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The Top 15 Cultural Festivals and Events to Attend Around the World

One of the biggest joys of travel is being able to learn about other cultures.  Thru our travels, we get to see how other people live, what customs they have, what foods they typically eat, where they live, and how they celebrate life.  I like to say you can learn a lot about the culture of a place by walking thru its markets and by observing its festivals or celebrations. There are some great world heritage festivals around the globe and some of this world’s best festivals are huge attractions for tourists.

Holi Festival

In this article, I am going to outline some of the world-famous festivals and celebrations in the world.  Of course, these are not the only worthy international festivals around the world that you can travel to see, as that would be quite an exhaustive list, but this list does represent some of the most well-known world famous festivals and events that I would like to see for myself one day.

If there are any festivals or celebrations around the world that you would one day like to attend or have attended, please let me know in the comment section.  Not only would I be grateful to hear about your experiences, but I am sure other travelers who are reading would love to hear about your experiences as well so that they can add them to their world festivals bucket list.

Oktoberfest in Munich

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September

What began as the marriage ceremony between Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese in 1810 has quickly turned into one of this world’s most well-known and popular celebrations.  Held each year in September, Oktoberfest is a 16-18 day festival in Munich and throughout the Bavarian region of Germany.  It draws over 6 million visitors annually, making it the largest festival in the world, and features traditional Bavarian dress and the consumption of Bavarian beer.  If you plan on attending Oktoberfest one day, make sure you plan your trip well in advance as people from all over the world travel to Munich during Oktoberfest to take part.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans

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The day before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent)

Mardi Gras, which translates to “Fat Tuesday” in English, is one of this world’s most well-known carnival celebrations.  The celebration takes place in New Orleans, Louisianna in the United States and marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent.  Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, itself is always held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.  The first Mardi Gras celebration took place over 175 years ago, making it one of the oldest standing festivals in United States history.  During Mardi Gras, there are countless parades, masquerade balls, and King Cake parties that take place throughout the city.

Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert

Burning Man

Monday before American Labor Day

What started as an intimate gathering of friends on Bake Beach in San Francisco in 1986 has turned into one of this world’s most interesting, introspective festivals in the world. The event, which is centered around building community, “radical self-expression”, and “radical self-reliance” is now held annually in the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada in the United States. The highlight of the event and the origin of the festival’s name comes from the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy. Burning Man now attracts visitors from around the world and in 2017 had a total attendance of over 70,000 people. It is definitely one of the most unique events on my list and one that I think would be amazing to attend in the future.

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro

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Seven Sundays before the Sunday of Easter

One of the world’s largest festivals, and arguably the world’s largest parties happens in Rio de Janeiro each Spring in the leadup to the religious Easter season.  With over 5 million people a year flooding the streets of Rio for the celebration, and roughly a half million of them being visitors to Brazil, it is widely considered the largest carnival in the world.

Dating back to 1723, Carnival in Rio is an amazing display of colors, costumes, dancing, and celebration.  Each year, roughly 70 different samba schools, each representing a different neighborhood, compete for prizes and the pride of their neighborhood.  It is truly one of this world’s most remarkable celebration and something that I am very excited to experience in person one day.

Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin

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March 17

The Feast of St. Patrick, which is commonly known around the world as St. Patrick’s Day, is a cultural and religious holiday in Ireland that is celebrated every year on March 17th. This holiday celebrates Saint Patrick, who is the most recognized of Ireland’s patron saints, and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Saint Patrick played a prominent role in bringing Christianity to Ireland from Roman Britain during the fifth century AD.

During this holiday, it is customary to dress in green clothing and shamrocks, which is what Saint Patrick used to explain Christianity to the pagans who lived in Ireland at the time. There are large public parades, traditional Irish music, traditional dances, as well as plenty of food and drink that is shared. It is hard to imagine a more amazing St. Patrick’s Day celebration than in Dublin, which should be high on every traveler’s list.

Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai

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The evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar

Known around the world as the “Festival of Lights”, Loi Krathong is one of this world’s most enchanting and amazing festivals to witness in person. Each November throughout Thailand and parts of Laos and Myanmar, Loi Krathong is a celebration to wash away the sins and misfortunes of the past year and make wishes and resolution for the new year that is approaching.

In Thai, the word Loi means “to float” and the word Krathong means “banana trunk”, so the term Loi Krathong can be interpreted to mean “floating banana trunk”. This makes sense as to celebrate the holiday patrons build floating baskets that they place candles in and float on the river. The floating basket celebration is held the day after a celebration in which they release floating lanterns that are released into the sky. It is one of the most beautiful sights that you can imagine and one of the reasons why this holiday celebration ranks high on many traveler’s lists to see in person.

Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico City

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October 31 thru November 2

Although Cinco de Mayo may get more attention in the United States, Dia de Los Muertos, which translates to mean “Day of the Dead” is without a doubt the bigger holiday celebration in Mexico. Held each year between October 31 and November 2nd, the holiday is held as a get together for families and a way in which they can remember those loved ones who have passed away.

To honor their family members who have passed away, families build private altars, known as ofrendas, in their homes and place photographs of their deceased loved ones, Aztec Marigold flowers, as well as sugar skulls on top of them. They also visit the grave sites of their loved ones to pay homage to them and leave them some of their favorite possessions as a tribute to the deceased.

In many cities throughout Mexico, there are large celebrations and parades that are held and children will dress up in costume and go door to door asking for treats, much like children do with trick or treating during Halloween in the United States. Dia de Los Muertos is an amazing holiday that many travelers would love to experience first-hand, and Mexico city holds one of the most amazing parades on this holiday. This is why it has made it on my list of the top cultural festivals in events for travelers to experience.

Holi Festival in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka

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The day after the full moon in March each year

I don’t think there is a more colorful holiday on the planet, and a good argument can be made that there may not be a more joyous holiday that is celebrated as well. Each year on the day after the full moon in March, Hindus, Sikhs, and other people of faith in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and other countries with a large Indic population gather to celebrate the victory of good over evil during the Holi festival.

Also known as the “festival of colors, the festival also celebrates the end of winter and the abundance of the upcoming spring harvests. During the celebrations, patrons throw colored powder and colored water at each other, host parties to celebrate, and dance underneath water sprinklers. If you have watched the TV show “An Idiot Abroad”, Karl Pilkington is surprised when he ventures out of his hotel in India and is caught up in the Holi festivities.

This would be an absolutely amazing festival to experience in person and is very high on my bucketlist of travel experiences. If you are interested in experiencing this festival yourself, Trawell has a great article on the best places for visitors to experience the Holi festival.

The Iditarod Race in Nome, Alaska

The Iditarod.jpg

The first Saturday in March

If you are looking for a unique and amazing sporting event to attend during your travels, then the Iditarod race in Alaska in the United States is right up your alley.  This epic annual dogsledding race began in 1973 and has grown into one of this world’s most infamous feats of endurance.

Each year on the first Saturday of March, participants of the Iditarod race their dog teams from Anchorage to Nome, which is 938 miles or 1,509 kilometers, to claim the prize of being the best dog sledder in the world.  It is an epic feat of endurance because the participants must battle the cold, fatigue, and the elements over many days to win the race.

On their way to the finish line, the racers pass thru many small Alaskan cities, which gives spectators a front row seat to the race.  In towns where the race passes thru it is a monumental event that the whole town often turns out to watch.  These epic races of endurance are few-and-far-between nowadays, especially ones that involve humans and animals working in tandem.  This is why the Iditarod has made my list of the top festivals and events for travelers to experience in their lifetime.

Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain

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July 7 – July 14

I don’t think this festival needs much of an introduction as it is arguably one of this world’s most famous cultural festivals.  Though they are held in Portugal, Mexico, Southern France, and other parts of Spain, one of the most famous Running of the Bulls in the world happens in Pamplona, Spain during the eight-day Festival of Sanfermines in honor of Saint Fermin. During the festival, a part of the city of Pamplona is blocked off and a small group of bulls is let loose inside. The bulls run thru the streets and it is custom for patrons, all wearing white, to run out ahead of the bulls and try to avoid being run over.

During the festival, the city celebrates with food, drink, and festivities that consumes the town. The whole festival is one huge party, so if you plan on visiting for the Running of the Bulls, make sure you have your running shoes ready and you are ready to party.

Carnival in Venice

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Forty Days Before Easter

Beginning forty days before Easter every year and ending on Fat Tuesday, or the day before Ash Wednesday, Carnival in Venice Italy is a festival you won’t want to miss out on in your lifetime. The festival has become famous the world over for the elaborate and decorative masks that are worn by patrons. It is estimated that roughly 3 million visitors come to Venice each year to participate in Carnival, where patrons compete for la maschera più bella, or “the most beautiful mask”, which is awarded on the final weekend of Carnival.

If you are into elaborate parties and dressing up, then Carnival in Venice is right up your alley. What better way to experience one of this world’s most romantic cities than by attending and participating in one of this world’s most elaborate festivals. For this reason, Carnival in Venice should be on every traveler’s bucket list.

The Lantern Festival in Taiwan

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The 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar

In an effort to increase tourism and raise the international profile of Taiwan, the country of Taiwan has been holding an annual lantern festival that is absolutely amazing.  In case you didn’t notice, I did use the word “country” to refer to Taiwan, which does carry a bit of controversy. Taiwan currently isn’t recognized by the United Nations, and The Republic of China has long claimed control over this territory, but that hasn’t been recognized either. This information may help you understand the cultural significance of the festival.

