A guide to the best festivals in Switzerland | Expatica
Home Lifestyle Holidays & Celebrations The best festivals in Switzerland
Last update on March 03, 2021
Sophie Pettit Written by Sophie Pettit

From jazz festivals and snow sculpture shows to yodeling competitions and hot air balloon extravaganzas, we explore the best festivals in Switzerland.

Switzerland is famous for its rolling Alpine mountains, crystal-clear lakes, and beautiful medieval towns. However, these spectacular landscapes also form the backdrop of some of the country’s biggest and best festivals. Whether you have an ear for music, an eye for film, or a taste for the performing arts, these popular festivals in Switzerland are not to be missed.

Seasonal festivals in Switzerland

World Snow Festival, Grindelwald

Every January, teams of international artists from all over the world gather in Grindelwald, near Interlaken, to create sculptures out of 3-meter-high blocks of snow. Visitors endure sub-zero temperatures to admire the spectacular display of frozen art including everything from giant snow polar bears to Native American teepees, and more. During the five-day festival, the streets of the town are also decorated with beautiful temporary creations. Needless to say, these white statues make for an unforgettable sight and some great photo opportunities.

World Snow Festival, Grindelwald

Sechseläuten, Zurich

Dating back to the 16th century, Sechseläuten is Zurich’s iconic spring festival and one not to miss. Translating as ‘the six o’clock ringing of the bells’, the celebration relates to the extension of the working hours (from 17:00 to 18:00) of the city’s guild workers with the arrival of spring. To mark the occasion, the Grossmünster bells ring out at 18:00 on the first Monday after the spring equinox. Members of all the guilds also dress in costumes and burn Böögg, a straw figure which symbolizes winter. Meanwhile, children’s parades entertain the whole family during the lively festival.

Alpabfahrt or Désalpe

Every Autumn, the cows return to the Swiss valleys after spending the summer grazing on the mountainside pastures. This procession is known as Alpabfahrt (or Désalpe) and holds a special place in the hearts of the locals. In Alpine villages throughout the country, the cows parade through the streets wearing flower headdresses and large jangling cowbells. Those passing through these villages during this time can expect to see a lot of yodelers, brass bands, street fairs, and of course, crowds. They can also stock up on all kinds of local produce at the popular farmers’ markets.

Alpabfahrt

Autumn Festival, Lugano

Every year in the early fall, residents and tourists in Lugano gather on the lakefront of Ascona to bid farewell to the summer and welcome the beginning of autumn at the Autumn Festival. For three days, they enjoy nibbling on chestnuts and other local foods. Wine lovers can also sip on a variety of Ticino wines at various grottos dotted throughout the city. Meanwhile, a market selling local food products and handicrafts keeps shoppers happy, while various folk bands entertain the crowds. Little ones can also enjoy a range of fun wooden games at the Ludobus on the Piazza della Riforma. Those looking to explore the history and architecture of Lugano, meanwhile, can join a free guided tour of the local sites.

Cultural and historical events

Basel Fasnacht

Every year, thousands of Basel residents gather at 04:00 in the freezing cold to await the four rings of the city clock announcing the start of the three-day Basel Fasnacht. Donning colorful masks and disguises, the participants of the carnival march in street parades accompanied by orchestras playing piccolos and other wind instruments. The festival is regarded as one of the top 50 local festivities in Europe. It was even included in UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage in 2017. You can read more about it in our guide to celebrating Fasnacht.

Basel Fasnacht

Eidgenössisches Jodelfest

Yodeling is synonymous with Switzerland and has been since the 19th century when Swiss choirs began calling from mountain to mountain. Today, some 2,000 of these choirs exist throughout the country. Those looking to experience the iconic vocal tradition firsthand can do so at the unique Eidgenössisches Jodelfest. Held every three years, the popular four-day festival brings together some of Switzerland’s best yodelers, as well as passionate newcomers, who compete for the grand prize. The event is held in a different city each time and attracts between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors.

International Hot Air Balloon Festival, Château-d’Oex

Every January, the gray winter sky above the Alpine village of Château-d’Oex is scattered with hundreds of colorful hot air balloons during the International Hot Air Balloon Festival. The nine-day extravaganza brings ballooning teams from more than 20 different countries around the world. Thousands of visitors gather to marvel at the different shapes, sizes, and colors that fill the sky. This vibrant festival includes a night-glow show, hot air balloon rides, and kids’ day. Interestingly, it was from Château-d’Oex that the Breitling Orbiter – piloted by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones – set off for its first world tour back in 1999. Visitors to the village can learn about this at the Château-d’Oex hot air balloon museum.

International Hot Air Balloon Festival, Château-d'Oex

Fête de L’Escalade, Geneva

Geneva’s biggest celebrated event, Fête de L’Escalade, commemorates the failure of the Duke of Savoy’s troops who tried to seize the town by surprise on the eve of 11 December in 1602. The troops were ready outside the walls of Geneva in the early hours of the morning. However, citizens of the city were alarmed by the night guard and prevented them from climbing the wall. To mark the historic occasion, locals dress up in costumes and parade the streets with torches and drums. Brigades on horseback in period costumes, country markets, and folk music are interspersed with grand banquets to celebrate the fateful night.

