Last updated on February 22, 2023 by Nellie Huang
Celebrating Carnival in Rio de Janeiro was one of the coolest travel experiences I’ve ever had. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to be a part of the world’s biggest party.
Samba music suddenly blasts through the speakers and the crowd goes wild.
On the Sambadrome runway, the Carnival King and Queen appear in their glittering diamond costumes, dazzling the audience with their lightning-fast samba moves. Behind them are troupes of costumed dancers: young women in ornate silver dresses, gym-packed men adorning brown feather headdresses, sexy women in glittering bikinis, all gyrating to the same beat.
Surrounded by a sea of dancing people, I find myself shaking my hips and singing along with the crowd. Indeed, I have not stopped moving for days or nights. I’m tired of partying all day and dancing to the beats of Brazilian bands, but I’m not ready to stop yet. Because it’s not every day that I get to be a part of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the biggest carnival in the world.
Carnival of Rio de Janeiro 2023
Rio Carnival is Brazil’s biggest party of the year and is celebrated with a week of energetic street parties, samba dancing and music. While customs, celebrations and costumes vary by region and city, Rio’s Carnival is the biggest and brightest. More than 500,000 foreign visitors flock to the Rio Carnival each year. In 2022, 1.5 million people participated in the city’s festivities.
There are celebrations everywhere in Rio de Janeiro blocks – street parties or smaller local parades that start weeks before the carnival. These blocos derive from traditional parades performed by African tribes during the Portuguese colonial era in an attempt to preserve their cultural identity in the face of the forced homogenization of slavery. Today, these parades have evolved into massive street parties where people dress up in costumes ranging from clowns to superheroes, just for the fun of it.
The origin of the carnival
Carnival (known in English as Carnaval) celebrations are the most popular in Brazil, but Carnaval is not unique to Brazil. The festival has its roots in Catholic origins. a time of indulgence that traditionally takes place on Holy Tuesday (but often the weekend before) before the beginning of Lent, a period of penance to remember Christ’s 40-day sojourn in the desert and his crucifixion.
The word Carnival is derived from the Latin phrase carne vale, meaning “farewell to meat,” referring to the last days when meat could be eaten before Lent. The word meat can also mean meat, suggestive carne vale as a ‘farewell to the people’, identifying with the spirit espoused by those who encourage letting go of your former (or everyday) self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival. This is why people often dress up in masks during Carnival celebrations, which mark a turning point in everyday life.
The biggest show on earth
Undoubtedly the highlight of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro defile (samba parade) at the Sambadrome. What originally started as a series of samba street parades is now an organized competition between the best samba schools in Brazil. These samba schools are huge social entities with over 3,000 to 5,000 members, including some famous celebrities who make special appearances.
It’s no wonder the Sambadrome parade is known as one of the biggest shows on Earth, with their 20-meter-high decorated floats, groups of costumed dancers, thousands of samba drummers, and sexy carnival queens and transvestites.
This year’s samba parade started on February 28th and ended on Fat Tuesday, March 4th, with the winner’s parade taking place on March 8th. The best days of the parade, when famous samba schools perform, were the last two days of the carnival. I managed to get some last minute tickets for the third night, March 2nd, and the show was absolutely spectacular.
Every night the parade starts at 9pm and doesn’t end until 6am the following morning. Six schools perform each night, with each school performing for one hour and twenty minutes. Each school has its own theme song, although the same song will be played over and over for the entire 1.5 hours.
Spectators are given a booklet with information about each school, as well as the lyrics to each theme song (albeit in Portuguese). By the end of the night I could sing along to the songs and even now, a week later, the songs are still stuck in my head.
How to see the Rio Carnival?
The parade takes place in the Sambadrome, or Sambódromo in Portuguese, which is a purpose-built stadium specially built to host the annual samba parade each year during Carnival. The sambadrome consists of sections that line a half-mile runway where samba schools parade.
