Lying on the banks of the river Rhine, Cologne is a city of contrasts. Germany’s fourth-largest city is a busy and dynamic urban centre, yet the vibe is relaxed and somehow cosy.
Founded by the Romans almost two thousand years ago, it was one of the leading cities in the Hanseatic League and a major trading centre since the Middle Ages, but despite being one of the oldest cities in Germany it looks pretty modern – the World War II air raids had no mercy on its rich cultural and historic heritage.
Its Cathedral (Kölner Dom), the symbol and main landmark of the city, is a masterpiece of Northern European Gothic architecture and the most visited monument in Germany. Still, compared to other German and European cities, Cologne is dubbed as ‘ugly’, sometimes by its inhabitants too.
But as we all know, it is not only the beauty of a city and its monuments that leave a mark on us, but also, and above all, the traditions of its citizens and its uniqueness, its peculiarities and the sensations triggered in its visitors. As a song from and about Cologne says, ‘Cologne is not a city, but a feeling’. In Germany the inhabitants of Cologne are well known for their open-mindedness and friendly attitude.
Kolner Karneval – Kölle Alaaf!
It should therefore come as no surprise that the city hosts one of the biggest and craziest carnival celebrations in Europe, the Kölner Karneval. The ‘fifth season’, or carnival season, officially starts every year at 11.11 AM on the 11th of the 11th month November, but it is between Fat Thursday (Weiberfastnacht) and Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch) that the main celebrations take place and reach their zenith (in 2016: 4th – 10th February).
During these days citizens and tourists flock to the streets and squares to participate in the parades and witness the performances and events held all around the city, and pubs and clubs are filled to the brim. Cologne echoes with ‘Kölle Alaaf!’, the typical greeting during this festivity, which in Kölsch, the local dialect, means ‘Cologne above all!’. Kölsch is not only spoken, but also drunk! Indeed, kölsch is also the name of the beer crafted in the city. Carnival madness stops only on Wednesday, when Lent starts.
Planning a quick weekend escape but still don’t know where to head to? Willing to party for Carnival like a local? Pack your bag and hit the road, destination: Cologne.
Go to Cologne during carnival? (Yes!)
The folly of Kölner Karneval will win over any of your plans. You will literally go with the flow, and be randomly dragged from one place to another by the acquaintances/friends/lovers you just met. You will eat tons of Kamelle (sweets) and spread your love by giving a Bützje (a light – LIGHT! – kiss) to everyone you bump into. In the end, you will be drinking too much kölsch on the first day, and fight a massive hangover the day after. But still, with some optimism, here are some of the best tips our Spotters from Cologne would give you and a few spots they would highly recommend you do not to miss.
Whether you decide to arrive in Cologne in the middle of the workweek or spend the weekend there, this is not an issue: Carnival lasts for a whole week and there are plenty of events taking place every day (on this topic, you might want to read our Spotter Tim‘s articles ‘CARNIVAL – Overview Part 1 – What to do?’ and ‘CARNIVAL – Overview Part 2 – What to do?’. In case you are be taking your little ones to the celebrations, you might be interested in checking Judith’s article ‘CARNIVAL – Children – Ghosts, clowns & kamelle’. Finally, for a complete overview of the main parades and parties going on in town each day during Carnival week, check out the official website of the Tourist Board for Cologne).
What to wear during carnival
Then, whatever your plans are, be sure to dress up. As stated by our Spotter Mathias, “To not be in costume is the same thing as being naked”. Did you forget your nurse costume or your ‘tutti-frutti’ hat at home? No worries: go to Deiters , “THE carnival and costume shop of Cologne” according to Judith. If you have not succeeded in finding anything you wanted, or you feel like getting creative and inventing your own look, pay a visit to Vintage and Rags, a second hand clothing shop on the Habsburger Ring, or rummage through the piles of clothes at the shop of the Emmaus Community, which runs an indoor flea market in the district of Nippes.
Day 1: 09:00 – 13:00
Before starting to party hard, venture into the city centre (the Altstadt, German for ‘old town’) and head for breakfast to the Coffee Gang, a ‘slow coffee’ place on the southern Ring of the city recommended by our Spotter Gol. The owners who run this stylish and homey place use only fair trade beans and bake delicious cakes, too.
Day 1: 13:00 – 19:00
Have lunch at Waidmeister. The cafe, located south of the Cathedral, is the mirror of its owner: a bike-lover architect and designer. Waidmeister features a cool and modern, yet cosy, space, and is making a name for itself thanks to its big homemade sandwiches, cakes and soups.
