Baby, it's cold outside! But this year, why hibernate at home when you can be enjoying the best of what winter has to offer the world over? Some of the greatest festivals of the year take place during the coldest months, and we've rounded up the ten best to get you inspired to get on the road and celebrate the season. The approach of Lent means you may be giving up something for forty days, but we've found three hedonistic festivals on three continents to let you party to excess beforehand. You can also take a plunge into a frigid bay for a charitable cause, soak up the sun while listening to great music in a warm-weather destination, or tango your nights away – whatever your pleasure, you're sure to find a festival on our list that will get you jazzed about winter.
Barbados Jazz Festival
Imagine lazing on sandy beaches with the music of the world's most talented jazz musicians filling the tropical air. Sound like paradise? It is – and it happens every year at the Barbados Jazz Festival (January 14–20, 2008). This year's scene brings legends like Erykah Badu and Bob James to the shores of this former British island, where they'll perform in the festival's diverse venues – which range from the historic Sunbury Plantation House to the open-air playgrounds of the impressive Farley Hill National Park. The event makes for a unique symphony of natural beauty and musical genius.
Buenos Aires Tango Festival
The spirited soul of Buenos Aires,Argentina lies in its most famous export – the sultry tango – which has been enjoying a renaissance of late among local porteños (as residents are known) and visitors alike. The annual Buenos Aires Tango Festival (held this year from February 22-March 3, 2008), brings the music outside from the tango halls and onto to the streets of Buenos Aires, along with some of the country's top milongeros (tango dancers) to show spectators just how the dance is done. And thanks to free tango dance classes (for everyone from beginner to advanced dancers), you can learn this sexy dance at its place of origin and bring home some moves that'll last a lifetime.
Rio de Janeiro's annual celebration attracts revelers from the world over, and although the partying starts weeks prior, Carnaval is actually only a four-day event (this February 2–5, 2008) that ends the day before Ash Wednesday (known as Fat Tuesday). Dancers in exotic itsy-bitsy costumes, scantily clad bathing beauties, and carousing Cariocas (as the locals are known) hit the streets, particularly so Praça General Osório, just two blocks from Ipanema Beach, where the Banda de Ipanema puts on its famous drag-queen parade. The culmination of Carnaval – the official Samba Parade that takes place at the Sambodromo downtown – is the celebration's highlight.
It's surely the most anticipated event on Venice, Italy's cultural calendar – Carnevale, the riotous, indulgent period which, just like Rio's and New Orleans's annual festivities, occur just before the Christian period of Lent. A series of extravagant masquerade balls and gala dinners reminiscent of 17th-and 18th-century Venezia fill social calendars, while the streets bustle with parades, fireworks, music, theater, acrobats, and more. But the most celebrated aspect of the Carnevale is the tradition of wearing exquisite, intricately designed masks, often combined with a hooded cloak to give revelers complete anonymity. The celebration (January 25–February 5, 2008) will cover everywhere from St. Mark's Square to quiet canal-lined streets.
Calling all pyros: This Valencia, Spain fiesta is en fuego! Every year (and on March 15-19, 2008), Las Fallas sees several hundred ninots (massive cardboard, wood, and paper puppets) fashioned after local politicians and celebrities hung at 350 spots around town over the course of a week. On the last day, the streetlights are turned off and the effigies are stuffed with fireworks before being set afire – much to the awe of the gathered crowds. The event is thought to have evolved from Pagan rites that welcomed the onset of spring by burning the wooden posts that held the streetlights used in winter. Whatever its source, this awesome display is reminiscent of July 4th fireworks.
Help New Orleans get back on its feet by living it up at Mardi Gras (this January 19–February 5, 2008). Don some beaded necklaces (exactly how you acquire this accessory is up to you) and hit the party of all parties in the French Quarter, where colorful parades with enormous floats full of bead-tossing mascots in crazy costumes – and all that jazz (literally) – are just part of the draw. Though its reputation brings to mind shirtless debauchery (which is likely found on Bourbon Street), locals celebrate – fully clothed – along parade routes near Charles Avenue and in uptown bars. Regardless of where you party, the celebratory spirit is palpable throughout the city.
Polar Bear Jumpoff and Ugly Fish Toss
People in wacky costumes jumping into 35-degree water in Alaska may look a little daft, but this charitable event (called the Polar Bear Jumpoff) that benefits the American Cancer Society is the highlight of a state-wide celebration held each January (this January 18–20, 2008). If getting into Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska strikes you as too frigid, an array of on-land activities will keep you warm and dry, whether you're dog-sled racing, oyster slurping, ice bowling, or participating in the Ugly Fish Toss, in which teams toss a slimy salmon between them, and gradually increase the distance, until one pair is crowned champion.
Sundance Film Festival
For fabulous people and film-junkies alike, the Sundance Film Festival (this January 17-27, 2008) in Park City, Utah, is a seen-and-be-seen event that attracts movie stars and wannabes the world over. And though regular Janes and Joes may have some trouble getting into the celeb-studded parties around town, anyone can purchase tickets to screenings and discussion panels for as little as $10. The festival's reputation for bringing independent films to mainstream audiences is well-founded – Reservoir Dogs, Sex, Lies and Videotape, and Little Miss Sunshine are but three of recent note. Between screenings you can always hit the slopes of Park City – which is a mecca for ski bums all winter long.
Over three weekends each February (this coming February 1–17, 2008) Canada's capital city of Ottawa is transformed into a winter wonderland. Don your parka and tuque (a winter hat) and head for Snowflake Kingdom, a park that hosts the continent's largest snow playground, complete with 30 giant snow slides, and be captivated by ice-carving contests and magnificent ice exhibits. You can also lace up your skates or grab a sled for a magical glide along the frozen Rideau Canal; skating along this 7.8km icy piste is arguably the festival's singular highlight.
Winter Music Conference
If you want to see Miami's already stellar club and nightlife scene get truly sent into orbit, plan your trip around the Winter Music Conference (WMC), an action-packed DJ and electronic music festival that attracts thousands of dance-music professionals and enthusiasts from around the globe each winter. This year's annual party (from March 25–29, 2008) is sure to unveil new talent, the latest music technologies, and some of the hottest dance songs of the year. The event culminates with the Ultra Music Festival, the largest dance music festival of its kind in the United States, which sees over 200 DJs and artists take to 10 stages, much to the delight of some 40,000 music fans.