The world is full of weird and wonderful things. Sure, travel is often about venturing to sites you’ve always dreamed of visiting. The moments you may remember most from your trip could be cooking experiences or homestays or city tours. But, sometimes? Cultural experiences take a very different form.
I’ve found every country in the world has a lighthearted and even slightly ridiculous side. And there’s no better way to get a glimpse at it than by experiencing one of the strange, unique, or completely weird festivals around the world. From tomato fights in Spain to city-wide mud wrestling in South Korea, 2020 is sure to be a big one.
Ready for some fun? Why not plan your next trip around one of these weird world festivals?
Weird Festivals Around The World in 2021
Festivals in January
International Kite Festival | India
When: January 14th, 2021
Where: Gujarat, India
The International Kite Festival in Gujarat marks the end of winter and the approaching harvest season. Anyone celebrates will dig the abundant local food (yum!) and kites of all shapes and colors filling the sky.
Why you should go: “Kites (popularly called patang/guddi locally) for the uninitiated are thin sheets of paper stretched, glued and tied on to springy bamboo (or similar light wood) frames and attached to a long ball of string called manjha wrapped around a wooden contraption called latai/firki.
There are friendly competitions in every neighbourhoods in which every challenger vies to be the king of skies and defeat the rest by cutting their kites through an act of deft aerial skills. Every battle is followed by shouts of “Kai Po Chhe” meaning (I’ve cut it) from the winner and long sighs and urgent orders to get the next kite up by the losers.” – Rishabh of the Gypsy Couple
Read more about train travel & cultural encounters in India.
Up Helly Aa | Scotland
When: Cancelled in 2021. Normally the last Tuesday of January.
Where: Lerwick, Shetland
Up Helly Aa is Scotland’s raucous fire festival that takes place after Christmas. Squads of torchbearers deck themselves out in Viking costumes, drag a replica galley through the streets, and torch it once they’ve reached their final stopping point.
Why you should go: When else will you get to pretend to be a Viking for an evening?
Thaipusam | Malaysia or Singapore
When: January 28th, 2020
Where: Penang or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia or Singapore
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival where religious devotees fulfill their vows by practicing severe asceticism. The festival is mostly a walking pilgrimage, it is most memorable for the body piercing and hooking.
Why you should go: Thaipsum is shocking, to say the least. Go to admire the extraordinary fearlessness!
Wanna visit Borneo? More on wildlife spotting and national park travel.
Festivals in February
Yanshui Fireworks Festival | Taiwan
When: February 27th, 2021
Where: Yanshui, Taiwan
In case you thought bottle rockets were boring, imagine a stack of thousands going off at the same time. The Yanshui Fireworks Festival is believed to have originated after a Cholera outbreak when locals invited the God of War to protect them with a display of fire.
In modern times, thousands of people take to the streets to set off fireworks of their own. Getting hit with a bottle rocket is said to bring luck. Hope you’ve got fireproof pants if you’re hoping for the good fortune.
Why you should go: “15 days after the beginning of Lunar New Year, the population of Yunshui, Taiwan, swells with people hoping for a lucky new year. Their plan? Get hit with as many bottle rockets as possible at the annual Feng Pao bottle rocket festival.
Armed with homemade safety gear and motorcycle helmets, thousands willingly stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of manmade beehives packed with firecrackers, as trucks drive through town, shooting explosives at the crowd.” – Katie of Wandertooth on the Feng Pao Bottle Rocket Festival
Sitges Carnival Bed Race | Spain
When: Cancelled in 2021. Rescheduled for February 22, 2022.
Where: Sitges, Spain
The Sitges Carnival Bed Race is the perfect combination of respectable footrace and Carnival debauchery. Teams of four will strap their fifth team member onto a bed, dress in a costume, and race to the finish line using manpower only.
Why you should go: “One of the craziest festivals you can attend around Carnival time is the Bed Race they organize every year in Sitges, a small coastal town near Barcelona. Teams push beds on wheels that are dressed up in Carnival style to see who becomes the fastest. It is probably the funniest race we have ever seen.” – Gabor of Surfing the Planet on the Sitges Carnival Bed Race
There’s so much to love about Spain. Hike, eat, and get Gaudí.
