The Day of the Dead is held annually beginning at midnight on October 31, and is observed as a way to honor and celebrate the dead. Typical festivals include homemade altars, markets, carnival-like processions, sugar skulls, elaborate costumes, marigolds, and pan de Muertos, or Day of the Dead bread. The holiday concludes on the afternoon of November 2 with a family visit to the cemetery.
Where to Celebrate Day of the Dead Around the World
Day of the Dead is a colorful and meaningful holiday in Mexico and other Central and South American countries. You’ll find both non-traditional and traditional celebrations around the world, as well.
In Oaxaca you’ll find spectacular markets selling festive items from which locals construct their Day of the Dead altars—look for sugar skulls and food items like black mole sauce. Oaxaca schools typically have contests for homemade altars, and the city goes all out with elaborate creations like sand tapestries. You’ll also find spontaneous carnival-like processions in surrounding villages and neighborhoods, like Etla.
Los Angeles, California
You’ll find a traditional Day of the Dead celebration in Los Angeles‘ Olvera Street, home to the city’s Mexican Marketplace. The area upholds many Mexican traditions and commemorates the holiday with face painting, theatre performances, altar displays, nightly candlelit processions, and more.
Santiago Sacatepequez, Guatemala
Day of the Dead is a religious holiday in majority Catholic countries, as its traditions blend with All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. And while the holidays have different origins, the meanings and celebrations are essentially the same.
Guatemala emulates Mexico’s colorful decorations, where the tradition is to fly huge, hand-painted kites over cemeteries. Known as the Barriletes Gigantes Festival (or giant kites), the kites serve as a cultural and religious symbol, connecting the living and the dead.
Xcaret Park Cancun, Mexico
Head to the famous eco-archaeological park known as Xcaret in Cancun‘s Riviera Maya to celebrate its special festival for Day of the Dead—the Festival of Life and Death Traditions. The four-day event features performances, concerts, parades, customary food, and dancing traditions from the Yucatan Peninsula, Argentina, and Spain.
Chicago‘s National Museum of Mexican Art celebrates Day of the Dead with a special presentation, Day of the Dead Xicago. Families are invited to upload a photo of a loved one they want to remember, which will be projected onto the museum’s exterior during the one-day celebration. There is also a community altar display, traditional foods, face painting, and live performances.
Lake Patzcuaro, Mexico
The Lake Patzcuaro region of Mexico is a less touristy spot to celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico. Lake Patzcuaro has traditional festivities, but the region offers something more—Night of the Dead. Each town around the lake celebrates in a different way, but the candlelit pilgrimage onto the lake is especially festive on Janitzio Island.
San Antonio, Texas
Mexican traditions are apparent across Texas, and Day of the Dead is no different. San Antonio‘s La Villita Historic Arts Village hosts a free, two-day festival near the River Walk amphitheater. The Day of the Dead celebrations include an altar contest, workshops, procession, live poetry, music, and art and food vendors.
Day of the Dead is known as the Day of the Ancestors in Ecuador, and is a public holiday. Tour operator Viator (part of TripAdvisor Media Group) hosts city tours in Quito and recommends looking for trips for Day of the Dead celebrations that “include a visit to the San Diego Cemetery, one of the city’s oldest cemeteries … Known as the ‘Corner of Souls’, the cemetery is not only an exquisite example of Quito’s colonial architecture, but provides an atmospheric setting in which to learn about the rich history and culture behind the Day of the Dead, while watching the hundreds of local families sing, dance and eat around the graves of their loved ones.”
Tucson‘s All Souls Procession and All Souls Weekend is held just after Day of the Dead and observes all traditions honoring the dead. With over 150,000 participants in the two-mile long procession, it’s one of the most powerful celebrations in North America. Events include a communal urn burning, performances, and art installations.
On a Group Tour
Want to celebrate Day of the Dead with little to no trip planning? Head on a special tour to Mexico, with options to Oaxaca with G Adventures and to Mexico City with Intrepid Travel. Thanks to an uptick in cultural interest, companies are starting to offer event-specific tours around popular festivals like Day of the Dead. You’ll get a more authentic experience and knowledge with a local guide as opposed to going at it alone.