Celebrating Carnival in Germany’s Dusseldorf

March 21, 2017 Updated: March 22, 2017

The guy sitting next to me on my AirBerlin flight to Dusseldorf was heading to the city on the Rhine to enjoy its famous Carnival celebrations. And yes, like everyone else, he was going to wear a costume. He would be parading proudly, he told me, as a champagne bottle, cork and all. 

That’s the scene during Carnival in Dusseldorf: costumes, creativity and cuisine, each served with snap, crackle, and fizz.  “Just remember,” one local later remarked, “at Carnival, more is more.”

Wandering around town in late February on the weekend before Rosenmontag, or Rose Monday, I found a normally sober German city transformed into a giant community party. Rose Monday is the climax of Carnival week, when Dusseldorf’s impressive parade of floats, funny outfits, prancing horses, and brass bands snakes its way through city streets. 

But for several days before, nearly everyone from babies to seniors was in costume. There were onesies designed as elephants, pandas, zebras, and tigers. There were vampires, FBI agents, paramilitary units, and visitors from outer space. But above all there were unicorns, herds and herds of unicorns of all sexes, shapes, and sizes. 

I felt sorry for the arriving champagne bottle; unicorns were definitely the way to go. Church bells rang, drummers drummed, and impromptu choral groups sang rousing songs around sausage wagons and French fry stands. The skies were overcast but Dusseldorf’s popular fermented altbier (old beer) flowed like the nearby Rhine. 

At Carnival time, Dusseldorf throws an impressive party.

The roots of Carnival date back to the Dionysian spring fertility revels of the Romans. The celebration that happens six weeks before Easter is a time of eating, drinking, masquerades, and revelry. The chaos of Carnival takes over the normally orderly city as its citizens celebrate the death of winter and the birth of spring.

Colourful Carnival costumes. (Susan James)
Colourful Carnival costumes. (Susan James)

Dusseldorf delights

With Rose Monday yet to come, I decided to explore some of the unexpected delights that Dusseldorf has to offer.  Some highlights were viewing the city from the observation deck of the 790-foot-tall Rheinturm (communications tower); the fascinating Neanderthal Museum; Schloss Benrath, a Baroque hunting lodge built in the mid-1700s; and Castle Square. 

When I arrived at Castle Square near sunset, it was full of university students dressed in costumes and waving cups of beer. Everyone wanted their photo taken on the sweeping promenade that runs along the banks of the Rhine. Cries of migrating geese mixed with cries of partying Carnival goers. One group of sombrero-wearing, serape-draped revellers was trying to sing a song in Spanish in the midst of several rival groups committed to German drinking songs. It was the Tower of Babel, Dusseldorf style.

Among the varied delights that Carnival has to offer is an exploration of its wide range of culinary pleasures. Seven thousand Japanese live and work here so you can find some of the best sushi restaurants in the world. But it’s also Germany, so of course sausage is everywhere. 

During Carnival, small mobile carts with costumed vendors move throughout the city and gather groups around them wherever they stop. At Curry Restaurant on Hammerstrasse, the featured item is the golden sausage, an elevated dish dipped in gold foil and ketchup. Their fries are some of the best I’ve ever eaten. 

But for those seeking gourmet splendours, there is the new Restaurant Reul inside the Derag Livinghotel on Kirchfeldstrasse. Recently opened by Agata Reul—whose Michelin-starred restaurant Agata’s is a highpoint of city cuisine—Restaurant Reul features a fusion of European and Asian flavours. My memorable meal finished with a green tea crème brulee and a toast to the gustatory pleasures of Carnival.

Schloss Benrath (Susan James)
Schloss Benrath, a Baroque hunting lodge built between 1755-70 for a local prince and his wife. (Susan James)

Rose Monday

At last it was Rose Monday, and the floats were ready, the bands were tuned, and people were primed with costumes and good cheer. Cries of “Hello, Dusseldorf” rang out between parade participants and spectators as the floats began their slow, winding journey through the heart of the city. 

Riders threw candies and sweets to the crowd who waved balloons, flags, and streamers. There were political floats, promotional floats, and floats celebrating clubs and fraternities. On the sidewalk beside me a couple in matching cow outfits and their teenage son spread out a picnic complete with makeshift grill that sent sizzling sausage odours into the air. 

Two men dressed as Queen Elizabeth II, complete with pearls and handbags, walked by offering the royal wave, followed by a woman in long coat, knee socks, and a pink shower cap. 

Behind a group of swirling gypsies in scarves and spangles, one lone snare drummer in Prussian blue, his snare drum flopping before him, went galloping through the crowed searching for his lost band. 

This was not the sensual Mardi Gras of Rio or New Orleans. This was a thoroughly German affair, ancient and modern and uniquely Dusseldorf’s own. Near the end of the parade a float decorated with a larger-than-life head of Martin Luther rolled by, the serious cleric offering me a scandalous wink. Satirical and subversive, the float summed up the distinctive spirit and whimsical flavour of Carnival in Dusseldorf.

AirBerlin: https://www.airberlin.com/en/site/start.php

Dusseldorf Tourist Board: https://www.duesseldorf-tourismus.de/en/home/

Carnival goers on Rose Monday. (Susan James)
Carnival goers on Rose Monday. (Susan James)

Outer space float.  (Susan James)
Outer space float. (Susan James)

Mother and daughter matching costumes. (Susan James)
Mother and daughter matching costumes. (Susan James)

Frank Gehry's Neuer Zollhof, with its three crooked towers with contrasting facades. (Susan James)
Frank Gehry’s Neuer Zollhof, with its three crooked towers with contrasting facades. (Susan James)

Schlossturm in Castle Square. (Susan James)
Schlossturm in Castle Square. (Susan James)

Media Harbor from the Rheinturm. (Susan James)
Media Harbor from the Rheinturm. (Susan James)

Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.