In 2019, I am making it my mission to travel with purpose rather than hopping on a plane simply because I found a cheap flight. As part of this, I’m aiming to attend at many unique festivals around the world as possible. In January, I attended an ice sculpture and snow festival in Hokkaido, Japan and at the beginning of February I attended Kumbh Mela in India, the singles largest movement and gathering o people on the planet – with up to 50 million people attending in one single day!
I decided to ask my fellow travel writers friends about the weirdest festivals around the world that they’ve attended, and we have together come up with list of some pretty mad events. Have a cool festival to add? Be sure to leave a comment!
FEATURE IMAGE CREDIT: Time Travel Turtle
Weirdest Festivals Around The World
Penis Festival, Japan
In a country that is normally so polite, it’s odd to see an enormous pink penis being carried through the streets – but that’s what you get each year at the Penis Festival in Japan. Officially the festival is called the Kanamara Matsuri and it’s held in Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo. It’s a huge event where, not only are giant penises paraded through the streets, but people wear penis masks, eat penis lollipops, buy carved wooden penises, and take photos posing on statues of penises.
The festival began many years ago as a religious events around a shrine here that was associated with things like fertility, marriage, and birth. Now it’s mainly about the fun but it still has a spiritual side to it. Probably one of the weirdest festivals in the world!
Middle Earth Festival, United Kingdom
Birmingham, United Kingdom and its surrounding areas are the home and inspiration of the famous movie and novel, Lord of the Rings written by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien grew up in Hall Green, Birmingham during the late Victorian times. Birmingham back then was the centre of the industrialisation of the UK. The young Tolkien spent his childhood playing around Sarehole Mill (famously known for its mill’s circular door), Shire County Park and Moseley Bog. These places played a significant inspiration of his famous trilogy novel Lord of the Rings.
To commemorate J.R.R. Tolkien’s great work, every summer the Middle Earth Festival is taking place near the Sarehole Mill. Most of the festival goers fully dress up as a character in Lord of the Rings. There are also an Orc boot camp for kids and adults in case they want to learn how to fight like an orc! The whole even is also filled with all sort of LOTR inspired live music, storytelling of Tolkien’s novels and food bazaar. The whole experience is truly great must-visit event in Birmingham, most especially if you are an LOTR fan!
Up Helly Aa Festival, Scotland
Fasching, German-speaking Europe
If you are looking for a unique festival to attend in Europe, the Fasching would fit that bill. Fasching refers to the pre-Lent season in German-speaking countries, including Germany of course! It is highly tied to both Catholic and early-Germanic traditions. It is celebrated with feasting and festivities, including parades full off masked creatures and costumes. The intent is to chase away the winter demons. Most of the celebrations take place during the week leading up to Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent, typically in the months of January or February depending on when Easter falls. It is known as Fashing near the areas of Munich and Austria, but also known as Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasnet, and Fosnat.
The festivities always start with the crowning of a prince and princess to oversee the events. From there the balls, music events and parties are held. The highlight is the parade held on Sunday with colorful floats, bands, dancers and costumed characters handing out candy or playing tricks on the crowds (usually targeting the pretty young women).
We were lucky enough to experience two Fashing parades during our time living in Germany. The first was in our local town where we were able to walk a couple of blocks and join in on the fun. Even in our small town, the parade was large, the costumed characters were amazing and there was a fun competition to see which group could create the tallest human pyramid! Our town was only able to do the parade every two years, so the following year we went to a town about an hour east to enjoy a larger parade complete with food vendors, a kids carnival and tents. It was really fun and somewhat appropriate for kids. Just be sure they won’t be terrified of the masked creatures.
Nadaam Festival, Mongolia
Drunken Horse Racing, Guatemala
Rapa Nui Tapait, Easter Island
Afrikaburn, South Africa
Jack in the Green, UK
Jack in the Green festival happens in Hastings Old Town every May Day (bank holiday Monday). It’s actually a pagan festival that’s been revived to celebrate the beginning of summer. There’s fun, frolics and foliage and a fair bit of alcohol involved. Jack is the symbol of winter. He’s dressed from head to toe in foliage and paraded around the town, with frequent pub stops, accompanied by the ‘green bogies’ aka his minders.
