Europe Year Round: A Guide to the Best Festival and Celebrations

The other day the team over at Contiki asked me if I could share a few reasons why I think Europe is a great destination anytime of year, and the first thing that came to my mind were all the festivals and cultural celebrations.

When it comes to travel in Europe, most of us think of it as a summer destination, however, the place is bursting with possibilities year round. In today’s post I wanted to highlight some of the quirkiest and most unique celebrations that take place; I’m talking about everything from fun orange fights in Italy and downhill cheese races in England, to the plain strange like baby-jumping festivals and open-coffin processions in Spain.

January

Winter in Sweden - Flickr CC Bengt Nyman

Snow Festival in Kiruna, Sweden – This is one event you’ll want to bundle up for! Located 140 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, Kiruna plays host to the biggest snow festival in all of Europe. Events include hockey games, snow sculpture contests, dog-sledding, ice-skating and lots of musical performances.

La Tamborrada in San Sebastian, Spain – La Tamborrada is a drumming parade that takes place every year on January 20th in San Sebastian. It is a celebration of the town’s patron saint and it involves a drumming procession that lasts 24 hours! We suggest bringing some earplugs if you’re planning to get any sleep.

Rijeka Carnival in Rijeka, Croatia – The Rijeka Carnival has been gaining quite the reputation over the past few years. It is the third largest Carnival celebration in the world, surpassed only by Rio de Janeiro and Venice. The celebrations start in the middle of January and last for 5 weeks!

International Hot Air Balloon Week in Salzburg, Austria – In mid-January, the little Austrian village of Filzmoos plays host to the International Hot Air Balloon Festival. Sitting at the foot of the stunning Bischofsmütze Mountain, this little town is the perfect setting for a choreography of balloons floating through the sky.

February

Venice Carnival - Flickr CC Stefano Montagner

Carnival in Venice, Italy – When Carnival rolls around, Venice gets ready to party. Balls are organized across the city and revellers dress in elaborate costumes that will have you feeling like you’ve travelled back to the Renaissance period.

Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea, Italy – Most of us have heard of the tomato-throwing tradition in Spain, however, there is one little town in northern Italy where people throw…oranges. The origins of this celebration are quite unclear, but this has become the biggest food fight in all of Italy.

St. Valentine’s Day in Terni, Italy – Valentine’s Day is celebrated around the world, but the town of Terni has special significance because it’s the town where Saint Valentine married lovers in secret. Today the town is nicknamed “The City of Lovers” and it holds special events on February 14.

March

Las Fallas Valencia - Flickr CC Keith Ellwood

Las Fallas in Valencia, Spain – Las Fallas is a celebration that started as a way to honour Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. Today it has evolved into one of the loudest and most elaborate festivals in all of Spain. Ninots or giant puppets are paraded down the streets while loud firecrackers are set off in every direction.

St. Patrick’s in Dublin, Ireland – While St. Patty’s Day technically takes place on March 17th, in Dublin it has turned into a 5 day long celebration. The festivities include concerts, dancing, parades, and plenty of Guinness to go around. You’ll spot many a leprechaun dancing in the streets.

Strong Beer Time in Munich, Germany – Munich may play host to Oktoberfest in October, but this doesn’t mean they forget about their beer the rest of the year, no no! Nicknamed “the fifth season”, Strong Beer Week is a 3 week period when breweries brew their beer with an alcohol content that is higher than 7%. It’s like Oktoberfest all over again, except this celebration seems to be a well kept secret from most international travellers!

April

Amsterdam, King's Day - Flickr CC Rok Hodej

King’s Day in Amsterdam – On April 27 Amsterdam turns into a sea of Orange. Like the name suggests, King’s Day is a celebration of the King’s birthday, and for the Dutch this means a public holiday. People flock to the capital to take part in the parades, boat parties on the canals, and enjoy the djs playing in the square.

Semana Santa in Seville, Spain – Holy Week is one of the biggest celebrations in all of Andalucia, and celebrations have been held there since the 16th century. Some 50,000 people are estimated to take part in the processions across town.

Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England – While Shakespeare’s exact date of birth is unknown, he was baptised on April 26, 1564 so that’s when his birthday is commonly celebrated. His birthtown of Stratford-Upon-Avon knows how to throw a party of two in his honour.

