Attracting revellers from across the globe, Rio Carnival is considered by many to be the greatest party on earth and it’s easy to see why. Carnival festivities are absolutely euphoric, giving attendees the chance to let go of their inhibitions and let their true colors shine. People from all over the world come together to dance, sing and party the day and night away in one of the world’s most vibrant cities.
The wild 5-day celebration takes place 40 days before Easter, officially beginning on Friday and ending on Fat Tuesday which marks the beginning of Lent. Even though Carnival is celebrated in cities and villages across Brazil and in other Catholic countries, Rio de Janeiro has long be hailed as the Carnival capital of the world.
The root’s of Rio Carnival run deep, incorporating aspects from various cultures. The original festivities date back to ancient Greeks and Romans celebrating the onset of spring. Carnival was originally brought from Europe to Brazil by the Portuguese in 1850. The ball and masquerade rituals were acquired from the French, and other unique elements were derived from Amerindian and African culture.
Music and dance are key components of Carnival. When Carnival originated, music was very european centric, with a heavy emphasis on the Waltz, Polka, and Mazurkas. The beginning of the 20th century brought a much more diverse music scene which primarily emerged from the working class made up of Afro-Brazilians and many other cultures. Today the most prominent music of Carnival is the Samba, originating from the Afro-Brazilians. If you are interested in learning more about the festival’s history, check out the Rio Carnival website.
Carnival Must Sees and Dos
Street Bands & Bloco Parties
Bloco street parties are arguably the most exciting part of Carnival. Blocos can be found all over Rio and are organized by various carnival organizations and neighbourhoods—all with their individual flair. At these parties, people walk and dance around the block following floats playing either live or recorded music. Each bloco has a specific theme which you can choose to acknowledge and dress accordingly for if you wish. If you want to party in true Carnival style, make sure you wear a costume and comfortable shoes. Street vendors can be found all around town near the blocos, supplying spirits, beers, soft drinks and delicious Brazilian snacks. The only challenging aspect is deciding which of the numerous blocos to attend! However no matter which bloco you choose, you are bound to have the time of your life. The largest and most prestigious blocos are Cordao do Bola Preta and Banda de Ipanema which are attended by literally tens of thousands of partygoers.
Rio boasts over 300 Carnival street bands that can be heard in every corner of Rio. These bands consist of predominantly brass orchestras that march along planned routes while others stay in place. Where the bands are playing, expect to see hoards of partygoers in costumes, bathing suits or even drag. The most famous Carnival bands are: Cordão do Bola Preta (downtown), Banda de Ipanema (Ipanema), Sovaco do Cristo (Botanic Garden District) and the Carmelitas (Santa Teresa).
After the sun goes down, most of the blocos end. One of the best places to keep the party going is at Belmonte Bar in Leblon. Here you will find heaps of people gathered around the bar. Oftentimes you can enjoy street artists playing their instruments, keeping the party vibe going strong.
Carnival Samba Parades
Rio has become world famous for its vibrant Samba Parade competitions, held in the Sambodromo stadium in the Santo Cristo suburb. The stadium was custom-built for the primary purpose of hosting Carnival parades, designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The Samba Schools in the First League are the most spectacular of the parades. Other noteable parades include the Champions’ Parade, Preliminary Parades of the Second League Schools, and the Children’s Samba Schools. Expect the Sambodromo to be packed to capacity with 90,000 spectators, watching wide-eyed as the spectacular parade unfolds on the open air runway. For info on tickets please visit the Rio Carnival site.
Carnival hosts several balls that are worth attending which run between €130 and €260. One of the most popular is the Gay Ball, attracting a colorful crowd donning outrageous outfits. Rio Scala hosts two fantastic balls: Clube dos Caiçaras and Hard Rock Cafe's Kid's Party. A very popular ball for the elites is the Magic Ball at Copacabana. If you are interested in attending, be ready to fork out a considerable amount of cash. Those who can afford it may find themselves mingling with Rio’s elite.
How to Get There
Galeão International Airport is Brazil’s largest international airport situated 20km north of the city center. The domestic Santos Dumont Airport by Guanabara Bay is next to the city center offering flights to and from Brazil’s major cities. From the international airport there are many options for getting to the city center including bus, taxi and transfer services.
- Bus - Busses depart every 20 to 30 minutes beginning at 5:30am until 10pm between both airports and the main bus terminal which takes you into the city. The full run takes at least an hour and single tickets cost 6.5R$ (€1.5). Bus lines running to and from the airport include line 2018, 2101, 2145 and 2918. All buses have A/C and luggage storage.
- Taxi - The international airport recommends VIP and regular taxi services on their website that depart from terminals 1 and 2. Prices typically run around 99R$ (€25). It is recommended to book a taxi at one of the booths immediately after exiting customs to avoid being scammed.
- Transfers - Direct transfers from the Galeao airport to your hotel can be booked via phone or email in advance through the airport’s website. Prices are similar to taxis.
Once in the city, Rio is relatively easy to navigate if you are staying near a metro station. Tickets run around 3R$ to 5R$ (€0.75 to €1.25). There are also many added bus services available during carnival which costs 2.4R$ per journey (€0.60). Better yet, pack some comfy shoes and explore the city by foot.
Where to Stay
It is important to book accommodations for Carnival well in advance as the better accommodation options will sell out fast. The neighborhood around the Sambodromo stadium is not very touristy, so don’t plan your accommodations based on proximity to this event. Instead do some research on which blocos you want to attend, and book accordingly. It is also smart to book near a metro station.
One of the hottest areas to stay at for Carnival is Zona Sul (Southern Rio). This is a modern part of town and directly on the sea. Some of the most popular beaches are located in this neighbourhood including Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. You will find Carnival celebrations on literally every corner here.
If you want to be nearby but not directly in the center of Carnival, consider opting for Botafogo or Flamingo neighbourhoods which are located between the city center and Zona Sul. This area is less glamorous but still boasts sea front promenades.
If you are looking for something a bit more upscale, Leblon may be a great option for you and is also in an excellent location.
Last but not least is Lapa neighbourhood. You’ll pay a fraction of the price that you’d pay in Zona Sul while being close to the hottest all-night parties. And since you’ll probably end up here for the late-night parties anyway, your trek home will be a piece of cake!