“Life is a festival only to the wise,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote.
With over 10,000 festivals, including some of the world’s biggest and strangest, Germany is certainly a place sagacious souls can appreciate.
From the raucous parties of Karnival to the acclaimed Berlinale film festival to the famously merry Christmas markets, there’s something in Germany’s festival calendar to suit everyone’s tastes.
Some of the traditional German celebrations include Bayreuth’s Richard Wagner Festival, Munich’s restrained commemoration of beer, Oktoberfest, the world’s largest trade fair for books in Frankfurt, Bonn’s Beethoven Festival and the Munich Opera Festival.
Since the mid-1980s, however, there has been a rapid expansion of new, more niche-market festivals in Germany. Night owls and museum geeks can revel together during Berlin’s Long Night of the Museums, an eve when the city’s museums and cultural institutions stay open into the wee hours. Fans of avant-garde film can fill their heads with new, esoteric anecdotes at Videonale, Bonn’s festival for art and experimental videos. Even secret Dungeons and Dragons-lovers can find a home at Bavaria’s medieval reenactment festival Festival-Mediaval.
Whether you’re just visiting Germany or have lived here for a while, attending a festival can be an easy and exciting way to discover German culture. To help get you started, we are giving you a helping hand by highlighting some of the most important and interesting festivals, carnivals, music, film, art and cultural events in Germany in 2009.
So-called "Schwellkoepp" (swollen heads), the traditional carnival figures of Mainz. Carnival revellers in the German capital and mainly the Rhine region celebrated the launch of the carnival season at 11 minutes past 11 o'clock. AFP PHOTO DDP/MARTIN OESER GERMANY OUT
January and February, 2009
Various places throughout Germany
The 40-day period before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins, is also Karnival season in Germany: a time when the typically orderly Germans let loose and party. Parades, costume balls, and other such festivities take place throughout the country, often varying widely according to local traditions. Cologne, for instance, is well-known for its Rosenmontag celebration, when elaborately decorated floats, tractors, bands and marchers cohere to parade down a 6 kilometer route through the city center. Munich, Dusseldorf and Mainz also have notable celebrations.
Berlinale International Film Festival
The world's second largest film festival after Cannes, the Berlinale draws together more than 19,000 film professionals from 120 countries. The festival showcases a wide variety of films, including big international movies, independent and art house productions, movies aimed at younger audiences, German productions and more experimental films.
This year's special series, a program of special presentations, lectures, and screenings that runs in tandem with the Berlinale, is entitled “After Winter Comes Spring – Films Presaging the Fall of the Wall.”
Hosted at the Circus Maximus, SKArneval Koblenz is a festival drawing together ska, 2-Tone, reggae, rock and punk acts. This year's line-up features Evil Cavies, The Blue Beat, Hot Pot, Make the Day and a special act.
The Leipzig Book Fair
The Leipzig Book Fair is the second largest book fair in Germany after Frankfurt. The fair is partially a trade fair but also holds a concurrent event called Leipzig Reads—a festival of literature with over 1,900 readings and activities.
A visitor sitting on a toilet reads a so-called "toilet book" at a stand of the Leipzig Book Fair, eastern Germany. AFP PHOTO DDP/SEBASTIAN WILLNOW
Honky Tonk Pub Festival
March 14-July 4
Touted as the biggest pub festival in Europe, the Honky Tonk Pub Festival hosts over 100 bands of various genres for an extended blow out party in the bars, restaurants and hotels of Leipzig. There's even a shuttle bus to get you from drinking hole to drinking hole!
March 26-April 26
The Videonale is an art video and experimental film festival held in Bonn. The festival also presents a large exhibition of installation art as well as panel discussion on current topics in media art.
Thuringia Bach Festival
Sites throughout the Free State of Thuringia, including Erfurt, Eisenach and Weimar
The Thuringia Bach Festival specializes in Baroque music and, of course, the music of its titular honoree: Johann Sebastian Bach. Part of this festival's draw is that it hosts concerts in venues where Bach once roamed, including the church where he was baptized, the church where he was married, and in sites where he composed much of his early work. This year, the festival opens with The Amsterdam Baroque Choir & Orchestra performing St. Matthew Passion in Arnstadt.
