The best places to celebrate Fasnacht in Switzerland
Switzerland may be known as a quiet and reserved place, more famous for its mountains and lakes than its party-like atmosphere. However, there is one time of year when everyone lets their hair down and has some fun: Fasnacht. Here are the best places to see Swiss Fasnacht in 2024.
What is Fasnacht and how is it celebrated in Switzerland?
Carnival (called Fasnacht in German-speaking areas) is a period when most cities in Switzerland hold large festivals, parades and parties. Typically, attendants are expected to wear fancy dress and eat, drink and dance to their heart's content.
Each city has its own interpretation of carnival, ranging from large bands to marches. In Switzerland, the only rule for carnival is to have a good time.
The Swiss-German name for carnival, Fasnacht, refers to the idea of fasting. In old German, Fasta means the time to fast and Naht means night, so the closest translation to English is "fasting night".
What is Guggenmusik?
Guggenmusik refers to the hundreds of brass bands that take to the streets across Switzerland during carnival. They are typically dressed up in large elaborate costumes and march through the old city with drums, brass instruments and flutes.
One interesting phenomenon is that Guggenmusik is designed to be slightly out of tune on occasion, meant to add to the weird and wacky atmosphere of the festival. Some good examples of Guggenmusik can be found below:
Video: Fasnacht / YouTube
History of Fasnacht in Switzerland
Although technically a Catholic celebration, the origins of carnival can be traced back to pagan religious ceremonies that started in Roman times. The purpose of the festival ranged from Germanic sacrificial rituals to a festival to drive away demonic spirits and to celebrate the end of winter.
The practice was eventually Christianised in Germany and customs that had previously been pagan were adopted and developed into the carnival we know today. In Switzerland, carnival typically occurs before the start of Lent, giving residents the ideal opportunity to have one last indulgent party before the start of the period of temperance.
First carnival celebrations in Switzerland
The first organised carnival celebrations in Switzerland emerged in Swiss cities, spread by Germanic kingdoms and the Holy Roman Empire. They were characterised by drunkenness and partying, and were one of the few occasions where mocking authority was permitted. In the Middle Ages, a prince and princess were selected from among the peasantry to “rule” during the event, and were thrown food and wine as they were paraded through the streets.
Reformation and revival
During the Reformation, many of Switzerland’s towns gave up carnival when they converted to Protestantism. The only exception was Basel, which kept the tradition alive by making it a semi-secular event by adding a military parade along with the Vogel Gryff, a warrior and symbol of the city.
Today, many protestant majority cities like Zurich do have carnival celebrations, but the largest events are still to be found elsewhere.
When does carnival in Switzerland take place?
Carnival in Switzerland traditionally begins on the Thursday before Lent, known as Dirty Thursday. In recent years, some cities have begun to celebrate carnival as late as May, but most cities choose to have their Fasnacht either before or just after Ash Wednesday, which in 2024 is February 14.
Best cities to see carnival in Switzerland in 2024
To truly sample the best of what carnival has to offer in Switzerland, you have to visit one of the large cities. Here are some of the highlights:
February 19 to February 22, 2024
The largest carnival celebration in Switzerland, Basel Fasnacht takes place on the Monday following Ash Wednesday and includes three action-packed days and nights. Participants dress in full costume and large bands playing drums and piccolos, called cliques, parade around the city.
The festival begins at 4am on Monday, called Morgenstreich, when the lights of Basel go out, only to be replaced with the lanterns of thousands of participants. The lanterns themselves are decorated with anything from vistas to political slogans and characters.
Each day is characterised by large parades and Guggenmusik played at several locations throughout the city. In addition, various bars will remain open for the full 72 hours of Fasnacht, before it concludes at 4am on Thursday morning.
Video: Basel / YouTube
February 15 to February 17, 2024
The third-largest carnival in Switzerland, the de-facto capital of Switzerland celebrates the end of winter in its own unique way. To start the celebration, a “bear” from the prison tower in the old town is awoken from its hibernation by loud drumming, known as Ychüblete. The bear is quickly released and the town is then filled with revellers who march through the streets to keep the town “safe.”
Like most carnivals in Switzerland, the festivities in Bern are accompanied by off-key Guggenmusik across the three days of the festival. Other activities include a circus, a carnival for children and various other events.
February 7 to February 14, 2024
The majority of Solothurn’s famous carnival is based on an old saying from the town: that the city itself is on the opposite side of the world to Honolulu, Hawaii. Festivities begin at 5am when the band strikes up its first tune, no doubt annoying the city’s 16.000 sleeping residents.
The next few days are awash with parades, bands and parodies. Fasnacht in Solothurn is concluded on Ash Wednesday, when the Böögg - a straw man - is burnt in the city square to signal the end of the festival.
Video: jumpTelevision / YouTube
February 8 to February 14, 2024
For the locals of Lucerne, the Fasnacht celebrations begin at 5am on Thursday with a loud explosion. A gun salute by a dozen brass bands shatters the tranquillity of the morning, and afterwards Guggenmusik begins to play. Various costumed people and parades march through the street, the largest of which can be seen on Thursday and Monday.
A true highlight of the Lucerne carnival is the Monstercorso, a huge procession of lights, lanterns and bands playing traditional alpine music.
February 16 to February 18, 2024
Despite being the largest city in Switzerland, Zurich’s carnival celebrations are more subdued. Instead of taking to the streets, most celebrations take place in several large bars and taverns across the city.
On the Friday of the festival, the “Ship of Fools” arrives and goes on a strange boat tour on Lake Zurich. The event ends with a large Valentine’s parade that travels through the streets of Zurich.
Brandons de Payerne
February 16 to February 19, 2024
The most popular carnival in French-speaking Switzerland, Brandons de Payerne, also known as Payerne Carnival, is similar to Fasnacht in many ways. Brandon means madness, and that is reflected by the carnival, which includes the burning of straw torches to mark the end of winter and the start of spring.
Several parties take place throughout the city with parades, lanterns and traditional off-key music. One highlight is the Nuit des chineuses when local women don evening wear and masks and are not allowed to take them off until the end of the night.
Come out and experience Fasnacht in Switzerland!
Alongside the large cities, many local councils will have their own festivities during the carnival period. Whether it's in a large parade or a local setting, Fasnacht cannot be missed.