From Samhain and All Souls’ Day to Día de Muertos and good old All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), the northern hemisphere’s autumnal shift into the long, dark days of winter produces creepy and colorful celebrations around the globe.
These annual holidays number among the world’s oldest – and perhaps most misunderstood.
Historically, many cultures – from Aztec to Celtic – have recognized the last day of October and the first two days of November as a time when the dead were thought to return to earth and walk among the living. Afraid of ghosts? That’s what costumes, thought to ward off evil spirits, are for.
So before you write off Halloween as nothing but tricks and treats for the kiddie set, why not head to a city that takes its traditions – not to mention its fun – seriously? From costumed debauchery in New Orleans to the flamboyant fun of Hong Kong’s hippest party district, these are five of the best Halloween travel destinations around the world.
Unleash your pagan side at Samhain, Dublin, Ireland
Originating in Druid and Celtic rituals, Samhain literally means “summer’s end.” Drawing upon its rich Celtic history (and claim to fame as the birthplace of none other than Dracula author Bram Stoker), Dublin offers a mysteriously romantic twist on the holiday.
Annual events include a carnival-style parade along with traditional bonfires around town. Care to mix your horror with a bit of history? Brave a haunted Dublin tour or join gothic horror enthusiasts at the Bram Stoker Festival, complete with séances, theatrical performances and more.
For a truly otherworldly celebration with a decidedly ancient flair, don’t miss the superstition-rich festivities at the National Leprechaun Museum. Along with Celtic-inspired stories and games, expect to be haunted by costumed characters straight out of Irish mythology.
Party with the dearly departed on Día de Muertos, Oaxaca, Mexico
Something about the phrase Día de Muertos – that’s “Day of the Dead” in Spanish – simply rolls off the tongue with the kind of mysterious energy that this Mexican cultural capital exudes. Held on the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2), this Aztec-influenced festival commemorates the memory of deceased family, friends and ancestors.
The festival is held in numerous cities in Mexico, but is arguably at its most spectacular in Oaxaca. Here, the streets overflow with parades, colorful markets and costumed revelers sporting wildly macabre masks, while in nearby graveyards families spare no effort in their quest to create the most extravagantly decorated tombstones, replete with elaborate flowers and the eerie glow of countless candles. Don’t skip a trip to a panaderia (bakery), where a mind-blowing array of morbid sweet treats will be on display. Try a sugar-spun coffin, or the eggy, yeasty pan de muerto (bread of the dead).
Join the fun at a theme-park party, Hong Kong
Mix plenty of international expats with a dash of local traditions, and you’ve got one of Asia’s most festive Halloween celebrations. The Lan Kwai Fong district is the epicenter of the party-all-night action. The restaurants and bars here are known to take their Halloween decor seriously, which makes this also the perfect spot to kick off the night with atmospheric dinner and drinks.
For all-out Halloween fun, you can’t do better than a stop at Hong Kong’s theme parks. Ocean Park goes hardest on the spooky attractions, with immersive haunted experiences and scary street shows (book tickets in advance). Got kids in tow? Head to Hong Kong Disneyland, where such famous Disney villains as Maleficent, Jafar, Cruella and Captain Hook preside over the park for the night. Expect plenty of special-effects delights, from a ghostly roller coaster to show-stopping pyrotechnics designed to impress even jaded adults.
Vampires and voodoo in the French Quarter, New Orleans, USA
Take the decadence and debauchery of Mardi Gras. Now add a witch costume, an eerie soundtrack and a dash of voodoo magic – and you’ve got yourself a N’awlins-style Halloween. With an intoxicating dark side that’s celebrated all year round, the Big Easy cranks up the fright factor in inimitable style come late October. (What’s more, the weather is perfect for parading around in a daring costume.) Expect this behemoth of a shindig to last several days, with parades and parties in the streets building to a climax on October 31.
For a deliciously sinful vibe, start on notorious Bourbon Street and strut your stuff through the heart of the Vieux Carré (French Quarter), where an exotic spectacle of Halloween fashion will be on show. From the elegant balconies, revelers toss down “treats” (Mardi Gras beads) to the crowds in exchange for “tricks” (usually a smile and a wave...though expect to see plenty more).
Feeling adventurous? Head to historic Jackson Square to seek your fortune with a mystic, brave a moonlit cemetery tour or dress your wicked best at the city’s sexiest party, the Endless Night Vampire Ball (where a strict costumed dress code applies).
Get your spooky groove on with the Village people, New York City, USA
Since 1973, this epic parade – rumored to be the largest Halloween celebration on Earth, with an estimated two million attendees – has remained an iconic New York moment. Show up early and stake out a prime spot on Sixth Ave in the West Village, where the whole city seems to converge in a true melting-pot experience.
From the people-watching (picture a provocative array of costumes designed to thrill, shock and defy explanation) to phantasmagoric floats, giant puppets, live bands and circus performers, this alcohol-free event is an only–in–New York madcap delight.
Want to join in the fun? This year’s theme is “Upside Down / Inside Out.” Arrive at 6pm to line up for the parade, but take note: a creative costume is a must. There are prizes for the best dressed – and plenty of inspiration from previous years on Instagram. If you can’t get a costume together but want to take part, you can consider volunteering for such spots as puppet animators.