It seems every country has one major event on the annual calendar of festivals that claims to outdo all of the others. But with almost 200 countries across the globe, experiencing every single one is near impossible.
Here we’ve shortlisted our favourites to the absolute top 11 events to add to your bucket list.
La Tomatina, Spain
When: Last Wednesday in August
The smiles of the tomato-drenched participants in the world’s largest food fight say it all!
It is the joyful reason why a crowd of tens of thousands gather in the Plaza del Pueblo at 10 am and work themselves into a frenzy of singing and dancing - getting ready to fling over 150 000kg of ripe tomatoes at each other.
There is already an air of festivities and excitement building up to the event because La Tomatina is part of a week-long celebration in honour of the town's patron saints.
As the crowd reaches capacity, and before the fight starts, Palo Jabon (soapy pole) takes place.
A greasy pole, the height of a 2-story building, with a ham attached at the top is erected. The aim is for someone to climb the pole and grab the ham. In reality, however, this has hardly been achieved … But it does get the crowd worked up and after about an hour, the tomato fight begins.
Then the otherwise typical, quiet Spanish town of Buñol, near the Mediterranean Sea, 40km west of Valencia becomes chaotic! At 11 am, truckloads of overripe tomatoes arrive and a massive hour-long tomato food fight ensues. The people, streets, balconies and walls are all plastered with fresh tomato paste. The slush at the end of the fight is ankle deep. It is messy and fun!
Surprisingly, Buñol doesn’t grow tomatoes at all and the festival purchases low-quality, poor in taste, overripe tomatoes from the Extremadura region. Once the second cannon marking the end of the fight sounds off, the city’s fire department hoses everything down. The citric acid from the fresh tomatoes is a great cleaning agent leaving the streets spotless and participants head down to the river to wash off.
La Tomatina is a ticketed event that, depending on the organisation that year, can bring between 15 000 - 40 000 attendees from across the globe. With so many people gathering to have fun, one can imagine the scope of the celebrations that continue into the night.
How it all started:
Many legends abound as to how the La Tomatina began. They all seem to stem from a tale of a bust-up amongst villagers in 1945. The stories include someone starting a raucous during a religious procession, causing a participant to fall to the ground. Another tells of a juvenile class war between locals and visitors from Madrid. Yet another is an accidental truck spillage.
Almost all include a vegetable stand, tomatoes and a food fight that was repeated annually and has grown into the extravaganza that it is today.
When: 17 Sept - 3 Oct
The Oktoberfest is the largest Volksfest in the world and is attended by millions of people.
It is an annual festival that lasts for two weeks and ends on the first Sunday of October.
Two Oktoberfest events worth attending are the opening and closing ceremonies. Both of these ceremonies are genuinely unique and … equally tough to get into.
The opening ceremony takes place in the Schottenhamel tent. The Lord Mayor of Munich starts the festivities by tapping the first keg and shouting, “O’Zapft Is!” (German for, “It’s tapped, yo!”)
The closing ceremony is held in the Hacker-Pschorr tent.
It’s an intimate, candle-lit setting featuring your 10,000 newest best friends. Sparklers are lit, lights are dimmed, and everyone sings in unison.
Between the opening and closing ceremonies, the party celebrating all things Bavarian is in full swing. The gathering of more than 6 million people, many of them tourists, consumes approximately 75,800 hectolitres (about 2 million gallons/7 million litres) of beer.
The original 6 Munich breweries still provide the beer. Each brewer erects a temporary structure with a seating capacity of 6000.
The breweries are also represented in parades that feature floats, beer wagons and people in folk costumes.
In fact, many attendees dress in traditional Bavarian clothing. The ladies wear a dirndl - a white blouse, knee-length (or longer) dress, apron, and comfortable shoes. Men wear lederhosen -
a white or checked button-up shirt, socks and comfortable loafers. To top it all off you can add a unisex Alpine hat (tirolerhute), decorated with feathers and fabulous wild boar gamsbart.
Other entertainment includes games, amusement rides, music and dancing; although only traditional Bavarian music is played in the beer tents.
How it all started:
The Oktoberfest originated on 12 Oct 1810, more than 200 years ago.
It started as a celebration of the marriage of the crown prince of Bavaria (later becoming King Louis 1) to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen.
The wedding afterparty concluded five days later with a horse race. The following year the race was combined with a state agricultural fair. In 1818 booths serving food and drink were introduced.
By the late 20th century, the booths had developed into large beer halls made of plywood and, over the years, Oktoberfest grew into a massive beer festival.
