Samba groups parading wildly through the city streets, partiers in costumes ranging from the elaborate to barely-there, vendors throwing freezing beers and caipirinhas into the crowd, and a mess of beautiful people sambaing their way into the hot summer nights: If you haven’t heard of the Disneyland for adults that is Rio Carnival (unlikely), let us introduce you…
While the Carnaval in Salvador is considered to be “the best” in Brazil, Rio Carnival has the competitive edge of being, well, Rio. The city is enchanting, sexy and vibrant, and its Carnival is a weeklong parade of that with the sounds and colors turned all the way up. Most foreigners think of Rio when they think of Carnival, and it’s no wonder why.
If you’re lucky enough to be heading to Rio Carnival this year, next year, or have it on your lifelong bucket list, this is the ultimate guide to everything you need and want to know! Below you’ll find the most important Rio Carnival tips, Rio Carnival ticket prices, links to Rio Carnival tickets, and everything to convince you that you need to be a part of the once-a-year party of a lifetime that is Rio Carnival!
Rio Carnival 2016 Dates
Friday, February 5th – Wednesday, February 10th.
Events will begin around 5pm on Friday, and will begin around 9:00am every other day until ending late-night on the 9th. Some blocos will happen throughout the day on the 10th, and the Champions’ Parade in the Sambodromo will take place on Saturday, February 13th. Monobloco’s famous bloco performance will be on Sunday, February 14th.
If you’re in Rio before Carnival starts, you can attend “practice” blocos starting one month before (basically the exact same party). Times and locations here.
Like we said, Carnival in Rio is amazing because it’s very “Rio”. It’s the exotic summer party along tropical beaches that we all want to be at, but it’s also much more laidback and informal than Carnivals elsewhere- great for travelers who want to just show up and join the party.
1. “Blocos” are the block parties that cover the city streets, happening simultaneously in every neighborhood, all day, every day for a week. Samba bands have locations throughout the city that are reserved at a certain time and day for them and have been the same since that band began participating in Carnaval (for some, it’s been decades). The bands play, crowds gather and drink and dance, and it often ends with the mass parading around with the band. So whether you plan where to go or just wander, you’ll be hitting these every few blocks. This is the people’s Carnaval, the free street celebration where you can wear whatever, drink whatever, do whatever and the rules of the city temporarily cease to exist. Anyone can be a part of it, and this is the epitome of Rio Carnaval to us. (More below).
2. The hours-long, world-class parade at the infamous Sambodrome (Sambodromo) is the ultimate Rio Carnaval tradition and it’s claim to fame. Samba “schools” perform here, which are large dance and music teams that come from different neighborhoods throughout the city. They have hundreds of people in each school, and the best schools are chosen at the end of the week. The Sambodrome is a 13-block long stadium, and the schools parade through the middle on stunning floats with men and women in incredibly elaborate costumes dancing atop. The musicians, also in Broadway-level costume, parade in front as hundreds more dance around the moving float. The parade happens each night of Carnaval, and usually doesn’t end until 5am or so. Each night, a different batch of schools performs. For this, you’ll need to buy tickets in advance.
3. The third element to Carnaval is parties at clubs each night. While this is the least “Carnaval” experience for a visitor, this is what a lot of young Brazilians do. This is an expensive way to do Carnaval, but an additional way to celebrate for people going all out. For these, you can look on the Facebook pages or websites of any of the big clubs in Rio to buy tickets, tables, bottle service, etc. You’ll need to get tickets or sign up for guestlists in advance for most.
The only Rio Carnaval tickets you need are for the Sambodrome or clubs, all street parties are free!
If you are going to the Sambodrome, you need to buy your tickets ASAP. The cheapest section (Private Chairs), with the furthest seats, start at $45 if you buy in advance, but we recommend you go for the Grandstand seats, the next cheapest but normal view range, which begin at $75 (but closer to $95 with fees). VIP boxes and a new partier area are also available at much steeper and varying prices. Private Chairs & Grandstand prices are fixed, but sell out so buy ASAP. All other seats are market driven, and the price increases accordingly- again, buy ASAP.
The Sambodrome will have parades each night, and the Champions’ Parade at the end of the week. You can pick whatever night is most convenient for you, there’s no big different between which schools you see (as a foreigner). We found the Champions’ Parade to be a great option because, as a tourist just looking for a good show, you see all of the winners, the tickets are usually half price, you can often buy last minute, and you don’t have to sacrifice missing street parties because it happens the weekend after everything else has wrapped up (2015: Sat. Feb 21st). But you have to be staying long enough to have this option.
You can buy all tickets to the Sambodromo here. (You buy online and then pick them up at the box office, or pay to have them delivered to your hotel).
Our favorite Rio Carnaval tradition: the blocos. Free parties in the street, anywhere and everywhere. WikiRio always compiles a giant detailed list of when and where every bloco is happening, and you can find the Bloco schedule here. As you’ll see, it’s massive and a million blocos are happening all over the city at once.
Some of the guide above is in Portuguese: “Bairro” refers to the neighborhood, while “Concentração” is the exact location (usually a plaza or square). “Publico Estimado” is the number of people expected to attend, which is really helpful. As you’ll see, it ranges from 200 to half a million…So you can have a much better idea of the party you’re showing up to and choose massive or cozy, whatever your style is. “Estilo” refers to the “style” of the ticketing for the party. This is blank for most, so don’t worry. Very very few require a reservation/ticket, usually from Facebook, in which case it will say “FB” here.
Most Famous Blocos: Banda de Ipanema (great music, parading along iconic Ipanema beach), Bola Preta (the biggest and craziest), Sargento Pimenta (Samba-style Beatles’ songs= amazing and everyone can sing along), Carmelitas de Santa Teresa (in the beautiful bohemian hilltop neighborhood, a classic), Monobloco (the Sunday after Carnival in the streets downtown; the most famous bloco in Brazil, the only time they perform for free!).
We also love the Super Mario Bros Bloco in Santa Teresa on Wednesday. They do samba covers of video game music and the costumes are incredible. Nerds unite!
When choosing blocos, be strategic with the areas. Look at a map and try to avoid crossing town in between each one (public transportation gets wild, and road closures usually require taxis to take long routes or prevent them from getting through). For example, you can do beach neighborhoods one day (Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana), and downtown neighborhoods another day (Lapa, Santa Teresa, Centro, Cinelandia, etc). If there’s a morning bloco by the beach and an evening one in Centro and you don’t want to miss either, slowly work your way across town throughout the day.
Blocos by Neighborhood:
- Ipanema: Most touristy, classic blocos and a little bit of everything
- Copacabana & Leme: Many young locals (20-30) who want to party hard and go all out on costumes
- Aterro do Flamengo: Hosts huge blocos on the grass that feel like music festivals, also wild
- Leblon: Hosts some great smaller but spirited blocos with few tourists (most out of the way to reach, perfect if you’re staying in the area)
- Centro: The biggest, craziest, massive blocos with millions of people. Unbelievable people watching
- Lapa: Wild like Centro but smaller streets lead to much more manageable crowds, great for any age
- Botafogo: Local favorite. Always fun, often better music, expect to see young locals (20-30) and families and everything in between
- Santa Teresa: Young local favorite (and personal favorite), these have the most personality (we think), and are wild yet much more intimate. They usually work their way down to Lapa where you can keep the party going.
You’ll find blocos covering every inch of the city, and we recommend trying to work your way across on the first day so you can determine which is most your style for the rest of Carnival.
Rio Carnival Costumes
My (and many Brazilians’) favorite part of Rio Carnival: costumes! Everyone dresses up, usually planning a different costume for each day of Carnival. And not in the Venice Carnival classy-masks and maybe some feathers look: basically Halloween round two. From little children to drunk adults to pets, they’re all doing it. On the street, you don’t need to compete with the elaborate costumes of the Sambodrome- anything goes!
If arriving a couple days before Carnival, head to Saara in Centro (the big outdoor shopping streets), and grab a costume for each day. If arriving just in time, don’t worry. You’ll see entire costume shops set up on the street during the event, selling everything from full costumes to animal ears to wigs to face paint.
For guys: For a reason that’s never been explained to me, all of the guys dress in girls’ costumes (I think this is unique to Rio Carnival). They keep it basic in a friend’s dress or bikini, or start adding on fairy wings, tutus, and always a wig. So if you’re a guy, that’s all you have to do! And no, you won’t have a problem picking up girls in your coconut bra and grass skirt, which is especially entertaining for the rest of us to watch.
For girls: Anything and everything! Think Halloween in extreme heat. You’ll see a million vendors selling floral headbands and glitter on the street, and this is the classic low maintenance costume if you don’t want to go all out. Last year, our friends’ costumes ranged from Carmen Miranda to David Bowie to Super Mario Brothers to a chili pepper. Anything. Goes.
Ideally, wear a bathing suit under your costume so you can go for a swim in between blocos: the party on the beach is always going and a great escape from the heat.
Rio Carnival Music
As you can already see, samba music and samba dancing are the centerpieces of this parade! Get ready by listening to all the samba you can- lyric videos encouraged! As the bands perform, on the streets and in the Sambodromo, you’ll see everyone in the crowd singing along with everything they’ve got. You have time to practice so you can be one of them and really be a part of it!
Each samba school performing in the Sambodrome has their song for the year with lyrics available here.
Where to Stay
Hostels, hotels, rent an apartment, or couchsurf: You have options! The area around the Sambodrome is not where tourists stay, so don’t worry about your proximity to it when choosing accommodations. If you are planning on attending blocos, it’s most important to position yourself so you can access them most easily. Most people prefer to stay near the beach (it’s the midst of summer and there are always blocos here), or in the party area of Lapa (which is close to the many blocos in Centro). The most central areas to all blocos are Copacabana, Botafogo and Flamengo, and Copacabana is my favorite because you’ll be near the best beaches as well. Ipanema and Leblon are tourist favorites, but it takes longer to get to blocos not near the beach.
Hostels are great if you’re looking for a constant party, or are coming alone or in a small group and want to meet people to go to blocos with each day. Hostels will raise prices for Carnival, but are still the best budget route. Search hostels here.
Hotels will give you more comfort in between partying, but increase rates much more drastically. Make sure to read what ammenities are offered so there aren’t any surprises when you arrive.Search hotels here.
Renting an apartment gives you a lot more freedom than a hotel room or hostel bed, and prices and comfort levels are across a wide range. You can search international sites like AirBnB and Booking.com which may be the most reliable, but if you can’t find what you want there you can check Brazilian ones such as EasyQuarto (or even Craigslist). The international ones usually deliver much better than EasyQuarto, but it may be worth checking.
Couchsurfers are lucky because some very generous Brazilians host couchsurfers every year, so you can have free accommodations for Rio Carnival. Definitely start talking to people in advance on Couchsurfing.
When people ask for Rio Carnaval tips, safety is always a crucial one. As with any giant, chaotic, city-wide event, there’s going to be some risk, but the biggest issue here is stolen cellphones. A lot of stolen cellphones. Keep your phone where you can feel it, or leave it at home (no police will care if your phone is stolen). iPhones or Samsungs (any “brand name” technology) will be the biggest target. Only bring cash to street parties, and also keep it in pockets on you. For girls, avoid purses.
For people traveling in groups, you’ll find it really difficult to meet up if you get separated (lots of group wear matching costumes, fun & helpful), and it’s hard to get around between blocos. Wherever blocos are taking place, the streets will be closed to all traffic (buses, taxis), and when very large blocos are taking place (such as Bola Preta), the nearest metro stations may also be closed.
When blocos end, everyone rushes for transportation, so plan accordingly. Ideally, leave just before it ends or plan so your next bloco is walking distance. If you linger too long, things start to get sloppy and you don’t need to stick around for it.
If you are going to the Sambodromo, know that it’s not the nicest area and can be dangerous at night or on weekends. During Carnival there will be crowds and lots of police, but if you are going in advance to pick up tickets or leaving alone at the end of the parade, try to stay with people and be wary.
Most importantly, remember that this it “their” Carnaval. That’s the biggest Rio Carnival tip we can offer: Brazilians, especially Cariocas, are proud of this tradition, so be respectful and remember you’re a guest and everyone will be happy to have you. If you’re the kind of person who drunk fights, this is not the place. Remember that you don’t know who anyone is or what they’ve brought with them, so don’t be a tough guy if that’s what you might do at home. The events are surrounded by police, but frankly they nor anyone else can or will help you if you create a situation for yourself. You’re in a massive street parade, every man for themselves. Don’t be a bystander either, if someone else gets in a fight, move far away from it quickly (you’ll see the police also taking this approach).
Heat: Rio Carnival is often pictured as a steamy parade of beautiful people. In reality, it’s a very sticky, sweaty party of melting beautiful people. Last year rhinestones actually melted off of my face. It’s always at least 40 degrees Celsius/105 degrees Fahrenheit. Bring water with you and always have some, there are plenty of vendors but they can be hard to get to at times and drinking in direct sunlight doesn’t do wonders for the body. You’ll see more beer than water for sale.
Drinks: Licensed vendors are everywhere, and you’ll recognize them decked-out in the logos of various beer companies. Thus, their prices are pre-set and consistent, and they’re truly everywhere. You’ll see unlicensed people making and selling caipirinhas on the outskirts, we drank these endlessly during our time in Rio, but the proper advice is to be careful because they could be making your drink with anything. Same with random guys offering tubes of neon shots or caipirinha popsicles- it’s all DIY. If you want to be super Rio, BYOB: buy a giant bag of ice, put your drinks in it, and carry it around with your group. Remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Nobody is keeping their eyes out for a tourist who’s too drunk and needs help, and this isn’t Coachella with it’s air-conditioned first-aid tents. There is no first aid, and it’s hard to get somewhere if you need to.
Public Urination: There is even Carnival music about not peeing in the streets. As you’ll see, many people do. As of 2012, it became illegal (because apparently it was fine before), and you can be arrested and fined for it.
Food: There aren’t as many vendors as there are for beer, but you’ll see carts all over the streets and restaurants and snack shops will remain open!
Rio Carnival Websites
For even more, here are some great & reliable websites that will tell you every last detail that we may not have covered. Some are in Portuguese, but you can translate them with your browser:
And most importantly, these beautiful photos from last year’s Rio Carnival that we didn’t take, but everyone needs to see. If this doesn’t get you unbelievably excited to be there, or convince you to add it to your bucket list, nothing will!
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