There is more to Switzerland’s great outdoors than lush meadows and Alpine peaks. For those who have an ear for music, an eye for film or a taste for the performing arts, Switzerland’s annual festivals are not to be missed. From rock and pop, through jazz and classical music, to opera, theatre and film, joining the masses for outdoor – or indoor – events is a must in Swiss summer, and all year round events are taking place.
Here is Expatica's guide to festivals and other annual events in Switzerland.
Mid-January: Grindelwald Snow Festival
The Swiss winter provides a backdrop for the artists and sculptures who specialise in artistic ice sculptures. Every year sculputors from all over the world gather in Grindelwald, near Interlaken. During the six days of the 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 local residents and tourists alike.
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. Ballons of all kinds of shapes and sizes float over the snowy Alps and it is quite a spectacular sight to behold, turning the cold grey winter into a beautiful, colourful event.
Mid-February: Basel Fasnacht
Every year for almost 700 years thousands of Basel residents have gathered at 4 am 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 march in street parades, accompanied by orchestras playing piccolos and other wind instruments.
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 ten 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.
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 symbolizing winter. Additionally, there are children's parades to keep the whole family entertained.
June: Fete de la musique, Geneva
Fete de la musique runs annually, taking over the streets and squares of Lausanne for three days every summer. Over fifty 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Around 200,000 visitors will enjoy the music over 16 days.
Early July: Züri Fäscht, Zurich
This summertime citywide festival takes over Zurich with fairground revelry. Millions of visitors enjoy the carnival atmosphere, 3 days of celebrations and spectacular fireworks displays. Held every 3 years in early July, the next one will take place in 2013.
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 tens of bands from Switzerland and around the world, playing a range of music from pop, rock, electro, punk, sol, hip-hop and blues.
End of July: Paléo Festival, Nyon
Created in 1976 and situated between Geneva and Lausanne, the Paléo Festival is Switzerland’s biggest outdoor music event. 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 caters to an audience of 220,000 people. It 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 a hundred food and craft stalls and restaurants. For festival goers, a free campsite is also available.
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 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.
July - August: 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.
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.
August 1: Swiss National Day
For most people, 1st 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 the14th 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: Interlaken Music Festival
The Interlaken Music Festival is one of the most important events on the Swiss classical music calendar. Performers at this annual summer spectacle always include leading international orchestras and soloists. Symphony and chamber music concerts fill the air during end of August.
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 eleven days. The Locarno screening programme knows no borders – geographic, thematic nor stylistic – and offers all kinds of films and formats.
End of September – start of October: Festivity of Autumn, 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.
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.
November: 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.
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 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.
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