Blending high tech with tradition, the Taiwan Lantern Festival is an amazing festival that involves colorful lanterns of all shapes and sizes. In years past, the lanterns were used as a symbol to notify friends and family you were safe. Though the lanterns don’t serve this purpose anymore, they are used today to signify peace and good fortune. In addition to the many colorful lanterns, the celebration also includes fireworks, great food, and lots of celebration. It is quickly becoming one of this world’s most amazing festivals for travelers to attend.

Summerfest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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June

If you like music, then you are going to love the Summerfest music festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The largest music festival in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Summerfest music festival showcases over 800 musical acts on 11 stages inside the 75-acre Maier Festival Park along the lakefront in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Over 800,000 people a year attend Summerfest to enjoy the music and atmosphere.

Each year, many of the top musical artists in the world, as long as many long-time favorites play in the festival.  The best part about Summerfest is that a reasonably priced ticket gets you in the doors to see a vast majority of the acts.  Only the night’s headliner requires a separate ticket to see.  Once inside, you have the ability to hop from stage-to-stage checking out the great musical acts, enjoying great food and drink, and soaking in the atmosphere.

La Tomatina in Valencia, Spain

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Last Wednesday of August

If you like food fights, then the La Tomatina festival in Valencia, Spain is right up your alley.  Technically, the festival is held in the Valencian town of Buñol as part of the town’s week-long festivities the last week of August each year.  In what might be the world’s largest organized food fight, participants in La Tomatina hurl tomatoes at each other all in the name of fun.

I don’t know about you, but this festival seems like it would be an absolute blast to attend.  There is nothing more fun than getting a little messy to have a good time.  This is why the La Tomatina festival in the Valencia area of Spain has made my list of the top cultural festivals in the world for travelers to attend in their lifetime.

Diwali Festival in Mumbai, India

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Celebrated to coincide with the darkest, new moon night of the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika in Bikram Sambat calendar (Between September and November)

Also known as the “Festival of Lights”, Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival that is celebrated in India and other areas of the world with large Hindu populations. The festival is meant to signify the victory of good over evil and of light over darkness, which is why the festival is known as the “Festival of Light”.

The festival usually lasts for a week, but the main festivities typically occur on the night of Deepavali, which is when the darkest, new moon night occurs. During this celebration, patrons light candles both inside and outside of their houses, fireworks are set off throughout the cities, and family celebrations occur.

My first introduction to Diwali was with the TV Series “Departures”. In Season 1, Episode 3 – India: Sacred Ground, the guys visit their friend Monica and spend Diwali with her and her family in New Dehli. I remember watching that episode and being absolutely enthralled with the holiday. It seems like such a joyous and festivous holiday, which is why it has made my list of the top world festivals and events for travelers to experience in person during their lifetime.

Honorable Mentions

As I mentioned before, these world festivals and carnivals are not the only worthy events that you can travel to see around the world. There are quite a few more that would be an absolute joy to see in person. Below is a list of some of the runner-up options that you should also look into as options to experience during your travels.

  • The Chinese New Year in Shanghai, China
  • Sapporo Snow Festival in Sapporo, Japan
  • Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Lantern Festival in Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Dragon Boat Carnival in Hong Kong, China
  • Winterlude in Ottawa and Quebec, Canada
  • Elephant Festival in Jaipur, India
  • The Ganesh Celebrations in Dehli, India
  • Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin, China
  • Cascamorras in Baza, Spain
  • Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City, New York
  • Sun Festival in Abu Simbel, Egypt
  • King’s Day in the Netherlands
  • Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru
  • Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, UK

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11 replies »

  1. Very beautiful and informative post. India is always lit during festivals and almost every month we are celebrating some or the other festival. India is a land of rich culture.
    Through your post got to learn about other culturesof the world.
    Thanks for this amazing post! ☺

    • Thank you so much for the kind words!! India is such a culturally rich place. I am very eager to visit one day soon!

  2. Ugh! As a teacher with two measly personal days each year, it is so frustrating that many of these festivals occur during the school year (which is nearly impossible to take off from except to take long weekends). I guess that’s all the more reason to stay fit and healthy so that in retirement I can finally experience all these things. Thanks for a great post!

    • I agree, it is so frustrating when work doesn’t jive with travel ambitions. Thank you so much for all you do as a teacher 😀👍

  3. I think your main list covered a lot of the ones I really want to visit, can’t say I’d heard of the Alaska race though.
    Honourable mention from me would be Hogmanay in Edinburgh. I had a blast last year! 🙂

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