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 Carnival festivities even if you’re not in Brazil or Louisiana this year.
Here are the countries with some of the more interesting Carnival celebrations around the world.
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 the traditional Brazilian dancing is accompanied by live Bahia music performed by bands carried on the back of big trucks through the city center. Virtually anywhere you go in Brazil during Carnival, however, you’ll find some kind of party.
Venice’s Carnival masks and ornate costumes are legendary, but for something even more strange in Italy you’ll need to visit the town of Ivrea during Carnival. Ivrea’s Battle of the Oranges pits orange-throwing teams against one another. It’s a food fight of epic proportions. The town of Viareggio takes a more stately approach toward Carnival, with its parades of caricatures of famous people.
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, 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 La Diablada Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia. The Diablada is a particular dance that features prominently in Oruro’s Carnival parades, when nearly 50 different groups of dancers form a procession each Saturday during Carnival. 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 yet another reason for a celebration that’ll warm the spirit. So in Moscow, the week before Lent is marked by locals stuffing themselves silly on the thin pancakes known as blini. Moscow’s Carnival-esque week is called Mslenitsa, translated as either “Pancake Week” or the even more fattening “Butter Week,” and celebrations also include masquerade balls and outdoor winter sports.
Mexico celebrates Carnival in cities throughout the country, but the biggest Carnival celebration happens in the seaside city of Mazatlán. Some smaller towns incorporate the indigenous traditions of those towns, but in Mazatlán the Carnival celebrations are similar to the ones 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.
The Indian state of Goa is well-known for its festive atmosphere, so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Goa is home to India’s biggest Carnival celebration, too. 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 that statement is, Carnival in modern 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. Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago lasts for months, with a Carnival Steel Pan competition happening before Carnival, so to really get the full flavor of the festival you might want to plan to stay awhile.
Quebec City, Canada
Carnival is a moving target, the dates changing each year with the Catholic calendar, but in Quebec City they’ve removed the date-related confusion. Quebec’s Winter Carnival is held in late January/early February each year, and highlights include ice and snow sculptures as well as 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.
Portugal 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 things like elaborate costumes and samba parades. In some regions, large masks or figures are made and then burned in big bonfires.
- Jessica Spiegel