7 of the coolest cultural festivals in Europe, from tomato fights to chasing cheese

Ideas for a weird and wonderful trip to some of Europe’s most characterful festivities

Chris Wilson
Tuesday 07 November 2023 19:29 GMT
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<p>Many of the smaller towns and cities around Europe are worth visiting for their unique, often quirky local celebrations  </p>

Many of the smaller towns and cities around Europe are worth visiting for their unique, often quirky local celebrations

Drill down into Europe and what you have is an eclectic collection of regions, cities and cultures. And within each of them are particular – and often quirky– traditions that survive to this day. Thousands of tourists will flock to Florence every year, but how many will see a game of the city’s historic local sport? Many will visit Valencia, but how many know of the bizarre tomato-throwing celebrations that take place just over 20 miles away?

Let the continent's marvelous architecture, incredible cuisines and rich history draw you in, but dig a little deeper for an unexpected travel experience – you might find a Christmas demon, or race after cheese. Oktoberfest has nothing on them for creating lasting memories.

Give your next holiday a taste of something different by enjoying first-hand these unusual festivals and traditions, from the UK to Italy, Austria to Spain. Here's how to do it and where to stay.

La Tomatina, Spain

La Tomatina will take place on 28 August in 2024

One of Spain’s oddest festivals takes place in the town of Bunol, near Valencia, every August. It is celebrated in honour of the town’s patron saints, and is thought to have started around 1945 – though nobody knows the exact origins,

The premise is fairly simple: it consists of an hour-long tomato-throwing frenzy, with the 15,000 or so attendees provided with around 120 tonnes of overripe tomatoes. The fight begins after an even more strange opening event, in which participants climb a greased-up pole in order to reach a ham; once the ham is retrieved, the first tomato is free to be thrown.

The town is quite literally painted red during the festivities, so sightseeing will be off-limits until the next day. Consider making Bunol a quick stop if touring some of the rest of the province, from Valencia itself to nearby Sagunto or Alicante. Tickets to the event, which is often labelled “the world’s biggest food fight”, cost as little as €15 and are available from the event’s official website.

Where to stay

Accommodation is extremely limited in this town of only 9,000 people, so it is a good idea to stay in nearby Valencia. Hotel Zenit is a good option for an affordable stay in the city’s Old Town, located right next to the Estacio del Nord (where the trains to Bunol depart from). Rooms are contemporary and comfortable, with an extensive breakfast buffet each morning.

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Calcio Storico, Italy

Three calcio games take place in June every year, with the final on 24 June

Florence’s hybrid of football, rugby and martial arts is a truly unique sport that is said to have its roots in the Roman sport of harpastum, in which players used any means necessary to keep a small ball on their side of the field.

Today, four teams representing each neighbourhood of Florence participate in a series of semi-final and final games, though the outcome is far less important than the event itself: a celebration of Florence and what it is to be Florentine. This beautiful medieval city is in a fiercely celebratory mood during these weeks, especially on the day of the final, which doubles up as a celebration of Florence’s patron saint, St John the Baptist.

The objective of the game is to score goals by throwing the ball into the other team’s net. Each team has 27 players, with much of the action consisting of trying to incapacitate opposition players in order to make it easier for teammates to score; this often leads to full-blooded clashes and outright fighting between players, making for a hectic spectacle that isn’t for the faint-hearted.

The easiest way to obtain tickets is to queue at a box office on Via delle Vecchie Carceri, which usually opens at the end of May. Leftover tickets are sold online at TicketOne.com, but with only around 4,000 available for each game, it’s best to queue at the box office if possible. Fancy joining in? Participants must have been born in Florence or residents of the city for at least 10 years.

Where to stay

For a hotel bursting with Florentine elegance, opt for the Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo. It sits right next to the cathedral, offering opulently decorated rooms among the winding, cobbled streets of the historic centre.

Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake, UK

The Cheese Rolling tradition is said to date back at least 200 years

This Gloucestershire tradition takes place annually on Cooper’s Hill, near the village of Brockworth, on the spring bank holiday. Officially an extreme sport, it consists of a number of participants who chase a three-kilogram wheel of Double Gloucester cheese down an almost-vertical hill. Though the winner used to be decided by the first person to catch the runaway dairy, nowadays the victor is simply the first person to cross the line – and they’re awarded the cheese as a prize.

This wacky UK event attracts visitors from all over the world, with previous race winners coming from the USA, Egypt and New Zealand. Races are split between men and women; in 2023, a Canadian woman won her event despite being knocked unconscious.

The next event takes place on 27 May in 2024 and is free to attend. It’s also free to enter the races; simply head to the top of the hill and register ahead of the first race at 12pm.

