One of the most exciting things about traveling internationally is the opportunity to be totally immersed in a different culture, providing phenomenal opportunities to be inspired and enlightened. And, if you are fortunate enough to be present during a holiday, religious celebration, or national event, you may get a richer understanding of a country’s history, values, and customs.
When I was living with a family in Northern India during the Diwali holiday, my memories of celebrating the ‘Festival of Lights’ were a highlight. For five nights, we set off fireworks, sky lanterns, and sparklers with friends and neighbors. Absolutely unforgettable!
Although holidays and religious celebrations like Diwali can be exciting, if unprepared, they may sabotage a well-thought-out itinerary. Many national holidays result in closed stores and restaurants, and cancelled tours. They may also impact the cost of flights, accommodations, transportation, etc.
For some individuals, national holidays and celebrations are the reason for their travel, while others go with different vacation plans in mind, or for business reasons. Regardless, being aware of national celebrations while planning a trip is important.
Here are some popular holidays, events, and dates to plan your trip around.
(Jan – Dec):
Fiesta de Palmares
Palmares, Costa Rica
Dates: January (dates change annually)
For two weeks, the small town of Palmares throws one of the biggest and highly anticipated parties of the year that’s attended by more than one million Costa Ricans and international visitors. The festival features concerts, comedy, football, parades, beer, and fireworks. In terms of beer consumption, it’s second only to the famous Oktoberfest (according to Maximo Nivel)
Quebec Winter Carnival
Quebec City, Canada
Dates: End of January to Mid February (dates vary annually)
Quebec City is home to one of the world’s largest winter festivals, known for honoring longtime mid-winter traditions. Sprawled across the city and attracting one million visitors and tourists annually, the Carnival features an ice palace, sleigh rides, ice sculptures, toboggan rides, ice canoe races, lots of maple syrup, and other carnival food & drinks.
Chinese New Year
Dates: Late January to Mid February (dates vary annually)
Lunar New Year is a global celebration and a time to visit family, honor ancestry, and share wishes for good luck and happiness in the new year. Festivities include dancing, parades, martial arts, traditional foods, and fireworks. Some international cities with the biggest parades and festivities are: Beijing, London, Vancouver, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Helsinki, Sydney, Paris, and Singapore.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Dates: Begins the Friday preceding Ash Wednesday (mid to late February)
The biggest Carnival celebration in the world, attracting two million people per day, takes place in Rio de Janeiro. Samba parades, floats, and nightly themed balls create an explosion of spectacular dance, music, and culture. However, Rio isn’t the only place with Carnival celebrations. Canary Islands, Spain; Oruro, Bolivia; Binche, Belgium; Venice, Italy; and Trinidad and Tobago also host spirited parties and parades.
Dates: Late March to early April
The Sakura, or cherry blossom, festivals are a time when locals and visitors celebrate the blooming season. During this special time of Hanami (cherry blossom viewing), thousands of people head to the parks for parties and picnics. Festivals take place all throughout Japan, but some of the biggest celebrations are at Ueno Park in Tokyo and Maruyama Park in Kyoto.
Dates: Last Wednesday of August
Just outside Valencia, the small town of Bunol is home to this massive food festival, where hundreds of thousands of people come to throw tomatoes at friends and strangers. For one hour it’s pure chaos and exhilaration! The festivities include tomato-themed fireworks, parades, live music, and the tradition of climbing a greased pole.
Dates: Mid-September to early October (dates vary annually)
The original Oktoberfest in 1810 was a horse race to celebrate a royal wedding. Now, this 17-day festival brings 6 million visitors to its fairgrounds in Munich, Germany for food, music, games, and beer. On the first Sunday of Oktoberfest, thousands line the street for a historic parade in which decorated horses, marching bands, and locals in traditional costumes march to the festival grounds.
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
Mexico City, Mexico
Dates: October 31st to November 2nd
A three-day holiday where families create ofrendas (offerings) to honor departed family members that have passed. Altars are decorated with flowers, pictures, and favorite foods and drinks to celebrate the death and life of loved ones. Mexico City hosts the biggest Dia de los Muertos parade, with over 2 million locals and tourists celebrating.
Dates: Falls between October and November
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights, celebrated with five nights of fireworks, rangoli decorations (art patterns on the floor), lanterns, and candles. The fireworks and candles used throughout the Diwali festival symbolize the ultimate victory of light (goodness) over darkness (evil).
Yi Peng Lantern Festival
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Dates: Usually falls in November (dates change annually to align with Thai Lunar calendar)
Celebrated on a full moon, this festival traces back to the 13th century to mark the end of monsoon season and the start of the cool season. The highlight of this holiday is the massive release of paper lanterns into the night sky, symbolizing the release of sorrow and the hope for good luck in the coming year.
Dates: December 31st
Live music, fireworks, torchlight processions, a fireball parade, and festive foods and drinks create the Yule festival known as Hogmanay. As the clock strikes midnight, hordes of people across Scotland begin singing the Auld Lang Syne song, written in 1788, to welcome in the New Year. It’s a special cultural celebration dating back to the 8th century.
If you travel to a country during one of these celebrations, please share your experience with us!