Top festivals in Switzerland 2016
The top Swiss festivals offer a wealth of attractions for music lovers or those who enjoy open-air spectacles against a backdrop of picturesque Swiss scenery.
There is more to Switzerland’s great outdoors than lush meadows and Alpine peaks, as Switzerland offers an entertaining variety of colourful and quirky Swiss festivals. For those who have an ear for music, an eye for film or a taste for the performing arts, Switzerland’s annual top festivals are not to be missed. From rock and pop, through to jazz and classical music, to opera, theatre and film, joining the masses for outdoor — or indoor — events is a must in the Swiss summer, and all year round. Here is Expatica's guide to festivals and other annual events in Switzerland.
Top Swiss festivals
Mid-January: Grindelwald Snow Festival
The Swiss winter provides a backdrop for the artists and sculptors who specialise in artistic ice sculptures. Every year sculptors from all over the world gather in Grindelwald, near Interlaken. During the six-day festival, the streets of the snowy town become a charming museum with temporary creations decorating every corner. Until the ice melts, the white statues create an unforgettable experience for both locals and tourists. The next Snow Festival is 18 to 23 January 2016. See www.grindelwald.ch.
End of January: International Balloon Festival, Château-d'Oex
For eight colourful days at the end of January, the Alpine village of Château-d'Oex accommodates around 80 hot air balloons from 20 different countries. Balloons of all kinds of shapes and sizes float over the snowy Alps and it is quite a spectacular sight to behold, turning the winter greys into a colourful sky. The Balloon Festival runs from 23 to 31 January 2016. See www.festivaldeballons.ch.
Mid-February: Basel Fasnacht
Every year for around 700 years, thousands of Basel residents have gathered at 4am in the freezing cold, awaiting the four rings of the city clock that announces the start of the three-day carnival. The carnival participants wear masks and colourful disguises, and march in street parades accompanied by orchestras playing piccolos and other wind instruments. The next Basel Fasnacht starts 23 February, 2015. See fasnacht.ch.
February: White Turf, St Moritz
Thoroughbreds and jockeys from all over the world come to race on the frozen expanse of the Lake of St Moritz and the chance to win the biggest prize money in Switzerland. They’ll be galloping, cantering or skikjöring, where men are pulled along a 2,700 track on the frozen lake by unsaddled horses at speeds of up to 50 km/h. White Turf is on 7, 14 and 21 February 2016. See www.whiteturf.ch.
April: Interlaken Classic Music Festival
The Interlaken Music Festival is one of the most important events on the Swiss classical music calendar. Performers at this annual spectacle always include leading international orchestras and soloists. Symphony and chamber music concerts fill the air during April. Check on the website for dates of concerts of the 55th Interlaken Music Festival in 2016. See www.interlaken-classics.ch.
Easter, Summer and November: Lucerne Festival
Three times every year, leading music performers from across the world – orchestras, conductors, soloists – convene in Lucerne to celebrate a festival of sound. Around 120,000 visitors attend the three festivals, of which the summer one is the largest, boasting some hundred classical and modern music events. Lucerne Festival at Easter runs for 10 days during the Passion season, up to and including Palm Sunday, and places an emphasis on sacred music. Lucerne Festival at the Piano is held every November and celebrates the art of pianism. For one week, classical and jazz pianists, new virtuosos and established masters, organists and harpsichord players alike fill the air with recitals, concertos and improvisations. The 2016 dates are: Easter Festival 12 to 20 March; Summer Festival 12 August to 11 September; and the Lucerne Festival at the Piano 19 to 27 November. See www.lucernefestival.ch.
Third Monday in April: Sechseläuten (Six O'Clock Chimes), Zurich
Members of all the guilds dress in costumes and celebrate the arrival of spring, which is climaxed by the burning of Böögg, a straw figure symbolising winter. Additionally, there are children's parades to keep the whole family entertained. In 2015, the Sechseläuten will be on 18 April. See www.sechselaeuten.ch.
April–May: Ascona Music Festival
The Ascona Music Festival is a prestigious chamber music festival, which is held in the picturesque town of Ascona. Located next to the majestic Lake Maggiore this picturesque setting is ideal to celebrate chamber music's finest repertoire with internationally renowned musicians. Check the dates for 2016 at www.academyofeuphony.com.
