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. This year, the annual Festival of Altars takes place on November 2 in Garfield Square. The general public is invited to bring flowers, candles, and mementos of loved ones to place on ofrendas decorated with Mexican folk art. Following the Festival of Altars, a candlelight walking procession includes live music and other performances. Last year, the event (which is alcohol-free), welcomed approximately 15,000 people in full Día de los Muertos attire.
Mexican heritage runs deep in San Antonio: The city is located just three hours from the U.S.-Mexico border, and more than 60 percent of the population is of Mexican descent. Every year, San Antonio hosts a major Day of the Dead celebration in the downtown La Villita Historic Arts Village. Muerto Fest offers live music performances (ranging from mariachi to electronic cumbia), displays of traditional altars and original folk art, puppet parades, live poetry performances, and more—all open to the public on October 27 and 28.
And this year, as San Antonio celebrates its tricentennial, there will be more than 20 Día de los Muertos events across the city extending from October 20 through November 3. Don’t miss SAY Sí Muertitos Fest on November 2-3, a free cultural happening featuring family folk art workshops, food stands, and an artisan mercado.
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. During the annual Olvera Street Día de los Muertos festivities, which take place this year from October 25 through November 2, you’ll 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. The nine-day festival also incorporates traditional altars, children’s workshops, calavera face painting, and live entertainment, all of which are open to the public to attend.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
This year marks the ninth anniversary of Fort Lauderdale’s annual Day of the Day event, but 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” begins 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.
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 from November 1-4 in the city’s Old Town. A free-to-attend Day of the Dead procession occurs on November 2 only, 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 festival.
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 and Celebration is definitely the one not to miss. On November 4, the South Valley parade shuts down an entire section of a major Albuquerque thoroughfare, where people come dressed in Day of the Dead costumes to remember the living and the deceased. Floats decorated with marigolds and people dressed as calaveras make their way to a grassy park and are met by food, music, and a large display of altars.