Spain Top Carnivals
Carnival is an amazing time to visit Spain. Step off your plane or train, and come to party with the locals, understand some more of the culture and marvel at some of the antics and fascinating traditions. As you can imagine, in a country where fiestas take pride of place, these events can be rather spectacular.
Carnival falls just before Lent, so the dates each year depend on when Lent is and carnivals lengths vary from town to town. At the end of this Spain Top Carnivals feature, we have a guide for approximate start dates for the next ten years.
A quick history of carnival in Spain
Carnival has been celebrated here in Spain for many centuries: a tradition only interrupted by Franco. It can be traced back to the 15th century at least, and now in the 21st century is a hugely important celebration, enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike. Carnival and other public gatherings were banned during Franco's time, but after his death the tradition was very much brought to life again.
Although some aspects of the carnival format has changed over the years, the main traditions are still in place. For example if you visit Catalonia for carnival, you'll see that the Carnival King is referred to as Carnestoltes – which basically translates into abstaining from meat.
Carnival around Spain today includes music, dancing, wearing masks and striking costumes, and of course an abundance of good humour, eating and drinking into the wee hours. It's a special occasion for everyone.
15 of Spain's best carnivals
This is not intended to be a definitive list, as I would have to live a lot longer to get to all of the carnivals in Spain, however it is a helpful guide to choosing which carnival you would like to go to next year.
1. Aguilas Carnival, Murcia
The Aguilas Carnival was declared a Fiesta of International Tourist Interest in 2015. It's jam packed with colour between the different "comparsas" (groups) vibrantly dressed for processions, parading through the streets sporting their masks.
Festivities kick off on the Thursday with the La Mussona Drop - the Mussona being a special beast that is somewhat like a werewolf. On Saturday night there's the Battle between Don Carnal and Doña Lares and the Pregón.
During the two weeks of the Aguilas Carnival, there are super parades, music and merriment. The hospitality is fantastic, so as a visitor you should feel right at home in the Carnival celebrations.
Discover more: http://www.carnavaldeaguilas.org/
2. Avilés Carnival, Asturias
The carnival of Avilés in the region of Asturias in north central Spain has also been declared a Fiesta of International Tourist Interest. The historic centre of Avilés is transformed into an amazing spot full of fun, festivities and the mystery of wondering who may be behind a mask!
In fact it is not just the people who wear masks. The bars also disguise their façades and interiors. There's something so liberating about wearing a mask and this feeling of liberation is a theme in Avilés Carnival. Communication is easy, and somehow the bizarre becomes normal. The costumes are superb at this carnival.
Avilés may not be the biggest carnival in Spain, but it has a special atmosphere, that makes it worth a visit. The last few days of this carnival have a gastronomic focus. The carnival ends with the burning of the sardine, which is symbolic of the beginning of fasting for Lent.
3. Barcelona Carnival
Els 7 Ambaixadors del Rei Carnestoltes, Mercat de Sants 12.02.2015 Fotografia PERE VIRGILI
While Barcelona’s carnival may not be as famous or elaborate as the likes of Sitges, Tenerife, or Cádiz, it's still well celebrated throughout the Catalan capital. So if you are looking to visit Barcelona, it can be a fun time to go. If you wish to visit a place where the carnival is really big, or pretty focused in a smaller space (such as Avilés or Sitges) then Barcelona my not be the right choice for you.
Because of the size of the city, there isn't one parade, like there are in other towns and smaller cities. Each district celebrates on its own. However as a visitor, you can head to the El Born district, where there's a drag queen horse-and-carriage parade and live concerts. El Born district also hosts the Battle of the Oranges (La Taronjada), which uses balloons and confetti instead of real oranges.
4. Cadiz Carnival
Cádiz Carnival is all about humour and wit. This is one of Spain's biggest and best carnivals. Groups of troubadours in costumes flood the streets, playing musical instruments and singing. This carnival has plenty of music. The songs tend to be satirical poking fun at politicians and other well-known figures. It seems as if there's something entertaining happening around every corner.
There are also great gastronomic fiestas as part of the pre-carnival period, so in the lead up to the competition time. So while the final rehearsals are happening, so are the Pestiñada (fried pastry party), the Rizada (the sea urchin party) and the Ostionada (the oyster party).
The streets are beautifully and brightly decorated. Competitions and fireworks take place almost every day. The parade is also spectacular, with lots of striking floats representing the various neighborhoods. This carnival is all about light-hearted fun and not taking yourself too seriously.