June: Fête de la musique, Geneva
Fête de la musique runs annually, taking over the streets and squares of Lausanne for three days every summer. Over 50 podiums show off musicians from across the globe. The music is diverse, ranging from classical orchestras, electro jazz bands to rock, pop, world music and French music. It is worth noting that most roads are blocked during these three days, and it is best to travel by public transport. The Geneva Fête de la musique runs from 17 to 19 June 2016. See www.ville-ge.ch.
June: Lugano Festival Jazz
For five days in the medieval town of Lugano, 17 free jazz concerts entertain jazz fans from around the globe. It is now one of the biggest festivals of its kind in Europe. Check the 2016 dates at www.estivaljazz.ch.
June: Eidgenössisches Jodelfest
The most Swiss of sounds, the yodel, probably originated in the Stone Age as a call from mountain to mountain; choirs started singing yodelling songs in the 19th century and today there are around 2,000 Swiss yodelling songs. You can hear Switzerland's best yodellers at the Eidgenössisches Jodelfest. The four-day yodelling festival and competition brings together some 15,000 yodellers every three years, each time in a different city. The next festival is in Brig-Gils in 2017. See www.jodlerverband.ch.
June–July: Zurich Festival
Every summer for a month, Zurich Festival combines opera, concerts, dance, theatre and art, presenting the city's diverse cultural institutions. The opening night, held in and around the Theaterhaus Gessnerallee, is becoming a festival tradition. Festspiele Zürich runs from 26 June 2016. See www.zuercher-festspiele.ch.
June–September: William Tell Festival, Interlaken
Performances of the famous play by Schiller that is more than 100 years old, and a wonderful retelling utilising 200 amateur actors from toddlers to sprightly pensioners, not forgetting horses, cows, goats and sometimes even foxes and squirrels. Tell-Freilichtspiele performances run between 21 June to 10 September 2016. See www.tellspiele.ch.
Early July: Züri Fäscht, Zurich
This summertime citywide festival takes over Zurich with fairground revelry. Millions of visitors enjoy the carnival atmosphere, three days of celebrations and spectacular fireworks displays. Held every three years, the next one will take place from 1 to 3 July 2016. See www.zuerifaescht.ch.
Start of July: Montreux Jazz Festival
The Montreux Jazz Festival is held on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva. World famous, the extensive programme extends from jazz to blues, rock and pop. Since its inception in 1967, some of the greatest jazz and blues artists have performed at this event, including Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Charlie Mingus and Dexter Gordon. Check the 2016 festival dates at www.montreuxjazz.com.
Mid-July: Gurten Music Festival, Bern
This multi-coloured music festival is a highlight of the festival calendar in Bern. Events last for four days and attract thousands of celebrating youth. Around 60 DJs perform with bands from Switzerland and around the world, playing a range of music from pop, rock, electro, punk, soul, hip-hop and blues. The Gurten Music Festival is from 14 to 17 July 2016. See www.gurtenfestival.ch.
July: International Alphorn Festival, Nendaz
The traditional herdsman's alphorn is a wind instrument that is so long that one end rests on the ground – and the shorter it is, the harder it is to play. The International Alphorn Festival is held every year in Nendaz in the Valais canton and consists of concerts, an official competition, workshops and other folk and traditional music and dances. The 14th festival will be held on 22 to 24 July 2016. See www.nendazcordesalpes.ch.
End of July: Paléo Festival, Nyon
The Paléo Festival is Switzerland’s biggest outdoor music event, created in 1976 and situated between Geneva and Lausanne. Paléo Arts and Spectacles is a non-profit cultural association, named after a successful racehorse, promoting music and art via concerts and other events. The festival takes place over six days and typically hosts 120 concerts, promoting a combination of established stars and new talent. Music genres include rock, French chanson, world music, reggae, hip-hop, classical music and street theatre. The event is family-friendly with a day nursery and a children’s play area. There is also plenty of food on offer with over 100 food and craft stalls and restaurants. For festivalgoers, a free campsite is also available. The Paléo Festival runs from 19 to 24 July 2016. See yeah.paleo.ch.
July: Blue Balls Festival, Lucerne
With more than 100,000 visitors over nine days, the Blue Balls Festival is known for presenting internationally acclaimed artists in an intimate atmosphere at the Lucerne Culture and Convention Centre, plus new talents on five outdoor stages around Lake Lucerne. The festival, which runs from 22 to 31 July 2016, presents a total of 100 shows, with international blues, jazz, soul, funk, world music, rock and pop acts, as well as music photography exhibitions, a video lounge and street art action painting. See www.blueballs.ch.