April 30-May 1
Various places throughout Germany
Two Walpurgisnacht enthousiasts dressed as witches dance around a may fire at the Brocken mountain near Schierke, eastern Germany. The traditional Walpurgisnacht, the night from 30 April to 01 May, is the night when allegedly the witches on the Blocksberg (the Brocken) hold a large celebration and meet the devil. AFP PHOTO DDP/SEBASTIAN WILLNOW
Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night), celebrated on April 30 or May 1, is a traditional holiday marked in Germany, Sweden, Finland and many other Baltic states. In German folklore, Walpurgisnacht is when witches meet on the Brocken mountain, the highest peak in the Harz mountains, and hold revels with their gods. Contemporary celebrations are somewhat like Halloween—children dress up as witches and monsters, teenagers concoct elaborate pranks, and public bonfires are held. Noise, it is believed, drives out the evil spirits, so this is not a night to go to bed early!
Munich Ballet Week
Perhaps the most exciting time of the year for the Bavarian State Ballet is Munich Ballet Week, when they, along with other international companies, put on a week's worth of performances for enchanted audiences. Over the last few decades, this event has become one of the most prestigious of its kind, drawing visitors from across Europe and beyond.
This year is the Bavarian State Ballet's 20th anniversary and highlights of the program include a specially commissioned work, Jiri Kyliàn's Migrating Birds (Zugvügel), and a performance of the Terpsichore Gala VIII in honor of the legendary troupe of Russian dancers, the Ballets Russes, who initiated the development towards modern dance in the early 20th century.
39th International Dixieland Festival Dresden
Many a saintly visitor goes marching in to Dresden in early May to check out the city's festival of Dixieland and early jazz music. Known particularly for its open-air events on the Elbe River, the festival boasts over 350 artists every year. Don't forget to drop by the Dixie parade and to catch a show by one of the city’s many street performers!
21st International Africa Festival
May 29-June 1
This international Afro roots festival is Europe’s biggest festival for African music and culture. The celebration features concerts, a bazaar, an artisans' fair and a film and lecture program. This year, the festival is showcasing the traditional music and culture of African peoples that are, in different ways, under threat: the Congo Pygmies, the so-called Bush People from southern Africa and the Surma people from south-eastern Ethiopia.
Carnival of Cultures Berlin
May 29-June 1
This vibrant, four-day street festival aims at celebrating and opening dialogue with and between Berlin's diverse ethnic communities. Over 5,000 performers, from amateur to professional, flood the streets and stages of Kreuzberg and parties take place all over the city. The main stage is at Blücherplatz and the children's stage is at Mariannenplatz.
Bonn Summer Festival
May to late October
You know a city is dedicated to celebration when it's summer festival lasts not days, not weeks, but five months. The Bonn Summer Festival, or “Bonner Summer,” is the bustling city's main summer festival. The festival is open air and free. Its over 100 events focus mainly on celebrating cultural diversity, with concerts, performances, fireworks and other activities taking place all around the city. One of the festival’s most interesting offerings is a program of silent films, scored by live music, that are screened in the university courtyard.
The Rhine in Flames fireworks festival, particularly in Koblenz (May-September).
Red Wine Festival in Rudesheim (mid- to late May).
Mozart Festival in Wurzburg (May 29-July 5).
Pride Week and Christopher Street Day
June 14-27; Christopher Street Day is June 27
Various places throughout Germany, especially Berlin
Christopher Street Day (CSD) is the name for the gay pride celebrations that happen throughout Germany, but perhaps most prominently in Berlin. The celebration takes its name from the street where, in 1969 New York City, queers spontaneously decided to stand up and demonstrate against a police raid of a queer bar, the Stonewall Inn. The event became a watershed moment for (some say the beginning of) the American gay rights movement.
The Christopher Street Day celebrations in Berlin include a parade—complete with floats, live DJs and marchers. Pride Week takes place in the week leading up to CSD. Its programming has both political and social events, including a soccer tournament, AIDS and gay activism information booths, and party boats that float down the Spree. There are also more alternative festivals, such as Transgenial CSD, that run simultaneously to the official Pride celebrations that attract many left-wing, alternative queer participants.
Stuttgart Jazz Open
This one week international jazz festival has hosted the likes of Ornette Coleman, B.B. King, Lauryn Hill, and Paul Simon. This year's final night is headlined by Georgian-British pop sensation Katie Melua accompanied by the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra.
Jun 18-July 12
Held in Munich's Olympiapark, built for the 1972 Summer Olympics, the Tollwood Festival is a world culture celebration that features music, food, clothes and merchandise from around the globe. The festival is particularly known for its strong theatrical offerings, from plays to puppet shows, and recently went all organic. If you're having too much fun to leave Munich, you could always stick around for the Winter Tollwood Festival in December!