Coachella, Indio California
When: Held across 2 weekends every April (dates aren’t always the same)
Coachella (Officially named The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival) is a giant annual music festival. It features performances by some of the top music bands and singers in the world. You can expect incredible stage lighting and effects, choreography and mind-blowing entertainment. It has five main stages. Major headliners are saved as the last acts and smaller artists play throughout the day.
The grounds feature large art installations and have become a hotspot for bohemian-inspired fashion and celebrity-spotting.
How it all started:
The band Pearl Jam decided to make a statement against Ticketmaster over their service fees (accusing them of financially targeting both fans and artists). Pearl Jam looked at alternative venues, for their Vs tour, that didn’t include Ticketmaster. In 1999, they landed up playing at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, CA - where Coachella is still held today.
In 2012 the festival grew so big that the organisers extended the event over 2 separate weekends.
Rise Ski Festival, Le Deux Alpes
There are snow-covered villages and then there is Les Deux Alpes, the second oldest ski resort in France, near Lyon and Chamonix. It is one of the most forward-thinking, too, with the world’s fastest gondola ski lift.
Skiing here is incredible. The resort is built beside 220 km of south-facing slopes with fantastic snow conditions (that cater to all abilities) as well as the largest skiable glacier and an award-winning snow park.
In December each year, you can party from the mountain to the village streets. The Rise Ski festival is an action-packed week of snow, electronic music, and festivities that is popular with students and the international crowd. Thousands of festival-goers come to enjoy the headline acts, the upcoming artists and adventure activities. There is an impressive stage and arena, snow globe and ice disco. All of this with majestic mountains as your backdrop.
To round off the activities, well-being opportunities are emphasised, too, with yoga and spa retreats balancing out the all-night club scene that is created in this sublime venue.
Day of the Dead, Mexico
Oct 31 - 2 November
The Dia de Los Muertos, also known as The Day of the Dead, is a celebration of life and death.
The holiday originated in Mexico but is celebrated all over Latin America by families that welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion and celebration.
It is a blend of Mesoamerican ritual, Spanish culture and European religion. According to tradition, the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on Oct 31 and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours. The spirits of adults can do the same on Nov 2 when the border between the spirit world and the real-world dissolves. The souls of the dead awaken. They return to the living world to drink, feast, dance and play music with loved ones. Living relatives treat the deceased as honoured guests.
People leave food and other offerings on their beloved’s graves. Offerings are also presented in makeshift altars called "ofrendas" in the deceased homes. Ofrendas are decorated with candles, marigolds (cempasuchil), red cockscombs and food such as tortillas and fruit.
The festivities over these days include costumes and parades bursting with colourful Calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons). People commonly wear masks.
Spicy dark hot chocolate and Atole (milky, cinnamon corn-based drink) are enjoyed with Pan de Muerto (traditional sweet baked bread) and everybody eats sugar candy shaped into skulls.
How it all started:
The Day of the Dead festival started more than 3000 years ago with rituals that honoured the dead performed by the Aztecs and other Nahua people in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
They believed that when someone died, they would travel to Chicunamictlan, the Land of the Dead. The journey consists of nine challenging levels and it takes several years for the soul to reach Mictlan, the final resting place.
In more recent history -the early 20th century - José Guadalupe Posada incorporated skeletal figures in his cartoons. This was meant to mock politicians and revolutionary politics. His most well-known work is La Calavera Catrina or Elegant Skull. It features a female skeleton with makeup and is dressed in fancy clothes. La Calavera Catrina has since become one of the most recognizable Days of the Dead icons.
Thai Moon Festival, Koh Phangan Thailand (Sunrise Beach)
When: Every month
The Thai Moon festival is one of the largest beach parties in the world. Around 30 000 people attend this party every month! Although it has a strong electronic music culture, other genres of music are also played. Partygoers paint themselves with fluorescent paint and the prerequisite drink is alcohol mixed with Thai Redbull.
It is considered a rite of passage for backpackers travelling the unofficial Banana Pancake Trail.
It may surprise you to hear that the Thai Moon Festival doesn’t always occur on the actual night of the full moon. This is because the date is sometimes altered so that the event doesn’t coincide with Buddhist holidays (which often occur on the full moon because of the lunar calendar). Elections and important holidays might also change party dates because of the bans on alcohol.
St. Patrick's Day, Ireland
When: March 17, every year
St. Patrick’s Day has been observed as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. It is a day of revelry and the celebration of all things Irish.
Although St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, it was emigrants (United States), who transformed St. Patrick’s Day (the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death in the fifth century) into the largely secular holiday that it is today.