July: Interlaken International Street Artists Festival
The Gauklerfest Interlaken sees the city come alive with street performers from all around the world. For three days at the end of July, this family-friendly event has acts of every kind: acrobats, comedians, jugglers, musicians, and more. The Interlaken International Street Artists Festival runs from 24 to 26 July 2016. See www.gauklerfest-interlaken.ch.
July–August: Geneva Festival
Around Lake Geneva, this annual tourist event boasts hundreds of free concerts, entertainment, stands, fair rides and a musical firework display. See the 2016 dates at www.fetesdegeneve.ch.
August 1: Swiss National Day
For most people, 1 August means fireworks, garden barbeques and brunch. Children can be seen parading through the streets with paper lanterns and people light candles in their windows. The Swiss celebrate their national day with village festivities, with gatherings throughout the country around bonfires in public places, listening intently to speeches about 1291, the start of the Swiss Confederation. Municipality-organised fireworks symbolise the expulsion of the foreign bailiffs in the 14th century. Swiss pride is eminent everywhere, from the flags flying from public and private buildings, to Swiss flag decorations on bread.
National day is definitely an occasion to experience with the locals when living in Switzerland. Thousands of people attend festivities in the largest cities (Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Bern and Lugano). The main celebrations take place at the Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen and at the Ruetli Meadows along Lake Lucerne.
August: Locarno International Film Festival
Every August, around 160,000 cinema-goers, as well as 1,000 journalists and 3,000 film professionals, converge on the small Swiss-Italian town of Locarno, which becomes the world capital of auteur cinema for 11 days. The Locarno screening programme knows no borders – geographic, thematic nor stylistic – and offers all kinds of films and formats. The 68th Locarno International Film Festival is from 3 to 13 August 2016. See www.pardo.ch.
September/October: Alpabfahrt or Désalpe
Every Autumn the cows come back down to the valleys after their summer on the mountainside pastures in a procession called the Alpabfahrt or Désalpe. In alpine villages all around Switzerland the cows, wearing flower headdresses and large jangling cow bells, parade through the streets. Expect mud, crowds, alphornists, brass bands, yodellers, street fairs and farmers' markets. See www.myswitzerland.com.
Early October: Autumn Festival, Lugano
Every year around this time the Lugano residents and tourists say goodbye to the summer and welcome the beginning autumn. Lots of wine, music and local food accompany the celebrations, and visitors can sample an array of Ticinese specialties. The Lugano Autumn Festival runs from 30 September to 2 October 2016. See www.lugano-tourism.ch.
October: Vernier Sur Rock Festival, Geneva
At the Vernier Sur Rock Festival, you can expect three nights of live music at the Salles des Fetes du Lignon in Geneva. It covers a wide spectrum of sounds including punk, reggae and heavy metal. Famous artists such as Skunk Anansie have performed at this festival. The Vernier festival is smaller and more intimate than Paléo. Check the 2016 dates at www.verniersurrock.ch
October–November: International Film & Television Festival, Geneva
This world-renowned festival is held in Geneva to honour some of the most creative and innovative works made for television or cinema. The festival also includes a Children's Day, film previews, and a film market. Events take place for six days from the end of October to the beginning of November at Cinéma Tout Ecran, Maison des Arts du Gruetli, Geneva. The 21st Geneva Film and Television Festival runs 6 to 14 November 2016. See www.cinema-tout-ecran.ch.
Fourth Monday in November: Zibelemärit onion festival, Bern
This traditional folk festival draws farmers – and 50 tons of onions artistically woven into braids – from the surrounding areas into the city of Bern as early as 5am. Stalls sell traditional pottery, foods and hot glühwein (mulled wine) while youngsters throw confetti in the streets. This year's festival takes place on 28 November 2016. See www.bern.com.
Mid-December: Fête de L’Escalade, Geneva
L’Escalade is Geneva’s biggest celebrated event. It commemorates the failed attempt of the Duke of Savoy to seize the town by surprise on the night of 11 to 12 December, 1602. Locals dress up in costume and parade the streets with torchlights and drums. Brigades on horseback in period costumes, country markets, and folk music are interspersed with Rabelaisian banquets, fife-and-drum parades, and torch-lit marches. L’Escalade is from 9 to 11 December 2016. See www.compagniede1602.ch.