The 13 Samba Schools To Watch Out for at Rio's Carnival 2018

The costumes at the parades | © Raphael David | Riotur/Flickr
Picture of Sarah Brown
Updated: 20 January 2018
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Some of the major highlights of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival are the parades known for their over-the-top performances and collision of colors, samba, and lightning-speed dancing. The main samba schools to watch out for are the 13 from Grupo Especial – the Special Group – who compete against each other to be crowned Champion of Carnival. Their parades will take place over two days – Sunday, 11th February and Monday, 12th February. Culture Trip round up the top 13 schools you should watch out for during Carnival.

Each samba school has a theme for its parades which influence the costumes, the music, and the designs of the floats. These themes vary from social or environmental issues, to honoring important Brazilian figures and retelling historical events. We list Rio’s top schools below in the order that they will parade – each school enters the Sambodrome and has 1 hour and 15 minutes to perform before the next school goes – along with a clip of their chosen music (known as enredo) that represents their theme. No matter what the theme, the music is always undeniably catchy and infectiously animated, capturing the fun and joy of Brazilian Carnival.

Sunday, 11th February

Império Serrano

This is the new school to the Special Group having competed in a lower league last Carnival, so it’s a huge honor for Império Serrano to be among the top. The school’s colors are a vibrant green and white and their theme this year is The Samba Empire on the Road to China.

São Clemente

The second Special Group samba school to parade is São Clemente, recognizable by their yellow and black colors. Their theme this year is Academically Popular and aims to reconcile classic and modern art through a lively, colorful performance.

Unidos de Vila Isabel

Vila Isabel will be the third school to parade and can be identified by their pale blue and off-white colors. Their theme this year is Run, the future is coming, which talks about all the great inventions and discoveries throughout the history of mankind.

Paraíso do Tuiuti

The pale blue and yellow colors of Paraiso do Tuiuti will be apparent in the crowds as fans come out dressed in the school’s colors to support their favorite samba school. Their theme this year is My God, my God, is slavery extinct? which takes a critical look at the history of slavery.

Acadêmicos do Grande Rio

Grande Rio is recognizable by its red, green and white flag. Its theme this year is Will you go to the throne or not? which pays tribute to Abelardo Barbosa, better known as Chacrinha, who was a famous Brazilian comedian and TV and radio personality, and would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year if he were still alive.


One of the largest and most well-known samba schools, Mangueira is easy to spot with its green and pink colors. Its theme this year is With Money or Without Money, I Play, which takes a humorous look at the efforts the authorities made at the beginning of 2017 to cancel Carnival 2018 due to a lack of financial resources.

Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel

Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel can be identified by its green and white colors. Its theme this year is Namastê…The essence that inhabits me greets the one that exists in you, which retells the history of the indigenous populations that lived and still live in Brazil today, and shows how influential and important their culture is to the country.

Monday, 12th February

Unidos da Tijuca

One of Rio’s most exciting schools due to its show-stopping performances and recognition as one of the best samba schools, Unidos da Tijuca will parade this year with the theme An Urban Heart: Miguel, the archangel of the arts, people’s health, and requests for passage. This theme honors Miguel Falabella, a Brazilian actor, author, and director who has played a significant role in Rio’s Carnival by helping with designing the themes for some of the schools. The school colors are blue and yellow.


As the champion of Carnival 2017, everyone’s eyes will be on Portela to see what winning performance they will give this year. This year, their theme is Suddenly from there to here and suddenly from here to there, which takes a look at the significance of the European Jewish immigration in the 17th century and its impact on New York’s development. The school is represented by dark blue and white.

União da Ilha do Governador

Easy to identify with their red, blue and white flag with a large eagle in the middle, União da Ilha do Governador’s theme this year is Brazil bom de boca, which roughly translates to Brazil is a nation that eats a lot, which takes a look at the country’s cuisine.


Another one of the most well-known samba schools, Salgueiro is easily identified by its red and white colors. Its theme this years is Women of the World’s Womb, which highlights the strength and importance of black women in Brazil and the world.

Imperatriz Leopoldinense

Imperatriz Leopoldinense, defined by its green, gold, and white colors, will be the second to last of the Special Group samba schools to parade. Their theme this year is A Royal Night in the National Museum, which pays tribute to the 200th anniversary of the National Museum of Brazil, one of the country’s most important scientific institutions.

Beija-Flor de Nilópolis

This year, Beija-Flor (which translates to hummingbird in English) will be the last to parade out of the Special Group schools. It’s theme this year compares the political and social situation in Brazil to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary this year. The school’s colors are bright blue and white.

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