Germans like their festivals. From city to village, wherever there are people there’ll usually be a festival of some kind, whether a major event for thousands that programmes international artists or just a summer fair. The diversity is astounding – high-quality classical music and theatre events, wine festivals, unbridled parties and atmospheric Christmas markets. Notwithstanding the latter, most are staged from May to August, when you’re almost sure to roll into a good-humoured town centre crammed with stalls and stages, with much food and beer being consumed by all. On top of local secular events, Germany observes a large number of pagan and religious festivals in its calendar.
Karneval (also known as Fasching or Fastnet). Seven weeks before Easter. Pagan-rooted pre-Lent speciality of the Rhineland and Bavaria, where it’s known as Fasching. Warm-up events throughout late January climax in late February (or early March) with costumed parades and considerable revelry. Cologne has the most celebrated Karneval, followed by Düsseldorf and Mainz, or Munich’s more jolly Fasching. Black Forest events are more traditional, the unique event in Rottweil, Baden-Württemberg, almost pagan.
Easter Late March or early April. Sacred pomp throughout Catholic Germany – especially impressive in Bavaria.
Walpurgisnacht April 30, Harz. Celebration of the witches’ sabbath with costumed parades and music throughout the Harz area.
Hafengeburtstag Hamburg, weekend closest to May 7. Tall ships and flotilla parades in world’s largest harbour festival. hafengeburtstag.de.
Passionsspiele Oberammergau, May–Sept. Once-a-decade passion play by locals of a Bavarian village, celebrated nationwide. passionsspiele2010.de.
Karneval der Kulturen Berlin, last weekend in May. Berlin celebrates its ethnic diversity in a “Carnival of Cultures” – expect around 1.5 million people. karneval-berlin.de.
Rhein im Flammen “Rhine in Flames”. May–Sept, Rhineland. Start of the firework spectaculars along the Rhine from Bonn to Bingen; culminates in August in Koblenz. rhein-in-flammen.de.
Leipziger Honky Tonk Saturday, usually mid-May, Leipzig. In theory a music festival in a hundred boozers, actually Europe’s largest pub crawl.
Africa Festival End of May, Würzburg. Europe’s largest celebration of African culture: dance, music and parades. africafestival.org.
Christopher Street Day June–July, nationwide. Parades and parties for gay pride events, over thirty years young – largest events in Berlin, Munich and Cologne. csd-deutschland.de.
Wave-Gotik-Treffen Whitsun (first weekend in June or last in May), Leipzig. Around 25,000 Goths muster for the world’s largest doom-fest. wave-gotik-treffen.de.
Bachfest Mid-June, Leipzig. Week-long celebration of the great composer in the city where he produced his finest works. www.bach-leipzig.de.
Kieler Woche Last week in June, Kiel. Long-standing fixture on the international sailing circuit: races, parades and parties. kieler-woche.de.
Schützenfeste Early July, Hannover. Biggest and best of the Marksmen festivals in Lower Saxony and the Rhineland area. hannover.de/schuetzenfest.
Kinderzeche Mid-July, Dinkelsbühl. Celebrated children’s folklore pageant that re-enacts the town’s capitulation to a Swedish siege in the Thirty Years’ War. kinderzeche.de.
Bayreuth Festspiele Late July–Aug, Bayreuth. Prestigious Wagnerian opera spectacular in the composer’s Festspielhaus. Buy tickets as far in advance as possible. bayreuther-festspiele.de.
Weinfeste Late Aug to Sept, Rhine–Mosel area. Traditionally a celebration of the annual grape harvest, in fact an excuse for a knees-up. Three of the best are in Rudesheim, Mainz and Dürkheimer, which cites its mid-Sept Wurstmarkt as the biggest wine bash in the world.
Gäubodenfest Mid-Aug, Straubing. Hugely popular Bavarian folk jamboree – folk displays, beer, music, funfairs and more beer. volksfest-straubing.de.
Canstatter Volksfest Late Sept to Oct, Stuttgart. Two weeks of oompah bands in traditional costume and fairground attractions in the world’s second-largest beer festival; a less touristy alternative to the Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest Mid-Sept to Oct, Munich. Perhaps the most epic beer-swill on the planet, its fame drawing legions of foreigners among the six million drinkers who descend on the city – six million litres of beer are drunk and over a hundred oxen are grilled. oktoberfest.de.
Martinsfest Nov 10–11, north Baden and Rhineland. Festival to honour jovial fourth-century St Martin; marked by a goose lunch on the day and, in the Upper Rhine, preceded by evening children’s lantern processions.
Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindelsmarkt), nationwide. Traditional homespun Germany at its most charming (see Christmas markets).
Each December small wooden huts twinkling with lights gather across the country to celebrate local handicrafts and delicacies. But it’s not just shopping: a Christmas market is as much about the pleasure of splitting a bag of roasted chestnuts with friends and soaking up Christmas spirit – along with a mug or two of steaming Glühwein.
The first Christmas market almost certainly went unrecorded, but the 1294 Vienna market has to be one of the earliest. Around this time the idea caught on among Czechs, and it was just over the border in Bautzen in 1384 that a Christmas market was first recorded in Germany.
The earliest markets mainly sold meat, but over time they grew to include local handicrafts. This trade got a terrific boost from the sixteenth-century teachings of Martin Luther who suggested the birth of Christ would be a better time to exchange gifts than the traditional saints’ days of St Nicholas (December 6), or St Martin (November 11). But despite having roots in religious veneration, Christmas markets – usually held by the city’s main church to attract church-goers – soon competed with the churches themselves. As early as 1616 a Nuremberg priest complained he’d had to abandon a Christmas Eve service because all of his congregation were at the market. This was also the time when Christmas gift-buying took off – and up until the nineteenth century the markets remained the main place to buy seasonal toys and treats. Today, Germany’s markets attract a staggering 160 million visitors a year and market-related revenues are around €5 billion.
Many towns keep their warming Christmas recipes a closely guarded secret, even trademarked, with Nuremberg’s Lebkuchen, a soft spiced gingerbread that’s been produced since the fourteenth century, probably the most famous. In the Rhineland and Westphalia, Spekulatius – cardamom and cinnamon biscuits – are common, while the heavy Stollen fruitcake is particularly associated with Saxony.
The seasonal drink of choice is Glühwein (mulled wine) and its non-alcoholic cousin Kinderpunsch. Feuerzangenbowle – red wine, flavored by a flaming rum-dipped block of sugar – and Eierpunsch (a sort of eggnog) are also popular.
Traditional handmade wooden crafts are the most popular and include crib figurines, toys, marionettes and nutcrackers. Look out for the wooden Weihnachtspyramide – in which the heat from candles rotates a nativity scene – and the jovial little Räuchermänchen – figures that serve as incense holders and puff smoke from their mouths. Much of this woodwork comes from the Erzgebirge on the Czech border, where the Christmas market in Schneeberg is particularly good for such things.
Kids visiting Christmas markets will usually find a carousel, a few games or rides and sometimes an ice rink. Other draws often include street performers, nativity plays, puppet theatres and concerts; and there’s always a nativity scene – sometimes populated by a petting zoo of real animals, such as sheep, donkeys and goats. But Germany’s best kids’ Christmas market is doubtless that of the Europa-Park.
Though smaller towns often have particularly atmospheric markets (see the German tourist-board’s germany-christmas-market.org.uk), many of Germany’s larger cities have great Christmas festivities. Among them are:
The attractive market on the main square aside, Bremen also has a medieval maritime market, where you can fire crossbows, have your fortune told and watch magic. Look out too for free outdoor performances of the Stadtmusikanten fairy tale.
The main market is by the cathedral, which also forms the motif for much of its famed Spekulatius. Other novelties include the medieval Chocolate Museum market, which has acrobats, entertainers and stallholders in period costume. Look out for local speciality Meth, a honey wine.
Dresden’s invention of the Stollen is celebrated in the jovial Stollenfest, in which a four-tonne example journeys through the city before being carved into more bite-sized portions.
Despite skyscrapers and banking, Frankfurt’s Römerberg market, with its giant Christmas tree, vintage carousel and half-timbered facades, is atmospheric and fun.
Highlights include a cheerful circus-designed market, with wandering performers; the stylish Winterzauber market with ice bar, skating rink and puppet theatre; the Finnish-themed Fleetinsel market; and the irreverent Santa Pauli market in the red-light district, where Santas in lewd poses sit atop stalls selling kinky knickers and sex toys.
The Marienplatz market is wonderfully atmospheric and great for handicrafts, but Münchener Freiheit is more relaxed and has better food.
Nuremberg’s delightful huddle of red-and-white-striped canvas on an old square below the castle is deservedly popular, with two million annual visitors. The Lebkuchen is its hallmark, but look out for Nürnberger Zwetschgamännla: little figures made from prunes.