San Francisco
This isn't the oldest Carnival celebration in the U.S., but it isn't a Mardi Gras, either.

Carnaval San Francisco got its start in 1979 with local musicians, artists and dancers trying to connect with their heritage. More than three decades later, the event has become the Mission District's samba-driven celebration of Brazilian, Bolivian, Caribbean, African and Latin heritage that winds through the streets in colorful, serpentine fashion.

There are just a few things visitors should know before scrambling for a place on the sidelines. First, there are indeed scantily clad samba dancers similar to what travelers would see at Rio Carnival, but they're not keeping the same calendar. San Francisco Carnaval doesn't kick off until the last weekend in May.

Secondly, this isn't exactly the bead-throwing, beer-swilling kind of Carnival cruise lines and theme restaurants may have led you to believe. While it's still very much a Bay Area celebration, it's also a cultural event that that's taken quite seriously by the organizers as a learning experience for area children and a respectful display of diversity.

Dance teachers are on hand to teach samba, percussionists are there to help folks learn to play drums and the cooks are there to stuff you with garlic fries and teriyaki. It's a great excuse to dance with strangers, but it's all a bit too "carnival" in the traveling-street-fair sense to be much of a party. Our advice? Try to find a party with a view of the parade route or save the bar hopping until after the crowds thin out.

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