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Here Are 10 of the Best Carnival Celebrations Around the World

Music, dance, costumes, and a whole lot of debauchery—these are some of the things that Carnival is best known for.

Yet beyond the feathers and hedonistic celebrations, there’s a lot of history behind the holiday. Weaving elements from  Europe’s Medieval Ages to the clash of cultures that culminated during the transatlantic slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries, Carnival’s global story not only represents traditions in many countries and ex-colonies, it also is integrally connected to remarkable stories of rebellion and the abolition of slavery.

The annual festival often begins on Fat Tuesday and runs throughout the Lenten season, yet dates vary in countries around the world. No two Carnival festivals are alike, which means it’s best to just visit all of them. Here are 10 of our favorites.

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PHOTO: Gentian Polovina/Shutterstock
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Carnival of Venice

WHERE: Venice, Italy

Just like the morning after a wedding, the historic origins of Carnival are fuzzy. Some scholars speculate the holiday began as a pagan festival in ancient Rome, while others think it started as a pre-Lenten Christian celebration. Regardless of exactly where and by whom it was conceived, Carnival didn’t become an official holiday until the Venetian Senate declared it so in the late 13th century.

In medieval times, Venice laws mandated that people with low social rank couldn’t wear extravagant finery. During Carnival, these laws were suspended, allowing nobility and plebes alike to don brocades, velvet, and silk. They also wore bedazzled masks, which guaranteed anonymity. Today, the at the Venice Carnival continues a centuries-old tradition, and about three million tourists per year visit the dazzling Carnival of Venice.

If You Go: Finding accommodations during Carnival in Venice is not only difficult, but it’s also expensive. Yet if you plan in advance, you can find a lovely, affordable room at Locanda San Barnaba or Ca’dei Dogi. La Villeggiatura, a little B&B near the Rialto, is particularly lovely, complete with frescoed walls.

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PHOTO: NelzTabcharani316/Shutterstock
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Nice Carnival

WHERE: Nice, France

During the medieval and Renaissance periods, Carnival traditions quickly spread from Venice all across Europe. In France, the holiday was called the jours charnels, or “days of meat”, to mark the last days before Lent—a Christian season of penitence in which people gave up meat and animal products for 40 days and nights.

Today, the French city of Nice has one of the most impressive Carnival festivals in the world. The Niçois prepare for months by constructing elaborate floats decorated with giant papier-mache puppets called grosse têtes, or “big heads.” During Carnival, a massive giant sculpture—the King of Carnival— presides over the floats. Yet, the highlight of the parade is the Bataille de Fleurs (“Battle of Flowers”), where costumed dancers on floats throw locally-grown blooms into the waiting arms of revelers below.

If You Go: In Nice, you’ll want to spend most of your time strolling alongside the Mediterranean Sea. If you plan on getting to France via a long-haul flight, you may want to splurge a little by grabbing a ticket via Air France. The business class seats in the airline’s new Airbus A330s completely recline—a rarity these days as many carriers try to pack people in like sardines. From Paris, just take the high-speed train, and voila—you’ll be in Nice in no time.

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PHOTO: John de la Bastide/Shutterstock
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Trinidad and Tobago Carnival

WHERE: Trinidad and Tobago

On Trinidad and Tobago, a twin-island nation in the Caribbean, Carnival is as firmly rooted in European traditions as it is in African, Indian and Amerindian cultures. In the 18th century, the colonial elite celebrating the holiday at fancy masquerade balls. Yet after the emancipation of slavery in 1838, former slaves and indentured workers celebrated their freedom with Canboulay, a holiday that recognized a pre-abolition uprising. The holiday involved wearing masks and people carried cannes bruleés—or burning stalks of sugar cane. Revelers also gathered to drum and sing songs as a form of resistance against plantation owners.

In the late 1800s, the government banned drumming in an effort to disband Canboulay, but riots broke out. Refusing to be subdued, many Trinidadians and Tobagonians continued to celebrate the holiday and, over the years, they contributed to the islands’ culture by developing new music styles, including Calypso. Today, the first Carnival of the Caribbean features plenty of wild fêtes (parties), music and brilliant, feathered costumes.

