Find out about the best carnivals around the globe, some of which I had the pleasure to experience first hand, while some are still definitely on my wish list!
For those who hate winter in Europe, we have found various ways of making that time of the year a time enjoyable , fun, and even making it something to look forward to! After the festive Christmas season, it’s time to travel or simply go out into the streets of your hometown and enjoy Carnival!
It is said that this festivity was invented by Christians to mark a feast before the shortage of food at the end of the winter and before fasting for Lent, right before Easter. It’s also a way to celebrate the return of light after winter. Nowadays it is more a cultural heritage that people, and especially children, enjoy as a fantasy world.
I remember my very first carnival in Germany. I enjoyed watching the parade and the beautiful costumes, and especially getting into the skin of someone else by dressing up and putting on make-up! I dressed up as a Spanish flamenco dancer. I think my mum had a vision of me living in Spain! Well spotted, mum!! If you miss the winter celebration, some countries like the UK have completely disconnected from the religious side and celebrate it in the summer. Actually, it’s quite smart. I always admire people in parades wearing costumes that are not exactly keeping the body warm! The lady who was presenting the carnival in Las Palmas kept saying how cold it was on stage and how brave the dancers were! As I recently traveled to a famous region for the carnival, I wanted to share some of my great experiences to inspire you to see one of them!
Carnival in Venice, Italy
When you think of the best carnivals in the world, Venice was definitely the first one to cross my mind!
I was there a while ago for the carnival, and I have to admit that it was love at first sight when I met this beautiful Italian town! As soon as I laid my eyes on it, I could not stop admiring every single corner. I had no digital camera at the time, otherwise I would have taken thousands of pictures!
The carnival made it even nicer. And one day we even had snow: magical! However, you should be ready for heavy traffic at that time of the year, yes human traffic walking the little streets! It was really intense, but if you notice the little alleys as I did, you may manage to walk from one area to another. Yes I know, the streets of Venice are already narrow, but believe me, there are some alleys where you encounter less traffic.
Just study the map a little bit! You can get one at the tourist office for about 3 euros. The costumes and masks are really amazing, made by talented tailors and craftsmen!
We had come a long way, from France, and some people in the same train were getting ready putting on their costumes and masks before stepping off the train! I was dazzled! But even more when I arrived in the town.
It’s funny to think that, originally, the carnival was an event made of excesses as everyone could hide their identity. Nowadays it’s quite the opposite: a majestic and sophisticated event! The costumes and the masks are real art pieces and radiate a sort of sumptuousness.
How to reach Venice
There are lots of flights from various cities in Europe and you can travel at low cost, but during this festive season, Venice is a top destination and therefore expensive! I went by train because I came from the south of France with a big group of 60 people (I was a tour guide!) But if the train is not an option for you, just check if there are any flights from where you live. There are many low-cost airlines flying there now.
Where to stay and how to get around
Sleep outside Venice if you can! When I went there the first time, we paid a reasonable price by staying in Mestre, an area easily accessible to Venice. Last year we stayed in Jesolo, a little further away. If you are going by car, there are parking lots just outside the city and then you only need to cross a bridge to reach it. But there is no guarantee you will find a space, and if you do it’s very expensive!
You will discover beautiful little streets, bridges and markets, it’s worth the walk! If you can’t walk long, you can get around on the vaporettos. However, be ready for long queues in some areas, and crowded vaporetto boats. Make sure you don’t take the last ones! When I stayed in Jesolo last year, there was a direct bus to Punta Sabbioni from where we took a boat to Venice. And even if you travel by car, I would advise against trying to park close. By the way, if you go to Venice, don’t plan to stay only for a week-end! There is so much to see! Venice itself but also the other beautiful islands of Murano and above all Burano!
The first time I came I didn’t have a chance to visit the other islands and last year I finally did! It’s so nice, much quieter, and as beautiful, if not more beautiful than Venice! And the food… The pizza I had in Murano was simply the best! And Burano is such a colourful place that inspires and gives a good vibe!
