Many festivals that are celebrated around the world are tied to a specific region’s culture and history. Their weight is felt by how much time, effort, and resources are put into varying elements that make them unique and enjoyable. Food, music, performing arts, storytelling: these are just some of the things that help festivals come to life.
These celebrations have endured years of being passed down from one generation to the next. Festivals are a testament to people’s ability and willingness to celebrate what we think is important to us. And even though the regional differences may result in different styles of art, cuisine, and self-expression, one underlying theme is shared when it comes to festivals—community. Whatever you're celebrating, in however form you choose, at the end of the day festivals bring people together.
With travel, the world becomes smaller and communities are more open to sharing their celebrations with visitors. The sharing of cultures has also helped certain festivals to change along with the times. With the emergence of new kinds of art and music, a new generation of culture-shapers are able to have festivals that cater to an international audience and promote global openness. But this doesn’t mean older traditions are going away. It just means they are being added to. And if you’re a traveler, experiencing these cultural celebrations is great way to immerse yourself in a community. Here are 25 festivals that need to be on your bucket list:
25 Watch beautiful Mardi Gras floats
Mardi Gras—which is French for Fat Tuesday—refers to the annual string of celebrations starting on Three King’s Day all the way up to the day before Ash Wednesday in New Orleans. The final Mardi Gras party is the last day of Carnival season and is a day of festive colour, music, and dancing. Although Carnival festivals are global, the New Orleans celebrations are one of the most popular—with people arriving well before Fat Tuesday to participate in the extended festivities.
24 Lose yourself in psychedelic DJ sets of Tomorrowland
Tomorrowland is an electronic dance music festival held in Boom, Belgium. First established in 2005, it has steadily grown into one of the world’s most-attended music festivals. The event sees many international visitors not only from all over Europe, but also from North America, Asia and various parts of the globe with a large population of electronic dance music fans. If you love EDM, this festival will satiate your wish for larger-than-life psychedelic sets, world-renowned DJs, and two weekends of dancing.
23 Eat and drink to your heart's content at Oktoberfest
Held every year in Munich, Germany, Oktoberfest is a multi-day beer festival and traveling fair. In fact, it is the world’s largest folk festival—attracting more than six million people from around the world to the event every year. The fairgrounds are situated in Theresa’s meadows just outside Munich’s centre and the event has been held since 1810. Make sure you indulge in the variety of fun activities: try out the fair rides, eat your way through the Bavarian food and drink stalls, don traditional outfits, and sing and dance with performers.
22 Get colourful at Holi
Holi is known as the Festival of Colours and signifies the beginning of spring. It is also a symbolic celebration of the triumph of good over evil based on Hindu mythology. While it is celebrated in many places with large Indian populations like Guyana, Malaysia, and Jamaica, the biggest and most extravagant festivities happen across the Indian subcontinent. The main event, which happens on the last day of the two-day festival, has people throwing coloured powder on family and friends.
21 Vibe with fellow electronic music fans at EDC
Electric Daisy Carnival, or locally known as EDC, is another popular electronic music festival that hosts nearly a million visitors in Las Vegas, Nevada every year. Since it started, EDC events have been held internationally, including Mexico, Brazil, Japan, and the UK. But the flagship festival in Las Vegas is touted as the biggest and most extravagant. It is the largest dance music festival in North America—so if you live on this side of the globe and you can’t make it to Tomorrowland, this is the best event to attend.
20 Camp out rain or shine at Glastonbury Festival
Glastonbury is a five-day outdoor festival usually held at a farm in Somerset, England. It celebrates the best of performing arts acts around the world, with thousands of artists in dance, theatre, comedy, cabaret, and music giving shows on a variety of stages. Headliners of the festival are usually big-name pop and rock artists. If you plan to go, be prepared to camp out for the duration of the event. And bring your wellies! Because rain or shine, you’re expected to dance, frolic, and have the grandest time.
19 No time for cutlery at La Tomatina
If you love a good food fight, then this festival is right up your alley. In the Spanish town of Buñol near Valencia, a massive tomato fight happens every year. The origins of The ‘World’s Biggest Food Fight’ is unclear and a bit disputed, but according to Buñol’s city hall website, it started in 1945 after a week-long fiesta honouring the town’s patron saint. A rowdy group of participants disrupted a big parade, which led to the crowd hurling vegetables—mainly tomatoes—at each other. Despite it being banned in the early years, locals found a way to bring it back every year. It became so popular that in the late 1950s the town finally conceded.
