The 10 Best Festivals Around the World Every Traveler Should Experience
The best festivals offer a way to celebrate the people and culture of a place, with revelers from all around the globe. They have the power to bring cultures together in events that range from solemn to silly, providing attendees with lifelong memories and stories to share.
With Mardi Gras right around the corner, this is a great time to explore some of the best festivals around the globe. Many of these take place in the countries where people can volunteer with Discover Corps. Timing your volunteer vacation to coincide with one of these celebrations is a great way to reward yourself for a job well done!
Take a look at our picks for the Top 10 festivals in the world…
(Feb 28, United States)
Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, is famous for debaucherous street parties and elaborate parades. But it’s also known for its Mardi Gras Indians, a unique African-American subculture that dates back over 100 years.
Based in New Orleans, but celebrated around the U.S., Mardi Gras is closely tied to Latin America’s Carnival. Both begin after the Christian feasts of Three Kings Day, and celebrate the opportunity to eat rich, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of Lent.
Mardi Gras was brought to the U.S. by the French Le Moyne brothers. They were sent to the Louisiane territory (present day Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) to defend France’s claim to the land. The first organized Mardi Gras was celebrated in Mobile, Alabama in 1703.
Today, imagery from the traditional Mardi Gras persists, from the masks worn at the first Mardi Gras balls to the the Meeting of the Courts. It may be best known as one crazy party, but the religious and historic roots remain significant aspects of this cultural celebration.
(March 12-13, India)
Holi, which is also known as “The Festival of Colors,” celebrates the start of Spring in India. You’ve likely seen photos of participants doused in colorful powders and waters, as if a rainbow had exploded over the crowd. The kaleidoscope of attendees listen to music, dance, and consume Bhang, a paste made from cannabis plants.
Holi is kicked off with large bonfires on the night before the parties begin. These fires represent the burning of the demoness, Holika. This was originally achieved through devotion to the Hindu god of preservation, Lord Vishnu.
This joyous celebration of good over evil, the end of Winter, and the beginning of an abundant Spring, takes place all over India each year. Participants should be prepared to get wet and dirty, and to bring Holi home in their colorfully stained clothing.
(April 13 – 15, Thailand)
A giant water fight erupts in the streets of Thailand every April to ring in the Thai New Year. Children and adults alike wield squirt guns, water balloons, and buckets they use to drench each other.
Bangkok is the premiere destination for the largest of the Songkran festivities. The celebration concentrates around Khao-San Road, a strip of restaurants, bars, and shopping that is increasingly popular with tourists.
Nobody on the streets of Thailand is immune from the shock and joy of suddenly being soaked by strangers. It may seem chaotic and juvenile at first glance, but dousing someone in water is considered a way to wish them a year filled with blessings.
(Feb 18-March 5, Latin America)
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the largest festival in the world, attracting two million people per day for the week leading up to Lent. Samba music and dancing fill the streets, along with parades and creative costumes. Sleep becomes low priority as parties keep going until sunrise.
Some believe that Carnival originated in Pagan traditions in ancient Rome. There are various other theories as to this party’s roots. But one thing is certain: The melting pot of cultures in Rio makes for a celebration that embraces a diverse range of customs and beliefs. Everyone comes together to enjoy the energy of this colorful week.
Carnival celebrations happen all over the world, from Central and South America to the Caribbean. But Rio boasts the biggest and most iconic Carnival scene by far.
St. Patrick’s Festival
(March 17, Ireland)
Originally a religious feast for the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has evolved over the past century. It’s now considered more of a general celebration of Irish culture that’s honored by cultures all over the world.
The St. Patricks’ Day Festival in Dublin is an extravagant display of pride in Irish heritage. People sport green everything, along with shamrocks and leprechaun costumes.
Around 13 million pints of Guinness are consumed around the world on St. Patrick’s Day. Despite falling in the middle of Lent, this is a celebration of indulgences, and many people– Irish and otherwise– put their self-restrictions on hold in order to properly honor this special day.
(June 21-25, England)
This is the largest open-air performing arts festivals in the world. Glastonbury features a wide range of creative acts, ranging from standup comedy to contemporary music.
The first Glastonbury Festival took place the day after Jimi Hendrix died, in 1970. It featured primarily blues artists, and about 1,500 people attended.
These days, the festival includes over 100 stages and 2,000 performers!
Fiesta del Fuego
(July 1 – 8, Cuba)
Every July, the city of Santiago de Cuba plays host to the Fiesta del Fuego (a.k.a. the Fiesta del Caribe).
Geographically, Santiago is at the very center of the Caribbean. So it’s the perfect place to celebrate Caribbean culture with “the feast of fire,” embracing the summer heat for music, dance, and art exhibitions. On a more serious track, there are also presentations, panels, and discussions surrounding timely topics for Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean.
These eight days of festivities and cultural celebrations are the perfect way to sample an abundance of Cuban and Caribbean culture. As long as you can stand the heat!
(August 30, Spain)
If you’ve ever dreamed of participating in a food fight without having to clean up afterwards, La Tomatina is the festival for you.
Held in Bruno (just outside of Valencia), Spain, La Tomatina takes place on the last Wednesday of August each year. Participants toss and squash tomatoes in the street, creating a sea of red sauce that’s perfect for sliding and slippery dancing. The tomato mess becomes so widespread that shop keepers have to hang plastic covers over their storefronts.
La Tomatina has been happening since 1945, and its origins are mysterious. But so many people have been drawn to the tomato fight over the years that attendance is now limited to just 20,000 lucky people each year.
(Sept 16-Oct 3, Germany)
When you throw a fantastic wedding party, people remember. Hence the origins of Oktoberfest, the first of which was a horse race at the 1810 wedding of Bavarian King Ludwig to his wife, Theresie. The party was so much fun that they decided to make it an annual event, which evolved over the years into the beer-guzzling party we know today.
Oktoberfest celebrations are now held all over the world, with a hodgepodge of nationalities dressing up in the traditional German lederhosen and dirndls. The costume aspect was added in 1835 as a way to preserve the traditional outfits that were fading from everyday wear.
The main Oktoberfest celebration occurs in Munich. Six million people descend on the city each year, making it the largest beer festival in the world.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
(Oct 7-15, United States)
Hundreds of balloons take to the sky and mingle with the clouds each year at the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival. Guests gather from all over the world to work the magical ascent of these giant hot air balloons.
The festival’s first iteration was held in 1972, when just 13 balloons launched from a shopping mall parking lot.
Today, the launch field is the size of 54 football fields, and guests are treated to one of the most frequently photographed events in the world. –Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.