lake LucerneSummer is always a good time to experience a range of Swiss cultural traditions. Musicians, flag- and stone- throwers, wrestlers and yodelers all have their days in the sun. On Switzerland’s National Day, it’s also time for speechifying on the historic Rütli meadow and watching bonfires on hillsides and mountaintops. Basel gets a jump on the day, throwing a party in the Old Town the evening before. Either way, this holiday is a late-bloomer for an old country. Celebrated since 1891, it was formally established as an official holiday just 21 years ago!

Rütli meadow

The legendary oath of the Old Swiss Confederacy–the Rütlschwur– was taken on the Rütli meadow above Lake Lucerne, in the territory of Seelisburg. There, on 1 August 1291, the Canton chiefs of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden swore eternal allegiance to one another and promised mutual help and assistance–at the time, that meant resistance to the Habsburgs. The oath was famously commemorated in Friedrich Schiller’s play William Tell, penned in 1804, invoking legends from the Middle Ages.

Various chroniclers and documents have ascribed the event in the meadow to a range of years and dates. It took World War II, and the celebration of the 650th anniversary of the Confederacy in 1941, to bring together the symbolism of the Rütli oath and Switzerland’s independence in times of war. The beginning of August marks the date of the Federal Charter creating the Swiss Confederation, but the official designation of 1 August as a national holiday came into force only in 1994, following a public vote.

The Rütli meadow above Lake Lucerne, ready for August 1st visitors, speeches, music-making and picnics. The little meadow can be reached on foot and is a regular stop on the steamer from Brunnen.
Statue of Wilhelm Tell in Altdorf, Canton Uri. According to Schiller’s telling of the legend, it was in Altdorf, that the three Canton chiefs agreed to bring supporters to Rütli meadow on August 1st. Tell declined to come along.


Around Switzerland

Except for the ceremonies at the Rütli , Swiss National Day is a local affair, celebrated in various ways. Bonfires on 1 August commemorate the fourteenth-century expulsion of foreign bailiffs. National, cantonal, and community flags fly from public and private buildings. Bakers prepare Augustweggli, special breads topped with a small Swiss flag. And there are fireworks, lots of fireworks. Thousands of people turn out for festivities in Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Bern and Lugano.

The Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen is a year-round attraction that gets special treatment for National Day. Since the nineteenth century, the waterfall has been illuminated on special occasions, and since the 1960s just one day each year, on 1 August. Fireworks at the Falls, one of the biggest celebrations in Switzerland, also mark the day.

Fancy farm visits? Swiss wrestling? Swimming in the Rhine? For ideas on how to enjoy Swiss National Day around the country, check out these great suggestions from Newly Swissed. For an extensive listing of National Day activities, Switzerland Tourism also has an extensive listing of National Day activities, beginning with musical performances in Schwarzenburg on 30 July.


Basel gets an early start

The country celebrates the Swiss Confederation on 1 August, but along with a few other towns, Basel just can’t wait. The evening of 31 July is a time for picnics and music along the Rhine, culminating in the drama of a fireworks display from fire boats on the river. Here are a few scenes from previous National Day festivities.


Food for the holiday

Finally, there is festive food for the holiday, as well. Last year, the folks at Newly Swissed went on a National Day shopping spree and identified 9 Unmissable Foods for Swiss National Day. If you’ve not experienced Swiss foods at their most patriotic, this post is worth a look!

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  1. I am a massive fan of Switzerland but surprising Basel is one of the places in Switzerland that we haven’t go to ..yet. Good to see they have the same sense of fun and Swiss culture and history.

    • Hi Paula. Switzerland is of course alphorns, chocolate and cheese…but there’s lots more to see. Basel gets a fair dose of Rhine River cruise day-trippers, but is largely under the radar. Come take a look for yourself!

  2. It is a great feature to hold the national holiday in the middle of summer; clever folks these Swiss! 😉 I haven’t been back to Switzerland in some time, and there’s lots to the country I’d like to explore. I would like to cover a large fraction of the cogwheel railways and funiculars, up and down through the Swiss Alps. I would also like to be reintroduced to my confusion regarding “Schwitzer Tütsch”, because my Hochdeutsch clearly needs to be messed about. 😉

    • Oh yes, this is the place to mess with German, for sure. Here in the Dreiländereck where Switzerland, France and Germany meet, language is a crazy-quilt: Alsatian, French, Badisch, and Basler Deutsch and sometimes Italian for good measure. Trains run in any language, though and are fabulous ways to get around. Let us know if you head our way!

    • Hi Shelley, it’s great to be here in summer…best time is of course in the mountains, but on National Day, the parties at lower elevations are just as nice.

  3. Among all of your wonderful pics, my favorite is of the couple frying up the sausages and a big smile on the woman’s face. That says it all on occasions like this — people are in good spirits and all is right in the world. We should have more days like this.

  4. Looks like so much was going on! Many years ago, we were staying in Lake Como and we drove to a discount shopping mall in Switzerland (that wasn’t easy to get to). When we arrived, the parking lot was barren. That’s when we learned about Swiss National Day! 🙂 I’m glad you have much more positive associations.

    • Ooh, sounds as though you need to make a return visit Irene, and see the real Switzerland (Swiss discount malls don’t rate that high on things to do here!).

  5. We haven’t spent much time in Switzerland at all and I would love to remedy that oversight on our part. You’ve gotta love a country that has made such a success out of political neutrality and financial acumen. Gorgeous summertime photos, who wouldn’t be bursting with happiness?

    • Thanks Betsy. The stunning beauty of the Swiss landscape hasn’t hurt either…that coupled with marvelous infrastructure makes Switzerland Very Easy to Enjoy!

  6. I have only been to Lucerne and Zurich so far, I loved my time in Switzerland and I think a visit on Swiss National Day would be just lovely – I hope to make it to Basel soon, such beautiful landscapes in Switzerland, along with great food and hospitality.

    • Hi Susan, I know you have the next year or so booked for other destinations, but when you do make it to Basel, let me know! There is plenty to do and see in the “Three corners” countryside of Baden, Germany and Alsace, France!

  7. Anita, I’ve always enjoyed my Swiss wanderings. Your post brings back so many wonderful memories.
    I’ve only been to Basel once – briefly. It was a fascinating city. I expect to be back there next year. Hopefully, I’ll have more time to explore.
    Super photos!

    • Thank you Ursula! Glad you enjoyed the trip down memory lane, and the photos. Wishing you an enjoyable visit when you return to Basel. All the best, Anita (and photographer Tom)


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