Festivals are a great way to experience a particular region's unique culture. There are festivals of all kinds, from those that celebrate music to ones that focus on food and drink (Mardi Gras comes to mind). While all have their own distinct flair, festivals have one thing in common: You'll meet lots of people who are ready to have a great time. So, if you're looking for a way to get to know the locals or to make new friends from around the world, check out these seven unique festivals.
Up Helly Aa, Shetland
This festival is unique in that you have to be a resident of Shetland for at least five years before you can participate in it. The Shetland Islands are located off the coast of Scotland and are part of the United Kingdom. Up Helly Aa is a celebration of Viking culture. The main festival takes place every year on the last Tuesday in January, though there are 12 Up Helly Aa festivals in total every year.
As a visitor, you can watch (but not participate) in event activities. The festival starts with a march to the British Legion in the morning (the starting location changes every year) and ends late in the night with the burning of a traditional Viking ship. Up to 1,000 locals carry torches and participate in the burning.
Throughout the day, members of the burn squads (chosen the year before) put on performances at various halls. These are ticketed events open to the public. The Up Helly Aa festivals have been going on since 1881.
If you'd like to experience a pre-Lent celebration that isn't Mardi Gras, head south to Brazil for Carnival. This festival makes Mardi Gras look tame, so it isn't ideal for the faint of heart. Carnival begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday and lasts until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The name itself tells us what the pre-Lenten festival is about, as it comes from the words "carne" and "vale," which translates into "goodbye to meat."
Carnival brings people from all over the world who celebrate Lent (and many who don't) for a lot of reasons. First, everyone loves the costumes. At Brazil's Carnival, you'll see many costumes with African-inspired themes. This is because the slave trade brought Africans to Brazil. At the time, many wore feathers, masks, and elaborate costumes to ward off evil spirits.
By the 1920s, the African music of Samba became integrated into Carnival festivities. Today, one of the highlights of Carnival is the Sambodromo, where students from the top samba schools in Brazil perform and compete against each other.
Celebrate Thailand's new year during its Songkran celebration, which takes place every year from April 13–15. The festival ushers in the Buddhist new year and is also celebrated in Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. During the three day festival, one of the main goals is to get wet. In fact, Songkran is often said to host the biggest water fight in the world. The dousing of water symbolizes the washing away of the previous year's trials and transgressions. It's a way to observe a fresh start to a new year.
Along with getting soaked, people also participate in parades in the streets. There will also be dancing amidst a celebratory atmosphere. The whole country essentially shuts down and celebrates. You can find the main celebration in Chiang Mai, but there will be celebrations in many tourist regions, as well.
A few rules to keep in mind: refrain from throwing water at monks, law enforcement authorities, pregnant women, or babies. Never remove your clothing, and above all, avoid throwing water after sundown.
Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, China
You have the whole month of January to enjoy this amazing ice and snow sculpture festival in China. You'll also see incredible sculptures made out of ice and enjoy thrilling scenes at four theme parks: the Harbin Wanda Ice Lantern World, Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Fair, Harbin Ice & Snow World, and the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo.
There will also be ice sports events (speed skating, ice football, ice hockey, and Alpine skiing competitions), art displays, and cultural performances. You'll need more than a day to take it all in.
The duration of the festival varies from year to year depending on the weather. Generally, it lasts from January to February. If you'd like to avoid massive crowds, avoid visiting during Chinese New Year, which takes place between February 4–10 each year.
Often called the Festival of Color, Holi is a Hindu celebration in India. During the festival, revelers throw gulal, or a type of colorful powder, on each other. It's an extremely colorful event, which is how it got its nickname. If you'd like to go, you can generally find a celebration in any city. The northern part of the country tends to host more enthusiastic celebrations. For the most immersive experience, head to the city of Mathura, which is strongly associated with the Hindu god Krishna.
Dates for the festival vary based on the lunar calendar, so you may find yourself participating in Holi in March or April. The festival has been celebrated since at least the fourth century, so participating in Holi is an experience rich in historical and cultural significance.
At night, bonfires are lit and people throw colored powder on each other. Holi is also a time for family and friends to visit with one another. Plan to make new friends when you attend, but remember to wear only clothing you don't mind getting stained.
San Vino Wine Fight, Spain
Have you ever been in a water gun fight and wished red wine was flowing instead of water? If so, we have a festival for you. The San Vino Wine Fight in the small village of Haro, Spain, is exactly what it sounds like — a wine fight. It takes place on June 29 every year, which is St. Peter's Day. The event may sound like something a couple of college-aged students dreamed up, but it has roots going all the way back to the 6th century.
You see, the wine you'll throw at your fellow festival-goers isn't good enough to be sold commercially. So, you can have all the fun you want without feeling guilty about wasting good wine.
Don't plan on getting much sleep the night before the festival, however. You'll be drinking and partying until the wee hours of the morning, by which time you'll start preparing for battle. During the battle, it's all-out (albeit good-natured) warfare, as people spray each other with liquid from bottles of red wine. You'll even find some participants using squirt guns in the battle.
Celebrate Christmas in Austria at this December festival, and you'll find yourself questioning everything you ever knew about Santa Claus. Here's why: Krampusnacht celebrates a half-goat, half-demon mythological creature that whips kids into shape before Christmas. This terrifying creature also takes badly behaved kids into the underworld.
During the festival, which takes place in early December, men dress up as the mythological creature and carry chains which they'll shake at children and passersby. There's also a Krampus run, which many people enjoy. Note, however, that some participants may take mind-altering drugs to pay homage to Krampus. If you'd like to participate in a totally different type of Christmas celebration, consider attending.
However, if you have children in tow and don't want to upset them, you may have to head to another event.