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Festivals, which you can find the world over in a myriad of forms, aren't just fun -- they're a reflection of a culture. Some are centuries old celebrations, such as Il Palio, an elaborate horse race in Siena, Italy. Others are more recent in vintage, such as San Francisco's annual Gay Pride Parade. And of course, many are indeed great fun, such as Rio's Carnaval, New Orleans' Mardi Gras, and Spain's chaotic Tomato Festival, in which everyone pelts each other with juicy red fruit. Special events may include Christmas Markets in Germany or New England fall foliage tours. Whatever your favorite festival or event, a good tour will take you there.
Festivals can be among the most memorable and colorful experiences in travel.
Whether you’re shouting “Hey, Mister, throw me some….” as the krewe floats pass by at Mardi Gras in New Orleans; watching a solemn religious procession at Semana Santa in Seville, Spain; downing way too much beer at an Oktoberfest tent in Bavaria, Germany; or checking out the wares at India’s exotic Pushkar Camel Fair, festivals can be fun and frenetic but also fascinating, by serving as a window into the very heart of a culture.
They can also be just plain wacky or offbeat, such as Spain’s La Tomatina (tomato-throwing) or South Korea’s Boryeong Mud Festival (mud play).
Here’s a calendar of major festivals around the globe as they take place throughout the year. Note that many dates are approximate and change based on factors such as holidays or lunar cycles.
Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, Harbin, China. This is the world’s largest snow and ice sculpture festival and, appropriately, features the largest actual sculptures as well. Starting in early January each year, it runs for an entire month. Harbin is in northeast China, and, perhaps needless to say, is cold in winter, but the festival attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Quebec Winter Carnival, Quebec City, Canada. Quebec’s two-week-long Winter Carnival, which typically starts in late January and runs into February, is a celebration of all things snow: It’s the world’s largest winter carnival and ranks third for all carnivals after those in Rio and New Orleans (Mardi Gras). Winter sports, dogsled races, snow sculptures, an ice hotel and more are featured.
Carnaval, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Extravagantly designed yet skimpy costumes, samba dancing, and a certain degree of licentiousness mark Rio’s Carnaval, held in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday and the 40 days of Lenten sacrifice. This is the place to drop your inhibitions and let yourself go, in the company of a million other visitors. Since Carnaval dates are tied to Easter, they differ each year and may extend into March.
Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana. With similar timing to Carnaval, Mardi Gras culminates in a parade of brilliantly decorated floats sponsored by a variety of krewes (clubs). Krewe members typically toss out beads and candy to spectators, who have also been known to imbibe a bit on Bourbon Street.
Chinese New Year, San Francisco, California (and many other cities around the world with large Chinese populations, including, of course, in China). Chinese New Year, which varies with the lunar calendar and sometimes falls in March, is celebrated by lots of noise (firecrackers), color (lion and dragon dances), gift-giving, and traditional feasting. It lasts about two weeks and culminates in parades and visits to family and friends.
St. Patrick’s Day, throughout Ireland and New York City and Boston, Massachusetts. Ireland’s patron saint, who is said to have converted the island to Christianity, is honored by parades and freely flowing green beer. It falls annually on March 17.
Semana Santa and Feria de Sevilla, Seville, Spain. Seville’s Semana Santa – or Holy Week leading up to Easter – is marked by processions of huge religious floats carried by bearers and followed by hundreds of penitents. Seville’s Fair, also known as the April Fair, follows two weeks later, and is a week-long party of all-night eating and drinking. Many local women and men wear traditional dress – think flamenco costumes – and ride around in decorated carriages. Dates vary along with Easter.
Cinco de Mayo (May 5) is holiday time in Mexico, but it’s actually celebrated more fervently in areas of the U.S. with large Mexican populations, especially California and the Southwest. Parades, mariachis, Mexican foods, and margaritas are a big part of the mix. It commemorates a victory in battle over the French in 1862.
White Nights Festival, St. Petersburg, Russia. Centered around evening ballet, opera, orchestral and popular music performances, the White Nights Festival actually extends from late May through mid-July, but includes all of June, when sunlight lasts well into the night. Carnivals and costume parties round out the festivities.
Fiesta de San Fermin (“Running of the Bulls”), Pamplona, Spain. Made famous by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, San Fermin draws up to a million visitors per year Attendance is exciting but dangerous if you’re actually running with the bulls and not just spectating; one or more people get gored almost every year. The bulls run daily from July 7-14 each year.
Montreal Jazz Festival, Montreal, Canada. The world’s largest jazz festival attracts some of the biggest names in music to this ten-day event, which draws two million visitors and 3,000 musicians for 1,000 shows, both indoor and outdoor, many of them free. The festival typically starts in late June and runs through the first week of July.
Boryeong Mud Festival, Boryeong, South Korea. Situated each summer in the little beach town of Boryeong south of Seoul, this nine-day festival is all about the mud: mud sliding, mud games, mud massages, mud swimming, mud bathing. It’s South Korea’s most popular festival for international visitors; dates vary.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Scotland. The world’s largest arts festival, the Fringe Festival takes place over three weeks in some 300 venues around Edinburgh – currently more than 50,000 performances of more than 3,200 shows per year. Drama, comedy, dance, music – if it’s the arts, it’s here.
Palio di Siena, Siena, Italy. The Palio is one of the world’s most historic and colorful horse races, with costumed bareback riders representing ten different areas of the city competing in the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s beautiful central square. With origins dating back to the 6th century, it now takes place on August 16 and July 2 each year. Parades and other festivities extend over four days, culminating in the race itself.
Oktoberfest, Munich and other cities in Bavaria, Germany. It may seem strange that Oktoberfest begins in September, but it’s too much fun to wait—and the weather’s better. Mostly it’s about drinking beer, singing, eating sausages and general merrymaking in big groups seated in roomy tents or beer halls. This goes on from mid-September to early October, and has for more than 180 years.
Diwali, throughout India and various other countries with large Indian populations. Diwali is an ancient five-day Hindu celebration marked by gift-giving, candle lighting, and – most visible and audible to visitors – firecrackers. While dates can change each year, October is the most typical time.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque, New Mexico. The world’s largest hot air ballooning festival gets ramped up at dawn for five mornings (out of nine days) in early October. It’s also said to be the world’s most photographed special event, as hundreds of colorful balloons float over the high desert framed by the Sandia Mountains.
Day of the Dead (Dia de las Muertos), throughout Mexico and other regions with large Mexican populations. The Day of the Dead – marked each year from October 31 to November 2 – is much less morbid than it sounds. Yes, there are visits to cemeteries to honor dead ancestors and lots of skull masks and skeleton costumes, but they are incorporated into parades and other festivities. Oaxaca has some of the best.
Pushkar Camel Fair, Pushkar, India. Even if you’re not in the market for a camel, the six-day Pushkar Camel Fair is one of India’s most colorful spectacles – which is saying a lot. Along with some 11,000 camels and horses for sale, traders and vendors come from all over Rajasthan, among the hundreds of thousands of participants and spectators.
Whirling Dervish Festival, Konya, Anatolia, Turkey. For a week in mid-December (December 10 to 17), some devout adherents of Sufi Islam -- known as whirling dervishes -- perform rhythmic, twirling dances that are meant to transport them into mystical unions with God. In their white outfits with flowing skirts, they are mesmerizing to watch. The dances commemorate a 13th century Sufi mystic.
Calgary Stampede, Canada; Day of the Dead, Mexico; Oktoberfest, Germany; Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval, Brazil; Kumbh Mela, India & Many More