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Carnaval, as it’s known in Spain, takes place during the week leading up to Lent, usually around the end of February, and is one of the most vibrant and lively events on the Spanish calendar. Like with most things in Spain, each area or city has a slightly different take on the occasion, however you can be sure to always find buzzing parades, fantastic costumes and fabulous parties. Here are the best places to celebrate carnival around Spain.
The island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands is home to Spain’s biggest and wildest carnival, lasting a whopping three whole weeks. Emulating the famous Rio Carnival in Brazil – think flamboyant parades and dancers clad in sparkly costumes with feather headdresses – the festival centers around various competitions. However, rather than samba, these pageants are to elect who will be crowned Carnival Queen, with other competitions also happening, like Children’s Carnival Queen, Seniors’ Carnival Queen, and Carnival Drag Queen. Highlights include the Mogollones, live street parties with Latin and salsa music; the Cabalgata, or Grand Parade, full of extravagant floats and costumes; and the Entierro de la Sardina, the Burial of the Sardine, a comic and grotesque funeral procession to make way for Lent.
The coastal city of Cádiz takes a different approach to carnival. Here it’s not so much about glittering costumes and elaborate floats, as it is about humor and wit. This doesn’t mean it’s not as popular – on the contrary, it’s one of the biggest and best carnivals in the country. Entertainment focuses on music, and during this time the city streets are flooded with groups of troubadours in costume, singing and playing musical instruments. Most of the songs are satirical and aim at making fun of politicians, celebrities and well-known figures within the community. Daily firework displays and competitions are also part of the celebratory itinerary.
The coastal town of Sitges lies around half an hour south of Barcelona and hosts a legendary carnival celebration, attracting over 250,000 people each year. Particularly popular with the LGBTQ community, its focus is on parades, outrageously flamboyant costumes and, of course, magnificent parties. While most carnivals in Spain feature some kind of drag procession or performance, Sitges goes in for it in a big way, attracting the best drag talent from across Europe each year.
Barcelona’s carnival may not be as big and elaborate as those in Tenerife, Cádiz or Sitges, but the Catalan capital celebrates in its own way. While there’s not one main procession in the city, that’s because each district celebrates with its own, with schools and organizations dressing up in themed costumes and parading through the streets. The area with the biggest festivities is El Born, which holds a drag queen horse-and-carriage parade and live concerts. The neighborhood also hosts La Taronjada (Battle of the Oranges), which, instead of using real oranges like in Italy, uses orange balloons and confetti.
Like Barcelona, Madrid’s carnival may not be as big as some of the others, however it still makes for an entertaining sight. The capital city’s own take on carnaval is like a mix between the Venice Carnival, with its elaborate masks, and Cádiz, with its humorous songs. The main event is the Parade of Buffoons, which features Venetian outfits, as well as jesters and traditional costumes from around the world. Murgas and chirigotas – choirs and comedic theatrical groups – also perform jokes and satirical songs in the streets. The festival culminates in the Burial of the Sardine, like in Tenerife.