The Most Spirited Day of the Dead Celebrations in the United States

Outside of Mexico, some of the liveliest observances of Día de los Muertos take place in U.S. cities—and they’re totally free to attend.

The Most Spirited Day of the Dead Celebrations in the United States

The vibrant Día de los Muertos festivities that occur annually in Mexico are now popularly celebrated in many parts of the world, including cities in the United States.

Photo by Diego Grandi/Shutterstock

Every year in Mexico during the days leading up to November 1 and 2, people gather to commemorate Día de los Muertos, a cultural celebration honoring the cycle of life and death that can be traced back to the time of the Aztecs. As part of the deeply traditional festivities, participants decorate ornate ofrendas (altars) with offerings for ancestors, including marigolds, fresh-baked pan de muerto (sweet bread), and detailed sugar skulls. In addition, many revelers partake in candlelight processions with their faces painted as calaveras (the holiday’s skeletal symbol).

Día de los Muertos is an integral part of Mexican and Chicano identities: In 2008, the ritual was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and today, the holiday is observed in many countries around the world. Some of the largest and liveliest Day of the Dead celebrations outside of Mexico take place in the United States—here’s where you can find them.

San Francisco, California

Day of the Dead has been celebrated in San Francisco’s Mission District since the early 1970s. During the annual Festival of Altars on November 2, the general public is invited to bring flowers, candles, and mementos of loved ones to place on ofrendas decorated with Mexican folk art. (In 2019, the gathering begins in Potrero Del Sol Park at 4 p.m.) At 7 p.m. on the same day, a candlelight procession starts on the corner of 22nd and Bryant Streets and follows a quick route toward the site where the altars are displayed. Now in its 37th year, the processional walk (which is alcohol free) has previously welcomed approximately 15,000 people to the streets of San Francisco in full Día de los Muertos attire.

A group of women dressed as La Catrina during Día de los Muertos celebrations in San Antonio.

A group of women dressed as La Catrina during Día de los Muertos celebrations in San Antonio.

Photo by Eblis/Shutterstock

San Antonio, Texas

Mexican heritage runs deep in San Antonio: The city is located only three hours from the U.S.-Mexico border, and an estimated 64 percent of the population is of Mexican descent, according to statistics from the 2018 census. Every year, San Antonio hosts a major Day of the Dead celebration known as “Muertos Fest,” which offers live music performances ranging from mariachi to electronic cumbia; displays of traditional altars and original folk art; puppet parades; live poetry performances; craftmaking workshops, and more. In 2019, the two-day event—which is free and open to the public—moves to downtown San Antonio’s Hemisfair grounds, not far from the festival’s previous site in La Villita Historic Arts Village. The event takes place October 26–27 this year.

Los Angeles, California

For over 30 years, the merchants of a Mexican market in Los Angeles have celebrated Día de los Muertos in a major way. The annual Olvera Street Día de los Muertos festivities (October 26 through November 2, 2019) incorporate traditional altars, children’s workshops, calavera face painting, and live entertainment, all of which are open to the public to attend.

As part of the nine-day festival, you can also see nightly Novenario processions where participants pay respects to “the living dead” by marching with burning incense and photos of loved ones. After each procession, champurrado (a hot chocolate–like drink made with corn flour) and pan de muertos are handed out for free. (This year, the processions occur from October 25 through November 2, starting at 7 p.m.)

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Fort Lauderdale’s annual Day of the Day event, and the Florida festival has already cemented itself as one of the largest Día de los Muertos celebrations in the country. The free event, which takes place on November 2, features an afternoon of ofrenda admiring, puppet making, sugar skull face painting, and traditional Aztec and Mayan dance performances. A vibrant “Skeleton Processional” kicks off from Huizenga Plaza at 6:30 p.m., at which time more than 2,000 skeletons and 50 giant puppets (some reaching 18 feet tall) lead thousands of revelers along Fort Lauderdale’s Riverwalk toward a street festival filled with food trucks, mariachi bands, and arts and crafts opportunities.

Aztec dancers celebrate Día de los Muertos in San Diego’s Old Town.

Aztec dancers celebrate Día de los Muertos in San Diego’s Old Town.

Photo by LagunaticPhoto/Shutterstock

San Diego, California

Situated less than 20 miles from Tijuana, San Diego is about as close as you can get to witnessing a Día de los Muertos festival in Mexico without actually traveling to the country. In San Diego, annual celebrations take place in the city’s Old Town (this year on November 2 and 3). The free-to-attend parade takes place on Saturday only (at 5 p.m.), but participants can admire life-sized skeleton displays, tour over 40 ofrendas, plus enjoy face painting, Aztec dancing performances, costume contests, and more throughout the duration of the Old Town Day of the Dead festival in Park Plaza.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

In Albuquerque, Día de los Muertos events occur over several weeks in October and November, but the annual Día de los Muertos y Marigolds Parade has long been the largest. In previous years, the city has shut down an entire section of a major South Valley thoroughfare for paradegoers in Day of the Dead costumes. But earlier this year, parade organizers announced that the 2019 parade will be postponed because it’s actually become too popular to sustain. The Muertos y Marigolds Parade committee says that it plans to use this year to address issues with the parade’s growing size—but that floats decorated with marigolds and people dressed as calaveras will once again make their way through the streets of New Mexico’s largest city to be met by food, music, and altars.

This article originally appeared online in October 2018; it was updated on October 14, 2019, to include current information.

>>Next: Everything You Need to Know About Día de los Muertos

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