Everyone dresses in green and cheers the procession along which is made up of local Morris sides, drummers and people who just like dressing up. There are some very odd costumes. The procession heads to the castle on the hill where a small branch is hoisted up a pole and burnt symbolising the end of winter. The music, dancing and drinking goes on until late. Read more about the wacky Jack in the Green here.
Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival, South Korea
Apart from the fun ice fishing experience, the festival has much more to offer like ice sledging, an ice sculpture hall, ice skating and the bare hand fishing competition. Daily shuttle buses are leaving from Seoul to the festival area which takes around 1,5 hours one way. The easiest way to get tickets is by buying them online as it includes the bus, the entrance ticket and 3 other activities.
Iberian Mask Festival, Portugal
One of my favourite festivals in Portugal is the annual International Iberian Mask Festival, aka FIMI, although I was completely unprepared for my first encounter with its bizarre world. I just happened to be in Lisbon city centre one fine May afternoon when the sound of drumming and jangling bells grabbed my attention. I was expecting a street band or something along those lines.
What I actually saw was a colourful and motley collection of people in strange costumes prancing through the streets and joking with their largely bemused audience. Some had elaborately and beautifully carved wooden masks, others had ginormous headdresses, furry robes with bells on and staffs with streamers. All looked as though they were having a great time!
Many of these masks and costumes originate from small villages in Portugal and Spain where pagan traditions overlap Christian celebrations such as Lent and Christmas. If you visit villages like Lazarim or Podence at carnival time, you won’t see scantily clad ladies dancing in the cobbled streets. Instead, prepare to be pranked by boisterous caretos.
The aim of the annual Iberian Mask Festival, which gets bigger and better every year, is to promote and support local craftspeople and spread a little good-natured craziness around the world. In recent years, it’s been held in Praça do Império in Belém and usually takes place in mid-May. Dates for 2019 are 16th to 19th May.
LOONY DOOK, Scotland
Well Dressings, UK
Every year as a kid I would spend an intense week in May working on one of the UK’s strangest festivals – the Derbyshire Well Dressings. Each night after school I’d join a small community group in someone’s garage, a barn or a shed, picking out patterns and pictures in clay, then using flower petals, pine cones and anything natural we could lay our hands on to create wonderful, colourful designs. Each of which would be displayed at well sites in villages throughout Derbyshire.
Today several villages take part, and it’s a great time to visit this beautiful part of the world, exploring quaint backwaters that normally go un-noticed. One of the most popular is in Tissington, where the ancient art of well dressing has been going on for centuries. There’s often a different theme each year, sometimes religious, other times marking centenaries or celebrations. There are some pretty good tea shops there too, as well as leafy lanes to explore and traditional sweet emporiums in which to spend your pocket money.
Mask Festival, Bhutan
Most people associate Bhutan with the land of happiness and the fabulous trek up Tiger’s Nest. However, the tiny Himalayan country is full of culture and one of the best ways to experience it is by attending a masked dance festival.
Located in the old administrative capital of the country, the Trongsa masked dance festival was a cultural event for the local population that told the stories of ancient dragons, flying monks and stories from Bhutan’s folklore. The sheer energy, the beat of the traditional drums and the wholly colourful attire makes this one of the most compelling reasons to visit Bhutan.
With Bhutan being such an untouched country, this is by ar one of the most unique festivals in the world to attend.
May Day, Germany
On the first of May, my family and I were driving on our way to the Chiemsee in Bavaria just south east of Munich. As we were passing through the town of Rimsting, we saw giant gathering of men in Lederhosen and women is Bavaria’s traditional Dirndl dresses. Now if a bunch of men in leather shorts doesn’t get you to stop, I don’t know what will.
We parked the car and asked what was going on. It was the May Day celebrations. The men were in the process of erecting a Maypole (Maibaum), by hand, while the women served giant one-litre beers to them.
