There's no better way to get to know a country than by taking part in its festivals. German festivals and events are plentiful, and an amazing chance to immerse yourself in the warmest and most fun-loving parts of German culture.
Oktoberfest, Munich. Oktoberfest is the most famous of all traditional German festivals. During the two weeks of Oktoberfest each fall, the entire city dons dirndl and lederhosen and huge crowds join in on the drinking, eating, and merriment on the Wies’n. More than just drinking (though it obviously takes center stage), the festival grounds are decked out with rides, games, shops, and food stands. Though Munich’s Oktoberfest is the largest, many cities in Germany hold their own folk festivals at this time. Huge fairs with plentiful beer and traditional German dress can also be found at the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart or the Cranger Kirmes in Herne, both of which also draw crowds in the millions. But Oktoberfest isn’t only about beer and getting drunk. Half of the fairgrounds include carnival rides and games, and the “Old Oktoberfest” section is less raucous and includes more traditional tents. In some years, there is a wine tent where you can try out German wines. Otherwise, if you want a break from the crowds, the smaller tents are more like restaurants, and specialize in a certain meal while serving you a liter of beer as well.
Karneval, Cologne. Originating in Venice, Carnival is now celebrated all over the world from New Orleans to Rio de Janeiro. Each has its own unique flavor, and the German version is something like a two-week long costume party. This is especially true in Cologne, a city famous for its Karneval celebrations. The biggest event of the season is Rose Monday, when 74 decorated floats, 67 tractors, and 50 Ford Trucks promenade for three hours through a 6 km track of downtown Cologne. Performers in the parade toss sweets, flowers, and plush toys to the spectators, the vast majority of whom are dressed in their wackiest costume. The parade also tends to be filled with political satire, with many floats featuring caricatures of European politicians. The whole week is, like most traditional German festivals, accompanied by heavy drinking and lots of dancing. Come for the Rosenmontag parade but stay the whole week to attend all of the amazing concerts, parties, and events that go on as part of Karneval.
Asparagusfest and Onionfest, Schwetzingen & Weimar. German food isn’t exactly adored world-wide. Known to consist mostly of meat and potatoes, German cuisine tends to be pretty heavy on the basics. Perhaps that is why there are several traditional festivals in Germany dedicated to the country’s staple crops. Thanks to Germany’s long and persisting farmer culture, there are festivals throughout the country to celebrate each important harvest, with two crops in particular reigning supreme. Though German food festivals dedicated to each foodstuff can be found in most any region where the crop is grown, the Onionfest (Zwiebelnfest) in Weimar and Asparagusfest (Spargelfest) in Schwetzingen are two of the largest and most well-known harvest festivals in the country. Not only can you buy the freshest picks of the season, you can also try plenty of dishes based around the vegetable of the moment and pick up asparagus- or onion-themed costumes.
Berlinale, Berlin. The largest international film festival in the world, the Berlinale has been held annually since 1978. With more than 400 films screened, all competing for 20 prizes called Gold or Silver Bears, the Berlinale showcases the world’s elite cinematic talent in most every genre. Although it is of the most hyped red-carpet events in all of Europe, Berlinale is distinct from many other film festivals in that it is accessible for people outside of the film industry. While many renowned film festivals are invite-only (Cannes) or require purchasing an access badge for thousands of dollars (Sundance, SXSW), Berlinale sells public tickets for single screenings. And, at around 12 euros a pop, it’s really not much pricier than seeing a movie in theaters.
Walpurgisnacht, Heidelberg. On the top of Heiligenberg Mountain in the quaint university city of Heidelberg, a massive open-air amphitheater lays in ruin. The ruins are known as the Thingstätte, and are one of the only remaining relics of architecture built by the Nazis in the area. The Thingstätte is no longer in use, and today is only visited by hikers. That is, except for on the night of April 30th each year, when tens of thousands of torch-bearing people hike up the mountain and pile inside of it. Walpurgis Night is in honor of the 8th century abbess Walpurga, who is celebrated by German Christians as having battled disease, rabies, whooping cough, and witchcraft. But the celebrations in Heidelberg are far more tongue-in-cheek than religious. Legend has it that witches would convene atop a mountain in the Brocken region each year, which Christians would then counter by praying through St. Walpurga’s intercession. By gathering in the Thingstätte for a massive bonfire, drinking, and general merry-making, this pilgrimage is more in celebration of hocus pocus than any saint.
Unity Day, Berlin. October 3rd is the largest national holiday in Germany, the German equivalent of the 4th of July. It commemorates the 1989 reunification of East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While most every German city holds official celebrations on the holiday, there is no celebration quite like the one in the capital city, where the effects of the wall were most acutely felt. Every year, Berlin celebrates this momentous occasion with a huge city-wide festival. Fair grounds are erected, open-air concerts take place at the Brandenburg Gate, a parade marches through downtown, and art and history exhibits are installed all along the remains of the Berlin Wall. In a city where the memory of the Wall and separation is still relatively fresh, the annual celebrations in Berlin take on a distinct character that are unrivaled by any other German city. Being in Berlin for German Unity Day means you’ll have no shortage of things to do and see.
Hafengeburtstag, Hamburg. The sparkling northern city of Hamburg has huge significance in western culture. As a major seaport founded at the end of the 12th century, Hamburg has been a historical trade hub without which the rest of the world may have never discovered The Beatles or the hamburger. To honor the port that has contributed so much to western culture, the people of Hamburg celebrate its birthday each year on the first weekend of May with a massive festival called Hafengeburtstag. More than one million people attend sprawling festival complete with boat shows, fireworks, concerts, and an open-air fair. Fans of antique shops will have plenty to do, with hundreds of boats with elaborate sails pouring into the harbor for water parades, races, and tours of the decks. But Hafengeburtstag isn’t just for sea vessel enthusiasts! Foodies will find plenty of delicious, freshly caught surf at the hundreds of street food stands; the city’s beer halls will be full to the brim; those looking to party can partake in raves on boats; and rock stars as big as Rammstein have performed at the festival. The beautiful city of Hamburg is truly electric during Hafengeburtstag, offering a wide variety of programming that has something for everyone.
Carnival of Cultures, Berlin. Berlin celebrates its own unique carnival in summer, the colorful Carnival of Cultures – more than 1,5 million visitors pay tribute to the multicultural spirit of Germany’s capital with this four-day street festival. Enjoy exotic food and drinks, concerts, parties, and a carnival parade with decorated floats, singers, and dancers from over 70 different countries.
Christmas Markets. Christmas markets are a wonderful part of the German holiday tradition and a great way to get into the Christmas spirit. Every German city celebrates the season with at least one traditional Christmas market; enjoy old-fashioned carousels, buy handmade holiday decoration, listen to German Christmas carols, and sample homemade Christmas treats.