Festivals in Global Cities

Jan 17, 2014 11:24:41 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

“Connecting Global Cities” is a monthly column written by Colin Speakman, Director of China Programs for CAPA International Education.

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Happy New Year, or Xin Nian Kuai Le in Mandarin. Celebrating that is of course our first major festival of 2014 and reaches all our global cities and more. The Chinese take it seriously - after all they invented gunpowder and know a thing or two about fireworks - even though they have their own Lunar New Year coming on on January 31 this year. Shanghai made a determined effort to keep the lights on well into January 1 and my photo of Jing An Temple at 1 am on a clear, dry night is a good example - perhaps the monks were still up?

Photo: Jing An Temple Shanghai at 1am New Year's Day 2014 by Colin Speakman

While one could say that the Chinese are double-dipping on New Years, with new President Xi giving a major widely televised speech to welcome "western" new year, it is also true that most global cities nowadays actively celebrate the Chinese New Year. In 2013, London's Chinatown held the largest Lunar New Year celebration outside Asia and San Francisco put on a great show too.

Photo: Chinatown London Chinese New Year 2013 by Colin Speakman

The Global cities in the USA will look to Thanksgiving on the 4th Thursday of November as their special festival which brings families together. Last year it was possible for CAPA American students abroad to sample traditional turkey and the trimmings even in Beijing. Of course that festival jostles with July 4 in importance, but, as a Brit, I'll move on quickly. Some events are specific to a city (or better celebrated there) and, if timed right, tourists can be there for the festivities. We should mark our diaries as to what is coming up in 2014.

Photo: CAPA students at Thanksgiving in Beijing by Colin Speakman

Some might think that it would be smart to come to China to celebrate the Lunar New Year, but one would have to choose one's city. Shanghai keeps going to welcome western visitors because it has a lot of ex-pats and is a city that never closes, but most others do not keep that pace. From about 15 days before January 31 to about 25 days after China will experience the largest urban migration over 40 days when far-flung Chinese return to home towns to celebrate with family. In this Spring Festival, laowai (foreigners) in China find that their local friends have disappeared, universities are closed at least one month and the capital is eerily quiet.

Photo: Empty Beijing 3rd Ring Road in 2013 Spring Festival by Colin Speakman

It is nothing like going to Rio to celebrate their world famous carnival between February 28 and March 4 this year, when "everyone" will come into town. Latin American global cities love carnivals and Buenos Aires will be throbbing to Mardi Gras which takes place 7 weeks before Easter and will thus be in late February 2014 .

So on that note, let's look at what festivals will be particularly associated with CAPA's eight Global Cities in the coming year. One note: 2014 sees the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1. That will be marked in many parts of the world but I will leave the topic to a separate CAPA World blog.


Most Chinese festivals are national events but there is no better place than Beijing to experience China's National Day festival on October 1, to mark the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 . This year will be the 65th anniversary. Tiananmen Square is closed to the public that morning, while leaders make speeches and survey parades (watch on TV), but it soon fills in the afternoon with many piling in, including CAPA students. After that there's more fun as Chinese celebrate the "Golden Week" holidays. October is regarded as one of the seasons to be in Beijing - not too hot and not too cold.

Photo: CAPA students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing by Colin Speakman


Similar to Beijing, Buenos Aires (BA) celebrates the politically important May 25 Independence (from Spain) Day, the First National Government day, from 1810, alongside other Argentinian cities. However, one festival that is unique to BA is the National Day of Tango on December 11. Originally it was meant to celebrate the birthdays of two of Tango's key figures, Carlos Gardel and Julio De Cara, but it developed into a festival for the masses. Thus many parties and festive activities take place across the capital, along with closely contested tango competitions, A fun and warm time to be in BA, escaping from some Northern Hemisphere cold weather.

Tango Street Art, Buenos Aires
Photo: Tango street art in Buenos Aires by Rod Waddington


Few would disagree that the most famous festival that evokes thoughts of Dublin is St. Patrick's Day. St. Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland and the commemoration of his birth has evolved into a celebration that can be found in many other global cities around the world, but there is nothing quite like being in Dublin for it on March 17. 2014. The festival starts on March 14 for four days of Irish music, culture, food and drink and the famous St. Patrick's Day Parade. Weather conditions cannot guaranteed but there will be ways to warm the cockles of your heart, whether by fun runs or, if appropriate, in pubs.

St Patrick's Parade 2013 - Dublin
Photo: St. Patrick's Day Parade in Dublin by Miguel Mendez


A fun one which I have seen is the festival of St. John which takes place on June 24. It is celebrated with medieval style football matches in which almost anything goes.. and a huge crowd roars on the players while keeping merry from conveniently located bars. In the evening there is an impressive firework display, However if wanting to come to Firenze for longer events, there is the Florence Music Festival that takes place over two months in the summer, ending after July (remember Florence pretty much closes down in August) - varied music genres with performances in the communal theater of Florence. Warm, indeed hot, weather and mosquitoes are out.

I Fochi di San Giovanni
Photo: I Fochi di San Giovanni by Aldo Cavini Benedetti


In 1973, a festival actually called 'The Istanbul Festival" was created - showcasing art from Turkey and around the world. The focus changed to music and dance and from 1994 it has been known as the Istanbul International Music Festival. There are orchestral concerts, chamber music, recitals, traditional music, classical ballet contemporary dance and opera events. It is held in hot June and July each year. Looking ahead Istanbul also hosts a major Art Biennale but not in 2014 (See Shanghai). Put Istanbul on your 2015 diary in the Fall for that.

Photo via The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts


London's equivalent of the excitement of Rio is the Notting Hill (street) Carnival which dates from 1966 - that was the year England won the world soccer cup and something to celebrate!. It was easy for me to get to it in the days I lived in West London. A great community event that promotes cultural unity and covers the late August Bank Holiday Monday and the weekend before, with parade, bands, dancing, food and more.

1: Notting Hill Carnival 2009
Photo: Notting Hill Carnival, London by Stephanie Sadler


The Dragon Boat Festival in June is an example of an event that works better in Shanghai than in Beijing as the Dragon Boat races need an expanse of water. So if in Shanghai head down to Suzhou Creek just off the Huangpu River by the Bund. However for a longer stay, 2014 brings Shanghai's chance to host China's only major Art Biennale again, for six months starting October - weather nice then so come early.

Dragon Boat
Photo: Dragon boat races in Shanghai by Dennis Kruyt


Like Istanbul, historically Sydney has "The Sydney Festival", except that it continues to offer a wide range of events, so its name has not changed. Performances from Australia and abroad span all art forms including dance, theatre, music, visual arts, film, forums and large scale free outdoor events. The festival runs for three weeks in Australian summer January so a bit tight for 2014 - perhaps plan for next year?

2013 Sydney Festival
Photo: Sydney Festival opening night in Darling Harbour by Francisco Martins

Do you have a favorite festival in a global city? Tell us about it in comments.

Topics: Travel, Global Cities