Ticket prices vary depending on which section you want to sit in. Sections 5 and 7 are said to be the best because they are right in the middle of the defile and you get a clear view of the start and end of the parade. Tickets are sold for seats (cadeira) or independent terraces (arquibancos). The seats are closest to the parade, but you’re limited to just one spot; on the terraces you can dance and run for different views and it’s much more fun to mingle with the crowd (you can still sit on concrete steps).
You can even join the samba parade if you’re up for splurging. All you have to do is pay a membership fee (about $500-$950), get your costumes, memorize the school tune, and watch what the person in front of you is doing. It must be a lot of fun marching in the parade and being in the heart of all the action.
The most important event of the Rio Carnival. Sambadrome
Unfortunately, I got the cheapest ticket (about US$40) which was in section 13, all the way at the end of the Sambadrome. That said, I didn’t feel like I was too far from the action, in fact our section was so packed it was bursting with energy. I was there with a small group of friends which made it even more fun and I also made friends with the Brazilian couple sitting next to me. They were great fun to talk to and had a wealth of knowledge about the samba parade, explaining to me what the contestants were singing about, the sequence of the performance, etc.
Overall, I was really blown away by the samba parade and it exceeded my expectations. The main reason for this trip to Brazil was to experience Carnival and the Sambadrome parade did not disappoint. It was without a doubt the most impressive show I have ever seen in my life in terms of size, atmosphere and energy of the participants. I know I’ll be back for Carnaval in the future, but next time I’ll definitely join the parade.
Tips for the Rio Carnival.
For those planning to see the Sambadrome parade, here are some tips:
- If you want to get good photos, it is wise to invest in a good seat in the first row or in section 5 or 7. My friend booked his ticket just a few days before Carnival on rio-carnival.net and paid $200+ for a seat in section 5 and he was just inches away from the performers. I paid $40 for a seat in section 13, which was much further from the runway than the other sections.
- Book a hotel within walking distance of the Sambadrome (perhaps in Lapa), as taxis are hard to find in the stadium; many roads are closed and there are no taxi ranks. You can also use the metro, which is open 24 hours during the carnival.
- Security is not as big a problem as it is made out to be. There are quite a few stalls at the entrance to the stadium, but once you enter the Sambadrome, it’s safe. I brought my big SLR camera and didn’t feel threatened or anything. That said, it’s wise to bring as little as possible and tour the area in groups.
- Try to gather some friends to see the samba parade together. the availability of parties with people will differ.
- Have dinner before you go, as food options are limited and expensive, and it can be extremely difficult to squeeze through the crowds to get to the food stalls.
Brazil travel tips
During Carnival, accommodation is more expensive than usual and everything gets booked up very quickly. Be sure to book your hostel/hotel several months in advance. Booking.com is a great place to start. You can also check out apartment rentals on Airbnb.com or Flipkey.com.
Finding cheap flights to Brazil during this period can be very difficult as it is the peak tourist season there. Try using searches on flight aggregators like Skyscanner a few months ago to find affordable prices.
If you’re planning to do some sightseeing, I’d recommend arriving in Rio a few days before/after Carnival to have some quality time exploring the city without the crowds. During Carnival, the attractions are more crowded than usual, and since some streets are closed for blocks, getting around can be quite difficult.
To find out where and when the blocos (street parties) are, download the Blocos do Rio app or get a list of the blocos at Brazilbookers.com. The biggest blocks occur on Av. Rio Branco, near Cinelandia. From Saturday to Tuesday you can see the biggest variety of street bands there, and this is where the fun is at its wildest.
When joining street parties, it’s wise to bring as little as possible with you. Keep cash in a safe area and avoid bringing your camera. It can get pretty messy on the streets, especially if you’re going to be drinking.
There are also carnival balls in Rio’s trendy and hip clubs. The most popular is the official Russian Imperial Black Tie Ball at the Copacabana Palace on Saturday from 11pm to 4am. However, these balls can be quite expensive.