Team Wanderlust | 03 January 2023
Your 2023 calendar of world festivals
Planning an epic trip in 2023? Don't miss one of these spectacular festivals – from India's Holi celebrations to the world's biggest hot air balloon festival in the USA...
Planning an epic trip in 2023? Don't miss one of these spectacular festivals – from India's Holi celebrations to the world's biggest hot air balloon festival in the USA...
Harbin's annual festival is officially the biggest winter festival in the world. Located in China's most northerly province, it's typically always cold in Harbin, and the city's seriously-chill temps have earned it the self-explanatory title of 'Ice City'.
Expect jaw-dropping ice installations and snow statues galore, lit up with rainbow lights as evening descends. These include Harbin's full Ice & Snow World, and even a giant Buddha made of snow. Be warned, only true winter fans should attend: temperatures average at -7°C during the day, but sink to -20°C at night.
The festival runs from the beginning of January until the end of February.
Each year, the westernmost state of Gujarat Uttarayan celebrates an important day in the Indian Calendar, when winter transitions into summer. Residents spend months preparing grand, colourful and decorative kites. It's a sight to behold.
The festival's been one of the biggest and most important in India since its inception in 1989. As such, the state's largest city, Ahmedabad, always celebrates in style, becoming a buzzing epicentre for cultural events in the weeks leading up to the kite display.
As the festival is held outside, visitors will be able to see kites flying from dawn till dusk.
On the fourth Saturday every January (weather permitting), residents of Nara gather at dusk to light a bonfire, in the mountains of Wakakusa Yamayaki, in the east of Nara Park.
The bonfire is lit in ceremonious fashion, and local temples take part in the procession. As the mountain's grass is set ablaze, people watch from a distance, and as Wakakusa Yamayaki burns into the night, an impressive firework display frames the fires.
Why? There are a few theories. One dates the practice back to the days when Nara's temples were conflicted over boundaries, while another suggests the grass was traditionally set on fire to drive away any wild boars in the area.
If you need a reason to visit chilly Scotland in the dead of winter, here it is. The fiery chaos depicted in this image is exactly what to expect from Up Helly Aa: a series of 12 fire-focused festivals that take place in numerous locations across Scotland's Shetland Islands.
Lerwick, the Shetlands' main port town, hosts the biggest and best-known on the last Tuesday of January each year. Volunteers from all over the Shetlands come together to arrange gallery exhibitions, a strictly-organised procession and countless flaming torches – all led by a townsperson chosen as the 'guizer jarl'.
Preparations for the next festival begin as early as the previous February, all to ensure a dramatic, traditional and poignant show, designed to mark the end of the winter yule season.
Sapporo's Snow Festival is one of the biggest of its kind. It has been running for over 70 years, and every year, millions descend on Hokkaido's capital to admire the winter wonderlands set up in Odori Park (cancelled for 2023), Susukino, and dotted across the city.
Usually, there's a real international feel to the festival: ice sculptors from around the globe attend to compete in the International Snow Sculpture Contest.
This year will be toned down with only a few locations open, due to the recent reopening of Japan after coronavirus.
The capital of Taepei will be hosting Taiwan's nationwide lantern festival in 2023. After 23 years of being celebrated in other cities, the festival is returning to where it originated in 2001.
The event marks the end of the Lunar New Year, and sees thousands of glowing lanterns being released in to the night sky across the country.
Every year has a specific theme, with 2023 being 'Light up the future'.
Witness a cavalcade of parades, folk dancing and live performances at Carnaval de Oruro, Bolivia's world-renowned carnival.
The festivities began as a religious festival in the 1700s. Today, the celebrations still have a religious element thanks to the country's largely Catholic population. Oruro begins before Lent with a ritual dedicated to the Virgin of Candelaria. It's so powerful, in fact, that it's one of UNESCO's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Mardi Gras festivities take place on Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar. Fat Tuesday is typically the feasting before the 'fasting' of Lent begins.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, Mardi Gras celebrations usually go on for two weeks before Fat Tuesday even arrives, culminating in a series of neon-coloured parades through the city. The carnival-esque party has become synonymous with New Orleans, and is a must-see if you're visiting the United States.
Is there a more famous, electric and colourful carnival in the world? We'd argue not, and go as far to say that Rio de Janeiro's pre-Lent celebrations can't be challenged.
Summing up Brazil's party spirit in a nutshell, you can expect exuberant parades, gloriously loud music and a rainbow of colours in the form of costumes, decorations and feathers. There's even a purpose-built Sambadrome, where Samba Schools perform and compete, but even a stadium can't contain the excitement.
