Best Carnival Celebrations Around the World
Costumed revelers board a New Orleans streetcar and ride down St. Charles Avenue, waving banners, throwing beads, and shaking their rumps to the beat of a brass band. These are the Phunny Phorty Phellows—and their antics kick off the pre-Lenten celebrations.
Carnival is a worldwide phenomenon, an outburst of tradition and joy that engulfs locals while providing photogenic entertainment for travelers lucky enough to crash the party. It flourishes in New Orleans and other places that have strong Catholic or Orthodox religious traditions (the Fasnacht celebration in Basel, Switzerland, is a notable Protestant exception). Immigrants export Carnival with them: witness the celebration in Goa, India, a holdover from that community’s Portuguese rule, or the street festivals that have sprung up among the West Indian diaspora in New York and London.
Those familiar with photos of scantily clad partiers in Rio or Trinidad might not appreciate that the Carnival debauchery stems from religious roots. To gain converts, the early Christian church incorporated pagan practices, tying them to the period of abstinence known as Lent. The idea has always been to get your feasting and sinning out of the way, before the repentant 40-day Easter season begins on Ash Wednesday.
Carnival has also served as a way for those in the underclass to express their displeasure with the status quo. Satirical clothing, banners, and floats can be found at many Carnival celebrations; it’s no wonder that repressive regimes, such as Franco’s in Spain or the Communist regime of the former Soviet Union, discouraged or banned them.
“They are always subversive, because people are allowed to do things that are forbidden in real life,” says Cecile Duvelle, director of the Intangible Heritage Division at UNESCO, which protects cultural treasures and festivals like Carnival. It’s a “time of complete transgression,” as she puts it. “The King is not the king; you can joke about him. It’s a way to express irony, and criticism of power, in a festive way.”
Carnival has always been about spectators as much as participants. So should you find yourself at one of the following parties around this year’s Fat Tuesday (February 12), don’t be afraid to grab a mask and join in.
Known as Fasnacht, the largest Swiss popular festival is unusual for two reasons. It starts the week after Carnival everywhere else, a possible holdover from the Reformation (Basel’s carnival is one of the world’s few Protestant celebrations). And ridiculous amounts of confetti are involved, thrown by riders on floats or dumped on unsuspecting passersby.
Insider Tip: Follow the Cliquen (Carnival cliques) and accompanying bands and musicians as they journey through Basel’s narrow streets with transparent lanterns made from wood and canvas, most more than nine feet high.
The lewd bead-begging behavior seen in the French Quarter is generally restricted to Bourbon Street and out-of-town tourists (native New Orleanians often have bags of their own at home). For the real fun, seek out the neighborhood parades, where passersby fight for the throws flung from floats, and work your local sources to finagle tickets to the private balls put on by the krewes. Admission to some, such as Krewe of Orpheus’ Orpheuscapade, are open to the general public.
Insider Tip: Dream up a costume—the more elaborate the better—and join the egalitarian Society of St. Anne on its Mardi Gras parade through the arty Bywater neighborhood.
Panama City, Panama
Panama City’s version of Carnival tends toward the casual. Expect street parades full of dancing, drinking, and culecos, large 18-wheel trucks carrying water tanks that spray down the crowd. Put any expensive electronics away, as water balloons and buckets are also common (the sensation is more pleasant than it sounds; February is the dry season here).
Insider Tip: While the party crowds wear summer clothing (or very little at all), Carnaval is also a time for women to don the pollera—the traditional embroidered dress that’s native to Panama—along with family heirloom jewelry. For the best photos of this finery, go to the Cinta Costera on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday.
Rio de Janeiro
The world’s largest Carnival drew 850,000 hard-partying tourists in 2012. Imported originally by the Portuguese and later garnished with French embellishments, Rio’s Carnival took on a different flavor when the city’s poorer residents, many of them descendants of African slaves, became involved after abolition in 1888. Now the rivalries between the samba schools are the high point of the Sunday and Monday before Fat Tuesday, with the city’s main parade culminating in the Sambodromo.
Insider Tip: You can march in costume with a samba school, if you’re in the mood to splurge ($300–$700; costs vary by group; rio-carnival.net).
Costumed and cloaked figures, their faces unseen, glide mysteriously through the side streets during Carnevale, a tradition that emerged from the city’s centuries-old facility with mask-making (the mascherari formed their own guild in 1436). Hit the streets with your camera, as the piazzas turn into a photographer’s dream. Locals don their finery primarily for private balls; while most are off-limits to tourists, you can get tickets to the Doge’s Ball, held annually in the Palazzo Pisani Moretta on the Grand Canal, if you have about $1,900 to spare.
Insider Tip: Pick out your own mask at Il Canovaccio, the supplier of the disguises used for the sexy-creepy Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman flick, Eyes Wide Shut.
Soca and calypso music, fueled by the beat of steel pans, provide the soundtrack for the biggest Carnival in the Caribbean, which combines slave celebrations with Catholic traditions. The weekends leading up to the final celebration are filled with opportunities to see music competitions—only the best go on to play at Panorama, held the Saturday before Ash Wednesday.
