Best Carnival Festivals Around the World
Carnival — with its origins predominantly in those regions with a vibrant Catholic religious tradition — marks the spirited season in the weeks leading up to Lent, a season of fasting.
Carnival isn't just a time to party — it is also an expressive outlet for artists to make a thought-provoking statement with their floats as their platform. Because these events attract hundreds of thousands of people each year — both tourists and locals alike — parade float designers take the opportunity to draw inspiration from international current events in an ironic way.
If you find yourself in need of some merriment, look no further than Carnival — just follow the beat of the heart-pounding music and find a costume to join the festivities.
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Extravagant costumes and decorative masks make Venice’s Carnevale one of Europe’s most elegant events. Carnevale, which attracts approximately 3 million people to Venice each year, is a celebration rooted in a series of historical reenactments and lavish masquerade balls. The two weeks of festivities commence with an acrobatic water show on the Rio di Cannaregio canal and include the famed Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel) zipline from the Campanile in St. Mark’s Square. Watch as the streets of Venice become a living museum of full period costumes and masked Venetian revelers during this festival.
New Orleans, Louisiana
It's no surprise that the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration is the biggest of its kind in the U.S. Each year, the Mardi Gras krewes plan extensively-detailed, themed parades that make their way down St. Charles Avenue. Escape the crowds of Bourbon Street and enjoy the best parade vantage spots in the surrounding neighborhoods, all while donning your beads thrown from the passing floats. The celebrations commence on January 6 with the Phunny Phorty Phellows Streetcar Ride along St. Charles Avenue, and the party is fully underway by Mardi Gras Day (February 25). If the crowds are not your style, plan your trip for January or early February when festivities begin so you can still cross this once-in-a-lifetime trip off your bucket list.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Perhaps the most iconic of all Carnival celebrations, Rio’s Carnival beckons its visitors with its feathered, flashy costumes, distinctive samba rhythms, and long-standing traditions. With its roots in the African slave trade, the samba style of music and dance is now embedded in Rio’s identity, and it's an integral part of Carnival. Rio’s parades take place in the Sambodromo — where only the top samba schools will perform and compete after spending months preparing. The festival is celebrated in the five days that precede Ash Wednesday, and in this time, millions of visitors will partake in this cultural experience.
This seaside Italian town is renowned for its politically-charged, satirical floats. At approximately 20 meters tall and weighing some 40 tons each, these massive papier-mâché floats are unparalleled in their creativity (and size). Viareggio’s Carnevale floats, with a budget of 5 million euros, depict animated caricatures of both Italian and international political figures, and they provide a critique of current events and social injustice. As one of Italy’s most widely-attended events, Viareggio’s five Carnevale parades draw upwards of a million spectators each year.
Recognized as the oldest Carnival celebration on mainland Spain, Cádiz Carnival originates from its relationship as a major trading partner with Venice in the 16th century. As one of the best-known festivals in Spain, Cádiz Carnival maintains its appeal through its sense of humor and sarcastic undertones. Fancy costumes, called tipos, are highly encouraged on the first Saturday of Carnival as the parades of coros, large groups of musicians, perform throughout the streets. Perhaps the most famous component of the festival is the singing groups, called chirigotas, who write and perform satirical lyrics that mock aspects of politics and pop culture.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands
This lively festival begins with the unveiling of the candidates for the title of "Queen of the Carnival" and ends with the final crowning of the winner. Throughout the month-long Carnival, the multitude of daily parades, dances, and concerts keep visitors thoroughly entertained. Be sure to plan your visit to include the Daytime Carnival, also known as Sábado de Piñata, where the largest crowds will gather in Santa Cruz. Stick around until the very end of the festivities—you will not want to miss the 24-hour party that ceremoniously ends with the burning and burial of an enormous papier-mâché sardine.
Salvador de Bahia, Brazil
The Salvador de Bahia Carnival, acclaimed as the second largest Carnival in Brazil, differs from the Rio festivities in that samba parades do not play a role at all. However, because of Salvador de Bahia’s prominent Afro-Brazilian community, the parades embody an African cultural influence that has been preserved over time. Here, the crowds gather in the streets to watch the blocos (dancing blocks) perform throughout the main parade circuits.
Named as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage event, Binche’s unique Carnaval experience includes many folkloric traditions — including a ritual of throwing oranges for good luck. Those who partake in the celebration can dress up as one of the four traditional characters, becoming the Gilles, Peasants, Pierrots, and Harlequins. Gilles, the most beloved of all the characters, are known for their quirky behaviors, wax masks, wooden shoes, and straw-filled costumes.