If you want to get an overview of a destination’s traditions, cultural festivals are often a great place to start.
Whether it’s art, dance, food and wine, music, or religion you’re most interested in, festivals offer a great chance to mingle with the locals and get a taste of the region’s culture in the process. Check out our guide to 10 of the world’s best cultural festivals, from South America and the South Pacific to Africa, Asia, and Europe:
BLACK-NECKED CRANE FESTIVAL (Bhutan)
A landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas (where it is bordered by Tibet to the north and Bangladesh and India to the south), Bhutan is one of the world’s smallest countries. The nation is perhaps best known for its emphasis on “gross national happiness,” which is built on tenets such as economic self reliance, environmental conservation, cultural preservation, and good governance.
The annual Black-Necked Crane Festival is held in late October to honor Bhutan’s annual avian visitors, who migrate there from their summer home in the Tibetan Plateau. The birds (also known as the Tibetan Crane) congregate in the protected area of the Phobjikha Valley in great numbers, often circling the Gangteng Monastery upon arrival and departure.
So it seems appropriate that the festival is held in the monastery’s courtyard, where locals typically turn out in droves to celebrate the arrival of the increasingly endangered birds. The festival’s programming includes a wonderful array of folk songs and dances, kids dress up in crane costumes and masks, adorable performances by local school children, and plays that emphasize the importance of environmental conservation.
The fact that the cranes can often by seen flying overhead during the festivities only makes the setting that much more scenic and celebratory.
CARNIVAL (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
With all due respect to P.T. Barnum, Brazil’s annual Carnival celebration is widely regarded as “the greatest show on Earth.” Attracting approximately 5 million attendees each year (including around 500,000 international visitors), this is arguably the world’s biggest cultural festival. And while Carnival is celebrated in many destinations, nobody does it better than Rio.
Of course, the festival did not start out as a cacophonous celebration full of infectious music and dancers in barely-there costumes shaking their tail-feathers into the wee hours of the morning. Carnival originally started out as a religious affair for Catholics, taking place during the five days before the beginning of Lent (40 days before Easter).
In the Southern Hemisphere, this time of year (late February or early March) also marks the end of the mercilessly hot Brazilian summer. So Carnival is essentially five million hot, sweaty people who are about to give up the things they love most, set loose in the streets for the largest party on the planet.
The festival’s highlight has to be the climactic extravaganza at Rio’s remarkable Sambadrome. There, nearly 100,000+ spectators pay top dollar to watch the Top 12 samba schools (each of which represents a different neighborhood) competing for the grand prize. The competition has a different theme every year, but the colorful costumes and carnival parades are always legendary.
FES FESTIVAL OF WORLD SACRED MUSIC (Fes, Morocco)
Arguably the finest world music festival on the planet, the Fes Festival was launched in 1994, with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI as its royal patron. The festival’s core mission is to celebrate the ancient Moroccan city of Fes (which was founded sometime in the late 8th or early 9th century) and its historically rich traditions in the arts, knowledge, and spirituality.
Though the artist lineup changes from year to year, the Fes Festival typically features around 60 different shows and concerts. The performers usually include an array of musicians and poets, ranging from up-and-coming artists to international icons like Björk (Iceland), Patti Smith (USA), Salif Keita (Mali), and Ravi Shankar (India). There are multimedia performances sprinkled throughout, and Sufi Nights that feature sacred music that carries with it an ancient feeling of magic and mysticism.
Fes makes a perfect setting for such a culturally rich assemblage of talent. The northern Moroccan city’s influence dates back to Medieval times, when Popes and philosophers went there to study and teach. The concerts take place in historically significant venues ranging from local riads to the grand courtyard of Bab al Makina, where the official ceremonies of the royal palace were once held.
The Fes Festival has been recognized by the United Nations for its contributions to creating a dialogue between disparate cultures around the world. Attracting over 100,000 attendees each year, the 24-year-old festival is held annually in June.
