Photo of a performer at Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I Just Went To Carnaval For The First Time — Here's What I Wish I Knew

How to prep for the TikTok-worthy event before partying like Rihanna.

On the bus on the way to Carnaval 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, my guide gave my group a heads up on what to expect: “It’s like Cirque du Soleil, times 100.” Having never seen Cirque du Soleil, that didn’t help me gauge what the festivities would be like. But nothing could have prepared me for the splendor of Carnaval.

From the constant samba music to the elaborate floats to the dancers’ costumes, it’s hard to know where to look and when. There’s a reason celebs like Gisele Bündchen, Jennifer Lopez, and Rihanna have all attended in the past — though RiRi opted for Barbados’ version, which is called Crop Over.

Rio’s five-day celebration — the world’s biggest carnival — happens every year during Brazil’s summer. Over four nights, starting the Friday before Lent, 28 samba schools compete in elaborate parades. Each is charged with telling a story through dance, lyrics, music, floats, and costumes. On Tuesday, the competition is over, but Brazil celebrates a national holiday while the revelry continues. Then, on Wednesday, the winners are announced and the top six schools perform again in one final parade of Carnaval.

TBH, my first time at the parade was pretty seamless. Fairmont Rio de Janeiro Copacabana, who hosted me for the festivities, set up an unbeatable experience. Seated in a VIP section at sector 9 (a prime viewing location for parade goers that can cost up to $2,000 per person), I was surrounded by sushi platters and Brazilian cuisine.

Plus, there was an open bar with a signature drink — Tarsila — from the Spirit Copa bar. The delicious cocktail has Cachaça (a Brazilian spirit made from raw cane juice), pitaya and chamomile cordial, basil oil, lemon juice, and Pernod. It was the perfect go-to between my constant glasses of water.

While you’re there, your best bet is to soak in the experience. But, in order to do that, you’re going to need to prep accordingly. Whether you’re letting a hotel organize your Carnaval experience for you or are planning on going on your own, here’s everything you should know ahead of your trip to Rio’s biggest celebration.

What To Wear

Outfit for Rio's Carnaval

On Instagram, most pictures of Carnaval feature festive rave attire full of sequined bras and feathered headbands. While you can definitely go for that look, inspired by the decked-out performers participating in the parade, there’s another tradition you might not know about: the personalization of the T-shirts.

If you opt for VIP tickets (or camarotes) instead of the bleacher seats, your T-shirt will act as a wristband, granting you entrance to your designated area. Ahead of the parade, it is tradition to customize your mandatory T-shirt, adding sequins, fringe, and feathers for a more compelling look.

For my trip, Fairmont organized seamstresses ahead of the parade to help our group chop up and bedazzle our T-shirts, while still ensuring the logo we all needed for entry was visible. I decided to go for a more ambitious transformation and turn my shirt into a skirt. (Unfortunately, it did not occur to me ahead of time that this would mean the words “Global Hospitality” would span my lower half — not exactly an invitation I meant to extend.)

Some things to keep in mind when choosing your ‘fit: It will get *hot* — Carnaval takes place during Brazil’s summer, with temperatures around 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, you’ll probably find yourself dancing and singing most of the time, which will only make things sweatier.

You should also be mindful of your accessories. A small bag or fanny pack that you can keep in front of you is best to avoid any potential pickpocketing. Also, be sure to embrace the Carnaval vibes with your makeup. Think: glitter, eye gems, and colorful makeup.

Pick A Date

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The exact dates of Carnaval shift year to year, but the celebration lasts from Friday to Fat Tuesday (the last day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday). In other words, there are plenty of opportunities to join in on the festivities.

If you want to narrow things down, locals say the best nights to go are Sunday and Monday. That’s when the top 12 samba schools compete. Though, TBH, all nights of Carnaval are worth checking out. On Friday and Saturday night, there are still massive parades and other schools competing that are equally fascinating.

One of the more affordable options is watching the Champion’s Parade on the following Saturday. The winner gets announced on Ash Wednesday. So, at that point, the winning school and top five runner-ups perform again with much lower stakes. This time around, judges aren’t assessing the groups’ every move, so the performers can be less focused on perfection and more intent on fun.

