My Top Destinations to Celebrate Mardi Gras Around the World
This week, people across the globe celebrated Mardi Gras, the “Fat Tuesday” that precedes the start of the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday. Famous for vivid colors, costumes, and parades, as well as general excess and flamboyance, Mardi Gras is the last hurrah of feasting and revelry before the austerity of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter in which many Christians practice fasting and restrict luxuries and indulgences.
But while the Mardi Gras season culminates on Fat Tuesday, it actually begins on Epiphany, January 6, twelve days after Christmas, a day of sweet- and gift-giving. That’s because although the roots of Mardi Gras celebrations date back to the ancient Romans, who celebrated the harvest season with festivals, after Christianity took hold in the city, the pagan traditions of old were incorporated into the Christian calendar, and the period of celebration now known as Mardi Gras was born. Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated in countries across the globe but especially in those where Catholicism is the dominant religion or French or Creole is the official language.
The Mardi Gras tradition first crossed the Atlantic Ocean and made its way to the Americas when, in 1699, a French-Canadian explorer named a spot on the Gulf Coast Point du Mardi Gras and held a small gala in honor of the occasion. A few years later, French soldiers and settlers in the area wore masks to a large feast in the newly-formed city of Mobile, in what is now Alabama. The American tradition migrated to its best-known domestic center of New Orleans shortly after that city’s founding in 1718, where it continues today to host more than 1.5 million visitors a year.
Though the customs and traditions of celebration vary around the world, my top three Mardi Gras destinations below are known for their over-the-top parades, costumes, and cuisines that will have you embracing Lenten restrictions come Ash Wednesday every year.
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Called Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, this Brazilian city’s Mardi Gras celebration is the world’s largest, boasting more than two million visitors a year. Since 1723, Carnival in Rio has featured a month-long celebration that culminates in five days of nonstop parades, music, and dancing led by samba schools that march to the Sambadome, a stadium constructed for the explicit purpose of Carnival exhibitions and competitions. Paraders and paradegoers are both clad in elaborate and scanty costumes of glitter and feathers across the vibrant city.
While in Rio, don’t miss Carnival’s most popular local food, a Brazilian take on a Portuguese dish called feijoada completa, a decadent and filling stew of pork and black beans.
Masquerade in Venice, Italy
For a more elegant, upscale experience, look no further than the masquerade balls of Venice during Italy’s Mardi Gras season, the Carnevale di Venezia . Since the Renaissance, Venetians have been donning elaborate masks and costumes that for a moment enabled the lower classes to feel equal to the aristocrats and allowed all to anonymously cavort without social judgment. While King Frances II outlawed Carnival festivities in 1797, the ornate masks of Venice reemerged in the nineteenth century and the ban on masquerade balls was formally lifted in 1979.
Today, revelers may attend candlelit water parades along the city’s famous canals and visit the artisans’ workshops in which masks are designed and handcrafted. While in the floating city, be sure to check out the famous frittelle and galani, fried doughnuts and pastries that sell like hotcakes during Carnival season.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans, USA
When picturing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you may be thinking of the rowdy Bourbon Street crowds in the French Quarter, where tourists throw beads from balconies to other tourists below. But, in reality, New Orleans features dozens of family-friendly parades through residential neighborhoods for weeks leading up to the big day, and you can even see the parade floats up-close and in-person at Mardi Gras World, a warehouse that stores and displays them to the public. Parades have been rolling down New Orleans’s major thoroughfares since 1837, with the formation of the first clandestine krewes that host parades, galas, and parties beginning a few decades later. Today, there are more than seventy krewes, most named after mythical figures and each with signature throws tossed to the crowd from double-decker parade floats, including beads, coconuts, doubloons, and even shoes. If you’re in the crowd, you’ll increase your chances of catching loot by climbing atop a ladder and shouting “throw me something, mister!” And while in New Orleans, be sure to partake in one of nearly a million king cakes consumed during the season—a circular, flaky cinnamon-roll style cake braided like a king’s crown. If you find a baby figurine inside your piece, you’re king for the day, which may bring you luck but also dubs you the host of the next big party.
If the austerity of the pandemic has you dreaming of doing it up big for Mardi Gras next year, drop me a line so that we can get started planning your ultimate trip of Carnival indulgences!
Are you planning a quick getaway?
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