18 Stunt for the 'gram at Coachella
Music fans of all genres know Coachella Festival as *the* festival to go to—especially if you live in North America and love these three things in equal measure: fashion, bumping into A-list Hollywood celebrities, and the searing hot California desert. More than just a music festival, Coachella—which is held at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California—features art installations and sculptures. But if we’re being real, the two-weekend affair is also mostly an excuse to stunt on the ‘gram.
17 Get muddy at the Boryeong Mud Festival
If food fights are not your thing, how about a massive mud fight? The Boryeong Mud Festival is an annual festival held in Boryeong, South Korea and attracts nearly 2 million visitors.
In the span of two weeks, participants can go to various exhibits, concerts, and performances which all have one thing in common: mud, which is usually from the Boryeong mud flats.
For the final weekend, participants flock to Daecheon beach because to take part in the big mud fight.
16 Release floating candles at Thailand's Festival of Lights
On the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the Thai lunar calendar, which is usually November, Thailand’s rivers and waterways all light up. Loy Krathong is celebrated across the country with various rituals at Buddhist temples and the release of krathongs—floating lanterns with candles and flowers. The festival is celebrated all across the country, and even in neighbouring countries like Laos and Myanmar, but Thai cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok are the best places to see the glimmering lights.
15 Admire larger-than-life art at the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
Every year, spectators and artists alike make their way to what is now considered the largest ice and snow winter festival in the world: The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. International teams of sculptors spend days making some of the world’s biggest ice sculptures for the festival’s annual competition. The larger-than-life ice and snow sculptures are best seen at night, when they’re lit up by lights. Aside from watching artists sculpt and admiring their finished work, visitors can also participate in alpine skiing, winter-skiing and check out the ice-lantern exhbition.
14 Step into an alternate world at Burning Man
Ever wonder what it would be like to temporarily live in a surrealistic artscape alongside tens of thousands of people in the middle of a semi-arid desert? Every year, participants of Burning Man erect Black Rock City — a temporary commune that promotes art and self-expression in the middle of Black Rock Desert in Nevada. The week-long affair features interactive art installations, influential speakers, and weird and wonderful artists. If you’re up for a dusty but once-in-a-lifetime experience in what participants have dubbed an ‘alternate world’ — then this festival is perfect for you.
13 Celebrat in costume for Dia de los Muertos
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a two-day holiday to pray for and celebrate relatives and loved ones who have passed. The Mexican holiday is celebrated throughout the country and in other places where there are large populations of Mexicans and those who have Mexican ancestry. Though it is about reflection, the celebrations and rituals surrounding Dia de los muertos are very festive and colourful, which includes big parades, parties, singing, and dancing.
12 Step back into imperial times for Chinese New Year
Also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday in China and is celebrated all over the country and the world. But if you're to experience the full-blown extravaganza of Chinese New year festivities, head to Beijing and immerse yourself in the vibrant streets filled with lanterns, flowers, and dragons. China's capital hosts the biggest and flashiest parades, temple fairs, and performances. The city’s annual reenactment of an imperial worship ceremony from the Qing Dynasty is a highlight you can’t miss.
11 Take to the skies at Albuquerque's balloon fiesta
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest balloon festival in the world, with more than 500 hot air balloons taking to the skies every year. Held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it’s a nine-day event that started as an anniversary celebration of a local radio station in 1972. The festival’s highlight is the moment hundreds of unique balloons ascend at the same time, making for a beautiful sight whether you’re on a balloon or just spectacting from the ground.
10 Samba all day, all night at the Rio Carnaval
The Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is considered the biggest carnival festival in the world, with nearly 2 million revelers partying on the streets each day. The entire carnival lasts for six days, but many start partying days or weeks in advance and extend the festivities long after the official event has ended. Its most famous highlight is the nightly samba school parades — a chance for spectators to watch dancers in bright, feathery costumes. But many locals prefer dancing and enjoying some drinks on their way through raucous, early-morning to late-night block parties.
