It's that time of year again -- Carnival, the season of fools and fun, when Germans ignore all the rules and party hearty in the run-up to the sober Lenten season. Read on to find out where the action is.
Send in the clowns
The Women's Carnival ( Weiberfastnacht) in Cologne is for many the best day of all in a city that practically lives for the "fifth season" and claims to stage the most raucous carnival in the country. On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 3, you'll see the women of Cologne heading to work in costume, scissors in hand to snip off the ties of any uninitiated males. But no one really works on Weiberfastnacht. Instead, they head to the Alter Markt in the heart of the old town, where the street carnival is officially opened at exactly 11:11 a.m. So put on a costume, join the festivities, and as to where to go after the official opening, just follow the crowds to any number of traditional Cologne pubs for a glass -- or several -- of Kölsch beer. Carnival wraps up in Cologne with the traditional Rose Monday parade on Feb. 7.
The Rose Monday parade in Düsseldorf features colorful floats, often with a political message.
Schäffler dancers perform on Munich's Marienplatz.
Celebrating Carnival in the capital city, Berlin, has increased in popularity in recent years, and the highlight is the parade through the center of town. This year, it takes place on Feb. 6, at 12:11 a.m., and will move along the main drag of the Straße des 17. Juni and Unter den Linden, heading to the Schlossplatz. For a slightly more highbrow Carnival event, Berlin's Comic Opera is hosting a Venetian carnival on Feb. 5 and Feb. 6 at 7:30 p.m., with madrigals, opera scenes and masquerades from Orazio Vecchi and Claudio Monteverdi among others.
Helgoland is known for its steep cliffs and natural beauty.
Escape from the madness. If the thought of all those tipsy revellers in clown costumes makes you long for a quiet retreat, then consider making a getaway to Helgoland. The North Sea island is again advertising itself as a "fool-free" zone from Feb. 5 - Feb. 8. Special "escape" packages on offer include a boat tour of the island with mulled wine, a trip to the sand dunes, and tickets for use of a heated open-air seawater swimming pool and sauna as well as the local aquarium and museum in addition to your accommodation. For more information, call +49 (0)4725/813712-15.
In southern Germany , the pre-Lenten party is called Fasching, not Carnival, though the principle is the same. Munich is offering a host of Fasching events, but if you're going to be in the Bavarian capital, the dancing Schäffler men are a must-see. Dressed in traditional garb, the troupe of dancers only perform every seven years, and this year, their appearance coincides with Carnival. The tradition dates back to 1517, when the plague killed people in the thousands. The idea was to put on a festive dance to let people know it was safe to come out and enjoy themselves again. The Schäffler dancers can be seen in various squares throughout Munich until Feb. 8.
Revelling in Rhineland style. Competing (as always) with Cologne on the carnival front is nearby Düsseldorf, which from Feb. 3 to Feb. 7 is staging one of the biggest and most ebullient carnival bashes in the country. The beer might be different -- in Düsseldorf, the locals drink Alt, not Kölsch -- but both cities celebrate in true Rhineland style. Highlights include the street party along the city's ritzy Königsallee on Feb. 6, followed by the Rose Monday parade on Feb. 7.