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7 of the World's Best Festivals To Add to Your Bucket List

From dancing demons to tomato hurling, here are some of the best offbeat festivals from around the world that must be seen to be believed.

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Rebecca’s first visit to Italy was a coup de foudre and her affection for Il Bel Paese has only grown over almost 30 years of living here, during which time she has mastered the art of navigating the sampietrini cobblestones in heels but has yet to come away from a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana with an unsullied blouse. She covers Italy travel, culture, and cuisine for a number of print and online publications.

Dial the novelty of your adventures up a notch by timing your next trip to coincide with one of the world's most unique and unusual festivals, when locals (and tourists) let loose to celebrate with wild and wacky feats of athletic prowess and creative revelry. Whether you want to join in the raucous action by lobbing tomatoes in Spain or prefer to simply soak up the atmosphere as a spectator of Thailand’s monkey buffet, here are seven of the most unforgettable and over-the-top festivals worldwide.

1. Holi in Uttar Pradesh, India

A man participates in Holi, a festival paying homage to the Hindu god Krishna, in Uttar Pradesh, India.
A mustachioed man enjoys India's Holi celebrations.Photo Credit: Saumya Khandelwal / Viator

If you're looking to experience the color portion of Holi, make sure to catch the second day of this 2-day festival.

Perhaps one of the most exuberant celebrations in the world takes place during India’s spectacular Holi, or Festival of Colors. A homage to the Hindu god Krishna, this spring festival takes place the morning following the full moon each March in northern India (especially the cities of Mathura and Vrindavan) and, unlike other festivals in India, does not center around religious ceremonies. Instead, locals dress in white and take to the streets with colored water and powders to cover passersby with a joyful rainbow of hues throughout the day. Holi requires clothing you won’t regret having to toss out—and a good scrubbing down afterward.

When is Holi celebrated: Determined by the Indian calendar, the Festival of Colors is hosted during the last full moon of the 12th month of the Hindu calendar. Usually, this happens in late February or March each year.

How to experience the Holi festival: The best way to experience Holi is on a guided tour, so as to avoid the hassle of arranging transportation as well as enjoy insights into the history of this one-of-a-kind festival.

2. Monkey Buffet Festival in Lopburi, Thailand

A monkey chows down a fruit platter during the Monkey Buffet Festival in Thailand.
A monkey tucks into a fruit platter during the festival in Thailand.Photo Credit: topten22photo / Shutterstock

The monkeys aren't the only ones who get to eat at this festival—food stalls also abound.

Its name may make you do a double-take, but this annual festival is all about honoring local monkeys, specifically the macaques. Every year in November, the Thai town of Lopburi entices thousands of local macaques with a fancy feast set up among the ruins of a 13th-century Khmer temple. Long a symbol of good fortune and prosperity, the primates are first honored by dancers in monkey costumes, then presented with lavish towers of fresh fruit and vegetables. After eating their fill of almost 4,000 pounds of durian, watermelon, pineapple, and other delicacies, the guests of honor frolic with the crowd.

When to celebrate the Monkey Buffet festival: Held on the last Sunday of November each and every year, it's simple to plan your visit to the Monkey Buffet Festival.

How to visit the Monkey Buffet festival: It takes about 2 hours to reach the town from Bangkok by train; no tickets are required to attend the festival. Make the most of your time and stay overnight to take in a private tour of Lopburi.

3. Bun Festival in Cheung Chau, Hong Kong

A visitor shows off a bun during the Hong Kong Bun Festival.
A visitor shows off a souvenir bun at the Hong Kong Bun Festival.Photo Credit: Wang Sing / Shutterstock

Look for, and eat, one of the flavored "lucky" white buns (sesame, seed paste, and red bean) during the festival.

Held annually on the island of Cheung Chau to coincide with Buddha’s birthday, the Bun Festival is a traditional Da Jiu Taoist religious celebration. During the event, the deity Pak Tai is honored with a parade and soaring bamboo towers covered in thousands of steamed buns that are distributed to the crowd to bring good fortune on the final day of the 4-day festival. Locals would once scale these bun towers as part of the festivities, but today there is a more staid (and safe) race to the top open only to trained climbers.

When to celebrate the Bun Festival: The week-long Bun Festival celebrations begin on the eighth day of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Typically, these dates happen in April or May.

How to visit the Bun Festival: Plenty of day tours of Cheung Chau depart from Hong Kong roughly every half hour and take less than 60 minutes to make the trip. Once you finish a tour of the island, follow the crowds to the public Pak Tai Temple festival site.

