By Briana Seftel
Strands of beads thrown in the street, jewel-encrusted masks, and parades from dawn until dusk mean one thing: carnival! Occuring every year before Lent, carnival is the festival to end all festivals. Described as a “general reversal of everyday rules and norms,” carnival is not for the faint of heart. From the tropical coast of Brazil to the canals of Venice, here are seven amazing, can’t-miss carnival celebrations around the world.
Brazil is the destination for carnival. Brazil’s festivities are believed to have roots in the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which began in ancient Rome as a way to get rid of bad spirits and welcome in a new season. Known for samba and scantily-clad dancers, Brazilian carnival is a raucous event for all ages and demographics.
The sun-soaked, sexy city of Rio de Janeiro holds the largest carnival in the world with an estimated 2 million visitors per day! Outside of Rio, almost every big city and small town in Brazil has its own festival, each one different from the other. The capital of Bahia, Salvador, holds the title as the birthplace of carnival in Brazil.
Trinidad and Tobago
Carnival is celebrated all over the Caribbean, but no island nation does it quite like Trinidad and Tobago. Known as the birthplace of steelpan drums, the limbo, and various musical styles like soca, it’s no wonder Trinidadians love carnival! Brought by French settlers from Martinique in the late 18th century, carnival begins with a massive street party known as J’ouvert (a contraction of the French words “jour” and “ouvert” meaning “open day.”) The festivities continue for two days as floats, dancers, and revelers party in the streets until the wee hours.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Known as Mardi Gras, New Orleans’ annual celebration is known the world over for its colorful, alcohol-infused display of debauchery. Brought by the French Catholics in the late 17th century, the tradition of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is older than the United States itself! By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions to celebrate Mardi Gras, and in 1872, the first King of Carnival was crowned.
Today, revelers from all over the world descend upon Louisiana's alluring city in February for the festivities. Beads in the signature colors of purple, gold and green are thrown from iron balconies, drinks are had at all hours of the day (it’s legal to drink on the streets), and intricate floats parade down Bourbon Street in an array of color and sound.
As one of the most Catholic countries in the world, it comes as no surprise that Mexico celebrates carnival in full. Celebrations vary depending on region, but all begin with “Quema del Mal Humor” (Burning of Bad Mood). Usually the burning of an unpopular figure, this tradition represents leaving behind the bad and ushering in the good. The festivities continue with the crowning of a Carnival King and Queen, parades with extravagant floats, and lots of delicious food. The largest carnival is held in the port city of Mazatlan, while other notable carnivals include Veracruz, Cozumel, Campeche, Ensenada and Merida.
The history of carnival in Venice extends far and wide. First recorded in 1268, it consisted of over two months of revelry before it fell into decline during the 18th century. It was revived in 1979 by the Italian government as a way to preserve Venetian culture, and has remained a popular event with locals and tourists ever since. Festivities range from grand balls to people watching in St. Mark’s Square.
Venice puts its famous masks to use during this two-week event as locals fill the streets dressed in elaborate costume. Masks have become a cultural touchstone of the event, as mask-makers (known in Italian as mascherari) enter a contest in hopes their mask will be declared the winner.
Uruguay for carnival? You betcha! This unspoiled country in South America lays claim to the longest carnival in the world, spanning an astonishing 40 days! While many Uruguayan cities have some sort of celebration, the biggest festivities are held in the capital city of Montevideo. The tradition of carnival began with African slaves who came to the country in the middle of the 18th century, bringing their own unique culture and customs to the Spanish settlement. A signature of Uruguayan carnival is candombe, a music brought by the slaves that was recognized by UNESCO. Visitors to Montevideo can even check out a museum dedicated to carnival, located opposite the port.
Central Europe is not generally thought of as a carnival destination, but Cologne, Germany throws a rousing spectacle filled with unique traditions. Almost as old as the city itself, Germany’s “fifth season of the year” officially begins on November 11 at exactly 11:11 am. Following its motto “Jede Jeck es anders” (Every fool is different), Cologne’s carnival is known as being one of the most tolerant festivals in the world.
Visitors to Cologne in February will find parties on the streets and in public squares, not to mention closing times for pubs and bars are suspended for the duration of the festival! The highlight is Rose Monday, where the Prince, the Peasant and the Maiden parade through the city. For a tasty, sugar-dusted treat, try kreppel, or donuts, the signature food of Cologne carnival.