Basel's huge carnival begins with the traditional Morgenstreich parade. Photo: AFP
Rooted in Basel’s annual calendar for centuries and now attracting hundreds of thousands of people to the streets every year, Basel’s Fasnacht is a big deal. Lasting exactly three days – from 4am on the Monday after Ash Wednesday to 4am on the following Thursday, it’s a city-wide party rooted in local traditions and aimed primarily at Basel residents.
For visitors it’s a fascinating – and sometimes head-scratching – spectacle that just has to be experienced at least once in your Swiss life.
If you’re planning to visit this year, here’s how to do it.
Buy a badge
An essential must-do for all visitors to Fasnacht is to buy the carnival badge, or ‘Plakette’, the profits of which go to cover some of the costs of the groups who take part in the parades (and with costumes and masks that take all year to make, those costs can mount up).
The 2019 gold 'plakette'.
Badges come in four varieties – copper, silver, gold and ‘bijou’ (jewel) – with the prices ranging from 9 Swiss francs to 100 francs. Buy yours from an official carnival stall, street vendor or carnival participant, display it prominently on your person, and then you’re all set to party.
Don’t dress up
It may be a carnival, but Basel’s Fasnacht likes to make a clear distinction between participants and spectators.
“A big thing to keep in mind is that unlike other Carnivals, it's not really encouraged for bystanders to dress up during Fasnacht,” says Basel-based expat Liz Voss, who blogs about her life in Switzerland at anamericaninbasel.com .
That’s clear from the event’s official advice to visitors which says “painted faces, false noses, jester’s caps and bawdy songs are all frowned upon” (also is “raucous or drunken behaviour”).
However an exception is made for kids, says Voss, whose young daughter enjoys dressing up for Fasnacht. “You will see kids in costume all three days even if they're not in the official procession”.
Be an early bird and catch Morgenstreich
A custom since 1808, Morgenstreich (or Morgestraich in Basel’s dialect) opens the carnival on Monday. Get up early (or don’t go to bed the night before) to catch the 4am start, when the city lights are switched off and lanterns light up the night sky instead. The ‘Cliques’ – groups of drummers and piccolo players – parade through the city streets until daybreak, playing the festival tune, wearing head lanterns and carrying or pushing giant lanterns decorated with caricatures and satirical rhymes.
If you’re simply not an early bird, there’s another chance to see all the lanterns in an exhibition in front of the cathedral on Tuesday evening.
“My number one recommendation for Fasnacht is to go to Münsterplatz sometime between Monday evening and Wednesday morning and see all of the lanterns on display,” says Voss.
“It's impossible to see and appreciate all of the lanterns during the parades, so being able to stroll through Münsterplatz, examining both sides of the lanterns and taking in all of the details, is a must.”
And while you’re there, you might even see some of the Cliques crossing the Rhine on one of the small current-driven ferries. “We heard and saw a Clique dressed as cows cross the river that way in 2015,” says Voss.
Prepare to party all day
As soon as Morgenstreich begins, the party doesn’t let up until Thursday morning.
“The entire Fasnacht area is one big party for three solid days,” says Voss. “I went to Morgenstreich last year and at 3:30am when I got to Barfüsserplatz, the smell in the air was a combination of pot smoke, beer and Red Bull.
“There may not be official parades happening during the 72 hours of Fasnacht, but there is music and partying the entire time.”
Study the parade route and pick your spot
The 'Cliques' take part in the official parades. Photo: Basel Tourism/Friedrich Reinhardt Verlag
There are two official parades, on the Monday and Wednesday, when over 10,000 masked participants, the Cliques and Guggemusik bands (traditional brass bands) march on foot or on floats along a set route through Basel city centre, throwing confetti and treats to the crowds. Pick your spot using the route map here.
“Our favourite places to watch are near Barfüsserplatz, up the Kohlenberg hill – which lets you see a lot of things but stay out of the confetti if you're so inclined – and in Marktplatz,” says Voss.
But if you want to get in the thick of it, you might be richly rewarded.
“All of the big floats throw tons of confetti plus lots of other things: flowers to the ladies, stuffed animals and candy to the kids, fruits (mostly oranges), and vegetables (like carrots and onions).”
“But if you have the gold or bijou badges, you're also likely to get alcohol. Sometimes shots poured into your mouth as the float drives along and sometimes cans of beer or small bottles of liquor tossed your way.”
Get the kids involved
Tuesday is officially children’s day, and although there’s no specific children’s procession, families wander about the streets informally showing off their little ones’ costumes.
Voss has taken her daughter to Fasnacht twice and says it’s “safe and relatively easy to navigate with children”.
“The parades on Monday and Wednesday toss out lots of candy and goodies to the kids, so it's a lot of fun for them. The music can be pretty loud, though, so investing in a pair of those soundproof ear protectors might be a good idea,” she suggests.
Wander the streets
Photo: Basel Tourism/Friedrich Reinhardt Verlag
Part of the fun of Fasnacht is just meandering about the city streets and seeing who or what you bump in to – a habit the locals call the 'Gässle'. At any given moment you’re likely to come across members of a Clique playing their piccolos and drums as they wander the cobbled streets of the Old Town. Fall in step behind them, enjoy the music and lose a happy couple of hours to the festival spirit.
A more organized music event occurs on the Tuesday night when the Guggemusik bands perform on stages on Marktplatz, Barfüsserplatz and Claraplatz in front of thousands of spectators.
Tuck into local specialities
Three dishes are traditionally eaten during Fasnacht: a flour soup called Mehlsuppe, onion pies and cheese quiche. There are also Fasnachtkiechli biscuits and Faschtewajie (a type of pretzel), as well as more usual street treats including roasted chestnuts (heisse marroni) and sausages.
“Glühwein is also for sale from various vendors and a good way to keep warm and get into the party mode!” says Voss.
Basel's Fasnacht runs from March 11-13th.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Local in 2018.