Film festivals

International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH), Geneva

Held every year in the human rights capital of Geneva, the FIFDH is the leading international event dedicated to film and human rights. The world-renowned Swiss film festival honors some of the most creative and innovative works made for television or cinema. It takes place parallel to the annual main session of the UN Human Rights Council in March and features screenings and high-level debates held over a ten-day period. Diplomats, NGOs, victims, artists, activists, and the general public gather to debate their views in this unique setting. Those who cannot attend can watch the debates online and directly engage in the conversations.

International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights, Geneva
Photo credit: Miguel Bueno

Locarno International Film Festival

Every August, for eleven days, the Swiss-Italian town of Locarno becomes the world capital of auteur cinema. More than 160,000 cinema-goers, as well as 1,000 journalists and 3,000 film professionals, gather together for the Locarno International Film Festival. The screening program knows no bounds and features all kinds of films and formats; these explore a variety of geographic, thematic, and stylistic angles. The stunning Piazza Grande sits at the heart of the festival. This provides a magical setting that can accommodate up to 8,000 filmgoers every night.

Music and art festivals in Switzerland

Paléo Festival, Nyon

Created in 1976, the Paléo Festival is the biggest outdoor Swiss music festival. Taking place in Nyon over six days and six nights, the event promotes a combination of established stars and new talent through more than 100 concerts. Music genres include rock, French chanson, world music, reggae, hip-hop, and classical music. Festival-goers can also browse more than 100 food and craft stalls and enjoy a variety of cuisines from around the world. They can also enjoy watching street theater and other live entertainment. The family-friendly festival also features a day nursery and a children’s play area. A free campsite is also available for those wishing to extend their visit and catch all the action.

Paléo Festival

Montreux Jazz Festival

Held on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, the world-famous Montreux Jazz Festival boasts an extensive program. This features everything from jazz and blues to rock and pop. Since its inception in 1967, some of the greatest jazz and blues artists have performed at the festival. This includes Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Charlie Mingus, and Dexter Gordon. That said, the festival also welcomes talented newcomers from across all musical genres. With nearly 250,000 visitors each year, this is undoubtedly one of the most popular festivals in Switzerland.

Gauklerfest, Interlaken

Those with a love of theatrics will no doubt enjoy visiting the unique open-air Gauklerfest in the resort town of Interlaken. Taking place for three days at the end of July, the family-friendly festival sees street performers from all around the world perform all manner of acts. These artists include clowns, acrobats, comedians, jugglers, mime acts, musicians, and more. The event attracts more than 15,000 visitors every year and remains one of the most popular family festivals in Switzerland.

Gauklerfest, Interlaken

Zurich Festival

During the first weekend in July, two million visitors take to the streets along the River Limmat for the famous Zurich Festival. The huge festival combines opera, concerts, dance, theater, and art, and presents the city’s diverse cultural institutions. Food stands serving culinary delights from all over the world attract visitors of all ages. The highlights of the event, however, is the two musical fireworks displays that take part on the Friday and Saturday evenings. Needless to say, if you live in Zurich, then you certainly won’t want to miss this epic event.

Fête de la Musique, Geneva

Every summer, the Fête de la Musique takes over the streets and squares of Lausanne in Geneva. The popular festival is completely free to attend and features more than 50 podiums which showcase musicians from across the globe. This includes a wide variety of music; from classical orchestras and electro-jazz bands to rock, pop, world, and French music. Meanwhile, rhythm workshops, instrument discovery, and sound laboratories entertain visitors young and old. It is worth noting, though, that most roads are blocked during the festival, so it is best to travel by public transport.

Food and drink festivals in Switzerland

Zibelemärit (Onion Market), Bern

One of Switzerland’s quirkier festivals is Zibelemärit in Bern. Held on the fourth Monday of every November, the traditional folk festival brings together farmers from the surrounding areas – and a whole lot of onions! Indeed, participants arrive with more than 50 metric tons of onions and garlic artistically woven into braids. From as early as 05:00, visitors can browse the many market stalls selling traditional pottery, foods, and hot mulled wine. Meanwhile, youngsters can enjoy throwing confetti in the streets at this popular folk festival.

Fête des Vignerons, Vevey

The Fête des Vignerons (Winegrowers Festival) is a unique festival that takes place in the Swiss town of Vevey in Vaud. The popular event offers a full program of activities and traditions that date back to the 18th century. Interestingly, this was the first Swiss intangible cultural heritage to receive recognition by UNESCO. It is also home to the Charlie Chaplin museum and a great location from which to explore the UNESCO-protected Lavaux Vineyard Terraces; these make up the largest contiguous vineyard region in Switzerland.