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European Cultural Festivals to Enrich Your Travel

Europe, with its 51 countries, a population of over 700 million, and 24 official languages, is a continent abundant with cultural traditions and history. Travelers whom—I work with often cite “learning about culture” as one of the biggest reasons why they travel.

Cultural festivals are a wonderful—and very fun—way to experience the local culture. There’s one for every season, and they vary from large (such as Oktoberfest) to small (such as La Fête de la Lumière). Whether you time your travel plans to attend a certain festival, or you stumble upon one during your vacation, there’s no denying that festivals are a great way to connect with the culture and become a temporary local.

La Fête de la Lumière – Chartres, France

Chartres Cathedral during La Fête de la Lumière
Chartres Cathedral during La Fête de la Lumière, 2014

Nightly from April–October, the City of Chartres comes alive as 24 of their cultural heritage sites are grandly lit for everyone to enjoy. It gets even better one September night of each year during the La Fête de la Lumière (Festival of Light). The festival lights and accompanying music will enchant you as you navigate through a fanciful atmosphere.

The public squares feature exhibits and family-friendly activities, while the small streets are lit up according to themes. Route maps are available and will guide you to discover and learn about the unique themes and scenography on display throughout the city.

La Mercè – Barcelona, Spain

Le Merce Festival Correfoc
Correfoc (“Fire Run”)

In honor of their patron saint, the Virgin of La Mercè, the City of Barcelona celebrates with a 5-day-long festival, La Mercè. Held at the end of September, the festival symbolizes the end of summer and the warm welcome of autumn. La Mercè is distinctly Catalonian (with a culture different from the rest of Spain), with their famous human towers (Castells), traditional music, Catalan wines, and a “Giants Parade” with giant figures of queens, kings, nobles, and saints.

A true party in the streets, one popular event of the festival is the Correfoc (“fire run”) featuring a dragon that sprays the crowd with firework sparklers as they cheer on in celebration. Accompanying the Carrefoc is a community group dressed as devils who run down the streets with handheld fireworks. There’s never a dull moment during this festival.

The Festival de Saint-Louis – Sete, France

Festival de Saint Louis in Sete, France
Water Jousting in Sete, 2018

This 6-day festival in Southern France attracts thousands of people each year. There are street performances and fireworks, but the signature event is the Water Jousting Tournament. In the Languedoc region, water jousting (an officially recognized sport in France) has been a cultural tradition going back to at least the 12th Century.

The port City of Sete hosts rival teams from around the Languedoc and different parts of the city. Spectators—a mix of locals and tourists—line the banks of the Royal Canal to cheer on the teams and enjoy the festive atmosphere. The winning team is awarded a shield engraved with their team name, which is then permanently displayed in the Paul Valéry Museum.

The Highland Games – Scotland

Tug O’War during The Highland Games
Tug O’War during The Highland Games

Every weekend from May to September, you’ll find a town or village in Scotland hosting their very own Highland Games. If you visit Scotland during this time, you’ll hear the excitement over these games as they cause immense joy for locals and tourists alike. This family-friendly event showcases traditional Scottish cultural staples such as bagpipe and drummer bands, Highland dancing, Celtic arts, herding dog trials, and plenty of kilts!

It is an enjoyable fair-like atmosphere full of entertainment, but the real highlight of the games is the sporting and athletic events. Evolving over many centuries, some of the competitions have become standard, such as the Caber Toss, Stone Put, Tug O’War, and Scottish Hammer Throw. If you’re planning a visit to Scotland in the summer, the Games are something worth planning your itinerary around!

St. Patrick’s Festival – Dublin, Ireland

St Patrick's Day, Dublin
Celebrations outside of the famous Temple Bar

Dublin’s 5-day St Patrick’s Day celebration is Ireland’s largest cultural festival, attracting over 100,000 tourists each year. This is the one time of year where the streets of the city become a party zone. To set the festive mood, iconic landmark buildings are lit in green, which is called the “Greening the City.” The festival hosts a variety of activities such as a 5K road race, a carnival in Merrion Square, St. Patrick-themed city walking tours, a treasure hunt, sport competitions, traditional craft vendors, and both modern and Gaelic music bands. There are also plenty of opportunities to sample the local beers by visiting an Irish pub, the Guinness Storehouse, or the Irish Craft Beer Market.

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is by far the festival highlight. It was first held in 1762 and is now the longest and largest parade in the world. Street theatre and pageant companies from around Ireland dazzle the 500,000 spectators with their colorful costumes, impressive dance, and toe-tapping musical rhythms. It is a sight to behold and an experience to remember.

Carnevale – Venice, Italy

Carnevale, Venice
Carnevale celebrations in Venice

Attracting 3 million visitors each year, Venice’s Carnevale (or Carnival) is a huge 2-week-long pre-Lent celebration. While other cities and cultures celebrate the same period (such as with Mardi Gras), the Carnevale is uniquely Venetian. With a history going back to 12th century, the event features concerts, theatrical street performances, a candle-lit boat parade, and of course, the famous and enchanting masquerade balls.

While festival-goers aren’t required to dress up to enjoy the festival, many choose to enjoy the special anonymity of waltzing around in a Victorian-style gown and elaborate face mask. The Venetian mask-makers who create the gorgeous handmade masks are true artists. Masks are sold year-round in specialty shops, so you don’t just have to be in Venice during Carnevale to admire them or buy one of your own—a fantastic souvenir!

Oktoberfest – Munich, Germany

Oktoberfest, Germany
Oktoberfest tent celebrations

Oktoberfest, held in the Bavarian capital of Munich, is the grand showcase of Bavarian culture. This family-friendly festival occurs annually in the final weeks of September through the first Sunday of October. It is the world’s largest folk festival and welcomes over 6 million people, most of which are local Bavarians.

The place to be during the festival is under one of the many tents. Even though the larger tents can fit up to 10,000 people at a time, they will fill to capacity. For this reason, it is best to plan ahead and make reservations for the larger tents. More than just a festival of beer and food, the event’s activities range from carnival rides in the main fairgrounds, parades, dancing, music, and performances. The festival is this large and famous for a reason; it is an incredibly good time!

Plan your next European vacation around a festival

The cultural festivals described above are only a few of the many, many held throughout Europe. With festivals occurring year-round, it is not difficult to find one going on near your next vacation destination. If you are interested in planning your next vacation around a particular festival, it is important to make your lodging arrangements as early as possible.

For assistance in planning your next vacation to Europe, I offer a variety of travel planning services designed to your personal needs to ensure a memorable trip. (Click to see a Sample Itinerary ).

Not sure where to start? Contact me for a free, no-obligation 20-minute trip planning session, and I’ll be happy to discuss how I can help!

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