Winter festivals in Europe are extremely vibrant, lively, historic, and varied. In spite of the cold weather, people look forward to the celebrations and are little deterred by rain. Here are a few to check out if you’re in Europe in the winter time.
1. Amsterdam Light Festival — December & January
The boat approaches the passage under the bridge, but this time the bright white lights in strings make it feel like entering a space tunnel. The lights continue inside and, once on the other side, the boat is met with what looks like chandeliers hanging across the canal.
Amsterdam is known for its canals. There are 165 canals totaling 31 miles (or 50 kilometers), overpassed by 1281 bridges. Most of the canals are flanked by streets and sidewalks, many of them tree-lined. During the Light Festival (which this year featured famed artist Ai Weiwei among others) the canals and the bridges were decorated with light displays of every kind, shape, and form. Some of the 2500 houseboats of Amsterdam are also all decorated, making for movable displays directly on the water.
There are organized tours for walking, cycling, or boating, but the displays are created especially for the canals and some are specifically done for the boats, so experiencing the Festival from the water is the most authentic experience.
2. Winter Solstice, UK
The crowd can be loud during the evening, but in the quiet morning, witnessing the sun rising over the 5,000-year-old megalithic structure of Stonehenge is quite the spectacle. Stone circles and henges are far from rare in the UK, but the well-known Stonehenge deserves its merit as the densest Neolithic complex monument in the UK. Pagan rituals here are some of the oldest Winter Solstice celebrations in the world. Every year hundreds of people — tourists, neo-Druids, hippies, and photographers — gather for the event.
It can be very interesting celebrating in one of the other main stone circles with a henge in the UK, such as the The Ring of Brodgar, on the island of Orkney. Although the complex is more dispersed, the surrounding landscape is much more interesting because of the two long lochs flanking the site at a lower level. With the ideal weather conditions, and given the smaller crowd, the Winter Solstice morning can be quite ethereal.
3. Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival, Bruges, Belgium — November to January
There is more than one Ice Festival in Belgium, but the Snow and Ice Festival in Bruges is probably the most varied. This year the festival celebrated the 25th anniversary of Disneyland Paris by showing, among other things, 90 Disney characters in detailed sculptures from 29 international artists. But the real display is the combination of the lights with the ice sculptures. Besides the various colors and effects, the most unique element is the light reflections through the ice. There is virtually no view that repeats itself twice.
4. La Tamborrada, San Sebastian, Spain — January
There are fairly few tourists in the loudest festival in Spain, where up to 15,000 drummers from 100 different bands play for 24 hours in the Basque city. La Tamborrada is about the commemoration of historic events, cultural unity, overcoming difficulties, and happiness. There are three groups of drummers: tamborreros (who play the proper drum), the cooks, and the water carriers who drum on other instruments different than proper drums. Culinary clubs play a big role in organizing the festival, hence their big presence among the drummers.
5. Fête du Citron, Menton, France — February & March
The Lemon Festival follows a theme each year. The moveable statues, scenes, and carts of the parade are completely covered in lemons (and other citrus fruits). They are the main feature of the celebration, but there are also decorated gardens, streets, and light displays. The backdrop is the beautiful Côte d’Azur, which in late winter still sometimes has good weather.
6. Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Scotland — January
Flaming torches are ubiquitous. This is a fire festival celebrated to mark the end of the yule season (Christmas in Scotland). The best known and largest Up Helly Aa is in Lerwick, on the Shetland Islands, where up to a thousand guizers (performers) in different squads and costumes march through town. The culminating moment is the circling and burning of a Viking longship. Afterwards, the crowds disperse to private parties where the squads perform their acts.
Lerwick is a small, dimly lit town on land protruding in the Bressay Sound. The houses, virtually all short and simple, are made of grey stone and grey roofs. This adds to the timeless view of the march when the torches, big with long handles, cast their orange light up to the sky and reflect in the windows. The fires from hundreds of torches warm you up and their light contrasts with the guizer’s dark costumes.
7. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, Scotland — New Year
Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year. You’ll want to attend a ceilidh, the traditional Gaelic gathering which includes folk music and dancing. The most famous festival is the Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. The street party in the old town has become so popular that tickets to the main party are limited to 100,000 — but there can be three times more than that (the 1996-97 festival is on the Guinness World Records for the world’s largest New Year party with 400,000 attendees). The festival is several days of processions, concerts, and fireworks. Live music can be found everywhere so any pub or venue you would walk in probably has someone performing.
The Bairns Afore, one of the festival’s events, is particularly scenic because it takes place on the big West Princes Street Gardens, which are right below the steep mound with the fortress on top. Some of the fireworks look like a bright, spiked and colored crown over the castle.
8. …and Carnivals
Last but not the least, Carnival festivities are popular all over Europe and are a signature event in winter. Traditions vary quite a bit from country to country in duration, themes, and customs — from the Cologne Carnival, Germany’s biggest; to Ljubljana’s Dragon Carnival; to the UNESCO listed Binche Carnival.
Honorable mention goes to the Carnival of Venice. Between January and February, the flamboyant masks are ubiquitous in any corner of Venice, from the enigmatic calli (alleys) all the way to Piazza San Marco. The parades along the canals, the gem of the festival, mostly include small traditional boats, but there are bizarre creations too: you can sometimes see a queen-bed on waterskis, or a circus with acrobats. Sometimes there are so many boats that you could walk from one side of the Canal Grande to the other.
In the Carnival of Binche, in February or March, a thousand Gilles (the oldest and principal performers) march through the city dressed in traditional linen suits, wax masks, and wooden clogs. They start at 4 AM the first day and they play instruments, dance, perform, and occasionally throw oranges around for good luck — so you can dodge, but if you catch one don’t throw it back.
The Carnival of Nice, over two weeks in February, is one of the world’s most major, attracting over 1 million visitors. Every year there is a different theme. One of the highlights of the celebration is the parade and its 18 major floats built in traditional papier-mâché. Towering over everybody and even over some of the buildings, they move or interact, and are extremely decorated. The parade is particularly expressive at night, when the lights of the squares, or the lights on the floats, make the statues pop-out against the dark sky.