Germany: Cologne’s Carnival, Kölsch and Magi

Tourists in front of the big cathedral in Cologne. Susan McKee photo.
Tourists in front of the big cathedral in Cologne. Susan McKee photo.

Cologne: The Carnival, Kölsch and Three Wise Men

By Susan McKee

Carnival is the German version of Mardi Gras. Kölsch is the particular type of beer brewed only here, and the Wise Men? Well, they’re said to reside permanently in Cologne.

The famous cathedral of Cologne.
The “Church of the Three Kings” in Cologne.

Officially declared “open” in early November, Kölner Karneval is paused during December and picks up again in earnest after the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 – the day the Three Wise Men (also known as magi or kings) were said to visit Jesus in Bethlehem.

Carnival’s public merrymaking starts in Cologne’s Alter Markt on Weiberfastnacht, the Thursday before the beginning of Lent and ends as Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday) dawns. Masks are de rigeur (and costumes, too) if you’re going to be out and about this week.

The big parade takes place on Rosenmontag, the Monday before Ash Wednesday, and (like its counterpart in New Orleans) involves more than 100 carnival associations.

Before you go, practice the typical greeting during the festival: Kölle Alaaf!, a Kölsch phrase generally translated as “Cologne above all!”

The Cologne carnival parade.
The Cologne carnival parade.

Kölsch is the name for the particular dialect of Germany spoken in Cologne in years gone by – but these days it’s better known as the particular kind of beer brewed only by members of the Cologne Brewery Association.

Every restaurant in town serves its favorite (and often eponymous) version of Kölsch in a tall, thin cylindrical 0.2 liter glass. Characterized by its clear straw-yellow hue, the brew is a bit hoppy and less bitter than the standard German pale lager.

The Three Wise Men

The Three Wise Men? They’ve been in Cologne since 1164 after their relics were captured as war booty by Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa, who defeated the Lombards and destroyed the city of Milan.

For 850 years, Cologne, Germany, has benefited from housing these popular relics. The bones of the saints were “discovered” in Persia and moved to Constantinople before arriving in Milan in 344.

Now housed in the largest reliquary in Europe in the church officially known as the Cathedral Church of SS. Peter and Mary, the relics remain a powerful draw for the faithful.

Pilgrims, after all, were the first tourists. They travel not for mundane reasons but voluntarily because of faith. Their destinations are sites with specific and meaningful religious content. Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome are obvious examples, but there are many more, with “starred” attractions featuring relics of popular saints.

Tourists in front of the big cathedral in Cologne. Sue McKee photo.
Tourists in front of the big cathedral in Cologne. Susan McKee photo.

There’s no doubt that owning an A-list relic marked a city as a must-visit on the Christian pilgrimage map – and attracted countless travelers who rented rooms and bought food and souvenirs, thus enriching the local inhabitants. Obtaining such a prize was one of the best economic development tools of medieval times.

The Magi were mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) as the first people to travel long distances to pay homage to Jesus. Their relics are enshrined in a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus placed above and behind the original medieval altar of the cathedral. Construction on this church, the latest of a succession of sanctuaries on the same site, began in 1248 and continued for six centuries.

The impressive reliquary itself took at least thirty years to complete. Ornamentation includes gold- and silver-embossed figures, filigree panels set with precious and semi-precious stones, cameos, intaglios and enamels.


Epiphany, the Christian feast day set for January 6 that celebrates the recognition of Jesus as the Son of God, also commemorates the visit of the “men from the east” who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, thus marking Jesus’ physical manifestation to those who were not Jews.

Around 1199, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV gave three golden crowns made for the three wise men as a present to the church of Cologne. The city’s Coat of Arms still shows representations of these three crowns.

The Cologne Cathedral also is a symbol of German resilience. Although hit by at least 13 aerial bombs during World War II, most of its walls stood tall above the surrounding devastation– more than 90 percent of Cologne’s historical city center was destroyed. You’ll no doubt see scaffolding when you visit because repair and restoration are a constant challenge.

After taking 632 years to complete (1248-1880), the Cathedral Church of SS. Peter and Mary in Cologne is the largest Gothic structure in northern Europe. With about 15 million tourists a year, it’s the most visited building in Germany. The shrine is so famous that the church itself has become popularly known as the Dreikoenigenkirche (the Church of the Three Kings).

There’s no charge to visit the cathedral unless you want to visit the treasury or climb the bell tower.

The old Roman road in Cologne.
The old Roman road in Cologne. Photo by Susan McKee

The old Roman road in Cologne.

The history of Cologne traces back to Roman times: it was founded along the west side of the Rhine River in the 1st century (the name derives from the Roman word for city: colonia). Later, as part of the Frankish empire, it became the seat of an archbishop and a prince-elector. During the early modern period, it was an important center of the Hanseatic League. Today it’s the fourth largest city in Germany.

Start your exploration at the cathedral square – not in the cathedral itself but at the cobblestone street just to the south. That’s a remnant of the original Roman road connecting Cologne with Boulogne-sur-Mer in what’s now northern France.

Roman Germanic museum
Roman-Germanic museum

Roman-Germanic Museum

Next to the road is the Romano-Germanic Museum, built on the site of a Roman villa. Through the glass exterior wall, you can see a mosaic floor from the house, built in the second century, and on the inside of the museum is a large collection of artifacts from Roman times.

Between the Romano-Germanic Museum and the Rhine is the Ludwig Museum, which specializes in Modern Art. A bonus: it has a café that’s a perfect stop for lunch or a snack.

Excavations near the city hall are turning up all sorts of surprises. One is the Praetorium, the official residence of the Imperial Governor of Cologne, which was the capital city of the Roman province of Lower Germania.

It is the city’s most significant official monument and the most important Roman palace on the banks of the Rhine. As the excavations at the Town Hall Square progress, each ‘Find of the Month’ is displayed in turn in the Praetorium’s exhibition hall.

Many Museums

Interested in the history of public transportation? Check out the Tram Museum. Industrial design? Visit the Museum of Applied Arts. German Impressionists? The Käthe Kollwitz Museum is a “must”.

On a whole ‘nother plane is the Chocolate Museum, where (of course) you’ll get a sample of the sweet after learning where chocolate comes from and how it’s transformed into a confection.

Shopping in the city center
Shopping in City Center

A walk along the Rhine shows that river transport is still essential to Cologne (you’ll see barges and sightseeing boats and cruise ships and more). If you’ve got time, indulge in a river cruise — check out the round trip options on Köln-Düsseldorfer (K-D).

The city has many hotels at all price levels. Three that I’ve stayed in (and can recommend) are Hotel Allegro, Hotel Cristall and Hotel Lemp. The first two are just a few blocks from the main train station – the Allegro to the south and the Hotel Cristall to the north. The third isn’t located within walking distance of the city center, but both tram and S-bahn are close making it a great budget choice (especially if you need to park a car).

There’s no shortage of restaurants and cafés in Cologne. In addition to the café in the Museum Ludwig, I’ve eaten (happily) at Peters Brauhaus, Im Roten Ochsen, Brauhaus Sion and Weinhaus Brungs. Don’t forget a glass of Kolsch.

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