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Last updated: 29 May, 2023
Expert travel writer: Alex Robinson

Every year on the weekend before Shrove Tuesday, Rio throws the world’s boldest and brashest party – Carnaval. There are events throughout the city, from huge bloco samba-swinging street parties (including in Ipanema, Copacabana, the City Centre and Santa Teresa), to balls in the Copacabana Palace.

The main spectacle is undoubtedly the famous samba schools’ parade which takes place in the Sambódromo – a purpose-built arena in the city centre. This all-night kaleidoscope of gargantuan floats, sequinned samba dancers, drummers and scantily clad carnival queens, leaves the senses reeling. Unmissable.

The Grand Competition

Samba is to Rio what salsa is to Colombia – and the city is home to dozens of samba schools, divided into five leagues. The best of these enter floats into the Sambódromo carnival parade. Each school chooses a theme for their annual entry, makes all its own themed floats and costumes and composes and choreographs a samba song.

The twelve top-ranked schools – the ‘Special Group’ – parade on the Sunday and Monday nights of carnival weekend; six performing each night between dusk and dawn. The next ranked twelve schools – the ‘Access Group’ – all parade on the preceding Saturday night.

As the schools parade through the arena one by one, they are marked by a panel of 40 judges for the quality of their show, in categories including choreography, music, dancing and theme.

The lowest-ranked samba school in the ‘Special Group’ is usually relegated to the ‘Access Group’ for the following year and the top-ranked school in the Access Group is promoted.

Price from: £10
Minimum age: Any
Age suitable: 13+
Frequency: annually
When: February or March
Duration: 5 days

Getting there & doing it

The main all-night parades take place on the Sunday and Monday nights in the Sambódromo arena; it’s a straight parade route through the centre of the arena, with grandstand stadium seating on either side. The Sambódromo is accessible by metro (stop at Praça Onze, then just follow the crowds); the metro runs 24/7 during Carnival. Other festivities (bloco street parades and baile balls) take place across the city, and everyone is welcome to join in.

Getting tickets

Tickets are readily available from the main festival website or reputable tour operators. The best seats sell out fast, so book well in advance. There’s a lot to take in, so if you’ve got the funds, book the covered luxury seats with central position and elevated views. The open-air camarotes (front boxes) are closer to the action, but you miss seeing the magical overview. The more authentic, local experience is above the boxes in grandstand seating – big concrete steps with no assigned seating except in grandstand sector 9, whose seats are numbered automatically just before the event).

On the street 

The biggest street party takes place on Cinelândia Square in Rio’s Centro. However, note that the crowds in the street parades (but not in the Sambódromo) are vast and can be overwhelming. Also keep a close eye on your belongings at Carnival – pickpocketing is rife. Keep cameras discreet and use a money belt or pouch.

Joining in

Samba schools allow foreigners to join their parades; though they require rehearsal beforehand and you will need to purchase an official costume. For details, see the Samba Parade section on the Carnival website.

When to do it

The festival always begins on the Friday prior to Shrove Tuesday, and finishes officially on Shrove Tuesday itself (though there are still parties and parades the following weekend), so it can start as early as 3rd February or as late as 9th March.

Our selection of the best Viator tours of this attraction or activity

Carnaval Experience - Behind the Scenes of Rios Carnival in the City of Samba

Rio de Janeiro

Carnaval Experience - Behind the Scenes of Rios Carnival in the City of Samba
Experience the creation of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival from an insider’s perspective: visit the City of Samba, enter the Grande Rio’s Samba Factory, learn about the history of Samba and Carnival parades, understand the production of floats and costumes, and feel the samba fever with an authentic carnival costume, a samba class, and a Brazilian welcome drink!

Price: $72

Min age: 0

Rating 4.46 / 5 [13 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

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Carnaval Experience: Backstage Tour at Samba City with Cocktail

Rio de Janeiro

Carnaval Experience: Backstage Tour at Samba City with Cocktail
The only backstage tour of the Carioca Carnival, the most famous carnival in the world! When in Rio, you need to experience Samba! This tour introduces you to the artistry and imagination of Carnival and allows you to discover the backstage of The greatest show on Earth! Have an unique and authentic experience exploring the backstage, the secrets, the people working and the preparations for the parade, which is also a competition. During the tour, you will be able to witness the process of construction and production of floats and more than 3000 costumes for the show. This visit includes a guided tour to the factory of the 2022th Carnival champion Samba School, Grande Rio. Including an exhibition about the history of Samba and Carnival, the tour provides a chance to dress up in authentic parade costumes, experience the samba dance and enjoy a delicious Caipirinha welcome drink! Come visit us!

Price: R100

Min age: 0

Rating 4.76 / 5 [162 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

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Rio Carnival Parade Ticket with Shuttle Included

Rio de Janeiro

Rio Carnival Parade Ticket with Shuttle Included
Watch Rio Carnival Parade at the Sambadrome and benefit from pickup & Drop off from your hotel or cruise ship and the expertise of a professional tour guide. FRONT BOX Tickets are located at the ground level and the seats are numbered. It is the closest place you can be to watch the parade. GRANDSTANDS (Only Sector 9 offers numbered places). Located higger up, you will enjoy a great panoramic view. Sectors 2 to 4: You’ll get an incredible view of the warm-up, get a glimpse of each school’s backstage. Sectors 5 to 9 are in the centre of Sambadrome, providing a complete view of the entire parade. Sector 9 tickets are the most sold because they are the only numbered Grandstand places. Sectors 10 and 11 are right next to the DRUMS SECTION RETREAT (one of the highlights).

Price: $115

Min age: 5

Rating 4.1 / 5 [20 ratings]

Tour supplied by:

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Destination guides including or relevant to this experience

Rio de Janeiro

Southeastern Region, Brazil

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