Battle of the Oranges | Italy
When: Cancelled in 2021. February 27th – March 1st, 2022
Where: Ivrea, Italy
While the actual origin of the Battle of the Oranges is unknown, theories are that the city-wide food fight started as a rebellion against an Ivrean tyrant. For this festival, you can hide behind the nets, or arm yourself with oranges to join the battle.
Why you should go: “The Battle of the Oranges is definitely one of Italy’s craziest festivals. For three days during Carnival, teams on foot and horse cart haul oranges at one another in the streets of the city of Ivrea, not far from Turin.
Bystanders and tourists are recommended to wear a special red hat, or else they might be mistaken for the ‘fighters’ and thrown oranges at – but at the end of the day, oranges were just flying everywhere and we did get hit a couple of times. It’s the highlight of the year for locals and the atmosphere is just amazing! One of the best parties we’ve ever had! ” – Margherita of The Crowded Planet on Battle of the Oranges
Heading to Italy? Here are some of my favorite secret things to do.
Festivals in March
Fasnacht | Switzerland
When: Cancelled in 2021. Rescheduled for March 7th – 9th, 2022.
Where: Basel, Switzerland
Switzerland’s largest Carnival, Fasnacht, is a festival of masks. The masks most commonly represent politicians, characters, and animals, and it is considered inappropriate to reveal one’s identity while parading.
Why you should go: “Basel, Switzerland celebrates one of the biggest carnivals in the country each year- the Basler Fasnacht. It commences with a parade at 4 am on a Monday morning, known as Morgenstreich. Members of different cliques (or groups) showcase giant lanterns depicting social issues and play instruments like piccolos and drums in a synchronized manner.
The three days of the Fasnacht are an experience in itself but be prepared to get attacked with confetti on the streets if you are caught without a badge supporting the Fasnacht.” Menorca of Europe Diaries on Fasnacht.
Holi | India
When: March 29th, 2021
Where: Anywhere in India
Holi is the Hindu festival that celebrates good over evil, forgiveness, and the arrival of spring. Perhaps more famously, Holi is a carnival of colors. Participants take to the streets with dry powder and water balloons for a full-on color fight.
Why you should go: “Holi is a Hindu festival which was earlier celebrated in only India and Nepal, but is now popular all over the world. It is also known as the festival of colors, and rightly so because it is full of psychedelia. Faces, clothes, streets – literally everything gets painted in vivid colors. M
any people let their inner child out while celebrating Holi and join water-gun fights. In many parts of India, a special marijuana drink called “Bhang” is legally sold on Holi. In many countries, “Holi parties” are celebrated at different times, but the actual festival is celebrated in spring as per the Hindu calendar. We have attended many parties and music festivals all over the world, but Holi is the most psychedelic party because everything and everyone gets painted in technicolor.” – Sonal of DrifterPlanet on Celebrating Holi in India
South by Southwest | USA
When: Virtual event on March 16th – March 20th, 2021
Where: Austin, Texas, USA
Every March, some of the greatest minds in the world head to Austin for South by Southwest (SXSW). With music, film, and interactive components, SXSW is more of a cultural summit than a plain old music festival.
Why you should go: “For the first time in three years, Craig and I will not be attending the music portion of South By Southwest in Austin, Texas so here is why you should go for us! SXSW is a free (music and tech) festival. Yes, I said free. Free booze, free burritos and free live shows from bands. Well, it’s kind of free… you have to pay in time via queuing.
Each year, thousands of media types buy badges to attend workshops and network then rock out to popular and new bands at night. So what do the bands do during the day? They entertain the cheapos like Craig and I and that is how you get to see live music for free every March in Austin, Texas.
SXSW takes a bit of organization to work out who is playing where and when you have to queue to pick up the free passes but it is worth it. Music lovers get the chance to see established bands do new tricks (like Will Butler, the brother in Arcade Fire) or discover new music (like Daniel Wilson who is currently playing on UK radios). For those with a spare grand you can cut the queues and see bands without the faff but where’s the fun in that?” – Gemma + Craig of Two Scots Abroad on SXSW for Free
Read more on the weird and wonderful Austin.
