Carnivals Across Europe

March 4, 2020

Europe loves a carnival – a chance to get dressed up, take to the streets, socialise and celebrate. Lots take place in early spring, one of the most famous being Mardi Gras, when Roman Catholics feast before the abstinence of lent begins. But Mardi Gras isn’t the only one. Take a look at our list of the best carnivals in Europe below.

 Carnival of Dunkirk, France

Each year between January and March the Dunkirk Carnival takes over the city with celebrations, traditions and song. The carnival dates back to the 1600s when it started life as a final send-off for the town’s fishermen before they left for six months of sailing around Iceland. The town’s fishing heritage is still very much part of the carnival these days with the anthem Cantate à Jean Bart sung each year in homage to the town’s naval hero, Jean Bart.

Every Saturday there is a grand ball and live music takes place in the streets each Sunday afternoon.

The carnival culminates in a colourful parade on Shrove Tuesday. An orchestra of musicians dressed as fishermen lead the parade and pass in front of the city hall where crowds flock to receive over 450kg of herrings thrown from the balcony by the town mayor.


Photo Credit: Ville de Dunkerque

Carnival of Binche – Belgium

For a unique festival, the Carnival of Binche fits the bill. Dating back to the 14th century, it has been awarded the title of a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Celebrations start seven weeks before the main celebrations on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and consist of street performances and displays of live music, dancing and theatre. But it is the main carnival celebrations that are unique.

Over 1,000 men known as Gilles wear identical masks and costumes and parade through the streets throwing oranges and apples to the crowd. They are meant to ward off evil spirits with their sticks which they use to dance with to the beat of the drums.

La Pourcailhade, France

La Pourcailhade or Festival of the Pig has been celebrated in the town of Trie-sur-Baise in southwestern France since 1975 and celebrates everything to do with the mighty swine.

Visitors and locals dress up in pigtails and noses to show their support and competitions take place across the town such as designing the best pig costume, the best pig-themed displays and of course, some sausage eating contests.  One of the most popular events of the festival is the pig-squealing championships in which contestants are judged on their ability to imitate pigs at various stages of their life. Strange but true.

There’s also piglet racing, black pudding-eating competitions and, of course, all the pork you could possibly want. There are organised sit-down banquets or street food options if you want to try a selection.

If you’re a meat-eating foodie, you’ll love this one.

Cologne Carnival – Germany

The Cologne Carnival begins every 11th November at 11:11 and lasts several months with over 600 public events. But it’s the last five days of the carnival in February when the main celebrations take place. Streets, bars and city squares fill with revellers raising a glass with the greeting of Alaaf! and normal opening pub times are suspended for the duration of the festival! The carnival ends with a parade through the city centre on Rose Monday when over a million spectators take to the streets.  The parade has grand floats led by the Prince, the Peasant and the Maiden, each one specially selected for the carnival each year. The 6km route has over 70 decorated floats and over 300,000 flowers are thrown to the spectators en route.


Carnival of Maastricht, The Netherlands

Similar to the Cologne Carnival, in Maastricht, the carnival kicks off on 11 November at 11:11am and continues all the way until March.

Some say the reason the carnival begins at this time is because the world eleven in Dutch and German roughly translates as ‘elf’ and many think the mythical qualities of elves will bring the carnival good luck.

The carnival culminates the weekend before lent when the city bursts with colour and sound. Eleven cannon shots are fired to signify the start of the celebrations and hundreds of people take to the streets. Elaborate costumes are worn as people parade through the city, traditional songs are sung and everybody comes together to celebrate. There’s even a brass band competition which runs across the weekend, with street performances showing their skills.

It’s a great atmosphere which brings young and old together to celebrate through music, dance, colour and fun!

Up Helly Aa – Scotland

Up Helly Aa is a celebration of Scotland’s Norse heritage and takes place in the depths of winter, normally at the end of January on the Shetland Islands.

The centrepiece of Europe’s biggest fire festival is a replica Viking ship that is pulled through the streets of Lerwick in a torch-lit procession led by islanders in traditional dress. It is eventually set alight and the whole town then stays up late for an all-night ceilidh, fuelled by warming Scotch whisky and stories of Norse tradition.


Do you fancy heading to Europe for carnival season? DFDS run four ferry routes from the UK to Europe and with unlimited baggage you can take as many carnival costumes as you like! Take a look at our routes here.

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