Rio Carnival – The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Rio Carnival is the world’s biggest party, a brilliant exhibit of human creativity, a spectacle of dance and grace – and so much more. The carnival is a complex multicultural event, and there are many things to keep in mind when planning this trip. In this article, I cover everything you need to know. Here you will discover Rio Carnival events you can attend, a place to book tickets, what neighborhoods to stay in, safety tips – and more. For even more help with planning your trip check out amazing things to do in Brazil.

Carnival in the Sambodromo, March 2019. The ultimate Brazil bucket list item.

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Where Should You Stay for Rio Carnival?

Rio is a huge city, and the best neighborhoods to stay during the carnival (and at other times) are not always clear. Some of the safest and most central areas are Copacabana and Ipanema. In these areas you can walk around safely at any time of day – or night. Another neighborhood many tourists chose to stay in is Centro. Centro is very safe during the day, but can be less safe at night.

You’ll discover that during the Carnival, hotels in Rio are really expensive. There is not much you can do about it – tourists descend on Rio during that week, which means prices skyrocket. The best way to deal with exorbitant prices is to book early, 3 to 4 months in advance when you will have the best selection.

Also Read: 17 Amazing Things To Do in Brazil

The Main Carnival Event – the Sambodromo

When you see pictures of Rio during the carnival, chances are you are looking at the Sambordromo events. The Sambodromo stadium was built especially for the carnival. For 5 nights, from about 9 pm to 6 am, Rio’s best Samba schools participate in the Carnival parade. You can only see this parade if you purchase tickets. Although you might be able to purchase them in Rio, I recommend doing so in advance.

Rio Carnival - the complete beginners guide. A male performer in the Rio Carnival standing on a float and wearing a large red head dress.
Rio Carnival, 2019

It is hard for me to describe what being in the Sambodromo is really like. Imagine, floats as big as 3 story buildings, dancers who have trained their entire lives for this night. Imagine thousands of people in elaborate costumes behind every float. The music, loud, persistent and all-encompassing. I felt like the luckiest person in the world to be there and to witness it. If you have a bucket list – add to it Rio Carnival in the Sambodromo. You will not regret it.

I used this website to buy my tickets, and the process was smooth and error-free. If you chose to use a different website, be careful when buying Carnival tickets online, as some tourists have reported getting scammed. The price of the tickets ranges from $20 to $10,000. The best night to go is the last night – the champions parade. The next best times to go are the main parades, in 2020 those will take place on February 24th and February 25th.

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Smaller Carnival Events – the Blocos

The Sambodromo is an incredible event and the ultimate bucket list item, but you do not need to go to the Sambodromo to experience Carnival in Rio. Another – very different and totally free way to experience the Carnival is to attend blocos. Blocos are essentially block parties, taken to an extreme.

Imagine thousands of people crammed into a few blocks, samba bands beat permeate the air, everyone has a drink and everybody is dancing. Of course, the experience is hard to describe in words – you should see it for yourself.

More than 500 blocos take place in Rio during the Carnaval. Many of the best blocos start early in the morning, around 7 am. This might sound like a crazy time for a party – but it all works out quite well. During the Carnaval, it is not uncommon for a particularly dedicated Rio reveler to skip sleep for 2 to 3 days. In the Carnival safety tips section I will cover how to stay safe in a bloco.

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Does Rio shut down during the Carnival?

I was under the misconception that during the Carnival all life stops in Rio and everyone parties day and night. This was definitely not true. In fact, while in Rio, I met many people who never attended a bloco or even saw one. The truth is, you can go about your day, visit major attractions, and have a great time in Rio without ever getting involved in all the bloco hoopla. This is ideal for travelers who only want to attend the event in the Sambodromo and spend the rest of their time sightseeing.

If you wish to avoid the blocos you can do so with the help of google maps. On google maps, you’ll see road closures and times when the roads reopen. Simply bypass those neighborhoods or areas until a later time.

What are the Most Popular Blocos?

