The 12 Most Badass Festivals in the World

Article by: Laura Mason|@masonlazarus

Mon February 13, 2017 | 11:45 AM

Going to music festivals and dancing all weekend can be both amazing and life-changing in their own ways, but dance floor stamina, cerebral workshops, and fancy costumes aren't everything. Here are the 12 events that have honored endurance, devotion, tradition, bravery, character, and physical strength (translation: all-around badassery) for centuries.

Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Scotland

The Shetlands, Scotland’s northernmost islands, have long been an ideal target for Vikings, but today their only invaders are festival-goers. The final Tuesday of every January, Lerwick, the islands’ capital, is overtaken by costumed warriors bearing torches, which they use to set a traditional longboat aflame.

Bellowing war cries, beating drums, firing guns and wielding swords, barrel-chested men and boys parade before hundreds of residents and visitors who've come to witness the celebration for hundreds of years. It all culminates in the epic burning of a massive, painstakingly constructed viking war boat lit afire by 1,000 torches – making it one of Europe's biggest fire festivals. Of course, there are after-parties until dawn, replete with more costumes (sometimes transvestites!) and plenty of booze and testosterone. Think of it as a viking-style Burning Man that has to be seen to be believed.

Vegetarian Festival, Phuket, Thailand

Vegetarian Festival 2015 Guy Houben   01

Photo by: Guy Houben

When hearing the name “Vegetarian Festival,” you'd probably think, “What's the big deal about vegetables?” In this case, the reality is there are a lot of reasons to be excited about this event – and a lot of reasons to be mystified by the sheer length that humans go to display their devotion and celebrate religious observances.

For nine days every autumn, Thai people believe they get possessed by Chinese gods. During what is known as the Vegetarian Festival , citizens act as "spirit mediums," locally known as mah song, and pierce their bodies, cut their tongues and foreheads, and hit their backs with sharp axes, blades and spiked balls to invite the gods to enter and possess them while in a trance brought on by the ritual piercing, flaying, and mutilation. A man with 20 blades jutting through his body, blood cascading down his white shirt is a stark sight for even the least faint of heart. Perhaps miraculously, both scarrings and deaths are rare once the Vegetarian Festival has ended.

Calcio Storico Fiorentino, Florence, Italy

Calcio Storico Fiorentino 2013 Giuseppe Sabella   21

Photo by: Giuseppe Sabella

Some have called it the most unusual sporting event in the world. Once a year in the middle of the elegance of Renaissance-era Florence and in front of the imposing marble facade of the Church of Santa Croce and its statue of Dante, rival teams duke it out in a violent, body-to-body match played on a sand-covered playing field as fans wildly cheer on their neighborhood squad. The Calcio Storico has ancient roots: the Greeks played a similar ball game that was later adapted in the first century B.C. by the Romans, who used in to train warriors preparing for combat. Before the games, long parades of 500 gloriously-costumed drummers, trumpeters, flag throwers, and brawny players in Renaissance garb slowly make their way along narrow cobblestone streets from Piazza Santa Maria Novella to Piazza Santa Croce.

Although the pre-game festivities are elaborate, the game itself is rather simple: players use hands, heads, and feet to get the ball over four-foot high wooden fences at either end of the field. They hurl themselves and block their opponents by punching, kicking, and wrestling them to the ground, sometimes so violently that it leads to bloodshed. There's sand-throwing, elbowing, and choking in the 50 minutes of combat, with no substitutions and no timeouts.

Local police have had to step in to make the game less thuggish: a few years ago they barred convicted criminals and players who were considered too violent. Referees in plumed hats scramble to enforce the few rules inside the field, but their role is limited, and players pay little heed in the mayhem. One rule seems to be adhered to, however: no kicks to the head.

Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling, Brockworth, England


The origins of this event go back about two hundred years to the early 1800s. On any given year, several thousand people get together and watch roughly between 20-40 contestants (in numerous races with different contestants each time) chase a 8-pound wheel of cheese or, in 2013, its plastic replica) down a very steep (with a 2:1 gradient) (295 foot) hill in the English countryside. On purpose. For fun. For bragging rights. And, of course, to take home the cheese—which can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour, hurtling down the hill. If you’re the first one down the hill, you win it.

The competition’s races are short, intense and not for the faint of heart or the easily bruised. There are typically five downhill races; four for men, one for women, with one uphill component as well, but this can vary from year to year. It’s a competition in which broken bones, bruised organs, dislocated shoulders and concussions do sometimes happen; ripped clothing, scratches and other cuts come with the territory. The terrain is a public ground, and it’s rough and uneven. It’s a likely outcome that some people end up in the hospital (they often do), and it’s partly why—oh, apart from the whole cheese rolling business—the festival has been subject to much notoriety.