9 Party with the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day
Every March all around the world, the Irish and even people who are not of Irish descent, celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a day associated with a lot of green and a lot of thirst-quenchers. But no city celebrates St. Patrick’s Day quite as well as Dublin. Leading up to March 17th, locals and visitors from all over the world fill the pubs and bars in preparation for a day that started off as a religious holiday celebrating St. Patrick. The parade is considered the highlights of the festival, so make sure you have a good spot to watch (or even join in!) all the outlandish floats and performers.
8 See all kinds of acts at The Fringe
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, or The Fringe, is considered one of the world’s biggest arts festivals and is held over the course of a month in Edinburgh, Scotland. Last year, it featured more than 50,000 performances in 300 venues. There’s no selection committee for acts to take part, so you’ll find a wide variety of shows and performances suited to your taste. Whether you like theatre, comedy, dance, opera, spoken word poetry, or circus performances — you can find it here.
7 Attend a masquerade ball at the Venice Carnival
The Venice Carnival is an annual festival held during the same time many carnival festivals take place around the world, usually in the days leading up to Lent. But the Venetian carnival tradition is very distinct: it’s known for its elaborate masks and grand masquerade balls. The tradition of masking has a long and rich history in Venice. Back in the 18th century, Venetians wore masks out and about, sometimes up to six months a year! The festival has nurtured this traditional element of Venetian history and it has remained a staple to this day.
6 Get in a massive waterfight with strangers in Thailand
The annual Songkran Festival is Thailand’s most popular festival and marks the start of the Thai new year in April. Throwing water to celebrate is an annual tradition and usually draws huge crowds to the streets. People will usually fill up buckets with water or load up water guns and walk around splashing friends, family, and even strangers. If you’re travelling through Thailand during this festival, it’s a good way to cool down and participate in the local culture. Buddhists also visit temples during the festival and pour water on Buddha images.
5 Watch pro cheese-rollers on Cooper’s Hill
While not technically a festival in name, Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake held near Gloucester in England has become such a popular event attended by visitors from all over the world that it may as well be called a festival. Thousands come out to watch thrill-seeking participants roll themselves down a hill as they chase wheels of double Gloucester cheese. The event has left many participants with injuries, so if you’re not a veteran cheese-roller— maybe just stick to cheering?
4 Pretend you're in an ancient battle at the Cascamorras Festival
The Fiesta de Cascamorras is an annual festival that takes places in the towns of Guadiz and Baza in Granada, Spain every year in September. It’s inspired by the 500-year-old battle between the two towns fighting for the possession of a statue of the Virgen de la Piedad. Participants cover themselves in coloured paste, olive oil, or black grease and run around the town partying. The event is very popular in the province of Granada but has slowly been garnering international attention after it was declared a Fiesta of National Tourist Interest of Spain.
3 spook kids and adults alike at the Krampusnacht Festival
In Austria, the annual wintertime Krampusnacht Festival celebrates Krampus, a mythical creature from Austrian folklore that is said to have been around in pagan times—a narrative that bucks the St. Nicholas celebrations and western stories of Jolly Santa giving children gifts. Participants don fur costumes and creepy horned masks and take part in Krampus Run, a parade where they run around slinging cow bells and trying to scare spectators.
2 Torch a Viking galley at Up Helly Aa Fire Festival
If you’re a fan of fire and Viking culture—one or the other, or both—then make your way to the Shetland Islands in Scotland in time for Up Helly Aa Fire Festival. On the last Tuesday of January, participants march through Lerwick, Shetland in a huge torch-lit processsion, pulling with them a remarkable Viking galley that they will set on fire at the end of the march. This is followed by hours of dancing and merriment across the town pubs and halls.
1 Feed the monkeys at the Monkey Buffet Festival
In Lopburi, Thailand, residents prepare a feast for the local monkey population for one day of the year. The Monkey Buffet Festival offers rare sights of Lobpuri’s monkeys chowing down on fruits, vegetables, candies, and even the occasional soda. The city is a popular stop for many tourists and backpackers in Thailand because of its reputation for cohabiting with more than 3,000 monkeys. Although the monkeys receive a lot of attention from visitors, many locals usually don’t pay them that much attention—except on this day.
References: The Telegraph, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Green Global Travel, National Geographic, The Smithsonian