6 of the World’s Best Carnival Celebrations
Let loose and join the party at the most epic pre-Lenten festivals on the planet.
Elaborate costumes, loud music, over-the-top parades, and nonstop parties — Carnival is all about excess, as revelers indulge before a period of fasting and restraint during Lent. With roots in ancient pagan traditions that heralded the end of winter, Carnival is today tied to the Christian calendar and marks the days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Here are six of the wildest, loudest, and most unforgettable Carnival celebrations around the globe.
Rio de Janeiro
Nowadays, Carnival is near-synonymous with Rio de Janeiro’s outlandish celebration. A lifetime bucket-list event for many of the 5 million people who attend each year, this is the party to end all parties. Colorful, noisy, and joyous, samba parades are the highlight of the multi-day event, during which crowds pack into the specially built Sambadrome to watch a procession of giant floats and elaborately costumed dancers strut their stuff in celebration of Brazilian music and culture. Beyond the samba line, hundreds of Carnival balls and street parties (known as blocos) take place throughout Rio de Janeiro, each with their own unique flavor and dress code.
Insider tip: Advance tickets to the nightly parades are strongly encouraged, and transfer packages can help you navigate the dense crowds.
Famous for its elaborate masquerade balls, the “Carnivale di Venezia” puts a sumptuous spin on the Carnival tradition. Costumed revelers recreate the decadent atmosphere of 18th-century Venice, filling St. Mark’s Square with swishing gowns, adorned wigs, gentlemen’s cloaks, and handcrafted Venetian masks that are sold throughout the city. Nightly balls featuring dinner and dancing have regal dress codes and price tags to match, but anyone can join in the festivities at public parades or costumed pub crawls at Venice’s bacari, or wine bars.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Celebrated on the largest of the Canary Islands, this massive carnival combines sunny island vibes with Spanish traditions and music for a wild, multicultural ride. The party officially starts with a high-glam gala to elect the year’s carnival queens and continues with an opening parade featuring festooned dancers and musical groups known as murgas and rondallas. Colorful street parties keep the celebration going all through a long weekend until Ash Wednesday. Then, Santa Cruz’s Carnival officially ends with the unusual Spanish tradition of a mock funeral procession and burning of a giant papier-mâché sardine — a symbol of society’s rebirth after excess.
The most famous Carnival in North America goes by the French name for “Fat Tuesday” — Mardi Gras. New Orleans’ epic party season also lasts longer than most, with an intense 2-week period of parades and parties before the start of Lent. Visitors from around the globe flock into town to pack the bars of the historic French Quarter and watch rollicking parades put on by Krewes, nonprofit social clubs that build elaborate floats and host costumed balls.
Port of Spain
Trinidad and Tobago
The biggest and brightest carnival in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago’s celebration features two days of wild, rum-soaked revelry. The party kicks off with a sunrise street party known as “J’ouvert” and doesn’t stop until Shrove Tuesday. The island nation’s Carnival parades are replicated around the world and feature color-coordinated “Mas bands” in feathered and bejeweled costumes dancing to the beat of calypso music. When the sun goes down (and comes back up again), the fun goes on at Carnival fetes that range from casual beach parties and breakfast bashes to elaborate invite-only affairs.
Staking a claim as Europe’s largest street festival, this Carnival brings Caribbean culture to the streets of West London. Unlike pre-Lenten Carnivals that take place in the winter, this one has nothing to do with the Christian calendar and is instead held at the end of August. Inspired by Trinidad’s Carnival, plus the traditions of London’s West Indian community, partygoers take to the streets for dancing and parading to the sounds of bass-heavy sound systems, DJ sets, and steel drums. Each year, around 2 million people attend this marvelous, multicultural celebration of Britain’s Black diaspora.
Author: Madigan Talmage-Bowers
Madigan Talmage-Bowers is a writer based in Denver, Colorado. She has also lived in Italy, San Francisco, and New York City, where she studied media theory at the New School. She loves introducing her kids to ancient history, local art, hiking trails, and new foods on adventures around the globe.