Beads at the ready – Mardi Gras is just around the corner.

Taking place between the Twelfth Night of Christmas (January 5) and Shrove Tuesday, which falls on February 13 this year, countries around the world mark the holiday with a vibrant season of carnivals.

Cities today celebrate Mardi Gras with flamboyant parades, live music, and over-the-top costumes, but the tradition dates back thousands of years to medieval Rome. First held as a compromise between the Catholic church and ancient pagan harvest festivals, Mardi Gras incorporated the revelry and indulgence of Saturnalia – a huge public banquet with gifts and nonstop parties in the name of Saturn – in a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of fasting from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. The term Mardi Gras (French for 'Fat Tuesday') derives from the custom of using up all the fatty foods forbidden during Lent.

As Catholicism spread across the globe from Europe, so did the tradition of Mardi Gras. The celebration would stretch into weeks-long carnivals from mid-January to March and each culture put their own spin on the Roman customs. Here are the eight best places in the world to celebrate Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras parade float with Rex, King of Carnival, waving to the crowd in New Orleans, USA
Rex, King of the Carnival, waves from his Mardi Gras float in New Orleans © Philip Gould / Getty Images

1. New Orleans, USA

The earliest Mardi Gras in the US may have taken place in Mobile, Alabama, but it's New Orleans that has become synonymous with the celebration. Since the Louisiana city first hosted the event in 1837, it has taken the festivities to a whole other level. Even before some 1.5 million visitors pack out the streets of the Big Easy, daily Mardi Gras processions pass through various neighborhoods. The main event, however, follows a route from Napoleon Ave, down Saint Charles Ave in the Uptown neighborhood, and to the edge of the French Quarter.

Part of the fun is catching the small trinkets or “throws” tossed into the crowd by the krewes, the social clubs that organize the parades. These can include beads, snacks, stamped doubloons, or, most prized of all, carefully decorated Zulu coconuts. Travelers should try the king cake, a ring of twisted cinnamon-roll-style dough iced in purple, green and gold, the historic colors of Mardi Gras. The signature dessert of New Orleans has a tiny plastic baby concealed inside it, a nod to the Three Kings bringing gifts for the baby Jesus. Whoever finds the little figurine has to provide the next cake and ensure the party rolls on.

A samba school parading in the Sambódromo (Sambadrome) carnival stadium, with 90,000 spectators during the world-famous carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A samba school parades through the Sambódromo in Rio de Janeiro ©T photography/Shutterstock

2. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The Brazilian edition of Mardi Gras is the world’s largest carnival. A whopping two million people pour into the streets of Rio de Janeiro each year for a major blowout. It comes complete with feathered showgirls, thumping sound systems and sensational samba choreography. Carnival all kicks off on February 9 with informal street parties known as blocos. They vary from the child-friendly Gigantes da Lira, filled with clowns and acrobats, to the huge LGBT party, Banda de Ipanema, or the Sargento Pimenta, which reimagines Beatles songs in a samba style.

All the events have live music, street food and plenty of dancing. They are also a great opportunity to get close to the action and party for free. However, if you want to attend the official parade at the Sambódromo, you’ll need to buy tickets in advance. As the main event, it features bedazzled costumes, fantastic floats, and some jaw-dropping performances from the top samba schools. There’s also a children’s parade for younger dancers to showcase their skills.

A masked person during the Venice Carnival. They are posing in front of house along one of the canals in Venice, Italy.
Venice goes heavy on the masks during Carnival © Neyya / Getty Images

3. Venice, Italy

Mardi Gras in Venice tends to be more exclusive than some of the rowdy street parties in other cities. The famous Venetian masks – traditional masquerade face coverings designed to conceal the identity of the wearer and level any societal heterarchy at the parties – are central to the celebrations, which brim with masquerade balls. Visitors need to buy tickets through the festival’s website. The dress code is also more elaborate than elsewhere and it favors intricate period costumes. However, if you’re only taking in the sights, you can pick up a simple mask at one of the stalls around the city.

Aside from the private galas, there are enchanting boat parades along the Grand Canal at night and free activities in St Mark’s Square, including costume contests, street theater, and the Maria of the Year beauty pageant. The winner is dressed as an angel and will glide spectacularly from the bell tower to the center of the square on a cable, flinging confetti at the crowds below.

Les Gilles de Binche celebrate Mardi Gras in Binche, a UNESCO World Heritage-recognized Carnival
Les Gilles de Binche celebrating Mardi Gras in Binche, Belgium © Mark Renders / Stringer / Getty Images

4. Binche, Belgium

Celebrated south of Brussels, in Belgium’s Hainaut province, the Carnival of Binche centers on the area’s unique folklore. You may have seen its concluding March of the Gilles, which takes place on Mardi Gras. Local men, dressed as clown-like characters in wax masks, wooden clogs and ornate costumes stuffed with straw, walk to the main square. Here, they don fabulous ostrich-feathered headdresses and give out oranges to the crowd as a symbol of good luck.

Recognized for its cultural significance by UNESCO, the merrymaking actually kicks off on the Sunday before Mardi Gras with a costumed morning parade that features lively music by local brass and clarinet bands. The following day focuses on Binche’s youth groups with a parade, a confetti battle, and a gathering at the Grand Palace that forms the “rondeau of friendship.” At night there is a fireworks display.

