Everything You Need to Know About Carnival in Rio

The Brazilian city’s long affair with the celebration comes from centuries of history and tradition.

 People in blue costumes parade at the Marques de Sapucai Sambodromo

Colorful costumes are only one aspect of Rio’s Carnival.

Photo by CelsoPupo/Shutterstock

Carnival is an event stemming from Christian tradition and celebrated all over the world, including Brazil. But among Brazilian cities honoring the event, it’s clear Rio gets the crown. Rio’s Carnival is the biggest in the world: The city draws millions to its streets for the pre-Lenten celebration full of parades, colorful costumes, and, of course, samba.

The origins of Rio’s Carnival

Like other Carnival-celebrating places around the world (which include Grenada and Italy), much of the festival’s influence comes from Christianity. The word Carnival itself is said to come from the phrase “Carnevale”, meaning a farewell to meat—calling out the religion’s abstinence from meat during Lent.

When Portuguese colonists came to Brazil in the 1500s, they brought their version of the event—but today’s version also has a lot of West African and Bantu influence. The Portuguese brought enslaved people from these African regions, adding elements of song and dance from their home countries, which eventually evolved into samba.

When is Rio’s Carnival celebrated?

The annual event happens between the Friday and the Tuesday leading up to Ash Wednesday, packing in five days of festivities before Lent begins. In 2023, Carnival in Rio lasts from Friday, February 17, to Tuesday, February 21—although a final parade celebrating the champions of the Sambadrome’s annual parade competition (called the Winners’ Parade) occurs on the Saturday after the carnival ends. This year, the Winners’ parade takes place on February 25.

What happens during Carnival in Rio?

Carnival kicks off on the first Friday with the crowning of King Momo, a symbolic character who is meant to be the king of Carnival. Once the mayor hands the symbolic figure keys to the city, confetti and cheers signify a formal beginning to the nearly weeklong celebration. Street bands, known as blocos, perform in the avenues. While hundreds exist, some of the biggest bands include Cordão da Bola Preta, Banda de Ipanema, and Monobloco. Carnival puts the spotlight on these groups, but many of them have been celebrating since January. Each draws a unique crowd, so join in with Rio’s residents (known as cariocas) and tour through the different neighborhoods looking for the sound that fits your vibe.

Orange turtle float from samba school 'Academicos do Salgueiro', in a parade in the Sambadrome

When samba schools participate in the annual Carnival competition in the Sambadrome, they go all out.

Photo by Andre_MA/Shutterstock

Seeing the spectacle in the Sambadrome

The main venue for Rio’s showstopping events happens in the Sambadrome, located in Rio’s downtown. The venue, built specifically for Carnival, features a 700-meter-long stadium with bleachers on both sides that can accommodate more than 70,000 spectators. Each night of Carnival, samba schools present in a parade; they’re judged on elements such as costumes, dances, and creativity.

The Sambadrome action starts on Friday and Saturday. During these first two days of Carnival, the samba schools forming the Access Group perform. While these productions are on the lower-budget side, they are still a great way to kick off Carnival weekend. The showstopper schools—known as the Special Group—come on Sunday and Monday. Don’t expect these teams to hold back in any way: They send thousands of participants as dancers, flag bearers, drummers, and more to create their spectacle. They also usually employ the help of several towering floats to help tell the story of their school’s theme.

How to watch Carnival in the Sambadrome

The parades are all-night-long events, starting around 9 p.m. and not ending until at least 4 a.m. You can buy tickets from chief Carnival organizing group LIESA, though release dates can be unclear. As an alternative, travel agencies often sell Sambadrome tickets as a part of their travel packages.

Where to stay in Rio for Carnival

Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro

Book now: Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro

Ipanema is a nonstop party during Carnival, thanks to blocos like Banda de Ipanema drawing thousands—especially in the LGBTQ community—to the neighborhood. While you won’t be able to stop the festivities on the streets, Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro offers a quiet reprieve from the craziness. An emphasis on geometric design elements through ear-shaped mirrors, rectangular lamps, and other midcentury-modern furniture recall the 1950s and ’60s, when bossa nova was at its height. Laze by the property’s rooftop infinity pool and bar (only for hotel guests) during the day before descending once again upon the chaos at night.

Belmond Copacabana Palace

Book now: Belmond Copacabana Palace

If you’re looking to stay away from the bustle of Ipanema and downtown, the art deco Belmond Copacabana Palace whisks you away to the grandeur of a Carnival reminiscent of Venice. On Carnival Saturday, the hotel becomes the venue of the Magic Ball. Throughout the event, guests dress to the nines and walk through completely decked-out halls according to the ball’s year-specific theme. The 2023 theme? “Journey through the time tunnel,” in honor of the Copacabana Palace’s 100th anniversary.

Carnival’s glitziest event is perfectly suited for the hotel, which has hosted celebrities like Marilyn Monroe throughout its history. It’s hard not to find luxury in the Copa’s Michelin-star restaurant, half-Olympic-size pool, and hotel spa that uses Amazonian ingredients in its treatments.

Chloe Arrojado is the associate editor of destinations at AFAR. She’s a big fan of cafés, dancing, and asking people on the street for restaurant recommendations.
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