Top 10 Mardi Gras Cities in the World
Shrove Tuesday is celebrated in many different forms the world over, from Pancake Day in the UK to Carnival in Brazil and huge Mardi Gras celebrations in the US and beyond. Literally translating from the French as Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras is the first day before lent (a period of fasting for 40 days and 40 nights) begins. This was originally a chance for people to empty their cupboards of the last remaining food stores but has now become synonymous with colour, music, dancing and generally looking forward to spring.
Louisiana, and in particular New Orleans, is thought to be the home to the traditional Mardi Gras festivities thanks to the large numbers of French/Catholic settlers in this region. However, it is now just one of many cities in the world that makes a big deal of this seemingly regular Tuesday in February or March.
If you truly want to enjoy the Mardi Gras celebrations, it’s best to start your vacation around one-to-two weeks before the actual date of Fat Tuesday as most cities begin their festivities well beforehand! The weeks before are an eclectic combination of dancing, dining, parades and parties where the city shows off their hospitality in style and travellers from all corners of the globe are welcomed with open arms.
It would be almost impossible to list the following Mardi Gras festivals in a particular order as they are all so different. But if you are considering a Mardi Gras celebration vacation, one of these cities may well offer you the experience of a lifetime!
Here are my top 10 Mardi Gras cities in the world:
I may as well start with the city that claims to be the original and best Mardi Gras festival in the world (although this is most definitely disputed by Mobile in Alabama, but I’ll come to that later). Mardi Gras has been an official state holiday in Louisiana since 1875 (despite starting well before that) and has grown year-on-year ever since.
New Orleans now plays host to almost a million visitors each year for the famous Mardi Gras celebrations in which beads, banners and bacchanals abound. The festivities begin on the 6th January (epiphany or 12th day after Christmas) and continue in one shape or another until Shrove Tuesday.
Floats pass through the streets of the French Quarter while masked revellers dance their way throughout the city in a seemingly never-ending parade. Colours of purple, green and gold adorn buildings, bus stops, businesses and anything else that will stay still long enough to be decorated – so I’d recommend putting some of these colours in your holiday wardrobe if you want to fit in!
Enjoy Cajun cuisine, flowing drinks and all-night parties and don’t forget to try and catch some of the sought-after beads, doubloons and, of course, the revered ‘golden nugget’ that are thrown off floats as they pass by.
Rio de Janeiro
Despite not being the oldest Mardi Gras festival in the world, Rio Carnival can certainly claim it is one of the biggest! Over two million merrymakers descend on the city each year to join the capital’s celebrations.
The term ‘carnival’ comes from the Spanish/Portuguese ‘carnevale/carnelevare’ meaning goodbye meat or remove meat as lent was a period of fasting or abstaining from eating meat. And if you’ve ever been to South America or Brazil in particular, you’ll know this is a big deal! The period of fasting doesn’t seem to stop the partygoers in Rio though, as the festivities begin the Friday before Mardi Gras and continue until the week is out.
Carnival is now well-known for its glitzy outfits, outrageous headdresses and epic street parties which are led by Samba groups strutting their stuff in front of huge crowds. The dancing is out-of-this-world and if you can stand there and watch without wanting to shimmy along with the music there is something wrong with you!
Don your best colourful costume, enjoy the celebration of Brazil’s mix of cultures, history, food and music and get ready for the time of your life!
One of the biggest LGBTQI festivals in the world, Sydney’s Mardi Gras celebrations are renowned for their fun, welcoming ethos and flamboyant costumes.
Rather than celebrating the traditional values of Mardi Gras, Sydney’s festivities are instead a way to entertain, engage and enjoy everyone’s characteristics both similar and completely different to your own.
The Pride Parade is perhaps the biggest celebration of Sydney Mardi Gras which features drag queens, dancers and dynamic political activism as crowds of over 300,000 people watch on from the sidelines.
The Sydney Mardi Gras carnival runs for about two weeks before Shrove Tuesday itself and actually culminates on the Saturday before (because nobody likes a hangover on a Wednesday, right?!).
This relatively unknown Alabama town is unofficially the home of Mardi Gras thanks to the original celebration having taken place in 1703 in the settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile. Although the city’s festivities were traditionally known for exclusive masked balls and mystic society events, the town now hosts popular parades with floats, throws and costumes.
There is no official start date for Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile as some claim to begin the festivities as early as November leading in to Christmas and the New Year! The event really gets underway two weeks before Mardi Gras though, with daily parades drawing thousands of onlookers to the town.
Mobile and the surrounding region has grown to include a whole host of communities and the Mardi Gras carnival is a real celebration of that eclectic mix. From European and Creole to African and Native American influences, Mobile Mardi Gras is a diverse combination of history and traditions.
Another city with French influence, Quebec City in Canada is home to one of the largest winter Mardi Gras festivals. Due to the northern location of Quebec (and the freezing temperatures of February and March) these Mardi Gras festivities are not home to scantily-clad dancers, but are rather a celebration of ice and snow with cross-country skiing, ice skating and husky rides the order of the day.
However, despite being different in many ways to the other Mardi Gras carnivals around the world, Quebec does still place a large focus on food during its Fat Tuesday celebrations. The idea is to fatten up during the coldest part of winter before the fasting period of lent begins. This fattening up includes stuffing your face with delicious treats such as Maple Taffy (maple syrup poured in the snow and swirled into a lollipop on a stick), Beaver Tails (warm doughy pastries covered in sugar, syrup, cinnamon or chocolate), Caribou (Canada’s version of mulled wine) and, of course, a warming plate of Canada’s famous dish Poutine (chips, cheese and gravy by a fancier French name!).
