Cultural festivals

A country’s cultural festivals are an incredible insight into its history and people, and experiencing one in all its colourful, and potentially chaotic, glory is a truly unforgettable experience. Some, a celebration, others a commemoration, yet all are a fascinating snapshot into the cultural heritage of each destination. Whether it’s a colour popping carnival, a traditional ceremony or a patriotic party that takes your fancy, we’ve chosen our favourites from around the world.

Cultural festivals
Fireworks on the fourth of July, San Francisco

The 4th of July is a national vacation across America, marking the country's Independence Day. Fireworks displays span the country but the most impressive arguably take place at the White House in Washington when pyrotechnics of all colours rain down on this spectacular landmark. Cue all-American feasts and star spangled banners adorning facades and shopfronts in honour of the nationwide festivities.

Antigua arts and crafts
Antigua Carnival - July or August

With its inaugural carnival taking place in 1957, commemorating the island's emancipation from slavery and also as a means of attracting tourists to the island. Ever since, carnival fever has descended on the island annually. A variety of shows take place in the build up to the culmination of the festivities which take place on the final Monday and Tuesday of the week. Two days of public holiday are celebrated in an exuberant musical celebration. Calypsos are played by steel bands, the streets are decorated in a rainbow of Caribbean colours and celebratory spirit whirls around the island.

Bali Arts Festival, Indonesia - June & July

The Bali Arts Festival is a month long cultural festival that takes place in the Balinese capital, Denpasar. The festival opens with a parade at the Bajra Sandhi monument and the Taman Werdhi Budaya Arts Centre is the hub of the celebrations. There are performances by adults and children of myriad traditional dance and music, including legong, Ramayana and Mahabharata ballets, mask dances and gamelan recitals, as well as wayang shadow puppetry and film screenings. You will also find art exhibitions, local handicrafts and the culinary bazaars are a great opportunity to sample Balinese dishes.

Samba, Rio de Janiero
Carnival, Brazil - February

Soak up Brazil's carnival spirit at the biggest street party in the world. Rio Carnival is an all singing, all dancing five day extravaganza in which samba is the star of the show. Taking place before the beginning of Lent, it is the ultimate blowout before the countdown to Easter begins. Throughout the carnival, the streets are filled with the sounds and sights of Brazil's vibrant culture, a true testament to its incredible history, fascinating people and contagious party spirit.

Cheung Chau bun festival, near Hong Kong
Cheung Chau Bun Festival, China - April or May

Beginning on the 5th day of the 4th lunar month of each year, the Cheung Chau Bun festival, is an annual celebration which has become an intangible part of China's cultural heritage. Before the festival, locals create countless papier-mâché effigies of deities, prepare costumes, bake buns and build a bamboo tower to ward off evil spirits. These traditions were introduced initially to fend off the plague yet the rituals are still performed to this day. It is hailed as one of the world's most curious festivals and only a mile away from high rise Hong Kong, highlighting the rich culture which still seeps through China.

Cinco de Mayo, Mexico - May

Often confused with Mexico's Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated each year on 05 May to commemorate the victory of the Mexican army over French forces despite being greatly outnumbered in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 during the Franco-Mexican War. It has become a big celebration of Mexican culture in the United States but in Mexico Cinco de Mayo is mainly celebrated in the state of Puebla where the battle took place. In Puebla city, the battle of Puebla is reenacted on the original site and there is a massive parade along Boulevard Cinco de Mayo with colourful costumes and Mariachi bands. Expect tacos, dancing and fireworks!

Creole meal overlooking the beach in Seychelles
Creole Festival, The Seychelles - October

Festival Kreol is the biggest and most important event in the Seychelles' cultural calendar. Prepare for an assault on the senses; with the colours, sights, sounds and smells of the Creole world coming to life. The festival embraces both the traditions of the Seychelles and the contemporary too, fusing the two seamlessly throughout the course of the festival. The Festival Kreol is an international stage for Creole culture, from watching float parades and musical shows, to visiting galleries and fairs, it is the perfect way to get under the skin of the Seychelles.

