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7 Global Festivals You Have to Experience

7 Global Festivals You Have to Experience

Photo: David Harwood

By David Harwood
Communications Specialist

One of the great joys of traveling the world is having the opportunity to soak up diverse cultures. In every corner of the globe, unique experiences await the adventurous traveler. Visiting a city during a major celebration will only make your vacation more memorable.

Here are seven of the most famous global festivals that should be on every seasoned traveler’s bucket list:

The Festival of Colors – India

During the spring celebration of Holi, people paint each other with vivid colors

The annual festival of Holi is better known as “the festival of colors.” This name stems from one of the festival highlights. People paint each other with dry powder and colored water, some even using modern techniques like water guns and water balloons to chase other participants.

The celebrations begin the evening before Holi officially begins. A bonfire symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. People gather around it to sing and dance. The next day, more revelry: groups playing musical instruments, singing and dancing wander from place to place. People celebrate with laughter, conversation, and Holi delicacies, food and drink. It’s also a time to visit with family and friends and forgive any old grievances.

Holi began as an ancient Hindu festival, dating back to as early as 300 BC. It marks the transition from winter to summer as well as the victory of good over evil. Its carefree atmosphere has made it popular among people of all religions throughout India and beyond.

A number of cities in India host annual Holi celebrations. The largest and most famed takes place in Mathura (about 100 miles south of New Delhi). Holi is celebrated the day after the first full moon in March each year.

The Running of the Bulls – Spain

Global festivals: running of the bulls in pamplona, spainEach year visitors flock to Pamplona, Spain to see if they can outrun the bulls (Credit: Baltasar Garcia)

Several towns across Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and southern France host a running of the bulls, called the encierro. Towns section off a course through their streets, then let the bulls (and participants) loose.

The most famous running of the bulls is in Pamplona, Spain. It’s part of the San Fermin festival immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises.

The tradition began as a way to move the animals from the corral to the bullfight ring. The animals would run the distance, herded by children and adults. The practice may have started as far back as the 13th century. Eventually, this evolved into a competition. Young adults would race in front of the bulls and try to reach the pens unscathed before the animals did.

Pamplona celebrates the fiestas of San Fermin from July 6-14 each year. The running of the bulls occurs each morning at 8 o’clock from July 7 onwards. Participants must be at least 18, run in the same direction as the bulls, not provoke the animals, and not be under the influence of alcohol. The entire process, from when the bulls are freed to when they enter the ring, takes about four minutes. In keeping with history, the same bulls that run in the morning’s encierro participate in the afternoon’s bullfights.

Global festivals: float in Mardi Gras parade in New OrleansCelebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans is so popular that the population more than doubles during the festival (Credit: Cheryl Gerber)

Mardi Gras – USA

New Orleans is world famous for its music and parades – and Mardi Gras is the biggest and most famous of them all. Each year, generally in February, a city-wide party erupts. It’s so popular that the population of New Orleans more than doubles in the five days before Mardi Gras Day.

The cornerstone: the parade in the city’s French Quarter along Bourbon Street. It features lavishly decorated floats, extravagant costumes, abundant beads, eye-catching masks, and live music. Float riders toss beads, coins and small toys to the crowds lining the parade route. The official colors of Mardi Gras are everywhere: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.

Mardi Gras arrived in the region courtesy of French settlers in the early 1700s. The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans took place in 1837. The festivities traditionally occur on Shrove Tuesday each year, marking the start of Lent on the subsequent Ash Wednesday.

Partake in some traditional kingcake while you’re there. The sweet treat is made of cinnamon-filled dough in a circle shape. Its glaze is sprinkled with purple, green and gold sugar. If you find the plastic baby hidden in your slice, it will bring you luck and prosperity.

Carnival – Brazil

global festivals: carnival dancer and musicians in rio de janeiroThe world-famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro attracts two million people each year (Credit: Team at Studios from The Inner Mission San Francisco)

The world-famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is a street party like no other – and anyone is welcome to jump in and be a part of it. It’s considered the world’s biggest carnival, with two million people celebrating in the streets day and night.

Carnival got its start as a religious festival, marking the beginning of Lent. It begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday, and ends that day. Its origins date back to 1723. Portuguese immigrants introduced a tradition called Entrudo, where people roamed the streets with buckets of water. No one was safe from being soaked.

