Notting Hill Carnival returns to west London this August bank holiday, the 55th edition of one of the world’s biggest street parties and the largest in Europe by a distance. Since 1966, carnival has been a celebration of British Caribbean culture and diversity, a festival of music, dance, and food and drink.
The floats always dazzle, performers dress emphatically, and sound systems reverberate through mouthfuls of jerk chicken and gulps of Red Stripe. Well over two million people, including thousands of tourists, attend each year to watch mas performers, hear steel bands, and follow the three-and-a-half mile parade route through W10.
Notting Hill Carnival today is thought to generate almost £100 million for the London economy. But it was never about money. When it started, the event was a show of unity, with tensions in 1960s Britain high.
The Trinidadian-style festival acted as a tonic and has long been a show of togetherness and pride. In 2023, there is still a way to go as far as true equality is concerned, but carnival brings a convivial party atmosphere above all else and attendees come from all walks of life. Here’s what you need to know.
The shape of things
Things begin on Saturday August 26 with Panorama, a steel band competition held at Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance Park from 6pm till 11pm.
Meanwhile, J’Ouvert — from the French “Jour ouvert”, or “opening of the day” — marks the start of the Sunday celebrations, with crowds gathering from 6am, and parades from 10.30am until 5pm.
One of carnival’s best-kept secrets, it is more geared towards families and is best for those with children. On bank holiday Monday, the adults’ day begins. The music cranks up, the dancing gets going, and carnival performers tour the route from 10.30am until 8pm.
How to get there
Unsurprisingly, much of W10 is closed over the carnival weekend and traffic surrounding Notting Hill will be busier than usual; catching a bus into the heart of the action is off the cards. The best way to attend is by Tube.
Get the Central line or Circle and District to Notting Hill Gate and walk the rest of the way (about nine minutes). Otherwise, Westbourne Park will be “exit only” between 11am and 6pm each day, closing at 11.30pm.
Ladbroke Grove is closed all day, while Latimer Road will close at 11.30pm too. Royal Oak will be “exit only” between 11am and 6pm, when it will shut. Some Santander bike docking stations will be suspended, so check tfl.gov.uk for information on which remain open and are closest to the action.
The main event
The Monday carnival parade begins close to Westbourne Park Tube at 10am, moving down Westbourne Park Road — past the first judging zone — and along Chepstow Road to Westbourne Grove — the second judging zone — before arriving at Ladbroke Grove.
Each judging zone is where a panel of experts help to determine the best mas band, looking at costumes, creativeness, and energy. Theoretically, this makes them ideal viewing spots, but they pack out. Performers then loop back down Kensal Road, parallel to Grand Union Canal, and onto Elkstone Road before turning back towards the starting point.
The parade, which takes in most of W10, moves at a fairly slow pace, and passes dozens of stages, bars and food stalls. Wherever you’re stood, it gets busy; find somewhere and settle in for the day.
Dance (and look the part)
This is what the mas — short for masquerade — bands have been preparing for all year. Every colourful costume is made by hand: as many as 30 million sequins are used, more than 15,000 feather plumes, and over 30 litres of body paint.
As many as 300 dancers make up each band, of which there are almost 50 this year. Costumes are inspired by mythology, a homage to West African, Caribbean, and South American culture. Obviously, the crowds are encouraged to get involved: for many, this means a time to get a little naked: sheer tops and strings are always in, so is anything tight and short.
There’s a full guide here, but don’t forget the basics — wear sunglasses, take a fan to cool off, and make sure your shoes are super comfy, for a day on your feet. Oh, and beware: trainers often come home after carnival mashed up.
Music is as important as dance at carnival. On Monday, about 36 sound systems and dozens of stages are set up to play from noon to 7pm. Everything from dub and roots to soca and calypso, reggae to hip hop, jungle and drum and bass will be there, with the most respected musicians and DJs lined up to attend. And don’t forget the steel drums. It’s about Black-origin music in every sense.
Notting Hill Carnival never announces every act ahead of the day — there are always surprise guests: Beyonce turned up in 1999 — but already there’s a long list of acts. Among those set to perform are 4Play Sound System, playing dancehall, jazz-funk, funky groove and more; King Tubby’s, one of Jamaica’s most respected reggae outfits; Pineapple Tribe, putting out techno, breakbeat and hard house; and Seduction City, with soul, ragga, and R&B. Don’t miss Sir Lloyd, a legend on the UK reggae scene for four decades. Lloyd fuses eclectic bass beats and cutting-edge sound on the corner of Leamington Road Villas.
Also returning is the sound system Disco Hustlers — “for the people, by the people, to the people” — one of the carnival’s shining lights since 2009. This year the group will be joined by Linett Kamala, one of the first female DJs to perform in the 1980s.Don’t miss the carnival soundtrack on Spotify, and look out for the women DJs.
This year, Kamala, a true pioneer, has launched a campaign to bring more women to the event’s music scene. In 1985, aged 14, she became one of the first female DJs at carnival and later launched Original Sounds Collective, which offers training, experiences, and access to equipment. “Women have always been around and part of soundsystem culture. It’s just not always been as visible,” she said.
Licensing laws mean official celebrations have to wind down at 7pm, but there are dozens of after parties, many impromptu — you’ll have to find those yourself — and others organised and ticketed. Two of the biggest are Sunday West Soundsystem, a staple since the early 2000s.
Founded by party promoter and DJ Rufus Abbott, it starts at 4pm and runs until 3am, allowing for 11 hours of house, garage and jungle at Loft Studios off Scrubs Lane. The second is for those keen on R&B, deep house, soul and hip hop. Revellers might head over to 229 Great Portland Street, a music venue near Regent’s Park.
On the decks this year will be the likes of CJ Beatz, Snips, Cable, Sarah Harrison and Shorty Bless. And the biggest? That might be the one at Bashment House in Hackney, which starts at 8pm and runs until 5am the next day. Afrobeats, soca, dancehall, R&B and more is on the bill, with Tems, Popcaan, and Wizkid among those set to play. Tickets sell out fast so get in early.
Food and drink
While the area’s restaurants are mostly shut — there are a few still trading — there are more than 300 food stalls for carnival. As much as five tonnes of chicken is cooked each year, alongside about 30,000 corn on the cobs and endless plates of rice and peas.
Classic Jamaican jerk is considered king, with BBQ smoke billowing from hot barrels, and marinades differing from place to place. But look out for Trinidadian roti, too, as well as Guyanese pepper pot and more. Vegan traders also attend. To drink? Rum. Lager. Punch. And soft drinks — cans of Ting are a must.
Overall, five million drinks are served, including about 25,000 bottles of rum and an uncountable number of cans of Red Stripe, Carib, and other beers. Cheers.
Tips for first timers
Be sure to bring cash. It’s 2023, but not everywhere will take card.
Once you’re settled on a spot, find your nearest loo!
Come with a fully charged phone. Goes without saying, really.
Plan ahead. Transport there and back will, like it or not, be busy and hectic, and working out a route is always handy.
Stick with friends. Crowds mean people are easily lost.
Wear comfortable footwear. It’s a long day dancing.
Bring water and essentials. Wet wipes, for example. Because, well, it’s a festival after all.
Most important of all? Have fun. Get involved. Carnival is a fantastic day.