Lent begins on Valentine’s Day this year, but Rio de Janeiro won’t let the small matter of religious observance interrupt the world’s biggest celebration. Before the fast comes the festivities: eight days of music and dancing to the frenetic rhythm of samba drums, with the city’s famous schools competing for prizes, and sequins, lace and feathers competing with bare skin. Carnival could mean: “Meat, goodbye!” but no one is in a hurry to cover it up.
What exactly is carnival?
Carnival – Carnival in Portuguese – is gaiety and general excess before the beginning of Lent, a forty-day period of fasting and penance in preparation for Easter.
Because the date of the latter changes according to the lunar calendar, Carnival is a movable celebration: this year’s Rio Carnival falls between February 9 and 17.
Why is Rio’s Carnival the largest?
The city began its love affair with Carnival in 1723, when Portuguese immigrants from the islands of the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde introduced the Entrudo, a Shrove Tuesday parade. Salvador was the capital of Brazil at the time, but Rio (which would become the capital in 1763) was an important port city.
Rio Carnival really took off in the 1920s, when samba schools were founded and neighborhoods began to compete in their costumes and choreography. There are more than 70 samba schools, including 12 ‘elite schools’ with between 2,500 and 3,500 dancers and performers.
Thanks to the 24-hour TV coverage, Brazilians from all over the country can tune in and follow the action. The event now has a Twitter account @RioCarnaval although the low number of followers (19.6k) indicates that virtual samba dancing is a minority activity.
How long does it take?
From the Friday before Ash Wednesday at noon until the following Saturday – so, brazenly, Carnival in Rio is invading Lent. This is because, while the main official events take place over the four days of February 9 to 12, there is a winners’ parade on Saturday, February 17.
Where does it all unfold?
The first official Carnival parade in Rio took place in 1935 in a city center square called Praça Onze, and remained at that location for 30 years until it was moved to Avenida Presidente Vargas. In 1983, famed architect Oscar Niemeyer – best known for creating Brasilia’s futuristic center – was commissioned to design a parade stadium. The purpose-built Sambadrome is located on Marquês de Sapucaí, an avenue that runs perpendicular to Avenida P. Vargas.
The processions take place at night, so the Sambadrome opens around 5pm, with performances from 10pm until 4am or even 6am the next morning.
While ticketed spectators watch the samba schools’ parade, many more Rio residents – known as cariocas – and tourists take part in street parties and fringe events around the city. These range from formal balls and masquerades to riotous open-air dance parties with music played by street bands known as ‘blocos’. The oldest street band, Cordão de Bola Preta, founded in 1918, used to perform on Copacabana beach, but now bases itself on Avenida Rio Branco in the center; more than a million people come to these performances.
How many people participate in the Rio Carnival?
The Sambadrome can simultaneously accommodate more than 80,000 seated spectators and 5,000 performers; In total, at least 30,000 dancers and musicians are involved.
An estimated two million people attend the events each day and six to seven million over the four days.
Which samba school is the best?
A panel of 40 judges examines the movements, costumes, singing and quality and technique of the dancers. Schools are divided into rankings.
Imperatriz Leopoldinense – whose performance focused on a bandit leader and folk hero from the North East, won the Elite award in 2023, 22 years after his last title. The Grande Rio school – which highlighted prejudice against Afro-Brazilian religions – won the Elite Prize in 2022. The 2021 event was canceled for the first time in a century due to the pandemic. Viradouro won in 2020 and came second last year.
Mangueira (the 2019 and 2016 winner) and Salgueiro (2009 winner but routinely in the top tier) are two of the best-known and most successful samba schools. From October (and sometimes throughout the year) the schools prepare and visitors are welcome to attend rehearsals.
Do the spectacular dances have a message or story to tell?
Samba schools – many of which have deep ties to the favelas or slums – have long used their shows to celebrate diversity, protest political regimes and highlight social injustices. Read more about the history of samba schools here.
Should everyone dance samba?
Anything goes at informal street parties, but samba is important as a communal dance in Rio. The modern carnival only gained its vibrant colors and dynamic dance styles because Brazilians of African descent were allowed to participate. In 1888, slavery was banned in Brazil and it is no coincidence that the first blocos (street parties) took place the following year.
How much does it cost and can I still get tickets?
Grandstand tickets are still available, starting from US$14 (£11) for Friday and Saturday and from US$214 (£169) for Sunday and Monday – when the Special or Elite group of schools perform. The grandstand consists of concrete steps or stands. Prices for assigned seats and boxes are higher, with a covered box costing $1,194 (£945) for Sunday and a Super Folia VIP seat (with champagne) costing $1,544 (£1,222) for the Champions Parade.
There are still a few places available in most categories on all days. Prices are per person. For tickets, visit riocarnaval.org
Are the hotels completely full?
Most hotel rooms and flights to Rio are booked well in advance for Carnival, but Hotels.com is offering two nights (17-19 February) in a double room at the Orla Copacabana for £327, minus breakfast (£7 extra each). Lastminute.com has hotel plus flight packages for the Carnival period from £2,900 per person. It’s a little too late to organize a trip this year, but nothing is impossible for those willing to pay a high price.
As you make plans for next year, Journey Latin America has a nine-day holiday during Carnival for £3,400 per person, including Sambadrome seats but excluding flights.
See our guide to the best hotels in Rio.
Is carnival safe?
Brazil has a high level of street crime, much of which involves low-level pickpocketing. People wear casual clothes and even beachwear and flip-flops for carnival and it is wise not to wear expensive watches or bring flashy cameras or phones. Criminals target drunk revelers.
The FCDO advises: “You should be especially vigilant before and during the festive and carnival period.” There are also warnings against taking the Corcovado walking path to the Christ the Redeemer statue for the time being as armed robberies have been reported.
What else is there to do?
Rio has excellent art galleries and museums, world-class restaurants and a thriving nightlife, as well as its famous beaches. To the east of the city are the resorts of Búzios and Cabo Frio, while to the south and west lies the Costa Verde, a 560 kilometer long stretch of green hills, beautiful beaches, towns (including Paraty) and coastal islands that are ideal for a car holiday. .
Our Rio de Janeiro guide has tips on the best restaurants and bars in the city.
Where are there other great carnivals?
In Brazil, the carnivals of Salvador de Bahia, Recife, Olinda, São Paulo and the cities of Minas Gerais are considered major spectacles. Known as the Bahia Carnival, Salvador’s features trios elétricos: bands with sound systems that travel on floats that ride around the city. The event, like the city, has a strong African accent and the dances range from samba to whatever else is fashionable in the region.
Bolivia’s Carnaval de Oruro, featuring a traditional dance called La Diablada, is one of the largest celebrations in the Andean region; In 2008 it was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List.
The carnivals of Gualeguaychú in Argentina and Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, are important to the residents of those cities and attract a small international audience.
For more information, check out our guide to the perfect two-week vacation in Brazil.