This is meant to be a round up the most interesting or unique festivals/cultural events rather than be a comprehensive list of every single event of any kind.
Language options may be limited in some cases depending on how local the event is.
With thanks to /r/askswitzerland for advice and corrections in this thread – which also has some more ideas suggested that I didn’t get around to including.
A few general points
- My Switzerland has a breakdown of the cultural aspects of the end of winter festivals. A major part of getting rid of winter in February/March is burning something. The bigger and more likely to set fire to an historic old town the better.
- In Summer there are endless music festivals. Montreux Jazz is an obvious famous one, the terribly/wonderfully named Blue Balls festival in Luzern is pretty big too, there are plenty of modern festival type events like Gurtenfest in Bern, and endless tiny ones for whatever genre you like.
- There are various festivals like the Bern BEA and St Gallen Olma which do all the agriculture/food/local stuff you could ever need.
- The Landsgemeinde is a (very) public voting system where the vote is held in the middle of the town square and is conducted by everyone raising their hands (or in the old days swords). This only exists in Appenzell and Glarus now.
- Unsurprisingly there are plenty of cheese festivals. Among others the cheese festival takes places in a number of cities.
Calendar of events
- Silvesterchlausen (New Years) – Appenzell (13th January). Appenzellers are stereotyped as being slow, and just to make that point they do New Year celebrations on January 13th using the old calendar.
- Hot air balloon festival – Chateau d’Oex (last week of January). Hot air balloons, bloody loads of them.
- Belle Epoque week – Kandersteg (last week of January). The town dresses up in period costumes in a sort of late 1800s nostalgia fest.
- Not a festival as such but the Emergency alarm system test (1st Wednesday of February) where every alarm in the country is tested makes it sound like WW3 has just kicked off.
- White Turf – St Moritz (February). Various horse racing events on a frozen lake.
- Fasnacht (carnival) – various places (February/March). See the expandable box below.
There are many variations of Fasnacht in the run up to lent (typically the week running up to Ash Wednesday). The general themes you will find everywhere are: parades, costumes, loud and terrible music, and very Un-Swiss activities like drinking all day and generally acting like uni students.
Burning things is also a big part, such as the L’hom strom in Engadine, and the Böögg elsewhere.
Generally the bigger the place the more interesting it will be. Luzern is the biggest and easiest for most visitors to see. The German speaking ones are the most famous, but French speaking ones can be found ain Monthey, Fribourg (les Bolzes), Romont (les Brandons), and Sion. Though Solothurn is the one I know best, I wrote a detailed breakdown of that here. One of the most interesting variations are the Tschäggättä costumes in Lötschental.
You are welcome/encouraged to dress up in most places (but not Basel!). However these tend to be things you can only really be involved in as a local, you can of course watch them and take in the madness but you have to live in the places and be part of a club to get the full experience. For locals they tend to be very love/hate and are either the best or worst week of the year depending on who you ask. I like to take it in few a few hours, but not days at a time.
- Chienbäse – Liestal (Sunday after Ash Wednesday). Liestal end their Fasnacht with a fire parade through the old town. My experience on it is here.
- Chrööpfelimee – Zug (Sunday after Ash Wednesday). A choir goes around Zug singing a mix of songs.
- Morgenstreich and Fasnacht – Basel (Monday – Wednesday after the Sunday after Ash Wednesday). The Basel Fasnacht starts after all the others have finished, and has a very different feel – notably the pipe music rather than Gugga musik. My experience on it is here.
- la Marche du 1er Mars – Neuchatel (1st March unsurprisingly). A (fairly long and cold) walk to commemorate the bloodless revolution that took place on the 1st of March 1848 when Neuchâtel gained independence from the Prussians (a slightly strange time when Neuchatel really wanted a protestant ruler and went to some lengths to have one).
- Sonnewende fireworks – Oensingen (Held every 3 years in March: 2015, 2018, 2021). 2 Firework clubs sit on opposing hills and have a fireworks contest. Meant to be one of the best shows in Switzerland.
