It seems that any reason to celebrate is a good reason. Some places mark the release of prisoners with a celebration, while others gather to commemorate their town’s patron saint. Whether secular or spiritual, festivals are simply an excuse to have some good old fun. Let’s take a look at six of Europe’s most famous and unexpected festivals that are as diverse as the Old Continent itself.

Donauinselfest – pop music on a Viennese island

“On The Beautiful Blue Danube” is not only the title of a famous waltz by Johann Strauss II, but also an appropriate description of Donauinselfest’s surroundings. This three-day music festival takes place every June in Vienna, on the artificial island of Donauinsel. Although we associate Vienna with classical music, Donauinselfest is primarily a celebration of pop music in all its forms. In 2024, around 1,000 artists, including rock bands, DJs and rappers, will perform on the festival’s 14 stages.

Donauinselfest © Shuttertock

As with any other festival, you can expect a variety of musical styles, numerous non-music events and a plethora of food and drink at Donauinselfest. But there is one thing that sets the Vienna event apart: unlike its many competitors, admission is completely free! As you might expect, this makes the festival enormously popular, with around three million people expected to attend over the weekend, making it one of Europe’s largest open-air festivals. If you’re planning to check it out then we recommend booking your accommodation well in advance!

Festa di San Giovanni Battista – Prayer and a brutal form of football

St John the Baptist is the patron saint of many Italian cities. So it comes as no surprise that the day commemorating his birth – 24 June – is an occasion for celebration across Italy. One place where the Feast of St John the Baptist (or Festa di San Giovanni Battista), is celebrated in a particularly solemn way is Florence. The festivities begin with the coronation of the Marzocco, the famous statue of a lion, which takes place a few days before the Corteo degli Omaggi, a colourful procession to the cathedral, followed by a mass. This celebration dates back over two hundred years and the local association has organised the parade since 1796.

calcio storico fiorentino
Calcio storico fiorentino © Shuttertock

The religious celebration is also joined by many secular celebrations, one of which being the final of Calcio Storico Fiorentino, an ancient local sport. The game is similar to American football, only more brutal as it involves punching your opponent!Numerous incidents over the years have led to restrictions: players must have lived in Florence for at least ten years and have no criminal record. The final is a unique spectacle that’s unlike anything you will ever see!

The festivities culminate with concerts and the Fochi di San Giovanni, or traditional fireworks. Book ahead for a seat on the terrace of one of the many local gourmet restaurants, or simply watch the display from the banks of the Arno.

San Juan Festival – coals, cava and cake

The summer solstice and the feast of St John the Baptist are also occasions for celebration in Spain. Both Catalonia and Valencia celebrate the Nit del Foc – Night of Fire – with fireworks and bonfires on the beaches. This magical time encourages daredevils to jump over the fire to prove their bravery before bathing in the sea late at night to ensure good luck for the rest of the year. As is often the case, Christian rituals combine with even older traditions in ways that are not immediately obvious.

San Juan Festival © Shuttertock
San Juan Festival © Shuttertock

If you are more interested in having a good time than in the festival’s spiritual dimension, Nit del Foc is still an unforgettable experience. When the sun goes down, the city of Barcelona becomes one big party, especially along the waterfront where you’ll find drummers, pyrotechnics and plenty of good food. The traditional delicacy eaten on this occasion is Coca de Sant Joan, a yeast cake with almonds and candied fruit that looks a little like a pizza. The fiesta is accompanied by numerous toasts, usually made with cava, a Catalan sparkling wine. Cool wine and a hot night – what more could you ask for?

Kataklysmos – the Cypriot Feast of the Flood

Kataklysmos, also known as the Feast of the Flood, is celebrated in Cyprus fifty days after Orthodox Easter, making it a movable feast that is equivalent to Pentecost. As the name suggests, it commemorates the biblical flood and the rescue of Noah. In practice, however, it has become a day to celebrate the richness of Cypriot heritage, including its pre-Christian culture. Understandably, the Feast of the Flood is celebrated most wholeheartedly in coastal cities such as Larnaca and Limassol. Religious traditions associated with the day include throwing crosses into the sea, which young men then try to fish out. The festival’s secular side includes fairs full of handicrafts and local delicacies.

The Feast of the Flood is, unsurprisingly, associated with water in many ways, with swimming competitions and other water sports taking place throughout. One of the festival’s customs is when young Cypriots douse each other with water, which is pleasant rather than punishing in the warm, Mediterranean climate! Tsiattista is a kind of improvised poetic duel that could be considered a prototype for the modern freestyle rap battle and a significant area of heritage that is UNESCO-protected.

Malta International Arts Festival

Staying on the subject of Mediterranean islands, and we head to Malta, which brings together artists from all over the world for the annual Malta International Arts Festival. The programme for this week-long summertime event reflects the richness of the art world, with space for opera, film, dance and a wide range of visual arts. Most of the events take place in the capital, Valletta, often in unexpected venues – from 16th-century cisterns to the deck of a sailing ship. In this way, the island nation’s past is intertwined with contemporary, often avant-garde culture.

The festival is also characterised by its values, with organisers taking great care to ensure that the event provides a platform for the exchange of experiences between local and international artists. Inclusivity is also very important and the Festival focuses on adapting its events to the needs of people with disabilities. It also offers a rich programme for children and young people.

Bastille Day – parades, fireworks and champagne

Celebrated on 14 July, France’s national holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille – the capture of the royal prison in 1789. Although the event was a moderate success (only a few prisoners were freed), it became the symbolic start of the French Revolution. No wonder, then, that the anniversary has become a celebration of a France that is proud of its republican traditions. But putting history aside, what can visitors expect from the modern Fête Nationale Française, known in the English-speaking world as Bastille Day?

The main attractions of the festivities are a parade down the Champs-Élysées in Paris – where the country’s president reviews its military troops – and an air show. Even those who are not interested in the military will find something to enjoy here. In the evening, the Champs-Élysées, just below the Eiffel Tower, hosts a free symphony concert featuring the biggest stars in classical music. A little later, the real highlight comes as the skies over Paris, alongside many other French cities, light up with fireworks. This, of course, is just a small selection of the events that take place on Bastille Day and fire-fighters’ dances, concerts, food festivals and much more await you throughout France. One you’re there, don’t forget to toast the Republic with a glass of – what else? – Champagne. Vive la France!


Visiting new places during holidays and festivals may not be ideal for those looking for peace and quiet, but is perfect for enjoying the hustle and bustle of an authentic celebration. This is an excellent choice if you want to experience the culture of your host country in its most vibrant form. From marching in elaborate parades to witnessing unique traditions; enjoying live music to sampling the local cuisine. Party with the locals and enjoy an experience unlike any other on your next trip. 


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