We had a room on the top floor, with great views on the surrounding area. Our room had a comfy bed with a duvet each (LOVE this German tradition), an ensuite bathroom, plenty of plugs and good wi-fi connection. The hostel is quite big, and even though it was full of people coming in and out at all times, we were never bothered.
Breakfast was also a big plus. You know those depressing hostel breakfasts, with two slices of bread each and watery coffee? Well, forget that. At Hostel Koln you get a huge buffet, full of healthy food like bircher muesli, salads and juice, as well as eggs, bacon, sausages and other ‘hangover food’. Breakfast is served until 12 pm at Carnival time and at weekends.
Make sure you eat a big breakfast during your time at Cologne Carnival, as you’re likely to start with the Kolsch as soon as the parades begin!
Is Cologne safe?
We never, ever felt unsafe in Cologne. After the sad episode of this year’s New Year’s Eve, when several women were assaulted in the street during celebrations, several friends and family advised against attending Cologne Carnival.
What happened during New Year’s Eve was really sad, there’s no doubt about that. I’m not going to start a whole ‘let’s not give in to fear’ tirade – plenty of blog posts and articles have been written on the topic and discussed at length on the net.
My responsibility as a travel blogger is not telling people what to do – it is sharing my own experience, so that people can make their own informed decisions. I never felt unsafe during Carnival – not even for an instant, not even when I lost sight of Nick and Melvin in the crowds. Cologne is a city that loves to party and have fun. It’s a city that prides itself of its open-mindness and welcoming spirit. That’s what I felt during my Carnival experience.
Locals were heartbroken over what had happened during New Year’s Eve – it’s really unfair that it happened here, because this is not what we are, many of them said. Cologne is not a city of fear and distrust, a city where men should be kept at arm’s length from women. It’s a place where everyone – regardless of gender, nationality and age – puts worries aside for one week to have some good, well-earned fun. And there’s no doubt that you’ll be welcome to join in the fun.
What else is there to do in Cologne?
There’s no shortage of sights in Cologne – first and foremost, the stunning Kolner Dom, one of the largest cathedrals in the world and home to the (supposed) tomb of the Three Kings. The area around the Rhine is also very pretty, with little cobblestone streets and some interesting sights like the Fischmarkt, the Kolumba Art Museum in the ruins of an old church and the original Eau de Cologne.
But to be honest with you, Cologne it’s not really about the sights. It’s about the atmosphere – chilled out, friendly, welcoming and fun-loving. You know when you’re going to a party and you’re worried because you don’t know anyone, but end up having the time of your life? That was our first time in Cologne. The second time was even more fun – a little blurry, perhaps, but I guess it’s part of the game. Admittedly we’ve only been in town twice, and both times there were big parties going on.
Perhaps we should return at a ‘normal’ time and see if we have the same feeling? I’m sure we will – but I think I’ve already made up my mind about this city. Just thinking about it is enough to bring a smile to my face.
Kolle Alaaf Alaaf, Kolle Alaaf!
We were guests of Cologne Tourism for two days. We would also like to thank Interrail for providing us with rail passes. As always, all opinions are our own.
Pin it for later?