For Carnival in Italy, all the regions get busy preparing wild parties and exciting celebrations that bring together adults and kids. The dates of the Italian Carnival are not the same every year. While officially the Carnival starts around 70 days before Easter, the main celebrations take place on Fat Thursday, Carnival Sunday, and Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), which is the day before Ash Wednesday.
According to the Roman Catholic calendar, Ash Wednesday is the day that marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day gap before Easter. While the Roman Rite is the most followed, the Archidiocese of Milan has been following the Ambrosian Rite since the 15th century.
According to the Ambrosian Rite calendar, Lent doesn’t start with Ash Wednesday but on the following Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent. So in Milan and its surroundings, Carnival lasts until the Saturday before the first Sunday of Lent.
Every year, Carnival dates are set depending on Easter, always set on the Sunday after the first full moon of spring.
How is Carnival celebrated in Italy?
Italy celebrates Carnevale with hectic winter festivals where the townspeople gather in large parades of allegoric floats, masquerades, traditional rituals, music, and parties. Children throw confetti (coriandoli) at each other and blow through colorful streamers (stelle filanti).
Evocative of unbridled fun and colorful costumes, Carnival everywhere originates from ancestral rituals performed on the occasion of the end of winter in Italy and the inception of the warmer months to bode well for the approaching new harvest. Today, all over Italy, carnival season means wild parties, allegoric floats, and funny masks, and every Italian region proudly preserves and carries on with its own traditions.
Among the most popular Carnival celebrations in Italy are the ones in Venice and Viareggio, but these are far from being the only ones worth attending. On the fascinating island of Sardinia, the Carnival is always met with important historical celebrations that bring together townspeople of all ages, from thousand-year-old rituals to reckless horse tournaments.
Be it a spectacular parade, an ancient ceremony, or a thrilling horse vaulting, here are some of the main celebrations for Carnival in Italy. Depending on your passions, you can pick the type of amusement you prefer and join the fun.
Dates of Carnival in Italy in 2023
Carnival is usually the main festival celebrated in Italy in February. This year 2023 Carnival in Italy will be celebrated from the 16th to the 21st of February. February 22nd is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days before Easter. These are Carnival days in 2023:
- February 16th: Fat Thursday (Giovedì Grasso)
- February 19th: Carnival Sunday (Domenica di Carnevale)
- February 21st: Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Martedì Grasso)
Best places to see Carnival in Italy
Carnevale di Venezia (Veneto)
Without a doubt, the most famous Carnival in Italy is Carnevale di Venezia. Venice Carnival originates around the 11th century when the city’s ruler granted the population a short period of freedom of fun and parties. With their identity protected by their mask, commoners could go about mocking the members of the higher classes.
Celebrations for the Carnival in Venice last for about three weeks. Elaborate masks swan around Piazza San Marco and city’s canals gladly posing in front of the cameras that abound in those days.
There are also fixed appointments such as “Volo dell’Angelo” (Angel’s Flight), where an artist lowers down from the bell tower of San Marco Basilica, and “Festa delle Marie”, where twelve local girls re-create the medieval tradition of noble newlywed brides parading along the streets.
Like in the rest of the Italian regions and cities, in Venice, too, the biggest celebrations take place on Sunday Carnival and Shrove Tuesday. Every day, the party starts in the scenic Piazza San Marco around 10 am and ends at the Arsenal in the evening with fireworks, dancing fountains, and live music.
Carnevale di Roma (Lazio)
It might not be as famous as Carnevale di Venezia, but Carnival in Rome is certainly fun and originates from very ancient times.
Rome’s Carnival started to be celebrated around the 12th century during festivals known as ludus carnevalarii. These, however, were inspired by much more ancient Roman festivals, the Saturnalia, important rituals in imperial times. On this occasion, social rules temporarily ceased to be enforced and ordinary citizens could feel the thrill of belonging to a higher class for a couple of days.
When Christianity took over and started ruling Rome, the Carnival was kept and celebrated mainly in the Testaccio neighborhood. During the Roman Carnival, local noble families engaged in duels, tournaments, and bullfighting at the feet of the Monte dei Cocci.
Today, Carnival in the eternal city is celebrated in the city center between Piazza Navona, Via dei Fori Imperiali and also between Piazza del Popolo and Via del Corso, one of the most famous streets in Rome, through parades of traditional costumes and children dressed up like their favorite heroes.
Sa Sartiglia in Oristano (Sardinia)
When it’s time for Carnival in Italy, the Sardinian town of Oristano gets ready for its own scenic Sartiglia. This is a highly elaborate festival that takes place in many steps and throughout several weeks involving almost the entire population in different tasks.