Feira do Livro in Lisbon, Portugal – The Lisbon Book Fair is held in Park Eduardo VII and it has been held annually since 1930. Bibliophiles flock to the fair to browse through thousands of old and rare books.

May

Flickr CC Michael Warren

Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling in Brockworth, England – Here’s one for the cheese lovers – every May during the spring bank holiday, people gather on Brockworth Hill to chase a 9 lb. ball of cheese. The first person to the bottom of the hill wins the cheese, and with the cheese reaching speeds of up to 112 km/hr it’s quite the race.

La Ducasse in Mons, Belgium – La Ducasse, also known as Doudou, is a festival with roots that stretch back to the Middle Ages. The festival recounts the tale of St. George battling a fiery dragon, an event which is reenacted in the town square. Come prepared for battle.

Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France – The Cannes Film Festival descends in Cannes for 12 days every May. Directors, producers, and Hollywood stars flock to this French beach town for film screenings and glitzy parties. You won’t be able to get into the screenings unless you know somebody, however, you might just spot your favourite celeb wandering the streets.

June

Misummer in Sweden - Flickr CC Bengt Nyman

Midsummer in Sweden – Midsummer is always celebrated at the height of summer on the Friday between June 19 and June 25. On this day Swedes head to the countryside where they make flower crowns, dance around a Maypole, eat pickled herring with potatoes, play games, and spend their evening drinking and dancing.

The Wine Battle in Haro, Spain – Also known as La Batalla del Vino, this festival is all about the wine. It takes place every year on June 29 and it involves a wine drinking competition or two. People wear white and by the end of the day everyone is soaked in wine from head to toe. Bacchus would approve.

The Baby-Jumping Festival in Burgos, Spain – I think this one may take the cake for strangest festival ever! El Colacho is the name given to the baby-jumping festival which takes place every June in the village of Castrillo de Murcia near Burgos. The festival originated in 1620, and it involves a man dressed as the devil jumping over babies. The idea is that when the ‘devil’ jumps over these babies it takes away all evil and the babies’ souls are cleansed.

July

Oil wrestling in Turkey - Flickr CC Charles Roffey

Oil Wrestling in Kirkpinar, Turkey – In Turkey, oil wrestling is the national sport, so it’s only fitting that they would hold an annual wrestling tournament where the men are covered in olive oil. This event dates back to the days of the early Ottoman Empire and it has been held since 1346; that makes it one of the longest running sports competitions in the world.

Festival of the Near-Death Experience in Las Nieves, Spain – In the town of Las Nieves, those who have been fortunate enough to survive a near-death experience in the past 12 months get to partake in a rather strange ritual…they are paraded down the streets in coffins. This procession is done as part of La Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme which celebrates the patron saint of resurrection.

Wife-Carrying World Championships in Sonkajärvi, Finland – So apparently wife-carrying is an actual sport where men carry their wives through a series of obstacles. The world championships have been held in Sonkajärvi since 1992, and the grand price is the equivalent of the wife’s weight in beer. I guess it pays to have a heavy wife…

La Tomatina - Flickr CC Nedim Chaabene

August

La Tomatina in Buñol, Spain – La Tomatina is held the last Wednesday of August and it’s one big tomato fight. The festival begins at 10 in the morning as people try to climb a soapy pole to knock down a large piece of ham (it sounds strange, I know), once the ham is knocked off, the fight officially begins. Trucks loaded with tomatoes roll in and people begin to pelt each other until the streets are running with tomato sauce.

Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland – The Fringe Festival is the world’s largest art festival and it takes places every August in the Scottish capital. It’s a mixture of comedy shows, plays, concerts, cabarets, and everything else in between.

Bog Snorkelling Championships in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales – A bog is a long trench that is filled with water, and in Wales, bog snorkelling has become a bit of a sporting event. Every year snorkelers hop into these murky waters and race to be the champ.

September

Building Human Towers in Spain - Flickr CC Stasiu Tomczak

Human Towers Competition in Tarragona, Spain – A castell is a human tower which is traditionally ‘built’ during festivals in the region of Catalonia, and it requires incredible strength and skill. The event is held every 2 years, so keep this in mind before you book a trip.