HARBIN INTERNATIONAL ICE & SNOW SCULPTURE FESTIVAL (Harbin, China)
Most cultural festivals tend to take place in the spring or summer, when the flora is at its finest and the weather at its warmest. So the International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival is somewhat unique in the fact that it makes the most of the bitter winter temperatures you’ll find in Harbin, China.
Due to Harbon’s location in the country’s northeastern region, the city gets insanely cold winds blowing southeast from Siberia. The daily temperatures there in winter average around 1.8º F, but lows of -31º F are remarkably frequent. So why would anyone want to visit the city in January for this month-long annual festival?
Mainly because Harbin is home to the largest ice sculptures in the world, and the celebration takes over the entire city. There are two main exhibition areas to explore: Sun Island is a recreation area along the Songua River, where you’ll find most of the giant sculptures. Ice and Snow World opens only at night, with colorful lights illuminating full-sized buildings made of 2- to 3-foot ice blocks taken directly from the river.
Other activities available in the area during the International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival Festival include alpine skiing, touring ice lantern exhibitions, and– for the truly adventurous (or insane) traveler– swimming in the Songua River’s frigid waters.
HOLI FESTIVAL (India, Nepal, and Pakistan)
Known as “the festival of colors” or “the festival of love,” Holi is an ancient Hindu spring festival celebrating the end of winter and the victory of good over evil. It takes place every year in late February or early March and lasts for one night (which is known as Holika Dahan or Chhoti Holi) and the following day (Holi).
The joyous holiday has various Hindu legends associated with it. One suggests Holi pays tribute to Vishnu and his follower, Prahlada, and their defeat of the latter’s power-hungry father, the demon King Hiranyakashipu. One suggests that the holiday is a celebration of the great love Radha had for Krishna. Others link it to Shiva, who is known as a destroyer of evil and a transformer (and often associated with yoga and meditation).
On Holika Dahan, people often perform religious rituals in front a raging bonfire to represent the forgiveness of past debts and other transgressions. The next morning, Holi, brings the festive free-for-all for which the holiday is best known. People get each other soaking wet by throwing water balloons and shooting water pistols, then cover each other with dazzlingly colorful powders.
Holi celebrations also often include dancing, food and drinks, music, and lots of laughter. Everyone is welcome, and the playful energy is outrageously infectious.
MOUNT HAGEN CULTURAL SHOW (Papua New Guinea)
Although it’s the second largest island on the planet (after Greenland), Papua New Guinea is sparsely populated, with just 8 million residents spread across approximately 178,000 square miles. As a result, this remote South Pacific nation remains relatively wild and pristine, with extraordinary biodiversity.
Its people are just as diverse as its flora and fauna. The island is home to over 7000 different cultural groups, each of which has its own language and unique cultural traditions. It would take years to immerse yourself in all of them, but the Mount Hagen Cultural Show (which is held every August) offers an exciting introduction.
Held in the Western Highlands every year since 1964, the show was created to share diverse forms of cultural expression and prevent animosities between tribes by bringing all of the local cultural groups together in one event. More than 100 different tribes are represented at the festival, showcasing their cultural traditions through flamboyant costumes, primal dances, and hypnotic music.
From vividly colorful body paints and headdresses made from exotic bird feathers to jewelry made from shells and teeth and skirts made of grass and leaves, every tribe has its own unique style. And because the event is relatively unknown on an international level, international visitors have an incredible opportunity to get to know the local people and learn more about their rich indigenous cultures first-hand.
NAADAM FESTIVAL (Mongolia)
If traditional Mongolian culture had its own Olympic ceremony, it would probably look a lot like to the annual Naadam Festival. While there are smaller versions of the event organized in different parts of the country in July and August, the biggest Naadam Festival is held in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in early July, in celebration of Mongolia’s National Holiday.
Known locally as eriin gurvan naadam (“the three games of men”), the festival is thought to date back centuries, to the era when Mongolia was ruled by the Qing dynasty. Its three primary sports– archery, horse racing, and Mongolian wrestling– were popular as far back as the 13th century book, The Secret History of the Mongols.
