This Notting Hill Carnival Guide is everything you need to know about attending Europe’s largest street party without spending a fortune!
WHEN: Bank holiday weekend – August 25 & 26, 2019 (Annually)
WHERE: Notting Hill, London. Yes, like in the movie!
WHO: All are welcome!
I grew up five or so minutes away from one of the entrance points to Notting Hill Carnival. As a child, my mum would take me to the outskirts of the carnival route to watch the parade of stunning costumes and hugely talented steel bands playing calypso. We ate street food and stood amongst the herds of diverse crowds united in music – even as a child I felt like I was a part of something very special. Carnival brings the community together and is a beautiful display of unity in a neighbourhood that was not always as multi-cultural as it is now.
Notting Hill Carnival originated as a celebration and display of emancipation of the Caribbean people. Trinidadian political activist Claudia Jones was pivotal in creating the very first event to unify race relations following the Notting Hill race riots in 1958, and the Carnival took influence from similar events in Trinidad. Community leaders incorporated steel-pan players and static sound systems into the mix and today’s carnival is a vibrant celebration of a diverse city with the event’s Caribbean roots still its core. Starting with around 500 people in the 1960s, Notting Hill Carnival now attracts a whopping 2 million people every year!
Carnival consists of two separately themed days. Sunday is known as ‘Family Day’ or ‘Children’s Day’, and things move at a more relaxed pace with a focus on the event being fun and family-friendly. Sunday is also known among ‘Masqueraders’ (people taking part in the Carnival) as ‘Dutty Mas’ which is the day you will find revellers are not afraid to get messy – many cover themselves in paint, oil, mud or chocolate. This tradition is an extension of “J’ouvert” which marks the start of Carnival and begins as early as 4 am.
Monday, the second day of Carnival, is known as ‘Adult’s day’ and in contrast has slightly more excitable crowds and is less geared towards families. Monday is also known as ‘Pretty Mas’ and this is the day for spotting spectacular costumes. It gets hectic so if you’re not a fan of huge crowds consider watching from a safe point such as the judging point at Great Western Road or by the Ladbroke Grove Sainsbury’s (Kensal Road) roundabout.
Whichever day you decide to join the celebrations, Notting Hill Carnival has an atmosphere that must be experienced to truly grasp its essence. Now you’ve got a little history in your back pocket, I’ll share my top tips in this Notting Hill Carnival Guide.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO NOTTING HILL CARNIVAL?
1. Always check the weather
Although Carnival takes place at the height of Britain’s summertime, at the end of August, the UK is known for having unpredictable weather and it has notoriously rained heavily at Carnival many times. The parade goes ahead rain or shine so be prepared to bask in the heat or dance in the rain. Take water with you so you don’t get dehydrated in the sun and a raincoat that packs away is a much smarter choice than an umbrella in those crowds.
2. Review your journey
Expect delays and expect to see revellers en route to the second largest carnival in the world! Locals and tourists come from far and wide for Carnival, and not all local stations will be open. Make sure you check Transport for London (TfL) and the Notting Hill Carnival 2019 app for an interactive map and updates on which stations will be serving the Carnival and which entry point is closest. Otherwise, you could waste a significant portion of your day just trying to get in!
3. Plan your Carnival route
Once you’ve worked out how to get there, you’ll want to check out the up-to-date Carnival route. Not only will you know which direction to walk in towards the fun but it’s also exciting to plan with friends (or solo if that’s your thing) before your arrival. Things to look out for:
- There are tons of ‘Sounds’ (sound systems complete with a DJ and mic man) playing everything from house, to ska, dancehall to samba.
- You will see ‘floats’ pass by, and they’ll have either a sound system or a steel band with steel-pan players. They’re usually accompanied by large groups of people in matching costumes or T-shirts.
- An incredible amount of time, money and energy goes into creating the intricately handmade costumes detailed with jewels and feathers – this whole process is now a recognised art form. There is a theme each year and the bands are presented to the judging panel.
4. What to eat at Carnival
You will be spoilt for choice as there is something for everyone. While you can find food from all over the world at Carnival, if you are keen to try West Indian food for an authentic experience I recommend the following:
- On the go or just need something small to keep you going? The Jamaican patty is your new BFF. You can choose veggie, saltfish, chicken, beef or lamb but check availability with the server first to make sure your preferred choice is available.
- For meat-eaters: Jamaican jerk chicken or curry goat with rice and peas is often on offer. For pescatarians: ackee and saltfish or fried fish/escovitch if you don’t mind fiddling with bones as you’ll most likely be standing up to eat.
