If you are visiting Bamberg, the Sandkerwa is THE most popular event to get a feel for the Bavarian city. It sure is crowded, but there are a few key events to know about. So, let’s dive right in to know what you’re getting into when you are visiting Sandkerwa in Bamberg.

two boys on boats on a river in front of half timbered houses

What is the Sandkerwa?

Bamberg’s Sandkerwa is the most popular traditional festival in town. Annually, it sees over 200.000 visitors.

 In 2023, over 30,500 people bought a festival ticket to donate to the funds (as the festival is free during the day) and attend at night.

What does Sandkerwa mean?

The name is Bavarian and made up of two parts. Sand refers to the streets where the festival is hosted, called Obere Sandstraße and Untere Sandstraße, which run close to the riverside, hence the name ‘sand’.

Kerwa is a shortened word for “Kirchweih”, which translates to parish fair. 

Where in Bamberg is the Sandkerwa hosted?

What is unique about Sandkerwa is that it is hosted in various spots around the city centre, not just one central location. The main tents and view points for it are along the riverside opposite Little Venice.

Then, they move behind that around a string of historic cobblestone streets towards the Old Townhall and along the bridge “Untere Brücke”. The streets are also full of vendors selling traditional brews and food, as well as some more  exotic fusion dishes.

Another spot is at the square Markusplatz, which is more like a little fair with a go cart and more food carts.

When is Sandkerwa?

It is hosted in late August every year and runs for about 5 days.

pointed church building surrounded by food stalls
Elisabethenplatz square

What’s the History of Sandkerwa?

The first official Sandkerwa took place in 1951.

However, similar festivities actually date back to 1354, when the parish festivals started being hosted on August 23 in honor of St Elizabeth of Thuringia. The chapel changed a lot over time and was finally bought by the city in 1878.

You can still see the chapel “Kirche St. Elisabeth” with its very unique stained glass designs from 2022. They depict scenes in the life of the saint in combination with the seven elements of the works of mercy.

What’s unique too is that the church is also the starting point for Germany’s oldest, completely intact stations of the cross. It contains seven stones showing the stations and ends at church St Getreu.

What to do at Sandkerwa

Food & Drink

While there is a lot that is going on in the event program for the Sandkerwa, the main thing to do is dine! There are plenty of stalls and vendors that set up their carts along the bridges and mains streets of the Sandkerwa to keep your belly full to the brim.

Especially if you eat meat, there’s lots of choice with locals sausages (try the Coburger Bratwurst) as well as burgers, doner, schäufele, but also fair fair like fries.

But also many cafes and restaurants offer food on the go.

And then, there’s of course, the beer. It’s entirely normal to stand in the streets of Bamberg close to a brewery or beer restaurant (and you can do beer tours too) and openly drink a big jug of beer. And during festivals, the streets are crazy crowded with people and their beer.

Besides the Schlenkerla restaurant, a great place to enjoy your brew outside is in one of the tents alongside the river. If you get the timing right, you have the best spot for viewing the Fischerstechen event as well.

If you like sweets, there are sugar coated nuts, fairy floss, lebkuchen hearts and other treats available. You’ll be guided there by the heavenly scent.

Live music

If you’re down to listening to more typical Bavarian tunes and party festival music, then the many live bands playing around the festival tents, squares and restaurants will deliver just that.

Over multiple days you can find live brass music in these places:

  • festival tent at Leintritt (main hub)
  • Elisabethenplatz (lots of food vendors)
  • Katzenberg (biergardens in the street)
  • Schranne (traditional restaurants)

Fair games

Like with a typical fair, there are the usual suspects of entertainment stalls, such as go cart and throwing darts. The best spot for that is at Markusplatz square and the northern tip along the Leintritt street.

For kids, there is a carousel and claw machines set up by the public library in the street Am Kranen.

Event: Kirchweihbaum

There are a few events leading up to the festival but the main start is marked by putting up the traditional tree, the Kirchweihbaum. You will see a lot of these trees around Germany in May. But for Sandkerwa it’s August, of course.

What’s unique is that the tree is hosted on a pole in the middle of the river, on a boat. Formerly, it used to be in front of the church, as is common. But this positioning is more secure and prevents accidents (i.e. drunk people messing with the pole).

And it has become an event in and of itself. I watched it and it took about 20 minutes for the entire thing to be set up completely.  

