Taking part in unique local cultural traditions can make for an especially unforgettable experience when traveling abroad. Some are part of the daily fabric of the place while others may be annual celebrations and events. From sun coffee in Iceland to ‘Ohana in Hawaii, these cultural traditions are all worth traveling for.
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'Ohana in Hawaii
‘Ohana is a tradition that’s extremely important in Hawaii. It translates to family, but that doesn’t necessarily mean blood relatives, but close friends, referring to someone so close to you that you consider them family. You might hear elders referred to as “uncle” or “aunty” rather than “sir” or “ma’am” despite there being no blood relation, it’s used to express a feeling of inclusiveness and kinship. It’s just another reason beyond the beauty of the islands to experience Hawaii, venturing beyond the confines of your resort.
Trad Music and Pub Culture, Ireland
Trad music, brings visitors from far and wide to Ireland. One of the country’s longstanding traditions, it spans generations, with pubs filled with Irish tunes, including instruments like a fiddle and acoustic guitar as well as native instruments, perhaps a Celtic harp or uilleann pipes, celebrating the culture of the Emerald Isle. The lively atmosphere with plenty of foot-stomping and wild stories matters as much as the tunes. You’ll find pubs hosting live trad music just about everywhere you go here, with one of the top spots in Doolin near the Cliffs of Moher, including McDermott’s, McGann’s and O’Connor’s.
Day of the Dead, Mexico
Cities throughout Mexico are transformed into one huge street festival for the annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. There will be flowers and skeletons decorating the streets while costumed locals visit cemeteries following ancient Aztec and Mayan legends. Visitors can follow the seas of flowers and flickering candles, watch street dances and painted faces at the parades and barter for macabre skeleton dolls in local markets.
La Tomatina - Bunol, Spain
If you want to have a good time and maybe bring out your inner child, La Tomatina is known as the world’s largest food fight. This is when massive crowds of people throw hundreds of thousands of pounds of tomatoes at each other. The event draws visitors from across the globe, often quadrupling the local population of around 9,000. Held on the last Wednesday of August every year in Bunol, it’s been a local tradition for nearly 80 years, and while it lasts for only an hour, it’s something you’ll never forget.
Sun Coffee, Iceland
Iceland has a unique holiday that celebrates the return of the sun following the dark days of winter. Because of its northern location, the sun rises very low over the horizon in the winter, and in areas where there are lots of deep, narrow fjords and valleys, the sun doesn’t rise above the mountains for many weeks. When it finally makes an appearance for a few minutes, it’s Sunshine Day. The day varies according to location, generally around late January, with residents typically celebrating by enjoying coffee with pancakes or flatbread with hangikjö. Sometimes there’s live entertainment too.
Pasola Festival - Sumba Island, Indonesia
One of the most exciting cultural traditions one can experience is Pasola. A traditional ceremony of the Sumba people held in West Sumba every year from February to March, it’s aim is to get God’s blessing for a better harvest. Pasola literally means a “war play” and occurs between two groups of men dressed in traditional costume, holding blunt wooden spears all while riding their horses. You can enjoy this ritual held in an open public space along with the local crowd.
Highland Games, Scotland
Scotland’s greatest sporting tradition, the Highland Games aren’t just one event, but a series of events between May and September, peaking in July and August with more than 30 taking place each month. It closes at the start of fall with the Invercharron Highland Games, and most take place on the weekend. You’ll see competitors put their muscles to the test-taking part in everything from tug-o-war to the hammer throw while wearing their national dress, the Scottish kilt. Of course, there will be plenty of bagpipers and drummers who march in unison, along with solo piping competitions and Highland dancers.
Sweden celebrates “Midsommar,” the longest day of the year. Everything comes to a halt on this day, with Swedes heading to their nearest parks to make flower wreaths, dance around a pole pretending to be a frog, and eating pickled herring. In a country that endures one of the darkest, longest winters, the sun brings out just about everyone’s wild side, though it centers around family. It’s the opportunity to drink, have fun and celebrate with the sun not going down until around 11 p.m.
Moreška Sword Dance - Korcula Island, Croatia
The beautiful island of Korcula near Dubrovnik, known as the birthplace of Marco Polo, boasts a fairytale-like walled Old Town, complete with towers and ramparts, providing the perfect setting for Moreska, a Spanish medieval knight’s game. This is the world’s only spot it’s performed, with locals dressing up as Moors and Christians to swing their sabers around, celebrating the 1571 Battle of Lepanto which prevented an Ottoman invasion. The dramatic dance that originated in early medieval Spain, has been performed ever since, with shows held all summer. The main performance takes place on the Feast of St Todor in late July.
Day of Silence, Bali
Nyepi, the Balinese “Day of Silence” is commemorated every Isakawarsa according to the Balinese calendar, right after a new moon, typically in March. A celebration of silence and self-reflection, it’s marked by fasting, silence, and meditation. A day to cleanse the island from evil spirits and give Mother Nature a break, it’s the one day out of 365 without human activity – even the airport shuts down for 24 hours.
For Hindus, this day means strictly no work, no use of any powered devices, no traveling, no entertainment. While you might think it would deter tourists, many come to experience it. Local TV stations will shut down although phone and internet connections will stay on. The evening before, a big parade is hosted with giant paper-mâché effigies that are burned to ward off demons, an impressive ritual to watch.
Māori War Dance, New Zealand
The Haka is the traditional Maori performing art and one of the most well-known cultural experiences in New Zealand. Although it’s commonly associated with the male warrior battle preparations, the dance with vigorous movements, stamping of the feet and rhythmical shouts have long been performed by both men and women. There are a number of places to experience it, but one of the top spots is the Tamaki Maori Village near Rotorua which includes a Maori cultural performance and hangi, a feast steam-cooked in an oven dug in the ground.
The Screech In, Newfoundland
Newfoundlanders are known for their friendliness and quirky sense of humor which has resulted in plenty of fun cultural traditions, including the Screech-In. This is when visitors can become an honorary “Newfie” by being humorously “screeched-in,” with rituals like kissing a codfish, repeating Newfie phrases in the dialect and taking a shot of Screech, often while dressed up in a Sou’wester hat and rain boots. The entertaining ritual takes place throughout the province, hosted in bars, pubs and even on boat tours. Skipper Hot’s Lounge may be one of the best places to experience it with a great live band and opportunities to get up on stage and play the Ugly Stick.
Yi Peng Lantern Festival, Thailand
Yi Peng is a Buddhist festival that’s primarily celebrated in Northern Thailand, with Chiang Mai hosting the largest. The lantern festival includes the ritual of releasing paper lanterns called khom loi during a full moon (typically in November), as Buddhists believe that it will free them of bad luck from the past year. It can be observed all along the Ping River, and you can set your own floating kratong off on the river or light a lantern, making a wish for good fortune in the new year.
Sumo is one of the oldest sports in Japan, a martial art unlike no other. A long time tradition, its origins are entwined with Shintoism, with matches today still accompanied by traditional ceremonies. While tournaments are held in many places throughout the country year-round, Tokyo hosts them at Ryogoku arena, in January, May and September.
7 Waves and 7 Pomegranate Seeds New Year's Eve Tradition - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio is considered one of the top destinations for celebrating New Year’s Eve. On Copacabana Beach, there will be fireworks and a midnight swim in the sea for good luck. Some two million people come dressed in white, taking part in the cultural tradition of jumping over 7 waves while making 7 wishes for the new year. Another ritual involves chewing 7 pomegranate seeds at the stroke of midnight without swallowing them, preserving them in your wallet to ensure it will be full of money in the New Year.