Across all corners of the world, different cultures celebrate their traditions and their beliefs in a host of fun, colourful and – in some cases – death-defying ways. They are an opportunity for family, friends and loved ones to come together and sing, dance and, of course, drink, with festivities often lasting for days or even weeks.
Unsurprisingly, many of these occasions are fascinating to outsiders, with many flocking to join in and be a part of the experience. Therefore, if you’re looking to try something a little different on your gap year, summer break or a much-deserved vacation, and if you’re feeling adventurous, dust off those party shoes and get your ‘out of office’ on.
Here are the top 10 celebrations around the world you should definitely check out before you die!
1. Carnival of Brazil
When? Between Friday before Ash Wednesday and Ash Wednesday, annually
When you think of Brazil – and Rio de Janeiro, in particular – it’s likely that you picture three things: samba rhythms, bold colours and, of course, outrageous costumes: the three key ingredients of the country’s carnival.
Officially designated as the largest carnival in the world by Guinness World Records, the event attracts upwards of around 5 million attendees each year, with participants in the parade drawn from dance, samba and percussion schools all across the country.
As with many of the festivals on this list, Carnival is a religious festival in nature (it takes place just prior to the Christian observance of Lent), while similar celebrations have been adopted in Greece, Cyprus, Italy and the Caribbean.
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When? March, annually
Holi is an ancient Hindu religious festival that’s also known – for obvious reasons – as the Festival of Colours. Although it originated in India as a celebration of Prahlada’s victory over the evil Hiranyakashipu in the Bhagavata Purana, it has since been adopted in other nations, especially where a significant Indian diaspora exists.
Held annually in spring, the festival starts with a symbolic Holika bonfire, before revellers engaging in Rangwali Holi the following morning. The result is a remarkable free-for-all, with plumes of water and coloured powders filling the air, as everybody – regardless of their background or standing – joins in the ‘fight’.
One of the most visually spectacular festivals in the world, Holi has inspired a whole host of secular versions of the event.
3. Pamplona Encierro (San Fermin Festival)
Where? Pamplona, Spain
When? Between 6 and 14 July, annually
More commonly known as the ‘Running of the Bulls’, the encierro is the main highlight of the week-long San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. It involves the letting loose of six bulls in a cordoned-off area of the city, who then proceed to chase – and potentially gore – willing runners, a tradition of bravado that dates back as far as the 14th Century.
Unsurprisingly, this practice is highly dangerous; dozens of people are injured each year, while 15 deaths have been recorded since 1910 (the most recent of which was in 2009). There is also fervent opposition from animal rights activists, who stage a ‘running of the nudes’ event each year in protest.
It is still an incredible spectacle for bystanders, however, with the event regularly televised, while similar events take place elsewhere in Spain, as well as in Portugal, France and Mexico.
4. Yi Peng
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Where? Northern Thailand
When? 22 November, annually
Held alongside the larger Loi Krathong festival (in which small decorated water floats are released into rivers), Yi Peng – celebrated in the northern Lanna region of Thailand – is a festival of lights in which sky lanterns are launched into the air.
As well as the spectacular sight of thousands of glowing lanterns being released into the sky, there are additional parades, firework displays and the decoration of houses and temples.
The festival is traditionally celebrated on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar (usually November) and takes place in Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the former Lanna Kingdom.
5. Chinese New Year
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Where? China, as well as Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and other regions and countries with significant overseas Chinese populations
When? The first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar, between 21 January and 20 February, annually
Known on the Chinese mainland as the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year is the country’s largest and most significant celebration of the year and marks the turn of the Chinese calendar.
Traditionally, the 15-day festival held religious connotations, but in recent years has evolved into a way to sweep away ill-fortune and celebrate happiness, wealth and longevity. It features parades, parties, fireworks, family dinners, exuberant costumes and decorations, and is celebrated not just in China but across the word’s many Chinese diasporas.
6. Mardi Gras
Where? United States, and other countries
When? The day before Ash Wednesday, annually
Like Carnival in Brazil, Mardi Gras (literally ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French) is a pre-Lent celebration that incorporates lavish parades and costumes, although events differ slightly, depending on location.
Although it is widely embraced all over the world – particularly in areas that have a sizeable French and/or Catholic population – the most well-known Mardi Gras festival takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana. Social clubs known as ‘krewes’ construct floats and costumes for the main parades and throw beads, coconuts and doubloons (large wooden or metal coins) into the crowds. They are accompanied by flambeaux carriers (torch-wielding performance artists), with the fortnight-long festivities eventually culminating with a large masked ball.
Where? Munich, Germany
When? Between mid or late September and early October, annually
For the uninitiated, Oktoberfest is a 16- to 18-day folk festival that takes place in Munich, Germany and involves the consumption of large quantities of beer (around 8 million litres, to be exact).
Known locally as Wiesn (a Bavarian colloquialism), the event attracts upwards of around 6 million participants each year, with people from all over the world flocking to get a seat at one of the 34 temporary tents. Only beer brewed within Munich, and which meets strict German beer purity laws, is allowed to be served at the festival.
For non-drinkers, there is still plenty to enjoy, too. During the event, there is a variety of traditional foods on offer, as well as concerts, shows and attractions.
8. La Tomatina
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Where? Buñol, Spain
When: Last Wednesday of August, annually
Held in the small Spanish town of Buñol, near Valencia, La Tomatina can only be described as what is essentially the world’s largest food fight.
Originating in 1945 (where an argument in the town square resulted in villagers throwing tomatoes from a nearby vegetable stand at each other), the event has since become a significant part of Spanish culture, with annual participation restricted to around 20,000 paid ticket holders.
There’s an added bonus, too. Following the hour-long purée-inspired melee, the fire department moves into hose everything down, with locals claiming that the citric acid in the tomatoes leaves a sparkling sheen across the town. The event has inspired similar celebrations in the US, Colombia and India.
9. St Patrick’s Day
Where? Ireland, and in countries with a large Irish diaspora
When? 17 March, annually
Although originally designated as a means of commemoration for Christian worshippers, St Patrick’s Day has since evolved into a celebration of Irish culture and heritage in general, both in the Republic of Ireland and in diasporic communities across the globe.
Therefore, it is observed in many countries – particularly in the US and Canada – with large parades in Dublin, New York City and Boston; there are also smaller parades across Ireland, the UK and even as far away as Russia and Japan. Although the Catholic Church has expressed concern in recent years that the celebration has become secularised and commercialised, it is still one of the largest annual parties in the world, for Irish, non-Irish and ‘wannabe’ Irish alike.
10. Carnival of Venice
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Where? Venice, Italy
When? Between two weeks before Ash Wednesday and Shrove Tuesday, annually
Allegedly dating back to the 12th Century, the Carnival of Venice has undergone several transformations throughout the ages, peaking in popularity during the 18th Century. However, under subsequent Holy Roman and Austrian rule, the festival became outlawed and the use of masks prohibited, although it returned formally in 1979 as part of a culture campaign by the Italian government.
The event is famous worldwide for its use of elaborate and dramatic face masks, with participants bidding each year to win the prestigious maschera più bella or ‘most beautiful mask’ award. Much of this deference derives from their traditional wearing from Boxing Day (26 December) to Shrove Tuesday during the Renaissance period. In its modern guise, the festival now also features spectacular stage shows and performance artists, with around 3 million people attending the carnival annually.
If you’re looking to escape the office and experience something a little different, then why not try one of these unique events? Whether your idea of stress relief involves throwing tomatoes, drinking beer or running away from bulls, there’s bound to be something which takes your fancy!
Which one are you going to visit first? Let us know in the comments section below.
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 11 June 2015.