Bloco Do Sargento Pimenta

Probably the most famous bloco In Rio, is the Bloco do Sargento Pimenta, the Beatles bloco. In fact, if you chose to attend just one Bloco in Rio, it might be the sergeant pepper bloco. In 2020, more than 100,000 people are expected to attend this bloco. Partiers dress in period costumes and Beatles songs set to a samba beat provide the perfect opportunity to dance. A mix of cultures, tourists and locals both attend this bloco.

Party goers attending a bloco next to the Botanical Gardens, Rio Carnival 2019

Banda De Impanema

This bloco is known for cross dressing – and a strong LGBTQ presence. Almost all men, queer and straight alike wear female clothes. This is a fun, freewheeling bloco and the main feature of Banda De Impanema is a drag queen procession. If you are a woman traveling alone or with a small group of women, this is one of the safest events to attend.

Carmelitas

Admit it, the first thing that comes to mind when I say “Rio in Carnival” is a strict Catholic convent, right? Well… maybe not. But one of the most popular bloco in Rio’s themes is a Catholic order, the Carmelitas. Many attendants wear nun and nun like outfits (think the Halloween sexy nun version). This bloco in the Santa Teresa neighborhood starts in the afternoon and so attracts many locals who just finished work.

Monobloco

One of the floats at Rio Carnival, 2019 – and also how everyone looks by the time of Monobloco.

The premier last bloco of many carnivals in Rio, the Monobloco is one huge party. Unlike most Carnival events, the band at this event plays a variety of musical styles, including contemporary R&B and funk. Due to both the late party date (usually close to the end of the carnival) and the original musical stylings, the event is mainly attended by younger revelers. The older are somewhere sleeping it off, I imagine.

Carnival Travel Tips

  • Book all attractions online. If you are in Rio during carnival you’ll find long lines everywhere you go. Skip all the lines by booking tickets to major attractions such as Sugarloaf and Christ the Redeemer online.
  • Show up at the opening time. Even with tickets booked you still might have to wait in line. Save yourself some precious time – show up at the attractions first thing in the morning. The later in the day you come, the longer the lines.
  • Metro is the fastest way to get around, especially during the carnival. Metro is also very safe. Uber is slower – but is even safer.
  • Bring a rain jacket! It rains a lot in Brazil and at very inconvenient times. But the show goes on 🙂
  • Road closures are common during the Carnival in Rio. If you want to avoid blocos check google maps.

Carnival Safety Tips

  • When you attend a bloco, wear a money belt under your clothes. In your money belt carry some cash, a credit card, and your phone.
  • At the blocos be careful with flashing your phone, things can happen quickly in a crowd.
  • Do not carry valuables in your pockets, the biggest danger at blocos are pickpockets.
  • After the bloco stay with crowds. Don’t separate and go into dark alleys. This might sound self-explanatory, but most crimes happen after blocos – not during them.
  • Do not bring camera equipment or a backpack to a bloco.
  • If you are going to the Sambodromo, the safest way to get there is by uber or taxi. The area around the Sambodromo is very unsafe. You may also be able to get a group bus, arranged by your hotel.
  • If you are a woman or with a group of women attending a bloco, chances are several men will ask you for a kiss as you walk through the crowd. Personally, this is my least favorite feature of a bloco. In New York, I would have responded with a resting bitch face, but in Rio this is probably not the best idea. A simple “no thank you,” in no uncertain terms but with a smile seemed to do the trick.

Don’t forget to read: 17 Things You Must Do in Brazil for even more ideas.

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2 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Candace
    December 23, 2019 at 5:32 pm

    Perfect! I’ve read so many articles looking for exactly what you explained, thank you! My head was starting to hurt lol!

    One question, is the Sambadromo celebration during Carnival or after? I did look at the tickets and I believe it said 2/29 so that would be after of course, is that the last day? I’m just having trouble understanding the days it runs. We want to attend a street party as well the sambadromo event on one day.

    • TravelTipster
      Reply
      TravelTipster
      December 23, 2019 at 5:39 pm

      Hi Candace! Glad you enjoyed the article Competition at the Sambordromo takes place at the same time as the carnival. The last day in the Sambordromo this year does not coincide with the last day of the blocos. The blocos end on the 26th, but Champions Parade is on the 29th.

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