While Rio may be the most famous place to host Carnival each year, the celebration takes place around the world. If you like a big party and want the opportunity to enjoy colorful local culture, these destinations offer some of the best on the planet.
Venice, Italy (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Carnival is one of the biggest celebrations in all of Italy, but there is no place in the nation that does it bigger or better than Venice. If you’ve ever wanted to dress like a character from Phantom of the Opera, here’s your chance. It takes place beginning two Saturdays before Ash Wednesday, and ends on Fat Tuesday – if you visit between this time, it would be nearly impossible not to see at least a few locals and tourists sporting Venetian masks, which serve as the main component of this highly anticipated annual celebration. While many events, such as the lavish masquerade balls, require invitations and come with exorbitant ticket prices, many others, like the candlelit parade of boats, concerts and street performances, are free and open to the public. Keep in mind that most of the excitement can be found on the weekends, and the final weekend in particular. St. Mark’s Square is the focal point, where you’ll see the most elaborate costumes and masks.
Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago (Hotel Prices & Photos)
When it comes to Carnival, Trinidad rivals even Rio when it comes to excitement. Calypso and soca music (a combination of calypso, funk and soul), fueled by the beat of steel pans, provide the soundtrack for the Caribbean’s biggest Carnival of all. Combining slave celebrations with Catholic traditions, you’ll see, and can join in, with the costume-wearing locals who dance through the streets of the capital city. While you’re here, you can also sample flavors and foods that can’t be experienced anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. Though Roti is the country most iconic dish, with roti stands and eateries found throughout its capital Port of Spain, you’ll find a diverse selection of cultures and cuisines that create a fusion of South Asian and Caribbean fare. St. James, on the western edge of Port of Spain, is the place to go for street cuisine, abuzz with vendors selling jerk meats and barbecue, roti, Creole corn soup, vegetarian fare, fruit punch and homemade ice cream.
Montevideo, Uruguay (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Uruguay’s Carnival embraces its Spanish as well as its African roots. If you’re in the charming city of Montevideo in late January or February, you’re likely to wake up to the sounds of pulsating drumbeats. Step outside and you’ll see women clad in colorful, lavish costumes dancing to the rhythm. Street performances called Murgas satirize the upper class with their political satire, bringing roars of laughter from the crowds, while slave descendants establish the drum groups to compete in the parades. If you aren’t able to be here during the official Carnival season, you can still experience some of it at Museo del Carnaval in Old Town, with tradition costumes, tableaus and floats on display Tuesday through Thursday all year round.
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada (Hotel Prices & Photos)
If sizzling heat just isn’t your thing, you can enjoy a cool spin on Carnival by attending the classic festival in Quebec City, which began as part of the French pre-Lenten tradition. Occurring around the same time as most other Carnivals, typically in early February, this celebration is all about winter sports. Some of the most popular attractions include a winter amusement park that’s filled with ice sculptures and offers sled rides, dog sled competitions, snow rafting, skiing, and a variety of outdoor shows. For the ultimate icy Carnival experience, book a room at Hotel de Glace, which oozes icy cold luxury. Just 10 minutes from downtown, all of the furniture is made of ice and snow. You’ll rest in a warm thermal sleeping bag placed on the top of a traditional mattress with a wooden base, though the actual bed is made up on blocks of ice.
New Orleans, Louisiana (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Outside of Rio and perhaps Venice, New Orleans arguably holds the most happening Carnival on the planet: Mardi Gras. The extreme craziness, and hordes of tourists that go with it, is generally restricted to Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, but if you head out to the neighborhood parades, you’ll have at least as much fun without all of the lewd bead-begging. One of the best things to do is to don your own elaborate costume and join the egalitarian Society of St. Anne on its parade that traverses the artsy Bywater neighborhood. While you’re here, be sure to sample heavenly beignets at Café Du Monde, they’re absolutely to-die-for.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain (Hotel Prices & Photos)
The Canary Islands are the only true European destination with warm winter weather, so you can enjoy plenty of sunshine along with exciting celebrations by heading to Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The islands’ Carnival has outlasted bans from a number of dictators and misgivings by the Church, so today it’s called the “Winter Festival.” Still, it’s considered to be the most Brazilian of all the Spanish carnivals as an extravaganza of color, light, music and mayhem. In between lounging on the soft, powdery white sands and dipping your toes in the clear azure waters, you can take part in all sorts of festivities, from traditional to modern. The best street parties take place over the opening and closing weekends.
Mazatlan, Mexico (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Mazatlan hosts the biggest Carnival in Mexico and the third largest in the world, combining elements of a fiesta, like street food stalls and mariachi bands, with indigenous tradition and Christian imagery. The festivities include fireworks, parades and live music, while street revelers break confetti-filled hollow eggs over each other, giving a nod to some of the wilder times from over a century ago when those who worked at the docks exchanged projectiles filled with flour, and sometimes even stones. You’ll find a host of entertainment along the picturesque Malecon waterfront at the Centro Historico, though festivities are held throughout the city.
Basel, Switzerland (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Another Carnival for those who prefer frozen festivities to melting in the sun, Basel’s celebration starts the week after most other Carnivals end. The country’s biggest and most popular festival, and the world’s only Protestant Carnival, takes place between February and March, attracting some 15,000 to 20,000 masked participants to take part. Many say the highlight is the Gässle, or wandering through the narrow alleyways. Masked individuals and groups roam through the streets of the old city, playing pipes and drums, while spectators march in time behind them. The annual parade features floats, drummers and painted lanterns made of wood and canvas, along with a ridiculous amount of confetti.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Of course, last but not least. Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival is the biggest in the world, and one of the most important events in Brazilian culture. It takes place 40 days before Easter, in late February or early March, drawing an estimate two million to its streets to watch performances from around 200 samba schools and 300 neighborhood bands. Visitors can even march in costume with one of the samba schools – though the opportunity comes at a cost of $300 to $700, depending on the group. While the annual samba parade might be the most iconic part of Carnival celebration, the real festivities begin on the street. All about free-spirited revelry, the free street parties known as blocos are held through Rio. All are centered on a band that either parades a predetermined route through the streets on a sound truck, or remains at a fixed location. They can draw anywhere from a few hundred spectators to a million. Some are associated with a neighborhood eatery or bar, others with a celebrity or a district. Many have a long history based on traditional samba, though more recently, the blocos have been inspired by more contemporary tunes.