You haven’t truly experienced Germany until you’ve taken part in its festivals. While generally known as a reserved culture, its citizens come together annually to celebrate anything from Christmas to midsummer.
Almost every city, town, and county has its own festivals to take part in. Still, over the years, a few of them have won national and international renown. Today, millions of locals listen to classical or rock music, enjoy breathtaking fireworks, or take in the next great movie.
From books to beer, this country knows how to both party and celebrate the arts. Consider this your insider’s guide to festivals in Germany.
1) The Free-Flowing Excess of Oktoberfest
You know Oktoberfest because of its beer, beer tents, and pretzels. And yes, that’s undoubtedly what drives more than 6 million visitors to this festival every year. But what you might not know is that it’s more than just a giant beer celebration.
Germany’s largest Volksfest also boasts parades, open air concerts, and even amusement park rides. Think of it as the world’s largest county fair – with some beer sprinkled in. It’s an unforgettable experience, whether you visit for just a day or make a whole week out of it.
2) The Festive Cheer of Christmas Markets
In a way, the second most famous festivals in Germany are the polar opposite of the first. Where Oktoberfest is a constant party, Christmas markets are solemn, reflective, and calm. Of course, that doesn’t make them any less fun or exciting.
During the holiday season, every town and city has one. Here, you can find countless arts and craft booths, along with good food that represents local specialties. But don’t worry: you will always find booths with the trademark Glühwein, hot mulled wine that keeps you warm.
The first Christmas market was held in 1384. Today, some of Germany’s most famous markets, like the one surrounding the Cologne Cathedral, have thousands of booths and attract millions of visitors each year. If you’re in Germany through the holidays, visiting one near you is an essential tradition.
3) The Astounding Beauty of Rhine in Flames
The Rhine, Europe’s second largest and perhaps its most famous river, is magical enough in its own right. Now, imagine a giant light show that takes place during specific days each summer and just happens to be in its most famous and most picturesque stretch. That’s the Rhine in Flames, a combination between firework displays, Bengal lights, and illuminated steamboats.
Describing it in words is difficult. Even pictures don’t do it justice. Once you see the first fireworks over one of the countless castles along the romantic Rhine, either from a lit boat or the shore, time almost seems to stand still. Don’t make the mistake of trying to capture it with your phone. Instead, soak it in, knowing that you might not ever see this spectacle of a light show again.
4) The Sheer Power of Rock am Ring
As much as Germany is known for its traditions, music festivals also occupy a central place in its cultural playbook. Wacken is the world’s largest metal festival. Flash is among the biggest hip-hop festivals. And yet, none of them are quite as famous or memorable than Rock am Ring.
Held at the famous Nurburgring race track, this music extravaganza combines with the nearby Rock im Park to attract more than 150,000 spectators and music fans from around the world each year. Since U2 and Joe Cocker inaugurated the festival in 1985, headliners have included most of the worlds’ most famous rock bands. Come for the music, stay for the unforgettable atmosphere.
5) The Curious Celebration of Karneval
Yes, Germany has a carnival. No, it’s nothing like the one in Brazil you’re probably think of. Instead, think about the largest 4th of July parades in the U.S., combined with the dress up play and less-than-serious attitude of Halloween. Sprinkle in a bit of Mardi Gras. Then, magnify the result by ten.
By all measures, Karneval (celebrated in the Western cities of Germany) is over the top. That doesn’t make it any less fun. The alcohol flows freely, the jokes are unabashedly political, and the humor gets cruder as the nights go on. Above all, it’s a giant party where the so stereotypical German studiousness sheds for a day and it’s more fun-loving aspects come out.
6) The Memorable Films of the Berlinale
You’ve heard about Cannes. The International Berlin Film Festival might not quite be able to hold up to its most famous counterpart, but it certainly comes close. Every year in February, some of the world’s most famous actors and directors meet to screen, watch, and discuss new films from around the world.
It’s the perfect festival for movie lovers. Tickets to individual films or some of the festival’s most popular events are available for the general public, but sell out quickly. In return, you get to see anything from arthouse films to future blockbusters.
7) The Classic Embrace of the Bayreuther Festspiele
Bayreuth is just the city where it takes place. You might know this event under its more popular (though technically inaccurate) name: the Wagner Festival. Richard Wagner is one of Germany’s most famous classical composers, responsible for operas like the Nibelungenlied and Tristan and Isolde.
Every year, the city of Bayreuth celebrates its most famous son. Wagner himself began to hold his operas as part of a larger event in the 19th century, and residents have carried on that tradition. During a presentation of his music, you begin to realize just how closely Germany is connected with its classical music history.
8) The Countless Pages of the Frankfurt Book Fair
We’re talking about nothing less than the largest book fair in the world. And, like many of the other festivals on this list, its origins reach back far. The first fair occurred in Frankfurt, Main in 1454, in the immediate aftermath of local blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg inventing the printing press.
Today, more than 7,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries showcase more than 400,000 books, reviewed and (hopefully) purchased by more than 300,000 visitors. Prizes like best book of the year and oddest title of the year predict bestsellers and turn unknown authors into a household name.
Make a Festival Attendance Part of your Next Germany Trip
German culture is as complex as it is profound. You cannot explain the mindset of a German or what it means to be German in one sentence. And yet, through these and many other festivals, you begin to understand their origins, priorities, and passions.
Yes, that means free-flowing beer and parties. But it also means an understanding of history and a thirst for arts and culture. Making a festival attendance part of your next Germany trip means dipping into this deep, complex, and sometimes even contradictory culture. Whether you see fireworks above ancient castles or just want to rock out at a race track, you will find an event that matches your interests and passion as well.