Folk im Schlosshof
One of Germany's best Celtic folk and folk rock festivals, this quirky event is held in a castle courtyard. Along with a bevy of acts, Folk im Schlosshof also boasts a chance to participate in whiskey tasting, Irish tap dance and instrumental workshops. If you'd rather bop along to the sounds of the Red Hot Chili Pipers than headbang to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, this festival might be the one for you!
Rheingau Music Festival
June 28 – August 31
With more than 120,000 annual visitors and 100 events, this classical music festival is one of the most prominent of its kind. The festival takes place in the picturesque region between Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Rüdesheim and Lorch. It has recently been expanded to include music played on ancient instruments, jazz and works by contemporary composers.
Handel Festival in Halle (June 4-14).
Bach Festival in Leipzig (June 11-21).
Zelt Music Festival in Freiburg (June 25-July 12).
Heidelberg Castle Festival in Heidelberg (June 26-August 9).
2nd La Pampa Festival
A welcome edition to the eastern German pop festivals calendar, La Pampa features a mass of indie, electro and pop music. This year's line up includes CLARA Luzia, A Heart is an Airport, pavilon M2, and Me Succeeds.
Originally held Berlin; the 2009 festival was to be held in Bochum but has been cancelled.
This raucous techno music festival, which typically draws over 1.5 million ravers from around the world, was originally held as a political demonstration for peace and understanding four months before the Berlin Wall fell. With 1500 DJs, 40 trucks with sound systems (and 2000 metric tons of garbage dropped on the street), the Love Parade is an event in a category of its own.
Richard Wagner Festival (Bayreuther Festspiele)
July 25-August 28
This event could perhaps be more properly termed a pilgrimage than a festival. Held for the last 120 years, it takes an average of 7 years to score tickets. To purchase tickets, one must apply by letter (no fax, phone, or email) to the ticket offices; most diehards apply for multiple summers until they finally get lucky. However the payoff is spectacular: watching Wagner's marathon operas at the festival the composer personally conceived of.
Munich Opera Festival
June 27-July 31
Held every year at the Bayerische Staatsoper (the Bavarian State Opera), the festival consists mainly of shows staged during the past year and always concludes with Wagner's epic Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Highlights from the upcoming festival include several Verdi favorites, a new production of Lohengrin starring Jonas Kaufmann and concert performances by such names as Waltraud Meier, Angela Gheorghiu, Diana Damrau.
Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Schleswig-Holstein (July 11-August 30).
Electronic music meets rock at MELT! Festival in Ferropolis, Gräfenhainichen (July 17-19).
The Gauklerfestival is a celebration of wacky street performances in Koblenz (July 31-August 2).
International Berlin Beer Festival
This festival's claim to fame is the Berlin Beer Mile—the longest beer garden in the world—which stretches 2.2 km along Berlin's Karl-Marx Allee. With free admission, live music and over 1,800 brands of beer, this festival has something for every brewski fan.
Dresden City Festival (Dresdener Stadtfest)
One of eastern Germany’s most attractive cities celebrates itself with three days of live music, street markets and food galore. On Sunday, the city recreates it's famous mural, “The Procession of Prices,” with a pageant. 90 costumed actors and 45 horses reenact various scenes. Also don't forget to enter the festival's plastic duck race!
August 18-September 9
Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Nürnberg, Cologne, Berlin and Hamburg
A month of horror, fantasy and science fiction films touring eight cities across Germany. What started out as a gathering of underground films buffs in Hamburg is now one of the most prestigious genre events worldwide. Who will the “Fresh Blood Award” go to this year?
Stuttgarter Weindorf (Stuttgart Wine Festival)
August 26-September 6
From the end of August to the first week September, Stuttgart's city center is transformed into a festive wine village. Booths of local wineries and food purveyors fill the streets as locals and tourists alike flock to sample the goods. Make sure to try the region's specials: onion cakes and Swabian pockets filled with roast chicken and pork.
The African Culture Festival in Rödelheim (Last year: August 1-2).
Herbsvolkfest, in Nuremberg, is Northern Bavaria's largest funfair (Mid- to late- August).
The Medieval comedy and folk pop festival Burgfolk in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Schloß Broich (August 22).
Mosel Wine Festival (Weinfest der Mittelmosel)
Over 5000 vintners turn up here annually to let you sample their wares. Sip a crisp, clean white wine in one of the Mosel’s loveliest towns.