Festivals in April
Songkran | Thailand
When: Postponed in 2021. Rescheduled for April 13th – 15th, 2022
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Songkran is the Thai New Year’s Festival symbolizing transformation and purification. At this unique world festival, you can arm yourself with a bucket, hose, water gun, or really anything you can find, to join in the nationwide water fight.
Why you should go: If you’ve ever dreamed of super soaking a stranger, Songkran is the perfect festival for you. For 3-days, it’s non-stop water gun-wielding and water balloon sniping. It’s a hilarious and perfectly weird way to experience Thai culture.
Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Chiang Mai.
Festivals in May
Bay to Breakers | USA
When: Virtual event between May 16th – June 2nd, 2021
Where: San Francisco, USA
Bay to Breakers is a 12km footrace, taking place in San Francisco – one of the best spots in the world for a weird festival. The first one was meant to boost morale after the devastating earthquakes that shook San Francisco in 1906, but these days it’s more of an occasion for breakfast beers and full on nonsense.
Why you should go: Bay to Breakers maybe a 12km footrace, but nobody is running. Instead, expect full nudity, groups of grownups in gorilla costumes, and an entire city getting weird.
Check out more weird and fun things to do in San Francisco.
Festivals in June
Pride | Worldwide
When: The entire month of June
Where: You will find some of the best pride festivals in San Francisco, London, Berlin, and beyond.
Pride at its core is a call for GLBTQIA rights, but the festivities worldwide are anything but serious. In practice, Pride festivals are days full of glittery parades, drag shows, and Elton John sing-a-longs. Going to Pride in any major city will ensure one of the most fabulous festival experiences in the world.
Why you should go: Pride in San Francisco is like a Gaga tune in June. Boys will be boys and girls will be boys, and they’ll love each other in any combination and hey… who cares anyway? Go for the parades, the parties, and to stand alongside the gay community for the common goal of equality.
Read more about San Francisco Pride.
Festivals in July
Naadam | Mongolia
When: July 11th – 15th, 2021
Where: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Celebrating 13th-century tradition and paying tribute to Mongolia’s liberation from Chinese rule in 1921, the Naadam Festival is what we might call the ultimate display of Mongolian masculinity (though girls can play too!). With participants competing in horse racing, archery, and wrestling, it’s nomadic games of epic proportion.
Why you should go: “Mongolia’s Naadam Festival is a celebration of nomadic sports and culture that is held all over the country in the month of July. Showcasing the best in horse racing, archery and wrestling it really is an intense spectacle. While the festival in the capital Ulaanbaatar is the largest, it is actually much more enjoyable in the smaller villages around Mongolia.” – Jarryd + Alesha of NOMADasaurus on all things adventure and Central Asia
Boryeong Mud Festival | South Korea
When: July 23rd – August 1st, 2021
Where: Daecheon Beach, South Korea
The website describes the Boryeong Mud Festival as “the exciting mud experience with the people around the world”. That sounds about right, huh? Join in the massive mud fight complete with slides, concerts, mud paint stations, and something alarmingly named “the mud prison”.
Why you should go: Getting messy with strangers seems to a bond that defies language and cultural barriers. And really, this unique world festival just sounds like a ton of fun.
Festivals in August
La Tomatina | Spain
When: August 25th, 2021
Where: Buñol, Spain
Maybe La Tomatina started as a revolt against city councilmen. Or maybe the people of Buñol were just down for a good tomato fight! Whatever the hell started La Tomatina, those who make it to this weird festival will join an hour-long brawl of epic proportions.
Why you should go (once): “My friend and I were in Valencia a few years ago during the time of La Tomatina. I convinced her to join me exclaiming we couldn’t miss the biggest food fight in the world. The festival was great for the first ten minutes…until I got plowed with a tomato to the eye. I ended up walking out of the giant mess covered in tomatoes and with a black eye. I’ll do anything once, but I won’t be partaking in that again! ” – Natasha of The World Pursuit on La Tomatina
Burning Man | USA
When: TBA in 2021. Normally late August.
Where: Black Rock City, NV, USA
What started as a beach burn in San Francisco for summer solstice has evolved into a worldwide movement. Modern-day Burners will join a community of more than 70,000 artists, performers, creatives, free lovers, and straight upweirdos that take over the desert in one of the world’s most fascinating and unique festivals.