4. La Tomatina in Buñol, Spain

People participate  in the Tomato Festival known as La Tomatina in Buñol, Spain.
Maybe don't wear your best clothes to attend La Tomatina.Photo Credit: MeAroundtheworld / Shutterstock

Approximately 150,000 tomatoes are crushed and thrown at this annual festival in Spain.

Much like Holi, don’t wear your best clothes if you plan on diving into the messy mayhem that is La Tomatina. Thousands flock to the small town of Buñol (just west of Valencia) each August for the annual Tomato Festival, but the real draw is a 1-hour food fight when the crowd chucks an estimated 300,000 pounds of tomatoes at one another. This fun free-for-all began with a real tomato-tossing incident in 1945 and has become so popular over the years that participation is now limited to 20,000 ticket holders.

When to celebrate La Tomatina: An easy date to organize a summer vacation around, the main event of La Tomatina takes place on the last Wednesday of August every year.

How to visit the La Tomatina: Be sure to purchase your ticket far in advance for this popular event (tickets are limited) and keep in mind that most visitors head to the nearby Los Peñones natural pools in the Rio Buñol to clean up after the veggie battle.

5. Up Helly Aa in Shetland, Scotland

Locals march through the streets carrying blazing torches before setting alight a mock Viking galley during the Up Halley Aa festival.
Up Helly Aa is one of Scotland's more unusual festivals.Photo Credit: konstantin belovtov / Shutterstock

This Scottish festival has both Viking and Victorian roots.

The biggest annual fire festival symbolizes the end of the Christmas season, and this rowdy, 6-day Scottish celebration of Up Helly Aa is lit … literally. Up Helly Aa means "Up Holy All," and is a fire-centric festival which takes place in towns across the Shetland Islands, though the most significant event is held in late January in the ancient town of Lerwick. Here, hundreds of costumed locals—known as “guizers” and led by a “Guizer Jarl”—march through the streets carrying blazing torches before setting a mock Viking galley on fire. Afterward, live music, dancing, feasting, and general merrymaking continue through the night as islanders honor Shetland’s Norse history.

When is the Up Helly Aa festival: To get the full Up Helly Aa experience, plan your visit to coincide with the last Tuesday in January, and stay in Lerwick.

How to visit the Up Helly Aa festival: Travel to Lerwick by plane or ferry from London or mainland Scotland; the evening torch-lit procession and galley burning are open to the public but you must purchase a ticket to enter the halls.

6. Carnaval de Oruro in Oruro, Bolivia

A scene at the Carnaval de Oruro in Bolivia.
Diabolical disguises are the order of the day at Bolivia's Carnaval de Oruro.Photo Credit: gustavo ramirez / Shutterstock

The Carnival of Oruro in Bolivia is considered of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

Many countries in Central and South America pull out all the stops when it comes time for Carnival each February. If you explore the city of Oruro around carnival time, you can see thousands of demons dance as part of the diablada during the main parade of the Carnaval festivities. An example of the fusion of Andean and Christian rituals, this traditional dance was once used to worship the Uru god Tiw and today takes the form of frenetic footwork and devilish costumes and masks. Almost 40,000 decked-out dancers and musicians perform for 20 uninterrupted hours along the procession route, making this one of the most over-the-top Carnival celebrations in the world.

When to celebrate Carnaval de Oruro: Adhering to the Catholic calendar, the Carnaval de Oruro celebrations start on the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday and finish on Ash Wednesday. Right on time for Lent.

How to visit the Carnaval de Oruro: You can reach Oruro from La Paz by taxi and purchase tickets for seats along the procession route on the day of the festival.

7. Burning Man in Black Rock Desert, Nevada

Visitors attend Burning Man in Nevada.
Burning Man is one of the US's weirdest and most enduring festivals.Photo Credit: linda wartenweiler / Unsplash

While this festival regularly sees upwards of 70,000, one of the guiding principles is to "leave no trace."

Long-time attendees (or “Burners”) may complain that this everything-goes celebration of creativity and self-expression has lost some of its radical weirdness over time, but there's no denying that the Burning Man festival reigns as one of the most unique festivals in the world. Thousands gather in the Black Rock Desert to form a temporary artistic community with fantastical installations, performances, and a general atmosphere of cooperation and inclusion that culminates in a ceremonial burning of a 100-foot-high (30-meter-high) wooden man—hence the name.

When to celebrate Burning Man: Held annually at the end of August and the beginning of September, Burning Man runs for the nine days preceding and including Labor Day weekend.

How to visit Burning Man: If you’re planning to join in the festivities at Burning Man, bring camping gear, lots of extra food, and water. There are no hotels or other services in this remote canyon outpost located about 4 hours northeast of Reno.

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