Believe it or not, Oktoberfest kicks off in Munich this weekend. Yes, it actually kicks off in mid- September. What began as a celebration of the marriage of King Ludwig I to Princess Therese in October 1810, has grown to a beloved cultural festival. From mid-September to the first weekend of October, a festival is held at Munich’s Fairgrounds, the Theresienwiese. The sixteen-day festival is estimated to draw six-million visitors from near and far, each year.
After living in Germany for 5 years, you probably imagine that I’ve been to Oktoberfest a few times. Nope. Not even once. I know that it’s THE FEST, the one that everyone knows about, the one that is synonymous with Bavaria. The one that everyone goes to. Not me. It isn’t often that I turn down the opportunity to put on my Dirndl and party with my German friends, but Oktoberfest never appealed to me. It’s too big, too popular, too well attended.
I think the reason I’ve avoided Oktoberfest is probably the same reason I’ve avoided Mardi Gras and just about any other large festival. I grew up in a small town in Upstate New York, with a population of around 2000. Until one weekend in the summer. Then the population grew and swelled out of control until the madness passed. You see, I grew up in Cooperstown, New York. That weekend was the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. As a teenager, I worked at the Hall of Fame. It was insanity. As I grew up, I watched, as the character of the main street slowly changed over the years. As stores catering to locals were replaced by stores selling baseball souvenirs. My hometown is still beautiful, but the essence of it has ever so slightly changed.
So, admittedly I am slightly jaded against the larger festivals. To me, they don’t represent the true character of the place, but one that’s been slightly exaggerated, exploited. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a fest or two. If you are like me and hope to avoid the massive crowds, and looking to find something more authentic, here are my favorite German Festivals – that aren’t Oktoberfest.
- Volksfests and Dults – There may be some subtle difference between these two festivals, but not enough that I ever noticed a difference. I found them in both areas of Germany I lived in, but they were definitely more prevalent in Bavaria. My favorites are in Regensburg and Nürnberg. These festivals, held mainly in the spring and the fall, remind me of the fairs I attended growing up in the States. They are full of rides, games, and wonderful food. It’s a fantastic way to spend an afternoon.
- Almabtrieb – This festival is best known for the elaborate headdresses the cows wear as they return to the valleys for the winter after spending the summers in the alpine pastures above. Traditionally, the headdresses are made in gratitude to God for a successful summer. Summers in the Alps can be treacherous, and success is far from guaranteed. The animals do not wear the garlands of flowers when any of the heard is lost. The festivals are held throughout the Alps from August to October. Large or small, these festivals are a lot of fun.
- Pfingstritt BadKötzting – If cows aren’t your thing, wait until Whit Monday and head to Bad Kötzting near the German/Czech border for the largest Pfingsten pilgrimage on horseback in the world. Every year, between 800 and 950 men participate in this religious procession, praying as they escort the local priest from the Catholic Church in the center of town along the seven kilometer procession route. This tradition has been held annually since 1412. These days there is a small festival and several horse show events as well.
- Herbst and Fruhling Fests – We found several of these smaller festivals in towns all over Southern Germany. These were a combination of craft fair and food market, with rides for the kids and entertainment for the adults.
- Mittlealter festivals and Ritterspiels – I first took the children to a Ritterspiel just over the German border in Reute, Austria. It was fantastic. They had encampments and a parade with re-enactors from every period in history – including a Roman legion. There was period food, clothing, and crafts for sale, and even jousting tournaments between the knights. There are several of these throughout Germany in the summer months.
- Food markets – Most towns in Germany have a Farmer’s market. Occasionally though these are taken up a notch, and become a specialty market. We went to one on a rainy day in Sigmaringen. It was a specialty market with food from France. The food was spectacular, and because of the rain, the crowds were non-existent. Nürnberg hosts an Italian market each year, with several venders offering fresh, delicious Italian specialties. Often when there is a specialty market, there will be entertainment as well. You may even get a chance to hear the town band playing in the square, which is always a treat.
- Holiday Markets – The main holidays for markets are Christmas and Easter. Most towns have a Christmas Market, although not all of them have an Easter Market. I’ve been to more Christmas markets than I can count, and large or small, I’ve enjoyed them all. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a Christmas fantasy town, and the market is fabulous, Munich’s Christmas market is wonderful and spread throughout the city. Regensburg has a fantastic Christmas market as well. My favorite Christmas market was held in a castle ruin in a small town in Baden Württemberg. The Easter market in Nürnberg is a good one, held in the same space as their more famous Christmas market.
- Fasching – Of all the festivals in Germany, Fasching is by far my favorite. Although the fest is different in every area, and nothing will ever beat celebrating it in our hometown in Southern Baden Württemberg. It is nonstop fun and activity ushering in the somber period of Lent.
- Church Festivals and local celebrations – I’ve been to fests at lakes, fests for fountains, fests for church anniversaries, festivals for giving thanks, I’ve danced in the May, attended St. Martin’s Day festivals, school festivals, fish festivals, firemen festivals, you name it. There’s always good food, and something interesting happening at these festivals.
- Verkaufnet Sonntags – Never in all my years in the US did I ever anticipate that finding something open on Sundays would be cause for celebration. Coming from the land of 24/7 it never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to shop for groceries on Sunday. It was more of a shock to me that at the end of my five years in Germany, I was as excited about the shopping Sundays as everyone else. It didn’t matter that I could go the day before and the day after, I could shop on Sunday! Most of the time the open shops are accompanied by street vendors and special performances by local groups, giving it a small town carnival feel.
While I may not have made it to Oktoberfest, I really don’t feel that I’ve missed out on experiencing what is essential in the German Fest. I’m pretty sure in Germany there is a festival somewhere every weekend, celebrating something. Large or small, there is something to do if you take a little time to look around, and are willing to attend a festival that’s not as well known. If you’re willing to go out and celebrate spargel, or hops, or visit the small museum that’s hosting a horse day, you’ll never be at a loss when looking for something to do in Germany.
I’ve found that I prefer the smaller festivals, which to me are more about building and strengthening traditions and ties in the community, rather than changing the characteristic of the festival to attract tourists. It is a place where you can become a part of the festivities, share a table and a meal with someone and get to know a place from the inside out. These festivals reminded me of the old-fashioned ice cream socials and church bazaars I loved when I grew up. These were the festivals that brought everyone together, and celebrated their ties to the community.
Links to some of my favorite events and festivals:
Ritterspiel in Reutte Austria – http://www.ritterturniere.com/de/
Bachtlefest in Bad Salgau Germany – http://www.baechtlefest-badsaulgau.de/
Pfingstritt in Bad Koetzing Germany – http://www.bad-koetzting.de/110.html
Regensburger Dult – http://www.regensburg.de/dult
A great website listing several events in Bavaria is http://www.bavaria.by/index
Almabtrieb in the Tyrol – http://www.tyrol.tl/en/calendar/details/almabtrieb-with-festival/
Tanheimertal Almabtrieb – http://www.tannheimertal.com/region-orte/tradition/almabtriebe.html
Mayrhofen Almabtrieb – http://www.mayrhofen.at/events/almabtrieb/
Most of the dates for the German Christmas markets can be found on this website – http://www.germany-christmas-market.org.uk/
Fasching in Überlingen – http://www.haenselezunft-ueberlingen.de/
Fasching in Pfullendorf – http://www.narrenzunft-stegstrecker.de/
And a list of Verkaufnet Sonntag can be found here – http://www.verkaufsoffene-sonntage.com/sonntagsverkauf-2015/
But if you’re still looking to go to Oktoberfest, you can find the information you need here – http://www.oktoberfest.de/en/
What are your favorite festivals?