The Maypole is huge. Somewhere between 65ft and 80ft tall. It took a couple of hours to get up. I’m not sure if that was because of the consumption of beer, but it is a very labour intensive process. I’m sure some safety regulations were ignored on this day. At least they had a classic Bavarian band entertaining the non-pole raisers in the beer garden. It was fascinating to witness the event, and I highly recommend finding a small town in Germany to visit on May 1st. Check Go Aciu for more travel inspiration from Europe.
Rocket Festival, Laos
Boun Bang Fai is a rocket festival held in Laos each year as a way to thank the gods and ask them for a good harvest in the coming year. The festival marks the sixth month of the lunar calendar and is a huge cultural event especially in rural areas.
Locals will take the day off from working the fields and engage in a huge party with the highlight being the firing of homemade rockets into the sky. These can range in size from a few feet to a few meters tall.
Visitors are welcome to join in on the festivities with food and drink stalls surrounding the firing platforms. Be careful of premature explosions as its quite common, at least when I was there. Check Dolly’s Quest for more travel inspo.
World Nomad Games, Kyrgyzstan
The coolest and most incredible festival I ever attended were certainly the World Nomad Games in Kirgizstan! This event can be described as the Olympic Games in traditional nomadic sports and is a mix of sport competitions as well as cultural festivities. The Nomad Games take place every two years and while Kyrgyzstan hosted the event in the last years, the next Games will be located in Turkey in 2020.
The World Nomad Games 2018 took place in several locations around the Issyk-kul in Kyrgyzstan, a few hours out of the country’s capital Bishkek. While the majority of the big sport events, such as horse wrestling, sumo and the incredible Kok Boru (dead goat polo) took place in the Hippodrome arena directly at the lake, the highlight of the games was the Ethno-festival up in the mountains. Imagine a village made of hundreds of traditional yurts in the middle of the scenic Kyrgyz countryside! Next to cultural performances and demonstrations, this was also the place where the archery and eagle-hunting competitions took place. The World Nomad Games 2018 were incredible and one-of-a-kind – and I can’t wait to visit the next edition in Turkey in 2020!
Day Of The Dead, Mexico
Just as Mexicans celebrate life with colour and fanfare, so do they commemorate death. Mexico’s Día de Muertos is one of the country’s most popular festivals that is now enjoyed in countries around the world. Held on November 1 and 2, the Day of the Dead is a celebration of life and a chance for families and friends to remember those who have passed.
Although traditionally celebrated among families, Mexico City has recently introduced a parade to mark the festival inspired by the opening scenes of James Bond’s Spectre. The huge parade sees thousands of colourful skeletons of all shapes and sizes walk through the city’s main streets accompanied by enormous painted skulls, costumed musicians and traditional Mexican dancers.
The first parade was held in 2016 and saw some 250,000 people line the streets to watch and the numbers have only grown ever since. It’s definitely a festival worth marking your calendar for!
Cheese Festival, Italy
One of the most interesting things to eat in Bologna, Italy, is formaggi di fossa. It’s a unique cheese that is used often in pasta dishes. But, there is more to the story. The word foss translates to pit, but it is just as often referred to as a cave. During the Middle ages, people in this part of Italy, about an hour outside of Bologna, hid their food in large holes in the ground to protect their supplies from invaders.
This tradition continues today when the people of small villages in Romagna open a pit each August and fill it with large rounds of cheese. The pits are covered with a plaster-like substance where the cheese is aged for three months. In this small village of Talemello each November, all of the town’s pits are opened and the cheese is removed. hen the cave is opened a noxious odor escapes the pit. It can be so strong that people have actually died from the fumes! During the three months in the pit, a fermentation process occurs, which gives the cheese its unique smell and flavor.
During one weekend in November, all the people of Talamello and the surrounding area celebrate formaggi di fossa, and the opening of the caves with music, dancing, and of course, cheese-related recipes and tastings. If you can’t make it to the festival, look for pastas made with formaggi di fossa in Bologna and elsewhere in Emilia Romagna, Italy.
Al Dhafra Festival, Abu Dhabi, UAE
The Al Dhafra Festival is held in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, UAE every December to celebrate the culture and tradition of the Bedouin people. Events range from date packing to goat milking, but our favourite event, and the one that draws competitors from across the region with huge tribal support and massive prize money is the Camel Mazayna – a camel beauty competition.
