What you need to know about Switzerland’s Unspunnen, the world’s largest traditional festival

This celebration of Swiss rural culture will take over Interlaken from August 26th to September 3rd.

What you need to know about Switzerland’s Unspunnen, the world's largest traditional festival
Photo: Unspunnen festival
Unspunnen… I’m thinking wool, spinning, weaving. Am I close?
No. The event’s full title is the Swiss Wrestling, National Costume and Alpine Herdsmen’s Festival, but it’s known as Unspunnen because that’s the name of the meadow where the first festival took place.
Ah, so we’re talking classic Swiss rural pastimes?
Exactly. It’s Switzerland’s biggest and most prestigious rural festival, bringing together Alphorn players, flag throwers, Swiss wrestlers, choral singers, stone throwers, Hornussen competitors and herdsmen and women in traditional costumes. In short, it’s every Swiss rural tradition you can think of packed into one nine-day festival. And seeing as it’s only held once every decade or so – the last was in 2006 – it’s quite a big deal. This is only the tenth edition since the festival was founded over 200 years ago.
Photo: Unspunnen festival
So why was it founded?
The first Unspunnen was held way back in 1805, in a period of political turmoil in Switzerland, which had been ruled by the French from 1798 to 1803. Tensions between the cities and rural communities in the Bern area led four Bern residents to found a folk festival to try and foster good relations between the city dwellers and country folk.
Did it work? 
Partly. The first festival and a second one three years later were extremely popular (5,000 people attended in 1808) and sparked a tourism boom in the area. However they failed to ease political tensions. The third festival wasn’t held for another century, and it wasn’t until 1946 that it became a more regular thing. From the 1981 festival onwards, Unspunnen became a major national event and attracted tons of media coverage. It’s now considered the world’s largest traditional gathering, attracting 150,000 spectators.
So what’s new this time?
For the first time in the festival’s history it will be held for nine days encompassing two weekends. Each day is dedicated to a particular rural sport, such as alpine wrestling (Schwingen), alphorn playing, target shooting and Hornussen (a 17th century cross between cricket and golf). But what’s most associated with the Unspunnen is stone throwing. 
Photo: Unspunnen festival
Any old stone?
No, since you ask. The Unspunnen stone is a hefty 83.5kg, so throwing it any distance at all is quite a feat. The record is currently held by Markus Maire from the village of Plaffeien, who threw it an epic 3.89m. The stone has become a symbol of the festival and is considered a Swiss cultural treasure. It’s just a shame no one actually knows where it is.
How come?
The Unspunnen stone has quite a history – the original 1805 stone disappeared after the first festival, and a new one was made for the following event in 1808. That was stolen by Jura separatists from a museum in Interlaken in 1984, but then mysteriously reappeared in 2000. Then five years later it was stolen again from a hotel in Interlaken where it was being displayed ahead of that year’s festival (which was later postponed a year due to flooding). A substitute of the same weight is now used instead.
Photo: Unspunnen festival
Is it likely to mysteriously reappear again?
Who knows. The organizers say whoever took it is assured a warm welcome in Interlaken. “If you happen to drop by with the stone before the event starts, the president of the organizing committee will open a bottle of good wine so that you can both toast to a successful festival,” they said last year.
Lovely. I’d like to drop by myself – how do I do that? 
All ticketing and travel information is available on the festival’s website,
Photo: Unspunnen festival
For members


Your complete guide to Switzerland’s best Christmas markets in 2019

Christmas is just around the corner, which means its just about time to don a winter hat and get a hot cup of Glühwein. Here are the ten best Christmas markets in Switzerland.

Your complete guide to Switzerland's best Christmas markets in 2019
The Christmas market in Montreux. Photo: Depositphotos

Every diverse region of Switzerland celebrates Christmas with its own cultural tradition, and there's no better way of experiencing these differences than by visiting a local Christmas market. 

While some run for almost a month, others only last a weekend – so make sure to get in while you can. 


Photo: Interlaken Tourism

The Christmas Market in Interlaken is built around the massive Ice Magic skating complex (3000 square metres), which features five rinks all linked by runways.

If you're not confident on the ice, fear not. You can sign up for skating lessons and, bringing a taste of Scotland to Swiss markets, there is also a curling lane available for booking. 

Of course, there's also more than 100 stalls to browse and a chalet-style restaurant to enjoy. The market runs from December 14th until 22nd, but Ice Magic opens on December 14th (running into the new year). 


Photo: Montreux Noel

Now in its 24th year, the Christmas Market in Montreux is known for its grandeur and spectacle. Stretching along the lake promenade (which is, of course, specially lit up for the occasion), the market offers thousands of gift ideas for grown-ups and children alike.

New attractions this year include a 3D light show, craft workshops for kids, a gourmet area and an open-late bar. Or just stick with the classics and visit Santa Claus, enjoy the carnival rides then wash it all down with some tasty grub and Glühwein.

Runs from November 21st to December 24th.



The Christmas Market in Basel is said to be the oldest in Switzerland, and the people living in the city are well known for getting into the festive spirit with lights and decorations.

No wonder, then, that there are not one but three Christmas Markets to enjoy there. Basel's offering is known as one of the biggest and best markets in Switzerland and was recently voted as the 8th best in Europe – so naturally there is a whole lot of fun to be had.

