Nobody quite knows when the Cologne Karneval was first celebrated, but no one can remember a time when it wasn't. For hundreds, if not thousands of years, the city has annually given itself over to a week-long celebration of madness and merriment.
The fifth season, or Karneval season, opens at 11:11am, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, but then goes quiet to allow Advent and Christmas to have their moment. However, on Fat Thursday, things start up again with a vengeance and continue running at full speed until Ash Wednesday the following week. Locally known as 'the crazy days', that nickname hardly does this celebration justice. There's something happening every day of the week, but the Thursday and Monday typically attract the biggest crowds. Learn more about experiencing Cologne's carneval below.
Fat Thursday celebrations
Karneval revelers must begin their celebrations with a Frühschoppen: beer, sausages and pretzels for breakfast. Once you've started the day off on the right foot, head to Neumarkt for the official opening ceremony. Each year, a triumvirate, or dreigestirn of locals is chosen to represent the three key Karneval figures: the Prince, the Peasant and the Maiden. Setting the tone for a week in which nothing is as it seems, the Maiden is always played by a man in drag. Each of the figures represents a different value or tradition upheld in the city, with the Prince in particular embodying the spirit of the Karneval. His big day comes on Rose Monday, when he leads a parade though the streets, but he also plays a vital role in almost every part of the celebrations.
The first day of the Karneval is known as Weiberfastnacht, or 'Women’s Karneval Day'. Traditional activities on this day have included dressing in spectacular costumes and women cutting off men's ties – gentlemen, you have been warned! In the afternoon, the historical play Jan und Griet is performed at Cologne’s Severinstor, just 12 minutes by tram from the Radisson Blu Hotel, Cologne. The evening concludes with masked balls and parties that often last all night; closing times for pubs and bars are suspended during the Karneval.
Planning a romantic city break? Check out our guide to spending a romantic weekend in Cologne.
Parades throughout Karneval week
Over 100 Karneval associations organized by the festival committee participate in smaller parades throughout the crazy days. On Sunday, school children get their own parade through the city, while evenings are traditionally taken up with fancy dress balls, which became part of the city repertoire in the 18th century.
The Monday is considered to be the highlight of the festivities, with a parade that draws over one million spectators. The Triumvirate march in the parade, which reflects the theme of the Karneval that year. Locals spend months preparing elaborate floats for the procession, which stretches out along six kilometers. The nine divisions of the colorful Cologne Carnival Corps are one of the most recognizable parts of the parade, accompanied by the Mariechen, acrobatic dancing girls. Attendees dress up in costumes and take their places along the route, hoping to catch some of the candy, chocolate, and flowers tossed into the crowd by the 10,000 parade participants. Learn more about Rose Monday and check out the programme.
After a week of mayhem, the Karneval whirlwind ends on Wednesday, and those who can muster the energy venture out to a local restaurant for a traditional fish dinner.