Alpine cow parades are Switzerland’s cutest tradition

Every Autumn, the valleys of Switzerland come alive with cowbells and colour. Don’t miss this annual spectacle where cattle take centre stage.

The leaves are browning and the temperatures are cooling; it’s time for the cows to come home. It’s no secret that the Swiss love their cows. After all, they provide the delicious cheese and chocolate that Switzerland is famed for. But have you heard of Swiss cow parades?

In mid-August and September each year, roughly 400,000 Swiss cattle return to lower grounds for the winter after spending the summer grazing in high-altitude pastures. Adorned with colourful flower garlands and met with cheering festivities upon their arrival in the villages, the cows symbolise the end of a productive agricultural season.

Cows traditionally wear flower crowns during Alpabfahrt © Adobe Stock
The Swiss praise dairy cows for their milk by dressing them in flowers © Adobe Stock

The alpine cow parade, also referred to as ‘homecoming’, is one of Switzerland’s most iconic annual festivals. In the German-speaking regions, it is known as Alpabfahrt, whereas it goes by Désalpe in the French-speaking cantons. The ancient custom can be seen as a thanksgiving for a successful summer season. Witnessing an alpine cow parade is your chance to experiene an authentic cultural tradition when travelling to Switzerland.

How are Swiss cow parades celebrated?

Cows are an irreplaceable part of Swiss culture. To show appreciation for the cows and their role in agricultural traditions, the village decorates their cattle with bells, flowers, twigs and flags. Seasonal flowers such as chrysanthemum or dahlias are often used. You’ll be able to tell which cows provided the most milk of the season as these cows are often the ones with the most extravagant headdresses.

The processions typically follow a similar structure: white goats lead the way, followed by dairy cows and then the other cattle, with herdsmen guiding them down. Depending on the locale, some parades will be more dramatic, with farmers, herdsmen and families dressed up in traditional costumes, while others will be more humble. Some parades will feature yodelling or end with a Swiss food market, where you can treat yourself to some regional dishes and dairy products. In the more festive villages, dancing, music and cheer break out at the end of the procession.

Swiss nationals are known to be a little reserved at times, but are usually very friendly once you break the ice. Alpabfahrt is a terrific opportunity to befriend some Swiss locals and learn about Swiss culture as many onlookers will be residents of the villages. You can try striking up a conversation by commenting on how hübsch (pretty) the cows are.

Small child petting cows in Switzerland
Alpabfahrt is an exciting activity in Switzerland that the whole family can enjoy © Adobe Stock

When are the alpine cow parades in Switzerland?

The homecoming parade is celebrated between mid-August to mid-September, and sometimes even in early October. Check the events page on My Switzerland’s website to find specific dates and times of the parades, as this will vary depending on the year, weather and municipality.

Cow parades aside, autumn is a fantastic season to visit Switzerland. There are fewer tourists out and about, the temperatures are milder and the landscapes are just as beautiful as any other time of year, especially with those stunning autumnal hues coming into play. It’s worth noting that many cable cars close in the off-season, so if you’re planning to do any hikes that involve cable cars, make sure to check opening dates on their official websites.

The cattle return to Lauterbrunnen Valley
Cattle returning to Lauterbrunnen Valley © Adobe Stock

The best places to see alpine cow parades in Switzerland

Cow parades take place in valleys and villages all over Switzerland. However, the Appenzell region near Zurich and St Gallen is particularly well-known for its Alpabfahrt festivities, as are villages Kerns and Entlebuch. While the parades traditionally take place in smaller villages, some cities like Bern are also known to put on a show. Below are some areas in Switzerland where you can witness authentic cow parades, grouped according to region.

Canton of Appenzell

  • Urnäsch
  • Weissbad

Canton of Glarus

  • Elm
  • Klöntal

Canton of Bern

  • Gstaad
  • Bern
  • Lauterbrunnen (close to Interlaken)
  • Wengen (close to Interlaken)

Canton of Obwalden

  • Kerns

Canton of Lucerne

  • Entlebuch

Canton of Jura

  • Le Boéchet

Canton of Vaud

  • St-Cergue

Canton of Fribourg

  • Charmey (in the Gruyère district)
  • Plaffeien

Canton of Valais

  • Saas-Balen

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