With cheering entourages reminiscent of an English football match, camels are split by breed, sex and age and judged on over 20 qualities based on their physical appearance from the drop of their lip to the height of their hump. “Camel bling” is encouraged though you don’t want to take away too much from their natural beauty. The whole event obviously takes place in Arabic, so as for working out who actually won?
Maslenitsa Festival, Russia
You’ve probably heard about the notorious Russian winters. Now imagine this: winter in Russia is so rough we celebrate the end of it by burning a symbolic doll. No kidding. It’s much more fun that it seems, actually. Maslenitsa is, hands down, my favorite winter celebration that lasts for a whole week, right before the Great Lent.
During Maslenitsa people make blini (Russian crepes) every day of the week and serve them with butter, sour cream and jam. Blini, being round and yellow, represent Sun and upcoming spring. On Sunday, the last day of Maslenitsa, every Russian city throws a festival on the main square where one can take part in fun activities and competitions, like climbing on the top of a pole, pillow fights, and tug of war.
The games are accompanied by lots of food (mainly, blini stuffed with meat, berries, and cottage cheese) as wells as hot tea, which is especially satisfying in cold weather. As during Great Lent any animal-related foods are prohibited, Maslenitsa is the last chance for people to have milk, butter, and eggs.
The celebrations end with setting a bonfire and burning a large straw doll that represents winter. The last day of the Maslenitsa week is also known as Forgiveness Sunday. People ask forgiveness from their friends and family for anything they might have done wrong.
Feast of Saint John, Portugal
One of the most famous and fun parties in Portugal is the feast of Saint John, celebrated on the 24th of June in Porto. This is a traditional saint festival, in honor of St. John the Baptist that dates back to the 14th century. On the night of the 23rd to 24th of June, the city doesn’t sleep, the streets are buzzing with people partying. People dance, eat barbecued sardines or pork beef, caldo verde (a shredded green cabbage soup) and roasted pepper that is done on the streets.
One of the weirdest (or maybe coolest) things about this festival is the old tradition of people beating passers-by on the head with a leek for good luck. Nowadays, they do it with soft squeaky plastic hammers. Besides tapping each other on the heads, people also jump bonfires as a token of courage. At midnight, there is a spectacular fireworks show on the Douro River. This is the best night to party in Porto!
Goa Carnival, India
Have you been to Goa during Mardi Gras celebration known better as the Goa Carnival? Popularly known as the best festival of Goa and one of the best festivals in India, the Goa Carnival is celebrated over four days when the legendary King Momo takes over the state and who on the starting day orders his subjects to party.
The streets blaze with music and color and attract thousands of travelers from across the globe.
Testicle Festival, USA
Wine Festival, Spain
The weirdest festival in the world we’ve been to is the Haro Wine Battle. Known locally as “La Batalla del Vino,” this crazy fiesta in the heart of Spain’s La Rioja wine region goes well beyond sipping on wine. Each year on the morning of June 29 a battle is held on the hills surrounding the town of Haro.
The weapon of choice is red wine! Everyone gathers to wage a war on one another by spraying and dumping wine until all the battlers have completely turned purple by becoming drenched in wine. It’s all crazy good fun!
May Morning festival, England
May Morning in Oxford, England is an interesting and strangely captivating festival to attend. At 6am on the first of May every year, thousands of people gather at the Magdalen Tower to hear the Magdalen College Choir singing the Hymnus Eucharisticus. As the choir sings from the top of the tower, a hush falls over the crowds below as they listen to every note of this ethereal song.
After the singing finishes, everyone troops back to the center of town where the celebrations continue in a more boisterous form. Musicians and bands play jigs and buoyant songs while Morris dancers wander the city and bounce their way through their traditional dances.
The pubs also open super early in the morning so people can celebrate the arrival of spring with food and drink. All in all, this May Morning festival is a distinctively Oxford event that is certainly worth waking up before dawn to experience!
Ice Magic Festival
Towering pines look as though they’ve been dusted with icing sugar. Turquoise Lake Louise can’t be seen thanks to its thick coating of ice. Fat snowflakes swirl onto a life-size ice castle. The only glitch in this winter wonderland is the sound of chainsaws ripping through Banff National Park. Welcome to Ice Magic Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious ice carving competitions.
