From Samhain and All Souls’ Day to Día de Muertos and good old All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), the northern hemisphere’s autumnal shift into the long, dark days of winter turns up some creepy and colorful celebrations around the globe; annual holidays that count amongst the world’s oldest and perhaps most misunderstood.
Historically many cultures – from Pagan and Aztec to Celtic – have recognised the last day of October and the first two days of November as a time when the dead were thought to return to earth and walk among the living. Afraid of ghosts? That’s what costumes, thought to ward off evil spirits, are for.
So before you write off Halloween as nothing but tricks and treats for the kiddie set, why not head to a city that takes its traditions – not to mention its fun – seriously? From a New Orleans moonlit cemetery tour to the flamboyant debauchery of Hong Kong’s hippest party district, these are five of the best Halloween travel destinations.
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1. New York City – get your groove on with the village people
Since 1973, this epic parade – rumored to be the largest Halloween celebration on earth with an estimated 2 million attendees – has remained an iconic New York moment. Show up early and stake out a prime spot on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, where the whole city seems to converge in a true melting pot experience.
From the people watching (picture a provocative array of costumes designed to thrill, shock, and defy explanation) to phantasmagoric floats, giant puppets, live bands and circus performers, this alcohol-free event is an only-in-New-York madcap delight.
Want to join in the fun? This year’s theme is “Freedom!”. Arrive at 6pm to line up for the parade, but take note: a creative costume is a must. There’s are prizes for the best dressed – and plenty of inspiration from previous years on Instagram. If you can’t get a costume together but want to take part, there are volunteer spots such as puppet animators.
Join parades and marvel at candle-lit tombstones as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca © Kobby Dagan / VWPics / Getty Images
2. Oaxaca – party with the dearly departed at Día de Muertos
Something about the phrase Día de Muertos – that’s “Day of the Dead” in Spanish – simply rolls off the tongue with the kind of mysterious energy that this Mexican cultural capital exudes. Held on All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) according to the Catholic calendar, this Aztec-influenced festival commemorates the memory of deceased family, friends, and ancestors.
The festival is held in numerous cities in Mexico, but is arguably at its most spectacular in Oaxaca. Here, the streets overflow with parades, colorful markets and costumed revelers sporting wildly macabre masks, while in nearby graveyards families spare no effort in their quest to create the most extravagantly decorated tombstones, replete with elaborate flowers and the eerie glow of countless candles. Don’t skip a trip to a panaderia (bakery), where a mind-blowing array of morbid sweet treats will be on display. Try a sugar-spun coffin, or the eggy, yeasty pan de muerto (bread of the dead).
A historic New Orleans mansion decked out for Halloween © Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images
3. New Orleans – vampires and voodoo in the French Quarter
Take the decadence and debauchery of Mardi Gras. Now add a witch costume, an eerie soundtrack and a dash of voodoo magic, and you’ve got yourself a N’awlins style Halloween. With an intoxicating dark side that’s celebrated all year round, the Big Easy cranks up the fright factor in inimitable style come late October (and with weather that’s perfect for parading around in a daring costume). Expect this behemoth of a shindig to last several days, with parades and parties in the streets building to a climax on October 31.
For a deliciously sinful vibe, start on notorious Bourbon Street and strut your stuff through the heart of the Vieux Carré (French Quarter), where an exotic spectacle of Halloween fashion will be on show. From the elegant balconies, revellers toss down “treats” (Mardi Gras beads) to the crowds in exchange for “tricks” (usually a smile and a wave… though expect to see plenty more).
Feeling adventurous? Head to historic Jackson Square to seek your fortune with a mystic, brave a moonlit cemetery tour, or dress your wicked best at the city’s sexiest party, the Endless Night Vampire Ball (strict costumed dress code applies!).
Dublin’s Bram Stoker Festival includes Halloween-themed events, performances and parades © Niall Carson – PA Images / Getty Images
4. Dublin – unleash your pagan side at Samhain
Originating in Druid and Celtic rituals, Samhain literally means “summer’s end”. Drawing upon its rich Celtic history (and claim to fame as the birthplace of none other than Dracula author Bram Stoker) Dublin offers a mysteriously romantic twist on the holiday.
Annual events include a carnival-style parade along with plenty of traditional bonfires around town. Care to mix your horror with a bit of history? Brave a haunted Dublin tour or join gothic horror enthusiasts at the Bram Stoker Festival, complete with seances, theatrical performances, and in 2022 an immersive Northern Lights spectacle in Dublin Castle’s Upper Courtyard.
For a truly otherworldly celebration with a decidedly ancient flair, don’t miss the superstition-rich festivities at the National Leprechaun Museum. Along with Celtic-inspired stories and games, expect to be haunted by costumed characters straight out of Irish mythology.
With activities on offer for adults and little ones, Hong Kong is a great all-round Halloween destination © Joshua Lee / Getty Images
5. Hong Kong – join the fun at a theme park party
Mix plenty of international expats with a dash of local traditions, and you’ve got one of Asia’s most festive Halloween celebrations. Head to the Lan Kwai Fong district to find the epicenter of the party-all-night action. The restaurants and bars here are known to take their Halloween decor seriously, so it’s also the perfect spot to kick off the night with atmospheric dinner and drinks.
For all-out Halloween fun, you can’t do better than Hong Kong’s theme parks. Ocean Park goes hardest on the spooky attractions, with immersive haunted experiences and scary street shows – book tickets in advance. Got kids in tow? Head to Hong Kong Disneyland, where famous Disney villains, such as Maleficent, Jafar, Cruella and Captain Hook, preside over the park for the night. Expect plenty of special-effects delights, from a ghostly roller coaster to show-stopping pyrotechnics designed to impress even jaded adults.