- Les Pleureuses – Romont (Good Friday). A creepy funeral parade done by black robbed mourners done during the ceremony. Other Easter celebrations are less creepy, but I find the chocolate hares that are sold then to be rather unnerving.
- Sechseläuten – Zürich (3rd Monday in April). Zürich’s springtime festival. Most notable for the burning of a giant Böög (effigy). It is apparently traditional to grill some sasuages over the collected embers afterwards (this Swiss really love grilling sausages).
- Cow parades up to the high meadows (Spring and autumn)
- Cow fighting Cows gently headbutt each other by nature to win dominance. This is taken to the next level as a way to see who will be the cow queen and lead the parade to the high meadows. Regional heats lead to a national cow champion being crowded
- Banntag – Liestal (June). A day for the men of the town to dress up and walk about firing old guns in the streets – video.
- Absinthe festival – Boveresse (June).
- Chriesisturm – Zug (late June). A recently revived tradition where once the entire town would dash into the cherry trees once the fruit was officially declared ripe, now locals race through the streets of the old-town with 8.1m long ladders.
- International alphorn festival – Nendaz (July).
- Summer is the time for Schwinger which takes place all over the country. Basically it is Swiss wrestling. The national Schwingerkönig becomes something of a celebrity and gets a few years of nice income from TV spots and advertising deals.
- Slow Up – Various places (summer) is a wonderful series of events around the country over the summer where roads are closed to cars and turned into bike routes.
- Swiss National Day – Everywhere (August 1st). This means fireworks. Basel does a big show on July 31st, but so do most other cities on the 31st of July or 1st of August.
- Wine harvest in various places happen during late summer.
- Cow poo golf (Chüefladefäscht) – Riederalp (late summer). Cow poop doesn’t exactly degrade very quickly at 2000m during the autumn, so to help it along farmers hide prizes in random cow poops and you get to find them by attacking any pile of muck you see with a gold club.
- Airshow – Axalp (Wednesday/Thursday in early October). 1000s of people ascend to Axalp to watch the Swiss airforce put on a show. Something of a brave move on the part of both parties given the fact the Swiss airforce seems to have trouble staying in the air (or getting up into it for that matter).…..
- Herbstmesse (autumn fair) – Various places (Autumn). In Basel it is like a pre-Christmas market. In Solothurn it is a series of tents that are a put up with everything from restaurants, to bars, to buying cheese, to pig racing, to looking at new bathroom designs. Most of them are free to enter and explore, but the St Gallen Olma comes with a hefty 17 CHF entry fee which is hard to justify.
- Rüeblimärt (Carrot Market) – Aarau (First Wednesday in November). Does what it says on the tin really.
- Zibelemärit (Onion Market) – Bern (4th Monday in November). If the Carrot Festival wasn’t enough excitement you can attend the onion market in Bern a few weeks later (and it really is a bigger point of pride than you would expect). To really take part you have to start at the odd hour of 5am (extra trains are put on) and take part in confetti fights.
- Feast of St-Martin – Jura region (mid to late November). You basically eat a whole pig bit by bit over a number of courses.
- ClauWau – Samnaun (end of November). Basically a Santa contest. Teams of 4 compete in a series of events to become the Santa champions.
- Samichlaus tag (Saint Nicholas Day) – everywhere (6th of December). Santa comes along with his helper Schmutzli (little dirty one) and a donkey to hand out chocolate/oranges/peanuts (see this NewlySwissed article for an explainer). In my experience most workplaces also provide a months worth of the snacks.
- Christmas markets in various places Just about every settlement will have a stand or two, bigger cities will have quite a bit to offer. Montroux is quite a nice option being right on the lake front.
- Klausjagen – Küssnach (December).
- L’Escalade – Geneva (weekend closest to December 11th). Part historical dress up, part race. Geneva celebrates the defence of their city, there is a legend of an old lady throwing a cauldron of hot soup on the invaders and so now soup is the dish of the festival.