5. La Palma Carnival
Another spectacular carnival happens on the Canary Island of La Palma, in Santa Cruz. The highlight of this carnival is the Los Indianos parade, which in 2017 falls on the 27th February. This parade is a vision in white. The streets are buzzing with Caribbean music, as the ladies look elegant dressed in white and the men sport white linen suits. On top is a sea of straw hats.
The parade is a reenactment of the immigrants who returned from Cuba. In the middle of this striking parade, there's a fair share of cross dressing, with men wearing dresses, makeup and wigs!
6. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria Carnival
Celebrate carnival island style with around 200,000 other people! The main hub of the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria Carnival actually happens on the beach. The fun is a blend of the light-hearted mood of Cadiz with lots of glamour and colour, in a wonderful setting.
This carnival can be traced back to the 15th century, but of course like everywhere else got stopped in its tracks by Franco. After he died in 1976, it was reinstated. Later in 1998, the carnival formed its first drag queen gala which proved to be an immediate hit. These days this is considered its highlight. The carnival's main parade, the Cabalgata, travels through a six kilometre route and in the Parque de Santa Catalina, the competition for the best Drag Queen is held.
The carnival ends with a flourish, with its final parade that crosses through the city, ending at the Las Canteras Beach, where the symbolic papier maché sardine is burnt, along with a spectacular fireworks display.
Discover more: http://lpacarnaval.com/en/
7. Laza Carnival, Galicia
With Celtic roots, Galicia is a part of Spain that I love, and it's often overlooked as its weather is a little unpredictable! Laza has a super carnival, which defintely combines plenty of antics (and ants) with comedy and satire.
Expect feasting, dance and music, but don't get a fright when you witness ritualised aggression! Participants throw flour, water, ash and earth full of ants at each other. Floats focus on satire, political and social expression. There's also a satirical speech that is full of exaggerated statements about the local peoples' acts during the past year.
I almost forgot to warn you that the authority figures in masquerade carry whips to hit people to remind them that it is time to play! Laza is one for those of you who would see the fun in all of this, in a small community of around 1500 inhabitants.
8. Madrid Carnival
The Madrid Carnival offers visitors something that is reminiscent of Venice, because of the wonderful elaborate masks and costumes. Inject into this some humorous songs and plenty of fun, and Madrid turns into a different, even more entertaining city during carnival time. Of course, as I mentioned about Barcelona, the same principle applies here – if you are looking for a more concentrated carnival, then it may be wise to consider some of the smaller locations – which are still really big on carnival!
Enjoy music and dance from around the world, children's parades and traditional musical ensembles.
The highlight of this carnival is the Parade of Buffoons, with participants wearing Venetian outfits, along with other costumes from around the world, as well as jesters. Like some of the other spots, the Madrid Carnival ends with the Burial of the Sardine.
Discover more: https://www.carnavalmadrid.com/
There are written references to the Palamos Carnival that place it at least as early as 1850. The tradition was broken because of Franco, but it has been back with a vengeance for 40+ years now.
Watch out for the highlight, which is the big street parade – the Grandiosa Rua del Carnaval. Be sure to sort out a costume for the Saturday, so you can really get into the spirit of the carnival and dress up, to head off to the Costume Party. However be prepared to go on late into the night, as this party often finishes at the crack of dawn.
Discover more: http://carnavaldepalamos.com/
10. Platja d'Aro Carnival
In the Costa Brava, the Wild Coast of Catalonia, the Platja d’Aro Carnival is the considered the most famous carnival. The Platjo d'Aro Carnival has become so popular that it has made its way onto the official list of the world's carnival cities. For a pretty small town, this is a seriously big carnival!
The 12-day carnival welcomes over 4000 musicians, artists and performers, while over 70 local groups (comparsas) create floats. Costumes that have been lovingly made during the year are sported, and there's lots of dancing and singing.
It's a really fun free-for-all that attracts half a million visits or so each year.
Discover more: http://www.platjadaro.com/activitats/1175/carnaval_.html
11. Santa Cruz de Tenerife Carnival
If this doesn't qualify as the wildest and biggest carnival here in Spain, it certainly ties in first place, perhaps with Sitges ...This is a "serious" three weeks of fun and partying. The Santa Cruz de Tenerife definitely comes closest to the Rio Carnival, in terms of style and flamboyance. Think samba, feather headdresses, sparkly costumes, Carnival Queen and Carnival Drag Queen!
