When living abroad, there are few better ways to truly understand the country’s culture than by getting out there and celebrating its holidays. And when it comes to Switzerland, experiencing the local festivities will not only help you feel more integrated with the Swiss people but also give you the opportunity to watch them let their hair down. So why not begin with one of Switzerland’s biggest celebrations, Swiss National Day.
- An overview of Swiss National Day
- The history of Swiss National Day
- Where to celebrate Swiss National Day
- Swiss National Day traditions
- Swiss National Day business hours
An overview of Swiss National Day
Let’s start with the basics. Switzerland being Switzerland means that its National Day has four official names: SchweizerBundesfeier (German), Fête Nationale Suisse (French), Festa Nazionale Svizzera (Italian), and Fiasta naziunala Svizra (Romansh). Despite all these names, however, it is only celebrated once a year, on August 1.
One of the first things you’ll notice on Swiss National Day is the flags. If you’re a vexillophile (a fan of all things flag-related), then you’ll love seeing just how many local buildings are bedecked. Throughout the country, locals fill streets and squares with all manner of flags, including ones that represent different communities and cantons. However, it is the iconic Swiss flag that you will see most often. From homes and gardens to decorations on your freshly-baked Swiss bun, they appear everywhere.
The history of Swiss National Day
The Swiss celebrate their National Day at the start of August due to events that took place way back in 1291. It was then that the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden signed an alliance of mutual support against the increasingly powerful Habsburg Empire. This alliance marked the very early beginnings of what we now know as the Confoederatio Helvetica (Swiss Confederation).
However, despite these (very) early origins, it took a while for the industrious Swiss to finally give themselves a day off to celebrate their own National Day. In fact, it took over 700 years. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1994 that Schweizer Bundesfeier was finally enshrined as a public holiday. These days, though, you’ll quickly wonder how the locals ever lived without properly celebrating Swiss National Day.
Where to celebrate Swiss National Day
Generally speaking, Swiss National Day is a local affair with celebrations centering on communities instead of grand national events. Each local celebration typically includes a speech by a prominent political or public figure. You’ll also often see some sort of concert or even a gymnastic presentation performed by local groups. Food and refreshments are also available, and many locals dress up. Meanwhile, children carry paper lanterns through the streets and bonfires are lit across the country. Wealthier communities also put on firework displays for residents to enjoy.
Despite these local festivities, however, there are some larger celebrations that you might want to consider if you’re looking for a little more excitement. These include city center parades, historical recreations, and even a waterfall light show. Below are a few of our favorite ways to celebrate Swiss National Day.
Geneva’s party in the park
In the French-speaking city of Geneva, celebrations typically center on Parc des Bastions. Here, you’ll find a diverse array of games, sports, workshops, and more from early afternoon. You can also fill up on some tasty food and drink before the speeches start. After dark, look out for the paper lantern parade, bonfire, fireworks, and special guest DJ.
Fire on the Rocks at Rhine Falls
With a name like Fire on the Rocks, you know you’re in for quite a show at Rhine Falls on 31 July. After sunset, the waterfalls near Schaffhausen are illuminated with fireworks and light effects for the special occasion. This tradition has been upheld since the mid-19th century and attracts thousands of spectators each year. And the best part is, admission is free.
Live the legend at Rütli Meadow
Few places are more Swiss than this waterside meadow near Lake Lucerne. It was in this spot that the original cantonal alliance was forged centuries ago, which was later immortalized by Friedrich Schiller’s play William Tell (1804). So what better way to celebrate Swiss National Day than by watching history being reenacted on stage in Rütli Meadow?
Traditions on parade in Zurich
Switzerland’s largest city kicks off its National Day celebrations with a lively parade. Starting at Werdmühleplatz, the procession takes in Bahnhofstrasse before stopping at Bürkliplatz. If you watch from the sidewalk, you will enjoy front row seats to some colorful Swiss customs. Zurich also holds festivities the night before, making the parade an excellent hangover cure.
Stay up late in Basel
Similar to other Rhine celebrations, Basel celebrates Swiss National Day on 31 July. The major festivities take place on the river, stretching along both banks. Here, you’ll find food stalls, bars, and entertainment until the early hours, including a rubber dinghy race. Fireworks light up the Rhine towards midnight, but the party continues into the early hours.
Wake up to Lugano’s drum parade
Don’t expect to enjoy a lie-in down on the balmy shores of Lake Lugano. The locals start the celebrations early here, kicking things off with a drum procession through the city at 06:00. Once your adrenaline is pumping, you can lap up the rest of the city’s celebrations, which culminate in a big firework display over the lake at the end of the day. Needless to say, this will definitely be a day to remember.
Swiss National Day traditions
If you want to fit in with the locals on Swiss National Day, there are a few traditions that you won’t want to miss out on. From wearing the right threads to tucking into the most authentic Swiss snacks, here are a few traditions to look out for.
Get the flags out
Nothing says Swiss National Day like covering your home (and your family), with all the flags you can get your hands on. From the iconic national flag to the more unique community offerings, get your festivities going the right way by getting your flags out.
Start your day with a farmer’s breakfast
Swiss National Day can be a long one, so why not start it right by tucking into a hearty breakfast. You can book tickets for your nearest all-you-can-eat buffet online and delve into the very best local, organic produce. You can nibble on some great Swiss food such as rösti, eggs, smoked sausage, cheese, and much more; all washed down with some cider, of course!
Schwing into action
Ever heard of Swiss wrestling? Well, chances are you will have after your next Swiss National Day festivities. Traditional wrestling (Schwingen) has been around for centuries, but recent decades have seen the sport branch out from rural mountain communities and into the mainstream. You can read more about this in our guide to Swiss wrestling.
Stay for the fireworks
Okay, so you might be a little tired from all the flag waving and cider drinking, but don’t let that stop you from staying up to enjoy the fireworks. Displays vary between towns but are definitely the highlight of Swiss National Day. After all, who doesn’t want to watch dazzling fireworks explode over a beautiful moonlit lake?
The Swiss aren’t exactly known for their freewheeling ways, but they definitely let their hair down during their National Day. This is the one day of the year where you’ll see your entire community take to the streets and celebrate. So why not make the most of it and use the day to meet new friends in your neighborhood and help grow your Swiss social circle.
Swiss National Day business hours
Swiss National Day is a public holiday throughout Switzerland, which means that business hours differ considerably. Typically, this means that everything is closed, including Swiss supermarkets and grocery stores. However, some tourist hotspots in larger towns and cities will be open, along with cafés and restaurants. In more rural areas, on the other hand, you might not be able to find anything open, so be sure to stock up on supplies beforehand. And while Swiss public transport operates all day, be prepared for a limited timetable on most routes.