Hands down one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, Venice is simply too amazing to be left out of your Italy itinerary. One of the best times to go is during the famous Carnival of Venice, one of the best and most picturesque celebrations for Carnival in Italy.
Dubbed “the most romantic city in the world” countless times and for sure one of the best places to propose in Italy, Venice is probably also one of the world’s preferred travel destinations. Many are the cities that have tried to mimic and copy with monikers such as “the Venice of the East” and “Shanghai’s little Venice”, but truth be said, no matter how many countries try to show off their own Venice, no one has ever even gotten close to the original version.
During the Carnival, Venice releases its age-old charm and captures the visitor’s attention every moment of the day. Stunning masks swanning around and posing for countless cameras are a constant during the Carnival of Venice. Follow me while I tell you everything about the Venetian Carnival’s history, my experience, and useful tips to plan your own visit.
History of the Venetian Carnival
Often synonymous with wild parties and endless fun, in Venice, the Carnival goes way beyond that. Today this might look like a simple festival, but back in the day when the Doge was the ruler and Venice was the Serenissima Republic, commoners looked forward to these few days of freedom from stiff social mores.
Inspired by the Latin motto of the Dionysus rituals “Semel in anno licet insanire” (“once a year one is allowed to go crazy”), Venetian rulers introduced a festival where the lower classes had the chance to blend with the higher layers of the society, to feel closer to the noble clans and even make fun of aristocratic and powerful families.
How was this possible? By hiding behind a mask.
Considered a sort of relief valve to keep social tensions under control, the Carnival of Venice, like pretty much all carnivals, originated from ancestral rituals performed at the end of the winter to welcome the warm season and augur well for a generous harvest.
The first written document mentioning Carnevale di Venezia is to be traced to 1094 when the city was under the rule of Doge Vitale Falier. It was officially declared a public holiday in 1296 when the Republican Senate set it on the last day of Lent. Organized right before Lent, it represented a sort of concession to wild fun before the month of repentance that leads to Easter.
Today, the Carnival lasts much less than before. In republican times could last several months, allowing people to state that in Venice the Carnival fever never stops. And it’s the same enthusiasm of Venice natives towards debauchery that led the rulers to stop the excessive reveling by passing new laws limiting the use of the mask, which had become by then a symbol of freedom and licentiousness.
Carnival of Venice 2023 – Full program
The Carnival of Venice 2023 starts at the beginning of February. The water is always one of the main characters of the Carnival as it has always been pivotal in the life of Venetians. This is why many of the shows will take place on the water and along the canals.
This year’s edition of the Venice Carnival will follow the format of last year. Several shows and performances will take place around the whole territory of Venice and its lagoon following the theme of the “original signs” inspired by the constellation signs and the Zodiac. One of the news is that this year there won’t be the Volo dell’Angelo (angel’s flight) that traditionally used to open the Carnival celebrations in Venice.
Here are the main appointments:
- February 4th. The main event of this day will be the Opening Parade. Like every year, it will take place on the water as the artists will parade along the Canal Grande in a scenic performance of lights and music to open the city’s main festival.
- February 5th. On this day is the procession of traditional and historical local boats on the water of the lagoon. This is one of the most awaited events of the Venice Carnival.
- February 10th. On the 10th, locals and tourists can attend the spectacular show of “Original Signs: Lo spettacolo notturno in Arsenale”, a night show taking place in the Venetian Arsenale. From February 10th, this show will take place several following days twice a day and it will last 30 minutes.
- February 11th. Many are the events on February 11th, including Carnival Street Show and “Le 12 Marie al Carnevale di Venezia”, twelve local girls wearing historical clothes will parade the Canal Grande between 10 and 12 pm on board of gondolas to reach Piazza San Marco. On the same day, in the evening, visitors can book their seats at the Carnival Official Dinner Show & Ball 2023 in Cannaregio between 9 pm and 1.30 am. If you are a night owl, you can also join the wild Carnival party at the Hard Rock Cafè between 9 and 11 pm.
- February 12th. Today is the day of the children’s carnival known as “Carnevale internazionale dei ragazzi”. The young visitors can take part in themed workshops and games in Ca’ Giustinian in Venezia and at Centro Civico del Parco Albanese in Mestre. Booking is required.