A carnival-goer is dressed up for the parade, with elaborate, colorful wings on their back
In Sydney, Mardi Gras is a celebration of LGBTIQ+ culture © FiledIMAGE / Getty Images

5. Sydney, Australia

In 1978, Australian gay rights activists planned a parade in Sydney to celebrate queerness and draw attention to issues affecting the community. Inspired by the street parties of New Orleans, they referred to it as a Mardi Gras, although it had little to do with pre-Lenten celebrations. Even today it doesn’t take place on a Tuesday. 

With hundreds of colorful floats, glittering outfits and dazzling performances, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras bears many similarities to its international counterparts but runs a little later, from February 16 to March 3. The 2024 event includes a production of the West End musical sensation & Juliet, a variety of sporting events, a doggy pageant, and the official post-parade all-nighter, previously headlined by the likes of Kylie Minogue, Cher and Dua Lipa.

A carnival reveler with his face covered in paint and wearing horns poses for a portrait during the J'ouvert street procession as part of Trinidad Carnival
The devil at J’Ouvert, a part of Trinidad Carnival © Sean Drakes / Contributor / Getty Images

6. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

In the 18th century, French colonizers introduced the tradition of Mardi Gras to Trinidad and Tobago. They dressed up and imitated the dances of the Africans they had enslaved, but forbade them from taking part in the festivities themselves. In turn, enslaved Africans in the Port of Spain organized their own gatherings called “Canboulay.” There, they would mimic their masters in “mas” (short for masquerade). Some of the more popular characters still return today, such as Dame Lorraine, who parodied a rich planter’s wife.

Following the emancipation of enslaved people in 1838, Canboulay became louder and more defiant. As a form of resistance, it withstood numerous attempts to shut it down. When the French colonizers outlawed drumming, participants used bamboo sticks and later steel pans to make music. Calypso and soca music with steel drums grew out of these times and are still played today. Stick fighting also still takes place. Attendees still play mas: each of the masquerade bands has a chosen theme for the parade. Visitors can even join in by signing up for a mas band and buying the group’s extravagant costumes.

Numerous ticketed parties known as fetes take place in the Port of Spain. You can also ditch the finery for J’Ouvert, when revelers assemble at 4am on Shrove Monday and watch the sun rise while pelting each other with mud, paint, water, and clay. Prepare to get dirty.

Close-up of piccolo players in their costumes with illuminated head lanterns at Fasnacht in Basel, Switzerland
Fasnacht kicks off at 4am under the cover of darkness © Helior / Getty Images

7. Basel, Switzerland

Fasnacht, the Swiss carnival, is on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list for its focus on social and political issues. Likened to a satirical magazine come to life, it begins in complete darkness on the Monday after Ash Wednesday (February 19 this year). The early morning procession, the Morgenstreich, starts at 4am. All public lighting along the route is switched off and beautiful hand-painted lanterns illuminate the streets instead. Afterward, people load up on a breakfast of onion-and-cheese tarts or Mehlsuppe (a hearty beef broth, brown onions and toasted flour soup), before taking a closer look at the lanterns – put on display at the Munsterplatz for the rest of the festival.

Basel Fasnacht runs for exactly 72 hours, winding down at 4am on Thursday, but before that two massive street parades, called cortège, take place on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Some 10,000 participants present their themed costumes in groups or “cliques,” alongside floats, brass gugge bands and horse-drawn carriages. Be warned: cliques take their costumes very seriously and organizers advise spectators not to dress up. Instead, show your support by picking up a blaggedde, a brooch-like badge that has a different design each year.

Diablada dancers in ornate costumes prepare to parade through the mining city of Oruro on the Altiplano of Bolivia during the annual carnival
The dancing at Oruro, Bolivia, can go on for more than 20 hours straight © JeremyRichards / Getty Images

8. Oruro, Bolivia

The small mining town of Oruro is the folklore capital of Bolivia. Each year it welcomes up to 400,000 people for its annual carnival, from February 8 to 13. The Mardi Gras event honors the Virgin of the Candelaria del Socavón (better known as the Virgen del Socavón, the patron of Oruro miners). She is said to have helped a fatally injured bandit – known for stealing from the rich to give to the poor – miraculously reach his home to die.

The festivities center on dancing as a faithful retelling of cherished folk tales. Featuring 48 groups of dancers and musicians, they repeat the same routines each year. Starting at 7am, the demonstration follows a 4km route from Bolívar St to the Socavón cathedral in the town center. The entire display lasts for more than 20 hours. The standout dance is the Diablada, the dance of the devil. Led by Lucifer, in a horned, papier-mâché mask, it depicts the battle between good and evil across seven acts, accompanied by marching bands. Water fights are common at the carnival, so pack a rain poncho as you’re likely to get struck by a water balloon or sprayed with a can of foam. You may even find a bucket dumped on your head from the balconies above. Afterward, get yourself a refreshing glass of chicha, the nation’s tart, corn-based fermented drink.

This article was first published Jan 5, 2024 and updated Jan 8, 2024.

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Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca/Mexico; October 28 2018: Traditional Day of the Dead parade in Oaxaca City; Shutterstock ID 1584691279; full: 65050; gl: Lonely Planet Online Editorial; netsuite: Halloween around the world; your: Brian Healy
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