Today’s festival is a blend of Christian, pagan and native Brazilian traditions. The centerpiece is the extravagant Samba parade, featuring the famed dance created in Brazil with African influences. It’s both a display of the talent of 200 neighborhood samba schools and a competition. Each school of 10 to 15 people presents a choreographed dance that usually tells a story. Thousands of musicians and dancers in spectacular costumes parade through the streets to lively, rhythmic samba music. Other parades with flashy floats and colorful revelers take place throughout Carnival.

The balls are also a key part of the festival. Held at Virtuoso property Belmond Copacabana Palace and elsewhere, the parties are filled with people wearing amazing masks, wigs and elaborate costumes.

Day of the Dead – Mexico

global festivals: skull decorations for Mexico's Day of the DeadTo celebrate Day of the Dead, Mexicans build decorative altars in gravesites and homes

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated primarily throughout Mexico’s central and southern regions to honor deceased relatives. It combines the Catholic tradition of Allhallowtide with native Mexicans’ beliefs of honoring loved ones who have died. Day of the Dead has ancient origins: rituals to honor the dead have been observed for as many as 3,000 years.

Mexicans visit the graves of relatives, building altars with favorite foods and drinks as well as photos and mementos of the late family members. Orange Mexican marigolds are frequently included. The offerings are intended to encourage visits by the souls.

Homes are also decorated to honor the dead. Families build altars or shrines, which can feature a cross, statues or pictures of the Virgin Mary, photos of late relatives, flowers and candles. Food is also included, such as mole, tamales, red rice and fresh and dried fruit. Another traditional food is also folk art: sugar skulls decorated with colorful icing. Families gather around the altar, praying and sharing stories of their deceased relatives.

Day of the Dead festivities take place from October 31 to November 2 every year. Popular destinations for taking part include Oaxaca, Michoacán, and Mexico City. The tradition is so significant that it’s listed by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

Burning Man – USA

global festivals: burning wooden effigy of man at burning man festivalTens of thousands of people watch a giant wooden effigy of a man being burned in the ritual that gave the Burning Man festival its name (Credit: Aaron Logan)

If ever there was something that had to be experienced firsthand to be understood, Burning Man is it. It’s described as “an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance.” An entire city is temporarily built for the occasion. Then it’s completely dismantled without a trace remaining after the festivities end.

The festival gets its unusual name from a ritual near the end of the week-long event. A giant wooden effigy is set on fire. The next night, an elaborate temple is burned as well.

That’s not the only unusual thing about Burning Man, though. Everyone attending (known as “Burners”) has to contribute something to that year’s theme. Burners are encouraged to bring what they need with them and rely on themselves for survival. They’re also encouraged to give unconditional gifts to each other, creating a community. Cash transactions are banned, except for sanitation and fuel fees, and drinks and ice sold by event organizers.

The festival’s roots were in San Francisco in 1986, with 20 people on a beach burning the first wooden man. Today, the event takes place in the middle of northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert the week before Labor Day in early September each year. It attracts 65,000 people, enough to make it Nevada’s third-biggest city during its run.

Oktoberfest — Germany

Each year in late September, more than six million people descend on Munich for more than two weeks of fun – and beer. Oktoberfest has been attracting revelers since it began in 1810 to celebrate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese.

global festivals: young people at table with beer mugs at oktoberfestFestival-goers quaff more than $96 million worth of beer during each day of Oktoberfest

The festivities kick off with Munich’s mayor tapping the first Oktoberfest beer barrel at the Schottenhamel tent. The tent has been at Oktoberfest since 1867, starting with 50 seats and expanding to today’s 10,000. Fairgoers have their choice of 14 tents, each with a different ambiance and food and drink specialties. The next day, a traditional costume parade through Munich takes place.

The star of the show, of course, is the sudsy brew. Festival-goers consume more than $96 million worth of beer each day. Only “liquid gold” brewed within Munich city limits can be served. But people also enjoy traditional German food with their pints. Favorite dishes include roast chicken, roast pork, grilled fish on a stick, sausages, pretzels, noodles with cheese and sauerkraut.

There’s also amusement park rides, games, music (including oompah brass bands) and dancing. And shopping for souvenirs: the most popular are traditional hats and hair bands, pins, and magnets. But don’t try to sneak your beer mug out: last year security stopped 112,000 people from doing just that.

How You Can Experience Global Festivals

If these don’t-miss global festivals whet your appetite, seize the moment. Get more from these experiences than you dreamed was possible by connecting with a Virtuoso travel advisor. You can select an advisor who’s right for you, and together you’ll craft a trip of a lifetime.

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