Concurs de Castells, Tarragona, Spain

This badass Spanish festival – which dates back to the 18th century – is not only for rugged young people flexing their brawn. Every other October, men and women climb on top of each other’s shoulders as part of the Concurs de Castells (human towers competition) in Tarragona, Spain. It’s the ultimate exhibition of teamwork as large groups of everyday people from the ages of five to 95 work together to build a living human structure.

Unlike human pyramids, human tower-building is a dance, based on order, method and ritual. It requires strength, balance, courage and common sense. The base is usually made up of the strongest men, who also act as a safety net if the castell collapses. As the tower grows, the castellers shrink in size until only the youngest and lightest remain. Special crash helmets have been designed for the children, with a soft outside to protect their human safety net. When the youngest reaches the apex of the tower, he or she raises four fingers (representing the Catalan flag) and then climbs down the other side. The dismantling of the tower can often be the most dangerous part, and although accidents are rare, there have been fatalities.

Fiesta de San Fermín, Pamplona, Spain

Fiesta De San Fermin 2014 Nick Gammon   3

Photo by: Nick Gammon

San Fermín originated as a week­long celebration to honor Saint Fermin, and actually blends three fiestas: the feast day of San Fermín, an ancient trade fair, and a bullfighting festival. Saint Fermín was said to have been dragged to death by bulls on the very same streets of Pamplona. Just be careful not to meet the same end – which is easier said than done, considering it's set amidst nine consecutive days of partying.

The run itself is a half-mile course down a narrow cobblestone road that leads through the town to the bullring. If you fall during the run — duck, cover your vitals, pray to Saint Fermín and try to get out of the street because you could also get trampled by other runners, in addition to the bulls. There’s a famous hairpin turn that’s notorious for carnage, a bend in Estafeta Street halfway through the race. It’s best to make a mental note of this and swing wide. Its nickname is “Dead Man’s Corner,” and there’s good reason for it. The final stretch leads toward the entrance to the bullring, the last leg of the race and perhaps the most dangerous. This bottleneck is not the place to be racing the bulls to the finish, but few things can match the exhilaration of running into the roaring bullring with a dozen bulls hot on your heels.

Krampusnacht Festival, Klagenfurt, Austria

Let's be real: who's scared of a jolly, pot-bellied Grandpa who bestows presents to all the good kids each and every Christmas? That yuletide tune "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" tells us we "better watch out," lest he decides to punish us for our transgressions – but we think the true Christmastime terror to fear is the Krampus.

This satanic creature that haunts central Europe is essentially a devil with flaming coals for eyes, matted fur and twisting stag horns who slaps people with birch twigs and kidnaps children in a large sack or casket so he can later drown or eat them. Some say Krampus is a holdover from pre-Christian pagan nature spirits turned into a devil by the Catholic Church. Some say he's always been a devil, as evidenced by his rusty chains and shackles, symbols of his escape from Hell. Either way, during the annual Krampusnacht Festival in the alpine town of Klagenfurt, Austria on December 5th is when he – embodied by up to 1,000 costumed men dressed as Krampi – comes out of the shadows for the enormous Feast of St. Nicholas parade, Krampuslauf: the Krampus run, and to scare the bejeezus out of children.

Kirkpinar Oil Wresting Festival, Edirne, Turkey

Hero Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Chip Conley

Photo by: Chip Conley

When it comes to macho throwdowns, the Super Bowl's got nothing on Kirkpinar, a greased-up wrestling match that is said to be the world's oldest annual sporting event. For nearly 700 years, numerous pehlivan (wrestlers) have converged on Edirne, Turkey for Kirkpinar, an oil-wrestling festival in which of all shapes and sizes, dressed in nothing but traditional cowhide trousers and doused in olive oil, battle it out one-on-one. The origins of Kirkpinar date back to the 14th century, when Ottoman raiders, bored and in need of diversion, began wrestling in a group of 40 men near modern-day Edirne. Two of the men wrestled through the night, and both died in the midst of the competition, neither having emerged victorious.

Today, Kirkpinar continues the tradition of that mystical experience with a competitive festival that, thankfully for the wrestlers, removes the “until death” part. Nevertheless, these wrestlers take what they do quite seriously, most of them having trained as apprentices for years with their own personal masters. Kirkpinar oil wrestling is open to men from all cultures, regions and ages, without discrimination regarding religion, language or race. Pehlivans are considered exemplary figures in society, with attributes such as generosity, honesty, respectfulness and adherence to traditions and customs. They are the heroes in Turkish culture.