Talented riders engage in horse tournaments and complicated and dangerous equestrian vaulting, while symbolic rituals are performed to dress and undress the leader of the festival in front of the whole town.
The official date that kicks off the celebrations is February 2nd with the recurrence of Sa Candelora, traditionally, when Baby Jesus was introduced to the Temple. This event is commemorated with a liturgical function where the priest blesses the candles symbolizing the light represented by Christ.
The equestrian tournaments take place on the dates of the Italian Carnevale, meaning Carnival Sunday and Shrove Tuesday. The masked riders belonging to two historic guilds parade to the spots of the tournaments and take part in the competitions in a crescendo of emotions and cheering of the townspeople.
These days, Oristano is very crowded. You will see street stalls all around town selling all types of street foods and regional delicacies such as Carnival pastries and deep-fried seafood.
If you want to visit Oristano for its Sartiglia, make sure you book much ahead because hotel spaces are limited and the festival attracts thousands of tourists from around the island.
Mamuthones of Mamoiada (Sardinia)
The Mamuthones of Mamoiada is one of the most popular celebrations in Sardinia and one of the most fascinating rituals of Carnival in Italy. Unlike many other Italian Carnevale festivals, this is a 2000-year-old ritual strictly linked to the ancient lifestyle in the island, when the inhabitants used to perform propitiatory rituals to welcome the upcoming warm season and the new harvest.
The Mamuthones come out for the first time of the year on the night of January 16th for the festival of Saint Anthony. On this occasion, their rhytmical dance is performed around the bonfires scattered around town. For Carnival, usually around a month later in February, they parade along the streets in two lines.
Both Sunday Carnival and Shrove Tuesday, the festival begins with the dressing of the Mamuthones. This is a ritual itself, and if you want to attend, you need an invitation as it’s closed to the general public.
Wearing black sheepskin, 30 kg of bronze bells, and a wooden mask, the Mamuthones perform their dance around town “escorted” by the Issohadores dressed in white and red.
Carnevale di Viareggio (Tuscany)
Much more recent than many other celebrations of Carnival in Italy, the famous Carnevale di Viareggio was founded in 1873.
The festival of Viareggio’s Carnival shows a parade of allegoric floats with themes taken from the most recent events. Every year, the themes cover a different range of topics These cover important subjects such as the economic crisis and topics related to the Italian and international political life.
The parade takes place on the main days of the Carnival and all celebrations end with a big show of fireworks.
This year, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its foundation, Viareggio’s Carnival promises an unforgettable experience. For this special event, they are organizing an exceptional parade of the carriages along the walls of the medieval town of Lucca.
Viareggio’s Carnival 2023 starts with the big opening on February 4th and will end on Saturday 25th of February according to the Ambrosian Rite calendar with the jury’s verdict on the best float and fireworks.
Carnevale di Ronciglione (Lazio)
Apart from Rome’s Carnival, the Latium region is home to the famous Carnevale di Ronciglione. A small, picturesque town in Viterbo province, Ronciglione is set on the Cimini mounts and in February can get pretty freezing.
For almost a month, starting on January 29th and ending on Shrove Thursday, February 21st, the town will be on permanent party mode.
Visitors can jump from food stalls selling regional culinary delicacies to masquerades and allegoric parades. Countless food tastings, traditional dances, music, and shows will happen throughout several days.
Access to the town’s route on the days of the parades of allegoric floats, masquerades, and music bands collectively called “Grandiosi Corsi di Gala” costs €7.50 per person. Free for under 16 year olds.
Carnevale di Acireale (Sicily)
One of the most famous festivals Carnival in Italy and certainly one of the best in Sicily is the one taking place every year in Acireale near Catania. Walk along the streets and alleys of the scenic historic center of Acireale to discover the different allegoric carriages and to soak in the Sicilian Baroque enjoying local exhibitions and concerts.
All over town, you will meet traditional and modern masquerades and join the fun of children throwing confetti at each other.
Its origins dating back to the 16th century, Acireale’s Carnival evolved throughout the centuries adapting to the local traditions and indulging in the mockery of the rulers of the time. Briefly in the 17th century, a battle throwing oranges and lemons started to take place but it was quickly halted.
The daily ticket to attend the Carnival and see the parades costs 6€ per person. Kids shorter than 120 cm enjoy free access.
Carnevale di Ivrea (Piedmont)
Ivrea is a town in the metropolitan area of Turin and its Carnival is one of the oldest and most famous of the region. Dating back to Roman times, it was apparently inspired by the Bacchanalia, the parties held in honor of Bacchus, the wine god.