Insider Tip: Many Trinidad bands accept visitors for J’Ouvert (Monday morning’s dedication to monsters) and Carnival. Keep in mind that Trinidadian costumes are notoriously skimpy, and many residents train all year to be able to strut their stuff with confidence.
The Portuguese ruled this corner of India from the 16th century through 1961, importing their Carnival traditions and guitar music, including mournful fado. The four-day-long celebrations now have more of an Indian twist, with Hindus participating along with those of Christian descent; fireworks, for example, are used to wake the gods. The highlight is the procession of King Momo (the King of Chaos) through Goan villages.
Insider Tip: If you’re not in costume, wear old clothes to the parades, as people often dump buckets of colored water on the spectators or douse them with squirt guns.
The largest Carnival in Mexico, Mazatlán’s celebration combines elements of a fiesta (mariachi bands, stalls of street food) with Christian imagery and indigenous tradition. Revelers in the streets break confetti-filled hollow eggs (cascarones) on each other, a nod to wilder times more than a century ago when dockworkers exchanged projectiles filled with flour and even stones.
Insider Tip: Play it safe by staying primarily within the tourist zone, and keep a low profile (leave expensive electronics and jewelry at home, for example).
Dormant during Communist regimes, Maslenitsa (also known as Pancake Week or Butter Week) has returned to some Russian cities, including Moscow. The festival has pagan roots—witness the ritual burning of a straw Lady Maslenitsa, a symbol of the dark and cold winters, not far from St. Basil’s Cathedral—that were adapted to the Orthodox calendar and its prohibition on meat and dairy during Lent.
Insider Tip: True to its name, Maslenitsa celebrates overindulgence in blini. The thin pancakes taste best topped with caviar, salmon or herring, sour cream, mushrooms, jam, and yes, even more butter.
The people of Cologne (a Kölner is a resident; a Kölsche is a native) consider themselves more laid back than other residents of Germany. And nowhere is this more reflected than at their celebration, the largest Carnival street festival in Europe. The “crazy days” start on Women’s (Shrove) Thursday, when bars suspend hours, and women—according to an old tradition—roam the streets with scissors, cutting men’s ties. It all culminates with a huge parade on the Monday before Ash Wednesday (Rosenmontag).
Insider Tip: Prepare to get smacked: bützjer, kisses made with pursed lips, are distributed freely during Carnival by both sexes.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands
A fixture of the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago, since the 18th century, Carnival has outlasted misgivings by the Church and bans from several dictators. When Franco outlawed regional celebrations during his regime, residents continued their party under the more subdued title “Winter Festival.” Festivities range from the modern to the traditional, represented by the “burial of the sardine” (in reality, a giant papier-mâché fish) on Ash Wednesday.
Insider Tip: The start of Lent is only the halfway point for Carnival week, which can test your endurance. Events start late and go into the morning; it’s not unusual for partiers to watch the sun rise before grabbing chocolates and churros for breakfast.
Rio’s Carnival looms large in South America, but it’s hardly the only regional party. Uruguay’s festival embraces both its Spanish and African roots. Street performances known as murgas have long satirized the upper class (today’s versions are more likely to poke fun at Argentina), while slave descendants established call-and-response drum groups (llamadas), which compete in parades.
Insider Tip: No matter the time of year, you can marvel at traditional costumes, floats, and tableaus Tuesday through Thursday at Museo del Carnaval in Old Town.
Cited on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Heritage events, the Binche Carnaval reflects European heritage to the point that emblematic statues of folkloric characters like the Pierrot and Harlequin are kept on display around town throughout the year. The most beloved may be the Gille: a man in a wax mustached mask wearing a red, yellow, and black tunic, ostrich feather hat, and wooden clogs. The costumes are so regulated that participants can wear them only on Shrove Tuesday, and they cannot leave Binche city limits.
Insider Tip: Part of the Gilles tradition is that they “offer”—some some say, throw—oranges to spectators. As much as you’d like to retaliate, don’t. If you do, you’ll be buried in fruit.
Although Quebec City now has fixed dates for its Winter Carnival (usually held in early February to capture the biggest snowfalls), it originated as part of the French pre-Lenten tradition. Now it’s an excuse to play outside, on skating rinks and toboggan runs and in parades.
Insider Tip: Book a room at the Hôtel de Glace, the ice hotel that opens in Quebec every winter. At night, sleeping bags are placed on top of a mattress and wooden base to shield you from the ice blocks below; some rooms even have fireplaces and Jacuzzis.
Truman Capote wrote about the Carnival on this French Caribbean island in Music for Chameleons, describing it as “surprisingly vital, spontaneous and vivid as a bomb explosion in a fireworks factory.” Mardi Gras here is better known as Red Devil Day, where vibrant Diablo costumes, tridents, and horns are de rigueur.
Insider Tip: Unlike other Carnivals, the party here doesn’t end on Ash Wednesday. Instead, red is exchanged for black and white to mark La Fête des Diablesses (the Day of the She-Devils), when mourners gather to make the symbolic death of Vaval, King Carnival.