- February 14th. For Valentine’s Day, you can book a romantic evening at the historical Teatro La Fenice to see the play “Il matrimonio segreto” by Domenico Cimarosa. After the play, dinner will be served in the Sale Apollinee. Prices range between 185€ to 275€ per person, dinner included.
- February 16th. There will be a parade of allegoric floats in Pellestrina, one of the islands of the Venetian lagoon, between 3 to 6 pm.
- February 17th. Today, the parade of allegoric floats will take place in Venezia Lido for an hour between 5 to 6 pm.
- February 19th. Teatro La Fenice will show the opera “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” by Gioachino Rossini followed by a cocktail party and DJ set at the Sale Apollinee. Prices range between 170€ and 310€ per person, everything included.
Events like the children’s carnival, the party at the Hard Rock Cafe, the visit to the masks’ workshop, the Carnival Street Show, the Original Signs night show, and the carnival-themed food initiative “Il Carnevale del Gusto” take place almost every day so you will have more time to plan a visit.
For the full program with updates and schedules, check out the official website of Carnevale di Venezia.
What to do in Venice during Carnival
Chase the masks
This was possibly my favorite activity in Venice during the Carnival. I went back home with thousands of pictures. The masks of the Carnival of Venice are aware that everybody wants to photograph them.
You will see colorful masquerades walking on their own or in couples, peeking out from a corner, standing meaningfully in front of the San Marco Basilica, or with their gaze lost in the suggestive panorama of the lagoon.
All the masks are there just to be photographed and they will love posing in front of your camera. With the background of the lagoon and the historical buildings around the piazza, you will snap fantastic pictures.
Attend the traditional parades
These are some of the most important events during the Carnival of Venice, so I suggest attending at least one of them. They will all be different because some take place on the water, some in Piazza San Marco, and some in other islands and neighborhoods.
Some parades will show allegoric floats while others traditional and period costumes. They are all evocative of this time of the year and of this festival founded to celebrate the new season and allow the population some jolly and lighthearted moments.
See the shows and performances
All around town, you will see street artists performing and events and concerts will be organized in restaurants, theaters, and cafes. Even though these events are repeated continuously across town, I highly recommend booking your spot because the crowds are really big.
Visit the masks workshop
One of the oldest workshops of Venetian masks will open its doors to visitors to explain the tradition of the ancient carnival and the technique of making the beautiful masks we like to see walking around.
Both adults and children will enjoy watching the craftsmen working and learning about the local handicraft, history, and traditions.
Take a gondola cruise
Any time is a good time to enjoy a gondola cruise in Venice. During Carnival, this becomes even more fascinating because you will have the chance to stumble on colorful and stunning masks posing from their own gondola tour.
Visit Palazzo Ducale
If it’s your first time in Venice, you can’t miss a visit to the famous Doge’s Palace. Built in a splendid Venetian Gothic style, you can either purchase your own independent ticket or join a private tour.
If you decide to visit on your own, I suggest buying a skip-the-line entrance online. If you opt for a guided tour, you can choose among many options. Depending on your preferences, you can pick a Venice day tour inclusive of Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica, and a gondola ride, or an experience that includes only Palazzo Ducale and St. Mark’s Basilica.
Another favorite activity of mine during the Carnival of Venice was indulging in the local delicacies. If you are a sweet tooth, you can’t miss the frittelle or fritole, deep-fried pastries typical of Carnival time.
You will find several cafes, bars, and restaurants that serve them.
Visit Venice Ghetto
Some of the best fritole are to be found in the Venice Ghetto, which is also a charming neighborhood to visit. This is the historical Jewish quarter, the first one of this kind opened in Europe, dating back to 1516, even before the Jewish Quarter in Rome.
Located in Cannaregio, the northernmost of Venice’s six historic sestieri (districts), a walk around Venice Ghetto opens to a world of traditional architecture, local lifestyle, century-old history, and delicious foods.
Tuck into local food
This year, many restaurants, hotels, and bacàri (Venice-style bars and pubs) are taking part in the “Carnevale del Gusto” initiative presenting a carnival-themed dish and cicchetto, Venice-style tapas. This is a great opportunity to sample different foods and delicacies.
My experience at the Carnival of Venice
The first time I visited the Serenissima (Most Serene) Republic of Venice, I went on the occasion of the Carnival. I spent three whole days trying to capture the city’s most intimate soul and chase the emotions hiding behind the masks of the Venice Carnival.