Yap State, one of Micronesia's four states, marks Yap Day each year as an official holiday. It is, at its core, a true celebration of Yap culture. So, you can expect traditional dancing, coconut husking competitions, crafts and weaving activities, and plenty of friendly rivalry between Yap's proud and talented villages.
Yap State welcomes visitors to witness their celebrations and immerse themselves in the local culture, so don't be shy to book a guided tour or get involved.
Holi Festival is celebrated throughout India during the beginning of spring. The 'festival of colours' celebrates Lord Vishnu, and triumph in the face of evil, as well as a plentiful harvest, as a way to give thanks.
Revelry can usually be expected in Rajasthan and Mumbai, and all over the country and beyond, in Australia, Mauritius and the United Kingdom.
For the most authentic experience, book your travel to Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. This is where Lord Vishnu is thought to have spent his childhood, giving the colour-bursting celebrations throughout the city a special significance.
Bhutan is known for its festivals, but its biggest and most popular festival takes place in spring, on the 10th day of the second Bhutanese lunar month (usually March or April). Paro Tshechu dates back to 1644 when, after the construction of the mighty Paro Dzong (the festival venue), a grand celebration commenced with masked dances, music and traditional songs.
These days, the festival is in memory of Guru Rinpoche, who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. On the fifth and final day, the festival begins with the unwinding of a thangka (embroidered painting seen at all festivals) of Guru Rinpoche on the wall of the Dzong. It is believed that simply seeing this sacred artwork will cleanse one’s sins. Following the unwinding of a thangka, there are spectacular masked dances that re-enact the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche.
Over half a century old, the religious tradition of Semana Santa takes place during Guatemala's Holy Week, the week before Easter. Antigua in particular comes alive during the celebrations, with processions, re-enactments of scenes from the Bible and the creation of colourful, sawdust carpets.
Semana Santa is also recognised all over Spain, and is usually celebrated in cities across the country, particularly in the region in Andalucia.
The Water-Splashing Festival, Songkran, marks the beginning of Buddhist New Year all over Thailand. Images of Buddha are bathed in water, and younger Thai people show respect to monks and elders by sprinkling water over their hands.
Despite this traditional element to the festival, people tend to know Songkran for one thing and one thing only: getting completely drenched! As the years go on, the festival morphs into all-our water war, with locals and tourists being blasted by high powered super-soakers.
Lao New Year, sometimes known locally as Songkran or Bun Pi Mai, too, celebrates the Buddhist New Year over the course of three days. Just about everywhere in Laos – from Luang Prabang to Vientiane – offers their own version of the festivities.
In Luang Prabang, parties and processions can go on for up to 10 days, so it's certainly a lively time to visit. Rest assured, the water-based action will be slightly less intense than its Thai counterpart. Still, you can expect to need super soakers and a change of clothes!
There may be bigger Hot Air Balloon Festivals (see October for the biggest in the world), but Al Ula's other-worldly landscape makes this event particularly captivating.
During the festival, more than 200 colourful balloons fly over the UNESCO World Heritage Site and ancient city of Hegra, creating a magical view for those both in the air and on the ground. But that's not all. The fortnight-long celebration also has immersive events which celebrate the magical desert landscape, including stargazing experiences and more.
Cinco de Mayo doesn't necessarily bring to mind a 1800s conflict, but beyond the brightly-coloured parties, it's actually a reminder of the Mexican victory over French colonialists in the 1832 Battle of Puebla.
No wonder, then, that the state of Puebla in central Mexico, is known for being the ultimate place to visit on the 5 May. Historical re-enactments –with residents dressing as French and Mexican soldiers – and group meals are common. Events have not yet been planned for 2022.
Forty days after Easter on Ascension Day, the street of Bruges are filled with – quite literally – a procession of the Holy Blood. Religious leaders and locals – up to 3,000 – walk through the streets holding a vial of blood, said to be Jesus Christ's blood. Some are dressed in robes; others costumed to represent scenes from the Bible.
It may seem rather unusual, but the people of Bruges have been doing this since the 13th century. It's so important that the Procession of the Holy Blood has UNESCO World Heritage status, as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Inti Raymi was and is a traditional Inca religious festival, a way to worship the sun god, Inti. Not only did the date, slap-bang in the middle of June, mark the end of winter, but also the winter solstice: the beginning of the days getting brighter and longer again.
During the reign of the Inca Empire in Cusco, it was undoubtedly their biggest and most significant religious celebration. Hundreds of years later, indigenous communities living in Cusco and throughout the Andes still celebrate Inti Raymi with music and colourful costumes. Cusco also hosts a theatrical performance – or re-enactment – of an Inca Inti Raymi celebration, which welcomes travellers.
