Rio Carnival: the biggest party in the world

Rhythmic drumming, samba queens and feathers galore - that's what you can expect if you're lucky enough to go to the carnaval de Rio de Janeiro. Put on your best costume, spread glitter all over your body and join the party. Once a year in February, the "Marvellous City" transforms itself into the happiest place on earth. For 4 days, the festivities are non-stop: between the neighbourhood parties (the "blocos") and the parade of floats on Avenue Marquês de Sapucai or Sambodrome, it's an event you have to experience at least once in your life! Find out now what not to miss and all our tips for an unforgettable week.

Carnival parade down the avenue du Sambodrome

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The history of Carnival

The origins of this internationally renowned carnival are closer than you think. The tradition actually originated with the Greeks and Romans! Yes, the custom of spending the day and night getting drunk comes from the festival of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and drunkenness, or from the festival of Saturnalia, which celebrates the winter solstice. It was a time to forget all your everyday worries and change your appearance. Masters and soldiers exchanged clothes, and for a few days there were no longer any social classes, just a people united in joy and gladness.

Other traditions were mixed in with these, such as the carnivals of Paris and Nice. These masked balls, reserved for the elite, gradually took to the streets, much to our delight.

Some also believe that this is the last festival where everything is permitted before the start of Lent, a period in the Christian calendar when alcohol and other pleasures of life are forbidden.

Colorful to the core, the carnival parade on avenue du Sambodrome

- © StanislavBeloglazov / Shutterstock

Italian carnivals are also thought to have played a role in the creation of this jovial tradition. The African slaves brought by the Portuguese colonists also helped to develop the iconic costumes we know and admire today, and to introduce the samba, the symbolic dance of carnival.

All this makes Rio carnival one of the richest and most opulent in the world. For 4 days, step out of your comfort zone and transform yourself into a flower, a fairy, a clown or even Bacchus! The only limit is your imagination.

Rio de Janeiro carnival neighbourhood parties

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Neighbourhood festivals not to be missed

One of the greatest pleasures in Rio during carnival is to take part in the neighbourhood parties or "blocos" as they are called by the cariocas (Rio locals). These blocks of pure energy are made up of large 'batucadas' (percussion) and brass bands. So join the procession of revellers and sway to the rhythm of a frenzied samba! There's something for everyone, at all times of the day and night. Here are our favourites.

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The Ipanema Band (a 'band' is another name for a brass band in Brazil) is one of the most popular blocos. Dance along the legendary beach of the same name. And if you get too hot, take a dip in the crystal-clear waters of the 'cidade maravilhosa'.

The blocks along this avenue are among the favourite spots of the LGBTQI+ community, who make the most of the sun, sea and lively music. For the little ones, the Simpatia é Quase Amor block is the perfect place to party with the grown-ups. It also takes place on Ipanema Avenue, but with the help of the official programme, you can organise it easily and without any headaches! Leblon is a great place to join the parade and dance until dawn. Start at the top of the posh district and work your way down to Ipanema. This beautiful corner of Rio is known for its nightlife and trendy, modern architecture.

Practical info

To help you choose from the hundreds of blocos taking place over the course of almost a month, take advantage of the official Rio carnival programme. Visit the Rio carnival website to see the exact times and dates of the blocos you won't want to miss!

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A block party along Ipanema during Rio carnival

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A block party during Rio carnival in the Flamengo district

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If you want to look elsewhere, the Flamengo district is another very suitable option. These colourful street parties are among the most popular with Cariocas. Dance your feet off with the "Estica de Flamengo" band. And if you're feeling a little hot after so much physical activity (and understandably so), the parade of the "Barbas" band is the solution: don't miss a second of the festivities and their water cannons. Sway to the rhythm of the band's drums in the light, cool rain.

The "Lapa" band is the favourite parade of young people. Its many dynamic parties make it a place of incredible joie de vivre. Our favourite bloco is in the same area, Santa Teresa. These twin neighbourhoods are extremely pleasant, with a bohemian atmosphere that makes all the worries of the world disappear. If you're feeling peckish, many of the restaurants stay open until late. Savour traditional Brazilian dishes such as cheese rolls, refreshing bowls of acai berries and brigadeiros, sweet chocolate balls.

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Carnival parade down the avenue du Sambodrome

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A place to enjoy the parade!

If you're a bit shy and want to enjoy the show from the terraces, don't worry, you can get your tickets quickly and easily online. Unlike the costumes, these tickets are highly sought-after, so get them in advance. Prices vary depending on the samba school. The first night is the cheapest, as the last night brings together the favourites. In short, it's a bit like an athletics final.

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Be part of the parade at the Sambodrome

The event at the heart of the festival, watched worldwide and envied by the whole world, is the parade of samba schools down the legendary avenue of the Sambodrome. For 5 nights, the city's best schools battle it out for first place and a place in the top 20. They have just 85 minutes and 700 metres to show off a year's hard work to the judges and 80,000 people in the stands.

The highlight of the show is the floats: giant, ingenious constructions, each one crazier than the last. A golden dragon, the lost city of Atlantis or all the animals of the savannah will give you goose bumps.

So what could be better than having a seat in the stands to watch this unique show? Quite simply, to be part of it! Yes, no kidding, you too can be part of the procession. All you have to do is buy your costume, which helps to fund the samba schools. Once you've bought your costume, you'll learn the official club song and take part in one or two training sessions. Don't panic, there's no complex choreography to learn - that's for drum queens only. You'll simply march to the beat of the song with your 'ala' (parade section).

On the big day, enjoy an intense experience at the epicentre of the party. Thrills guaranteed!

Your costume for the show

It's also easy to get on the catwalk. A costume costs between 500 and 1,500 reals, or between 87 and 250 euros. There's no need to plan a year in advance for this opportunity, as costumes are still available until the end of January. You can admire the patterns for your pre-orders and make your choice on Carnival Bookers. The site contains all the information you need to book your costumes, including the official websites of the Samba schools.

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A neighborhood party during Rio carnival

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Practical info

Lastly, security is very important during Carnival, with lots of people in the streets, so a word of advice: leave your jewellery and other valuables at your hotel.

Now there's just one thing left to do: have fun!

by Val HANCOCK
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