If You Go: In Trinidad, you won’t want to miss the famous Maracas Beach, while on nearby Tobago Calypso Pigeon Point offers great views of the sunset. For truly lovely accommodations, Stay at the peaceful Coblentz Inn on Trinidad, or in one of the self-catered villas at The Villas at Stonehaven on Tobago.

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PHOTO: T photography/Shutterstock
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Carnival of Martinique

WHERE: Martinique

Although every Carnival is unique, the island of Martinique has some of the most fascinating traditions in the French Caribbean. An entire day of festivities is devoted to mock weddings, during which men and women swap traditional gender roles and costumes. Another day is called Red Devil’s Day, and revelers wear devil masks and dance through the streets until dawn. On any given day, some people dress in a costume of sticky sugarcane and tar, while others dress as Marianne La Po Fig (a figure who dances wearing only banana leaves), or red clay men (you can probably guess what these latter revelers use in their costumes). Visitors to Martinique can learn more about the island’s Carnival traditions at the Savanna of the Slaves, a fascinating museum dedicated to the history of slavery.

Around the world, Carnival usually ends before Ash Wednesday. This is not the case on Martinique, where the Day of the She-Devils offers a final day of festivities. Here, Carnival-goers wear black and white to represent mourning and an effigy of Vaval, the King of Carnival, is burned at sunset.

If You Go: With inexpensive direct flights via Norwegian Airlines from the U.S. (some as cheap as $79!), there’s almost no excuse to not head to Martinique for Carnival. Stay in a villa at La Suite Villa, overlooking Trois-Ilets Bay, or in the thick of the action at Le Simon Hotel. In addition to Savannah of the Slaves, visit Le Village de la Poterie to learn more about the history of the island.

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PHOTO: Suzanne C. Grim/Shutterstock
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Mardi Gras

WHERE: New Orleans, USA

French for “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras is the last day before Lent. It’s also the last day people are allowed to eat meat until the Lenten season is over. The oldest Carnival celebration in the United States, Mardi Gras was started in the early 1700s in Louisiana by French settlers. Feasting during the holiday was called Boeuf Gras (fatted ox); a time when raucous groups of men paraded through the streets carrying a giant papier-mâché head of an ox.

Over time, secret organizations called mystic societies started hosting invite-only masquerade balls. Other societies, called krewes, became a little more egalitarian, allowing most people who paid dues to have a spot on one of their elaborately-constructed floats. “Throws,” which are plastic beads, coins and other sundries tossed from floats, have become virtually synonymous with Louisianan Carnival.

If You Go: Looking for accommodations during Mardi Gras? You’d better look many months in advance. If you’re not much of a planner, you may still be able to grab a hotel package at Maison Dupuy. Located just blocks away from busy Bourbon Street, this hotel is even said to be haunted.

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Rio Carnival

WHERE: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro—also known simply as Rio—boasts of having one of the biggest Carnival celebrations in the world. Like many other Carnival festivals, Rio’s is filled with floats, costumes and a certain amount of debauchery, but it also has something other festivals don’t: Samba. The origins of this lively style of music and dance are rooted in the horrific history of colonialism and slavery. In the 16th century, slave traders from Portugal brought enslaved people from West Africa to Brazil. The slaves brought their own musical, cultural, and religious traditions, which are felt and heard in the rhythms of Samba. Today, large Samba schools have memberships of thousands of people who spend months developing performances for the annual Carnival parade. Weather in Rio is hot, humid, and sticky. This means that the costumes, while feathered and sumptuous, leave little to the imagination.

If You Go: Make sure to hike through the Tijuca National Park to see the giant statue of Jesus that towers over the city. Also, it would be almost criminal to miss out on visiting a Samba school rehearsal. Right on the beach, the Sofitel Rio de Janeiro Ipanema Hotel is great if you’re looking to splurge.