Batalla de Vino, a.k.a. Wine Battle, is as sticky as it sounds. The residents of the La Rioja town of Haro get together around the day of their patron saint, Saint Pedro, to pelt each other with wine.
The dress code is simple: wear a white t-shirt that you fully expect to become grape-purple by the end of battle. Following mass led by the town's mayor, fill up your water pistols and buckets with La Rioja red, and prepare to get spraying.
Undeniably the biggest festival in Kyoto and Japan, Gion Matsuri is steeped in history. Gion Matsuri first began in the year 839 during a plague. Kyoto residents tried their best to appease their gods by offering up a child messenger.
These days, a young lad is chosen to sit on a decadent parade float (one of many), without his feet touching the ground, for four days before the first procession ends on 17 July. The second parade takes place on 24 July, but the whole month is filled with vibrancy, all-night parties and delicious street food.
Naturally, Gion is one of the busiest times to visit Kyoto, so to fully experience the city and the festival, you'll need to book your trip several months in advance – and possibly prepare for slightly higher hotel prices.
They don't call Calgary the Stampede City for nothing! Each July, one million visitors flock to the Alberta city for a hugely impressive, no-expense-spared multi-day rodeo, complete with stage shows, parades, competitions, festivals and concerts.
Highlights include chuckwagon races and a funfair. Yep, there's also an abundance of fairground rides, with your usual waltzers, rollercoasters, Big Wheels and deliciously unhealthy fried doughnuts.
Drinking, gossiping and dancing aren't usually a core component of a sporting festival. But in Mongolia, the Naadam Festival or 'Manly Games' – testing the country's greatest wrestling, archery and horse racing champions – wouldn't be the same without a tipple or two.
Ulaanbataar, Mongolia's capital, is probably the biggest celebration, but across the country you'll find smaller versions of the same event. All are quite traditional, and the competitors will all be wearing traditional Mongolian dress. It's likely you'll attend with a guide, and visitors are welcomed by locals.
Slipping, sliding, swimming, throwing, wearing, wrestling – whatever you like to do with your mud, you can do in Boryeong, South Korea, during the annual Mud Fest. (Be careful with the throwing, though.)
Going strong since 1999, there's no real backstory behind this one. It's just fun, and the parties surrounding the mud-based activities prove it. Better yet? Apparently, the mud in Boryeong is high in minerals, and can do wonders for plumping and brightening your skin. No wonder thousands from all over South Korea, Europe and the Americas flock to take part.
August in Colombia, weather-wise, is a bit hit and miss. One thing Medellin has in August that makes up for its (at times) overcast appearance is the spectacular 10-day celebration of nature, known as Feria de Flores (Festival of the Flowers).
Expect locally-grown, intricate and beautiful floral arrangements and floats for the festival's star show: the Parade of Silleteros. It seems a shame to judge them, but indeed they're all competing to be named the most impressive arrangement. There are numerous categories each arrangement can enter into – even one for kids!
The Guča Trumpet Festival, known sometimes as Dragačevski Sabo, is probably a little less well-known that the likes of the Edinburgh Fringe and Notting Hill Carnival.
Nevertheless, the small Serbian town of Guča comes alive for three days in mid-August for its annual festival, showcasing the best in brass music performances. Hundreds of thousands attend each year.
Every August, the city of Mount Hagen in the western province of Papua New Guinea comes alive for two days of performances, feasts and musical festivities hosted by locals during the Mount Hagen Cultural Show. The 2023 dates are currently tentative, but are usually later in the month.
Of course, Papua New Guinea is a challenging destination and truly off the well-trodden trail. As such, only very experienced travellers should plan to visit, keeping a close eye on the FCO's Official Travel Advice before going, too.
Should you ever find yourself in the South African coastal town of Hermanus, let's hope your visit coincides with the annual Whale Watching Festival in late September.
Locals and visits alike gather together to witness the migration of Southern Right Whales, and celebrate this natural wonder with talks, events and exhibits. Of course, much of the conversations are about our oceans, and how to protect them and the creatures living in them.
Venice is famous as a bustling tourist hot spot, for its rainbow-coloured sister islands, and the ebb and flow of lazy (also: expensive) gondola rides along its azure waterways.
On the first Sunday of September, the city roars into a different kind of action: rowers surround the island and rowing fans gather in the city, to watch the annual races and enjoy the bright introductory parade along the canals.
