Europe’s Best Carnivals

Feathers, sequins, elaborate costumes, loud music, dancing, singing, eating and drinking… what’s not to love about a good carnival knees up? And the best part is, you don’t have to go all the way to Rio to experience one. Cities all over Europe celebrate carnival too, and while they might not all bring the Brazilian heat they definitely bring the colour, music, and fun… and they’re all a short, cheap flight away too! Here’s our rundown of some of the best Carnival vibes you can find around Europe…


Rijeka’s carnival has only been running annually since 1982, making it a bit of a baby as far as big European carnivals go – but what it lacks in age it more than makes up for in colour, spectacle and sheer exuberance. The Rijeka Carnival has its own traditions that you won’t see elsewhere, like the Zvoncari (a.k.a. the bell ringers), a group of men dressed up as animals who ring bells to ward off the evil spirits of winter.


The Grand Finale is where it all happens though; on the final day of the Carnival some 10,000 participants play music, dance and sing for well over 100,000 spectators. Of course the party doesn’t stop once the final float has crossed the parade’s endpoint – you’ll find parties and after-parties in bars and clubs all over the city that will continue into the wee small hours!


Flights to Rijeka


Sitges carnival is one of Spain’s biggest parties… and considering how much the Spanish love a good party that’s really saying something. It really is an absolute blast though. The whole week of carnival is just jam-packed with events and parties but it’s the two big parades – The very aptly named Debauchery Parade and Extermination Parade – that’ll really knock your socks off.


Each of the two parades has around 50 different elaborate floats and some 3,000 performers and participants. Expect lots of flamboyancy, feathers and fluff, lots of colours, lots of flesh, and absolutely loads of music and dancing.


Flights to Barcelona


Carnival in Cologne is one of the country’s biggest cultural events, and while the ‘fifth season’ officially begins on the 11th of the 11th at 11:11am, it’s not until right before lent that what are known as the ‘Crazy Days’ actually kick off.


Days of street parties, pub parties, and parties in the city’s public squares, and more parties on top of all that, culminate in Rose Monday, the biggest and final day of carnival.  The Prince, Peasant and Maiden of the Carnival march through the streets of the city in a huge parade, along with thousands of others decked out in full fancy dress. Some 140 tonnes of sweets are handed out, as well as over 300,000 bunches of flowers… Sweets and flowers. What’s not to like? Oh, clowns. There’ll be lots of clowns. But you should still go.


Flights to Cologne


You can’t talk about European carnivals without talking about the daddy of all European carnival events; the famous masked madness of Carnevale di Venezia. Venice is pretty magical even on its most ordinary day, but during Carnival it’s just something else. The streets are packed, the hotels are expensive, you’ll have to queue for everything… and it’s all totally worth it, just to experience carnival in the city.


The costumes and masks remain one of the most beautiful and interesting things about the whole carnival. They were originally used to disguise the social class of festival goers, allowing everyone to party together regardless of who was posher than who, but now their main purpose is just to look really beautiful.


Flights to Venice

Gran Canaria

The Las Palmas carnival is one of Spain’s biggest, brightest and best loved festivals – and not just because it takes place on the biggest of the Canary Islands (although that certainly doesn’t hurt, and if you want to combine carnival with a little winter sun, this is without question the festival for you).


During Carnival, the city is an explosion of colour and sound that’s pulsing with the beat of Latin American music, the sound of brass bands, and the spectacle of magicians, acrobats, dancers and performers. The parade is the culmination of it all, ending at midnight with a massive open-invitation fancy-dress party in Santa Catalina Park. The best part is, you can nurse your hangover on the beach for the whole next day.


Flights to Gran Canaria


Image via iStock: Arsty

Like the Carnival in Las Palmas, a huge draw of the Santa Cruz Carnival is that it takes place on a gorgeous Canary Island. The whole island celebrates carnival, but Tenerife’s capital, Santa Cruz, is where the biggest parties are at. If you can make it to see the selection of the Carnival Queen, do – just to see the incredible costumes.


But if you can’t get to that, just make sure you don’t miss the Mogollones, the Carnival parties the blast out Latin and Salsa music under the stars for your dancing pleasure.  As usual, this Carnival’s final parade is the big one, where the floats are as extravagant as the (very) extravagant costumes, and the party lasts all night.


Fligths to Tenerife


The tropical carnival of Paris kicks off in early summer every year, and the already hot city streets are flooded with the pure fire that is Jamaican and Caribbean music, food, and dancing. Thousands of dancers, musicians, performers and singers take to the streets – all dressed up to the nines – and dance their way through the city, either on foot or on some extravagant floats.


Make sure to try plenty of the food on offer, and some of the drinks too (you might want a little Dutch courage if you’re going to attempt to dance like some of the parade’s performers!).


Flights to Paris

Notting Hill

Image via iStock: Helen_Starr

We saved the best for last… Notting Hill Carnival is Europe’s biggest street festival, with around one million people taking to the streets of the city to celebrate London’s Caribbean communities, traditions and cultures. Get ready to dance, party, and eat your weight in jerk chicken, corn on the cob, and goat curry.


It happens every year over the Sunday and Monday of the UK Summer Bank Holiday weekend. There’s a family day on the Saturday that’s more suitable for kids, and then on Monday things get a little wilder (although you may still see plenty of kids around!). This is the day of the main parade, where almost 40 soundsystems will be blasting out reggae, dub, dancehall, drum & bass, jungle, bashment, and much more.


Flights to London


- Dee Murray