Sun, skin, and samba: these are the images that might spring to mind when you think of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Perhaps the world’s most epic party, Rio Carnival draws over approximately two million people each day, earning its nickname “the Biggest Show on Earth.” If you want to survive — and enjoy — this incredible experience, here are six things to know before you go to Carnival in Rio.
1. Carnival in Rio begins on the Friday before Ash Wednesday and ends on Ash Wednesday every year.
One of the most important things to know before you go to Carnival in Rio is one of the most basic: when exactly does this festive celebration take place, anyway? Is it in February, or is it supposed to be in March? It seems like Carnival is constantly trying to keep us revelers on our toes.
Case in point: in 2019, we’re celebrating Carnival from March 1 to March 6, but it runs from February 21-26 in 2020 and February 12-17 in 2021. So why the pesky date changes? For the love of caipirinhas, can’t we all just get along and party on the same dates each year?
Turns out there’s a reason behind the shifting dates. Carnival is actually a Western Christian and Greek Orthodox festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. For the uninitiated, Lent is the period of roughly six weeks leading up to Easter beginning on Ash Wednesday (and, to my knowledge, involves giving up something you really love — like red velvet cupcakes or your weekend pints of Guinness — during that time).
So basically, Carnival is a way to party and get all that indulgence out of your system before fasting and repenting for roughly 40 days. Because the dates for Ash Wednesday aren’t fixed every year, neither is Carnival, as it begins on Friday and ends on Ash Wednesday.
2. Rio’s Carnival celebration can trace its origins back to the 1640s.
That’s right — the biggest Carnival celebration in the world didn’t suddenly start during your grandmother’s time. It’s been around in some form for over 370 freakin’ years!
Think about that: Rio Carnival is older than the founding of the United States, the invention of the piano (1709, for those of you playing along at home), and the Great Fire of London in 1666. Holy shazbot, Batman!
So why did Rio Carnival start in the first place? According to some sources, the answer can be traced back to elaborate feasts organized to honor Greek wine gods. (Sweet!) Portuguese settlers brought this festival with them from Europe when they colonized Brazil, though it wasn’t long before Afro-Brazilians started their own version. The first (official) festivals in Rio occurred in 1723; however, it wasn’t until 1840 that the first Rio masquerade took place, and samba music wasn’t introduced until 1917.
3. Be sure to head to the Sambadrome and check out the legendary Samba Parade.
The Sambadrome, or Sambódromo in Portuguese, is where the famous Samba Parade takes place. The structure, which was designed by Oscar Niemeyer — a key figure in the development of modern architecture — was completed in 1984 and holds a whopping 90,000 people. (By comparison, Yankee Stadium holds 54,251 people. Whoa.)
During the Samba Parade, twelve of the top samba schools compete for the esteemed championship title each year. Each samba school presents a theme, which is depicted by extravagant floats, musicians, and samba dancers. When you conjure images in your head of Rio Carnival and its flashy outfits, this is probably it.
Word to the wise: though you can take a taxi or shuttle bus to the Sambadrome’s entrance, it’s probably easier to take the metro to Praça Onze and take a 15-minute walk. As an added bonus, you wander to your heart’s content through the celebrations going on along the way!
4. Don’t forget to attend some blocos.
Speaking of celebrations, many of the Sambadrome’s events require tickets, and as you can imagine, prices vary widely. So why not attend some of Rio’s blocos, or street parties?
Blocos are much more casual than the craziness of the Sambadrome, but just as awesome. If it’s your first time at Carnival in Rio, you might be surprised by how early the best ones start: the absolutely ungodly hour of 7 AM. (Well, it’s only ungodly if you’re an eternal night owl like we are, I guess.) Regardless, once you arrive, you’ll find everyone ready to go with a drink in hand.
5. Channel your inner movie star at the Rio Carnival Balls.
Don’t wanna party in the street? That’s fine by us. If you’re feeling like a fancypants, then you might be drawn to the Rio Carnival Balls. (Side note: with so many incredible options for parties during Carnival, it’ll be a wonder if you actually catch any zzz‘s!)
Put on your best outfit and head over to one of these glamorous parties, which are held all over the city. From the 2019 Magic Ball at the Copacabana Palace Hotel (the most prestigious Rio Carnival Ball) to the Gala Gay Ball at the Scala, there’s something for everyone.
6. PSA: Don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
It may seem like a simple thing, but you’ll probably be out all day, so it’s imperative to bring some form of sun protection. Sunglasses, hats, sunscreen, and comfy walking shoes are all must-have items you’ll want to pack in your suitcase. And though Brazilian beer is pretty weak — a godsend given the amount you’ll likely imbibe during Carnival in Rio — don’t forget to keep yourself hydrated! Your liver will thank you.