Much like the Olympics, the festival begins with an elaborate opening ceremony that includes performers ranging from dancers and musicians to skilled horseback riders and other athletes. The wrestling event features 500-1000+ wrestlers competing in single-elimination bouts. Mongolian horse racing is a cross-country event, with up to 1,000 horses running 10 to 17 miles. The archery event features both male and female competitors trying to head small targets known as surs, which are located 65 to 75 meters away.
All in all, it’s an extraordinary event, which was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.
READ MORE: Cultural Mongolia With the Naadam Festival
SEMANA SANTA (Spain)
The week between Palm Sunday and Easter (a.k.a. Holy Week) is one of the world’s most commonly celebrated holidays. For Christians, Holy Week is a time to commemorate the entry of Jesus and his disciples into Jerusalem, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection three days later.
In much of Latin America, Holy Week is known as Semana Santa. Spain’s version of the holiday is a more extravagant affair that features parade-like processions of Catholic brotherhoods (or fraternities), many of which date back to the Middle Ages.
Spain’s Semana Santa celebrations can also vary widely by region. The festivals held in Málaga and Seville are among the most elaborate, while those in Valladolid and Zamora tend to be much more somber. But the central elements are largely the same. Penitents (a.k.a. nazarenos) march in colorful robes that hide their faces. They carry processional candles or crosses, and many walk barefoot, bound by shackles and chains.
One element that attracts travelers from all around the world to Spain is the fantastic floats (a.k.a. pasos) that the nazarenos usually carry. They’re often decorated with impressively artful sculptures depicting scenes from relevant passages of the Bible, such as the Passion of Christ or the Sorrows of Virgin Mary. Some of these floats are created by famous Spanish artists, and have been used by the brotherhoods for centuries.
SONGKRAN (Chiang Mai, Thailand)
The traditional New Year celebrated on April 13 in much of Southeast Asia, Songkran’s name is derived from the Sanskrit word for “astrological passage,” and represents a time of change or transformation.
In smaller cities and villages, the annual holiday is traditionally a fairly subdued affair. Mornings usually start with families visiting local Buddhist temples together to offer food to the monks there. In a symbolic ritual of purification, water is often poured on statues of the Buddha, young children, and the elderly.
Most people clean their houses in preparation for Songkran, and everyone dresses up in their best clothes. Family members who have moved away will often return home in order to to pay tribute to their ancestors. Some regions host traditional parades and beauty contests to celebrate the occasion, while others set off fireworks in hopes of preventing bad luck in the New Year.
In truth, the Songkran festival probably wouldn’t be well-known outside of Asia at all if it wasn’t for the wet, wild celebration in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There, most of the major streets are closed off to traffic and packed with young people for what is likely the world’s biggest water fight. If you visit, be prepared: Water balloons and Super Soakers are everywhere and no one is off-limits, so getting drenched is guaranteed!
TIMKET FESTIVAL (Ethiopia)
Ethiopia is known for a lot of things. It’s the birthplace of coffee, and boasts some of the best coffee in the world. It’s home to the ancient rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, which rank among the world’s earliest Christian churches. It’s also home to some of the richest indigenous cultures, including the Hamer, Karo, and Mursi peoples.
Zegrahm’s 12-day Ethiopia with the Timket Festival expedition offers travelers a chance to experience many of Ethiopia’s greatest cultural wonders. The 3-day Timkat Festival (named after the Amharic word for “baptism”), held in Lalibela annually beginning on January 19th, is a great place to experience many of these wonders as Ethiopian Orthodox Christian celebrate the Epiphany.
At the center of the festival is a ritual reenactment of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, in which participants symbolically renew their baptism vows. The official ceremonies also include a processional in which the Tabot (a model of the Ark of the Covenant, which you’ll find on every Ethiopian altar) is wrapped in fine cloth and carried on the head of a priest.
In the afternoon, after the Tabot is escorted back to the church, the festival becomes a decidedly more jubilant affair. There’s singing and dancing in the streets. Everyone is dressed in their finest clothes (usually white, with gold crosses), and carrying umbrellas in every color of the rainbow. It’s a gorgeous procession of colors and sound, as warm and rich as Ethiopia herself. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 25 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.