Magnificent parades, flashy costumes and vibrant music form a large part of carnivals in many parts of the world. These massive festivities are often rooted in age-old cultural traditions and are a sight to behold. Think elaborate costumes, intricately designed carnival masks and a bustling parade celebrating the carnival season!
Not only are they well-loved by people from different walks of life; but for many, it’s also a great way to let loose and celebrate the joy of life. If you're looking to add one to your travel bucket list, we’ve gathered a list of some of the best and most famous carnivals worth visiting around the globe.
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1. Mardi Gras in New Orleans, United States of America
Mardi Gras (meaning Fat Tuesday in French), is a holiday and cultural phenomenon that dates back to the 18th century. More specifically, in 1703, French settlers in Mobile (then Fort Louis de la Louisiane) celebrated the first Mardi Gras. Today, it’s celebrated in many countries around the world, right before the religious season of Lent (a 40-day season of prayer and fasting).
That said, New Orleans is known to be one of the biggest hosts of Mardi Gras. Days leading up to Lent is the period when you’ll spot merrymakers indulging in good food—all the rich, fatty foods, like cheese and meat, are consumed in anticipation of fasting several weeks after. Never thought the 18th century was that happening? Well, it sure is!
As part of the tradition, people wear Mardi Gras colours (purple, green and gold) even when they’re not in full fantastical costumes topped with masquerade Venetian masks and feathers. Today, Mardi Gras is marked as a festive holiday with lavish parties—where masquerade masks, over-the-top floats, and a cavalcade of jazz bands are seen taking over the streets.
Rather than a single day, these celebrations can last anywhere from four to eight weeks. Annually, it takes place on a Tuesday before Lent in the month of February.
2. Rio Carnival in Brazil
Similarly held before Lent, Rio Carnival in Brazil is arguably one of the biggest carnivals in the world. Yes, even when compared to Mardi Gras.
Historically, this event draws back to the 1700s. Back then, elaborate feasts were organised to pay tribute to the Greek wine gods. It inspired the birth of the carnival, and it has transformed into a must-experience tradition ever since.
The main focus of the Rio Carnival remains on the enthralling sounds of samba music and dancing. It’s safe to say that nobody throws an epic party quite like Brazil. For years, millions have flocked to Rio de Janeiro simply for a week of explosive fun.
Incorporated into every aspect of the Rio Carnival are dancing and music, but what you'll find are also street parades. There are block parties (known as blocos), where street parade bands are played above a truck or float with revellers following behind. Since these parades take place all over the city, simply hit the streets and it won't be long before you find a party.
Don’t worry if you’re not planning on dressing too elaborately. Though parade performers may don their best costumes, spectators are typically dressed more casually—in shorts or dresses that best suit Brazil’s hot February weather. At most, they’d add on small accessories like a gold, white or black cape, colourful beads or feather carnival masks.
Don’t forget about indulging in good food too. Since much of the celebration occurs outdoors, street food is a popular choice during the carnival. In fact, you’ll find tonnes of vendors selling delicious snacks at every corner. The Pao De Queijo (or crispy gooey morsels) is certainly one not to be missed. These puffs are made with tapioca flour, coupled with plenty of cheese such as mozzarella and parmesan.
Another great pick is Coxinhas—deep-fried chicken croquettes jam-packed with fillings like shredded chicken, cheese, onions and herbs. There’s so much more to do there, of course.
Besides the carnival itself, why not go on a half-day Rocinha Favela walking tour, or hop on a cable car and soak in the best views of Brazil?
Either way, get your tickets for the various activities beforehand here. Festivities are typically set in the month of February every year.
3. The Carnival of Venice in Italy
The Carnival of Venice (also known as Carnevale di Venezia) is another historically-rich celebration to note. Not many know this today, but the origin of this Venice carnival is rooted in a military victory. Specifically, the celebration first began in 1162 when the Venice Republic defeated its enemy—the Patriarch of Aquileia. However, this fact has long been forgotten over time.
Soon enough, the Carnevale di Venezia became just another occasion for revelry. Besides elaborate masks and costumes, expect to watch live shows in Piazza San Marco too—where jugglers, musicians and acrobats are seen entertaining the public on stage. The city is packed during this period, with locals and tourists alike.
In terms of noteworthy food, fritters (or fritelle) are most commonly sought after during the Venice carnival. This sweet pastry is sort of a doughnut, presenting itself in all sorts of variations—with chocolate, cream, apple slices, raisins and more.
You’d easily find them in most bakeries and pastry shops during the carnival! Grab a bite before you head to watch the live performances in Piazza San Marco.
Festivities for the Carnevale di Venezia are usually observed before Lent, around February each year.
4. Cologne Carnival, Germany
Just like the countries mentioned above, the city of Cologne comes to life the week before Lent with the Cologne Carnival spicing up the streets. Similarly, dressing up makes up a huge part of the fun. You can pretty much wear whatever you want while there—we’re talking themes that go beyond traditional costumes, including animal heads and themed onesies boasting vibrant neon colours. Almost the entire city is dressed up during Cologne Carnival; the possibilities are endless.
One thing’s for sure: The carnival’s seen as a season of revelry, so expect to witness booze-fueled partygoers parading through the streets during the day as well as in masquerade galas at night. Best of all, most bars and restaurants typically stay open past midnight during the course of the festivities.
Keep an eye out for the parades during the carnival. A particular one—named The Burning of the Nubble, marks a symbolic end to the occasion. Taking place at midnight, here’s where the carnival mascot, known as Nubble (a large straw doll), gets set on fire. Watch as it sets aflame, with the fires representing the burning of sins of the previous year.
Another one, known as The Ghost Parade (or Geisterzug) is for those who love dressing up in any kind of spooky costume—from grim reapers, vampires and ghosts. Held during the carnival’s Saturday celebrations, consider joining in the fun as you march through the Cologne city centre along with the crowd.
Cologne Carnival’s festivities are typically set to take place around February every year.
5. Patras Carnival in Patras, Greece
The Patras Carnival, held annually in the vibrant city of Patras, Greece, is a magnificent celebration that captivates locals and visitors alike with its colourful parades, extravagant costumes, and lively atmosphere. As one of the largest and most renowned carnivals in Europe, the Patras Carnival has a rich history and tradition, dating back to ancient times when Dionysian festivals celebrated the Greek god of wine, fertility and revelry.
Over time, the Patras Carnival evolved, incorporating elements from various historical periods, culminating in the spectacular extravaganza it is today.
During the Patras Carnival, the city comes alive with a whirlwind of events and activities, including theatrical performances, concerts, exhibitions, and street parties, which cater to people of all ages. The carnival reaches its climax with the Grand Parade, featuring elaborately decorated floats, dancers, and performers showcasing their talents and creativity while marching through the city streets. The culmination of the celebration is marked by the ceremonial burning of the carnival king, a symbolic gesture representing the end of the festivities at the Patras Carnival and the purging of sins. With its unique blend of ancient and modern customs, the Patras Carnival offers an unforgettable experience that celebrates the joy and spirit of life.
The Patras Carnival is typically held in the weeks leading up to Lent, typically on 17 January, with the festivities often culminating on the weekend till Clean Monday.
6. Caribbean Carnival
The Caribbean Carnival, an iconic celebration that takes place across various Caribbean islands, is a dazzling showcase of vibrant colours, pulsating rhythms and captivating performances. Stemming from a unique blend of African, European and indigenous cultural influences, these carnivals have become synonymous with the spirit of the Caribbean, attracting visitors from around the world to revel in the lively festivities.
Each island puts its own spin on the Caribbean Carnival, incorporating local traditions and customs, but all share a common thread of exuberant celebration, rich history and an undeniable passion for life.
During the Caribbean Carnival season, the islands come alive with a kaleidoscope of events, including vibrant street parades, mesmerising costume displays and energetic musical performances featuring calypso, soca and steelpan rhythms.
Participants at each Caribbean Carnival adorn themselves in elaborate, feathered costumes and dance their way through the streets, while onlookers cheer and join in the jubilation. The intoxicating atmosphere is further enhanced by the tantalising aroma of local cuisine, as vendors line the streets offering mouth-watering dishes that are as diverse as the carnival itself.
Embodying the essence of Caribbean culture, the Caribbean Carnival is a must-visit experience for those seeking to immerse themselves in a world of joy, unity, and unbridled celebration.
Some festivals popular during the Caribbean Carnival include:
Carnaval Ponceño - February (before Lent), Puerto Rico
Junkanoo - 26 December to 1 January, Bahamas
Antigua Carnival - Late July to early August, Antigua and Barbuda
Anguilla Summer Festival - Late July to early August, Anguilla
Crop Over Festival - Late July to early August, Barbados
Spice Mas - Late July to early August, Grenada
St. Maarten Carnival - February (before Lent), St. Martin, and April, St. Maarten
The Notting Hill Carnival is also held in London, led by the British Caribbean community, for two days on the August bank holiday Monday and the preceding Sunday. So, if you're travelling to London, you can still catch a glimpse of Caribbean Carnival extravagance at the Notting Hill Carnival!
7. Ha Long Carnival, Vietnam
Want to travel from Singapore but not on a long journey? Here’s an option to consider: Ha Long Carnival. Not many have heard of this, but Ha Long Bay sees one of the most colourful and uproarious events annually.
It first began in 2006 as a way for Vietnam and other participating neighbouring countries (including China, Korea and the Philippines) to showcase their unique cultural features and traditions. Most importantly, it was designed to foster a sense of Asian solidarity and friendship through an epic celebration.
Like any festival in the world, this brings a colourful night filled with music, dance and marches to the streets. Expect to see performances such as traditional dance performances from around the region.
Satisfy your appetites with a variety of culinary specialities, which can be found simply by wandering around the streets. Some must-try dishes include fresh seafood like horseshoe crabs, as well as savoury pancakes with grilled chopped squid. On top of all that, you’ll get to enjoy outdoor classical music shows right by Halong Bay’s beautiful seaside, and even a sparkling aerial firework display.
Each year, the Ha Long Carnival takes place for a week between late April and early May.
8. Solo Batik Carnival, Indonesia
As a way to shine a spotlight on Indonesian culture and heritage, the royal city of Solo in Central Java runs the Solo Batik Carnival every year. During the parade, you get to see models present the most gorgeous costumes made from traditional batik fabric.
Batik has long been known to be a part of Indonesian culture; an ancient craft that many Javanese women have leveraged to make a living. It’s even recognised by UNESCO as an Immaterial Cultural Heritage of Humanity!
The Solo Batik Carnival seeks to highlight that same cultural creativity and diversity. Performers don their best batik costumes and dance along to traditional music while making their way through a 4km procession held along the main street of Solo City. Whether it be flowers, animals, landscapes or folklore, be sure to keep your eyes peeled on the batik motifs since various regions of Indonesia each have their unique patterns.
The city offers some of the best dishes that’ll keep your stomach satiated. Best of all, they’re easily located just around the area of the carnival. One popular choice is the Nasi Bakar—a steamed rice bun seasoned with spices and wrapped in a banana leaf. To combat the heat, look out for the Es Dawet Selasih. This sweet treat is essentially an ice cream topped with coconut milk, albahaca seeds and sugar.
It is estimated that the Solo Batik Carnival takes place around July every year.
9. Asakusa Samba Carnival
For an alternative around Asia, head down to the Asakusa Samba Carnival. This takes place annually in Tokyo (Asakusa district, city of Taito), right around the end of August. The roots of this event were formed back in 1981. Essentially, it's a celebration imported from Brazil as a way to revitalise the Japanese district back then.
Today, what you’ll find are dancers in sparkly costumes; much like ones you’ll expect to see in Rio. Underneath all that glitter are local Japanese performers dancing to samba music. The main attraction has to be the floats, with each group in charge of designing a particular theme for their carriage. At times, this can even go up to 250 performers at once!
When it comes to carnivals, it’s best to plant yourself in a good spot in order to not miss any of the action. To witness dancers up close and the passing of floats, make your way to Kaminarimon Dori. It’s also where you’ll spot the famous Sensoji Temple, which makes for a picturesque backdrop for Insta-worthy photos.
The energy emanating from such large carnivals is nothing short of electrifying. Put together a crowd of merrymakers and you’re bound to be influenced by that positivity in some way or another.
Either way, we hope this list has inspired you to go on a once-in-a-lifetime carnival break when you travel overseas! Whether you're visiting the Carnevale di Venezia or the Caribbean Carnival at Puerto Rico, you know you're set for an exhilarating experience.
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