Germans like their festivals. From city to village, wherever there are people there’ll usually be a festival of some kind, whether a major event for thousands that programmes international artists or just a summer fair. The diversity is astounding – high-quality classical music and theatre events, wine festivals, unbridled parties and atmospheric Christmas markets. Notwithstanding the latter, most are staged from May to August, when you’re almost sure to roll into a good-humoured town centre crammed with stalls and stages, with much food and beer being consumed by all. On top of local secular events, Germany observes a large number of pagan and religious festivals in its calendar.
January and February
Karneval (also known as Fasching or Fastnet). Seven weeks before Easter. Pagan-rooted pre-Lent speciality of the Rhineland and Bavaria, where it’s known as Fasching. Warm-up events throughout late January climax in late February (or early March) with costumed parades and considerable revelry. Cologne has the most celebrated Karneval, followed by Düsseldorf and Mainz, or Munich’s more jolly Fasching. Black Forest events are more traditional, the unique event in Rottweil, Baden-Württemberg, almost pagan.
March and April
Easter Late March or early April. Sacred pomp throughout Catholic Germany – especially impressive in Bavaria.
Walpurgisnacht April 30, Harz. Celebration of the witches’ sabbath with costumed parades and music throughout the Harz area.
Hafengeburtstag Hamburg, weekend closest to May 7. Tall ships and flotilla parades in world’s largest harbour festival. hafengeburtstag.de.
Passionsspiele Oberammergau, May–Sept. Once-a-decade passion play by locals of a Bavarian village, celebrated nationwide. passionsspiele2010.de.
Karneval der Kulturen Berlin, last weekend in May. Berlin celebrates its ethnic diversity in a “Carnival of Cultures” – expect around 1.5 million people. karneval-berlin.de.
Rhein im Flammen “Rhine in Flames”. May–Sept, Rhineland. Start of the firework spectaculars along the Rhine from Bonn to Bingen; culminates in August in Koblenz. rhein-in-flammen.de.
Leipziger Honky Tonk Saturday, usually mid-May, Leipzig. In theory a music festival in a hundred boozers, actually Europe’s largest pub crawl.
Africa Festival End of May, Würzburg. Europe’s largest celebration of African culture: dance, music and parades. africafestival.org.
Christopher Street Day June–July, nationwide. Parades and parties for gay pride events, over thirty years young – largest events in Berlin, Munich and Cologne. csd-deutschland.de.
Wave-Gotik-Treffen Whitsun (first weekend in June or last in May), Leipzig. Around 25,000 Goths muster for the world’s largest doom-fest. .
Bachfest Mid-June, Leipzig. Week-long celebration of the great composer in the city where he produced his finest works. www.bach-leipzig.de.
Kieler Woche Last week in June, Kiel. Long-standing fixture on the international sailing circuit: races, parades and parties. kieler-woche.de.
Schützenfeste Early July, Hannover. Biggest and best of the Marksmen festivals in Lower Saxony and the Rhineland area. hannover.de/schuetzenfest.
Kinderzeche Mid-July, Dinkelsbühl. Celebrated children’s folklore pageant that re-enacts the town’s capitulation to a Swedish siege in the Thirty Years’ War. kinderzeche.de.
Bayreuth Festspiele Late July–Aug, Bayreuth. Prestigious Wagnerian opera spectacular in the composer’s Festspielhaus. Buy tickets as far in advance as possible. bayreuther-festspiele.de.
Weinfeste Late Aug to Sept, Rhine–Mosel area. Traditionally a celebration of the annual grape harvest, in fact an excuse for a knees-up. Three of the best are in Rudesheim, Mainz and Dürkheimer, which cites its mid-Sept Wurstmarkt as the biggest wine bash in the world.
Gäubodenfest Mid-Aug, Straubing. Hugely popular Bavarian folk jamboree – folk displays, beer, music, funfairs and more beer. volksfest-straubing.de.
September and October
Canstatter Volksfest Late Sept to Oct, Stuttgart. Two weeks of oompah bands in traditional costume and fairground attractions in the world’s second-largest beer festival; a less touristy alternative to the Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest Mid-Sept to Oct, Munich. Perhaps the most epic beer-swill on the planet, its fame drawing legions of foreigners among the six million drinkers who descend on the city – six million litres of beer are drunk and over a hundred oxen are grilled. oktoberfest.de.
Martinsfest Nov 10–11, north Baden and Rhineland. Festival to honour jovial fourth-century St Martin; marked by a goose lunch on the day and, in the Upper Rhine, preceded by evening children’s lantern processions.
Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindelsmarkt), nationwide. Traditional homespun Germany at its most charming (see Christmas markets).