If you’re planning to visit Brazil, there’s no better time to go than in Carnival season. Carnival is a world-famous fiesta known for its elaborate parades, lavish feathered and bejeweled costumes, and feverish samba parties. While most people have heard all about the festivities of Rio Carnival, few are aware that this legendary event happens nationwide from Fortaleza to Florianopolis. The whole country becomes impassioned by the sounds of samba and entranced by the magic of its magnificent parades.
In this article, we take a closer look at exactly what a Brazilian Carnival is all about and deep-dive into why it’s such an important event for the country. Then, we show you the best carnivals to attend and the best ways to enjoy them when you get there. Now, all you need to do is buy your parade tickets and start sewing your feather headdress!
What is the Brazilian Carnival
Brazilian Carnival is a week-long, nationwide celebration full of joyful music and bright colors where everyone gathers in the streets throughout Brazil for parades, dancing, singing, and delicious food. It has become renowned over the decades for the flamboyant floats that take months to build, the extravagant costumes that compete for the greater feather count, and performances that require a year’s preparation, The thought, detail, and effort that goes into creating these carnivals across the country is an astonishing feat and almost certainly the most mesmerizing celebration you will ever see. The parades, performances, and parties continue day and night, the energy never wavering, which is what makes them so legendary.
The Origins of the Brazilian Carnival
Brazilian Carnival is traditionally a Catholic celebration that gives everyone a chance to let their hair down and indulge before Lent begins and they spend the next 40 days fasting and abstaining from meat and other personally chosen foods. Therefore, the Brazilian Carnival takes place every year before Ash Wednesday (the day that marks the beginning of Lent and the 40 days of penitence before Easter) giving them a whole week to party. And you have probably heard, they don’t waste a second of it!
Brazilians have been hosting carnivals across the country for centuries, the first one thought to have been in 1723, around 100 years after the Portuguese settled in Brazil. Of course, the celebration wasn’t always as extravagant; it would have originally been much smaller and religion-focused. This is evidenced in the word ‘carnival’ itself which roughly translates to ‘putting away flesh’ in its Latin origins. In other words, it’s referring to the traditional abstinence from meat that Catholics would practice for lent. While lent and other Catholic values are still woven into the carnivals, they have become more focused on cultural expression and social integration over the more recent decades.
Brazilian Carnival Music and Dance
Brazil is known for its fervent sounds and rhythms that instinctively get the hips swaying, the feet shuffling, and the hands clapping. These are the sounds and rhythms of samba, a music genre rooted in its Bahian Afro-Brazilian communities from the turn of the 20th century. Since then, it has gone on to become the sound and dance style that defines a nation. Young and old, conservative and liberal, Afro-Brazilians and Germanic Brazilians alike, samba music and dance are equally loved by all, giving it the power to bring the Brazilian people together any time the drum beats.
While samba was born and raised in Bahia, northeastern Brazil, it soon spread to Rio, Sao Paulo, Salvador, Recife, and other major cultural hubs, its style and sound shifting and transforming along the way. Today, you can see and hear the distinctive adaptations of this music form in the Brazilian Carnivals across the country. So while Rio Carnival might be the most legendary carnival to attend, it’s worth catching them in Bahia, Santa Caterina, and other states too.
The Costumes of a Brazilian Carnival
While samba is the soul of Carnival, the costumes are at the heart. Each year, thousands of hours are spent making costumes for the samba schools that host the parades and the partygoers. Huge feather headpieces, sequined garments, puffy ruffled skirts, and gem-emblazoned accessories adorning the costumes in every color of the rainbow is what it’s all about. In fact, the bigger, more feathered, and more glitzy, the better. Generally, these costume styles are rooted in their Portuguese and African cultural influence, but the parade costumes are themed differently each year related to everything from religion to current events. Amazingly, each costume made by a samba school can take thousands of hours and cost between $900- $10,000.This is a huge testament to the creativity, effort, and importance that is given to the event each year.
What Makes Rio Carnival so Popular?
Although Rio de Janeiro isn’t the capital of Brazil, it hosts the biggest and most impressive carnival in the country and indeed the world. Every day, around two million people show up on the streets to be part of the week-long celebrations throughout the city. You can find parades, street parties, street food, and entertainment. However, the Samba School Parade) is what draws the most crowds and puts the Rio Carnival on every bucket list.
The Samba School Parade
Although carnival is all about partying and letting loose, there is a serious side to it too. The samba school parade is a highly anticipated and highly invested competition for Rio’s top 12 samba schools. It takes place annually at the Sambadrome, a 700-meter-long purpose-built venue with grandstands on either side holding up to 90,000 people. Every year, each of the schools performs in a carnival parade that is professionally judged for the crown of ‘samba school of the year’. As the schools and spectators became more invested in the competition each year, the honor of winning this title becomes ever more significant. And of course, the schools pull out all the stops with expensive costumes and a year’s worth of rehearsals to win. The competition is open to the public so yes, you can see this spectacle for yourself!
Where to Celebrate the Brazilian Carnival
As the biggest in Brazil, Rio Carnival offers the best introduction to this must-see event. You can expect street parties at every turn, a tongue-tantalizing selection of the best Brazilian street food, and the most extravagant parades. But if you have the time and opportunity to check out the carnivals taking place in other cities, we would highly recommend doing so. Each town and city has its own take on a Brazilian Carnival meaning you can find different kinds of events, celebrations, and musical styles wherever you go.
Since it is relatively similar, Sao Paulo’s carnival is a great alternative to Rio Carnival. It holds a samba school competition every year whereby you can witness the skill, passion, and prowess of the parade schools, one of which is LGBTQ+.
Bahia’s carnival is particularly worth seeing firstly because it is where samba, the music that fuels Brazilian Carnivals, originated. Secondly, Bahia’s carnival is split into four groups, each with its own unique cultural background and style.
Recife Carnival offers an electrifying alternative style of the event with sounds, dance styles, and performances that cannot be found in Sao Paulo or Rio. Expect more African influences, more fervent movement, and some acrobatics!
How to Experience a Brazilian Carnival
Watch the parades
Whether you book Sambadrome tickets in Rio or Sao Paulo, or watch smaller local parades in other states, the parades are an integral and unmissable part of any Brazilian Carnival.
Pass by the block parties
There are block parties/ street parties locally organized by different communities within the cities hosting a Brazilian Carnival. Anyone is welcome to join and it’s the perfect way to get a taste of local culture. Just like the major events, you can expect music, dancing, traditional foods, and impressive costumes.
Attend a carnival ball
Carnival balls are held throughout the major Brazilian cities as a way to celebrate the event in a more formal and elegant way. While some are invite-only, there are plenty more with tickets available to the public. A great way to immerse yourself without for those who don’t like the sound of a street party.
Eat your way through the Brazilian streets
Enjoy the flavors of carinval like pao de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread), coxinhas and bolinhos de bacalhau ( croquettes), and picanha (flame grilled beef). You’ll find these at many of the official food vendors spread plentifully around the cities, or you may be lucky enough to be invited for a homemade feast at one of the block parties.
Book a Brazilian Carnival experience with us
Allow us to arrange all the fine details for your Brazil trip to attend one of its exciting carnivals. We can arrange everything from the flights and hotels to the parade tickets and restaurant reservations so that you can concentrate on practicing your samba skills. Call us toll-free on +1 855 217 9045 or send us a message.