The Catalans celebrate their festivals and traditions to the full. If you want to explore towns and villages in Catalonia at their best time of year, wander around their streets during any Festa Major (a really big street party with music, food and traditional activities that can last a week or longer). Of course there are other events throughout the year that are highly anticipated and bring thousands of people together. They can be quite diverse, some centuries-old, others more recent but already a regular fixture on the calendar and essential dates for fun-seekers. Check out our suggestions of the main events held throughout the year to help you discover Catalonia.
A Christmas tradition of pre-Christian origin held on the night of December 24. In 2015, along with other fire rituals from the Pyrenees, the Fia-Faia made the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. In Bagà and Sant Julià de Cerdanyola, in the region of El Berguedà, torches called 'faies' are lit from a bonfire on the top of a hill. The faia bearers run quickly down the hill after sunset, creating a powerful spectacle. When they reach the village, they share the fire with people carrying torches, while singing 'Fia-Faia, que Nostro Senyor ha nascut a la paia' (Fia-Faia, Our Lord is born among the straw).
On the occasion of the festival of Sant Antoni Abat (January 17), protector of animals, many places hold the Tres Tombs ceremony. Its central event consists of animals parading around the town or village three times. Horses usually take centre stage, and on this day many pet owners take their animals to the priest to be blessed. One of the most famous Tres Tombs is in Igualada, which has been held continuously since 1822.
The popularity of 'calçots' (root vegetables similar to leeks) and 'calçotades' (feasts where calçots feature) have spread throughout Catalonia in recent years, and many restaurants include them on their menus between December and March. But nobody forgets that they originated in Valls, in the region of L’Alt Camp. And if anyone doubts this origin, they need only to go there on the last Sunday of January and see everyone celebrating the Gran Festa de la Calçotada, where calçots are cooked over a hot fire, peeled, dipped into romesco sauce and lowered into your mouth to eat. As with any food, no description is as good as actually trying them!
Carnival celebrations are held in February (or early March) around the world – Venice, Rio de Janeiro, New Orleas... In Catalonia festival-goers don costumes and go into the street to celebrate, and each town and village has its own characteristics and activities. In Sitges and Vilanova i la Geltrú, both in the region of El Garraf, you'll find the most popular and best known Carnival parties in the country. In Sitges feathers and sequins dominate, while Vilanova is famous for the 'comparses' (parading groups) and sweets wars.
Sant Jordi (Saint George) is the patron saint of Catalonia. His feast day, April 23, is enjoyed in each and every one of the towns and villages of Catalonia. It is the day of the rose and the book: the custom was for men to give a rose to women and women to give a book to men, although it is increasingly more common for women to receive a book and many men to get a rose. The streets fill with stalls selling roses and books decorated with the Catalan flag, and the most acclaimed writers end up with hand strain after signing copies of their books for fans.
Held in Tarragona during the month of May, this festival celebrates the history of the Roman period. Lectures, debates, exhibitions, guided tours, audiovisual screenings, routes, workshops, theatre plays, and even historical re-creations take place in different parts of a city that preserves a huge legacy from its past as one of the most important towns of the Roman Empire.
Twelve tonnes of snails are served and tasted by 200,000 visitors over three days in late May each year. This is an event that lovers of this ancestral symbol of Lleida's traditional cuisine will not want to miss because the snails are cooked and served in so many ways. This special food festival was first held in 1980, and since then has grown continuously and has achieved international prestige.
Listed as an Oral and Intangible World Heritage by UNESCO, this is a traditional festival held in the capital of the region of El Berguedà during Corpus Christi (60 days after Easter) that brings together thousands of people dancing to the rhythm of the 'comparses' (parading groups) and music. The high point is La Patum Completa, on Corpus Christi Thursday and Sunday, and particularly during Els Plens, documented since the year 1621 and with fire filling the entire square.
The 'sardana', a dance performed by forming a circle and holding hands, which follows the rhythm of a music that is also called sardana and played by a musical ensemble ('cobla') with very specific instruments, is considered the national dance of Catalonia. You can listen to sardanes or watch the dance at different times in all the town and village festivals, and also on other occasions, such as during the Aplecs, gatherings of sardana dancers and musicians. The oldest one is in Calella, in the region of El Maresme, and is called the Aplec Pairal de Catalunya. It dates back to 1926 and is held annually in early June.
