It all began in Europe many centuries ago as an incredible manifestation of joy, and it soon spread throughout the world. Each year commences with a series of carnivals in various corners of the Globe, meant to welcome spring and nature’s revival, but mainly to prepare people for the restrictions of Lent. In fact, the word carnival comes from the Latin “carne levare,” meaning to give up meat. The tradition is quite old. At the first signs of spring, European cultures organized pagan celebrations, meant to chase away the remnants of winter, associated with nature’s death. Afterwards, carnivals became the last big celebration before Lent.
There’s an old Italian saying once a year, pack your bags and follow your nose. Who knows, you might find yourself attending an exuberant ensemble of colors, music, and dance, each exploited to its maximum. These are the world’s most glamorous and luxurious carnivals. Who doesn’t dream, if only for a day, to get into someone else’s skin? Carnivals are the perfect opportunity, with their lively colored costumes, masks, and mystery. They are a rather bizarre, and yet enticing combination that will undoubtedly lure you in, a strange world that brings together beauty, grace, elegance, and extreme ugliness, oozing so much energy and sensuality that you will find it hard to wake up and face reality again.
5. Mardi Gras
Quite popular in the United States, Mardi Gras has its roots in the 18th century. The festivity was brought to America by French colonists, and it soon became a tradition in French Louisiana. The first carnival was held in 1703, and Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday.” Nowadays, it is attended by around 4 million visitors each year, come to pay their respects and show their support for the different cultures in the city. The predominant colors are purple, green, and gold, symbolizing justice, power, and trust.
New Orleans is the host of the extraordinary festivities which last for a total of two weeks. The starting point is Bourbon Street in the French District. From then on, the carnival fever simply takes over, with superb allegorical carts with varied themes inspired by various mythological, cultural, political, and social aspects. However, the parades and competitions are not the only reasons tourists invade the city. The audience is allowed to drink in public and, if the weather allows, you can see more topless girls than anywhere else.
Mardi Gras begins at the beginning of January, and is opened by a masked ball. The parade is free to attend, but you still have to pay for transportation and accommodation, and local hotels tend to double their prices around the time of the festivities. Each allegorical cart costs at least $10,000, and the whole celebration costs around $1.5 million to put on each year.
4. Santa Cruz Carnival
The second largest and most exuberant carnival in the world after Rio de Janeiro, the Santa Cruz Carnival can best be described as the most Brazilian Spanish carnival. That’s right, it may be hosted by the Canary Islands, more precisely Tenerife, all Spanish to the core, but the festivities are as Brazilian as they can get. In fact, there are more similarities between Rio de Janeiro’s carnival and the Santa Cruz Carnival than one can count.
For 15 whole days the city of Santa Cruz transforms from top to bottom. Its streets fill with decorated carts and dancers in flashy costumes, showing off their sensual dance moves on the hot rhythms of the loud Spanish music playing on the streets. Crazy right? You haven’t heard the half of it. At one point, participants dressed as monks, nuns, or bishops can be spotted, wearing objects with obscene connotations, blessing the crowds in defiance of the Catholic Church which doesn’t exactly approve of these events. Nevertheless, the Santa Cruz Festival did make it on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
While it is free to attend most festivities, you still have travel and accommodation expenses to take care of, and remember that Santa Cruz de Teneerife is not at all a cheap destination, especially during carnival days. Prices start at $200 per night in hotels. The Santa Cruz Carnival is a luscious celebration based on giving up inhibitions. Such a glamorous event comes with a matching price tag, as it costs over $5 million to put on.
3. Nice Carnival
One of the grandest events on the French Riviera, the most awaited celebration of the winter in France, the Nice Carnival takes people out into the streets for two whole days, turning the city into a hotspot of festivities and partying. All locals dress up in colored costumes and atypical masks while fireworks accompany the floral processions and the allegorical boats filled with costumed revelers and dancers. On the first day, the King of the Carnival arrives at Place Massena, surrounded by his subjects, all ready to party. On Sunday, the streets fill up with huge boats carrying over 500 colored paper cartoons. The joyful carnival turns Nice, even for just two days, into France’s hottest destination.
The roots of the Nice Carnival can be traced back more than 700 years ago, with its first records dating from 1294, making it one of the oldest in the world. The French Riviera celebrates in a paradise of flowers, masks, feathers, and extravagant costumes. Among the many activities and festivities, perhaps the most remarkable is Bataille des Fleurs, the Battle of Flowers, when the entire city if Nice is buried in flowers. Over 20 allegorical carts filled with flowers parade down Promenade des Anglais on the seacoast, and over 100,000 flowers are thrown each year at the public, 90% of which are from the local production. The Nice Carnival is free to attend, although there are considerable accommodation costs to consider. It is one of the most extravagant carnivals in the world, costing an average $9 million to stage.
2. Venice Carnival: average masked ball ticket $700
Porcelain masks, colored outfits, precious lace costumes, and mystery are the key elements of an immense ensemble of color on the streets of Venice. The glamor, opulence, and complexity of the costumes specially created for the event are renowned worldwide and are the pride of the locals who can’t wait to display their creations in yet another edition of the carnival. The festivities are held each year around February and March and last two weeks. There are open-air shows, theater plays and parades, all organized on the labyrinthine streets of Venice, while the party center remains San Marco Square, the historical center of the bohemian city.
There’s so much to say about this carnival, but I’m sure everyone recognizes its distinctive signature, the porcelain masks. The Venice Carnival is the oldest in the world, and can easily be described as elegant, mysterious, and enticing. While it is free to watch the numerous masked participants and outdoor performances, if you want to attend the parties and balls, the very soul of the carnival, be prepared to pay big bucks. Tickets for masked balls start at around $250 per person, while the average ticket price is $700. There are over 20 masked balls to attend, and many other events that cost just as much, so be prepared to break the bank at Venice’s annual Carnevale.
1. Rio Carnival: $3,000 Per Person, Per Day
Amazingly complex costumes, glamorous, and detailed, made from varied materials from leather to silk, all fluid and lively colored, adorned with feathers and mirrors, sometime even precious stones and coins, the Rio Carnival is the world’s biggest and most opulent street festivity, held each year in February. The carnival lasts between five and seven days, during which euphoria is the word of the day, as both organizers and participants are ecstatic to be part of the event.
They tell you that in order to understand Brazil, you have to see the Rio Carnival. It truly is one of the most memorable sights in the world, a festival that accumulates the very heart and soul of Brazil. The whole city lets go to dance to the music. The city’s poor inhabitants who live in the ghettos are the very spine of the festival. Each samba school has its own act, for which they worked one whole year to prepare. Samba schools spend over $3 million on costumes alone. If you want to attend this fascinating celebration of joy, you should know that tickets start at $200 per person and go all the way up to $3,200, depending on the sector and day of carnival it is valid for.