Another place I really enjoyed inland was Caorle. This is a little far from Venice but if you stay around Lido di Jesolo, it’s a nice day excursion.
If you have mobility issues, don’t worry, you can still enjoy some parts of Venice.
Although some improvements have been made, it is important to plan ahead. Between the high waters, the bridges, and the age of the buildings, it is better to check ahead of time, especially when it comes to choosing your accommodation. Some websites have great general information, maps and hotels listings. Even the tiny Murano and Burano can be enjoyed if you opt for organized tours, which are a great way to ensure that everything is taken care of for you.
Las Palmas, Gran Canaria
If you want to escape the cold month of February and at the same time enjoy one of the best carnivals in Europe, then I would definitely recommend Gran Canaria!
Organize your trip
Here are a few things to check before your trip:
Car rental if you stay outside the tourist areas
Carnival dates and activities
Since I live in Barcelona, low fares are available with many airlines. I have been trying to go there for carnival for a while now. But if you want to travel in peak season, you need to plan ahead. This time I checked the whole program online to choose my dates carefully! Some shows are free of charge, some others need to be booked and paid for in advance. The flights were cheap but the accommodation expensive as it’s high the season there! I found cheap solutions in an area near the airport. This was actually perfect because you are close to both sides of the island:
Las Palmas in the north, where the carnival was taking place
the South of the island where you could escape the winter with its great sandy beaches!
Just make sure you rent a car if you stay in that area as there is not much to do. In terms of the weather, there are many microclimates on the island as it has different types of landscapes. Just check local news or apps for better accuracy. It can change very quickly!
Las Palmas can be rainy and cool during that time of the year. Once though, we managed to have lunch in short sleeves on the famous Las Canteras! And we were able to enjoy the old town of Vegueta in the sun.
As for the south of the island, although it had better weather, I have to admit that at first I hated it… We drove around for ages trying to find the beach because it’s hidden behind a tonne of buildings and hotels…
Don’t even try the Puerto Rico area or the Playa del Inglés! They are ruined by mass tourism, unfortunately! As for Maspalomas beach, people talked to me directly in German in the restaurants… Mmh, sorry? Am I in Spain?! I stood up and left! Even the sand dunes of Maspalomas have their starting point from the hotel Riu…
That’s what I read in my rough guide and we didn’t want to believe it at the beginning. The area is also surrounded by shopping malls. There are still ways to escape those places, no worries!
So if you go to the South of Gran Canaria, try to avoid the following:
Playa del Inglés
Playa de Maspalomas
We went to a nature reserve to see the fauna and flora, near the faro. You can admire the sand dunes as well as the birds and wonderful landscapes. However, the sand dunes there are not as impressive as the ones you access from the hotel Riu. The good news is, they’re easy to get to thanks to a walk way. And there is a small alley near the Riu entrance that leads to the same path if you don’t need to go to the information office. Here are my 2 favourite spots in the South:
Puerto de Mogan
Puerto de Mogan is a little further away but the place is really worth it! And they have recently improved the roads. Well, that’s my conclusion since my GPS asked us to take a U-turn in the middle of the motorway! And I haven’t updated the map in 4 years…
This was my little paradise: no high buildings, nice little restaurants, easily accessible and with lots of car parks. The beach is tiny and there is no proper shower, but the water is much quieter than in Maspalomas. Another little gem I found by accident was Las Meloneras beach.
We were about to leave for the airport, but I was starving and refused to have my last lunch at the airport! There was nowhere to park near Maspalomas nature reserve where we initially wanted to have lunch, so we headed for the airport. Before getting onto the motorway I spotted a nice building very close by. So I asked my husband to drive up to it to check it out. We found a little road leading to this lovely beach! Then again a shopping mall but not very busy this time! We found a Spanish restaurant with delicious cuisine, overlooking Las Meloneras beach.