How To Book

Photo at Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Depending on where you stay, the hotel might be able to organize your Carnaval experience for you. You can also do this in reverse: Look into the Carnaval experience you’d like to have and then find a hotel that suits your needs (and potentially has Carnaval-related packages). Some hotels include other sightseeing attractions in their Carnaval packages, too, like tickets to Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer.

There are plenty of different options for accommodations at Carnaval, so there’s one for every budget — though keep in mind the most popular options will likely sell out quickly. Tickets can range from approximately $20 to $2,000.

A quick price breakdown: grandstands/bleachers ($20-$300), front box and covered front box ($120-$805), allocated chairs ($130), VIP camarote ($500-$2,000). (FYI, these prices are based on the current exchange rate which is 0.20 BRL to 1 USD.)

For my time at Carnaval, I was in the Global Hospitality box at sector 9. With two levels, I could watch the parade from street level or from above. Both viewpoints were great — I preferred dancing on the street level and taking a seat in the upper suite when I needed a break.

If you’re willing to spend more, there are tons of benefits to this seating: prime views, open bars, luxurious buffets, convenient transportation, air conditioning, and the required T-shirt. My suite actually had a hairdressing and foot massage station, too.

For those going outside of a tour company or hotel, you’ll need to organize purchasing and picking up your own tickets. Depending on where you purchase, you might be able to get the tickets delivered to where you’re staying. There are also pickup spots in Rio around Copacabana, a popular neighborhood for tourists, if that suits your needs best.

Transportation There & Back


If you’re planning on staying at a hotel, check in with the staff before booking to see whether they have any special offers related to Carnaval. There’s a chance they can help organize transportation to and from the parade. If not, look into other groups you can attend the parade with. They might also offer transport (which they refer to as “transfer in/out”).

Of course, you can go on your own (though I’d recommend going with a small group, if not a tour company). Just keep in mind that traffic will be hectic, so leaving with plenty of time to spare is essential. From my hotel in Copacabana, the average trip to the Sambadrome should take under 30 minutes. On the way to Carnaval, it took around 50 minutes.

Also, note that Ubers or taxis will be hard to come by. One of my new friends opted to stay for the whole parade, missing our organized transportation, and had to walk about a mile to find an Uber at 7 a.m., about an hour after the event ended.

If you feel comfortable taking public transportation, that’s another reliable and cheap option. There is a subway by the Sambadrome. It runs 24 hours on parade days with trains leaving every 10 minutes. One ride costs less than $1 at the current exchange rate.

How To Make The Most Of It

Video of Carnaval Parade in Rio, Brazil

The first school doesn’t start performing until around 9 p.m. each night of Carnaval, and the parade runs into the early hours of the morning, with the final group starting around 5 a.m. If you want to stay for the full experience, be sure to rest up and drink a lot of water before heading to the Sambadrome. (Otherwise, you might end up like me, leaving Carnaval at a measly 3:30 a.m.)

Since I was in a VIP section with an open bar, food, and water, it was easy to stay fueled throughout the event. If you choose different seating arrangements, though, there are plenty of stands with food and drink available for purchase. Like any stadium event, expect to pay a little more than you typically would at Carnaval — set aside between $50-$100 for food and drink. Remember, you might need to eat dinner *and* breakfast before you head back to your lodging.

There are mixed reports about the quality of tap water in Rio (some say it’s OK, others warn against it), so you if you want to stay on the safe side, you’ll likely be purchasing quite a few water bottles throughout your Carnaval experience. You can also bring in water to start the night off, but there are limits: Any bottle of water has to be clear plastic and max 500 ml (or 17 oz). Per person, you can only bring two water bottles and two food items.

While watching Carnaval, keep in mind that judges are paying close attention to the parade in order to pick the winner. Here are some of the components they’re focusing on: the samba, flag-bearer couple, percussion, harmony, and punctuality. Each school has only 70 minutes to complete their parade across the Sambadrome. That means the dancers won’t be willing to stop and chat with you as they focus on the competition — although some may blow you a kiss.

The parade might be the main event, but there are other festivities throughout the five-day celebration, too. Blocos — or street parties hosted by street bands (called blocos and bandas) — happen throughout neighborhoods like Ipanema in Rio. Free to enter for anyone, regardless of Carnaval tickets, these are great spots to embrace the energy of Brazil. They happen day and night throughout the Carnaval celebration though the day parties (which start at 7 a.m., BTW) are more popular.