Steel drums, Caribbean
Crop Over, Barbados - July

Carnival fever takes hold on the island over Barbados throughout the Crop Over Festival, an incredible insight into Barbados' vibrant and colourful culture. This 200 year tradition honours the end of the sugar cane season, and revellers come together to celebrate all that is Bajan. Parties continue well into the night, markets spill across plazas and street fairs are a showcase of creativity, craft and calypso.

Pumpkins on the doorstep, Halloween

Parties, parades and haunted houses are all on the agenda to celebrate the ghoulish season. Across America, celebrations take every shape and form and as the streets become lined with pumpkins and abuzz with trick or treaters. Straddling the seasons of winter and autumn, Halloween was once a ritual which took place to ward off roaming ghosts, now it is the perfect occasion to rally community spirit in every corner of the US.

Edinburgh Hogmanay celebrations

Hogmanay is the Scottish celebration which marks the last day of the calendar year. With a host of events taking place throughout the Edinburgh, from ceilidh in the castle, to concerts and processions in the streets, there is plenty to entertain both young and old. Witness a spectacular display of fireworks at midnight or a procession or a torch lit parade through the streets. The brave can take part in the loony dook, a refreshing dip in the River Forth on the first of January, the perfect cure for any sore heads! Grab a friend or a loved one, neighbour for a soul stirring rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

Hornbill festival in Nagaland, India
Hornbill Festival, India - December

Named after the great Indian hornbill, a symbolic bird in Naga folklore, the Hornbill Festival is an annual celebration in India's Nagaland. Uniting all the major tribes in the region, the festival is a celebration of traditional arts. Taking place in the first week of December, the festival is vibrant, colourful and intoxicating giving visitors the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the people and places of Nagaland.

Baby gorilla, Rwanda
Kwita Izina, Rwanda - September

A naming ceremony for baby gorillas born in the past year, Kwita Izina is based on a traditional Rwandan naming ceremony for humans. The ceremony ties in with an array of conservational activities and exhibits, and each gorilla’s name has a special meaning in the Kinyarwandan language.

Iceland flag
Icelandic National Day - June

Taking place in Reykjavik, the Icelandic National Day is both the birthday of Iceland's independence movement and also marks the date of when the republic of Iceland was established. Celebrations take place throughout the day, beginning with the simultaneous chiming of all of the church bells in Reykjavik and continuing with family friendly entertainment, street theatre and concerts.

Loy Krathong festival, Thailand
Loy Krathong, Thailand - November

Krathong is arguably one of the most picturesque festivals in Thailand. Festival goers gather around lakes, rivers and canals in the name of the goddess of water to release lotus shaped rafts, or krathongs, into the water. Falling on the last night of the twelfth lunar month, the festival is a celebration of the harvest season and plentiful rainfall, and good luck is bestowed upon those whose krathongs drift out of sight. In Chiang Mai, people let off lanterns into the moonlit sky, lighting up the darkness with a warm glow.

Mardi Gras, New Orleans

The streets of New Orleans become awash with hues of purple, green and gold throughout the Mardi Gras celebrations. Festival fever is brought to live in the parades, picnics and performances taking place across the city which revel in the cultural heritage of New Orleans and traditions of Fat Tuesday. Elaborate costumes are worn by young and old, floats are adorned with larger than life decorations and masquerading is all part of the fun!

Church in Mallorca
Mare de Deu del Carme, Mallorca - July

Carmen is known as the protectorate of the city's fishermen and seafarers, and a festival in her honour is celebrated on the 16th July. The festivities take place in all of the local coastal towns and villages but some of the best celebrations are held in Port de Pollenca. Priests come to bless the fishing boats with pictures of the Virgin Carmen, locals decorate the boats with flowers and lanterns and garlands are thrown into the water to commemorate those who lost their lives at sea.

