The pounding drums of traditional ‘Guggenmusik’ bands, elaborate costumes, confetti-strewn parades and alcohol-fuelled masquerade balls: it must be carnival time in Switzerland.
A centuries-old tradition, carnival (known as ‘Fasnacht’ in German, ‘carnaval’ in French and 'carnevale' in Italian) is celebrated every year in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 6th this year.
Carnival is traditionally a chance to indulge and make merry before the lean times of Lent. And while the religious significance of the festival may have diminished with time, a spirit of indulgence remains very much the order of the day with eating, drinking and partying all high on the agenda.
Here is a sample of some of the top places to see all the best carnival action in Switzerland this year (and keep in mind that if you can't make it to one of the events we have listed, there are plenty of smaller local carnivals all over the country which are also worth a visit in their own right).
Lucerne’s carnival – the second biggest in Switzerland after Basel (see below) – begins, as per tradition, at 5am on the day known as ‘Schmutzigen Donnerstag’ (Dirty Thursday), which falls on February 28th this year.
The early-morning excitement centres around the Schweizerhofquai with the official (and noisy) opening of the city’s carnival.
Later the same day, thousands of people will line the streets of the city for the first of two huge parades (the second takes place on Monday March 4th).
Tuesday March 5th features two more parades – one for children in the afternoon and then the festival’s closing event in the evening. The partying will continue until 4am on Ash Wednesday, when carnival officially ends and the hangovers unofficially begin.
As in Lucerne, carnival time in beautiful Solothurn in Switzerland’s north west kicks off on Thursday February 28th this year. There is a children’s parade on that day while the main Fasnacht parades take place on Sunday March 3rd and Tuesday March 5th (both starting at 2.31pm precisely, apparently).
It all ends on Ash Wednesday with the ‘burning of the Böögg (effigy)’ – a traditional event hailing the arrival of spring, which is also celebrated in Zurich, but not until April. And while in Zurich, the Böögg is always a snowman, the effigy burned in Solothurn is different every year.
A newer festival on the block, Fribourg’s ‘Carnaval des Bolzes’ (or ‘Bolzenfasnacht – the city is bilingual) is celebrating its 51st edition this year.
Taking place in the Old Town near the cathedral from Saturday March 2nd to Tuesday March 6th, the highlight is the big parade on Sunday afternoon which features colourful costumes, Guggenmusik bands (what else?) and decorative floats. Oh, and there’s also a parade for kids on Tuesday March 5th.
A must-visit in eastern Switzerland, St Gallen's Fasnacht (February 28th to March 5th) sees the Guggenmusik bands play on stages throughout the beautiful (and usually sleepy) streets of the Old Town. Residents take part in various parades through the city over the weekend, continuing until Shrove Tuesday.
The biggest parade takes place this year on Sunday March 3rd at 2pm.
Another relatively new event, Sion’s carnival is nevertheless one of the biggest in the Valais region, attracting some 60,000 spectators over five days (Thursday February 28th to Monday March 4th). Visit on Saturday afternoon for the highlight – the Grand Cortège (or main parade), which kicks off at 2.30pm.
For party-goers, there is also an all-night music parade on Saturday. Meanwhile, Monday March 4th is Kid’s Party Day.
Known as Rabadan (it means 'noise'), Bellinzona’s carnival is the most important in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. It all gets underway this year on Thursday February 28th when the keys of the city are handed over to 'King Rabadan', who is chosen by the carnival committee to rule over the city's revellers until Tuesday March 5th.
As well as the traditional Guggenmusik, parades and children's festivities, there are also DJ sets, concerts (Modern Talking cover band anyone?), aperitif events and even a mass risotto-eating session on the Tuesday.
While most carnivals conclude on Ash Wednesday, this one doesn’t even get going until the next day. One of the country's largest events, the Swiss capital's carnival celebrates the bear, the symbol of the city.
The yearly story starts back in November when the (symbolic) carnival bears are captured in the prison tower at Bärenplatz (Bear Square) for 111 days of slumber. On Ash Wednesday revellers gather again at Bärenplatz to ‘free' the bears from their winter hibernation (although given current weather conditions they may be a little late this year).
A procession of jesters, musicians and traditional drummers – called Ychüblete – then proceeds through the city, sparking three days of revelry (March 7th to March 9th).
If you are only planning to attend one carnival in Switzerland, make it this one.
Basel’s Unesco-recognized carnival is the biggest and most important in the country and it waits until last to trump the rest with three days of parades and partying.
The event starts at 4am on the Monday after Ash Wednesday (that means March 11th this year) when the city's lights are extinguished and lanterns and decorative floats depicting topical themes light up the streets in a highly atmospheric parade known as the ‘Morgestraich’.
For the next three days the city centre is taken over by costumed revellers, some of whom have spent the entire year preparing their outfits. More than 10,000 masked participants parade throughout the city in two main processions on the Monday and Wednesday.