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Culture Guide

Rio Carnival: The biggest party in the world

01 March 2023

Rio Carnival: The biggest party in the world

Are you ready for the greatest show on earth? Get your samba on, it’s Rio Carnival!

Famous for its high energy, vibrant colours and samba-filled streets, Rio Carnival is known as the biggest party in the world. Bustling streets come alive with gorgeous costumes, parades and sumptuous street food and drink.

Rio Carnival is held each year the Friday before Ash Wednesday, this year it starts on April 20th until April 30th, the carnival dates back to the 1650s. Its roots are in mythology as it started with people throwing fabulous parties to honour the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. As Catholicism became more popular in Brazil, it influenced the festival and gave it its name. During lent, proper Catholic practice means abstaining from meat and ‘carne vale’ means ‘farewell to meat’.

Nowadays, cities across Brazil come alive with music, colour and joy. So, let’s delve into the sights, sounds and smells of Rio Carnival.

The popular parade processions

The samba parade in the city of Rio is the festival’s jewel in the crown. The city’s samba schools take to the 80,000 capacity Sambadrome and show their skills in a fierce competition. This visual spectacular is held along a half-mile runway, and accompanied by incredible costumes adorned with beads, feathers and plenty of glitz and glamour.

The parade itself can have over 1000 people taking part from the twelve main samba schools in the city. Each school then takes to the streets with their elaborate floats and extravagant costumes to sing, dance and entertain the audience. Judges watch carefully and decide the winner, ending the night by lighting up the sky with plenty of fireworks.

Going loco for lively blocos

Outside of the Sambadrome, in the otherwise sleepy streets of Rio you’ll find blocos happening all over the place. These street parties can start a month before the samba parades and go on for a fortnight afterwards. You’ll see lots of neon, face paint and people in fancy dress to cram as much colour as possible into the parties and no theme is off limits.
Musicians take up their instruments and the city echoes with singing day and night. These blocos happen across the country, but the most traditional are held each year alongside the parade. Banda de Ipanema is a huge beach party and Monobloco sees over 100 brass and drum musicians gathering to perform for the crowds. But the biggest and most traditional is when people go dotty for polka dots at Cordão do Bola Preta.

Flamboyantly feathered costumes

There’s nothing quite like the resplendent colour combinations of the carnival. Each samba school chooses a key theme important to them and brings it to life with their costumes and choreography. Most of the costumes are made painstakingly by hand at the schools, and they use sequins, feathers, beads, ruffles and jewels to make sure they’re eye-catching and covering just enough modesty for the dancers.
Some people can even buy the themed costumes to show their support for the samba schools during the competitions. These are made to order and can be just as detailed as those worn by the performers during the shows.

Tucking into Rio’s finest street food

During the carnival you’ll smell the most delicious food wafting across the city. Stalls selling grilled meats, empadas and cheesy bread balls called pão de queijo line the streets to keep revellers’ energy up.
Staying cool in the heat is important but the carnival-goers have the perfect solution. Ice lollies are a popular choice amongst dancers and these fruity favourites can sometimes include vodka and rum to give them a little extra kick.

Speaking of tipples, Rio Carnival isn’t short of a few cocktails. Partygoers and parade watchers will often be found with a Caipirinha Carnival in hand. The signature drink of Brazil, it includes sugar, lime and cachaça and during the carnival season, blackberries are added to give it a gorgeous, deep purple hue – because we know the carnival is all about colour!

If you’re not able to be there in person you can certainly embody the spirit of Rio Carnival. Throw on your most colourful costume, glitter and make up, grab a cocktail and start to samba.