The Carnevale di Venezia is a festival steeped in history and controversy. It was first celebrated in the 12th Century before being quashed as a celebration in the late 18th Century by Francis II, Emperor of Austria. Luckily for us, the Carnival of Venice was revived, masks and all, in 1979 and continues to be a popular celebration to this day.
Traditional Venetian masks are pitted against each other in front of a panel of judges in a world-famous Mardi Gras competition for best mask. The Renaissance grandeur continues with wine and champagne flowing at exclusive balls around the city. Try to bag yourself a ticket if you want to be included in one of these glamourous galas.
Around three million people make their way to Venice each year, making it one of the largest Mardi Gras celebrations in the world. Don’t forget, this is the home of exquisite porcelain, glass and leather masks so don’t rock up with your paper or plastic mask hoping to win!
Port of Spain
One of the biggest carnivals in the Caribbean, Mardi Gras in the Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is an explosion of colour, music and dance. Beginning the Friday before Mardi Gras, the locals gear up for full-on festivities with pre-parties and cultural competitions that draw in thousands of visitors each year.
Dimanche Gras, the Sunday before Mardi Gras, plays host to the Calypso Monarch Competition which crowns the King and Queen of the festival. This involves wearing the most elaborate costume and performing traditional Calypso and Soca music to hordes of eager fans. Expect steel drums, wild dancing, over-the-top-outfits and plenty of rum to get the festivities in full swing!
It’s worth staying on in the beautiful island of Trinidad and Tobago after the event so you can relax on their stunning beaches while unwinding from the frivolities. Most locals book Ash Wednesday off work so there’ll be plenty of people still milling around.
More of a flower festival than a traditional Mardi Gras celebration, Nice’s floral floats are a wonderful centrepiece of the city’s annual carnival. Although the city’s celebrations actually came from pagan roots, it is still considered a Mardi Gras festival and runs for two weeks up to and including Shrove Tuesday.
The carnival parade includes Venetian-style masks and make-up, New Orleans-style stilt-walkers and purely Provencal posies from the south of France in a perfect mix of cultures.
The floats also include grosses tetes (or ‘big heads’) which are huge papier-mache puppets linked to the year’s Mardi Gras King theme. These grosses tetes portray everything from politics to popular culture as they parade through the streets of Nice before the King of the Carnival is burnt on the last day.
The Bataille de Fleurs is a floral explosion in which thousands of flowers and petals are thrown from floats into the crowds that line the streets of Nice. You’ll truly feel as though spring has sprung when you’re receiving a shower from a rainfall of flowers!
Guests can purchase gifts and local produce such as lavender, soaps and fabrics from street vendors across the city and are encouraged to stay and enjoy the fireworks and festivities throughout the night.
Despite being relatively unknown throughout the rest of the year, Oruro in Bolivia is home to one of the most unique Mardi Gras celebrations in the world.
Located high in the Andean mountains (approx. 3,700m above sea level), the sleepy mining town of Oruro transforms to host a huge battle of good versus evil with angels and demons parading through the town.
The iconic headdresses feature ostentatious crowns and feathers and bulging eyes, while the costumes are adorned with colour, glitter and beadwork in a true show of local craftmanship. The lively parades feature traditional Bolivian music, folk dances and offerings of food, beer and cigarettes to the malevolent God of the Mountains, El Tio, in the hope that he won’t be angry at the miners for taking his precious treasures.
Spanish conquerors of Oruro (previously known as Uru Uru) tried to dampen the spirits of the locals by banning their traditional rituals and celebrations, but instead the Aymara and Quechua people decided to continue their festivities under the guise of Catholicism to appease the Spanish. This is why the carnival of Oruro now coincides with the Christian celebration of Mardi Gras.
The last, but by no means least, on this top 10 list of Mardi Gras festivals around the world is Galveston, Texas. The Mardi Gras carnival has been running in this Texan town for over 100 years and it perfectly combines the parties, parades and balls of all corners of the globe in true Texan style.
Galveston is an island city in Texas which means it attracts travellers wanting to combine late night shenanigans with lazy mornings on the beach.
The festivities include both a classic Mardi Gras parade with floats, bead throws and extravagant costumes and also boasts a quirky golf-cart parade for those wishing to roll in style – classic Texas! The celebrations then continue with evening gigs (everything from rock and country to electro and dance) and even includes an annual 5km run.
Southern food is at the heart of the festival too allowing you to gorge on Texan dishes such as succulent turkey legs, tasty tacos and smoky pulled pork burgers!
Wherever in the world you go for your Mardi Gras extravaganza you’re sure to be greeted with open arms. The festival is a celebration of local traditions, rituals, food, music and culture and if you’re there to acknowledge and honour that you’re bound to be welcomed with a smile.
The atmosphere in each and every one of these cities is wild and euphoric and you’re sure to get swept up in the fun and excitement of the city’s celebrations. We suggest staying for at least five days in any one city during Mardi Gras so you can truly experience all that is on offer over this period of parades and partying.
Let us know if you’ve been or are going to any of the above cities for Mardi Gras, or if you think there is another city that should be added to the list!
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