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.

A Dia de los Muertos parade with costumed people wearing large skull masks

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. At 7 p.m. on the same day, a candlelight procession starts on the corner of 22nd and Bryant streets (participants can start gathering at 6 p.m.) and follows a quick route toward the site where the altars are displayed. Now in its 43rd 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. The San Francisco Symphony is also doing a special Day of the Dead performance on November 4, at 2 p.m, at Davies Symphony Hall. It will be conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya and feature vocalist Edna Vázquez and performers from Casa Círculo Cultural.

Three women dressed as La Catrina during Día de los Muertos celebrations in San Antonio

Women dressed as La Catrina, a figure who symbolizes the cycle of life, 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 66 percent of the population is of Mexican descent, according to statistics from the 2022 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, plus displays of traditional altars and original folk art, vendors, puppet parades, live poetry performances, and craftmaking workshops. In 2023, the two-day event—free and open to the public—will be celebrated at downtown San Antonio’s Hemisfair grounds, on October 28–29.

Los Angeles, California

For over 35 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 25 through November 2, 2023) 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 theatrical performances (at 6 p.m.) from Teatro Del Barrio that tell the story of Día de los Muertos from its Indigenous roots to how it has evolved to modern-day celebrations.

Following the performance are the Novenario processions (starting at 7 p.m.) where participants pay respects to “the living dead” by marching with burning incense and photos of loved ones. After each procession, panes de muerto are handed out for free.

Aztec dancers celebrate Día de los Muertos outdoors 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 crossing the border. In San Diego, annual celebrations take place in the city’s Old Town (this year on October 28–29 and November 2).

There will be a free-to-attend mercado the first weekend from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with craft vendors, face painting, and performances. On Saturday, October 28, families can catch a free screening of Disney Pixar’s Coco under the stars (starting at 7 p.m. at Plaza de las Armas). On November 2, there will be a parade, starting at 6 p.m., where participants can tour over 40 ofrendas.

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, with floats decorated with marigolds and people dressed as calaveras making their way through the streets of New Mexico’s largest city; at the end, revelers are met by food, music, and altars.

Throughout the month of October, various workshops relating to Day of the Dead traditions will be offered, including printing with silkscreens, making papier-mâché, and building ofrendas.

This article originally appeared online in 2018; it was most recently updated on October 9, 2023, to include current information.

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