Join in the live street parties with salsa and Latin music and don't miss the amazing Grand Parada – the Cabalgata. Be warned that you will need to book tickets in advance way in advance, for this carnival's events, as it is so massively popular.
Discover more: http://carnavaldetenerife.com/
12. Sitges Carnival
Loud, loads of fun, eccentric and unique! Sitges Carnival is a hot and flamboyant Rio style carnival, with its own twists. Sitges is a wonderful location also, plus it's extremely accessible, being quite close to Barcelona. Its around half an hour away, with a really regular train service.
Watch out for outrageous costumes, and heaps of amazing drag talent! Sitges is just heaving with fun and street parties during carnival, with plenty of creativity and influence from the LGBT community.
In all of the excitement and revelry, there are two parades that stand out, which are the Parade of Extermination and the Parade of Debauchery. There are over 2000 participants and over 50 floats involved.
The carnival also has its fair share of rituals, but also lots of partying that goes on right through the night. Sitges may not be Rio, but the carnival is certainly very spirited. Like a number of the other carnivals, the final ritual is the Burying of the Sardine.
Discover more: http://www.visitsitges.com/en/carnaval-sitges-2019
Solsona is famous for its tradition of giants and giant making, so if you decide to come for the Solsona Carnival, you'll be seeing lots of mad giants. This 9-day carnival is another one that has been declared to be of National Tourist Interest. The Solsona Carnival is original and distinctive.
On Shrove Tuesday the loud trumpet music and entrance of the Carnival King herald the beginning of the Carnival. Over forty events are organised during the carnival, which include a contest called Miss Forastera de Fora – which means Miss Outsider from Abroad, which pokes fun at beauty pageants. There's also a costume competition for children and a fake donkey is hung from the town's bell tower. The stars are undoubtedly the giants, the donkey and of course the Carnival King.
Discover more: http://www.carnavalsolsona.com/
14. Vilanova i la Geltrú Carnival – Community of Barcelona
Bring someone on holidays to Vilanova i la Geltrú at carnival time and you can have the pleasure of throwing meringues at each other, and other people also! This is another super carnival for satire and has been honoured as a Heritage Festival by the Catalan Government.
This carnival is actually the only one in Catalonia that kept going during Franco's dictatorship. Expect plenty of satire, spectacles, events, traditional processions and concerts.
Carnival starts on Maundy Thursday when the people eat Xatonada, a traditional Catalan dish, which is made from desalted cod, anchovies, olives and curled endive in olive oil. This is served normally with one of my favourite local sauces Romesco. Once you've had your meal, it's time to start throwing meringues.
The carnivals has plenty of highlights. On Friday watch out for the Carnival King (Carnestoltes), who parades through the town with the comparsas (local groups) in their masks and costumes
On Saturday you'll see the Blazing Bird (Moixó Foiguer). This creature is like a human meets bird, who is covered in honey and feathers. The Moixó Foiguer jumps in and out of a box.
Also on Saturday the mascarots are out on the streets. These masked participants are prowling around hoping to discover the identity of other mascarots, without revealing their own. Sunday is considered the most important day, when the main carnival parades take place.
The mascarots also appear on Saturday. These are masked celebrants who prowl the streets trying to figure out the identities of their fellow revellers without revealing their own identities.
Of course like all of the carnivals, there's lots of fun and partying going on!
Discover more: http://www.carnavaldevilanova.cat/
15. Vinaros, Valencian Community
16th February to 4th March 2019
Vinaros is a typical authentic seaside town in the Valencian Community, although it's not far from the border with Catalonia. The first time I went to this carnival, I had a funny toilet experience! I was waiting in the queue to go to the bathroom, and got chatting to this lovely older Catalan man. He was from Barcelona, and told me that the Vinaros Carnival was better than Barcelona! I thought that it was a lovely compliment given the size difference of the two places.
It goes on for around 10 days, although I know from talking to the locals that the preparation for the costumes has been happening for a good bit of the year. Vinaros is a good choice if you want an interesting carnival, but one that is not so wild as Sitges or Tenerife.
Discover more: http://www.carnavaldevinaros.org/
Carnival approximate starting dates:
28 February 2019
23 February 2020
14 February 2021
27 February 2022
19 February 2023
11 February 2024
2 March 2025
15 February 2026
7 February 2027