The Horn Dance in Abbots Bromley, England – This English folk dance dates back to the Middle Ages and it involves 12 people dancing in the streets; 6 of them playing instruments and the other 6 carrying reindeer antlers. Although held in a small village, the event draws a bit of a crowd.

Caber Tossing in Braemar, Scotland – Caber-tossing is one of the most popular events of the Highland Games, and it involves men trying to toss and flip a pole (really a Larch tree) which is about 6 meters tall. This particular event takes place in Braemar, and it draws people by the thousands.

Festival of the Virgin of Mercy in Barcelona, Spain – Also known as La Mercè, this particular celebration honours the Virgin of Grace who is one of the patron saints of the city. The festival has been held since 1687, when the Virgin is believed to have delivered Barcelona from a plague of locusts that swept through the city.

October

Oktoberfest - Flickr CC Digital Cat

Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany – Held annually in Munich, Oktoberfest runs for 16 days from the end of September through the first week of October. The festivities begin once the Mayor of Munich taps the first keg of beer, and from then on it’s a blur of dirndls, lederhosen, singing and dancing.

Chocolate Festival in Bruges, Belgium – Chocolate lovers delight! For four days in October, this city revolves around chocolate and chocolate alone. You’ll be able to sample chocolates from local chocolatiers, watch chocolate-sculpting competitions, and even go on a chocolate walk around the city.

Halloween in Transylvania, Romania – Where spend Halloween if not in Transylvania – home to the famed Count Dracula? You’ll find a few tour operators running spooky Halloween themed tours over this holiday.

November

Guy Fawkes Night - Flickr CC Shane Global

Guy Fawkes Night in England – Also known as Bonfire Night, this celebration takes place on November 5 and it involves lighting fireworks, bonfires, and even burning effigies of Guy Fawkes. FYI Fawkes was one of the conspirators planning to blow up Parliament shortly after King James I ascended to power.

Festival of the Horned One in Rocca Canterano, Italy – In Italian culture, ‘horns’ are a metaphor for having cheated on your partner, and in the town of Rocca Canterano there’s an entire event dedicated to those who have felt that betrayal. On this day, people parade down the streets with horns on their heads and recite poetry about lost love and bust-ups.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

December

Hogmanay in Edinburgh, Scotland – Last year I had the pleasure of celebrating this fun holiday in Scotland. Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year, and in Edinburgh the festivities last for days! There were street parties, people paraded with torches, and on the first day of the New Year some brave souls jumped into the icy waters of the Firth of Forth to take part in the Loony Dook.

Christmas Markets in Germany – Christmastime in Germany is always a good idea! Villages, towns and cities transform their town squares into gathering places where people can come and sip Glühwein, eat gingerbread, shop for handmade Christmas ornaments, and enjoy Christmas carols. Some of the most popular Christmas markets in the country include Nuremberg, Cologne, Munich, and Dresden, but you seriously can’t go wrong with any.

Whirling Dervishes Festival in Konya, Turkey – Turkey has a rich tradition of whirling dervishes who dance in order to reach a trance-like state which brings them closer to God. In Konya, an annual festival is held where people can come and watch the dervishes undertake this spiritual journey.

And those are just a few reasons why Europe may not be such a bad idea after all! This is just a small sampling of festivals and celebrations that take place annually, so if you have any others to add to the list, let me know in the comments below.

Have you attended any of these festivals?

Images were sourced through Flickr Creative Commons license and were free to use at time of publishing. Credits: Bengt Nyman, Stefano Montagner, Keith Ellwood, Rok Hodej, Michael Warren, Bengt Nyman, Charles Roffey, Nedim Chaabene, Stasiu Tomczak, Digital Cat, Shane Global, and Samuel Jeffery.

33 Comments

  • Cristina says:

    I got to experience the Castellers in Sitges, Spain – my favourite festival yet!
    Cristina recently posted..White Water Rafting in Costa RicaMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      That’s so cool, Cristina! I’ve only watched this festival on TV and I always get so nervous as the tower grows taller and people continue climbing to the top. They have some serious skills!

