23 Nov 22 | Datos útiles

Everything you have to know about the Karneval and "happy days" in Cologne
Cologne, Germany

February is a slow month. Even in the usually busiest tourist destinations. However, this is not the case in Cologne. Why? One word: Karneval. Or carnival, in English. The city of Cologne is the absolute centre of Carnival celebrations in Germany. Millions of people flood the streets every year to party before the Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday. If you have never visited Cologne during Karneval, you have to add it to your bucket list. It is something really special, nothing alike the carnivals in Rio de Janeiro or Venice.

The spirit of Karneval runs deep in the blood of the locals. The tradition actually starts at 11:11 on 11 November and lasts until the beginning of February. This is what is called the "fifth season" of the year because in Cologne it is not enough to have summer, autumn, winter and spring. It is the last added season, which is known as the season of the happy days. Due to the pandemic, the Karneval celebrations have been postponed for the past two years. Therefore, the anticipation for the 2023 carnival is indescribable and it is expected to be one of the biggest-ever festivals in the region.

The question is, what is the Cologne Karneval?

Not to be confused with a regular pop-up fair, the Karneval celebration in Germany is the equivalent of Mardi Gras in the United States or Carnival in Brazil. Everywhere in Cologne, there are street parades with enormous themed floats, plays, costumed characters, and celebrations in the bars and on the streets.

Karneval might be celebrated all over Germany, but Cologne is the biggest and most special in the country, with more than 1.5 million visitors from all over the world expecting to participate in the big central parade.

When does the Cologne Karneval take place?

After the initial festivities on 11.11, things slow down for some time. The party really picks up again in January, when the Karneval societies or clubs start organising events. Karneval is not considered a German bank holiday, but in Cologne, many shops, schools and offices will be closed from Thursday until Shrove Tuesday, with the exception of Friday, which is considered a normal working day.

History of Karneval

Karneval dates back to the tribal celebration of changing seasons at this time of the year, the transition from winter to spring. When Christianity came to dominate, it absorbed the existing tribal celebrations and linked them to key dates in Christian history. Karneval became a way to wash away all sinful urges before Lent.

Karneval, in its current form, was revived in 1823 with the founding of the Festival Committee. At that time. they held an inaugural parade with resemblances to an ecclesiastical procession celebrating the coronation of a new emperor. From the outset, however, the whole atmosphere was a little ironic. Even then, there was a healthy scepticism about the relationship between church and state. This sentiment is still alive today, a theme that is often depicted on the parade floats.

In addition to this, there is a "modern" Karneval tradition of mocking the army. This tradition dates back to the beginning of the 19th century when Cologne was under Prussian control. The inhabitants strongly resented this occupation, but they had no safe way to express this frustration, as in 1815 disguising oneself in costume was forbidden. Consequently, the locals reorganised the whole tradition of the Karneval parade, using it to mock Prussian rule while still having fun.

Important traditions of the Cologne Karneval.

There are several key traditions that take place during the Cologne Karneval, or Fastelovend, as it is called in the local dialect. Kölners claim that the carnival tradition is summed up in four German words beginning with the letter "S": singen, schunkeln, saufen and scherzen (singing, swaying back and forth, drinking like crazy and joking, in colloquial language).

A very important element of the Cologne Karneval is the songs. Every year, local Cologne bands write and produce music specifically dedicated to the Karneval. They are literally love letters to the river Rhine or to the city's cathedral. These songs even change from year to year, so there will be new music for every annual celebration. It is said that there are 10,000 songs about Cologne and Karneval. Warning: For a newcomer, it can be bewildering, so our advice is to check out a playlist on online platforms to get an idea of what the party music is like around here.

Another great tradition is to shout "Kölle Alaaf!" whenever you can, whether it's on the streets, in a bar, on a train or in the bathroom of a restaurant with people you don't know. It translates as "Cologne above all" or "Long live Cologne". The origins are not very clear, but it seems to date back to 1550, when it was used as a toast. Today, it is a simple and easy way to express one's love for the city.

Important days of the Cologne Carnival

Cologne locals would say that the whole Karneval is important, but there are four key days you should know about.


This is the unofficial "start" of the big Karneval celebrations. It translates as "women's party night", and is a day of celebration for girls. The women gather in small groups and go around the city cutting the ties of the men they come across. When the men agree, they are rewarded with a bützchen or a little kiss on the cheek. Not to mention the flowing Kölsch beer during the festivities.

Karneval weekend

Saturday is the most important day for street parties. With no obligation to work the next day, Cologne's inhabitants really let loose on Saturday. The drinking starts early and most of the locals, big and small, go to a party (or three) before noon. With all this early drunkenness, the city is already on fire before noon. In the evening, the atmosphere can get a bit (a lot) rowdy, so it is recommended to finish early and go to sleep off any possible hangover symptoms.

Rosenmontag (Rose Monday)

If there's one day you don't want to miss during Karneval, it's Rosenmontag. It's the day of the parade when more than a million people flock to the city to celebrate. Once again, at 11:11 a.m., marching bands, dancers and floats make their way along an 8 km route through Cologne's historic city centre. More than 200 floats and cars take part in the parade with approximately 13,000 people. The floats often use black humour or innuendo to caricature politicians or comment on current events. The throwing of sweets during the parade is a much-loved tradition and an estimated 300 tonnes of sweets are handed out each year.

Veilchendienstag (Shrove Tuesday)

After several days of partying, Shrove Tuesday begins to calm down. The most important event today is the ceremony of the burning of the straw figure. The Nubbel is burned as a symbol or scapegoat for all the "sins" that party-goers may have committed during Karneval. Life-size straw men can be seen hanging in front of bars, restaurants and even houses all over the city. When the sun goes down, torchlight processions are held and Nubbels are burned. The fire brigade is spread throughout the city to keep things from getting out of hand.

Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday)

Ash Wednesday marks the official end of the "Fifth Station" and the beginning of Lent. Catholic residents walk around with an ash cross branded on their foreheads, while street cleaning machines go around Cologne cleaning up any traces of the previous week's festivities.

What are you waiting for? Join me in cheering "Alaaf!" as we take in this once-in-a-lifetime event in Cologne.