Every year, two million people flock to the city streets of Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the world’s largest festival: Carnival. It’s full of enormous parades and street parties that have been taking place since 1723. Carnival is typically celebrated in February or early March. Carnival ushers in the Catholic observance of Lent, a 40-day period when Catholics fast and reflect as they prepare for Easter. But during Carnival, locals and tourists alike are encouraged to join in the fun.
Opened to the public in 1984, the Sambódromo is a massive open-air venue and home to Carnival’s main events. Standing at 2,300 feet long with space for up to 90,000 spectators, the stadium is truly a sight to behold as various parades make their way down its long runway. Tickets for the parades can be purchased online, with seating ranging from traditional stadium seating to luxury box suites. This is by far Carnival’s most popular event, so ensure you secure your tickets as far ahead as possible.
For incredible samba dancing, check out the Special Group competition on Sunday and Monday. 13 of the city’s most talented samba schools perform in a nationally televised parade competition. Each group is made up of hundreds of dancers and drummers who share a regional, geographical, or common background. The groups incorporate a unique theme into their high-energy choreography and intricate, colorful costumes. After performing, the schools are scored based on song lyrics, drumming, costumes, and theme. The winner receives the championship title and leads next year’s Carnival Sunday parade.
If you plan to make the Sambódromo, a must-see stop during your visit to Carnival, anticipate a considerable amount of traffic. There will be thousands of people all traveling to the same spot, as well as a seemingly infinite number of street parties. Your most convenient option is taking the metro to Praça Onze, then walking 15 minutes to the venue. It’s not only faster but also offers an opportunity to see the city’s surrounding celebrations. You can even take part in some of the street parties on your way to the venue.
Throughout the city, there are dozens of daily street parties. Known as blocos in Portuguese, these events begin at 8 a.m. and typically last until the early hours of the next morning. The blocos are led by a slow-moving van or float that moves through the city streets. The party follows from behind, and street vendors are there to sell food and beverages to partygoers. Some blocos have themes, and guests are encouraged to dress in costumes to match. Take the hot weather into account when deciding on what to wear and be sure to bring extra bottles of water and sunscreen. The temperatures often reach above 104°F during the festivities.
Held in the city center, Cordão da Bola Preta is one of the largest and most popular blocos during Carnival. It attracts about one million guests each year to its fun-filled location in the city center. Many of the largest blocos are in Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana, but you can find smaller ones in Gávea and Botafogo. If you want something more low-key, consider some of the blocos in Santa Teresa. The full program of blocos is released on the first day of Carnival. Ask for a copy at your hotel’s front desk to ensure you’re able to make the most of your day.
For a step up from the blocos, the city also hosts several carnival balls, known as bailes in Portuguese. These celebrations usually require costumes to match their specific themes. They tend to be especially glamorous, with ornate decorations, live music, and extravagant lighting. Attend a masquerade at Copacabana Palace, experience the eccentric atmosphere of the Gay Costume Ball, and witness live Brazilian pop and samba performances at the Baile Glamurama in the Museum of Modern Art. Tickets must be purchased in advance from the venue and they always sell out, so make sure to get yours early.
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