We got to experience Carnival in Cologne, Germany, for their 200th anniversary, and it was EPIC! We had such an incredible time and learned more about the people of Cologne, their traditions, food, and local dialect. Here we share with you the history and rich traditions that surround this centuries-old celebration and our own personal experience.
History of Carnival in Cologne
Carnival originated in the 11th century as a way for people to come together and celebrate before the start of the Lenten season, a time of fasting and reflection in the Christian calendar. Over time, the celebration has evolved and grown in scope, incorporating elements of German and European cultural traditions.
One of the key aspects of Carnival in Cologne is the use of satire and humor to poke fun at politics, current events, and societal issues. This has been a central part of the celebration for centuries and has helped to establish Carnival as a platform for free speech and political expression.
Throughout its history, Carnival in Cologne has been shaped by social, political, and economic changes, as well as by the changing tastes and preferences of its participants.
What Carnival in Cologne is Like Today
Carnival in Cologne is famous for its colorful and elaborate costumes, satirical floats, and musical events. People from all walks of life come together to dance, sing, and enjoy the festivities, creating a vibrant and inclusive atmosphere. The city’s streets come alive with music, laughter, and revelry, and the air is filled with the scent of traditional carnival foods such as Reibekuchen (potato pancakes), beer, and Glühwein (mulled wine).
About the Carnival Season
Karneval season, which is referred to by locals as the “fifth season of the year,” starts on 11.11 – November 11 at 11:11 am. and continues all the way through Shrove Tuesday. The main Cologne Carnival events, which are called the “crazy days,” begin on Weiberfastnacht, which is the Thursday prior to Shrove Tuesday, and ends on Ash Wednesday. During those 6 days, the city is turned into one gigantic party! Everyone is dressed in costumes, and anything goes.
Today, Carnival in Cologne remains an important cultural event and attracts visitors from around the world. While the celebrations may have changed over the centuries, the spirit of joy, unity, and tradition remains at the heart of the event. Whether you are a local resident or a tourist, Carnival in Cologne is an experience that you will never forget.
Our Personal Carnival in Cologne Experience
The Energy in the City was ELECTRIC
As soon as we got off the train at the Hauptbahnhof in Cologne, we could FEEL the energy in the air. It was electric! Everyone was dressed in costumes, hanging out with their friends. There was music, dancing, lots of beer, and Schnapps. It felt like everyone was in a good mood. It’s something you have to really be there to experience.
The “Schull- un Veedelszöch” Parade (School and District Parade)
We got to the parade an hour and a half early to make sure and get a spot up front so the kids would be able to catch the candy. It can be very hard to wait that long with younger children, but our children were excited enough that they could wait, so we were lucky. We found it wasn’t necessary to be THIS early for the school parade. A half-hour to an hour before is probably sufficient.
Local schools and clubs, or “Vereins,” start preparing the summer before by creating a theme for their group. Then they make their costumes and props or float all by hand. There are no store-bought costumes!
Come prepared with snacks and water to keep you sustained. The parade goes on for 3-4 hours. There are, thankfully, free portable toilets and street food sold along the route.
There were 48 groups and about 8,000 participants in the parade, with about 200,000 people watching! We liked this parade more than the Rosenmontag parade because it was smaller, more manageable, and a LOT more candy was thrown out! It also felt more personal, and the costumes and themes were SO creative and imaginative.
The “Dreigestirn (Triumvirate)”
They kicked off the parade with the triumvirate of Karneval, which is a big tradition in Cologne that goes back to the 1800s.
The “Triumvirate” is made up of three people each year who are granted the titles of the Jungfrau (maiden), the Prinz (prince), and the Bauer (peasant). The Prince, also known as seine Tollität (his madness), is the highest representative of Carnival. He is the leader of the main parades that take place during the “crazy days.” The Maiden, also known as ihre Lieblichkeit (her loveliness), is traditionally played by a man. The maiden represents the protective mother Colonia. The Peasant, also known as seine Deftigkeit (his heftiness), is traditionally played by an imposing man. The peasant represents boldness because Cologne used to be a privileged, imperial city.
They have more than 400 appearances through the Karneval season, including at children’s hospitals, schools, retirement homes, and more.
The Rosenmontage Parade
In the Rosenmontag parade, there were about 100 groups, 12,000 participants, and 1.5 million in the crowd. The parade went on for TEN hours! Our kids were already tired from the day before, so they could only stand for about one hour of this parade. It was also significantly more crowded and included more adults and fewer children than the school parade.
Some Köhlsch Words We Learned!
Standing in the crowd, you can easily learn some Kölsch dialect. We heard “Alaaf!” (like Hello) and “Kölle Alaaf,” which means Cologne above all. And “Kamelle” is what you say when you want them to throw candy. It is similar to the word caramel. During both parades, you hear these words spoken over and over again! It felt like we said “Alaaf” and “Kamelle” about a thousand times! There are also some traditional songs played to which everyone was singing along that go, “Kölner Alaaf, Alaaf. Kölner Alaaf!” They’re easy enough to learn, and we were able to sing along after an hour or so! It’s just SO MUCH FUN that it’s hard to put into words.
Insider Tips for Carnival in Cologne
Bring A Huge Bag to Catch Candy
If you want to experience the parades like a local, then you must bring a large bag (one for EACH parade!) to catch the candy that they throw at you. And they will THROW it right at you! It’s hysterical – flying candy everywhere!
For the adults, they go in groups with their friends and hang out by the bars so they can fill up on their beers and get more Schnapps. A favorite local beer is the Früh Kölsch.
Want a Spot Up Front? Get there Early.
We found that for the school parade, you need to be there 3-45 minutes early. However, it was cold and a bit rainy, so if it was sunny, you might need to be there even sooner. There are portable toilets and street food sold all along the route, so you might want to stand near them. Bring lots of water and snacks with protein to sustain yourself during the parades.
For the Rosenmontag parade, we found we needed to be there 1-2 hours early to get a good spot. Obviously, this is difficult for young children, so we were not able to do this. We, instead, got there about 45 minutes early and were in the second row instead of the first. If you ask the adults in front of you, most people are happy to let children stand at the front since they can see over them.
At Karnveal, dressing up isn’t just for kids. We saw everyone of all ages decked out in the most fun, colorful, and creative costumes. Just walking about the city looking at costumes the entire weekend is entertainment by itself! In fact, if you come without a costume, you’ll likely feel out of place! The funnier and wackier, the better. Many people make them by hand, and some are ironic or political. Scary costumes are reserved for Halloween.
Unless it’s a warm day, which is rare in February, you’ll be cold, so dress accordingly! We wore warm, thermal clothing underneath our costumes, warm socks, and comfortable shoes. This was enough to keep us warm.
Want to Experience It, Too?
We can highly recommend it, and we might go back one day! It is an unforgettable experience. The energy in the air is electric, and it’s hard to describe unless you feel it in person. If you want to experience Cologne’s Carnival, then check out this website for more info. and to buy tickets if you’d like a guaranteed spot.
Make Sure You Also Check out These Posts and Videos!
See how our train trip getting to Cologne for Carnival went in our previous post and video! “Our First ICE Train Trip in Germany was Bumpy.”