Carnaval beyond Rio: 3 other places to join the world’s biggest street party

To many minds, Rio and Caranaval are one and the same thing. Carnaval’s the world’s most bodacious party, and Rio’s the place it happens. The two go together like Munich and Oktoberfest; Berlin and Love Parade; Mecca and the Hajj (though the similarities sort of end there).

Thing is, much as Cariocas (Rio locals) would love have you think it elsewise, Rio isn’t the only town to which Carnaval comes. Much like G-strings, beach volleyball and being sexy, Carnaval was not a creation of Rio’s. And nor do they own the rights. The city’s just the best at hosting it.

Or is it…?

Here are a few other places in Brazil where you can catch the world’s biggest party, plus quick run-through of what to expect from each.

Rio Carnaval

Image c/o Circuito Fore Do Eixo, Flickr

The score: 2 million+ revelers, 90,000 spectators and twelve of the city’s best Samba schools competing for Carnaval glory (and $1 million in prize money). No doubt about it, this is Carnaval at its most extravagant. Gigantic decorated floats take it in turns to parade through the city’s purpose-built Sambódrome while glittered-up, dressed-down, Brazilians bronzed, buff and buxom prance, shake and shimmy all that their God/mamma/surgeon gave them. Rio’s Carnaval is foremost a spectator’s event, though some floats do accept paying customers into their parades and ‘blocos’ (street parties) are bopping everywhere.

Duration: Two nights (Sunday and Monday).

Costs: Anything from USD60–850, depending on which day you attend and the sector you sit in.

Music styles: Variations of Samba (samba-enredo, samba de bloco, samba de embalo), plus marchinha.

Go for:

  • The Samba parade.
  • The thrill of seeing an entire city in party mode.
  • This city being Rio de Janeiro.
  • Rio de Janeiro itself.

Tips: Buy your tickets and book your accommodation well in advance.

São Paulo Carnaval


Image c/o Circuito Fora Do Eixo, Flickr

The score: São Paulo doesn’t itself have a tradition of Carnaval per se, but Brazil’s biggest city has never been one to miss out on something fun – and that means making its own Carnaval. Like Rio, São Paulo celebrates Carnaval as a competitive parade evoking themes of the teams’ choosing in a Sambódrome just north of the city’s historical centre. The whole routine here is essentially the same as in Rio, just to smaller scale. Where São Paulo trumps Rio is its Carnaval Balls: glamorous, masked, extravagant affairs for the city’s well-heeled.

Duration: Two nights (Friday and Saturday).

Costs: USD $6 to $40

Music styles: Samba styles and marchinha.

Why go?

  • A taste of Carnaval minus the crowds and inflated costs – unlike Rio, São Paulo’s Carnaval doesn’t swallow the city whole.
  • The block parties (no less raucous than Rio’s).
  • You can attend São Paulo’s Carnaval and still make it to Rio’s.


  • The fortnight leading up to São Paulo’s Carnaval is a prime time to be in the city, with free music and dancing in the Anhembi Sambadrome for up to 30,000 revelers.
  • São Paulo’s Carnaval isn’t as tourist-centric as Rio’s. Make friends with locals to find out where the best blocos be at.

Salvador (Bahian) Carnaval


Image c/o Nicolas Vollmer, Flickr

The score: Where Rio’s Carnaval runs for two days, Salvador’s runs a week. Where Rio’s floats swirl through a 700-metre stadium, Salvador’s sweep through several kilometres of open streets. Where in Rio you pay to witness Carnaval, in Salvador you pay to be a part of it. How does this work? You buy an abadá (T-shirt). Said abadá serves as your entry ticket to the merry band of revelers that follow about town a Trio Elétrico (lorry truck on which musicians are playing).

Duration: One week.

Costs: $25-$150 for an Abadá. $80-468 for a camarote.

Music styles: Axé (a fusion of many styles including reggae, Forró, Frevo and Marcha).

Carnaval highlight:

  • On Ash Wednesday all the blocos congregate in the Castro Alves Square for a final rave.


  • Some Trio Elétricos follow a route along the Campo Grande circuit (also called Avenidas or Osmar), some go down Barra – Ondina (also called the Dodô circuit) and some take the Batatinha Circuit (through Pelourinho, the Old city). Campo Grande is the original circuit, Barra – Ondina tends to attract the big name performers, and Batatinha is the quietest.
  • For those who’d prefer to take in the action from a distance, there’s the option of paying to watch from a Camarote (grandstand).

 Recife & Olinda (Pernambuco) Carnaval


Image c/o Circuito Fora Do Eixo, Flickr

The score: Some attendees of Rio, Salvador and São Paulo’s Carnavals have spoken of feeling uncomfortable about the social stratification, ethnic division and class privilege they feel come to the fore during this celebration.

In Rio’s parade, those partying are predominantly white; those working largely not. Many of São Paulo’s residents would be unable to afford the entrance to one of the city’s openly exclusive masked balls, even if they were able to score an invite. In Salvador, those who watch the Trio Elétricos from the street sidelines (I.e. those who can’t afford an abadá) are referred to as pipoca – Portuguese for ‘popcorn’, as that’s supposedly what they look like jostling for glimpses of the party parading through. Social stratification is of course one of contemporary Brazil’s many sad realities.

The further north you travel in Brazil, the more the country’s African and indigenous heritages comes into play. You see it in the way people interact with each other, the ways they dress and the foods they eat. You feel it through the rhythms they soundtrack their lives to, the stories they tell their histories through and the myriad ways that they blend together their faiths.

After decades of having their versions of Carnaval banned by the colonial authorities, the locals of twin towns Recife and Olinda crafted their Carnaval a decidedly all-inclusive occasion. Entrance is free, no one’s competing for anything, and any who wish to take part in the various parades trawling through Olinda’s colonial centre only have to saunter in.

Much as its name would suggest, the festival’s main parade, the Galo de Madrugada (Dawn’s Rooster), takes place during daylight hours rather than evening. The atmosphere is spontaneous, unpretentious, family friendly and suffused with comedy. The parades, which feature giant paper Mache figurines of famous personalities, are stepped in folklore and tradition.

Duration: 10 Days.

Costs: None.

Music styles: Frevo, maracatu, coco, sieve, samba and other African-inspired rhythms.

Highlight attractions:

  • Opening day’s As Virgens do Bairo Novo parade (a highly entertaining drag queen parade).
  • Noite dos Tambores Silenciosos (Night of the Silent Drums), when, at midnight on the Monday, the music stops, the lights are dimmed, and a minute’s silence is held in homage of African ancestors. Once the minute’s up, the celebrations swing back in to a cacophony of drums and chanting in African languages.


Want to samba the night away at Carnaval? Check out our Brazil small group adventures


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