Rick Steves European Festivals


By Rick Steves

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It’s party time in Europe! Bestselling author Rick Steves explores the best festivals in Europe, from the Running of the Bulls in Spain to Carnival in Venice.

There will be no museums! And no art galleries! Just Europeans having lots of fun. Across Europe, festival traditions go back centuries and are filled with time honored pageantry and ritual. Entire communities hurl themselves with abandon into the craziness. We’ll careen all over Europe: the Palio horse races in Siena, the Highland games near Edinburgh, the colorful masquerade of Carnival in Venice, Slovenia, and Luzern, Easter festivities in Andalucía, Tuscany, and Greece, the springtime April Fair in Sevilla, Bastille Day in Paris, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Oktoberfest in Munich, and Christmas markets and traditions in Nurnberg and Switzerland.

With fascinating insights, rich history, and vivid photos, this great gift book captures the spirit of Europe’s rich and fun-loving heritage. Hang on to your party hats!



IN EVERY PART OF EUROPE and in every season, in big cities and in remote villages, people embrace life through festivals. They celebrate the season, show faith with religious rituals, and honor their history. They enjoy fun-loving opportunities to dress in traditional costumes, wave their national flags, gorge on delicious feasts, and lubricate themselves with the local drink. All of it may just be an excuse for the very human need to celebrate family, friends, and culture.

In this book, we’ll explore the roots of festivals and cover my top 10 favorites. Each of these colorful celebrations combines several or more of these characteristics: religious, crazy, patriotic, cultural, social, competitive, and exciting.

Here they are, in calendar order:

Venice is tops for Carnevale fun, with elaborately costumed participants posing and partying around the city, making the most of Mardi Gras before the sobriety of Lent puts a stop to the revelry.

During the Holy Week that leads up to Easter, Sevilla hosts long processions of ornate floats honoring Christ and Mary, accompanied by candle-carrying worshippers thronging the streets.

Easter is a joyous celebration, especially in Greece, where Easter eve comes with midnight fireworks and Sunday’s meal is a lamb on a spit, enjoyed with extended family.

For Sevilla’s April Fair, everyone gets dressed up—especially the women, who wear bright, flouncy dresses—to socialize, dance, and party, fueled by sherry.

Siena’s frenetic horse race called the Palio is an exhilarating mad dash in the main square. Who will win? Thousands will witness, pray for, and bet on the results.

When the bulls and people are running in Pamplona, it’s thrilling. Eager spectators—often tipsy from all-night parties—gather every morning to cheer on the thundering stampede.

On France’s Independence Day—Bastille Day—any French town will offer the traveler plenty of patriotic fun, but the grandest fireworks and festivities are in Paris.

HOLY WEEK: White-robed penitents lead the massive marathon parades in Sevilla.

CARNEVALE: Atmospheric Venice is the perfect setting for this Europe-wide party.

OKTOBERFEST: Thousands of beer drinkers pack Munich’s pop-up beer halls.

EASTER: In Greece, people pray, then party.

APRIL FAIR: Sevillanos in costume promenade past rows of party tents.

CHRISTMAS (center): The season begins in Norway with angelic bringers of light.

Towns all over Scotland proudly host Highland Games in summer. In the smaller towns, even visitors are welcome to compete. If you’ve ever wanted to toss a caber (giant log), here’s your chance.

Munich’s Oktoberfest is probably Europe’s biggest party, with huge beer-hall tents that accommodate thousands of happy beer-drinkers enjoying hearty food, dancing, and oompah bands.

And the Christmas holiday season keeps much of Europe festive for a month of special events—from Santa Lucia Day (December 13) to Epiphany (January 6).

Also, to give you a broader look at Europe’s many festivals, I invited my Facebook readers to contribute their favorites. You’ll find their top 30 in this book.

These festivals are just a small sampling of the many, colorful events that carbonate Europe’s cultural calendar. Every country has national heroes (and patron saints in Catholic countries) to honor; historic events to commemorate; and major products to celebrate (think of truffle festivals in Italy or tulip parades in the Netherlands). Festivals featuring the arts, dance, films, and music are held in every major city—if you search online for “jazz festival” and “Venice,” you’ll have a jazz festival in Venice to look forward to.

Blow off your neat itinerary if a festival comes your way.

Whatever your interest, Europe likely has a festival devoted to it. I hope this book inspires you to seek out more festivals, either in Europe or your side of the Atlantic. Your only challenges are to pick your favorites and reserve your accommodations well in advance.

Then join the celebration! Cheer on the horses, bulls, dancers, and caber tossers. Quaff a mug of beer with your bratwurst while the polka plays on. As processional floats go by, marvel at the devout who carry them on their shoulders for hours. Don a mask and experience Carnevale on the world’s biggest stage set, Venice. Enjoy the glad-I’m-here thrill of watching fireworks light up iconic skylines. You can call it a cultural experience . . . or you can just call it fun.

Edinburgh cuts loose during its August arts festival.

RUNNING OF THE BULLS: Nervous daredevils in costume await the bulls’ release in Pamplona.

HIGHLAND GAMES: He-men strut their stuff in these traditional Scottish competitions.

PALIO: Medieval Siena stages a centuries-old horse race.

BASTILLE DAY: In France, the spirit of the Revolution lives on.



