Carnival in Spain (or, “Carnaval” in Spanish) is the Spanish equivalent of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and one of the most unique events on the Spanish calendar. Kicking off the week leading up to Lent (typically the end of February), carnival celebrations last about a week and vary greatly depending on the city. From drag parades and pageants to running of the bulls and funeral processions for sardines, a few things are guaranteed: flamboyant costumes, fabulous parades, and outlandish parties. Here’s a roundup of a few of our favorites cities to celebrate carnival in Spain.
The carnival celebrations in Spain’s capital are a weeklong festival of parades, parties, costumes, and general debauchery. Similar to most everything in Spain, the events are family-friendly, with special activities and workshops set aside for kids.
The festivities kick off on February 9th with “the reading of the Proclamation” (read by a local celebrity) from the balcony of the Casa de la Villa, the old town hall. Later in the day, the parade begins and jesters, murgas and chirigotas (choirs and theatrical groups), and other festive characters march from El Retiro Park down to Plaza de Cibeles, with the crowds cheering them on as they make their procession.
Throughout the week, the city is home to a variety of parties. The Grand Ball and Fancy Dress Competition and The Krewes Festival are two of the most famous. Don’t worry if you can’t get tickets though, there will be multiple concerts, theme parties, costume contests, and more throughout the city streets and plazas. Madrid is one big party all week long.
Carnival in Spain culminates on Ash Wednesday (which also happens to fall on Valentine’s Day this year) with a tradition unique to carnival in Spain: El Entierro de la Sardina, or, “the burial of the sardine.” In a mock funeral, a sardine is placed in a coffin and mourners gather in black robes and somber funeral attire to march behind the coffin as it makes its way to the burial site. The burying of the sardine signifies that carnival is over: it’s time to stop partying and get ready for Lent. No knows the exact origin of how this tradition came to be, but one theory holds that many years ago, the King of Spain, Charles III, requested sardines to be served at his carnival party. Unfortunately, they were ordered a bit in advance of the party, and by the time the party rolled around had spoiled. To get rid of the smell, the King ordered them to be buried. Guests mourned the thought of burying their free food and starting the restrictive Lenten period, and thus, the tradition of El Entiorro de la Sardina was born.
February 9-14, 2018
How to Get to There
Madrid’s carnival takes places in the center of the city. Direct flights to Madrid are available from major cities in the US to Madrid’s Barajas International Airport (set your flight alerts here). From the airport, the city center is approximately 20 minutes by cab and costs 30 Euros. The metro is also available and takes approximately 15 minutes via line 8 to Nuevos Ministerios.
Where to Stay
Madrid is easy to navigate via public transportation, but we recommend staying in the city center just a short walk to the main events. Keep in mind that carnival in Spain is a popular time no matter where you go, so book early! A few of our favorites include:
Westin Palace Hotel is an iconic 4.5-star hotel that first opened in 1912. It is located in the museum district, across the street from The Prado Museum and adjacent to the Reina Sofia and Tyssen-Ornemisza. It is a quiet area and just a short walk to the center and Retiro Park.
ME Madrid Reina Victoria is a luxury hotel inside a historic 19th-century building located in one of Madrid’s best squares, Plaza Santa Ana, and features a great rooftop bar. It is located in the city center and an ideal location for those looking to be in the center of the carnival festivities.
The Only YOU Boutique Hotel is a 4-star boutique hotel in Madrid’s Chueca neighborhood. Set inside a restored 19th Century Palace, it is located in the city center and perfect for those who love a hotel with personality.
Hace poco más de un mes que acabó lo que puedo decir con toda seguridad que fue la mejor semana de mi vida. Muchas gracias a todos los que lo hicisteis posible y estuvisteis a mi lado. Visca el Carnaval de Sitges, y visca el grup Reina 30 anys! #tottornaambpurpurina #carnavalsitges17 #sitgescarnaval #juntsmoltmillor
A coastal town just 45 minutes south of Barcelona, Sitges is oft referred to as the “St. Tropez of Spain” and the gay capital of Europe. While a popular resort destination year-round, Sitges particularly comes alive during carnival. Last year drew in nearly 300,000 revelers. Carnivals in Spain is known for its drag performances, and Sitges is the leader, attracting the best talent from across the world. Expect to see sequins galore, feathers, glitter, impossibly high heels, masks, wigs, and so much more.
This year’s carnival kicks off February 8th with the arrival of the carnival’s King and Queen, accompanied by a fantastic firework show along the waterfront. From there the King and Queen make their way to to the Town Hall, where they read the predicot, a satirical commencement speech, and the week of debauchery and hedonism officially kicks off. While parties run in the streets 24/7, there are a few can’t-miss official events:
The Bed Race: on February 10th, teams don elaborate costumes, decorate beds, set them on wheels, and race them throughout the street. The two main parades in Sitges are La Rua de la Disbauxa or, The Parade of Debauchery, and La Rua de l’Extermini, or The Parade of Extermination. The first takes place on February 11th, and the second on February 13th. Each features upwards of 50 floats with spectacular costumes and choreographed performances.
Sitges’ carnival comes to a close on February 14th with the El Entiorro de la Sardina and The Farewell of the Carnival King, King Carnestoltes. Similar to Madrid, the sardine is buried, although this time at the beach, symbolizing the end of the parties. In addition to el Entiorro de la Sardina, however, comes The Farewell of the Carnival King. As tradition has it, King Carnestoltes brings shame to his monarch by presiding over and partaking in the balls, processions, parades and all around debauchery of the week. As such, he is tried and condemned for allowing such raucous to occur. Once condemned, he reads his last will and testament, proclaiming that people should lead their lives in a carefree fashion. From there, an effigy of the king is burnt.
February 8 – 14
How to Get to There
Direct flights to Barcelona are available from major cities in the US to Barcelona El Prat Airport (BCN) and Sitges is approximately 35-minutes by train from Barcelona.
Where to Stay
With over 300,000 people descending on Sitges, hotels book up quickly, so make sure to reserve your room far in advance. A few of our favorites include:
URH Sitges Playa is a four-star hotel on the Mediterranean. It is in a quieter section of town, yet still walkable to the city center, and perfect for those wanting to party during the day, but also escape for a bit of sleep.
Melia Sitges is a 4-star hotel just 3 minutes from the beach and 15 minutes from the city center. The hotel boasts a wonderful spa.
Hotel URH San Sebastian Playa is a 4-star beachfront hotel just minutes from the city center and perfect for those wishing to be close to the carnival action.
3.) Ciudad Rodrigo
A more unique carnival in Spain takes place in Ciudad Rodrigo. This small, walled-in cathedral city is approximately 3.5 hours west of Madrid, on the border of Portugal, and home to one of the oldest carnivals in Spain: Carnaval del Toro or, The Carnival of the Bull. Carnaval del Toro kicks off with los encierros, running of the bulls, a smaller version of Pamplona’s infamous event. During the encierro, crowds of people (along with garrochistas, expert horseback riders) heard the bulls from the countryside and through the city streets until they reach Plaza Mayor, the main plaza, which is converted into a makeshift bullring. Aspiring bullfighters from all across Spain come to prove their bullfighting skills. Exercise caution should you decided to participate, as injuries are common. In addition to the bullfights, the streets are filled with music and revelers, and the festivities last approximately a week.
February 9 – 13
Where to Stay
Ciudad Rodrigo is a small city, but there are several charming hotels both within its wall as well as on its outskirts. A few of our favorites are:
Parador de Ciudad Rodrigo is a 14th-century ivy-covered former castle. It is set atop a hill and offers dramatic views of the city. It’s perfect for couples looking for romantic, luxury accommodation.
Hotel Arcos is located within the city walls, just steps from Plaza Mayor and perfect for those wishing to be in the center of the action.
Hotel Conde Rodrigo I is set in a restored 16th-century townhouse and located within the city walls, next to Plaza Mayor. Similar to Hotel Arcos, it’s perfect for those wishing to be in the center of the action.
How to Get There
Ciudad Rodrigo is best reached via Madrid. We recommend renting a car and driving, which takes a little under 4 hours. Another option is to take the fast train to Salamanca, where you can then take a local train or bus to Ciudad Rodrigo.
Cadiz is an ancient port city in southwest Spain in the Andalucia region and claims to have the oldest carnival in Spain (mainland Spain). Cadiz’s carnival dates back to the 16th century and was heavily influenced by Venice, one of its trading partners during that time. During General Franco’s regime, celebrations for carnival in Spain were banned, and many cities abided by these rules. Cadiz, however, did not, and continued their celebrations in secret. While many carnivals are famous for their glamour, Cadiz considers its people to be the wittiest in Spain, and thus its carnival is unique for its clever and imaginative costumes, as well as satirical performances and songs.
Saturday, February 10th marks the day (and night) of the biggest street party, and Sunday the 11th is the main parade, with colorful floats carrying dancers, singers, and even acrobats. Music is key in the Cadiz carnival, and you’ll find various groups singing and performing skits throughout the streets throughout the entirety of carnival. The most popular groups you’ll see are the chirigotas, comparsas, cuartetos, and romanceros. The chirigotas play guitars and sing satires of current events and the comparsas sing satirical songs about politics. The cuartetos quartets put on comical skits and improv in small groups accompanied a few instruments, and the romanceros use massive posters to tell their tales.
February 8 – 18, 2018
Where to Stay
Iberostar Andalucía Playa is a 5-star Andalusian-style beachfront, golf course, and spa hotel perfect for couples looking for a quiet place to stay post carnival revelry.
Hotel Boutique Convento is an elegant, 17th-century former convent located in the old residential barrio of Santa Maria. Glamourous and historic, it’s perfect for those wanting to be close to the action, but not directly in its midst.
Hotel La Catedral is located next to the Santa Cruz Cathedral. Its rooms are themed around notable people, artwork, and historical monuments in Cadiz and its terrace provides a perfect viewpoint of the street performances in the square below.
How to Get There
Cadiz is reachable via train from Madrid, which takes just under 5 hours. Alternatively, you can fly into the nearby Seville Airport (SVQ), which is about a 2-hour train ride from Cadiz.
1.) Santa Cruz, Tenerife, The Canary Islands
Without a doubt, the best carnival in Spain takes place in the Canary Islands, although there is debate over which island does it best: Tenerife or Gran Canaria. That being said, in 2000 Tenerife was named the “Carnival Capital of the World” and UNESCO will soon include it in their world heritage listing, and so wholeheartedly agree: Tenerife is home to the best carnival in Spain. Specifically, the Tenerife’s town of Santa Cruz.
Tenerife’s carnival dates back to the 17th Century and has been celebrated ever since. Similar to Cadiz, Tenerife refused to follow General Franco’s orders when he abolished carnival in Spain, and instead renamed it the Winter Festival.
Tenerife’s carnival has a different theme each year, and this year’s theme is La Fantasia, or fantasy. February 7th is La Gala de Elección de la Reina del Carnaval, or Carnival Queen Election Gala. It marks the official start of Tenerife’s carnival and this spectacular competition is akin to Miss America meets the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show. Contestants parade the stage in magnificent costumes of sequins and feathers which, years past, have weighed upwards of 200lbs! Tickets sell out within minutes, and the event is broadcast live. February 8th is the date of the parade, and thousands of people fill the streets to watch the colorful floats make their way through the streets. The floats are filled with various queens: child queen, adult queen, drag queen, senior queen, as well as THE Queen, the Carnival Queen, as well as bands and dance troupes. February 14th is the funeral of the sardine. Similar to carnival in the aforementioned cities, Santa Cruz holds a funeral procession for the fish – in this case, a 30-foot papier mâché sardine. Rather than somber funeral attire seen in other Funeral of the Sardine processions, men dress in drag: typically, black mini skirts and fishnet stockings. While carnival festivities in most areas of Spain traditionally end with the Funeral of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday, Tenerife’s celebrations continue until the following weekend.
We rank Tenerife as the best place to celebrate carnival in Spain not only due to the spectacular parties but also due to the climate. February is still “beach weather,” on the island, so spend your nights partying and your days recovering on the sand and in the sun. If you have time, make sure to check out some of the other islands, as well as our roundup of best beaches.
How to Get There
Tenerife has two airports, North Airport (TFN) and South Airport (TFS). TFN is closest to Santa Cruz and 20 minutes away, while TFS is approximately 40 minutes away. Santa Cruz is easily reachable from both airports via public transportation or taxi. Unfortunately, direct flights from the US do not yet exist, but once in Europe, there are numerous options on local carriers such as Iberia, Ryan Air, Easy Jet and countless others out of Spain, The UK, Germany, and more. We recommend setting a flight alert, as flights can occasionally be found for under 20 Euros.
Where to Stay
Iberostar Grand Hotel Mencey is a 5-star luxury spa hotel located in the center of Santa Cruz, and perfect for those wanting to be in the center of the action, with a luxury place to go back to at night.
NH Tenerife is a modern, 4-Star hotel in the city center, near the harbor, and perfect for those wishing to be in the heart of the festivities.
Occidental Santa Cruz Contemporáneo is a modern hotel on the Rambla Santa Cruz and just a short walk to the city center.