At the end of January, I got very lucky. I lined up a wonderful house sit – a nice apartment with two sweet kitties in the vibrant city of Cologne, Germany – that happened to take place during one of the biggest celebrations in the country: Carnival.
I didn’t know much about Carnival when I arrived in Germany, but six days at one of the most colorful, musical, whimsical, and downright crazy festivals on earth taught me a few things.
Post originally published March 2018
What is Cologne Carnival?
Cologne Carnival is a huge German festival that takes place in Cologne every winter. Carnival festivities actually last for months but the main events take place for about a week leading up to Ash Wednesday.
Like Oktoberfest in Munich, street parties and beer tents can be found all over town. But Carnival also has some of its own unique traditions, like how everyone wears zip-up onesies!
What I learned at Carnival in Cologne
When I found out that I’d be in Cologne during Carnival, I had no idea what to expect. But Carnival turned out to be one of my favorite travel experiences to date and it’s definitely one to add to your bucket list.
I learned that Carnival is similar to American Mardi Gras with one important difference – they throw candy instead of beads.
I don’t know who figured out that you could throw entire boxes of chocolates to screaming fans during a parade, but whoever you are, thank you. Like American Mardi Gras, Carnival takes place the week leading up to Ash Wednesday.
Parades with elaborate floats carrying even more elaborately dressed characters are the star features of Carnival. Parade-goers line the streets shouting “Kamelle” in hopes of catching candies and flowers which are thrown by the bucketload. I walked away from one day of parades with enough candy to last me until March.
Carnival is a time for costumes
Starting at the crack of dawn, the streets are filled with human-sized, florescent birds. Cops and Marines walk arm in arm with Minnie Mouse, clowns, and fairy princesses. Zip-up animal onesies are particularly popular, and at any given moment you can spin in a circle and find enough adults dressed as plush animals to fill a very strange zoo.
On my first day at Carnival, I stood out as the only person without a costume. Thankfully, a friend lent me a basketball jersey which I wore over my jacket. I added two thick smudges of eyeliner under my eyes – because basketball players totally do that – and was ready to go. This might be the first time I’ve felt self-conscious because I wasn’t wearing an adult zip-up cow onesie.
Carnival is crawling with police officers, but not all of them are real.
Police costumes are very popular and it can be quite confusing to determine who is actually law enforcement and who is a university guy wearing a very compelling uniform. I guess the fact that some of the cops were wearing American police uniforms should have tipped me off.
During Carnival, the subway (called the U-Bahn) is just as much a party place as the parades in the streets.
If you don’t like crowds, avoid the subways at all costs. They are packed, shoulder to shoulder, and are essentially a continuation of the celebration that is going on all over the city.
Carnival veterans drink beer, never hard alcohol.
It is a marathon, not a sprint. And considering that Carnival lasts almost a week, moderation is key. The most popular type of beer to drink during Carnival is local Kolsch, which you can buy from any beer tent on any street corner for the duration of the festival.
Snacking is common and communal.
Don’t be surprised if the family standing next to you at the parade offers you a Tupperware full of cheese cubes or bread slices. Don’t be alarmed when a man with a large beard wanders up to your group and passes around mysterious meat sticks. This is normal, I learned. And after a long day of parades and raining chocolates, a fistful of cheese is a great idea.
Carnival is very political.
Though I didn’t get a lot of the political references since they are about European and German politics, it isn’t hard to tell when a candidate is getting teased.
Carnival participants eat kebabs at any time throughout the day or night.
Forget late-night waffle house or pizza or burgers. Kebabs are the only acceptable food during Carnival. Typically, during a lull in the parade, a person says, “Kebab?” Everyone in earshot shouts “KEBAB” and charges off in the direction of the nearest spinning, sweaty spool of meat.
Carnival has its own songs – and everyone knows them.
I heard from several people that Cologne is one of the most sung about cities of all time. Though I couldn’t verify that statistic anywhere, I certainly believe it after Carnival. One Cologne resident told me that in the months before Carnival, bands will host sing-alongs at popular bars to debut their new Carnival songs.
They will practice the lyrics with the bar patrons so that, come Carnival time, people know the words. While some of the songs are in German, many are in Kölsh – a local dialect that isn’t widely spoken. Still, everyone knows the songs. After several days, even I started to pick up some of the lyrics.
Carnival never seems to end.
It starts on Thursday and people are still partying into Tuesday the next week. The biggest party days are Thursday and Monday. On Tuesday you would expect everyone to be recovering in bed with curtains drawn, but nope – the parades continue. Local neighborhood parades block off the streets for yet another day of costumes, singing, snacking, and candy flinging.
Carnival will make you sick for an entire week.
Everyone I know caught the Carnival Cold the week after Carnival. It’s something about the combination of drinking and being outside in the cold and packed bars of people clanking glasses. Everyone, everyone that I went to Carnival with was had a cold the next week. But of course, we all agreed it was totally worth it.
Carnival is a great time to be a solo traveler.
Most days, I had a wonderful group of Cologne locals to hang out with at Carnival. This was amazing for me because they knew the best places to watch the parade, the best bars to hang out in after the parade, and the best kebab stands to enjoy the most sacred of late-night foods.
But on the days when I was on my own, it was very easy to make friends. Carnival draws a large international crowd, so even if you don’t speak German it’s likely you’ll find someone who speaks your language.
Carnival is notoriously friendly. Groups expand and adopt new members as the day wears on, so it is easy to join up with a group of new friends. In the bars, everyone sings Carnival songs and sways to the rhythm, shoulder to shoulder, so you don’t have to worry about sitting at the bar alone not talking to anyone. With so many people out having a good time, odds are good that you meet a friendly face.
Carnival in Cologne should be on your Bucket List
Like all the great celebrations of the world – Oktoberfest in Munich, the Full Moon Parties in Thailand, the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and the Running of the Bulls in Spain- Carnival in Cologne should be on your bucket list. Colorful, candy-full, and downright fun, it now holds the title of my favorite festival!
What’s your favorite festival? Let me know in the comments!