Spanish Carnival Guide: Customs, Cities, and Dates

La Taronjada carnival celebration in Barcelona
Francisco Goncalves / Getty Images

Carnival in Spain, like everywhere else in the world, marks the start of Lent, a Christian religious observance. Carnival is held on Sundays and is similar to the Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) celebrations in the United States. These events honor life, fun, and excess before the beginning of the somber Lenten season. Holy Week, which immediately precedes Easter Sunday, is known as Semana Santa and is also widely observed throughout Spain.

Many cities in Spain take part in the festivities, so if you're traveling to Spain, here are the top places to experience Carnival. 

The Best Cities in Spain for Carnival

Not all cities in Spain honor Carnival equally. If you're looking for a more raucous or tame version of Fat Tuesday, there is a city with a celebration tailored to your taste. This guide can help you decide which city's celebration will be best for you.

  • Tenerife plans the most glamorous of all the Carnival celebrations. This southern city's version of Carnival most resembles the world-famous event in Rio de Janeiro. Since Santa Cruz de Tenerife is closer to Africa than Europe, you can expect the weather to be quite warm.
  • The Carnival in the city of Cadiz is unique as it features free sea urchin tastings for visitors, as well as a healthy dose of music and comedy added to the mix. It is considered to be a "light-hearted" carnival atmosphere.
  • Carnival in Sitges is not for the faint of heart. The large gay community in town has made this Carnival one of the wildest affairs in Spain, guaranteeing fun for all. There are major events and a carnival parade. The Sitges Gay Carnival, a separate event, takes place 4 days before the regular Sitges Carnival with huge parties in gay bars. 
  • It's no surprise that a city like Madrid that has everything would have a large Carnival celebration. You will see fanfare just about everywhere, but you can expect most of the action to be in the Chueca district, which is Madrid's largest gay neighborhood. There are events for everyone including sardine-themed festivities. The carnival ends with the "burying of the sardine," to end the parties, and chocolate sardines are a carnival treat. Restaurants also include chocolate sardines in their menu during Carnival.
  • Ciudad de Rodrigo's Carnival event is unlike any other in Spain. You won't find parades or colorful costumes. Instead, this city plans a bullfighting event where the public is invited to get involved and have a fight with a young bull.
  • The seaside town of Vilanova continued to hold Carnival celebrations during Francisco Franco's rule, despite the fact that the dictator banned it. This city's festivities begin with a meringue fight on Thursday and go well up until midnight on Fat Tuesday. The processions feature locals in traditional dress. 
  • Barcelona isn't well known for its Carnival, but it does have one big parade each year that is worth heading to see if you're in town. The venue changes each year but it always takes place on Carnival Saturday instead of Sunday. With the parade, the arrival of King Carnival starts things off and, like in Madrid, the season ends with a sardine burial. 
  • Villanueva de la Vera's take on Carnival includes a giant puppet that is called the Peropalo. During the event, Peropalo is "brought to justice." You will see lots of drinking in the streets, as well as a donkey that is paraded around the town, though the reason for this tradition remains unclear.

Carnival Starting Dates in Spain    

  • Carnival 2020 February 23, 2020
  • Carnival 2021 February 14, 2021