Molten Iron Throwing, Nuanquan, China

Molten Iron Throwing Pixel Cc Httpflic.Krpdo8c Ll   06

The DaShuHua Tree Flower Festival is a spectacular alternative to the traditional fireworks that marks the 15th and final day of the Chinese Lunar New Year festivities. It's all part of an ancient tradition in the small town of NuanQuan, approximately four hours' drive west of Beijing. With little more than a hat and a sheepskin coat for protection, a small team of farmers spoon molten hot metal from buckets before hurling it at a purpose-built brick wall. The rapidly cooling metal rains down in fountains of brightly glowing shards resulting in an impressive pyrotechnic display, which is locally called DaShuHua (beating the tree to produce flowers).

Due to the danger posed by the molten iron, only the bravest men perform in the show. The only barriers between the molten iron and the throwers are a sheepskin jacket, goggles, and a straw hat to protect against the splash of hot metal. The wooden ladles are soaked in water for three days before the show to prevent them from combusting on impact. As the ladles dip into the molten iron, flames shoot up instantly, so the men work quickly to splash the molten iron onto the city wall. As the metal strikes the cold, hard wall, it explodes into a shower of sparks, mostly over the performers. The incredible scene is met with loud applause from the audience. With every ladle of hot metal the roars grow louder and the night sky glows bright under the light of the fire flowers.

Scottish Highland Games, Braemar, Scotland

Hero Scottish Highland Games Visit Britain

Photo by: Visit Britain

Anywhere there are enough Scots to hurl giant logs, you’ll find an annual gathering of the Scottish Highland Games. These old military exercises have grown into a worldwide exhibition, where everything from tug-of-war and caber-tossing (whittled-down tree trunks) to dance competitions and solo bagpipes performances is used to determine bellwethers of skill, prowess, and endurance.

The Games are often divided into three general categories: heavyweight competition, dance, and music. The heavyweight competition includes the burliest events, which have evolved into a Scottish rite of passage. The caber toss is Scotland’s signature and most impressive event, where logs more than a dozen feet long are carried by similarly tree-trunk shaped men and women. The stone-put is similar to shot-put, only some Highland Games still use ordinary stones weighing up to 26 pounds. The weight throw is fairly self-explanatory, as is “throwing the weight over the bar” and “throwing the hammer,” yet the drama of these events is real.

The Games use creative and inventive ways of pitting man against man and man against nature. Unlike modern sports, technology has exhibited no influence, and the Games remain the same as they have for hundreds of years.

Tapati Rapa Nui, Easter Island, Chile

Hero Tapati Rapa Nui Vanessa Blasc Cc

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) may be best known for the monolithic heads, or moai, that dot its landscape. However, Easter Island’s claim to fame each summer (that’s early February when you’re south of the equator) is Tapati Rapa Nui, a festival that is at once a test of masculine strength and feminine grace, a celebration of local culture and a welcoming of visitors.

The crux of Tapati is a battle between two teams, or two halves of the town of Hanga Roa. Each team is lead by a queen candidate, a young woman who competes with the other would-be-queen from the rival clan for the Queen of Tapati crown, a symbolic title that the winner will bear for one year. Teams engage in popular activities based on ancient sports, such as the Rapa Nui Triathalon, in which scantily clad competitors must swim, paddle across a lake in a reed raft, and run around the lake while balancing banana bunches over their shoulders.

Another popular event is haka pei, a sledding competition of sorts whereby entrants race down the side of a volcano on a banana tree trunk. While this may sound like the tropical version of your childhood winter vacations, this is a sport that can lead to serious injury and is best left to the pros. Other events include surfing, spear fishing and traditional body decoration…all done wearing the traditional skimpy loincloth. (Did we mention that the Rapa Nui are in seriously good shape?)

Wife Carrying World Championship, Sonkajarvi, Finland

Wife Carrying Finland Gianturco

Photo by: Paola Gianturco

What started as a light-hearted attraction in the small town of Sonkajärvi has become a world recognized (although bizarre) sporting competition. Despite the comedic nature of the competition, the Wife-Carrying Championship is deeply rooted in Sonkajärvi's history. There are many rumors on how the Wife-Carrying Championship originated, but it appears to have been inspired partly by the practice of wife-stealing, once commonplace in the villages of eastern Finland and partly due to a notorious local robber named Rosvo-Ronkainen from the late 1800s. Legend has it that he made potential gang members complete an arduous obstacle course while carrying big, heavy sacks on their backs as a way to test their speed, strength, and endurance.

The event today is part sport and part entertainment, with plenty of fun to be had by everyone. Some take the competition very seriously, training hard in an effort to post a winning time, while other couples are in it just for the laughs. There are four different techniques that are employed to carry the wife: the traditional piggyback (arms around his neck, legs around his waist), the “sack-of-potatoes” (wife over just one of his shoulders), the “fireman's carry” (wife across both of his shoulders) and the most popular technique in recent times—the “Estonian” style (wife dangling upside down on the man’s back). You might be wondering what the prize is for all this action. The first place couple receives the equivalent of the wife's weight in beer!

This article was originally published in February 2016.