- For Veggies: Trinidadian doubles, roti, plantain, fried dumpling, festival and as listed below!
- For Vegans: Stew peas, callaloo, okra stew, chickpea curry. It’s unlikely you will pay more than £10 for a full meal.
- For the drinkers, you will find plenty of Red Stripe and Carib being sold from coolers, but I absolutely love rum punch and I make my own to carry with me every year (BYOB is totally fine at Carnival – it goes without saying but leave the glass bottle at home!). For non-drinkers, there are tons of different juices, fruit punches and non-alcoholic cocktails available.
- And the most important thing you’ll ever drink: WATER! WATER! WATER! You’ll need it! It’s a marathon, not a race. You can find water fountains so keep a reusable plastic bottle handy.
5. What to wear at Carnival
One of the things I love most about Carnival is that people of all walks of life and all shapes and sizes come wearing what they please with an unapologetic attitude. Sure, they might be back in a suit or apron on Tuesday morning but during Carnival, anything goes! People wear their brightest colours and their hearts on their sleeves. There will be face paint, glitter, jewels, ripped denim shorts and crop tops, neon lycra, slogan tees, summer dresses and tracksuits. Oh, and wear your comfiest shoes but not sandals or your toes will get trampled on. I recommend sneakers that you don’t mind getting scuffed.
6. How to join a band
If you’re hoping to ‘play mas’ (join a carnival band/float) most applications close in April, however some bands have confirmed that registration is still open if you wish to ‘Do T-shirt?’. I joined Karnival Mania to play ‘dutty mas’ on Carnival Sunday. This involved attending the Carnival bright and early and dancing to Soca music behind the sound system truck, all the way from the meeting point until the finishing point. As a masquerade expect to get covered in brightly coloured paint and pigmented powder along the way. I paid £35 to be a masquerade and it’s a great way to get really involved in Carnival’s spirit. Prices vary depending on the band and maybe more if food and drink are included. To join, you complete a short online form, pay and collect your T-shirt in advance from mas camp (some bands include a bag, wristband and flask). If you are unable to be there in advance, you can give written permission for someone else to collect it on your behalf.
7. What to take with you
If you insist on taking a DSLR camera (you are sure to get some amazing shots), you should be aware that it’s a fairly high-risk zone for loss and thefts. I would leave any non-essentials at home particularly if you are planning to get a bit worse for wear after all those Red Stripes. I would strongly recommend a cross-body bag rather than a backpack or purse but do what works best for you (and your outfit of course). DO take cash, tissues, wet wipes/antibacterial gel, shades, raincoat/jacket/sweater. Fun fact: Many West Indians take a rag (all that jumping up and down to soca can get pretty sweaty) and a flag to represent their country of heritage.
8. Where to stay
Book your hostel early, as people travel from all over the world for Carnival and don’t be worried about staying in another area of London as there will be a way to get there. You’ll find every available London hostel here and see my transport tips above to plan your route.
9. Tips & tricks
Take small change (coins)! Portaloos are public toilets in trailers and they are typically free, however when you are desperate and can’t face a huge queue you will happily pay to use a restaurant’s bathroom. Some people even open their private home bathrooms to the public for a small fee, which when you think about it, is a nice little side-hustle for locals.
My biggest tip would be to have a meeting point, as it’s very easy to lose friends in a sea of people and phone connection can be patchy. As a last resort, make sure you know how to get back to your hostel.
You should also know that there’s a 72-second silence held at 3 pm on both days to honour the lives lost in the devastating fire at nearby Grenfell Tower. This is a subject still very painful and close to many hearts in the local community and should be observed with the respect it deserves.
That’s it, I’ve come to the end of the Notting Hill Carnival Guide, and you should be fully prepped to join in the fun. It really is an annual London highlight, but don’t just take my word for it, here are some official Carnival reps with a few words about what this time of year means to them:
“I love the vibes! Nothing beats the vibes that carnival brings; the smiles, the togetherness, the music and sheer happiness. It’s incomparable!” – Anthea Hudson, Mas Designer for Ebony Mas
“Outside of the Caribbean, Notting Hill is the most diverse, lively and inclusive carnival in the world. It’s maintained true to its heritage and Caribbean roots by displaying and celebrating all genres of Carnival arts such as steel pan, costumes and Jouvert. Being a world traveller and experiencing numerous Carnivals around the world, I would recommend Notting Hill Carnival for the novice and seasoned Carnivalist.” Tania Moore, Carnivalist
About the author
Syeshia Sweeney – MA Creative Writing student, former food blogger at HerFavFood and MelanMag, Arts & Travel enthusiast. Follow her adventures, here.