For many people, the name Notting Hill conjures up images of the late 1990s romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. However, few realize this charming neighborhood comes alive each August as the site of the Notting Hill Carnival, a Caribbean-themed street festival that’s the largest of its kind in Europe.
The 2013 festival will take place on Aug. 25 and 26. Organizers promise this year’s event will be the biggest and most festive yet.
A Longstanding Tradition
The first Notting Hill Carnival took place nearly 50 years ago in 1966. Originally established as a companion to the traditional Carnival celebration held on the island of Trinidad and as a means to promote cultural unity in the diverse Notting Hill neighborhood, the first festival drew approximately 500 visitors. As word of the entertainment, food and joyful atmosphere grew, the festival gained in popularity. The event now draws more than 2.5 million people each year – and no fewer than 50,000 of them are performers in the many concerts and parades that take place over the two days.
Two Days of Food, Fun and Music
The first Notting Hill Carnival was focused on the steel drum musicians who played in the Earls Court of London each weekend. The musicians paraded through the streets of Notting Hill, drawing out many of the area’s Caribbean immigrants who enjoyed hearing music that reminded them of their homelands.
Today, performers take one of the many stages set up around the festival area, in addition to joining in the two parades that take place over the two days. Festivalgoers enjoy traditional West Indian cuisine from the dozens of food stalls. In addition to the expected offerings like jerk chicken, you’ll find more exotic and unusual dishes, including curried goat, fried plantains and other traditional favorites.
The real draw to the festival for many people are the parades and dance parties. On the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival was established as a celebration of the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. In recognition of that, many performers created elaborate costumes based on the elaborate European dress of their former captors — with a colorful, island-influenced twist. Expect to see performers clad in spectacular creations, most featuring feathers, sequins, precious metals and plenty of skin. Attendees often get into the spirit as well; makeup and face-painting stations abound, allowing you add some island flair to your look.
Getting There and Event Schedules
The Notting Hill Carnival party starts at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 25. It won’t truly stop until the wee hours of the morning on Aug. 27.
Sunday is Children’s Day. The main parade route is shorter, and the streets are packed with family friendly activities, including the costume prize ceremony. On Monday, the events take on a more adult-oriented feeling, with a longer, more elaborate parade and a day of dancing in the streets — no doubt fueled by an abundance of rum punch. The parade floats are gone by dark, but after-parties continue at private residences, bars and restaurants around Notting Hill.
If you’re planning to attend the Notting Hill Carnival, your best bet is to try booking a hotel in walking distance of well in advance (try searching for a London hotel on Venere for various Notting Hill options). Because the streets of Notting Hill are closed to vehicle traffic for the duration of the festival, you’ll have to use public transportation to get to the area, but the large numbers of festival-goers make the bus and Tube routes crowded. In addition, many of the Tube stations in the area are closed or have limited access during the festival hours. Check with Tube information booths or the festival website to determine the best route to the party.
London’s Notting Hill Carnival is a summer tradition and a vital part of the fabric of this vibrant city. If you are visiting during August, make time to take in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this fascinating event.