South America | Inspiration

The captivating history of Rio Carnival

Recently updated on December 1st, 2023 at 06:26 pm

Known as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ Rio Carnival is an iconic yearly festival that welcomes millions of spectators from all parts of the world. Taking place throughout the largest country in Latin America, Brazil, the festival is a once-in-a-lifetime event that needs to be on travellers’ bucket lists. 

The Rio Carnival 2021 dates and festivities have been postponed until 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But with extra time to plan and prepare, discover some enriching Rio Carnival history to spark your wanderlust for when the time is right to celebrate this mesmerizing festival once more. 


1. What is the Rio Carnival celebrated for? How did the Rio Carnival start?

Rio Carnival is one of the world’s biggest attractions and over the years, Rio Carnival’s history has evolved. Once, it was celebrated with roots to Roman Catholic traditions taking place just before Lent. Carnival was the final feast and celebration before Christians spent the next 40 days fasting. 

When Portuguese settlers first arrived in Brazil in the early 1600s, Rio Carnival traditions transformed to include small balls and masquerade dances, similar to the upper-class festivals that took part in Europe. Also, African slaves and workers brought to Brazil by Portuguese settlers also shared traditional customs paying homage to their culture and gods. This is now seen through modern day masks, costumes and music.  

The history of Rio Carnival can be seen as very complex but present-day celebrations now encompasses a fusion of African, Portuguese and Indigenous culture traditions and is truly a time to celebrate by all.

2. When and where does Rio Carnival take place? 

The saying goes that a new year doesn’t start in Brazil until after Rio Carnival. Rio Carnival starts the Friday before Ash Wednesday (marking the forty-day period of Lent before Easter in the Roman Catholic Church) and continues for five days. Street parties began as early as a month before Carnival weekend and often go on a few weeks past the period for those who want to continue the celebrations. 

All the main events take place in Rio de Janeiro including the Samba Parade, the Magic Ball at Copacabana Palace, ‘blocos’ or block/street parties and so much more. However, smaller but equally bold and vibrant Carnival events can be seen taking place throughout the entire country including the coastal city, Salvador.

A samba school dancer in a colourful costume performing at Rio Carnival.

3. What does Rio Carnival look like?  

With bright colours, bold costumes and lively samba sounds, Rio Carnival is an extraordinary festival celebrated year after year. Rio Carnival takes place in February or March (depending on the calendar) which also happens to be the middle of summer in Brazil. Bring on the heat and humidity! 

It encompasses elaborate costumes filled with extravagant feathers, sequins, glitter. The vibrant energy and years of Rio Carnival history is truly unlike anything else in this world.   

RELATED CONTENT: 7 Colourful Festivals Around the World

Samba school musicians with drums and colourful costumes performing at Rio Carnival.

4. What are samba schools? 

Samba schools are composed of thousands of dancers and musicians ranging in age and expertise, who are usually from the same neighbourhood. The first samba school was established in 1928 and the first ever Samba Parade competition was held shortly after, which is an important part of Rio Carnival history.

RELATED CONTENT: 4 of the best things to do in Brazil with Trafalgar

During the Carnival, the Samba Parade is held in the most famous Sambódromo Marquês de Sapucaí (or Passarela Professor Darcy Ribeiro) in Rio de Janeiro, built specifically for the Carnival parade festivities. Each samba school has a little over an hour period to compete in front of 80,000 screaming and excited spectators and are judged by their singing, dancing, decorative costumes, parade floats and overall energy. Every samba school chooses its overarching theme and have internal competitions from songwriters to tell the story or samba. In the past few years, samba schools have even taken political stances and this theme is then reflected in everything spectators see during the parade. Each samba school competes to win the prestigious championship title and ultimate bragging rights. 

Dreaming of seeing the Rio Carnival parade in real life and witnessing the numerous samba schools compete for the top spot? Spectators are encouraged to book their tickets well in advance as this event is known to sell out fast. Also, when travelling to Brazil with Trafalgar, guests can put their samba skills to the test by visiting a local school during a ‘Dive into Culture’ experience. Here, you’ll learn how the school prepares for Rio Carnival, witness the colourful costumes and instruments up close and partake in an exciting dance lesson from an expert.

EXPERIENCE THIS ON: Icons of South America


5. Is it safe to go to Carnival in Rio?

Rio Carnival is claimed to be South America’s most famed and attended celebration. With over two million festival-goers escaping to Rio de Janeiro to take in the fun in recent years, some travellers wonder if the festival is safe to take part in. 

Some tips for guests to relax and enjoy the celebrations include travelling with a group and only carry the absolutely essentials with you, leaving valuables locked up safely in your hotel. Taking these precautions will give you peace of mind and allow you to take in all the festivities the Carnival has to offer. 

RELATED CONTENT: 8 tips to avoid looking like a tourist in South America


6. What do you need to pack to celebrate Rio Carnival?

Expert Rio Carnival-goers suggest packing colourful but breathable clothes to take in all the daily festival fun in the summer heat. During the ‘blocos’ or Samba Parade, spectators can be seen wearing casual summer gear such as shorts, t-shirts, flip flips or sneakers and energetic face paint. The elaborate and bold costumes are typically reserved for samba school performers. 

Other essentials that should be on travellers packing lists to enjoy Rio Carnival to the fullest include a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses to keep the sun at bay, a small cross-body purse or bag to keep all your essential belongings close and a reusable water bottle and snacks to keep hydrated and replenished. 

Do you know any additional or interesting facts about Rio Carnival’s history? Share your thoughts and comments below…

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