At the start of every November, millions of people across Mexico and beyond celebrate the lives of their dearly departed—with ofrendas (altars), calaveras (skulls), poetry and some of the most colorful face paint in the world.
The holiday is known as Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and has its origins in Aztec and other pre-Hispanic cultures. These ancient peoples honored their dead in lengthy, summertime celebrations. These traditions evolved over time and became entwined with the Catholic beliefs of colonizers in the New World, shifting the timing of these celebrations to November 1st and 2nd (All Saints and All Souls Days, respectively).
Squeeze every moment out of your next vacation with tips and tricks from Lonely Planet in our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox.
Thousands of years later, Mexicans and people with Latin heritage continue to host a reunion of sorts with those they’ve lost on these two days. November 1 is reserved for the souls of children gone too soon, and families honor the rest of their dearly departed on November 2. Those who celebrate may create ofrendas with photos of the deceased, flowers, foods, and more so that the souls of those gone may return for a night. Some use catrinas (richly-dressed skeletons made popular by Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada). Many also head to cemeteries to clean up and leave offerings for lost friends and relatives.
In certain cities across the US, this tradition holds strong, with where large celebrations including parades and block-parties bring Mexican-Americans closer together. Here are some of the biggest, most authentic celebrations across the country.
Los Angeles has one of the largest Día de Muertos festivals in the US with dancers filling city streets © Nik Wheeler / Getty Images
1. Los Angeles
Home to one of the largest Mexican diasporas, Los Angeles is host to a number of Día festivities. Over the past 30 years, Olvera Street is one of the most popular destinations, hosting events from October 25 through November 2. Community altars are displayed, processions happen nightly, and folks can even have their faces painted.
The other major celebration, LA Day of the Dead, occurs at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on October 31. Now in its 23nd year, 2022’s events include cultural performances, rituals, a cathedral art exhibit, live music, and a special children’s plaza. The theme this year is Mayahuel, the Aztec Goddess of Fertility.
Read more: 6 US cemeteries to visit the ghosts of the past
The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago is one of the top Latinx museums in the nation, and it’s no wonder that they also host one of the largest Día celebrations as well. Known as Día de Los Muertos Xicágo, the annual event takes place both in the museum as well as in the surrounding outdoor areas (including Harrison Park).
Inside, visitors can check out Día de Muertos – Memories & Offerings, the museum’s 36th annual Día exhibition, which pays tribute to those lost to COVID and other tragedies in the last year. Outside, families are invited to attend and create their own altars as well as enjoy live performances and delicious pan de muerto (a bread typically enjoyed on the holiday).
Read more: Explore Chicago like a local: here are the top 10 things to do in 2022
Colorful costumes and sugar skull face masks at Dia de Los Muertos in San Antonio © Texas Shutterstock / Moab Republic
3. San Antonio, Texas
Another city with a vibrant Mexican influence is San Antonio, which is where you’ll find the annual Muertos Fest. Taking place downtown on October 29 and 30 in 2022, this year’s 10th grand celebration features altars, cultural workshops, including mask- and flower-making, plus mariachis, dance performances, live poetry, and an incredible procession on over the two days. Add dozens of Mexican art and food vendors and you’ve got yourself quite the party.
Read more: 7 can’t-miss neighborhoods in San Antonio, Texas
Performances and take center stage at the Día de Muertos festival in the Mission District in San Francisco © Jialiang Gao / Getty Images
4. San Francisco
The Mission District is the place to be when celebrating Día in San Francisco. The annual Festival of Altars, hosted by the Marigold Project, takes place in Garfield Park. There’s a massive procession, and attendees bring candles, flowers, and photos to leave at the communal altar, or create their own. This year the event is in-person and available as a live stream via YouTube, scheduled for November 2.
Locals can also visit the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts to check out the 36th annual Day of the Dead event, titled Siempre Viviras En Mi Corazon – You Will Always Live In My Heart. Artists create installations dedicated to the holiday, which can be seen throughout October, with the main festivities (including live performances) taking place on November 2.
Read more: 17 top things to do in San Francisco
5. Fort Lauderdale
South Florida is a melting pot of Latinx cultures, so it’s no wonder that it’s now home to one of the most riveting Día events yet. Florida Day of Dead in Fort Lauderdale is best known for its amazing skeleton processional (on Saturday, November 5 this year), led by mariachis and massive skeleton puppets (some towering at nearly 20 feet in height). If that doesn’t convince you, they’ve also got indigenous music and dance performances, sugar-skull face-painting and mask- and puppet-making, a street festival with a folklórico stage, food trucks, and street performers, and of course, ofrendas.
Read more: Check out the artsy side of Fort Lauderdale while celebrating Dia de Muertos
The parade is one of the highlights of the Día de Muertos festivities in Albuquerque, New Mexico © Kayla Sawyer / Getty Images
6. Albuquerque, New Mexico
The Muertos y Marigolds Parade in New Mexico’s South Valley is undoubtedly the largest Día celebration in town. Normally it begins with workshops (like face painting and calavera doll making) heading up to the big day, as well as a parade, delicious food from local vendors, and arts and crafts. Check out the Facebook page for updates on this year’s festivities. As a whole, Albuquerque is home to a full month of activities dedicated to the holiday. Muertos y Marigolds are also hosting a community ofrenda exhibit with Gutiérrez Hubbell House from October 7 to November 12.
Read more: The best day trips from Albuquerque
7. Austin, Texas
Quirky Austin also boasts a grand Día de Muertos event called the Viva La Vida Festival, put on by the Mexic-Arte Museum, which typically draws thousands of attendees with a grand procession, an education pavilion with hands-on activities for all ages, folkloric ballet performances, and then some. This year’s festival is on October 29 starting at noon with a Grand Procession with festivities running until 6pm.
Read more: Why now is the perfect time to visit Austin (plus other times of year to go)
The mercado in Old Town, San Diego fills up with ofrendas and performers for Día de Muertos © ullstein bild / Getty Images
8. San Diego
San Diego hosts numerous Día events in October and November, including Sherman Heights Día de Los Muertos, which has face-painting and flower-crown workshops throughout the month, self-guided altar tours at the community center, and a candlelight processional on November 2, and City Heights Día de los Muertos, which features singing, dancing, and contests for best catrina and catrin.
But Old Town’s Día de los Muertos celebration tends to command the most attention. The event is held at the town’s mercado (marketplace), where folks can tour more than 40 altars, take part in costume contests, walk in a candlelight procession, enjoy giant skeleton puppets, and of course, eat, drink, dance, and honor the departed. Pick up a map of the altars around Old Town. The main events are held on the weekend before this year, October 29 and 30.
Read more: Surf, sip and saunter through San Diego’s ultra-cool neighborhoods
9. New York City
One of the largest Día festivities in the nation is the New York City Day of the Dead Festival in Staten Island. Two massive altars are created, including a communal one where guests can bring in photos and other offerings related to their deceased loved ones. The other giant ofrenda is dedicated to a specific Mexican region.
Mano a Mano, a local nonprofit celebrating Mexican culture, hosts another large, multi-day event. It’s usually open to the general public, but recent events are ticketed and availability is limited, with festivities usually centred on St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Live performances and a marketplace where folks can pick up ofrenda must-haves like papel picado (decorative perforated paper), sugar skulls, and pan de muerto are among the highlights.
The Brooklyn Children’s Museum also hosts a kid-friendly celebration featuring art, music, dance, and face-painting.