WHILE MANY PEOPLE don’t need an excuse to party, festivals give us a reason. They fill a basic human need shared by all of us homo sapiens.

Festivals are public commemorations, whether solemn or joyous, that mark important events. They connect us, as individuals, to the world around us. It helps bind us to our families. It’s when extended families—grandpas, cousins, and in-laws—gather together to celebrate. Like it or not, they eat and drink together, attend community events as a family, and catch up. In the process, it also unites the various generations—a time when grandma, mom, and daughter get together to bake traditional foods, or grandpa shows the grandkids how to hoist the flag for the parade. These kids will learn from the previous generation and pass on their knowledge to the next generation. This continuity shores up the familial infrastructure needed to raise the next generation and ensure the survival of the species.

In a larger way, festivals unite communities, regions, and nations. By honoring common traditions, the community is reminded of what makes their particular town or nation unique. It stokes the pride and cultural identity that can carry a people through times of war and oppression. They’re reminded of their rich heritage, which in the case of Europeans can stretch back not merely decades but centuries.

Families connect during Palm Sunday rituals.

Food is a common denominator that unites all generations.

Europeans remember their roots by wearing traditional clothes.

Religious festivals tie communities together.

Time-honored rituals are a familiar comfort at festival time. This is the day when we always do this, we always eat that, and we spend time with certain people. It’s the time when people get out their traditional clothes—whether Bavarian lederhosen or flamboyant flamenco dresses. They pick up their folk instruments and sing the old tunes everyone knows. In Scotland, they dance the Highland Fling, and in France they belt out the “Marseillaise.” Festivals always bring out the community pageantry, like parades, flags, music, and people in costume. And there’s a time to just grab a beer and party in the streets.

While every festival is different, there’s usually one common denominator—food. People celebrate most when they gather together to eat and drink. It’s no coincidence that the word “festival” comes from the same etymological root as the word for . . . “feast.”

On a personal level, festivals create lifelong memories and help give meaning to our lives. It’s a chance to remember the importance of loved ones. It’s a time to reflect on the seasons of life—from childhood to adulthood to old age. Annual celebrations serve as mile markers that regulate our daily lives. In the widest sense, these regularly recurring festivals make us aware of the swift and slippery passage of time, and help us find our place in the course of our existence.

But enough of that! We all know the main reason that festivals exist—to have fun!

Festivals give everyone a mandatory reason to blow off work for a while and recharge their batteries. It forces dour Dickens to give poor Bob Cratchit a day off. Way, way back in a more primitive era—that is, before the Internet, TV, and movies—you actually needed a community of flesh-and-blood people gathered together in order to have fun. Holiday time brings out the deep-seated human urge to join with loved ones and experience life to its fullest.


Festivals have been celebrated since the beginning of time, and in every culture. Thousands of years ago, prehistoric Celtic druids gathered at stone circles to rejoice when the life-giving sun returned each winter. In Shang Dynasty China, they set off fireworks to celebrate spring, India marked the darkest night of the year with lights, and ancient Egyptians paraded statues of the gods to thank them for the annual flooding of the Nile. From ancient Romans to New World Aztecs, Palestinian Jews, and Arabian Muslims, there have been feasts and fasts and parties and processions.

Most of these old festivals were tied to Nature’s own calendar of the seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Imagine you’re living in Europe in prehistoric times. The bleakness of winter . . . the short days and long nights, the mist and rain, barren fields, the hunger and the cold. You’re at the mercy of nature, controlled by the fickle spirits—Odin, Thor, wood elves, and river trolls. In summer, the gods bring warmth, plants grow, and food is plentiful. Then it gets cold again, and the earth becomes frozen and forbidding. Nothing’s growing. Will we all starve? Where did the sun go?

Many of today’s festivals have roots that go thousands of years deep.

Druids and priests did their best to find out by tracking the course of the sun. They built impressive stone monuments (like Stonehenge in England) that lined up with the rising sun on important days, like the winter solstice (when the sun is at its lowest on the horizon) and the vernal equinox (marking the start of spring). They established a crude calendar that offered some assurance that the sun would return again. It helped them plan their lives: when to plant, when to harvest, when to get ready for the bleak winter, and when they could let their guard down for a while to party.

Even today, many European festivals still reflect their origins in the cycle of seasons. They’re rooted in the course of the sun and the moon. They’re tied to agricultural events like the planting, the harvest, when to pasture the cattle, and when to take them to the village for sale.


On Sale
Nov 14, 2017
Page Count
248 pages
Rick Steves

Rick Steves

About the Author

Since 1973, Rick Steves has spent about four months a year exploring Europe. His mission: to empower Americans to have European trips that are fun, affordable, and culturally broadening. Rick produces a best-selling guidebook series, a public television series, and a public radio show, and organizes small-group tours that take over 30,000 travelers to Europe annually.  He does all of this with the help of more than 100 well-traveled staff members at Rick Steves’ Europe in Edmonds, WA (near Seattle). When not on the road, Rick is active in his church and with advocacy groups focused on economic and social justice, drug policy reform, and ending hunger. To recharge, Rick plays piano, relaxes at his family cabin in the Cascade Mountains, and spends time with his son Andy and daughter Jackie. Find out more about Rick at http://www.ricksteves.com and on Facebook.

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