Where to stay

Consider staying in nearby Gloucester. The Mercure Gloucester Bowden Hall Hotel is set in a grand old country house surrounded by acres of landscaped grounds, providing well-appointed rooms and sweeping views over the forest and lake.

Fasnacht Carnival, Switzerland

Carnival in Basel starts a week later than those in the rest of Switzerland and Germany

Basel’s carnival is the largest in Switzerland, lasting for exactly 72 hours and involving almost 20,000 costumed participants (in addition to thousands more attendees). Though equally as celebratory as other carnivals on the continent, this Unesco-listed cultural heritage festival has a distinctly more chaotic – and sometimes eerie – atmosphere than other alternatives, visible in the outfits, costumes and events staged throughout. It begins at precisely 4am on the Monday, when all the lights are turned out and only hand-painted lanterns illuminate the city.

Expect lantern exhibitions, extensive parades, several concerts and plenty of satirical, tongue-in-cheek costumes and performances. Non-locals that attend are encouraged not to dress up, but feel free to partake in the bar crawls and watch along as locals celebrate the most important 72 hours in their calendar.

In 2024, Fasnacht will begin at 4am on 19 February, ending at the exact same time on 21 February. None of the processions or stretchesaevents are ticketed, but you’re advised to book accommodation as early as possible.

Where to stay

The Movenpick Basel is a reliable option for your carnival stay that sits around 15 minutes away from Marktplatz, where the starting celebrations kick early in the morning4. Rooms here are ultra-modern, elegant and spacious, with many carrying fantastic city views.

Krampusnacht, Austria and Germany

Krampusnacht celebrations seen on the streets of Bad Toelz, Germany

The Christmas season is in full swing by early December, and in Austria and some parts of Germany, the festive mood is briefly broken every year on 5 December by Krampusnacht. The “Night of the Krampus” takes place the evening before the Feast of St Nicholas, when thousands of revellers parade as Krampus, a half-goat, half-demon monster who legend states punishes misbehaving children.

The tradition supposedly originates from pagan times in the Tyrolian Alps, and it is in these areas where the festival is celebrated most fervently. The picturesque city of Salzburg, with its medieval Old Town and imposing Hohensalzburg Fortress, hosts one of the largest celebrations, where around 200 different clubs partake in the parade.

Though this particular celebration only lasts one night, the streets of Salzburg will remain in a celebratory and festive mood, with a large Christmas market in Residenzplatz and continued celebrations on St Nicholas Day, 6 December. Similarly energetic celebrations take place in neighbouring Innsbruck and Ischgl, too.

Where to stay

Situated 10 minutes away from the Old Town and under 15 from the Christmas market, the NH Collection Salzburg City has ultra-modern rooms and an ideal location for exploring the city both during and after Krampusnacht.

Fetes de Bayonne, France

References to bullruns and bullfights in Bayonne date back to the 13th century

A French alternative to Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls (known officially as San Fermin), the Fetes de Bayonne take place a few days later in Bayonne, a bullfighting city in the French part of the Basque Country. Inspired by the Pamplona version and first held in 1932, this five-day festival contains official bullfights, parades, music and nightly firework displays.

Locals come decked in red and white and the streets are full of a celebratory mood brought along by around 1 million attendees. While bull-related events and plenty of partying is customary, the festival is also a unique celebration of Basque culture and traditions. In 2024, it begins on 10 July.

Access to the closed-off areas of the festival is only permitted to those holding a “Pass Fetes”, which is free on Wednesday and Thursday but costs €12 for access to the other three days. Passes for the 2024 edition are not on sale yet, but keep an eye on the official website for more.

Where to stay

Accommodation can be hard to come by due to the number of people that descend on the city, so be sure to book early. The Hotel Cote Basque lies close to the centre of the old town, offering convenient and comfortable accommodation with air-conditioned rooms and a full breakfast buffet every morning.

Keukenhof Tulip Festival, Netherlands

Keukenhof is one of the world’s largest flower gardens

For a more wholesome alternative to the tomato-throwing, bull-escaping, demon-parading festivities around the rest of Europe, visit the Netherland’s Keukenhof gardens between 21 March and 12 May for the annual Tulip Festival. Located in Lisse, around 35 minutes away from Amsterdam, these gardens – sometimes referred to as the Garden of Europe – cover around 79 acres and are home to around seven million flower bulbs, the majority of which are tulips (with some daffodils, lilies and roses among others for good measure). The famous Flowerparade takes place on 20 April.

Adult entry costs €19.50 (£16.99), and tickets can be purchased online on the garden’s website. Guided tours and ticket for a boat cruise around the fields are available from the ticket office next to the mill.

Where to stay

Sitting in the heart of the centre and set in a quintessential Amsterdam townhouse on the canalside, the Eden Hotel provides eccentric accommodation that’s within a mile of most of the city’s main attractions.

Read our reviews of the best hotels in Europe

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