The modern festival is the adaptation arranged in the 19th century. Inspired by the spirit of the Risorgimento battles that culminated in unified Italy, Ivrea’s Carnival wanted to symbolize an older revolt that took place in the early 12th century. As history and myth go, the daughter of a local miller happened to kill the tyrant Ranieri di Bandrate and show his head in public. This led to the rebellion that ended up with freedom in the city.
What makes Ivrea’s Carnival famous all over Italy and an attraction in Carnival time is its wild Battle of the Oranges. Thousands of people, some on carriages and some on the streets throw oranges at each other. Apart from symbolizing the local revolution, the Battle of the Oranges is also a representation of the old tradition when noble girls used to throw flowers, confetti, and oranges from their balconies.
The Battle of the Oranges really is the main attraction of Carnevale di Ivrea and takes place in the afternoon of Sunday Carnival and Shrove Tuesday after the cart carrying the masquerade of the “Mugnaia”, the miller’s daughter, parades all over the main streets.
Carnevale di Putignano (Puglia)
Although not as old as the Mamuthones of Mamoiada, the Carnival of Putignano, taking place in a town near Bari in the southern Italian Puglia region, is very old.
Dating back to some 600 years ago, its origins are not exactly clear. Some research places it in 1394 when the Knights of Malta transferred here the remains of the Christian martyr Saint Stephen. As soon as the townspeople learned about it, a spontaneous parade gathered behind the holy relics and engaged in wild parties to celebrate the event.
Carnevale of Putignano takes place with parades of giant masquerades, open exhibitions, music shows, and theatre plays. Each year the program changes but parties, concerts, and theater performances are a constant.
Carnevale di Fano (Marche)
The first written source we have about the carnivalesque-type celebrations in Fano are dated 1347. This festival taking place every year at the beginning started to involve always more people to the point that in 1871, the local municipality formed a committee in charge of organizing and supervising the event.
Every year, Fano’s Carnival opens with the “Carnevale dei Bambini”, children’s carnival, at 10 am along Viale Gramsci with parades and masquerades. And just like every year, the star of show among a myriad of masks and allegoric floats will be “El Vulón”. This is the iconic mask of Fano’s Carnival representing a parody of current national or international important figures.
The ticket to access the bleachers to see the carnival costs 13€ if you buy it online or 15€ if you buy it at the ticket office on the days of the parades.
Carnevale di Cento (Emilia-Romagna)
Another famous Carnival in Italy takes place in Cento, a beautiful town in Ferrara province and close to Bologna and Modena. The birthplace of the famous Baroque painter Guercino, Cento is rich in art and boasts a long history.
The giant colorful carriages of the five official carnival associations parade along Corso Guercino competing every year for the prize of the best allegoric float.
On the days of February 5th, 12th, 19th, and 26th, and on the 5th of March, the city will be theater of parades, masks, children dressed up of their favorite heroes and cartoon characters, confetti, concerts, and car shows, particularly of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Alfa Romeo.
After twinning with the world-famous Carnival of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Carnevale di Cento hosts also Brazilian samba dancers.
Tips to enjoy Italy’s Carnival celebrations
This is definitely the first and foremost thing to keep in mind if you are planning on attending Carnival in Italy. This is especially crucial when it comes to booking hotels, flights, and admissions.
In Rome there won’t be many tourists. Plus, the city is huge and counts thousands of hotels, making it easy to find a good accommodation. Other places, however, are small and with limited hotel options.
If you want to see Oristano’s Sartiglia or Ronciglione’s Carnival, I definitely suggest booking your hotels much in advance. The same goes for Venice. Even though it’s a big city, their Carnival attracts thousands of tourists every year and hotels become expensive. My suggestion here is to book not directly in Piazza San Marco but in some other nearby island of the Venice lagoon.
As far as admissions are concerned, booking ahead is also recommended because the parades are only a few days and seats are limited.
Italy in February is generally quiet, but during the Carnival tourists flock so flights and trains become more crowded. This is why making your reservation in advance for the transport is also a good idea.
February is one of the coldest months in Italy, so make sure you pack your warmest clothes to avoid surprises and getting sick.
Carnival celebrations in Italy can last until late at night and that’s when temperatures drop and thermal layers, heavier coats, and scarf and hats are required.
Children should definitely dress up and join the other kids in throwing confetti and streamers. In every city there are spaces for the youngest to have fun all together.
Adults, too, if they want, can wear their favorite costumes and join the parades. While they won’t be able to jump up in the allegoric floats, they can totally join the individual masquerades. When I was a child, I never joined a carriage but I’ve always dressed up every year with a different costume.