Fabulous! Carnival in Venice

In about 1985, I saw a photo of Venice during Carnival (Carnevale), which included the masked and costumed revelers, it has been on my “Top 10” visit list ever since.

What is not to like about this event:

  • The beautiful city of Venice
  • A really big 10 day party through the streets
  • Fantastic costumes
  • Italian food

Carnival (Carnevale) is the annual event in Venice for the ten days leading up to Lent, the last night is Shrove Tuesday on which there are several big balls. Of course this is not just a Venetian tradition; think Mardi Gras in Rio or Trinidad during the same time of year, but my interest in fancy masked balls and beautiful costumes is much greater than watching dancers in dental floss bikinis. The origin of the word carnevale is Latin (carnem levare or carnelevarium) and suggests a “farewell to meat”, which was traditionally given up in the weeks of self-denial, during the period of Lent.

The history of the masks and the masquerade dates back to Roman times, there are records of the festival as far back as 1162. The Romans celebrated the early part of the year with a fertility festival where masks were used by all levels of society including slaves. The Carnevale di Venezia enjoyed a long period of infamy and notoriety through the 1600s, up until the time of Napoleon’s conquer in 1797. At the peak of this event, the party started on December 26th and ended sometime in the spring. This period of gambling and partying coincided with the loss of prominence and wealth in the region, as the power centers of Holland and Britain expanded their trading reaches. The celebration continued to decline and was actually banned in 1930 by Mussolini. A group of Venetians, and Venice lovers restarted the tradition in 1979.

Today the Carnevale is limited to the ten-day period before Lent and it is an enormous tourist draw. The city is really crowded, hotels are expensive, restaurants full and the streets are at times simply bottlenecked. There are websites and tour groups fully dedicated to the event. The range of party events caters to the rich and sophisticated (balls and music), to the families with kids (chocolate and puppets) and to the college crowd (pub crawls).

You can choose to participate in the carnival celebrations in several ways depending on your tastes, energy level and budget. You can simply walk around the streets or sit in a cafe and watch the incredible costumed characters that are wondering the streets. Spend some time in Piazzo San Marco, there are all sorts of special performances throughout the day and night. Choose to get your face painted and have some fun. Or you can buy tickets to any number events, that range from very affordable to very expensive.

We booked two nights in a great hotel right near Piazza San Marco. Arrival in Venice was actually easier than anticipated; there is lots of signage, big car parks and a central arrival point for the aqua-transit system. The vaporetti (water buses) are very efficient, there are multiple routes and destinations available, at a very minimum every visitor will end up on the #1 or #2 at some point, running in the Grande Canal and Canale delle Giudecca (respectively). Buy a multi-day unlimited ticket; you will end up using the system.

Venice at any time of the year is beautiful; there are endless museums, galleries and historical buildings to engage all types of interests. Two things that I would highly recommend;

  1. A visit to the island of Murano where the glass factories are located. You can take the “scenic” boat tour that we did in error and really see all the islands or go direct. In either case, Murano is filled with glass and restaurants and is a nice break from the crowds in Venice.
  2. The Secret Itineraries Tour of the Doge’s Palace. This tour as something beyond the normal tour and it is really fun!