World’s Coolest Carnivals
Carnival was originally a Catholic holiday celebrated from two days to two weeks before Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. As Lent was 46 days of fasting and sacrifice leading up to Easter, Carnival was all about getting in one last hurrah. The date of Easter changes each year according to a lunar calendar calculation, so the date of Ash Wednesday can be anywhere from February 4 to March 10. The festival often features parades, colourful costumes, and a lot of celebrating, and it has spread throughout the world. Here are 11 famous carnivals you should go see if you have the chance.
1. New Orleans
It’s the Big Party in the Big Easy! Brought by the French, this city-wide festival culminates in “Mardi Gras” (Fat Tuesday), however, the entire event has taken on that name. The parades feature floats from competing “krewes” and the competition is serious. Parties serve “king cake” and whoever gets the tiny plastic baby in their slice of cake gets to host the party next time. A bit of flashing in exchange for bead necklaces down on Bourbon Street is another popular tradition though it might not be quite as family friendly as the parades. (Photo credit: Kevin Revolinski)
2. Acireale, Sicily
This little town in Sicily bills itself as the Most Beautiful Carnival in Sicily. That might not sound like much but the floats in this festival are extraordinary and the streets are taken over by revellers with squeaking plastic hammers. They go about spraying each other with silly string and giving playful whacks on the head as they pass.
(Photo credit: Kevin Revolinski)
This former territory of the Netherlands has a long parade with plenty of live soca and calypso music and roaming drink providers for each group supporting their float. The festival ends with the burning of a large King Momo effigy. No need to stand along the curb on this one though: travellers can plan and pay in advance to actually join one of the carnival groups and have a costume waiting for them when they arrive. (Photo credit: Kevin Revolinski)
4. Venice, Italy
In oldie but a goodie, Venice’s Carnival has been around since 1268. The practices of parades and masquerades take the origins in medieval Italy and for the longest time the Venetian Carnival was the most famous. There is something so classic, cool and magical about a carnival in this city of canals. It’s all about the fine masks which were traditionally made of glass and decorated with gems and feathers. (Photo credit: Kevin Revolinski)
5. Canary Islands
Carnival is Spain’s biggest event and the carnival at Santa Cruz de Tenerife is one of the largest in the world. In fact, the city is hoping to get UNESCO approval as a World Heritage Site. Surrounding towns have “drag queen of carnival” competitions. Music, as always, is important. When the Queen of Salsa, Cuba’s Celia Cruz performed here, she entered the world record books for the largest concert attendance at over a quarter of a million. (Photo by Jose-Mesa / Flickr Creative Commons)
6. Nice, France
The Nice Carnival enters the history books in 1294 when a prince was in attendance, but it likely goes back much further. The 15-day event helps the folks on the French Riviera survive the colder days of winter. Illuminated floats light up The Place Massena and set out on a loop through the heart of the city. The 20 floats follow a theme each year and feature large papier-mâché characters. During the Flower Parade, costumed riders on the floats throw flowers into the crowds. (Photo by debs-eye / Flickr Creative Commons)
7. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Who doesn’t think Rio when they hear the word Carnival? It is the world’s largest and perhaps the most extravagant. But it only dates back to 1723, a newcomer when compared to Europe. Samba “schools” support floats and summon groups for the costumed parades complete with choreography and music from a live band called a bateria. Beyond the formal parade there are also many local street festivities. The music and dancing never seem to stop. (Photo by sfmission-dot-com / Flickr Creative Commons)
8. Trinidad and Tobago
Break out the soca music for this two-day festival that includes limbo competitions, stick fighting, dancing, music, and parades. It’s a hot and humid place, so the costumes can be on the skimpy side. As one local guide explained, laughing, “The women pick up their costumes in an envelope.” Musicians are known for their steelpan performances and the competition is intense. Being named the Calypso Monarch is instant fame and a bit of fortune. (Photo by Jean-Marc / Flickr Creative Commons)
9. Goa, India
Carnival in India? For real? The Portuguese brought the festival during years of occupation. Though this is the only area that celebrates it, the three-day event of singing, dancing and drinking has grown in popularity and draws tourists. King Momo presides over the festivities and it all ends with the Red and Black dance. (Photo by joegoauk24 / Flickr Creative Commons)
Los Carnavales de Panama is the second largest celebration in the world. Though there is a massive four-day street celebration in Panama City and a cool, laid back festival in Isla de Toros, the place to be is Las Tablas. The groups of High Street and Low Street have a long rivalry with floats, costumes and insults. Enjoy “las mojaderas” when large tanker trucks spray cold water on the crowds in the tropical sun. Local “queens” wear the traditional polleras, beautiful long dresses. The festivities end on Wednesday with a burial of sardines. Or do they?
Panamanians wait all year for this national vacation and start saving money for the revelry months in advance. And it ain’t over when it’s over. Expect one more weekend of parties after Ash Wednesday, known as Carnivalitos, “little carnivals.” (Photo by Steven-J-Golliday / Flickr Creative Commons)
11. Quebec City, Canada
Dare we forget? For 17 days beginning in late January, the Plains of Abraham become a winter amusement park for what is one of the world’s largest winter carnivals. Rather than King Momo, Bonhomme, a large snowman with a red hat, is the central personality of the festivities. Activities include a canoe race on the icy St. Lawrence River, snow sculptures, dancing (yes, outside!), sleigh races, and outdoor movies. An enormous ice castle is built for the event. To make sure there is snow for all the frosty activities every year, the carnival does not follow the Easter calendar which could put it partly into March and possibly an early spring. (Photo credit: Carnaval de Québec)