Shells in Nevis, the Caribbean
Nevis Culturama, Caribbean - July & August

Each year, the traditions of the Caribbean are given a renewed energy and burst into life at the Nevis Culturama festival. Fostering an international interest in the cultural heritage of the Caribbean, the festival gives the folklore of the island a worldwide stage on which to flourish and inspire. It is also a unique celebration of one of the most important milestones in history, the emancipation of slaves and throughout the 12 days of festivities, all aspects of Nevis' art and culture are celebrated.

Backstreets of Pollenca, Mallorca
Pollenca la Patrona Festival, Mallorca - August

La Patrona Festival, held in the north of Mallorca, is a jubilant occasion which is celebrated on the day dedicated to the Mare de Deu dels Angels on August 2nd. The highlight of the fiesta is the reenactment of the battle between Moorish pirates and Christians and a spectacular fireworks display over the town follows. The mock battle is best watched from balconies overlooking the streets as the squash of Pollenca's townsfolk replay this historical event. Throughout the town there are a host of concerts, exhibitions and parties taking place over the course of the festival, all continuing until the early hours.

Thailand Songkran festival
Songkran, Thailand - April

Across Thailand, Songkran celebrations take place for as long as a week. The Thai New Year is a Buddhist festival and perhaps the most important public holiday in the country. The date marks the end of the dry season and the beginning of the annual rains, with this in mind, it is de rigeur for revellers to throw water at one another. This is arguably the highlight of the festival and the only option for visitors it to embrace it and get wet! Thais visit their local temples to pray and Buddha images across the nation are cleaned to bring luck and prosperity for the year to come.

Irish bagpipe players

St Patrick's Day, sometimes known as the Feast of Saint Patrick, is on the 17 March, commemorating the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. St Patrick's Day has become a celebration of Irish culture and heritage and generally all things Irish. The day is marked with lively involve parades, marching bands and cèilidhs (a traditional Gaelic partner dance to folk music). Wearing of green attire or shamrocks is extremely popular. Legend has it that Saint Patrick explained the Holy Trinity to the Irish pagans using the three leaved shamrock (clover). St Patrick's Day is celebrated not only across the island of Ireland but also those of Irish descent around the world.

Tapati festival in Easter Island, Chile
Tapati, Easter Island - February

A tradition harking back to the 1970s, Tapati was founded as a way of promoting and protecting the identity of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island. The festival features a line up of dancing and singing competitions alongside traditional sporting events such as swimming, canoeing and horse racing. Literally meaning Rapa Nui week, it is the most important cultural festival on Easter Island and draws visitors from far and wide. Throughout the celebrations, the island is divided in two, and peaceful competition and confrontation ensues between the two halves - the perfect platform for islanders to showcase their physical and artistic skills.

Trooping the colour parade, UK

Trooping the Colour is a ceremonial event which is steeped in British tradition, much loved by the nation and further afield. It is an impressive display of pageantry which marks the monarch's birthday when around 1400 officers march in unison up the Mall and towards Buckingham Palace. Upon inspecting the troops, the monarch is greeted with a royal salute and often a spectacular air show.

Venice Carnival
Venice Carnival, Italy - February

The world famous Venice Carnival with its iconic Venetian masks takes place each year in the 10 days leading up to Shrove Tuesday (in fact the word carnival comes from the Latin "carnes" and "levare" so literally means "put away meat"). It dates back to the Middle Ages but fell into decline in the 18th century and was revived in 1979. Don a mask and a period costume to truly become part of this spectacle like no other. Venice Carnival opens with the Flight on the Angel (Volo dell’Angelo) when a young woman descends through the air from the San Marco bell tower into St Mark's Square. There are outdoor events including a water parade (you can even take part in a costume contest) as well as more exclusive festivities like the extravagant masquerade balls, gala, cruises and cocktail parties. Try a fritelle (Venetian donut), a traditional carnival sweet treat.

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