If you’re new to the concept of Carnival in Europe, here’s a quick breakdown. It’s a popular event that takes place each year before the season of Lent, which usually falls somewhere between February and March. Carnival typically involves extravagant public parades and riotous celebrations. You may feel as if you’ve stepped into the weird child of a wild circus and a victory parade. People line the streets wearing masks and costumes, often eat and drink copious amounts of local food and liquor, engage in unusual local customs, and generally band together to have a truly unique and pretty infectious few days. Sound like something you could get into?
Carnival in Europe
1. Cologne, Germany
Speak to any German about Carnival, and they’ll likely tell you to hop on the train to Cologne. Few German cities take Carnival as seriously as this place. The “crazy days” festivities kick off on Weiberfastnacht, six days before Ash Wednesday. Bars and restaurants stay open all hours of the day and night, people don their best costumes and masks, and traditional parades and celebrations take over the streets for the whole week.
2020 dates: February 20 – 26.
How to get there by train: Cologne is an easily accessible rail hub in Germany. There are regular trains from throughout the country.
2. Venice, Italy
The Carnival celebration in Venice is perhaps one of the most famous in the world. It also has history on its side, dating back to the 15th century. Many say that the tradition of wearing masks over Carnival began here as a way for the city’s noble participants to protect their identities as they mixed freely with the commoners. The days building up to Carnival in Venice are packed full of street performances, balls, parades, costumes, and masks. You’ll find celebrations taking place throughout most of the city, but the epicentre of the action is in St Mark’s Square.
2020 dates: February 8 – 25.
How to get there by train: There are regular trains to Venice from throughout Italy. If you’re staying on the island, make sure you head to Venice Santa Lucia Train Station.
3. Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona isn’t one to be left out of any major celebration. You can expect traditional Spanish flare to dominate the city’s Carnival events. Expect several food-based fairs including tortillas and spicy sausages, as well as more traditional parades and celebrations. If possible, time your visit around Gran Rua de Carnaval, which takes place on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday. This climax of Carnival in Barcelona features hundreds of participants on foot and in wooden carriages making their way through the city streets.
2020 dates: February 20 – 26.
How to get there by train: Barcelona is an accessible rail hub in Spain with regular trains from throughout the country. There are also regular long distance trains from neighboring France.
4. Nice, France
There are records that indicate the southern French city of Nice celebrated Carnival as far back as the late 13th century, making it one of the oldest iterations of the event on the continent. Carnival in Nice runs for 10 days and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. Much of the focus is on flowers, and there are daily flower parades and impressively decorated floats. Participants on the floats also throw out an estimated 100,000 flowers to spectators, so be sure to grab a place close to the front. The 10 days of celebrations end with the Grande Parade, where fireworks and a bonfire light up the night sky.
2020 dates: February 15 – 29.
How to get there by train: There are regular TGV trains to Nice Train Station from across the country, including Lyon, Paris, Cannes and Marseille.
5. Binche, Belgium
The town of Binche, a short trip away from Brussels, may just hold the record for kicking off the Carnival celebrations earlier than most. The event officially begins 49 days before Lent. But if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the real action, plan to get there in the final three days. Men and boys dressed in red and black, with masks and ostrich feather hats, walk the streets throughout the season, lending the town an air of the surreal. Fat Sunday’s parade brings with it a popular confetti battle. The festival draws to a close on Fat Tuesday after more street parades and an epic fireworks display.
2020 dates: February 23 – 25.
How to get there by train: Binche is an easy 90 minute train ride away from Brussels.
6. Ivrea, Italy
If you have a thing for food fights then head to the small northern Italian town of Ivrea, not too far from Turin. This town has put a unique spin on Carnival celebrations which dates back to medieval times. Each year, organizers ship in hundreds of crates of oranges, and from Sunday through Tuesday they launch these into the crowds. You can opt out of the action by wearing a red hat, but chances are you’ll get splattered anyway. So you may as well embrace the food-fueled action right through until the burning of Scarlo pole signals the end of the festivities.
2020 dates: February 22 – 25.
How to get there by train: Ivera is just an hour’s train ride north of the Italian city of Turin.
If you’re planning on taking a Eurail journey this February, make sure you experience Carnival in Europe. Whether you’re looking for a classic street parade or an all-night party, chances are one of these will have you covered.
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