If you are searching for a traditional environment, more in line with the traditional Colognian carnival spirit, walk towards the southern portion of the inner town and sit at Früh em Veedel. In this classic ‘beer hall’, where locals can still avoid the noisy tourist masses that overrun Cologne city centre, sausages and potatoes are the protagonists. And kölsch, of course. A lot of kölsch. Gather your strengths and drink more, you will need it for the hours to come, whether you will be wandering around or spending your time in one of the many pubs in town (you can read the complete list of our Cologne spotters’ favourite pubs on ‘CARNIVAL – pubs – places to go’).
Day 1: 19:00 – 23:00
Once in need of some rest (and more food), the decision is yours: would you try something exotic or, if you have not had enough of Früh em Veedel, indulge in the rich local cuisine? Located within walking distance of each other, Habibi and Brauhaus Pütz are two great, different options. The first is a charming Lebanese restaurant were you can taste Middle-Eastern plates of falafel, hummus and baba ghanoush, which always come with a treat: a hot cup of cinnamon tea. The latter, a traditional beer hall, offers traditional German dishes and Mühlen Kölsch, probably the best beer brewed in Cologne on the market.
Day 1: 23:00 – …
The day is not over yet. Follow the crowd and get lost within the celebrations (after all, isn’t it about living every bit of it and having fun?), or check out Heimathirsch, the only place in the area of Nippes which is allowed to serve drinks after 23:00. It usually hosts jazz concerts, comedy shows, readings and rock parties too, and it is one of the hot spots during Carnival.
Anno Pief, in the old red light district, will take you back to the past. Located in an old alley in the Northern portion of the inner city, Anno Pief is a real institution in Cologne, and celebrates the Carnival throughout the whole carnival week.
Day 2: 09:00 – 13:00
Carnival will take a toll on even the hardest party animals. After an intense first day, the most proactive and energetic will enjoy Heilandt Kaffeemanufaktur. The interior is simple: what is important here is the coffee, its incredible smell and taste (the coffee beans used are either fair trade or roasted in their own manufacturer).
For a quick yet yummy fast bite, go find Bunte Burger. The first vegan burger restaurant in Cologne is actually a foodtruck, which changes its location around the city every week (check their fb page to see where you can find them next!).
If you are still recovering and want to take it easy, spoil yourself with a late breakfast / lunch at Café Fatsch. Snuggle into one of their sofas while planning your last day in Cologne. Different concept from Bunte Burger, same food orientation: The menu of Café Fatsch, from the cakes to the soups that change daily, is, again, totally vegan.
Day 2: 13:00 – 19:00
In case some extra chill time is what you are longing for, take a tour of the Brauerei Sünner, on the other bank of the Rhine river. The impressive brick building built at the end of the XIX century is home to the oldest kölsch brewery in the world, and it can be visited from to Thursday to Saturday. You can also eat and drink there too (and no, not only kölsch: it is one of the few breweries of Cologne that produces different varieties of spirits, such as their own Limoncello).
If you’ve had enough to drink, pop over to ArtyFarty-Gallery and see what is on there. An art space more than a simple art gallery, ArtyFarty gallery is a bar too, and might suddenly become a club when an unpredictable DJ set takes place.
Day 2: 19:00 – 23:00
When hunger starts to kick in, make your way through the loud carnival crowd in the heart of Cologne. Strictly avoid mainstream pizza shops and tourist breweries, and go discover Beirut. More than a hundred dishes are listed on their menu, and its warm and relaxed atmosphere will make you wonder whether you have left Germany for the Lebanese capital (carnival loudness permitting).
Once back to reality from your Middle Eastern getaway, wind your way to King Georg for a drink. A former nightclub which has kept its original interiors, King Georg is also the owner of a flat, furnished in an exquisite retro fashion, in the upper floor.
Day 2: 23:00 – ….
As your last day comes to its end and the night progresses, you might think about spending some of your time at Odonien. An outdoor atelier, concert and jam-session venue, any-sort-of-event location, the space conceived by artist Odo Rumpf is the ideal place for hanging out with friends and party till your feet will fail you. In case of inclement weather, it will not be difficult to find any indoor place where to have a good time: the uplifting atmosphere of Cologne, its merry folks and litres of kölsch will welcome you in any bar or pub. It’s Carnival, after all.