  • Katie @ Second-Hand Hedgehog says:

    Amazing list! And definitely one for pinterest… I’ve only ever been to a couple of these, and a lot of them I’d never even heard of. The baby-jumping and wife carrying just sound ridiculously amazing! Oh, and I think I should definitely check out the chocolate festival… 😉
    Katie @ Second-Hand Hedgehog recently posted..What I Learned From #100HappyDaysMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Same here. I’ve only been to a couple of these, but there are so many that I would love to experience. The wife-carrying competition in Finland sounds like it would be so much fun for spectators.

  • Ashley says:

    The Baby-Jumping Festival sounds so strange! Strong Beer Time and the Chocolate Festival sound great, though!
    Ashley recently posted..Tranquility in Thailand: Khao Sok National ParkMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      I knoooow! I would not want to put my child on a little mattress and have a stranger leap over them…nope, nope.

  • Justine says:

    This is a great list. I absolutely loved reading about all these festivals. I’d never even heard of a lot of them. I think the cheese rolling race sounds like a must do! And why am I so interested in participating in Spain’s giant tomato fight? So many things were just added to my bucket list!
    Justine recently posted..Welcome to Cartagena: Colombia’s Caribbean GemMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Glad to hear you found some good bucket-list items. I’m sure La Tomatina would be a lot of fun to attend. 🙂

  • Beanie says:

    If I wasn’t lying in a dorm in Asia right now I would certainly print this lost off. The more I travel Asia the more I want to get back to Europe – the greatest continent in the the world!!

    Beanie

    Ps. A belated congratulations!!!
    Beanie recently posted..Hong Kong – “And the rest..”My Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Ahh, you’ll appreciate Europe all the more when you get there! Enjoy Asia – I miss all the good food and the cheap prices!

  • Renuka says:

    Wow, wow, wow!!! Gorgeous places. Gorgeous festivals. I’d really like to take part in the Tomato Festival in Spain. It looks like so much of fun (besides Tomatoes are good for skin)! By the way, the first two pictures are exquisite.
    Renuka recently posted..Secrets Of Frequent TravellingMy Profile

  • Trish says:

    We went to the Starkbierzeit (Strong Beer Time) in Munich last year and it was a blast! We went to the Löwenbräu beer hall and they had the most entertaining festival band we’ve ever seen. We also did King’s Day this year, but in Utrecht instead of Amsterdam. Living in Germany we’ve also done Oktoberfest, and Christmas markets in too many places too count – one of the best times of the year in Germany! Great post and have added some of these festivals to the to-do list.
    Trish recently posted..UNESCO Sites in the NetherlandsMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      Nice! It sounds like you guys have covered a lot of these. I need to start planning my visits a little more strategically so that I can experience more of these crazy festivals.

  • Maria @ Best Carry-on Luggage Guide says:

    I’ll echo what Milena said, superb list, thanks for sharing. Ediburgh is fantastic all year round but especially so during the Fringe Festival (and for Hogmanay). Anybody else interested in snow, winter sports and partying could try Snowbombing in Mayrhofen, Austria. It’s on every April. Mayrhofen is a really nice resort, lots of fun and offers great skiing.
    Maria @ Best Carry-on Luggage Guide recently posted..5 pieces of lightweight carry on luggage to swoon overMy Profile

  • Love the festivals in Europe! I went to a few when I lived in the UK – Hogmanay, Guy Fawkes, German Christmas Markets (and French and Belgium), Running of the bulls, Cheese rolling, Volksfest (2nd largest beer festical in the world after Oktoberfest) and Oktoberfest 3 times. So many great music festivals as well. I would love to go to Up Helly Aa held in January on Shetland and Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..Mount Desert Island: Maine’s Maritime paradiseMy Profile

    • Audrey says:

      You did a lot! I hope you get to experience Up Helly Aa in the near future – that sounds like a great party.