Beethoven Festival Bonn
September 4-October 3
A magnet for music lovers from all over the world, the Beethoven Festival features over 70 concerts performed by top international orchestras, ensembles, soloists and promising young artists. Since 2008, the festival has been centered around a theme. Last year, the festival explored Beethoven's political legacy, as well as the marginalization of and propaganda around composers in the 20th century.
One of the largest music fairs in the industry, Popkomm is a forum to discuss industry issues, introduce new developments and present information to business peers. The exhibition hall is closed to the public, but visitors can attend one of the many concerts staged over the three-day festival.
September 19–October 4
A man from England kisses his girlfriend as they drink beers after the opening of the Oktoberfest beer festival at the "Theresienwiese" in Munich, southern Germany. AFP PHOTO DDP / THOMAS LOHNESOne of Germany's most famous festivities and the world's largest fair, Oktoberfest is a 15-day celebration of Bavarian beer. Over six million people come every year to drink beer, eat chicken legs and pork sausages and engage in general revelry.
The Festival-Mediaval is a living history and reenactment festival in Selb. The event includes performances of medieval music, fire shows, roaming performers such as witches and beggars, theater groups and a medieval market. If you've ever had a hankering to try your hand at archery while munching on a medieval snack, then this festival may be for you!
Drachenfest is a kite flying festival held in Sauerland (September 12-13).
The Oldenburg International Film Festival (September 16-20).
Art Forum Berlin, an international trade fair for contemporary art in Berlin (September 24-27).
Last year: October 3-November 26
Founded in 1994, Jazzmeile Thüringen is a feast for jazz lovers. The festival brings concerts to 18 cities across the state of Thuringia, including Jena and Weimar. Whether you want to catch a solo artist, swing along to the sounds of a big band or take part in a musical workshop, this festival's got just what it takes.
Frankfurt Book Fair
The history of world's largest trade fair for books dates all the way back to 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg first invented movable type just a few kilometers away from Frankfurt. Soon after, local booksellers held the first book fair. The Frankfurt fair is now primarily for people in the industries surrounding books, although it does have some more layman-accessible events, such as the its award for the oddest book title of the year. Last year's recipient? Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice.
October 16-November 1
The Freimarkt is Germany's oldest fair and was first held in 1035, when Emperor Conrad II granted vendors and travelers the right to sell their goods without limitation or consideration for local trade. Now the festival is similar to Oktoberfest: it features a bevy of beer tents, amusement rides and late-night partying. Stop by the Bremen Market Place to sample culinary delights such as fried pastries, hot almonds and licorice.
The Kunst-Messe München is the most important fine art and antiques trade fair in the German-speaking world. Leading art dealers present a comprehensive range of works from antiquity to the present day. There are also concurrent talks and lectures that focus on topics related to collecting.
Last year: November 14-23
Exground is an international underground film festival that showcases everything from independent feature films to documentaries to shorts. Each year, the film fest has a special focus on a country and on a director. Last year’s focus was on Spain and its retrospective was on Basque director Julio Médem.
St. Martin's Day
Various places throughout Germany
Geese crowd at their open air enclosure on a farm in Kuhhorst, eastern Germany. The animals with a weight of around 3,8 kilograms each all are ordered for St Martin's Day on 11 November and Christmas and will end soon as roasts. The St Martin's Day or Martinmas is celebrated in parts of Flanders, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. AFP PHOTO DDP/MICHAEL URBAN St. Martin’s Day is the feast day of Martin of Tours, who began his life as a Roman soldier and later ended up a monk. St. Martin’s most famous deed is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, thereby saving the beggar’s life. That night, Martin dreamed that the beggar he had helped was Jesus.
On St. Martin’s Day, which is celebrated in many areas in Germany, children go from house to house with paper lanterns and candles and sing songs about St. Martin in return for treats. Many places also have public festivals to celebrate the saint that include reenactments of St. Martin’s donation of his cloak and the serving of the traditional dish of roast goose, or Martinsgans.
Christmas Markets (Weihnachtsmarkts)
Various places throughout Germany
Nearly every German city and village sets up a Christmas market during the Advent season. Giving you a reason to brace the cold, visitors can ride a Ferris wheel, browse through the stands selling handicrafts, wooden toys and ceramics, sample the hot mulled wine (glühwein) and warm chestnuts or just absorb the merry atmosphere. These fairs have proved so popular that other countries have started copying the German-Austrian tradition. Notable Christmas markets are in Berlin, Munich, Nuremberg, Lubeck, Munster, Stuttgart and Heidelberg.
-- Jessica Dorrance/Expatica