Parties are great excuses to travel. Getting swept up in the spirit of a rowdy festival can transform a fun jaunt into a legendary journey. Sure, Stockholm is cool year-round, but why not see its true colors on Midsummer night?
We asked the party experts to list the world's most provocative, enlightening and inebriating fests—without including the obvious blow-outs like Carnival. Some celebrations are famous (good old Halloween); some are cult favorites (The Edinburgh Fringe Festival). Still others, we admit, are just plain strange (Kim Jong-il's birthday, anyone?).
"I think a lot of travelers are looking for almost pure escapism in a festival," says Martin Dunford, producer of the "Rough Guide's World Party", which reviews hundreds of the world's best festivals. "They want something to really take them out of their comfort zone and put them in a place quite unlike the one they inhabit at home."
This one-time Viking fertility fest remains popular throughout Scandinavia. But in Sweden, it's an immensely popular “smorgasbord with beer and schnaps,” according to Annika Benjes, director of public relations at Visit Sweden. Fruitfulness of all kinds is at the center of midsummer in most pagan cultures, and Sweden is no different. “Young girls pick seven kinds of flowers and put them under the pillow. The man the girl dreams of will be her husband.” But not every Swede is thinking about marriage. Raising the maypole seems to put them in the mood for nighttime partying that ends only with daybreak—and a skinny-dip in the nearest pond.
If a trip to the Far East is all about discovering a new reality, arriving in Thailand in time for Songkhran will turn up the other-worldliness by several notches. No fun-seeking globetrotter wants to miss the opportunity to douse orange-robed monks with water or be shot by water-gun-wielding teenagers as the Thais cleanse themselves and their fellow citizens—like it or not—in preparation for the New Year.
Cirio de Nazare
If Carnaval isn’t enough to quench your festive spirit, head north to Belém for Brazil’s second-biggest festival, where locals vie to honor the Blessed Virgin through extreme partying. Once the religious solemnities are over, Brazilians take to the streets of this colonial town at the mouth of the Amazon to gyrate and celebrate as only they know how.
The Mass Games
The police state helpfully directs the party priorities of the North Korean people in the direction of their Dear Leader. For many, Kim Jong-il is not so much a power-crazed member of the Axis of Evil as he is a revered demigod. He gets his festival of public praise at the Mass Games, a display of synchronized gymnastics which is not so much a chaotic letting-off-of-steam as a minutely coordinated Stalinist spectacle.
While Greece may be a Christian country today, a few ghosts of the ancient pantheon are still hanging around. Dionysos hits town each February to kick up his heels at this pre-Lenten food 'n' wine extravaganza. Most Greek towns celebrate the festival, but the city of Patras, in the Peloponnese, hosts one of the best. Expect fattened pigs and free-flowing wine to get Greeks in the mood before the 40 days and 40 nights of atonement and self-denial kick in.
A full-on festival can totally transform a city and its citizens, and the atmosphere of freedom means travelers can often blend in more easily, feeling less like tourists. "You get to have your holiday when everyone locally is on holiday," says Dunford. "It's much more natural and inclusive."
The Spanish really live up to their party-hard reputation in Valencia, where in March each year Valencianos set hundreds of giant effigies alight, fire off rockets and party in the streets—sangria in hand.
Arts festivals are particularly popular with international travelers. Dunford says the best offer great local representation combined with a strong international presence. "Above all, though, they feature great venues," he says. "Often they'll use ancient theaters, open air venues, the street and buildings not usually used as performance spaces."
Festival of the Dhow countries
Who wants to freeze with the celebs at Sundance when you can lie on a white sand beach and watch sailboats glide by after taking your pick of international films? A perfect coastline, an old town filled with centuries of architectural heritage and a rich mix of African, European and Arab cultures makes Zanzibar the perfect setting for this 10-day culture binge.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Arty types from around the world descend on this picturesque Scottish city for the world’s largest arts festival, where comedy has become one of the leading attractions. (The Office’s Ricky Gervais headlined in Edinburgh Castle last year.) There's also ample theater, dance and music productions, too, of course. With no selection committee, anything goes, from the classics to the avant guard.