On the night of June 23 in Catalonia the tradition is to drink cava and eat sweet 'coca' bread, light bonfires in town squares or at beaches and dance around them, and throw firecrackers. Old junk is burnt on the bonfires, symbolising moving on from the old to the new, lit with the fire from the emblematic El Canigó mountain, located in French Catalonia. It is the Revetlla de Sant Joan, a festival that lasts until dawn, which also celebrates the coming of the summer, and a night when nearly every band in the area is playing music. The next day is the feast day of Sant Joan (Saint John), a much-needed holiday.
'Havaneres', a musical style of sailors and fishermen, have a great following in Catalonia. There are lots of pieces in Catalan, some of them very popular, and many groups base their repertoire on this genre. If you're in Catalonia in summer you'll find lots of havaneres concerts. But the best known takes place on the first Saturday of July in Calella de Palafrugell, a town on the Costa Brava. Thousands of people attend, and the small boats follow the melodies from the sea.
If you're a fan of fireworks, in late July you must get yourself to Blanes, a seaside town in the region of La Selva. Sitting on the beach you can enjoy a five-night competition that brings together participants from around the globe in search of being named the best pyrotechnics company. A great show in the Costa Brava sky.
There is no village, however small, that does not set aside a few days on the calendar to celebrate its Festa Major, a time for locals to get together, with music, dancing, fireworks, street parades ('cercaviles' in Catalan) with 'gegants' (giants), 'capgrossos' (big heads) and other figures made of papier-mâché. Most of these festivals coincide with the town's patron saint feast day, and religious ceremonies also form part of the programme. Some Festes Majors have achieved prestige and fame beyond the municipality and enjoy the presence and participation of hundreds or thousands of visitors. Bigger cities, such as Barcelona, feature Festes Majors in many of their individual districts or neighbourhoods.
The Aquelarre festival takes place in late August in Cervera, a town near Lleida, and 2017 marks its 40th year. The world of witchcraft, esotericism, magic and fire fill the streets of Cervera, while the central character is the Mascle Cabró (a satyr). The 'correfocs' (fire runs), with groups of people dressed as devils and lighting fireworks, are spectacular and thrilling. Held on the same days is the Fira del Gran Boc, where you can buy arts and crafts, textiles and esoteric products in the University building.
Since 1981, on the second weekend of September, the town of Tàrrega fills with theatre performances. There are many well-attended shows held in the streets and squares, but also in halls. This is an international performing-arts market with an eclectic programme providing a big showcase for companies and professionals from all over the world.
When summer is coming to an end, around mid- to late September, squares, streets and venues in the town of Vic fill with music, in a fair held since 1989 that attracts both the public and music professionals. The biggest and most vibrant concerts take place at dusk in the emblematic Plaça Major. In this location, which is always worth a visit, every Tuesday and Saturday there is a market that has been held for centuries, and throughout the year it provides the setting for other important events.
The leading fantasy film festival in the world and one of the most internationally prestigious events held in Catalonia, the Sitges Film Festival was founded in 1968, and every year names big and small from the film world visit the coastal town. The festival celebrates its 50th year in early October 2017. Many of the most successful films in the last few decades of the fantasy and horror genres have had their world premiere on the screens of Sitges.
Many 'diades castelleres' – days during which human towers are built – take place the length and breadth of Catalonia every year, especially between April and November. We recommend that you attend some to discover this tradition that has recently been experiencing a real golden age, with the formation of human towers never seen before. In fact, the 'castells' are not so much a competition, but each group ('colla') tries to outdo itself. Every two years, though, the Concurs de Castells takes place in the Tarraco Arena Plaça, with the participation of the best colles, providing a competition full of emotion and extraordinary human towers.
As in other countries and regions around the world, in many Catalan homes it is traditional to decorate a Christmas tree in December. And many Catalans make a tradition of buying their tree in the Fira de l'Avet in Espinelves, in the region of Osona. Thousands of people have visited the fair every year since it began in 1981. One of its appealing characteristics is that the fir tree growers themselves sell their trees, which come from the forests close to the village, direct to the public.
This December fair selling arts and crafts and typical Christmas paraphernalia has been held since 1786 in the square in front of the Barcelona Cathedral. You can buy Christmas trees, decorations, and nativity scene figures, including the famous 'caganer', which usually wears typical Catalan peasant clothing and which is shaped into a squatting position and pooping. You'll also find the 'tió', a log with a happy face that Catalans put in their homes and cover with a cloth or blanket so children can beat it with a stick and sing a special song so that it 'poops' presents. Many other Catalan towns hold a similar fair in December – although with fewer stalls – and in some cases they are also called Fira de Santa Llúcia.