The European Carnival

You don’t have to travel to Rio for the Carnival – or wait for next summer to go to Notting Hill – you just need to book a trip to Germany next February.

This is a unique carnival in the German Rhineland region when the volume goes up, the beer taps are open and fancy dress is the accepted dress code. It’s a crazy five days when thousands of revellers flock the streets to celebrate.

A little history

The carnival is a Christian custom celebrating the last days before Lent, the 40 days before Easter. It dates back to the 11th century when the carnival was a massive fete, full of indulgence, food, and alcohol.

In Germany it is a regional celebration. Many cities and regions, mainly in the south and west of Germany celebrate carnival, but Cologne and Dusseldorf are where the action is.

Thursday kicks things off with Ladies Day and it culminates on Shrove Monday, a bank holiday when all the shops and schools are closed.

What to expect

Huge parades with wagons, bands and music groups make their way through the streets lined with thousands of party hungry spectators. Just dress up and jump into the action.

It all starts at 11.11am on Thursday – yes, in the morning! The Mayor hands over the city keys to the women who are in charge until Ash Wednesday. But, no worries, men are more than welcome!

It’s easy to find – just follow the Indians, astronauts, lions, monks, mermaids and clowns.

Cologne’s squares such as the Heumarkt or Rudolfsplatz are packed with people dancing, singing, and giving out Butzchen (kisses on the cheeks).

Dusseldorf’s old town and its Rhine promenade ring with happy carnivallers, along with thumping tunes and everyone singing along.

You will find yourself hugging random strangers and dance arm-in-arm. From late afternoon until the early hours the bars, clubs, and pubs host the party. So, quite a bit of stamina is needed!

You think you have seen it all? Think twice and wait till you see this. On Shrove Monday the Carnival hits its peak and the atmosphere is high octane. Swaying crowds cheer on the music and dance groups forming a gigantic parade moving slowly through the cities.

Little sweets called Kamelle are thrown down into the crowds – and bring a shot glass. People will randomly hug you, give you a kiss and a free shot of moonshine to warm you up. You’ll need it as it’s February after all and it doesn’t matter whether it is minus 12 or +5 degrees – it goes on all day! People head to the bars in the late afternoon where the frenzy continues till into the wee small hours. Stamina is needed.

You wouldn’t want to stand out by not wearing fancy dress. Plan yours wisely, layers are they key to stay warm outdoors and be able to layer down when you enter a packed and boiling hot bar!

Remember the two different ‘’battle cries which replace ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ during the carnival – in Cologne it is ‘Alaaf’ and in Dusseldorf ‘Helau’.

The travel essentials

Both cities have international airports with many connections from London or Manchester. Alternatively jump on the Eurostar from London to Brussels and change to Cologne. It only takes around 4 hours.

Centrally located accommodation is key as taxis are scarce. Both cities offer a great variety of hotels catering for all budgets.

There are plenty of things to do during the carnival too. On the usually quieter Friday explore the city centres full of cultural highlights such as the gothic cathedral in Cologne or famous KO shopping mile in Dusseldorf.

If you’re a football fan catch a game on Saturday or Sunday. Fortuna Dusseldorf and FC Koln play games during carnival and teams such as Bayer Leverkusen or Borussia Moenchengladbach are within spitting distance too. And even the Ruhr giants Borussia Dortmund are only one hour away.

Sunday is all about relaxation to prepare for the final day. Cologne was founded by the Romans, and they left their bath culture in the city. What better way to spend the Sunday afternoon after a long walk along the Rhine promenade then in one of great thermal spas in city, 

We recommend Thursday in Cologne and the Monday in Dusseldorf; they are both pretty cities you shouldn’t miss.

For full itinerary planning contact us here and then we’ll see you in Cologne & Dusseldorf!


Peter Steins is the director of ATO Tours offering a comprehensive service for travellers. He can be contacted on 07375 473072.

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