Photograph by Andreas Möltgen, LUZphoto/Redux
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The crowd celebrates during the Mardi Gras parade in Cologne, Germany.

Photograph by Andreas Möltgen, LUZphoto/Redux

Top 10 Mardi Gras Celebrations

Kiss pleasures of the flesh goodbye at the planet’s most exuberant carnivals.

From the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel

New Orleans, Louisiana
Napoleon may have sold Louisiana to the Americans, but French traditions endured, most notably Mardi Gras (Fat, or Shrove, Tuesday), the raucous carnival that really defines New Orleans. Beginning with a masked ball on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, celebrations build to fever pitch during five days of pre-Lenten parties.

Veracruz, Mexico
Eight days before Lent, Carnival kicks off in this eastern port city with the quema del mal humor—the “burning of ill humor” in the form of an effigy of Satan or (more likely) an unpopular political figure. Days of joyous parades and Latin revelry include the crowning of children as the Carnival Queen and the King of Joy and culminate in a mock burial for Carnival Juan, the symbol of the festivities.

Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
With headdresses, hot pants, and painted bodies swinging to infectious soca, Port of Spain hosts one of the largest and most elaborate Caribbean carnivals. Brace yourself for all-night parties and raucous steel-pan music. Two days before Ash Wednesday, paint, oil, and melted chocolate fly during the mas (masquerade) parades.

Olinda, Brazil
Unlike its flashy Rio cousin, this historic coastal town celebrates Carnival with small bands playing frevo (from the Portuguese word for “boiling”) and giant papier-mâché puppets lurching through the cobbled quarter. Every street boasts its own bloco, or Carnival band, driving throngs of gyrating dancers in audacious costumes. The wildest getups are worn by transvestite groups on Carnival Friday.

Oruro, Bolivia
Nestled high in the Andes, this quiet mining town comes alive during a four-day pre-Lenten procession featuring dancing diabladas, or devils. Indian miners feared their underworld deity, Supay, would be jealous of the Virgin of the Mineshaft, patron saint of Carnival, so appeasing residents don devilish costumes—and chuck water balloons at each other. The town recently unveiled a 150-foot (48-meter) statue of the Virgin Mary, taller even than Rio’s “Christ the Redeemer.”

Cologne, Germany
Stereotypically serious Germans throw a communal silly fit during Karneval, also known as Fasching in some parts of Germany. Festivities begin November 11 and flow all the way through winter. In Cologne, the hundreds of festive events include parades, balls, concerts, and traditional variety shows. On the Monday before Ash Wednesday, a rowdy pageant of fools is followed by an all-night ball.

Venice, Italy
The mother of all Mardis Gras celebrations, the flamboyant Venetian Carnevale was invented in the 13th century, marrying the Latin carne (flesh) to vale (farewell). Although rooted in Catholicism, this has always been a secular extravaganza and an excuse for Venetians to act out their fantasies behind the anonymity of disguise. Visit about two weeks before Lent to see locals in authentic costume.

Patras, Greece
A meeting of myth and reality, Patras’s Carnival draws its inspiration from ancient Greece—in particular, Dionysus, the god of wine. St. Anthony’s Day (January 17) marks the official start of a carnival season that stretches all the way into early March, finishing with a lavish parade and a kite-flying competition.

Mindelo, Cape Verde
Just off the coast of Senegal, the lush Cape Verde islands host a curious mix of Carnival traditions in the run-up to the fast. In the handsome town of Mindelo, jerry-built floats and curvy dancers sway to Creole coladeira punctuated by ululating African shrieks. Competitions are held for best outfit, prettiest girl, and the finest oil-smeared, drum-beating group of Mandingo warriors.

Goa, India
Unique to India, the Goa Carnival still exudes the free, harmonious spirit that made this former Portuguese colony a hippie legend. On Fat Saturday, King Momo reads a decree entitling him to rule for three days and ordering everyone to party. Gorgeous floats and graceful dancers wend their way through the streets of Panjim to traditional folk songs and strumming of guitars.