The children's railway, craft workshops, the delicious Basel Läckerli (a hard, spiced type of biscuit) and performances from the Basel Music Academy are just some of the reasons you might want to stop by. The markets run from November 28th until December 23rd. More information can be found here.


Photo: Christof Sonderegger/Swiss Image

Einsiedeln might be small, but its Christmas Market is known as one of Switzerland’s best. As well as offering 130 stalls, the market is said to be the home of the world’s largest nativity scene – with a whopping 450 colourful figurines telling the story of the birth of Jesus.

The stunning backdrop of the Benedictine Einsiedeln Abbey and its twin spires adds to the fairy-tale feeling and the nearby gingerbread museum really puts the icing on the Christmas cake (gingerbread is a local speciality).

You'll have to get in early to catch it though; it runs from November 30th until December 8th.


Photo: Weihnachtsmarkt der Sinne Facebook Page

Like Einsiedeln, Zofingen isn’t the biggest. But its “Christmas Market of the Senses” is worthy of a mention for the remarkable way it offers guests a sensory experience. 

The market provides more than 200 stalls within the cosy old town setting, as well as a section just for “medieval” wares – and there’s a support programme to keep you entertained too. Short and sweet, the market runs from December 6th to December 8th.

St Gallen

Photo: Photo: St.Gallen-Bodensee Tourismus

The Christmas Market in St Gallen is another popular one – and for good reason. During advent, the city is lit up by 700 stars, covering the streets and the stunning medieval abbey district.

Guests can enjoy an advent tour of the city and a concert within a UNESCO World Heritage site cathedral. The market features a selection of handmade products and, for any carnivores out there, the region’s traditional sausage is well worth trying.

The St Gallen Christmas market runs from November 24th until Christmas Eve. 


The medieval town of Bremgarten in Aargau hosts one of Switzerland’s bigger Christmas Markets, with more than 320 stalls filled with trinkets and delicacies to browse.

It is well worth a visit if only so you can say that you've been – but be warned; the Bremgarten market is popular and is usually very, very busy as it takes place only on one weekend.

In 2019, the market will take place from December 5th until the 8th. 


Photo: Christkindlimä 

Flying perhaps a little under the radar, the Christkindlimärt in Willisau, canton Lucerne, is nonetheless a bit of a favourite with locals.

The romantic old-town setting and the daily performances compliment the festive feeling and there’s a packed programme to keep the kids happy.

Don’t miss the yodelling Christmas concert, and make sure you try some Ringli – a sweet local delicacy that's a bit like a very crispy doughnut.

Running for just three days, the Christkindlimärt opens on December 6th and closes on December 8th.


Photo: Ticino Tourism Facebook Page

Ticino is always worth a visit but perhaps even more so when it’s Christmas time.

Featuring a market inside a UNESCO World Heritage site castle, a massive (2000 square metre) ice rink in Locarno’s Piazza Grande and all the usual festive fun with a distinctly Mediterranean flavour, this one is not to be missed.

Dates vary in different places, so be sure to triple check before you head in. Some only run for a short period of time – with the market in Locarno open for just one day (December 8th). 


Set in and around the town’s stunning medieval castle, the Christmas Market in Yverdon-les-Bains is a mostly traditional affair that is notable for being a little more relaxing than some of its peers. You’re unlikely to have to fight your way through the crowd here, giving you more time to enjoy a few drinks and soak up the Christmas spirit. The stalls mostly feature regional produce (including local beers) and there’s also an ice-rink to enjoy too.


For more than 30 years, Bern's Christmas Market has aimed to offer guests what it calls a quiet and sensitive take on Christmas markets. Featuring arts and crafts of the “highest quality”, the market is set in front of the imposing Munster cathedral and runs from December 1st to December 24th. It also runs entirely on renewable Swiss energy. 



Neuchatel’s Christmas Market has been dubbed Switzerland’s “largest indoor market of craft-creators” and organisers put a particular emphasis on showcasing the region’s craft and culinary specialities. Plus, the fact that it is indoors means you won’t have to worry about the weather. The market runs from December 8th to December 16th.


Photo: Morgesmarchedenoel Instagram

The Christmas Market in Morges isn't the biggest but it does win points for its historic qualities as it is set in and around a castle that dates back to the 13th century. This year, the castle grounds will be home to 20 chalets that surround a large tented restaurant area. There will also be a healthy selection of artisan stalls and attractions to keep children interested.  


Every year, Lucerne's Franciscan square in the heart of the city's old town is converted into a winter wonderland full of colourful wooden houses. Nestled away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, the market is rightfully known as being one of Switzerland's most attractive.

With around 70 stalls to enjoy and a variety of entertainment for children, the market runs from December 5th to December 22nd.


Christmas in Lausanne is like nowhere else. “Traditional but extremely modern” is the tagline they like to use and they certainly back it up. The annual festival of lights sees installations set up all over town, and even though they sometimes have very little to do with Christmas, they do help boost spirits. 

Markets in Lausanne are actually held in three different locations, each with its own style. There's lots for the kids to enjoy, a nice selection of local craftwork to browse and, of course, lots of wine. Markets run between November 20th and December 31st. More information on locations can be found here.

A version of this story was originally published in November 2018.