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Carnival! The World’s Best Street Parties

Carnival, Mardi Gras, Carnevale, Fat Tuesday, Carnaval; it may have different names around the world, but wherever it is celebrated, it means one thing – a huge street party!

This year, on March 4 many of the world’s streets will be filled with colour, music and euphoria as carnival celebrations reach their climax.

Rio de Janeiro has probably the most iconic carnival in the world, its street parades and ecstatic people representative of the global carnival phenomenon that ushers in ‘Lent’, the Catholic 40 day period of abstinence. In short, carnival is a chance to feast, party and indulge before the self-denial that starts on Ash Wednesday.

Adopted by the European Catholic Church, this once pagan festival of carnival has been taken across the world with colonisation and immigration. It has arrived in many unexpected places, including even the predominantly Hindu Goa in India, where the Portuguese introduced it.

North America’s capital of carnival is undoubtedly New Orleans. Its ‘Mardi Gras’ takes its name from the French for ‘Fat Tuesday’, the day of indulgence before Lent.

Carnival has also been historically a chance for the less privileged to challenge the establishment through humour, satire and sarcasm without fear of reprisal. This tradition lives on in ‘Carnaval’ in Cadiz, Spain’s historic port city.

For a sophisticated and indulgently baroque interpretation, then head to Venice for its ‘Carnevale’ celebration with a decidedly Italian flair.

Rio de Janeiro

Over 850,000 visitors each year enjoy one of the greatest parties on the planet, the Rio Carnival. Although its roots are historically Portuguese, with formal masquerade balls and pageants, over the centuries the country’s strong Afro-Caribbean influence have given the four days of street parties and neighbourhood parades a distinctly sexy, samba flavour. This is most evident in the extraordinary final parade where different Samba schools dance and compete, ending at the purpose built ‘Sambodrome’ that can accommodate over 70,000 spectators.


Celebrations in the tropical Indian coastal resort of Goa are a multicultural affair. From the original carnival customs brought over by the Portuguese, Goa has added its own distinctive flavour, creating a unique experience. Lively parades and street parties combine Baroque and contemporary Western style floats, with local Indian guitar music, as well as their own ‘King Momo’ who leads floats where participants chaotically throw coloured water at spectators!  It’s a visual feast as much as a time of indulgence and partying.

New Orleans

Taken from the French for Fat Tuesday, ‘Mardi Gras’ in New Orleans reaches its climax in the days running up to this last Tuesday before Lent. The city, and many of its people are dressed in purple, green and gold, the colours of justice, faith and power and local social groups called ‘Krewes’ organise neighbourhood parties and processions. Bourbon Street, in the French Quarter, is the highlight, with a Carnival King and Queen leading an extravagant parade of marching bands and floats, whilst coloured beads and coins are thrown to the excited crowd.


Most famous for its elaborate, decorate masks, the Venice ‘Carnevale’ is a luxurious affair. Participants wear extravagant Renaissance and Baroque period costumes, mysterious cloaks feathered hats and beautifully crafted masks. It’s thought the custom of wearing masks remembers how in the past Carnivale was one of the few times all classes of Venice society could mix and celebrate together, protected by anonymity. Today, the Venice celebrations are amongst the most exclusive in the world, with a number of elite private gala balls, including the legendary ‘Doge’s Ball at Palazzo Pisani Moretta on the Grand Canal and ‘The Grand Ball La Cavalchina’.


Whilst some cities celebrate Carnival for just a few days leading up to Shrove Tuesday, in Cadiz the historic port on Spain’s south west coast, takes ‘Los Carnavales’ even more seriously with at least two weeks of events and partying. The city’s streets are transformed in crowded parties, with residents and visitors wearing crazy wigs, colourful fancy dress costumes and humorous masks.

The centrepiece of Cadiz’s ‘Carnaval’ recalls the long tradition of satire and parody associated with this time of year. Local choirs and musical groups called ‘chirigotas’ perform witty and sarcastic songs about topical political themes. This is not just about having fun and airing some political grievances, it is also a citywide competition where both professional and amateur groups sing and compete.

(Copyright Andrew Forbes)

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