Skip Nav

Things to Know About Rio de Janeiro's Carnival

The 5 Things You Need to Know About Rio de Janeiro's Carnival

TOPSHOT - Revellers of the Unidos da Tijuca samba school perform during the second night of Rio's Carnival at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on February 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Carl DE SOUZA        (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

The place that comes to mind when hearing about carnival is definitely Brazil. The colourful Rio Carnival is the largest in the world, a party so unique and spectacular that almost everyone knows a little something about it. Locals say it's the greatest show on Earth, and we believe them fully because its reputation precedes these festivities as a five-day samba, feather and colour extravaganza.

Yes, Carnival in Rio takes a full five days. From Friday night until noon of Ash Wednesday, people take to the streets for an array of events where the samba (a rhythm that has its roots in the mix of African and European music) is always at the core. Like most carnivals, the one in Rio aligns with the Catholic calendar, giving people a last opportunity for excess and pagan pleasures before the start of the 40 days of Lent.

In Brazil, the celebration can be traced back to the 18th century, introduced by Portuguese colonizers and called "Entrudo" back then, a celebration led by working classes to mock the mannerism of the rich. But, besides this, all the samba, and the Sambódromo — the parade area built for the celebrations — what else do we know about Carnival in Rio?

It's a Royal Affair

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JANUARY 12: Djeferson Mendes da Silva, King Momo elected and Camila Aparecida da Silva, Rio Carnival Queen elected (in the centre) receive the Key of the city during the Crown ceremony. The city hall of Rio de Janeiro celebrated this Sunday afternoon at Copacabana beach along with

Carnivals in South America came to be following pagan celebrations where god Momo was worshiped, and the figure of Momo survives today as the central inspiration for most festivities. In Rio, the King Momo is the central character of Carnival, followed by a queen and two princesses, these last two usually selected from samba schools. On Friday, the mayor gives the key to the city to the king, therefore giving him and his court the authority to "rule" the city and everything going on in it.

Samba is a Serious Business

TOPSHOT - Members of the Paraiso do Tuiuti samba school perform during the second night of Rio's Carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil early on March 4, 2019. -  (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

We have all heard of the Sambódromo, and millions have seen on TV the major spectacle that a samba parade is, an image that has almost exclusively symbolized the Rio carnival for years. What many people don't know is what it takes to get there. The parade — which in total can take up to 10 hours to be completed — is actually a competition between the top 14 samba schools in the city. Each one of them picks a theme and performs in the Sambódromo, where besides the hundreds of thousands of people there are also 40 jurors watching their performances closely.

You Can Technically Join a Smaller Parade

A performer take part in a street party during the annual 'Ceu Na Terra bloco', in the run up to Rio's carnival, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on February 15, 2020. - Street parties have begun to fill the streets before Rio's annual world famous carnival. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP) (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

Rio de Janeiro has options for everyone to enjoy this time of year. Parallel to the parade, events are happening all over the city. The most prominent ones are the street parties or "blocos," as they're known. Blocos are led by moving vans or floats that trail slowly along with streams of samba music blasting. Like any street party there are vendors, food and music available at every turn, people in costumes and a lot of heat, so be prepared to sweat.

Costumes are a Must

A reveller dressed as Mexican artist Frida Kalho takes part in the street carnival parade of the Bloco das Fridas at the XV Square in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 5, 2019, during the unofficial opening of the 2020 Carnival. (Photo by Mauro PIMENTEL / AFP) (Photo by MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the most important elements of carnival is the fact that, since their inception, people used costumes to mock the behaviour of those they despised. From kings to politicians, working classes have taken to costume to express their thoughts about reality. Although in Rio costumes are not by any means mandatory, they are definitely part of the experience. Whether you want to be a police officer, a nurse, wear a mask, or just cover yourself in glitter, you join the fun and use your imagination!

Kids can Join in the Fun

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 16: A kid smiles at Bloco da Preta in downtown Rio on February 16, 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Wagner Meier/Getty Images)

There has been a lot of criticism regarding many expressions occurring during Rio carnival, specifically the amount of skin and display of sexuality we see from dancers and samba performers. However, these images are not representative of the majority of the performances and it is typical for families to take their kids to the Sambdromo or other events. In addition to that, kids and teens have their own parade, where they also compete and make sure the tradition is safe for years to come.

More from POPSUGAR
From Our Partners
Rio de Janeiro's Carnival Costumes
Latest Latina