Originally a Pagan Christian festival celebrating the events in the run up to Lent culminating in Shrove or Fat Tuesday, Carnivals and Mardi Gras have become colorful and flamboyant spectacles where people dress in elaborate costumes and party into the wee hours, attracting travelers across the globe.
With all its pomp and pageantry, Rio Carnival is the biggest and most well known of the Carnival celebrations. However, the Carnival spirit and celebrations occur everywhere- from the New Orleans Mardi Gras to the Venice Carnival and the Festival of Fools in Paris.
Dates and the type of festivities vary from country to country but you’ll need a hotel or hostel to get some rest and grab a shower after a busy day taking in all the sights, sounds and color of Carnival wherever you decide to go!
Here’s a taster of what to expect at some of the top destinations:
Rio Carnival is the biggest and arguably the best of all the carnivals. Featuring street parades, brass bands, masquerade balls and impromptu street parties that go on long into the night, the Rio Carnival attracts millions of visitors every year.
The center piece of the celebrations is the Sambradome which hosts the infamous Samba Parades of the city’s Samba Schools. Here the 12 best schools compete to be crowned the best Parade of Carnival in a stunning spectacle that is a sea of breathtaking costumes, beautiful girls and well-rehearsed dances. It really has to be seen to be believed.
Believed by many to date back as early as 1296, the Venice Carnival has evolved to become one of the most popular carnivals in the world. It is perhaps best known for the vast array of colorful masks on display during the Festival period with the image of the masked reveler now an international icon of Venice in the winter time.
Visitors can expect spontaneous street performances by bands in the street as well as elaborate paid-for parties. It doesn’t have the same well rehearsed pageantry and choreography as Rio Carnival but has just as much character.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is like nowhere else in the world. Originally introduced to the city by the Spanish settlers, Mardi Gras on Shrovetide or Fat Tuesday is the culmination of more than a month of Carnival celebrations which start on the 12th night or Feast of Epiphany.
The whole city comes out to celebrate in an atmosphere which is fun, vibrant and downright sassy! Several parades are featured including the Bacchus Parade where the ‘King’ of Mardi Gras ‘throws’ doubloons- small coins with his image on them- into the expectant crowds. Cups and other objects are also thrown by the parade floats into the frenzied masses. Chaotic and awash with color, Mardi Gras New Orleans style is something not to be missed.
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Winterlude Festival: 5th – 21st February; Ottawa, Canada
Winterlude offers a completely different experience to any of the other Carnivals. Celebrations are centered upon the canal which features a 9 km long skating lane- the world’s longest outdoor skating venue.
Thousands flock to the venue every year to get involved in all the fun which involves skating displays, snow and ice sculpture competitions, musical concerts at the Winterlude Snowball and much more besides.
Paris Carnival: 14th February; Paris, France
Dating back to the Festival of Fools, the Paris Carnaval is one of the lesser known and more unusual Carnivals but is definitely among the best. As a consequence- the massive crowds that hinder views at Notting Hill or Mardi Gras are not present, and by comparison, it is relatively easy to follow the main parade which centers around the Promenade du Bouef Gras or Fat Cow.
All the usual crazy costumes are present as well as drum bands and music aplenty. Unlike the other Carnivals, it is just a day long event and this year falls on Valentines Day which would certainly make for a date with a difference!
Cologne Carnival: 11th – 17th February; Cologne, Germany
Considered a question of honor to embrace Carnival, all sense of normality disappears during Carnival season in Cologne as the whole city enters the party spirit. Respectable workers ditch their suits for clown costumes and hit the streets to party and dance. At 11.11 am on 11 February the main carnival week is declared officially open with the Women’s Carnival Day.
The main event, Rosenmontag, takes place on the Monday when Cologne has its own unique version of parade through the heart of Cologne. Tractors and highly decorated lorries take over as the city becomes a sea of color.
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Santa Cruz de Tenerife Carnival: 12th – 21st February; Tenerife, Spain
The Santa Cruz de Tenerife Carnival is the second largest of its kind in the world behind Rio de Janeiro. It is no less spectacular and in many ways is the most similar to Rio – from the gorgeous and stunning girls to the marching bands, music and impromptu street celebrations.
All the islanders take part in proceedings which have their own unique twist with the Entierro de La Sardina- the Burial of the Sardine. Everyone dresses in black for the parade in which a home made effigy of a fish is buried to mark the passing of Carnival and the return to ordinary life.
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