Every year, more than 500 hot air balloons soar into the clear-blue skies above Rio Grande Valley in Alburquerque, New Mexico. The Mass Ascension, as its known, is quite an unforgettable sight: an explosion of rainbow colours, funky patterns and awe-inspiring design.
Events also take place at night, and you don't need to have your own hot air balloon to join in. You can buy a ticket, rock up and simply enjoy the view.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival isn't necessarily a straightforward celebration of all things vegetarian. It's also known as The Nine Emperor Gods Festival, and it's actually one of the most bustling – and some might say brash – festivals in Thailand.
It's raucous, busy and a little bit 'out there' for a religious festival. Participants follow strict diets, give up sex and avoid alcohol for the duration, and wear white outfits to denote their purity. Then, it all kicks off: chants, firecrackers and some strange stunts from performers. You may spot someone walking on nails or even piercing their cheeks with their swords. Needless to say, this festival is best witnessed from a distance.
Another competitive festival in Mongolia, though this time without all the arrows buzzing around. Instead, it'll be golden eagles flying in high during this two-day tradition in October.
Eagle hunters – not actual hunters, but those adept at falconry (training the eagles themselves to hunt) – from across Bayan-Ölgii, the most westerly region of Mongolia, come together to test their skill, by comparing the birds' accuracy.
In such a remote part of the world, you'll be able to witness the Golden Eagle Festival as part of a tailor-made tour to Mongolia. Exodus Travel offer an excellent one.
Lima residents parade through the capital in honour of Señor de los Milagros, quite literally translated to Lord of the Miracles. Everyone wears purple to signify their loyalty and devotion to the Lord (some throughout the entire month of October).
There are usually thousands taking part in the procession, which follows the painting of Señor de los Milagros carefully propped on a large float, all singing religious songs and saying prayers.
Undeniably, it's one of South America's biggest festivals. Again, if you're not one of the locals, one best seen from the sidelines.
A version of Día de los Muertos (often given a slightly different name), or the Day of All Souls, is celebrated throughout Central America. If not, the Day of All Saints (usually 1 or 2 November) acts as an opportunity for communities to gather in cemeteries, decorate their altars, and remember their lost loved ones.
In Guatemala’s Sacatepéquez cemetery, Day of the Dead is marked with the All Saints Day Kite Festival, also known as Barriletes Gigantes. Locals and visitors alike design and create large kites out of natural materials – and when we say large, we’ve seen some 20m wide.
On 2 November, Mexico celebrates Día de los Muertos – commonly called Day of the Dead in the English-speaking world – to pay tribute to, remember and also welcome the spirits of the dead.
Celebrations take place all over Mexico, but there are a few regions where locals and visitors alike truly revel in the spirit of the holiday. Michoacán, Oaxaca and Mexico City are three must-visit destinations for those hoping to have the full experience.
The village of Ottery St Mary in Devon is known for its Tar Barrels, but no one really knows where the tradition of burning them on a November night came from. The festival's official website reckons it began shortly after Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder Plot was foiled.
So, on 5 November, residents grab the large Tar Barrels and carry them, fully aflame, through the streets. Certainly, carrying the barrels (as opposed to rolling them) makes this a particularly unique UK experience.
We must admit: a festival dedicated to an endangered bird is right up our alley. The fact its in rural Bhutan makes it even more appealing. The black necked crane is a vulnerable Asian bird, a species incredibly important to the Bhutanese people. Particularly in winter.
So, locals gather at Gangtey Goenpa in Phobjikha Valley to celebrate the bird's arrival each November, having waited for its return since March. They sing folk songs, perform cultural dances, and enjoy a number of performances, themed around the environment and protection of the crane.
Nagaland, an Indian state, is quite unique as the home to many differing tribes. Each tribe has their own cultural celebration, or agricultural festival. Hornbill, named after the bird, is the ultimate festival: the coming together of these neighbouring tribes to celebrate their unique heritage, with the support of local organisations and councils.
The tribes spend 10 days in Naga Heritage Village, Kisama, near Kohima, and partake in a variety of activities. There's everything from craft events, scultpure displays, food markets, stalls selling herbal products, traditional music, sporting events, fashion shows, tribal ceremonies and performances. Locals even crown Miss Nagaland in a beauty pageant.
Junkanoo is the national festival of the Bahamas. Legend states the festival takes root from West Africa, though no one really knows its true origins. Today, the festival is a cavalcade of sound and colour.
Expert good vibes all around and a roaring party, with residents and visitors wearing bold, bright costumes. Musicians play brass instruments, drums and whistles. There's a big parade, and groups of performers gather together for the chance to win a cash prize.
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