There’s no question that the most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the world happens in New Orleans. But parties on and around Fat Tuesday — which this year falls on February 28 — take place around the world. Here are five must-visit Mardi Gras celebrations beyond New Orleans.
1. Venice, Italy
The annual Venice Carnival is famous for its masks: every year (since as far back as the 12th century) the northern Italian city has celebrated Carnival season with a slate of parties, performances, and balls leading up to Mardi Gras — all frequented by masked, costumed attendees. Now, more than three million visitors travel to the city for the festival. Venetian masks range in grandeur and come in several distinct styles, including the ornate, gilded “Bauta” mask, with a pointed chin and no nose; and the more easily recognizable “Volto,” which is stark white with elaborately painted eyes and lips. Typical celebrations include ticketed parties, street performances, and — of course — an annual contest for the most beautiful mask.
2. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
If New Orleans is the most famous Mardi Gras destination, Rio is the biggest (literally: an estimated two million people hit the streets for parades and parties every day, which includes an estimated 500,000 tourists and visitors). Live musicians line the city’s main streets from dawn to well past dusk, and the world-famous Samba Parade — as renowned for its music as its elaborate, colourful costumes — draws hundreds of thousands of revellers to the Sambrodomo, a stadium built specifically to accommodate the parade, on the weekend before Mardi Gras. The pre-Lenten celebrations cap off on Mardi Gras with the Gay Ball, an LGBTQ-friendly party at the famous Rio Scala.
3. Binche, Belgium
Like Venice, Binche’s Mardi Gras celebrations are famous for their masked patrons. But here, they all wear the same visage — and have the same name: Gilles. Flocks of Gilles take to the streets on the Tuesday before Lent, wearing wooden clogs, cartoonish masks with green eyes and curly moustaches, and striped orange and red linen costumes stuffed with straw, to create the illusion of a hunched back. Later in the day, the Gilles wear giant ostrich-plume hats and throw oranges to (and sometimes at) the assembled crowds — it’s apparently good luck to be hit with one. The origins of this wonderfully bizarre tradition, which dates as far back as the 14th century, are — somewhat appropriately — unknown.
4. Sydney, Australia
The Aussie metropolis' annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival is a weeklong celebration of the city’s LGBTQ community, which culminates on March 4 — the Saturday nearest to the official Mardi Gras Tuesday — with a parade through the city’s gay and lesbian district. The tradition of holding an LGBTQ celebration during Mardi Gras was born in 1978, on a night of political protest in Sydney. The event continues to be as politically significant as it is joyous, with tens of thousands of people turning out — many in bright, colourful costumes — for the annual parade and after party each year.
5. Mobile, Alabama
The annual Mardi Gras parade in Mobile was actually the first event of its kind in the United States: the inaugural edition took place in 1703 (the city of New Orleans wasn’t established for another 15 years). Early Mardi Gras celebrations in the Southern city were grounded in religion, as they were held by the region’s French Catholic founders and inhabitants. In recent years, the revelry, celebrations, and parades that take place during carnival season — which typically lasts from November until Fat Tuesday — more closely resemble the colourful, indulgent parties of New Orleans.