People travel from far and wide to join in the city’s biggest party of the year and sate their fancy-dress appetites – the Venice Carnival packs the city with crowds of elaborately costumed people, colourful sights, a slew of sounds and a flurry of events.
Visit the watery wonderland in February for glamorous evenings and to be wowed by elaborate traditions as well as sample carnival-exclusive sweet treats.
What is Venice Carnival and when is it?
The carnival takes place every year in the weeks leading up to Shrove Tuesday, with the 2020 celebrations happening 8-25 February. The final day is a last hurrah to gluttony and excess before the 40 days of Lent begin.
Venice was renowned for its partying during the 18th century, when its carnival was the height of hedonism. Revived in 1979, the Venice carnival today attracts revellers from all over the world to participate in the open-air costume extravaganza.
The final weekend, from Giovedì Grasso (Fat Thursday) to Martedì Grasso (Fat Tuesday), is the best time to come as there are more events leading up to the final crescendo. Be prepared: this is not for the claustrophobic or the ascetic, as staid old Venice lets its hair down and kicks up its heels along with almost 3 million visitors.
Dress like royalty
Or a cowboy, or a superhero, or a pop star. If you are simply heading out and about, then anything goes. If you are not quite ready for a full-on costume, you could add a quirky touch to your everyday outfit. Giovanna Zanella has an amazing selection of special-occasion footwear, including shoes shaped like gondolas.
However, if you are heading to a more prestigious event and you want the full regalia, you need Nicolao – simply the best costume shop in the city. The lovely Atelier Flavia can also deck out the entire family in fabulous 18th-century garb. Remember that it’s February and freezing, so outfits need to be accessorised with cunningly hidden thermals or a faux-fur coat.
If the mask fits
No carnival costume would be complete without a mask. In fact, you really only have to wear a mask in order to be carnival-ready. One fantastic mask-maker is Ca’ Macana, which famously produced the masks for Stanley Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut. Tragicomica has a cornucopia of masks and can sell or hire you a traditional costume if you want to complete your look. In the Castello district, Papier Maché has long been crafting intricately beautiful masks.
The most popular outfits are traditional costumes of 18th-century lords and ladies. However, Venetian masks have an extensive history and were once worn throughout the year to hide people’s identities. The classic mask is the Bauta, which covers the entire face, leaving space at the bottom to make eating and talking easy. The Columbina covers the eyes and was made popular by Commedia dell’Arte (a popular form of Italian theatre from the 16th to 18th centuries). Columbina and her comrades, Harlequin and Pulcinella, remain as carnival favourites, as does the mask of the Venetian Plague doctor with its striking beak-like nose.
The finer things in life
Venice has a handful events during carnival that Cinderella would be lucky to get into. The most famous is the Ballo del Doge, but with VIP tickets running into four figures, this option won’t be for everyone. For a very handsome price, you are decadently fed and watered, while being entertained by acrobats and actors, before dancing the night away to a DJ set. Other glamorous events include the dinner show and ball at Ca’ Vendramin Calergi. Tickets cost €500 per person, although there is a ‘gambling room’ on site where guests could try their luck at winning back the price of their ticket!
A Venetian free-for-all
If the cost of costume hire and masked balls is making your eyes water, fear not. You can enjoy plenty of free events during the carnival weeks as well. A spectacular waterborne parade on the Cannaregio Canal gets the celebrations going. In St Mark’s Square, free events include the ‘Flight of the Angel’, when a costumed woman takes off from the bell tower and flies above the packed square. Another event is the ‘Festa delle Marie’, which evokes the old tradition of the Doge bestowing twelve local girls with dowries. Keep an eye on the carnival’s website for dates and more free events.
Mix with the locals
If the heady whirl of costumed crowds is not your thing, head to the principal campi dotted around town and join the locals. Little children have costumes squeezed over their puffer jackets, creating a chaotic army of miniature Michelin-man creatures. There is even a mini funfair on the Riva degli Schiavoni where mini Zorros and Elsas enjoy the rides and the candy floss. Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, Campo Santa Margherita and Campo Vienna regularly have live music or DJs. One of the joys of Venice Carnival is standing at the bar while Batman and Tarzan are chatting about the football, or dancing with Betty Boop and Thor in a square at midnight.
Let them eat doughnuts!
In Italy, no holiday is complete without a culinary indulgence or three. In Venice, their speciality is the frittella, a wondrous doughnut that is served in myriad forms: either plain (with currants and candied peel) or filled with calorific delights such as custard or Chantilly cream. Tonolo does a ‘healthy’ version filled with apples and it’s an added bonus during the carnival to see the efficient staff dressed in full costume! There's also the galani – fried pastries as light as feathers and covered in icing sugar. The sweet treats are a carnival speciality and impossible to enjoy without covering yourself in crumbs and powdery sugar.
Hit the ground running
If you are looking for somewhere special to stay, be sure to book far in advance – the city will be teeming with tourists and bargains are thin on the ground. The same is true for flights as airlines bump up the prices, particularly over the final weekend. Booking early will give you a better choice of availability, but remember it is still high season so the prices will be inflated. If crowds are not your thing, avoid the San Marco and Cannaregio areas. Instead, head for the quieter Castello and Dorsoduro districts or even the islands. But for those who really want to immerse themselves in the carnival and be right in the thick of it, San Marco is definitely the place to be!
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This article was first published in December 2017 and updated in February 2020.