  • Amazing list! The Guy Fawkes Night in England looks quite interesting. I would add one more festival to the list – Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières) in Lyon in December. It’s worth the visit. 🙂
    Milena Yordanova recently posted..Musée d’OrsayMy Profile

  • Rich says:

    I’ve only made it to Swedish Midsummer, Guy Fawkes and the Christmas Markets but a lot of these are on my list….love this post!!! I’ve just recently started blogging too so gives me some inspiration for my upcoming Central America travels – thanks 🙂
    Rich recently posted..Challenge: Try to meet somebody from each team at the World CupMy Profile

  • I haven’t been to any of these! So much just got added to my bucket list. The tomato fight/festival in Spain looks amazing.

  • Mary @ Green Global Travel says:

    Excellent collection on festivals for any time! You really highlighted some of the best ones! Great photos too!
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..FRIDAY PHOTO: Baby Cheetahs in South AfricaMy Profile

  • Christopher says:

    Great overview! I’d also add the Werder Baumblütenfest at the beginning of May when all the fruit trees in Werder are blooming. It’s the second largest festival in Germany, and very few people outside the surroundings of Berlin know about it. The people in the town turn their gardens into outdoor restaurants and sell homemade fruit wine. Remarkably, I did not have a headache the next day.
    Christopher recently posted..The Scarlet Mile by Gillian BrownMy Profile

  • Cathy says:

    That’s a great list of celebrations! How many there are! I’ve been to some in Spain and Germany but there are so many more I want to visit. Thank you for sharing this list
    Cathy recently posted..Ein Klassiker, der auch von einigen Eltern als Spielzeug benutzt wurdeMy Profile

  • That’s a long list, many interesting events – wow!
    Too bad some of them are so destructive… while some people are dying, others are playing around by throwing food.
    Great list, inspiring!

  • Shaun says:

    Awesome list! No shortage of things to do in Europe no matter the season!

    Shaun
    http://www.thislifeintrips.com
    Shaun recently posted..3 Reasons Why I Was Skeptical About Thailand (& why I was wrong)My Profile

  • Tom says:

    We’ve done Carnivale twice, and my wife took a costume with her the last time. People were following her around with cameras going, “Green Lady! Green Lady!”, trying to get her to stop so they could take her photo and she was oblivious! I had to get her to stop so folks could get a photo. Carnivale is a hoot; I swear I hear more French than Italian then. The opening is a parade of boats up the Grand Canal, which has to be the coolest parade ever, and a huge crush of people in San Marco for the opening ceremonies. We haven’t been, but Redentore in July boasts parties, spectacular fireworks and a bridge of boats from Zattere to Redentore on Giudecca.

  • Glamourous Traveller says:

    Wonderful list! and an easy read. Would you happen to be producing one for Asia? =)
    Glamourous Traveller recently posted..Weekly Travel Outfit – Temple of Edfu, EgyptMy Profile

  • David says:

    Wonderful article and so true. There are so many events and celebrations right across Europe every day of the year.

  • Joel says:

    Good article, been to a few of these festivals now that I am living in Germany. However, you forgot one of the most fun celebrations in all of Europe. Karneval in Koeln.

  • Team Carson says:

    This year (2014) we went to the Haro Wine Fest and what a blast! We were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. Having had the reading at our wedding of the marriage in Cana– turning water into wine made this the perfect celebration. Highly recommend this event to everyone since it is more local than tourist. They have other events like a all night city concert, bull fighting demonstration not to mention the numerous wine bodegas all around.

  • Anton @ Croatiaspots says:

    I can recommended a unique international Children’s Festival in Sibenik – Croatia. A unique cultural event of world proportions during which the city squares are surrendered to children and dedicated to the development of all the artistic forms of their creative drive. The festival has three basic programmes: a festival of domestic and international children’s ensembles, the workshop programme directly and publicly involving children in the act of creation, and the educational part where a symposium addresses issues such as aesthetic education of children. During these two weeks, Šibenik should be an inevitable destination to those who never forget their playful side, and even more so to those who have completely forgotten it.

  • Gav says:

    Got to see the oil wrestling in Turkey! It was an amazing experience, even though at first I have to admit I found it totally unappealing, my GF at the time had her mind made up and so I went along 😀

    I think it would be good if we could get all of the world’s politicians to attend an oil wrestling event, and let us settle our differences that way! haha.

    Loving this site, Thank you.

  • This guide’s fantastic, thanks so much for putting it together!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge