No matter where you go around the globe, everybody loves to celebrate. And when it comes to celebration, festivals offer something for everyone.
Whether it’s the arts and culture, food and wine, holidays, or religion you’re into, there’s a gathering somewhere with your name on it. Here’s a look at our “bucket list” picks for the biggest and best festivals in the world:
BEST CULTURAL FESTIVALS
BURNING MAN (Black Rock Desert, Nevada)
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary there are nearly one million words in the English language. But we’re not sure any of them can adequately explain the inspired madness that goes down in the northwestern Nevada desert every summer.
Burning Man started in 1986, when Larry Harvey and his buddy Jerry James assembled a 8-foot tall makeshift wooden figure and dragged it to San Francisco’s Baker Beach on the Summer Solstice.
They lit it on fire, a curious crowd of around 20 people watched it burn, and thus one of the world’s weirdest, wildest parties was born.
From those humble beginnings, the Man grew (hitting 105 feet in 2014), as did the number of attendees (nearly 70,000 in 2017). Once an intimate gathering of friends and family, the festival is now an arty, apocalyptic paean to the wonder of self-expression, attracting a tight-knit community of bohemians and misfits from all around the world.
It’s part Mad Max, part Survivor, and part Comic-Con (see: CRAZY costumes & festival clothing), with an emphasis on experimental creativity, cooperation, and civic responsibility.
It takes place from the last Sunday in August to Labor Day. And after the man is burned in the climactic culmination, the entire “city in the desert” disappears without a trace.
CARNIVAL (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Arguably the biggest festival in the world (not to mention its wildest party), Brazil’s Carnival is widely considered “the greatest show on Earth.” The event attracts nearly 5 million people each year, with a half-million or so being visitors traveling to see the spectacle.
Historically, Carnival is a religious celebration. The Brazil festival takes place in February or March, over the 5 days preceding the Catholic season of Lent, which starts 40 days before Easter. It also coincides with the end of the long, brutally hot Brazilian summer.
So picture 5 million people who’ve been baking in the heat for months, preparing to give up the things they love for 40 days, set loose in a city filled with lively music and half-naked dancers shaking what their mama gave them.
Yeah, it’s THAT crazy. And colorful, thanks to creative costumes worn by the 70+ samba schools (each representing a different neighborhood) who compete for cash and national fame.
This famous festival culminates with a rowdy, raucous 2-night extravaganza at Rio’s remarkable Sambadrome, where 90,000+ spectators pay top dollar to watch the top 12 samba schools compete for the grand prize.
There are annual themes for the competition, and the carnival parades are usually the stuff of legend. Carnival is celebrated in many Latin American nations, but nobody does it like Rio.
HARBIN INTERNATIONAL ICE & SNOW SCULPTURE FESTIVAL (Harbin, China)
Where Carnival celebrates the end of Brazil’s oppressive heat, the International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival makes the most of the bitter winter weather you’ll find in Harbin, China.
Located in Northeast China, Harbin receives some seriously cold winter winds blowing over from Siberia. How cold, you may ask? The average daily temperature in winter is around 1.8 ºF, and lows of -31 ºF are dauntingly frequent.
So why in god’s green earth would any sane person want to visit for this month-long chinese festival (which officially starts on January 5)?
Because it’s home to the largest ice sculptures in the world, and the celebration takes over the entire city. There are two main exhibition areas: Sun Island is a recreation area along the Songua River, where you’ll find most of the giant sculptures.
Ice and Snow World opens at night, with colorful lights illuminating full-sized buildings made of 2- to 3-foot ice blocks taken from the river.
Other activities in the area during the festival include alpine skiing, touring ice lantern exhibitions in various local parks, and– for the truly insane– swimming in the river’s frigid waters.
LA TOMATINA (Valencia, Spain)
Launched way back in 1945, La Tomatina is one of the oldest festivals on our list. It’s also easily the messiest, coming off like the world’s biggest food fight.
Legend has it that the whole thing started when some local boys joined a parade alongside musicians, “Giants” on stilts, and “Big Head” figures.
The unruly boys knocked one of the performers off his stilts, he became enraged and started lashing out, and a vendor’s vegetable stand fell victim to the mayhem until the police arrived to break it up.
The Spanish festival was banned for much of the 1950s, but in 1957 locals protested with a mock funeral, carrying a coffin with a giant tomato inside as bands played a funeral march.
Eventually the powers-that-be relented, and La Tomatina has grown into a huge tourism draw in the decades since.
If you go, please follow some simple rules: Don’t throw hard objects, squash the tomato before throwing it, stay a safe distance away from tomato trucks, and stop when the starter pistol indicates that the hour of mayhem has ended.
In other words, have fun, but don’t hurt anybody and don’t be a jerk.
MARDI GRAS (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Also known as Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a cultural spectacle to behold– sort of like the USA version of Carnival. But there is some debate over whether it was NOLA or Mobile, Alabama that had the first Mardi Gras back in the 1700s.
Regardless of who did it first, few would argue that the New Orleans festival is the best. Though the celebration is held every year on the day before Ash Wednesday, the festivities last for months.
It begins with social events in November, private balls held on Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Eve, with parades and more private balls throughout January and early February.
Getting invites to the private events isn’t easy. But if you know someone (or have the money to grease palms), MOM’s Ball and Orpheuscapade Ball are frequently ranked among the best.
And if you love music, check out the annual Galactic concert at the world-famous Tipitina’s on Lundi Gras (the day before Mardi Gras).
When the big day arrives, it’s best to plan what you want to see and do before the parade of beads, boobs, and booze begins. Longtime locals love the Krewe of Muses Parade, the Rex & Zulu Parade, and the Krewe of St. Anne and Krewe of Julu Parades.
But, for our money, it doesn’t get any better than watching the Mardi Gras Indians Parade in Treme.
BEST HOLIDAY FESTIVALS
DIA DE LOS MUERTOS (Mexico)
Although Cinco de Mayo may be more well-known in the US, this is arguably Mexico’s most important and widely celebrated holiday. In fact, it’s important enough that it was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
More commonly known in English-speaking countries as the Day of the Dead, the festivities begin on October 31 and last through November 2.
As depicted in the 2017 Pixar film Coco, the holiday is all about getting together with friends and family to remember and celebrate ancestors who have died in order to help them on their spiritual journey.
To honor those that came before, mexican families build private altars in their homes, known as ofrendas. On top of them they’ll put photos of the dead, calaveras (a.k.a. sugar skulls), Aztec Marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of their ancestors.
They also visit their loved ones’ graves, leaving these gifts and other beloved possessions as tribute to the deceased.
Specific celebrations of the holiday differ from region to region, with some towns holding lively parades and celebrations, while others keep it a more subdued affair with religious overtones (it coincides with All Saint’s Day).
In some cities, children will dress up in costume and go door-to-door asking calaveritas, much like trick-or-treating in the US.
KING’S DAY (Netherlands)
The rest of the world could learn a thing or two from The Netherlands about properly celebrating a national dignitary’s birthday.
Queen’s Day was a national holiday (celebrated on April 30 until 2013) commemorating Queen Beatrix’s birth. So what if her Royal Highness was actually born in late January?!
By having the festivities in pleasant April, the proud Dutch were able to throw on their loud orange attire and toss back a few drinks without having to worry about weather.
With the crowning of her son, Willem-Alexander, the holiday became known as King’s Day, or Koningsdag. It is now officially celebrated on April 27 (the King’s birthday), and includes an official government ceremony followed by sporting competitions and fun, family-friendly celebrations.
The great climate also makes for ideal conditions for a massive, country-wide flea market you have to see to believe.
KRAMPUSNACHT (Central Europe)
If you’ve read our many stories about Christmas, you know we’re especially passionate about the holiday and its myriad traditions. So it with some authority that we can say that Krampusnacht is easily the weirdest, creepiest Christmas tradition in the world.
You know the line in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that warns, “You better watch out”? Well, kids have a lot more to fear from Krampus, a hellish demon who haunts Central Europe around the holidays.
Picture an insane devil in chains, with matted fur, stag horns, and flaming coals for eyes, known for kidnapping children in a big sack so he can eat them later.
Krampusnacht (Krampus Night) occurs on December 5, the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas. While Santa appears in the vestments of a Bishop and doles out gifts for good little girls and boys, the horny (literally and figuratively) devil presents the bad ones with coal and/or swats them with bundles of birch branches.
Nobody seems to know where Krampus came from. But some historians suggest he may be a holdover from the region’s pagan past, demonized by the Catholic Church.
Regardless, it’s customary to offer a Krampus some schnapps. It might not make him leave you alone, but hopefully it’ll keep him out of your dreams.
Derived from the Sanskrit word for “astrological passage” (meaning a change or transformation), Songkran refers to the traditional New Year celebrated on April 13 in parts of India, China, and much of Southeast Asia.
The holiday, which last through April 15, is traditionally a fairly subdued affair. Mornings often start with visiting local Buddhist temples to offer food to the monks. Water is often poured on statues of the Buddha, the young, and the elderly in a symbolic purification ritual.
Family members who have moved away will often return home for the holiday to pay tribute to their ancestors. People clean their houses in preparation, and everyone dresses up in their best clothes.
Some regions host traditional parades and beauty contests, while others believe in setting off firecrackers on April 13 to ward off bad luck in the New Year.
But the main reason Songkran is known outside of Asia is the wet, wild celebration in Thailand, especially Chiang Mai.
There, most of the major streets are closed off to traffic and packed with young people for what is likely the world’s biggest water fight. Water balloons are Super Soakers are a given, and getting drenched is guaranteed.
ST. PATRICK’S FESTIVAL (Dublin, Ireland)
There are certainly larger and more raucous celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day than the one that’s held in Dublin, Ireland every March.
But considering the fact that the holiday was originally a religious celebration honoring the death of the patron saint of Ireland, suggesting any other place to partake in it feels a bit sacrilegious.
Saint Patrick was born to a religious family in Roman Britain sometime around 385 AD. At the age of 16 he was kidnapped and taken to Gaelic Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd for six years before making his escape and making his way home.
Eventually he became a priest and returned to Ireland, where he converted many pagans to Christianity.
Trivial fact: Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival. In fact, it’s only in recent years that the Irish have stepped up their St. Patrick’s Festival to rival the celebrations in US cities such as New York and Savannah.
Customary traditions include wearing green clothing and shamrocks (which the Saint used to explain the Holy Trinity), public parades, and lively music and dancing (known as a ceilidh).
The Irish also love to feast and have a wee nip of whiskey, as the Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking are officially lifted for the day.
BEST MUSIC FESTIVALS
BONNAROO MUSIC & ARTS FESTIVAL (Manchester, Tennessee)
It may not be quite as big as Coachella or as iconic as Lollapalooza. But to understand what we love about Bonnaroo (other than the fact that it’s 2.5 hours day trip from Atlanta), just check out their tagline.
“Thousands of happy campers. Hundreds of acres of Tennessee nature. 150 epic performances. 10+ Stages of music. Four of the best days ever.”
Coachella is owned by a climate change-denying billionaire, Philip Anschutz, who donates his riches to pro-gun, anti-LGBTQ Republican politicians and Super PACs.
Bonnaroo’s sustainability initiatives include Planet Roo (a haven for environmental consciousness), Clean Vibes Trading Post, annual sustainability reports, and $1 from every ticket goes to eco-friendly efforts.
Launched in 2002, the music festival is held every June on a 700-acre farm just south of Nashville.
With diverse headliners that have ranged from the Beastie Boys and Eminem to the Beach Boys and Paul McCartney, from Willie Nelson and Widespread Panic to Radiohead and Tool, it’s modeled after iconic music festivals like Monterey Pop and Woodstock.
In additions to the music, you can also find arts and crafts, food and drinks, a comedy tent, cinema tent, Ferris wheel, silent disco, parades, and yoga.
Their unique “Campground Plazas” also offer karaoke, late night parties, celebrity appearances, and more.
FES FESTIVAL OF WORLD SACRED MUSIC (Fes, Morocco)
Originally launched in 1994 in Fes (with King Mohammed VI as its royal patron), this world music festival is a celebration of the ancient Moroccan city’s rich traditions in the arts, knowledge, and spirituality.
Held in June, the event has grown considerably over the last 24 years, annually attracting some 100,000+ attendees.
It was even recognized by the UN as one of the world’s most significant events in terms of contributing to the dialogue between disparate cultures around the world.
Every year the Fes Festival offers around 60 different shows and concerts, featuring musicians and poets ranging from up-and-coming “Next Big Things” to international icons such as Joan Baez, Björk, Patti Smith, Salif Keita, and Ravi Shankar. There are also multimedia performances, and Sufi Nights featuring sacred music rich with mysticism.
Fes is the perfect setting for a festival rich with such diverse cultural traditions. Its influence dates back to Medieval times, when Popes and philosopher’s went there to study and teach.
The concerts take place in venues of ancient cultural heritage, from local riads to the grand courtyard of Bab al Makina, where the official ceremonies of the royal palace were once held.
MONTREUX JAZZ FESTIVAL (Montreux, Switzerland)
Founded back in 1967 (with considerable help from Atlantic Records honchos Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün), Montreux is one of the oldest music festivals in the world. It’s also the second largest jazz festival, after the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
That Canadian concert may attract more visitors– around 2 million annually. But Montreux benefits from its picturesque location on the stunning shores of Lake Geneva. The area is particularly beautiful in late June/early July, when the festival is held.
Don’t let the name fool you: Though the festival was jazz-only in its early years, by the 1970s legendary rock artists such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Van Morrison were topping the bill.
It was originally held at the Montreux Casino, until it burned down during Frank Zappa’s 1971 performance there. The event was immortalized in “Smoke On The Water,” the Deep Purple classic: “We all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline. To make records with a mobile, we didn’t have much time.”
In recent years the lineup has only gotten more eclectic. It still attracts top-notch jazz musicians such as Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, George Benson, and Fourplay.
But it also hosts iconic artists offering an array of other styles, such as Usher & The Roots, Fleet Foxes, Erykah Badu, Youssou N’Dour, Ms. Lauryn Hill, and Brian Wilson. Best of all, more than half the concerts are free!
WOMAD (Wiltshire, England)
One of my favorite music festivals I’ve attended, WOMAD (World Of Music, Arts & Dance) was founded in 1980 by Peter Gabriel and a team that included Artistic Director Thomas Brooman and influential concert promoter Martin Elbourne (who also books the Glastonbury Festival).
From the beginning, the festival focused on the enthusiastic embracing of the world’s disparate cultures, encouraging the breaking down of boundaries through art, music, and movement.
This has led to some extraordinary collaborations, such as when Echo & the Bunnymen played with the Drummers of Burundi in 1982, and when Mali’s Tinariwen played with two members of TV On The Radio in 2010.
More than any other music festival, WOMAD has always been a celebration of global culture first and foremost. They offer workshops for both children (including circus skills, painting, and storytelling) and adults (such as dance, exotic musical instruments, and discussions of global concerns).
They also feature an array of international cuisines, including traditional dishes cooked by the musicians themselves.
Though not nearly as large as soon of the other festivals on this list (averaging around 30,000 visitors), the eclectic festival celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2017. It is held annually in late July.
WORLD SACRED SPIRIT FESTIVAL (Jodhpur, India)
You’re unlikely to find a more stunning setting for a music festival than the ancient Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
Built around 1460 and located on a hill 410 feet above the city, the massive fort (one of India’s largest) includes an impressive museum and several palaces renowned for their intricate carvings and expansive courtyards.
At the base of this extraordinary monument is where you’ll find the World Sacred Spirit Festival, which takes place over three days in mid-February. Founded in 2007, the event was formerly known as the World Sufi Festival.
But it has since expanded its horizons to include a broad variety of sacred, spiritual music from different parts of the world.
From melodious Lithuanian harp music and the traditional Italian folk songs of Sardinia to Andalusian Sufi songs of Morocco and Duduk (a type of clarinet) music from Armenia, music from North Africa, Europe, and Asia will be featured.
And of course the local sounds of Rajasthan, India will be given their due time in the spotlight, from Qawwali devotional music to the droning double flute known as the Satara.
It may not be the easiest festival for our western readers to get to. But, in terms of the mesmerizing music and the surrounding scenery, we can guarantee it’ll be worth the trip.
BEST RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS
OUIDAH INTERNATIONAL VOODOO FESTIVAL (Ouidah, Benin)
The Voodoo (a.k.a. Vodun) religion has been demonized by puritanical cultures for centuries.
But in western Africa– including Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo– this ancient practice is integral to the morality, politics, and social order of many villages. So efforts to eradicate it have been largely unsuccessful.
In reality, Voodoo is not all that different from Catholicism, though it is matriarchal as opposed to patriarchal.
Adherents believe that the vodun spirits are deities governing both man and nature. They are in the trees, rivers, and rocks, with lesser vodun devoted to specific nations, tribes, and clans.
The Ouidah International Voodoo Festival, held every January in Ouidah, Benin, is the world’s largest gathering of Vodun practitioners and devotees.
It attracts thousands from all around the world each year. And though certain aspects of it may not be for the faint of heart, it is an enlightening look at one of the world’s most misunderstood religions.
You may see the ritualistic animal sacrifices that have made Voodoo controversial in the west (despite the fact that factory farming practices are more gruesome). There are also markets filled with fetishes, wood carvings, and masks, and women dressed in all the vivid colors of the rainbow.
Word to the wise: Not many white people attend the festival, and some people will take advantage of naive tourists!
HOLI FESTIVAL (India, Nepal, and Pakistan)
This ancient Hindu festival, also known as “the festival of colours” or “the festival of love,” celebrates the end of winter and the victory of good over evil.
It takes place between late February and mid-March and lasts for one night (known as Holika Dahan or Chhoti Holi) and the following day (Holi).
There are various legends associated with the Indian Festival. One suggests it pays tribute to the Hindu god Vishnu and his follower, Prahlada, and their defeat of Prahlada’s power-hungry father, the demon King Hiranyakashipu.
One suggests it’s a celebration of the great love Radha had for the blue-faced deity, Krishna. Others link it to Shiva, who is often associated with yoga and meditation.
On Holika Dahan, people perform religious rituals before a raging bonfire, which symbolizes cleansing and the forgiveness of past debts and other transgressions. The next morning is the wild free-for-all for which Holi is known.
People fill water balloons and water guns, drench each other, then cover each other in powder in an array of dazzling colors.
There’s also marching bands, dancing, food and drinks, and lots of laughter. Everyone is welcome, everyone is fair game, and the playful, childlike vibe is incredibly infectious.
MEVLÂNA FESTIVAL (Konya, Turkey)
Commonly referred as the Whirling Dervish Festival, this annual event commemorates the death of 13th century saint Mevlâna, who’s more commonly known as Rumi.
Rumi was a Persian poet, theologian, Islamic scholar, and Sufi mystic. Over the past seven centuries his influence has spread throughout the world, influencing everyone from Turks, Greeks, and Iranians to Muslims in Central and South Asia. Even now, nearly 750 years after his death, he is the best-selling poet in the United States.
Rumi believed that it was possible to communicate with God through music and dance. Held December 10 through 17, the Mevlâna Festival celebrates Rumi’s eternal spirit with sacred music and Whirling Dervishes dancing.
Their trance-like dancing creates a remarkable flow of energy, with their flowing white robes mesmerizing as they twirl in time with the music.
The festival reaches its climactic crescendo on December 17, the day when Rumi was united with Allah. Over a million people attend each year, so if you want to visit the town of Konya you’ll need to book hotels and tickets well in advance.
SEMANA SANTA (Spain)
Holy Week– the week between Palm Sunday and Easter– is celebrated throughout much of the Christian world. It commemorates the last week in the life of Christ, including the entry of Jesus and his disciples into Jerusalem, the crucifixion, and resurrection.
But Semana Santa, as the holiday is known in Spain and much of Latin America, offers a much more elaborate approach to the celebration. It largely centers on the parade-like processions of Catholic brotherhoods (or fraternities), many of which date back to the Middle Ages or Baroque period.
The celebrations vary by region: Those held in Málaga and Seville are among the most extravagant, while those in Valladolid and Zamora tend to be more somber. But the central features are generally similar.
Penitents, known as nazarenos, march in colorful robes that hide their faces. They carry processional candles or crosses, and many walk barefoot, bound by chuckles and chains.
But the thing that attracts travelers around the world is the fantastic floats (a.k.a. Pasos) they carry. These are elaborately decorated with artful sculptures depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ or the Sorrows of Virgin Mary.
Some are created by famous Spanish artists, and have been used by brotherhoods for centuries. With marching bands providing musical accompaniment, it’s quite the spectacle.
If you’re looking for a hotel for the Semana Santa Festival, check out Gran Hotel Miramar (Málaga), Hotel Palacete de Alamos (Málaga), Monte Carmelo (Sevilla) or Petit Palace Puerta de Triana (Sevilla).
VESAK (Colombo, Sri Lanka)
Also known as Vesākha or Buddha’s Birthday, Vesak is a traditional Buddhist holiday. It commemorates the birth, spiritual enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha, the sage teacher who lived sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE.
The religious holiday is observed by Buddhists in countries all around the world, but it is more common in Asia. The date varies from country to country, but the week-long celebration in Sri Lanka (which annually begins on the day of the full moon in May) is widely considered among the best.
That’s because their Vesak Festival uniquely includes thoranas– massive, temporary structures designed to impress, covered with colorful lights and paintings.
Each of these impressively elaborate pieces is designed to illustrate an important story from the Jatakas Tales about the life of the Buddha.
Sri Lanka’s celebration also includes color lanterns (Vesak kuudu) hung in front of people’s home and along city streets to symbolize the light of the Buddha.
There are food stalls set up to provide free food and drinks, groups singing devotional songs, and thousands of people from all around the world joining in the jubilant communal atmosphere that the best festivals create. –Bret Love; lead photo By Gianluca Ramalho Misiti (Flickr: sem título-25) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons