Rio Carnival: A Guide to Rio de Janeiro’s Biggest Party

Though, Rio’s eventful “street Carnival” begins in January and take crowds to diverse blocos throughout February, one of the biggest parties in the world will, once again, officially take over Rio de Janeiro. From Feb. 9 – Feb. 13, the streets of this renowned party capital will once again turn into the place to be. Despite the Brazilian city’s new conservative mayor — who recently cut funding for the international event — carnival will be proceeding as planned. After all, what could possibly stop the spirit of local cariocas — and not to mention hundreds of thousands of party-hungry tourists.

Beginning in January, local neighborhoods, from Barra da Tijuca in Zone Oeste to the Paquetá Island, begin throwing hundreds of blocos, or street parties throughout the city. Cariocas love to commune in the streets, and the start of carnival is the perfect time to ramp up the festival season with singing, drinking and dancing in the streets. Official festivities kick off with the opening ceremonies on Friday. At the start of carnival, the Greek character King Momo — a figure representing harmless fun — is handed the key to the city and soon cariocas begin to spread throughout the Rio neighborhoods forming “blocos”, or street parties. From there, all roads lead to the famous Sambadromo where dance schools from all over the country compete in stunningly elaborate parades. Around 80,000 tickets are sold each year for this competition which runs throughout the week. During the evening on opening night is when the glamorous parties and balls begin. Scala, a popular LGBT club in the Leblon neighborhood, hosts the first big ball known as Cordao do Bola Preta. Here you’ll find Brazillian celebrities including famous sambistas. Dance alongside these pros in evening wear as live samba bands play in the background.

On Feb. 10 the Copacabana Palace hotel will host the Magic Ball, one of the most sought after events of the week. The rich, famous and shockingly good-looking elites gather here for a night of themed costumes, caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail) and, you guessed it, lots of samba dancing.

If you haven’t surmised by now, it’s important to pace yourself when attending carnival. The late nights at the balls quickly turn into early mornings. But locals fear not, as they’re happy to stay up late and do it all over again the next day. As the street parties lure you in through their lively music and colorful dancers, look to Simpatia é Quase Amor, or Sympathy is Almost Love. This bloco/parade has run every year since the mid-80s and is not to be missed. On Sunday, Feb. 11, the Sambadromo will fill up once again as the final Special Group Samba Parade begins and each school will present their last effort to take home the coveted title. Continuing on to Monday, the main event will intensify as each samba school dances to the lively drums that drive samba music.

Later that night, Scala will host a locally themed party called City Ball. For this iteration, cariocas come together to celebrate without the pomp and frill of some of the more extravagant balls. Or, if you’re looking for a happy medium between the City Ball and the aforementioned grandeur of the Magic Ball, look to the popular Gay Gala Ball. On Tuesday, Feb. 13, the red carpet is literally replaced with a pink carpet as drag queens donned in absurdly lavish costumes gather at Scala. While the LGBT community of Rio flocks to the Gay Gala, everyone is welcome and many tourists use this party as an opportunity to explore their flamboyant side. As the last night of Rio’s carnival, this ball is grand finale of the Scala Ball series and arguably the biggest night of carnival itself.

After the official weekend, on Feb. 17 at 10 p.m., the Champions Parade will take place showcasing the all-around winner and the five runners-up. This all-night event is more carefree as all the competing is finished and dancers can now breathe a sigh of relief and simply have fun, with all festivities ending in an epic fireworks display.

In between the samba dancing you’ll want to refuel at some of Rio’s best restaurants. The funky Hocus Pocus DNA in Botafogo houses not only some of the best craft beers in the city, but its gastropub menu features superb eats. Though don’t let the laid back vibe fool you, dishes like their sausage-fried dumplings with béchamel sauce will blow your mind. Similarly, though sans the funk, CoLAB is also in the Botafogo neighborhood and serves up one of the best new menus in the city. Their Indonesian-inspired Beef Rendang is as succulent as their shiitake curry. For something entirely different, Pabu Izakaya in Leblon manages to create a hip, trendy atmosphere while serving up some very serious Japanese cuisine. Don’t skimp on the pork gyoza dumplings and cold sake.

Cocktail bars are abundant in Rio — the increasingly hip locals make sure of this. In sticking with the Japanese aesthetic, MEE Restaurant in the Palace Hotel not only boasts some spectacular sushi but their cocktail bar pours stunningly modern recipes involving lemongrass, lychee and grapefruit marmalade. Carverna, in the ever-popular Botafogo, skips the mundane and focuses in on the eccentric. Aged cachaça features prominently in the Uai Protein cocktail alongside orange syrup, nutmeg and pulp from the super fruit known as cupuaçu. Finally, check out Meza Bar for a diverse, award-winning cocktail list. The Spicy Mojito with a finger of pepper syrup, the Santogold with sparkling rosé and caramelized apple and Calypso Pop featuring pisco, acai liqueur, lemongrass and vanilla are all titillating choices.

Hotel options are as abundant as the world-class food and drink options, and the uber hip Mama Shelter is undoubtedly one of the coolest. Resting on the hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa, this funky hotel sports artist-painted walls and mosaics alongside its relaxing patio/lounge and dancefloor for late night hangs. Casa Mosquito is another solid stay, though they focus more on classic Brazilian stylings. With its surrounding hillside neighborhoods, each suite has its own balcony perfect for afternoon views. Speaking of classic, the Ipanema Inn sits right on the most historic beach in Rio. By no means the poshest hotel in the city, the Ipanema Inn uses its signature combination of charm and modern design to become one of the city’s best hotels.

 Rio de Janeiro’s 2018 Carnival will take place Feb. 9 through Feb. 13.