Most of us are familiar with some of the most famous Carnival celebrations in the world — Rio, Venice and New Orleans among them. But Carnival is celebrated all over the world in nearly any place that has a strong Catholic background, so there are plenty of places where you can enjoy festivities even if you’re not in Brazil or Louisiana this year.
In addition to the majors, here are places with some of the more interesting Carnival celebrations around the world.
While dates change every year and vary slightly by destination, most Carnival celebrations take place in the days before Lent. In 2016, Lent falls on February 10, so most events take place February 8 and 9.
Sure, we’ve all heard about Carnival in Rio, but there are celebrations in other parts of Brazil, too. One of the other cities that does Carnival in a big way is Salvador, where traditional Brazilian dancing is accompanied by live Bahia music performed by bands carried on the back of big trucks through the city center. Carnival in Salvador takes place in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday. Virtually anywhere you go in Brazil during Carnival, however, you’ll find some kind of party.
The centuries-old Carnival of Venice lures approximately three million visitors every year. Its ornate masks are legendary, and revelers come decked out in full regalia. Highlights of the festivities include a giant masquerade ball and parade of the most beautifully costumed. The Venetian carnival begins two Saturdays before Ash Wednesday.
Venture beyond Venice to the town of Ivrea, and you’ll encounter a different variety of Carnival in Italy. Ivrea’s Battle of the Oranges pits orange-throwing teams — you need to be a fee-paying member to participate — against one another. It’s a food fight of epic proportions, which spectators can watch from behind special nets.
You’d be forgiven for thinking, “Carnival? In Belgium?” But the Carnival in Binche, Belgium, dates back several centuries and is now on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Binche celebrates with three days of parades preceding Lent, during one of which men known as Gilles, dressed in colorful costumes and clogs, throw blood oranges into the crowds.
Another Carnival celebration that makes UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list is one found in Oruro, Bolivia, with festivities taking place over the course of 10 days around Ash Wednesday. Featuring prominently in Oruro’s Carnival is the Diablada, a particular form of dance, and the main event of Carnival is the entrada held on the Saturday before Lent — during which more than 20,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians form a parade lasting an incredible 20 hours. The religious roots of Oruro’s celebrations date back to pre-colonial times, when the indigenous people would make offerings to Mother Earth and a God of the Mountains.
Cold places aren’t ideally suited to scantily clad parade dancers, but the weather lends good reason for a celebration to warm the spirit. So in Moscow and all over Russia, the week before Lent is marked by locals stuffing themselves silly on the thin pancakes known as blini. Russia’s Carnival-esque week is called Maslenitsa, translated as either “Pancake Week” or the even more fattening “Butter Week,” and celebrations also include masquerade balls and outdoor winter sports, as well as activities such as sleigh rides and snowball fights.
Mexico celebrates Carnival in cities throughout the country, but the biggest Carnival celebration happens in the seaside resort town of Mazatlán. Some smaller towns incorporate indigenous traditions, but in Mazatlán the Carnival celebrations are similar to those you’ll see in other parts of the world, with costumes, parades and live music. The popular local blend of Mexican and polka music, called Banda, is what you’ll hear most often during Carnival in Mazatlán.
New Orleans, USA
Mardi Gras, America’s massive Carnival celebration in New Orleans, is French for “Fat Tuesday” and culminates on this day, although the festivities begin a couple of weeks prior, with street parties, balls and parades, skewing family-friendly at first and becoming rowdier as the big day approaches. Most renowned are the gorgeous themed floats, led by “krewes” — purveyors of those iconic strands of beads — presided over by a king or queen.
The Indian state of Goa is well-known for its festive atmosphere, so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn it’s also home to India’s biggest Carnival celebration. This is partly thanks to the influence left from Portugal’s centuries of rule over Goa, and partly thanks to Goa’s modern residents who have incorporated their own Hindu elements into Carnival. Carnival in Goa lasts for three days, during which you’ll see fireworks and parades of costumed characters, as well as revelers dumping buckets of colored water on spectators.
Residents of Nice will tell you theirs is the oldest Carnival celebration in the world, dating back to 1294. Whatever the truth of matter, Carnival in Nice is a great spectacle with parades of huge floats over multiple days during the festival, which lasts more than two weeks. Nice’s party may not be as famous worldwide as that of New Orleans or Rio, but it’s well-known enough to attract more than one million revelers each year.
Trinidad and Tobago
The capital of Trinidad and Tobago claims to have the biggest Carnival celebration in the Caribbean, and although some of the elements are familiar — outlandish costumes and big parade floats — some are unique combinations of Catholic and local features, with Band of the Year and Calypso Monarch competitions. Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago takes place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Quebec City, Canada
Carnival is a moving target, the dates changing each year with the Catholic calendar, but the Quebec Winter Carnival is held every year in late January/early February. Centered around Old Quebec, the 17-day festival’s highlights include ice and snow sculptures, night parades featuring festival mascot Bonhomme, snow slides and a variety of outdoor winter sports. You won’t see the skimpy Rio-style attire in Quebec, but you can attend a masquerade ball (indoors!) and stay warm with Caribou, a heated drink made of wine, whiskey and maple syrup.
PortugalPortugal might have exported its Catholicism to places like Brazil, thereby influencing the original Carnival celebrations there, but these days Portugal has imported Brazilian-style Carnival traditions back across the pond. Carnival celebrations differ across the country, but most Portuguese regions incorporate elaborate costumes and samba parades. In some regions, large masks or figures are made and then burned in big bonfires.
The Cologne Carnival, known as the city’s “fifth season of the year,” is a raucous affair that humorously begins at 11:11 a.m. on the 11th day of November, but really kicks into gear following the new year. The designated “crazy days” of the festival begin on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday — closing times for pubs and bars are suspended during this period — and climax with the Rose Monday Parade, with floats distributing flowers and sweets on the streets. The Cologne Carnival also boasts a festive LGBT scene.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Finally, the largest celebration of them all, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival is a flurry of ornate floats and costumery, and the epicenter event sees the best samba schools dancing it out in the Sambodromo. Although Rio’s Carnival as is typical culminates on Fat Tuesday, and is officially a five-day event, street parties — otherwise known as blocos or bandas — in which musicians lead dancing crowds like pied pipers, can begin a month in advance and continue for weeks after the samba parades.
— Jessica Spiegel