Even though weather forecasts had announced massive floods and dramatic temperature drops, I was pleased to see that severe weather conditions ended on the first day. Bad forecasts, however, shouldn’t deter you from going to Venice. While it’s true that rain and cold might make your trip more challenging, Piazza San Marco covered with water with the reflection of Palazzo Ducale and St. Mark’s Basilica will make up for the hardship.
If you decide to visit during the Carnival of Venice, wander about the famous lagoon, and the majestic monuments while capturing the slow movements and sophisticated looks of the masks. If you look closely, you will be able to catch their human eyes behind the elaborate disguise.
I loved how they created different sceneries, from the romantic couple to the girl from the lower class hoping to meet the prince she had been dreaming of to the fantastic creature symbolizing an explosion of colors.
What to book ahead during the Carnival of Venice
Together with the summer season, this is probably one of the busiest periods in Venice. This is why it’s best to plan and book much in advance.
- Hotel. Hotels in Venice are a bit of a pain as they are always pretty expensive, and more so during carnival. Booking ahead will give you the chance to find more options to choose from. I suggest checking also the areas not immediately around Piazza San Marco as those are the most expensive.
- Restaurants. Once you are in Venice, if there is any restaurant you really want to try, ring them up in advance to make sure you can reserve your table. If you are flexible and don’t mind where you eat, then you are always going to find something available.
- Season shows. From concerts to theater plays to the Carnival Dinner Show & Ball, booking is required and since they are going to be pretty busy, I suggest calling even a week ahead.
- Masks workshop. The same goes if you want to plan a visit to see the masks workshop. They are open almost every day but I’m sure they will be crowded.
- Tours. Tours require prior reservation. Booking even before traveling is your best bet to find available spaces.
- Flights/Trains. While February in Italy is mainly the low season, during Carnival things briefly change. Especially if you are going to see the Carnival of Venice, I suggest booking ahead your ticket because many people will be heading to the same destination. If you are already traveling in Italy, you can book a fast-speed train such as Trenitalia’s Freccia or Italo Treno.
What to pack for Venice during Carnival
Before going, make sure you check out the weather forecasts. Carnival is in winter, and Venice in the rainy season gets flooded. Heavily. Here are some of the items you should pack for a trip to Venice in February.
- Coat or winter jacket. If you own a waterproof padded winter jacket, that would be your best option.
- Water boots. If it rains and gets flooded, water boots are necessary to avoid getting soaked. I wore mine the whole day, however, when evening was approaching, I felt they were not warm enough and my feet were freezing. If your water boots are not padded, you might want to wear wool or thermal socks.
- Winter walking shoes. If it’s not flooded, a pair of warm winter shoes or ankle boots will do.
- Warm cotton or wool socks/tights. Don’t even think barefoot or thin cotton socks. Venice in February is cold and requires wool socks or thermal tights if you are wearing a skirt.
- Sweaters. Warm sweaters are a must.
- Long-sleeve tops. I was wearing a top underneath my sweater and another thermal top as underwear and it felt very comfortable. Since I arrived with a bit of back pain, to avoid a sudden cold, I applied a localized heat patch and this kept me going the whole day up to the evening when temperatures drop even further.
- Warm trousers. On very cold days, you will enjoy padded trousers.
- Scarf, hat, gloves. You will never go out without. If gloves bother you when taking pictures, you can opt for mittens or fingerless gloves.
- Umbrella. Packing an umbrella is necessary, even though if you are taking plenty of pictures you might not use it much. Nevertheless, at some point, you will definitely need one. I suggest packing a small, foldable umbrella easy to carry around.
- Camera. Whether you use a DSLR, a compact, or just your smartphone, you are likely to want to make plenty of travel memories.
- Reusable travel bottle. Easy to refill if you go out for lunch or from your hotel in the morning.
- Backpack/crossbody bag. Necessary to carry your belongings. A crossbody bag is easier to control when you are in crowded areas.
Where to stay in Venice during Carnival
Venice is expensive, there is no way around it. This is why by booking in advance you can still find more options. Some areas where you can book cheaper accommodation in Venice also during Carnival is the nearby Mestre, connected to Venice with a bridge, or close to the airport or the train station Santa Lucia.
If you plan ahead, it’s also possible to find a room not far from Piazza San Marco.
- Budget. Antico Panada.
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