The 12 Best Carnivals Around The World

Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife | © Philippe Teuwen/Flickr
Nina Starner

Every culture has their own way of throwing a great party, and what better way is there to throw an amazing bash than stopping everyday life for a stretch to enjoy a fabulous carnival? Read ahead for your official carnival bucket list, from Spain to New Orleans to the Canary Islands.

Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

The Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife is held every February in the Canary Islands, where Santa Cruz de Tenerife is the capital of the largest island. Though the name of this carnival might not be as well known, it is considered the second most popular carnival in the world, after Rio de Janeiro’s famous carnival! The party starts on a Friday and continues straight through Ash Wednesday when participants go through a tradition called entierro de la sardina (meaning ‘burial of the sardine’), but not to worry — the party begins again the following weekend.

Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

Rio de Janeiro Carnival

Held just before Lent each year, the Rio de Janeiro Carnival is the worldwide standard for huge festivals. With over two million people in attendance each year, it is the world’s biggest carnival and has been running annually since 1723. Though the revelers are allowed to move freely around the carnival, the floats themselves are quite organized — they are staffed exclusively with samba schools, or groups of neighbors that want to perform together. This carnival is filled with street festivals and numerous parties, and even features Queens of the Carnival.

Carnival of Venice

The Carnival of Venice, which takes place just before Lent and ends on that holy day, is all about the decorative masks native to the city itself. Though nobody is sure exactly how this carnival began, it is said to date all the way back to 1162, but it became extremely famous during the 18th century for its excess and was even outlawed from 1797 until 1979, thanks to the conservative King of Austria (who even outlawed masks entirely). Now that masks are no longer outlawed, each gargantuan carnival holds a competition for la maschera più bella, or ‘the most beautiful mask.’

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Cadiz Carnival

Cadiz Carnival is just one of many carnivals that happens in Spain, which certainly has no shortage of festivities. Though the festival itself only runs for two weeks every year, the rest of the year is still consumed with rehearsals, planning and preparation, making this carnival feel like a year-round event. Cadiz relies on music for its entertainment, and the most popular musical performances are always the chirigotas, who use worldwide news events as fodder for their song lyrics.

Mardi Gras

Taking place on Fat Tuesday, which was legally declared a holiday in Louisiana in 1875, Mardi Gras is certainly one of the most famous festivals in the United States and, perhaps, in the entire world. Though many of Mardi Gras’ traditions developed in medieval Europe, specifically in spots like Rome and Venice (which, of course, sees its fair share of carnivals), they came to New Orleans upon its creation in the mid-1700s. Today, excited partiers travel from all over the United States to attend Mardi Gras celebrations, and Mardi Gras is known for over-the-top floats and costumes, drunken revelry, and, of course… beads.

Mardi Gras

Notting Hill Carnival

The Notting Hill Carnival, held annually in the perennially chic Notting Hill neighborhood in London every August, is devoted to the traditions of the British West Indian community. Attracting over a million people each year, this carnival is a huge part of British life and culture, even though it is not technically part of the religious ‘Carnival’ season surrounding Lent. This carnival is heavily music-focused and includes the use of large-scale sound systems and live performances. There’s even a Notting Hill Carnival app that can help you navigate the different traditions and events during the festival!

Binche Carnival

Binche Carnival, or ‘Le Carnaval de Binche,’ is a huge carnival event that takes place in Belgium and pays tribute to this fascinating country’s heritage and traditions, so much so that it was named a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO. For several Sundays that lead up to Ash Wednesday, there are smaller parades that include fantastical performances and live music, but the main event takes place around Shrove Tuesday and is dominated by ‘Gilles,’ or performers styled like clowns who wear everything from wax masks to wooden shoes.

Binche Carnival

Carnival of Oruro

Also named as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO, the Carnival of Oruro in Bolivia is over 200 years old and is steeped in rich history. This particular carnival is indigenous in origin but was expanded over time to include Christian rituals as well. This carnival is focused heavily on traditional dances and ceremonies — the traditional dance of the festival is known as the ‘llama llama’ or diablada, and there are over 48 dance groups that perform over 15 different folk dances throughout the festivities.

Carnival of Viareggio

The Carnival of Viareggio, held in the Tuscan town of, well, Viareggio, is upheld as one of Europe’s most important and well-known festivals. The main parade takes place next to Viareggio’s beach on its main strip and features floats and masks, both of which are made of paper, and depict politicians, athletes and other famous figures, and all of the floats each year are built across the city in what is referred to as the ‘Carnival Citadel.’ In fact, the origin of the carnival was simply a disagreement-turned-competition between Viareggio’s townspeople — while the wealthier citizens wanted a parade of flowery floats, local citizens decided to protest while adorned with masks.

Carnival of Viareggio

Sitges Carnival

The Sitges Carnival in Spain, which takes place in February and attracts over 2,000 visitors, is located in a town a little ways south of Barcelona, which is primarily known for this outrageous event. Events kick off with the arrival of a figure called ‘King Carnestoltes’ and, like the Carnival of Santa Cruz, include a ‘burial of the sardine,’ along with numerous parades with names like ‘Debauchery’ and ‘Extermination,’ which should give visitors a good idea of what these parades are all about. Two huge traditions of the Sitges Carnival are folk dancing and xanotades, which is a meal comprised of an omelette served with a local salad.

Ivrea Carnival

Italy‘s Ivrea Carnival is based around a huge, battle-style event referred to as the ‘Battle of the Oranges,’ which is famously the biggest food fight in all of Italy. Though it remains a mystery as to how this tradition came about, it is a favorite Italian tradition and one that is joyously observed each year in February, when townspeople divide into a number of teams and literally throw oranges at each other for three full days, ending the carnival on Shrove Tuesday with a silent march and code phrase ‘arvedse a giobia a ‘n bot,‘ which means ‘see you next Thursday at one.’ However, ‘next Thursday’ refers to the following year’s carnival, meaning the events are over for the next year.

Ivrea Carnival

Torello Carnival

The Torello Carnival takes place outside of Barcelona at the end of February through the beginning of March and is a dedicated festival of drunken revelry and outright insanity (search the ‘Pullasu celebration‘ on Youtube to see something extraordinarily strange). Alongside this is a crossdressing parade, where men dress (scantily) as women, and there’s plenty of binge drinking to go around as well — all around, the Torello Carnival is not for the faint of heart.
By Nina Starner

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