Attending a festival (that isn’t Coachella) may not be high up on your North America bucket list, but pack your daisy dukes ‘cos it well should be. From mammoth music carnivals to local heritage fests, fine food fetes to cowboy poetry gatherings, North America’s festivals show off the best of the continent’s diverse cultures, cities and landscapes. Tuck into some crawfish at Mardi Gras, bust out your red, white and blue on the 4th of July or follow the scat north to Montreal’s famous Jazz Festival. Whoever you are (or want to be), there’s a swell party just for you – and we’re here to show you to the gates.
Festival trips in North America
Read about North American Festivals
Independence Day, USA
Independence Day commemorates the day the US formalised their independence from Great Britain by ratifying the Declaration of – yep, you guessed it – Independence. Also regularly referred to as July 4th, it’s the nation’s National Day and celebrated as a Federal Holiday – no small matter in a country where two weeks of holiday is the norm. Coincide some travel in the US with this date and you’ll be treated to an extravaganza of all things Americana: BBQs and baseball games, parades and picnics, flags and fireworks, Yankee Doodles and Uncle Sams… Heck, you could even catch a hotdog-eating contest. Nothing acknowledges casting off the shackles of British imperialism like smashing 61 hotdogs.
When to travel: To experience 4th of July celebrations you’ll want to be there on the 4th July. Makes sense.
Festival survival guide
- Independence Day is relatively easy so long as you’re partial to red, white and blue. Wear the colours, paint ‘em on your face or bedeck your food with them.
- Fireworks are a big part of Independence Day celebrations. Watching the pyrotechnics put on by the local authorities is bound to be a more spectacular – not to mention safer – experience than crackers fired off by the neighbours.
- This being said, for an authentic insight into American culture and lifestyle, try to score an invite to a local’s celebration. Just quietly seek cover when the explosives are brought out.
Mardi Gras, New Orleans - USA
Mardi Gras is to the States what Carnival is to Brazil. Not just in a ‘they’re both big on faux glamour’ kind of way, but more the fact they both mark the same celebration. Literally translating to ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French, Mardi Gras, like Carnival, marks the day before traditional fasting sets in on Ash Wednesday – hence the emphasis on plumping up while you still can. Mardi Gras in New Orleans isn’t as boisterous an affair as its Brazilian equivalent – though really, what is? – but it is an absolute hoot. The parades are delightfully gaudy, the costumes a full-blown affront to wholesome tastes and the mood oh-so-very-merry. New Orleans, St Louis and Galveston are the best places to get in among the action.
When to travel: Kicking off on the day before Ash Wednesday, exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday, Mardi Gras changes year-to-year, though tends to occur around the end of February/beginning of March.
Festival survival guide
- Things can get pretty hectic during Mardi Gras and it’s easy to get separated. If reveling with others, choose a meet-up spot for if (when) you lose each other.
- A central part of the festival involves float participants flinging strings of beads and doubloons (coins) into the crowds. Bring a bag along to stuff these mementos into. And be careful when picking them up off the ground as fingers are prone to getting trodden on.
- Drinking on the street from cans or glasses is illegal. Get yourself a plastic cup and drink away.
- While there’s an abundance of alcohol, scantily clad flesh and general good-time vibes, keep in mind that this is a family affair.
- Get involved. If you rock up sans wig, oversized glasses, mask and/or sequins, you’ll quickly feel like a party-pooper.
Montreal Jazz Festival, Canada
Riverside, French-speaking, a UNESCO City of Design, hometown of Leonard Cohen and Arcade Fire… As if Montreal wasn’t cool enough already, they just had to go and create the world’s biggest jazz festival. And then, just to push the point a little further, they went and made the majority of the performances free. The brainchild of Montreal local Alain Simard, the ten-day event is said to attract upwards of two million punters each year and over 3,000 artists. Trolling through those who’ve played here over the years is rather like flicking through a who’s who of jazz and blues history: B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, Stevie Wonder… Even if you’re not much of a jazz fan, the vibe that overtakes the city – stylish, swanky, sophisticated – is downright infectious.
When to travel: Due to many of the performances taking place on outdoor stages, the festival runs at the peak of summer. The exact dates change year on year, but end of June to beginning of July is when the music usually comes to town.
Festival survival guide
- While most of the concerts are free, you’ll probably need to buy a ticket to see the big name acts. Find out who’s playing and secure yours early.
- Take a punt on seeing acts you’ve never heard of. If they’ve been selected by the festival’s musical programmers, they’re bound to be good.
- Pick up a concert program. It’s free and a pretty handy guide to who’s playing where and when.
- Use public transport to get to the event or take advantage of the city’s public biking system, Bixi.
- Dress for all occasions. True, the festival does take place in the middle of summer… but this is Canada.
Day of the Dead, Mexico
It’s possibly the only festival in the world where the dead are actively encouraged to take part. The Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos) is Mexico’s answer to Halloween. It’s actually quite a lovely idea: the faith holds that on the night of October 31, the gates of heaven open and the spirits of all our friends and family who have passed on descend to earth to celebrate with the living. It’s a time for honouring your ancestors, but it wouldn’t be Mexican if it weren’t also one giant spooky party. Whether you explore Mexico City on our special festival-themed adventure or head out into the countryside for some old-fashioned rural festivities, this is a day to die for.
When to travel: The Day of the Dead runs throughout Mexico on 31 October, 1 November and 2 November.
Festival survival guide
- Take a midnight stroll to the cemetery at San Gregorio Atlapulco on the edge of Mexico City: at midnight it comes alive with mariachi bands.
- Try traditional Day of the Dead street food such as chicken tamale wrapped in banana leaves.
- Feel free to leave your own ofrenda (offering) to your ancestors at the great Zocala in Mexico City.
- Evening graveyard shifts can get chilly in October, so remember to rug up at night.
- Photos in the streets are totally fine, but ask before taking a family’s photo in any of the big cemeteries.
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