First of all, what the F&%k is Fasnacht!? And why should you experience it? Fasnacht is the Swiss version of carnival and it is six full days of utter mayhem that will make you feel like you’ve tumbled into an alternate universe… one where the Swiss are the biggest party-animals on the planet! It is some seriously Through The Looking Glass level shit that will make you question everything you thought you knew about Switzerland and Swiss people.
There are Fasnacht celebrations to mark the beginning of lent in most Catholic Kantons (counties) in German-speaking Switzerland, but Fasnacht Luzern is my favorite. Throw on some colorful garb, grab some confetti and prepare to have your socks rocked off by some big brass bands, here comes my ultimate guide to Fasnacht Luzern!
1. It’s A Non-Stop DIY Party For People of All Ages
Fasnacht Luzern is a completely grassroots, totally DIY and essentially Swiss party. The people of Luzern spend six months using their own ingenuity to prepare for a kickass party that feels utterly spontaneous. From incredible handmade costumes that take months to create, home-made parade floats that double as pay what you can bars, to pop up nightclubs that line the streets after dark, Fasnacht is by the people, for the people.
Music everywhere you go! Is it any surprise that Fasnacht is my paradise?
Even the music is homemade. The big brass bands that supply the soundtrack for the day’s festivities, known as Guggenmusik, are all 100% volunteer. You don’t need any musical expertise to join one of these many colorful groups, they’ll even lend you an instrument and teach you to play. Nothing about Fasnacht is corporately sponsored and nobody’s making money off of it. It is completely, 100% done for love.
This Guggenmusik band is a flock of friendly owls! Costumes are handmade and each band has a new theme every year!
The best part is EVERYONE’S INVITED! No reservations required, show up anytime because the party goes around the clock. When I say round the clock I mean round the clock. The festivities begin at 5AM on “dirty Thursday” and don’t stop until midnight the following Tuesday. Luzern’s normally charming and staid Medieval facade dissolves into a mind-bending dream scape, her narrow streets clogged with revelers in all manner of grotesque, freaky and politically incorrect costumes. Everyone from little kids to the elderly gets in on it. After dark pop up night clubs appear in the streets of Old Town and the cobblestones of Luzern become the dance floor for one giant rave! As many locals have put it before, “You can’t avoid Fasnacht Luzern.” Businesses shut down, kids are out of school, many people even take vacation for it. Why not?
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2. The Locals Are Super Friendly
Much has been made of the reserved-ness of the Swiss. Would it kill them to smile at a stranger? Are they genetically incapable of spontaneity? Is there anything remotely resembling a sense of humor behind their buttoned up, relentlessly punctual facades? Whelp. I’m here to tell you that put a funny costume on a Swiss person and give ’em a little alcohol and all of the rules and regulations go aus dem Fenster. Fasnacht is the one time of year when the Swiss magically become the gregarious, flirtatious party animals you were always secretly hoping they were.
If you ever wanted to cuddle up to a Swiss cutie, now is the time. Lots of young folks get together to create their own parade floats, usually centered around a wacky theme. All you have to do it go up to one of them, complement their costume, ask them a couple of questions, and they’ll open up and offer you a ubiquitous Fasnacht drink of tea spiked with Schnapps from their magical floating bar. Easy peasey!
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DIY Parade floats are everywhere you look, and usually they are generous with their alcohol!
3. The Costumes Will Blow Your Mind
Fasnacht has it’s roots in pre-Christian winter celebrations meant to scare away the evil winter spirits. These days the more macabre side definitely remains, but you’ll also see every kind of costume imaginable from traditional goblins to goofy pop-culture references. The Swiss attitude toward playing dress up is go big or go home. That means don’t you dare think you can get away with putting on a silly hat and calling it your costume. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb without a proper costume at Fasnacht, and put yourself at risk for all sorts of good natured harassment, including a fistful of confetti in your face! Most supermarket and department stores in Switzerland stock a selection of costumes, wigs makeup and accessories in the run-up to Fansacht, so if you can’t DIY like a true Swissie, go grab yourself the most colorful garb you can find and get into character. No excuses!
4. Non- Stop Parades
And who doesn’t love parades? At Fasnacht there are literally wall to wall Guggenmusik bands everywhere you look. They play everything from marching band standards to modern pop-tune covers with a gusto that’s impossible not to get swept away in. Some bands even play purposely off-key to add to the hilarity. Guggenmusik bands manage to create an incredible spectacle without taking themselves too seriously. So use it as an excuse to let go and dance like nobody’s watching!
5. It’s A Uniquely Swiss Experience
As an American one of the things that impresses me most about Fasnacht is just how chill this epic party truly is. Every year thousands of people get together in a tiny medieval city; they get drunk, they squeeze hundreds of frigging tubas into a very small space, and it all goes off without a hitch, completely peacefully. In all the years I’ve gone to Fasnacht, I’ve never seen so much as a scuffle between a couple of drunks. When I picture a festival like this happening in America, I feel like there would be police in riot gear on hand ready to boss back the crowds at a moment’s notice. As far as I’ve experienced, there is no police presence at Fasnacht, not even a cop here and there directing traffic. It’s stunning to see a party like this happen without a hint of aggression every year when you come from a place where people regularly have riots and set things on fire when their sports team wins or loses. (Sorry, Boston! You know I love you!)
This feeling of trust between people is one of the most beautiful things about Swiss culture, and I will miss it terribly when I leave. Merci vielmal for the wild party, Luzern. I’ll always love you.
What are your favorite worldwide parties? Let me know in the comments.