One of the world’s largest parties, Carnaval – held this year from March 4 through 8 – is virtually synonymous with Rio de Janeiro. But Carnaval, in all its colourful, hedonistic glory, is also celebrated in practically every town and city in Brazil.

Although Carnaval officially lasts five days, from the Friday to the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday, the festivities can begin weeks in advance. Other towns keep the party rolling for weeks afterwards.

No matter where you go, you will need to reserve accommodation well in advance. You will also have to steel yourself for high prices: accommodations double or even triple their rates and minimum stays (four to seven nights) are usually required.

Here's a run-down of the top Carnaval celebrations throughout Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro throws an exceptional party, with samba music and dancing filling the streets for days on end. Celebrations culminate in a brilliantly colourful parade through the Sambódromo, with giant mechanized floats, pounding drummers and whirling dancers - but there is lots of action in Rio's many neighbourhoods as well.

Visitors are welcome to join the mayhem. There are free live concerts all over the city and more than 400 street parties, with either brass bands (bandas) or drummers and vocalists (blocos) leading parades of anyone who wants to dance along.

For more information, see Riotur, the tourist organization in charge of Rio's Carnaval.

Salvador hosts one of the largest Carnavals in Brazil, with trios elétricos (electrically-amplified bands playing atop speaker-laden trucks) working two million revellers into a frenzy. The music here is axé, an Afro-Bahian musical genre that incorporates samba-reggae, forró (a Northeastern two-step), calypso and frevo (a fast, syncopated brass-band beat). You can either pay to join the groups around the trucks (blocos), or choose to fazer pipoca (be popcorn) in the street.

Unique to Salvador's Carnaval are the afoxés, groups that parade to the rhythms, songs and dances found in Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion).

Purists claim Recife's is the best Carnaval in the country. It is a participatory event, with an infectious euphoria and fabulous dancing: people do not sit and watch here, they join in. Carnaval groups and spectators don elaborate costumes and dance for days.

The diverse music includes  Rio-style samba, forró, maracatu (a slow heavy Afro-Brazilian rhythm), frevo and mangue (an aggressive blend of hard rock, hip hop and traditional Northeast styles). You will also find rock and reggae, plus other regional sounds such as Salvador-style axé, pagode (an informal type of samba) and choro. The weeks leading up to Carnaval are filled with parties and public rehearsals that are almost as much fun as the actual event.

Everyone dons a costume for the 11 days and nights of Olinda's Carnaval. There are balls, nights of maracatu, Afro-Brazilian rhythms and plenty of street-style merriment. The official opening events commence with a parade of 400 "virgins" (men in drag) and awards for the most beautiful, the most risqué and the biggest prude.

Porto Seguro
Porto Seguro throws an impressive Carnaval, complete with plenty of dancing in the streets and on the beach, round-the-clock music jams and no-holds-barred partying. The party continues for a full week (until the Saturday after Ash Wednesday). Prices here are lower than in much of the country and the vibe is more peaceful and laid-back.

Florianópolis hosts one of Brazil's most gay-friendly Carnavals after Rio.  On Saturday night, the city's five samba schools parade through Floripa's open-air stadium. On Sunday afternoon, men dressed as women parade in the bloco dos Sujos, one of Floripa's best-loved blocos. On Monday evening, the city hosts its Pop Gay Festival, attracting thousands of gay revellers, many in outrageous costumes. Other gay events happen on Praia Mole.

São Paulo
Brazil's biggest city is not known for its Carnaval, but the lack of crowds and lower prices are appealing.  São Paulo has only a handful of street parties, but it does throw a spectacular Rio-style parade in its own sambódromo. Sampa's samba schools parade on Friday and Saturday nights, and ticket prices are cheaper than in Rio. Outside of the parade, most of the Carnaval action happens in bars and nightclubs, with costumed balls and other special events.


Regis St. Louis is co-author of Lonely Planet's Brazil travel guide.


The article 'Carnaval in Brazil: Rio and beyond' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.