Why you should go: There’s something magical about spending days in the middle of the desert, amongst people experimenting with the limits of social norms. Long-time Burners suggest the festival is getting more commercialized each year. Go before the tech camps take over.
Festivals in September
Oktoberfest | Germany
When: September 18th – October 3rd, 2021
Where: Munich, Germany
Munich’s 18-day folk festival is all about the beer, but the amusement rides, brass music, and traditional foods are nothing to balk at.
Why you should go: “I grew up about 3 hours North of Munich and yet last year was the first time I made it to Oktoberfest. Shame on me, I know. We had a reserved table in the Paulaner tent and I highly recommend getting a reservation. You wont have to worry about finding a place, you can go in and out, and best of all: VIP toilet access. Very useful, especially after consuming copious amounts of beer, let me tell you. ” – Maria of MariaAbroad on all things beer
Get more on traveling to Germany here.
Festivals in October & November
Vegetarian Festival | Thailand
When: October 5th – October 15th, 2021
Where: Phuket, Thailand
While the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket is free of meat, it’s certainly full of gore. By cutting out meat from their diets during the ninth lunar month, participants hope for health and peace of mind. In other acts of intermediation with the gods, devotees will walk on hot coals, pierce themselves, or perform other somewhat horrific acts of body modification with the belief that they will be protected from scarring.
Why you should go: Few other world festivals are quite as fascinating to watch at the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket. The mah song – or those possessed by a god – undertake incredible feats. And if you still have an appetite, the food is amazing.
Día de los Muertos | Mexico
When: October 31st – November 2nd, 2021
Where: Oaxaca, Mexico
Popularized by flower crowns and skeleton face paint, Día de los Muertos is actually about recognizing the deceased. The celebration takes place largely at cemeteries where extravagant alters are built for offerings of toys, food, alcohol, and flowers, but head to the city, and you’ll see everyone celebrating!
Why you should go: “One of the most unique and wonderful celebrations found in Mexico is the celebration of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It’s almost like Halloween, though full of parades that go on all night, fireworks, and deep rooted cultural significance of remembering deceased relatives and loved ones. It also goes on (unofficially) for a week! Fun and fascinating – definitely a must!” – Ian of Where Sidewalks End on all things Mexico
Festivals in December
Krampusnacht | Austria
When: December 5th, 2021
Where: Throughout Austria
Some cultures discourage bad behavior with an Elf on a Shelf; Austria prefers a more direct approach. Krampus is the hairy, fanged goat-demon that terrorizes children who misbehave. On Krampusnacht, the very creepy Krampus takes to the streets, visiting homes and businesses dispensing coal to the badly behaved.
Why you should go: “Intriguing and terrifying at the same time – Krampusnacht is the stuff nightmares are made of! Small alpine towns in the Austrian Alps have the men and teenage boys of the village dress up as the Krampus – a half-goat/half-demon who is meant to whip children into being nice at Christmas.
The Krampus parade through the streets dragging chains, carrying torches of fire and whipping innocent bystanders with twigs! The creatures masks burn into your memory – and you might not have the best night sleep afterward!” – Vicki of Make Time to See the World on Krampusnacht and Other World Festivals
Hogmanay | Scotland
When: December 31st, 2020
Where: Edinburgh, Scotland
New Years’ may be a serious party in any part of the world, but in Scotland, it’s extra special. Possibly derived from the Norse winter solstice, customs include first-footing (being the first to enter a home or neighborhood), fireball swinging, eating steak pie, and singing along to Auld Lang Syne.
Why you should go: “Picture the core of the city bustling with people partying, jumping from one stage to the other as 5 bands are usually playing at the same time all over the place, staring at fireworks as midnight approaches, having a blast even when the weather doesn’t help and you will start understanding how much fun it is. And then add popular dances, an ice rink, Christmas markets, a Ferris wheel, a torchlight procession on the 30th, a proper music festival on the 31st, the nuts Loony Dook race that ends up swimming in the not so warm waters by the Forth bridge on the outskirts of the city as well as an art explosion taking over 9 bizarre venues called Scot:Lands. I doubt there is another place on earth rocking NYE as much as Edinburgh!” – Inma of A World to Travel on Loony Dook