12 Things to Do and See at Venice Carnival

Venice Carnival is one of the most magical and spellbinding carnival celebrations! Here are our top suggestions of things to do during carnival.

There is no other place in the world that celebrates carnival like Venice! The iconic scenery, beautiful costumes, and electric atmosphere. Every year 3 million people descend upon Venice to experience carnival and the city is a hive of excitement and activity. Here are our top 12 suggestions to have a good time!

Wear a Costume & Mask!

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For two weeks every year Venice transforms into a runway that features an endless parade of gorgeous historical costumes and masks. Three million people from around the world come to admire the extravagant and elegant carnival costumes that fill the streets of Venice during carnival. The masquerades go to so much effort to get into character and play their part.

Admiring the beautiful costumes is a highlight of carnival. The most popular costumes worn during are traditional 18th century Venice lords and ladies. The costumes look stunning amongst the magical background of Venice and will transport you back in time, allowing you to re-experience and re-imagine carnival of the past. It is impossible not to stand still every now and again just to admire the creativity, originality and the intricate details many costumes and masks.

Even if you don’t dress up most people attending will get into the carnival spirit and purchase a mask to wear around town. Venetian Masks are the hallmark of Venice Carnival and wearing a mask is a tradition that is as old as Venice Carnival itself. So even if you don’t feel like dressing up, it is an absolute must to put on a mask!

We say why not join in the fun and dress up! One of the best places in the city to purchase a mask or costume is Atelier Marega. Atelier Marega offers the most exquisite, made to measure, hand-sewn and original 18th and 19th century Venetian costumes. They have a huge range of beautiful and unique masks.

You will notice that there is a siege of cheap made-in-China plastic masks around Venice. Atelier Marega is one of the few remaining places in the city that have continued to handcraft carnival masks, in Venice, by local Venice artisans. They use traditions that date back to the XIVth century. By preserving this ancient Venetian art, you end up with a beautiful authentic Venetian mask of the highest quality.

You might also be interested: Rio de Janeiro Carnival 2020

Il Volo dell’Angelo – Flight of the Angel

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Il Volo dell’Angelo also known as The Flight of the Angel is one of the highlights of Venice Carnival. This event actually dates back to the original carnivals that occurred during the La Serenissma period. It is the event that officially kicks of Venice Carnival and is also one of the most popular free events at Venice Carnival, so if you want to witness it, get there early.

It takes places at midday on the first Sunday of carnival. Promptly at the strike of 12 noon, an acrobat will leap off the San Marco Bell Tower and fly through the air, landing in the middle of Saint Mark’s Square to delight of the crowd.

The event first started back in the 16th century when a daring Turkish acrobat cause quite the stir by succeeding to walk on a rope that was anchored to a boat in front of the Piazza San Marco, all the way up to the top of the Bell Tower. He also gave homage to the Doge when he reached the balcony of the Palazzo Ducale during his decent.

The crowds were so impressed that this stunt became an annual tradition that was repeated by tight rope walkers every year. Unfortunately, an acrobat fell to his death during the stunt in 1759 and the event was outlawed from further carnivals, only to be revived in 1979 after two centuries of abandonment. Today the winner of the previous year’s Festa della Marie gets the honour of dressing up in period costumes and descending along a zip line from the bell tower.

La Festa Veneziana sull’acqua – Venetian Water Festival

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La Festa Veneziana sull’acqua is, the Grand opening of the Venice Carnival and runs over two days on the first weekend of carnival. It takes place on the Cannaregio Canal. The official start is on Saturday which begins with a spectacular water show. Festa Veneziana is truly a show that promises to enchant you with an array of aquatic performances, costumes, Venetian masks and alluring music. Crowds are delighted by the beautiful artistic boats that parade through the waters.

Sunday begins with the first regatta of carnival, the Regata delle Columbine. Beginning at 10:30am it starts at the Grand Canal and finishes in Cannaregio, where there are lots of food stalls serving delicious venetian treats and mulled wine, which is helpful for beating the cold weather. These events are very popular, with both tourists and locals. So if you plan on going, play it safe and arrive early, we recommend arriving at least one to two hours before it starts.