Event: Fischerstechen

Apart from the food, beer and mingling, what makes the Sandkerwa special are the traditional competitions. The main one is the Fischerstechen, which can be translated to “fishermen jousting”.

In 2023, it was the 69th time the competition was taking place and 38.500 visitors watched it live from the bridges and riversides.

Essentially, different local fishermen crews compete against each other in boats.

Yes, grown men have to push each other off boats and into the cold river while the audience cheers.

The ones wearing red and white stripes with a blue sash are from Bamberg. The ones in blue pants are from Nuremberg and the ones in brown lederhosen are from Schliersee.

One on one they compete with a long stick in hand. And the stick’s end, a round cushioned ball is attached to not deal any actual harm.

The fishermen are rowed into the middle of the river, which is constantly in motion. And it’s hard to keep the boats parallel and in position.

The competitors then climb on the very tip of the boat, where a 50x50cm (19,69×19,69 inch) wooden platform is attached. This is the only place they are allowed to stand. If they step off it, they get a strike. Three strikes and they lose.

While standing on a rocky boat in a tiny square, they have to use the pole to push the other off balance and into the water, while trying not to fall themselves.

The pole may only hit between chin and hips. No low or high blows allowed.

But eventually even the winner gets wet. Because after his victory, he is expected to jump into the water anyway.

There are two main Fischerstechen competitions. The first one on Saturday, is for the youth and the one on Sunday is for adults. This includes one fight between two Sandmadla, the girls who are current and last year’s festival Queen.

My impression of the Fischerstechen

When I saw the Fischerstechen in 2022, the entire competition lasted 2 hours.

At the 90 minute mark, the Sandmadla got to compete. And the live commentary kept hurrying them and was rather patronizing. The crowd, and I agree, was very annoyed by this. Totally uncalled for. But they also made fun of the boys and their hair the day before.

Overall, it is not an exciting event at all as each round can last up to 8 minutes, which can feel a lot longer. And there are many rounds.

If you want to see it, the best viewpoint is to be had at the historic crane by the town library. If you come within the first 90 minutes, there is barely space to stand, let alone get a good glimpse. So I recommend coming later.

Standing on the townhall bridge, the view was often obstructed by the boat with the festival tree and the competitors were a bit far away. It’s better if you stand close to the underpass of the bridge (where the path goes from the street to the public toilets).

Likewise, the view from the other riverside (street Am Leintritt) was often hidden behind the reeds.

The crowds were much less on Saturday than Sunday, too.

Event: Hahnenschlag

The Hahnenschlag translates to “rooster hit” and it is a competition wherein you have to destroy a clay pot with one hit only using a pole that has a lose shorter pole attached to it (looking a bit like a broken hockey stick).

But you are also blindfolded. To make it even more difficult, the competitors have to dance a couple’s dance beforehand, too. Then the audience shouts their directions to give guidance towards the pot.

It has been a tradition at Sandkerwa since 1951. And in 2019, they added a competition for kids too.

Event: Fireworks

Both the Hahnenschlag and the fireworks are hosted on the last day of Sandkerwa, with a couple hours inbetween. So if you’re in town, that’s a great time to go exploring the sights of Bamberg and maybe touch the Apfelweibla for good luck.

At night, at 10pm the fireworks are shot from the boat of the festival tree into the sky, accompanied by pop music.

Apparently, 2023 was the lamest firework show so far. I haven’t seen it before, so I cannot say. It was nice to see, but not very big and it was over after 8 minutes.

The clearest viewpoint might be from the bridge Markusbrücke, but it’s a bit far. So if you want to take pictures, have a long lens on you.

Or you stand, like I did, at the Am Kranen children’s carousel and see the fireworks up close.

My verdict

I’ve been living in Bamberg for two years now and totally didn’t attend Sandkerwa before. I always missed it somehow, so I am glad I finally made it. It was a unique festival and I liked walking the streets and seeing so much life and joy with all the people enjoying summer.

But it was too crowded and loud for my taste.

I liked watching the Fischerstechen, but would not stay for the entire thing again. The youth show went by much faster, not just because there were fewer participants, but also because the balancing seemed less practiced but the jousting was more energetic.

There’s a bit of variety with the food choices, so you can take advantage of street food carts that are normally not here.

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