The 10 most beautiful carnivals in the world
13 January 2020
With their most beautiful carnival masks on, both the young and old will be able to celebrate together the joys of the festival in an enchanting atmosphere… Feathers, sequins, carts and music… Oh yeah, the carnival season is fast approaching! However, what are the most beautiful carnivals in the world? Follow the lead of Little Guest Hotels Collection (collection of luxury hotels dedicated to families) and check out our top 10!
The origins of a tradition
It’s usually in February that the enchanting carnival period is in full swing. This festive event marks the beginning of a period commonly known as Lent. Since this period is a period of meditation and privation (fasting) for Christians, the last Tuesday that precede Lent is traditionally known as a “fat” day, a day of celebration and abundance… it is the famous Fat Tuesdays which is set for this year on February 25. Tradition has it that as of the next day, that is, from Ash Wednesday, there should be no more consumption of meat until Easter. The origin of the word carnival also stems from here, given that “carne” means meat and “vale” means its removal (from the dishes). Over time, many carnivals have incorporated non-Christian customs, competing in creativity and audaciousness, for the fun of both the young and old.
1 – Binche and its well-preserved traditions
Binche is an enchanting medieval town in the province of Hainaut, south of Brussels. Being recognized as an Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, its carnival has been preserved through the ages thanks to the fervour of the Binche families who were able to transmit this ancestral know-how, from generation to generation. It’s a feast that has family in its DNA and it is great to experience this feast with your loved ones.
On Fat Sunday, which officially marks the commencement of the carnival, hordes of masked jokers appear in the city’s streets. Their crazy and always sympathetic attitude will cause lots of giggling. However, the highlight of the show only takes place two days later, the day depicted as Fat Tuesday. At dawn, a thousand “Gilles” come out of their homes to form a fascinating procession. Oh… you need to see them as the walk together, turning their oval masks adorned with goatees and green glasses, while offering oranges to the children. They are followed by other characters such as harlequins or little Pierrots. In this inimitable atmosphere, families are encouraged to follow the parade while dancing, if they wish. And in the evening, balls, banquets and fireworks will be on offer.
Binche’s proximity to the Belgian capital makes it possible to combine the joys of the carnival with those of a Brussels’ slow life weekend. I recommend that you lodge in the magnificent art deco building of Hotel Le Plaza *****, which is probably the best hotel in Brussels. If you prefer the countryside, why not lodge in this magnificent eight-hectare hotel complex of Pairi Daiza? You won’t be disappointed with your stay there, since 7,000 animal wildlife in semi-freedom await you for unforgettable moments.
2 – Rio de Janeiro, the most famous carnival in the world
Today, it is hard to believe that during the first Rio carnivals, people were dressed in French-style to dance the waltz on the streets of the city. Samba – a dance that has made this carnival famous today – only officially appeared in 1917, after many slaves, who became free in 1888, settled in Rio. These groups of dancers soon organized themselves into competitive circles, founding Samba schools, competing in ingenuity and energy, striving to win what has become, over the course of time, a real contest.
Faced with the growing gigantism of parades, the famous Sambodrome was built in the city of Rio in 1984. It is a wide, 800-meter-long alleyway, bordered by high bleachers where 80,000 spectators can sit to watch the parade. The keenly observant judges are scattered throughout this gigantic building and at the dawn of the second day of the festival, the winning school is chosen. Even though the seats are sold out as quickly as are hotcakes, it is possible to get them, for a reasonable sum (between €30 and €100), here for exemple.
At the Rio Carnival, you don’t need to be a samba pro to be able to dance yourself out too. The festivities commence three weeks before the start of the carnival itself and it is at such periods that, in the streets of the city, groups of percussionists, revellers and disguised families form spontaneous parades… you will certainly feel compelled to delve into this joyous mass! For your accommodation, we recommend a magnificent palace, which faces the country’s most legendary beach: the Belmond Copacabana Palace. You will be thrilled…
3 – Nice, corso and the flower battle, the thousand sweetness of the Côte d’azur
The Carnaval de Nice comprises of two highlights that are repeated several times during the fifteen days of the festivities: the Corso and the Flower battle. However, this “battle” isn’t really a battle… It is carts covered with flowers that parade along with music and the smiling young people offering local flowers to the public. For the event, 21 tonnes of mimosas alone, are distributed to spectators! The immense caricatures and other grotesque figures of Corso greet the crowd from the top of their carts while overlooking the thousands of dancers and musicians from around the world who came to get you enthralled. At the end of these two weeks of madness, the carnival ends with the “Cremation of the King“. It’s a gigantic firework display during which the mascot of the festivities is burnt.
You will have to pay an amount in order to be allowed to access the bleachers of Place Masséna, however, access is free for children between 0 to 5 years old. In addition, fully disguised persons can enter the Corso’s promenades free of charge. So, what are you waiting for to completely mask up from head to toe? All you need to do is find wherein you will lodge. Where could that be? Undoubtedly, it should be at Negresco *****! This magnificent hotel offers breath-taking views over the sea and its art deco style will immerse you in a festive and refined atmosphere from the moment you step into it. As surprising as it may seem, it sometimes happens that during a day in summer (though only for one day, rest assured), it starts to rain on the French Riviera. You don’t need to panic, as we have put together a guide of exciting family activities for you, which can be done when the weather does not permit you to stroll.
4 – Santo Domingo, this characters parade is also a national day
Though less popular than the other carnivals enlisted on this sumptuous list, the Santo Domingo Carnival is nonetheless a rare gem. A clever blend of pre-Columbian, Spanish and African traditions, it is unique in that it is celebrated on the National Day. Indeed, the Dominican Republic became independent on February 27, 1844 and the carnival is celebrated throughout the country on this date.
The Diablos Cojuelos are the most anticipated characters of the parade. Dressed in multicoloured and satiny ornaments, wearing a gigantic mask with Joker’s smile, they stand in the middle of the road where they parade with elegance. What a strange sight it is to behold around them witches, fantastic or historical characters parading joyfully one after the other in an irresistible festive atmosphere. These characters willingly stop to take photos with the children. On small traditional displays, you can purchase handmade masks that look very similar to those being admired in the parade. Let yourself be tempted, these masks are magnificent and truly typical…
The Dominican Republic is a country that deserves to be known. Its fine sand beaches, its cities with characters, the hospitality of its inhabitants and its breath-taking natural parks are certainly worth visiting. In the meantime, Audrey has listed for you all the must-see sites of this beautiful country, do not hesitate to read her article. For your stay to be bathed in enchantment and elegance, we recommend you lodge at the Grand Reserve at Paradisus Palma Real *****. Located on the edge of a paradisiacal beach, facing the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, the complex welcomes demanding families who seek after a change of scenery and relaxation.
5 – Venice, the mysterious joys of the Serenissima city
There was once a time when the famous Venice carnival lasted six months and all deviations were allowed for the Venetians. Today it only lasts ten days and it’s a major international festivity. Just as in the Renaissance period, magnificent masks and exuberant disguises are the highlights. Gondola parades, balls and parties are also organized. So, put on your most beautiful mask and set off through the streets to explore incognito, the secret corners of the Serenissima.
Lodging with your family during this busy period is not always easy. You can book a suite at Excess Venice Hotel et Spa. This hotel will allow you to relax with your family between two carnival getaways. And why not leave, after having tasted the joys of carnival, exploring this magnificent country of Italy in the process? It is not for nothing that it is nicknamed “il bel paese” (the beautiful country), as it conceals breath-taking natural and cultural treasures, not far from Venice. You have two choices here: you can either strive to conquer the northern lakes – you might want to appreciate one of the most beautiful, Lake Como, and stay in the gorgeous Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni ***** – head for the Dolomites and ski with your family or relax in the quiet Veneto. Afterwards, depending on your heart’s desires, you can go on an adventure and let yourself be guided through an Italian road trip, with precious tips from Sarah. It offers a quick glance at the best hotels in the country for a successful stay in the land of la dolce vita.
6 – Quebec and its numerous icy festivities
The Quebec carnival is more of a grand winter festivity than a carnival in the traditional sense of it. It is nonetheless the world’s most important winter event. A wide range of activities for all ages awaits you: night parades, slides, giant games, traditional market, shows, parades, snow sculpture workshops, sleigh rides and skating. I’m certain you are beginning to have a grasp of it… you won’t be getting bored. This immense festivity was born in 1894, however, its current dynamic status was only attained after a group of businessmen decided to make a gigantic event of it, in 1954. Today, it is a family festivity that is simply breath-taking, and during which you will be confused as to what direction to head for.
Don’t miss the Hydro-Québec parade that crosses the city’s Grande Allée. You will be enthralled by the Circassian prowess and the spectacular choreographies performed in the purest Canadian tradition which has made the Cirque du Soleil famous. Blend into the crowd, dressed in red as is the custom… The activities and access to the site are free of charge for children between 0 to 8 years old. We recommend that you lodge at the Fermont de Frontenac Hotel. This sumptuous hotel is ideally located close to the place of the festivities; it’s a legendary and elegant castle hotel, which is very kids-friendly and certainly worth visiting.
7 – Santa Cruz de Tenerife, giggling and sunshine on offer
During a month full of concerts and burlesque parades, the city transforms itself into a big colourful festival. The Santa Cruz de Tenerife carnival consists of two very different parts: the “official” carnival and the “street” carnival. The official carnival has more than 100 music and dance groups. The street carnival is a spontaneous celebration where residents and tourists partake by disguising themselves to attend the multiple animations that the city puts on. The burial of the sardine is a must that should not be missed… It is a crazy procession where craziness and derision are the highlights and where the only risk you will be taking is laughing yourself out!
Where to lodge during this period? Without a shred of a doubt, at GF Victoria ***** which has the undeniable advantage of being close to the festivities’ site. However, the attractions of the site do not stop at this exceptional carnival… You just need to venture into this island which enjoys a serene climate in all seasons and where the temperature rarely drops below 20°, in order to understand. Émilie wrote an amazing article on the riches of the island of Tenerife, wherein you will be able to find loads of wonderful ideas and offers.
8 – Notting Hill, the summer carnival in the Caribean colours
This famous London carnival is not a winter event, it is a carnival that takes place during summer, during the weekend preceding the last Monday of August. So, you can combine this unforgettable experience with the experience of another carnival elsewhere in the world. This carnival was initiated by immigrants from the Caribbean, who represent a large proportion of the population of the Notting Hill district. The first edition took place in 1966 and the youngest of the big carnivals quickly became one of the most interesting.
The procession goes around the district, over a 5-kilometre route. The parade is mainly made up of mobile sound systems, carts playing amplified, and strongly rhythmic music. The participants follow these carts while dancing, dressed up in a style that’s specific to their group, wearing shimmering feathers of all colours. Just as it is in Rio, the different groups are rated by a jury. The traditional musical genre is soca. That said, Jamaican music is also strongly represented. In effect, over forty sound systems are set up in the streets for this occasion, and the festivity continues until the wee hours of the morning.
But where to stay during this period? At The Lanesborough, certainly. Situated between Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace, this palace offers the best in British-style accommodation. Surrounded by fine art and furnishings, enjoy 24/24 butler service, a spa and high-end dining, and very special treatment for children. London is also easy to visit with the whole family. Read our article on city breaks in Europe and the special place of the British capital.
9 – Annecy and its Venetian Carnival at the foot of the peaks
Since it is crossed by majestic canals, Annecy is nicknamed the Venice of the Alps. This appellation is fully visible when we get to the end of winter, and when the Venetian carnival weekend starts in early March. The silent procession of this colourful parade is fascinating, 500 masked figures parade while proudly displaying their clothes and their majestic parasols, to the delight of the spectators… The parading characters willingly stop to pose with you for improvised photos. Besides the carnival, the entire city celebrates Italian culture, with numerous events: cinema, conferences, various workshops and activities for children. This wonderful event that takes place throughout the city is also completely free of charge.
We recommend that you combine the beauty of this carnival with the joys of a stay in the region. Haute-Savoie offers fascinating panoramas which would be a shame to miss. A spa town par excellence, in just an hour’s drive from Annecy, Evian is internationally known for its famous mineral water. Surrounded by a huge park, Royal Evian ***** will most certainly satisfy you, thanks to its spa, its hydro course and its internationally renowned golf course. If you are seeking after ideas for destinations in France, do not hesitate to consult the guide that has been passionately drafted by Pernell, the Royal Evian is mentioned there, of course.
10 – New Orleans, the most beautiful carnival in the United States
The carnival festivity was introduced in Louisiana by the first French settlers. Since then, the houses have all been decorated with green, purple and gold for the two weeks preceding Fat Tuesday. Locals and tourists alike attend one parade a day, but the most spectacular of them take place during the last five days of the carnival. Each participating association, known as the krewes, proudly present its cart while having at heart, in the parade, to boost the festive mood and to involve the spectators herein. As such, remember to bring along a backpack, to preciously keep in them the thousand small gifts (goodies) that the parading characters distribute to spectators…
During this period, balls are also organized, and families wiggle to the frenzied rhythm of jazz and other more modern music. Before Fat Tuesday, you will rarely see the population putting on masks, but on the D-Day everyone wears one, and what masks! It’s a competition of eccentricity and exuberance, to the delight of children who will see hardly believe the veracity of the marvels unveiling itself before their own eyes. The atmosphere in New Orleans is simply unique and it is generally the entirety of Louisiana, though less known than the big American cities, which is certainly worth the detour. During a stay in the hinterland, do not miss the plantations that have been rehabilitated into accommodation, which will certainly give you a change of scenery.
All these being said, it is now left to you to choose your next destination. If you have any query regarding the dates, the ideal duration for each stay or any additional information, keep in mind that your favourite travel designers and little concierges are entirely at your disposal…
Enjoy your carnival!
Julien, 35 years old, journalist and translator, from Saint-Malo, France