I definitely recommend this area as it was much quieter! We really fell in love with the place and I want to go back to Gran Canaria just to stay there! It’s also worth knowing that if you miss the carnival of Las Palmas, you can still enjoy the one in the south of the island. It takes place later in the month, according to our host. When we went it had not started yet. So if it rains all day in Las Palmas, it’s nice to be accommodated in the area of Vecindario, near the airport. That way you can easily spend some time sunbathing in the south and then enjoy the carnival in Las Palmas. Our host told us that there was always a cloud hanging over Las Palmas, especially in the winter. Actually, if you drive a little towards the north-west, it’s not that bad.
Here are a few nice places in the North:
Puerto de las Nieves
We spent half a day in each place, but we could have spent more time in the beautiful little Puerto de las Nieves, famous for the Dedo de Dios (God’s Finger in English) and its amazing cliffs. We also enjoyed delicious paella in an Italian-owned restaurant!
The weather in Las Palmas was so bad one day that they had to cancel all the carnival activities. So again, don’t only go for 3 days, and there is so much to see on the island. In 6 days we didn’t have the time to see all that was on my list. So hopefully one day I will go back. Check the program and choose what you would like to see. I really enjoyed the troupes’ competition called Concurso de Comparsas. Even though it was cold and very long, some troupes were really impressive! I also really liked the children’s Queen competition called Gala de la Reina Infantil. But it was really busy! Lots of locals come to support their kids. So be prepared to stand unless you come extra early and can grab a seat. I was lucky that when we arrived it started to rain for 5 minutes and everybody ran away! So I stayed under my umbrella and secured a seat. The rain didn’t come back. And I could enjoy the show sitting comfortably! We saw other events as we went to Las Palmas almost every day but those 2 were definitely the nicest ones during our week there!
Carnivals I would like to see one day
Carnival of Curacao
I have been to Curaçao many times, but never during Carnival.
I have been told that the parades there are really amazing and on top, it is a tropical island with guaranteed summer weather! I hope to be able to tell you more about it myself one day!
The only experience of it I have had was listening to the talented rhythms of their musicians playing in the Brass Bands during Carnival. My mother-in-law organized for them to come to her house as a surprise for one of her son’s wedding. It was impressive! It was every bit as good as the brass band Bateria Furiosa of the Salgueiro School in Rio de Janeiro I mention below!
In the meantime, you can check the program and have a look at the pictures to give you an idea. I even have my family checking out live on streaming TV or Facebook. But what I can tell you is that this island is really beautiful. Its buildings look like Amsterdam but with colours and good weather!
Indeed, although many people think it is linked to Brazil somehow, it’s not! It is an ex-Dutch colony, which is why the buildings look like that! The beaches outside the main city on the west coast are breathtaking! Just make sure you rent a car as otherwise, it will be nearly impossible to enjoy the true gems of the island. Also, make sure to take a day trip to Klein Curacao. It’s an uninhabited paradise island with white sandy beaches! And check out the beautiful caves and flamingo reserves as well on the way. Curacao is a small island but there is so much to see! Just make sure you spend enough time. I would say a minimum of 10 days, especially if you go for the carnival!
Carnival of Rio de Janeiro
I had the chance to visit Rio for 5 days on my trip to Brazil last year and we spent an evening in one of the schools competing for the carnival. So we had a little sneak peek of what it was going to be like. And I am pretty sure that this is one of the best carnivals in the world!
If you cannot travel that far, check your own country. Many organize beautiful and fun carnivals. In France, there are many amazing things going on, from Dunkerque in the north, to Monte Carlo in the south! Also in Barcelona, where I live, Carnaval takes place in various different barrios. The one in the nearby town of Sitges is also very famous. Lots of countries and cities or towns have their own traditions regarding carnival. So if you want to party, or simply enjoy some parades, nice decorations, a good atmosphere and beautiful costumes, take a look at what’s going on and go mingle with the crowd! Have you been to a nice carnival recently? Please share in the comments below!