The Notting Hill Carnival shakes up London
For more than 40 years, the short British summer has wound down in London with a vibrant celebration of Caribbean culture. The Notting Hill Carnival began as a modest commemoration and has transformed into one of the world’s largest street parties. So whether by plane, train or automobile, escape to London this August to let loose at the U.K.’s craziest party.
Children and teens anxiously await their chance to shine, and hundreds of youths will proudly parade through the streets wearing whimsical costumes that they have worked on for months. That day, the carnival will be catered toward families with dancing, face painting, playgrounds and educational activities.
The revelry will culminate on what is known as “adults’ day.” The festivities will commence with a massive procession of floats, bands, dancers and masqueraders – the more body paint, glitter, sequins and feathers, the better. Known as mas, the wearing of costumes at the carnival can be traced back to the celebrations after slavery ended in the Caribbean. Former slaves dressed in costumes reminiscent of European attire to mock their former masters and rejoice in their freedom. Today, people are transformed into birds, flowers, insects, mythical creatures and anything else imaginable. The artistic energy devoted to the creation of the intricate costumes, head pieces, masks and make-up has become the carnival’s trademark.
Melodies from the Caribbean
The carnival’s music is as bold as the costumes. Meander around the cacophony of 40 sound stations blasting hip hop, calypso, reggae and soca. Local and internationally celebrated musicians will also perform live on stages dotting the carnival area. Wyclef Jean, Eddy Grant and Jamiroquai have taken the spotlight in previous years.
The tradition of the carnival’s music is fascinating. Calypso singing originated as a way for African slaves in Trinidad to communicate and build solidarity since they were not allowed to speak to one another. The genre of soca represents a variety of sounds and cultures. You’ll also hear the rhythmic percussions of steel pan at every turn. Steel bands emerged from Trinidad and have long dominated Caribbean festivities.
Flavors of the festival
After hip-swaying and head-bobbing, you’ll need some refreshments. Sip on rum punch and graze on the delectable Caribbean cuisine — you’ll have hundreds of food vendors to choose from.
You’ll smell jerk chicken sizzling on the grill from a block away; it has a tender texture and kick of flavor from a zippy marinade. Add a side of rice and peas or grilled corn. Also try curried goat on a bed of rice, and grab some fried plantains for a fast snack. Another favorite, ackee and salt fish is a Jamaican breakfast specialty that combines the buttery flavor of the country’s national fruit with the brackish taste of cured fish. Don’t be alarmed – ackee looks like scrambled eggs after cooking, but tastes nothing like them.
Beware of the Scotch bonnet! This chili pepper used in Caribbean cuisine is sure to set your mouth on fire, so have your cocktail at the ready.
Rain or shine, you should not miss a chance to experience the Notting Hill Carnival while living in Europe. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the Caribbean will transport you to an island paradise. You may even forget you’re in London.
Notting Hill for newbies
- The celebration is held during a U.K. bank holiday, so many businesses and restaurants outside of central London will be closed. If you hope to do anything other than visit the carnival on Monday, plan ahead.
- As with any big event, be aware of your surroundings and watch out for pickpockets. Do not bring valuables or credit cards, but make sure you have enough cash to get through the day, because ATMs in the area may run out of funds during the weekend.
- Report any suspicious activity to law enforcement; the “bobbies” will be out in force.
- With between 1 and 2.5 million visitors expected, the carnival can get chaotic. Bring your cellphone and set a designated meeting place and time in case your group is separated.
- Arrive and leave early to avoid the largest, rowdiest crowds. And if you’ll be traveling with kids, it is highly recommended that you visit the carnival on Sunday, rather than Monday.
- The areas of Kensington and Chelsea near the carnival will be closed to cars, so public transportation is the best way to get there. Many tube and bus lines will follow alternate routes or have different hours during the event. Visit Transportation for London for a list of closures, detours and schedule changes.
- A free Notting Hill Carnival smartphone app was created in 2012 with a map showing your location, the nearest “loo,” entertainment, food, public transit stops and emergency services. Before you go, downloand the most recent version.
- Several airlines offer direct flights between Germany and London, but you can also get to the U.K. on the Eurostar train or by driving (cross the English Channel by ferry or the Chunnel). Just remember to keep to the left!