Each January, dozens of international professional ice carvers transform 300-pound blocks of ice into whimsical works of art. Visitors can watch the artists at work, skate through the ice castle or sip a seasonal bevvie in the outdoor ice bar. Even after the festival is finished, it’s worth the visit to view the masterpieces dotting the grounds of Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Pumpkin Festival, Ludwigsburg, Germany
Fall in Germany means pumpkins, and in Ludwigsburg you can eat, do, and experience everything pumpkin. The Pumpkin festival, held on palace grounds, takes you on a walk around the amazing pumpkin statues. The artwork is awe-inspiring, and you can see everything from animals to airplanes. There are so many exhibits, and they will take your breath away.
One of the weekends, the fest holds their annual pumpkin races. Gigantic pumpking have been grown specifically to be carved out and made into pumpkin boats. The racer climbs in, among a little lingering stickiness, and paddles against another pumpkin-rower. It’s tons of fun, and the audience can sign up for one of the races. Pumpkin boats will be provided.
Of course no pumpkin festival would be complete without lots of pumpkin to eat. We tried pumpkin spaghetti, pumpkin pastries, and even brought home some pumpkin wine. If you love a harvest festival, or a good old fashioned boat race, don’t miss this unique German festival.
Lisbon Sardine Festival
Some festivals around the world inadvertently become de facto food festivals. One of them is the Lisbon Sardine Festival. Officially meant to honor Lisbon’s Patron Saint St. Anthony, this famous Lisbon festival has become associated with one food delicacy: grilled sardines.
Every June 12th, the city is transformed into a massive block party! Head to central Lisbon’s Amalfa or Baixa neighborhoods for the excitement of a night-long party – and air thickened by smoked sardines.
La Tomatina, Spain
The Llamadas, Uruguay
During the month of February, while South America dances on the swinging rhythms of Samba, Uruguay and more specifically Montevideo, celebrates the Llamadas. Each year, at the beginning of the carnival celebrations that last 40 days, Montevideo throw a hugely popular party in the streets of its capital to praise African heritage and not forget their ancestors brought in the country as slaves.
Local organizations parade to the rhythm of the traditional Candombe music, a mix of Afro-Latin drum beats, while families hold flags and dance along with the crowd. It is a unique festival made by the locals for the locals and you’ll hardly find any tourist.
Crying Sumo Festival
Khareef Festival, Oman
Oman is one of the most naturally diverse countries in the Middle East. Unlike the natural versatility, the weather throughout Oman either remains hot for very hot throughout the year. However, the southern city of Salalah in the Dhofar governorate of Oman witnesses a unique monsoon in the country, which is not experienced anywhere else in Oman. The rains during the monsoon season in Salalah are loved by the heat struck people so much so that the climatic change is celebrated as a huge festival in the city.
Called as ‘Khareef’ in the local language, the climate change not only results in pleasant rains with a sudden drop in the temperature, moreover, the entire city of Salalah is converted into a lush green heaven! The dry barren mountains are transformed into flowing waterfalls and it is greenery to be seen everywhere. The Khareef festival in Salalah is celebrated from July to September every year where people camp outside, visits the waterfalls, and drive along on the mountains in a thick fog! Yes, that’s how monsoon rains are celebrated in a desert!
Yee Peng Festival, Chiang Mai
The best place to see the mass release of lanterns during Chiang Mai’s Yee Peng festival used to be at Mae Jo University, on the city’s outskirts. Unfortunately, since they turned it into a commercial moneymaking exercise and started charging hundreds of dollars for a ticket, it no longer is.
Instead, realise there’s more to Yee Peng than the sky lanterns and stay in the city to take in all the free stuff. Colourful lights are hung everywhere and parades, firework displays, holy rituals, bazaars, and even a Miss Yee Peng pageant are held.
There are a few other mass lantern releases too, with a free one happening right at the famous Tha Pae Gate, meaning you’ll still be able to get that iconic shot for your Instagram. Check My Favourite Lens for more pics.