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Angola Carnival

WHERE: Luanda, Angola

Carnival is one of Angola’s biggest social events of the year. The festival is held in the capital city of Luanda, which was used as a major slave port by the Portuguese until the mid-1800s. Although Samba is Brazil’s national dance, it was actually developed by slaves and had its roots in a traditional Angolan style of dance and music called Semba. In fact, Brazil wouldn’t have been able to claim Samba if it hadn’t been for this West African country.

Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, launching the country into a long civil war. Today, the war is over and Angola is rebuilding its tourism infrastructure. The country’s Carnival is injected with a number of pre-Lenten traditions brought by the Portuguese, yet many of its songs—written to mock the colonizers—are still sung in homage to the country’s independence and resilience of its people.

If You Go: Built in the late 1500s by the Portuguese, the Fortaleza de Sao Miguel is a somber place to learn about Angola’s colonialist history. The city isn’t known for its affordability, but Hotel Continental is a lovely option that won’t break the bank.

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PHOTO: CECIL BO DZWOWA
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Harare International Carnival

WHERE: Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is better known for its lack of human rights than for its party scene. Yet ever since a coup d’état forced its authoritarian president to step down in 2017, the country has tried repositioning itself as a peaceful tourism destination. The Harare International Carnival was established to help improve this landlocked nation’s image by celebrating diversity and welcome performers from around the world.

Visitors to Zimbabwe’s Carnival can expect to see folk dancers performing the Mbende Jerusarema, a dance listed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The parade also has a distinctly global vibe, featuring Samba queens from Brazil dancing among Malawian and Ethiopian troupes with a Trinidadian contingent.

If You Go: Built in the late 1500s by the Portuguese, the Fortaleza de Sao Miguel is a somber place to learn about Angola’s colonialist history. The city isn’t known for its affordability, but Hotel Continental is a lovely option that won’t break the bank.

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PHOTO: Kaca Skokanova/Shutterstock
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Carnival of Guadeloupe

WHERE: Guadeloupe

In the weeks leading up to Easter, the islands of Guadeloupe seem to rumble—and not because of volcanic activity from its single volcano, La Soufrière, but rather due to the numerous Carnival bands practicing in the evenings in nearly every town.

During Carnival season there are multiple festivities in Guadeloupe—stay a week, and you can hit many of them. Stay two, and you can visit even more. Gozieval, in the town of Le Gosier, is a favorite, as is Kannaval Limass in Sainte-Rose. Make sure to stop by a food cart to order a bokit, a sandwich stuffed with such treats as ham, cheese, and lambi (conch).

If You Go: Getting to Guadeloupe is easy via direct flights on Norwegian Air. To explore the islands, it’s really necessary to rent a car. Europcar-Guadeloupe is a great, affordable choice—just heed their warning to not park beneath coconut trees! Stay at Arawak Hotel Beach Resort or La Créole Beach Hôtel and Spa—which both have small private beaches in Gosier.

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PHOTO: Curioso/Shutterstock
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Carnival of Oruro

WHERE: Oruro, Bolivia

For those who can deal with high altitude, Oruro, situated high in the Andes in the Altiplano region of Bolivia, hosts a particularly memorable Carnival. Before the arrival of the Spanish, Oruro was known as Uru Uru, and was home to the Quechua and Aymara people. In the early 1600s, the Spanish tried to bring Christianity to these people, who tried to hide their rituals and beliefs beneath a Catholic veneer.

Today, a large percentage of people in the area identify as Catholic, and Carnival festivities in Oruro are an amalgamation of Catholic and indigenous traditions. El Tio, or “The Uncle,” is one of the more recognizable characters—he allegedly brings good luck to the mountain’s many miners of minerals and metals—but many references are also made to the Earth Mother, Pachamama.

If You Go: There’s no direct flight to Oruro, but intrepid travelers can take a bus that winds up and down the mountains from La Paz (Andino is a good bet) —just don’t look down! Stay at Hotel Virgen del Socavon, which has balconies and a terrace with views of the mountains and the parade route.