The colour traditionally associated with St. Patrick is blue, but now green is connected with the celebrations. Irish and non-Irish alike commonly wear green or a symbol of a shamrock - the Irish national plant - and sometimes drink beer that is dyed green.
Ireland celebrates this day with religious services and feasts.
It falls in the Christian season of Lent. Irish families would typically attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived. People would dance and drink and feast on the traditional meal of Irish bacon or corned beef and cabbage.
How it all started:
St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the late 4th century. At 16, he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped, but he returned in about 432 CE to convert the Irish community to Christianity. He had established monasteries, churches, and schools by the time of his death on March 17, 461.
Many legends exist about St. Patrick, most notably that he drove the snakes out of Ireland and used the shamrock to explain the Trinity.
St. Patrick's Day, America
Over 100 St. Patrick's Day parades are held across the United States. New York City and Boston are home to the largest celebrations.
As mentioned, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place not in Ireland but in America.
Over the next 35 years, Irish patriotism among American immigrants flourished. They held annual parades featuring bagpipes and drums.
Today, the parade is recognised as the world‘s oldest civilian parade and is the largest in the United States, with over 150,000 participants.
Every year, close to 3 million people line the 1.5-mile parade route. The procession takes more than five hours.
Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Savannah also celebrate the day with parades involving 10,000 to 20,000 participants respectfully.
Ultra Miami, Bayfront Park Miami
When: Every March
Ultra Miami is an internationally-renowned outdoor music festival on the Miami waterfront, where more than 170 000 music enthusiasts get to party it out for 3 days straight. It has been going for more than 20 years in Miami and has expanded to become an international brand that holds events all over the world. Under the blanket branding Ultra Worldwide, parties have been held in locations such as Croatia, South Africa, South Korea, Singapore, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and more.
It is no wonder that it has been regularly voted as the #1 music festival as it continues to push the boundaries to new frontiers with the most technologically advanced, large-scale festival productions and facilities.
King’s Day, Amsterdam
When: 27 April
King’s Day (Koningsdag), previously known as Queen’s Day, is an orange-filled celebration. Orange is the traditional colour of the monarchy and a symbol of Dutch patriotism.
As such, it is one of the biggest and most colourful festivities in the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam.
More than a million people arrive in the city to celebrate the anniversary of King Willem-Alexander’s birthday with joyful open-air free markets and street carnivals pumped up for dancing and singing. Many people dress up as kings. This is also a chance to enjoy exotic street foods such as Indonesian, Surinames, Moroccan and Turkish with beer or, as the day is very orange, a glass of orange juice.
A boat parade takes place for several hours in the early afternoon. There is a festive atmosphere and people dance on boats and on the shore. Sometimes boats will stop at the shore and invite you to their floating party.
The party doesn’t end there. King’s Day is followed by King’s Night, where Amsterdam clubs organise special parties and concerts.
La Batalla, Spain (Rioja in Haro)
Haro Wine Fight/Feast of San Pedro/San Vino/Battle of Wine/Festival of Wine
When: 29th of June each year
The week-long festival started over 1000 years ago and is made up of a combination of three separate saintly celebrations that culminate in a huge wine battle:
The festivities start with the Bonfires of San Juan - A fire and fireworks celebration beginning at twelve o'clock. A chupinazo (rocket) is launched from the balcony of the town hall.
The day's activities continue through the night until Amanecer del Chocolate (dawn of chocolate).
June 25th (Patron’s Day):
Celebrations of San Felices de Bilibio
Known as the Feast of San Pedro this day includes the actual wine fight and real fire BBQ feasts. The food is enjoyed at the terraced area on the side of the cliffs below the chapel.
How it all started:
Again many legends tell the tale of how such an epic wine battle came to be.
One legend speaks of a land dispute in the 13th century. The city of Haro had to mark the property lines between their community and the neighbouring area of Miranda de Ebro. In 1710, nearly 500 odd years later, the territorial marking procession to the Cliffs of Bilibio ended in a huge party during which people started throwing wine at each other. This "celebration" became a tradition. At the time it was known as the "War of Wine" and this would eventually be changed to the "Battle of the Wine" in 1965.
Another story tells of the patron saint of the city of Haro dying in the 6th century and being buried in the Caves of Riscos de Bilibio (Cliffs of Bilibio) where he used to pray. In the 18th century, a chapel was built there. Apparently, sometime in the 20th-century baptisms involved anointing congregants with wine rather than with water. In the ensuing years, baptisms evolved to become celebrations and eventually into the modern-day wine fight.
These iconic international festivals are truly some of the best experiences one can have on the planet. If your feet are itching to travel to one of these brilliant festivals, give one of our experts a ring and let’s start planning your festival fun fare today!