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Top International Festivals to Visit

Combine Your Travel With Local Festivity

There’s no shortage of cultural celebrations all over the globe, involving everything from samba to sculptures and beer to books. Feel like feasting before Lent? There’s a festival for that. Want to see a 100-foot tower made out of ice? There’s also a festival for that. Just feel like throwing something? Well, there’s a couple of festivals for that, too. If you’re yearning for a little far-flung revelry this year, here’s a sampling of festivals from around the world all year long. One of them is sure to strike your fancy — and maybe even sate your wanderlust at the same time. While some of the best international festivals around are centered on music, we wanted to showcase celebrations where concerts aren’t the main event. You won’t find Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, or Secret Solstice here, either. So what’s on our list? Read on to find out.

cij festivals carnival rio

Carnival, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil (February – March)

Where else to start but “the biggest show on Earth”? Rio de Janeiro’s upper-case Carnival, considered the biggest lower-case carnivalon the planet, welcomes two million people per day to the streets of Brazil’s largest city. Originally a food festival so people could feast before fasting during Lent, Carnival’s roots are hidden in its name, derived from Latin words meaning “meat” (carnem) and “to take away” (levare). Today, it’s so much more, with an epic samba parade and explosion of color punctuating five days of music, dancing, parties and spectacle that take over the city. Oh, and if you’re feeling more Mediterranean than tropical, head to Venice for Carnevale, Carnival’s Italian cousin in spirit, which happens around the same time before Lent.

cij festivals holi

Holi, India (March)

India’s calendar is dotted with cultural and spiritual celebrations, from Diwali, the nationwide festival of lights, to the 49-day Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering. But the most colorful is Holi, India’s welcome to spring and fertility, observed on the day after March’s early full moon. The festival is known worldwide for its vibrant rainbow of revelers throwing paint and colored powder at each other. Everyone takes part, with giddy kids and their grandparents alike eager to cast a cloud of dye into a fellow merrymaker’s face. Like Diwali, Holi is celebrated nationwide — but for the most traditional experience, head to the Braj region. It’s associated deeply with the Hindu god Krishna, to whom the festival is dedicated.

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La Tomatina, Buñol, Spain (August)

Held on the last Wednesday of August amidst a week of festivities, La Tomatina isn’t one for the neat freaks. Starting in 1945 after a misunderstanding in a parade led to a public tomato fight, the festival has become one of Spain’s largest. Keep an eye out around 10 a.m., when a few trucks haul over a hundred tons of red tomatoes into town. About an hour later, a ham is placed atop a greased pole in the square, leading to a scramble to grab the porky prize from its precarious perch. Once the ham is claimed, it’s game on — with festivalgoers flinging squished tomatoes everywhere! The fun doesn’t end after the hourlong food fight, though, with music and sangria flowing freely into the evening. Pro tips: Bring goggles. In addition, plan ahead; the festival has gotten so popular that participation has been limited to people who buy tickets for about 30 euros.

cij festivals hay wales

Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye, Wales (May – June)

Fancy a festival but want to avoid the mess? Perhaps Wales’ Hay Festival, the world’s most famous book festival, is more your speed. Once called “The Woodstock of the Mind” by former President Bill Clinton, the event has grown from a small celebration among the market town’s bookshops to one of the United Kingdom’s most notable cultural fêtes. The festival now attracts dozens of distinguished authors, musicians, comedians and speakers from throughout the British Isles and beyond. It’s also incredibly kid-friendly, with a children’s festival — dubbed “Haydays” — running concurrent to the main event. And in case you can’t make it to Wales, the festivities have spawned several parallel celebrations around the world, with Hay Festivals this year and next set throughout the calendar in Mexico, Spain, Peru, Colombia and Croatia.

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Snowbombing, Mayrhofen, Austria (April)

Snowbombing started out as an electronic dance music festival in 2000. But thanks to its location on the slopes, “The Greatest Show on Snow” also has evolved into one of Europe’s premier celebrations of Alpine sports, especially snowboarding. You’ll see pro boarders pull sick tricks by day and treat your ears to wicked beats when the sun goes down. In addition, the festival takes full advantage of its snowy setting, with breathtaking scenery and some 50 pools and saunas nearby. Snowbombing also is one of the few festivals where getting there is part of the party: the Snowbombing Road Trip, which starts in England and has a “pit stop” in Germany, is a convoy of partiers whose arrival in Mayrhofen serves as the event’s opening procession.

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Harbin Ice Festival, Harbin, China (January – February)

Speaking of snow, festivalgoers searching for a winter wonderland can end the hunt in Harbin, China. Officially named the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, this event is the largest ice and snow festival in the world, drawing 20 million visitors annually. The main attraction is Ice and Snow World, an area filled with illuminated, full-sized, sometimes towering buildings made from ice blocks from the nearby Songhua River. Every year, the “city” is rebuilt, with newly designed ice buildings made to fit that festival’s theme. Travelers who brave Harbin’s chilly winter temperatures are rewarded with more than just arctic architecture, too. The event also offers opening ceremonies, winter fishing, concerts, alpine skiing, fashion shows, fireworks and an ice lantern exhibition.

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Wakakusa Yamayaki, Nara, Japan (January)

From ice to fire: Wakakusa’s Yamayaki’s name literally means “The Mountain Roast” — and the name is definitely appropriate. On the fourth Saturday in January, the dead grass on the hills of Mount Wakakusayama is lit on fire, painting the sky a vivid red orange. Fireworks add flashes of pink, purple, green, and gold, illuminating the silhouettes of Nara’s great temples. The origins of the festival are a bit vague (one story says the fires were started to drive away boars), but one thing’s clear: It’s quite the awe-inspiring show. The mountains can burn for as long as an hour, and the flames and fireworks can be seen throughout the entire city.

cij festivals oktoberfest

Oktoberfest, Munich, Germany (Septembe – October)

Where else to end this list but perhaps the most famous festival on the planet? Munich’s two-week celebration of suds is a bucket list entry for beer lovers worldwide, as evidenced by its over six million visitors each year. How much sauerkraut, sausage and German beer can you imagine? Trust us — at Oktoberfest, there’s more.

–Written by Arnie Aurellano

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