Attend Casanova Grand Ball

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Masquerade balls and parties are the essence of Venice Carnival. Our recommendation is to attend the Casanova Grand Ball hosted by Atlier Marega which is one of the most anticipated and exclusive events of Venice Carnival and takes place in the draw dropping setting of Palazzo Zeno in Venice.

The Casanova Grand Ball is something that everyone must experience at least once in a lifetime. It will transport you back in time and let you experience how Casanova himself would have celebrated Carnival, during a period when carnival used to last 6 months and masks were used to conceal your identity and sins.

Dressing up in a beautiful period costume and attending this lavish masked ball held in a beautiful Venetian Palace will really make you feel like a Venetian nobleman or woman. You will be able to re-experience the excesses, emotions, passion, excitement, forbidden pleasures and practices that were experienced during carnivals of the past.

The Casanova Grand Ball features a sumptuous dinner, world class entertainment, live music and a DJ that will guarantee non-stop dancing, late into the night. Artists and entertainers will wow you with the most overwhelming shows, daring performances and loving exhibitions. This is without a doubt one of the most exotic, lavish and high-octane Masquerade Balls at Venice Carnival.

Visit Piazza San Marco

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The San Marco square is the central location for most carnival activities. It hosts the costume parades and Flight of the Angel. There are plenty of free events taking place in St Marks Square from live music, to theatre performances, parades, comedy shows and even plenty of modern carnival celebrations with street parties with live DJs sets occurring later at night.

St Marks Square is the city’s central meeting and presents some of Venice’s most gorgeous architecture along the sea. It is always very crowded during carnival but a  great place to go and soak up the carnival atmosphere. It is lined with shops, cafes, restaurants and museums.

Enter or watch the Best Mask Contest

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Masks are the what makes Venice Carnival so unique. Entire costumes are created around the selection of a mask. This tradition dates back to the 5th century. Masquerades come from all over the world to take part in this tradition. The Best Masked Costume Competition takes place daily during the 10 days of carnival, and the daily winners will then go on to participate in the final parade held on the last Sunday of carnival.

The daily masked costume parades are one of the best free events and provide ample photo opportunities. Striking and elegant masquerades strut their stuff in St Marks Squares to the admiration of the crowds.

But don’t just watch the parades, why not be in the parade! Yes that is right, anyone can enter and it is completely free to enter. You don’t even have to worry about stage fright as you will be hidden behind your mask. If you are travelling to Venice with your kids, even they get a chance to participate with separate slots for the children.

In the finale, a jury composed of experts will deliberate and announce two winners in the two different categories. The first is Best Masked Costume and the second is Best Masked Costume in accordance with the selected theme for that year’s carnival.

Binge on lots of decadent food before the start of Lent!

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Carnival is historically the period that precedes 40 days of Lent prior to Easter. It is a time when you can indulge, particularly with food, before the long period of abstinence and sacrifice begins. Venice Carnival had a reputation for its decadence and overindulgence, so this is your opportunity to overindulge and not feel bad.

A local Venetian speciality that you absolutely must try during carnival is called Fritelle, which is another tradition from La Serenissma, and literally means fritters. It is a type of fried donut that begins showing up a few weeks prior to carnival. It can be filled or not, rolled in cane sugar or dusted with powdered sugar. The Nutella filled ones, as well as the chocolate cream and rum ones are very popular, and they disappear as soon as carnival ends.

In fact, they were so popular that it was declared the national desert, and only an exclusive amount of people were allowed to make them. To become one of those people you could only do it by birth right, if your father made them. Today they are in almost every pastry shop in Venice.

The other Venetian desert that you absolutely must try is the galani. This is a type of deep-fried flat pastry.  Another traditional desert is a plate of castagnole. These are little fried balls of dough, served with icing sugar. If you have a sweet tooth then you are going to love indulging in these sweet delicacies.

Of course, you are in Italy, the home of pizza and pasta, but whilst in Venice you must try some of the local food that is only consumed there. Some Venetian specialities we recommend is Sarde in saor, a sweet-sour dish that consists of fried sardines marinated in onions, pine nuts, vinegar, and raisons, which was conceived in the Middle Ages by Venetian sailors. Baccala mantecato is another sublime fish-based antipasto, served with fresh bread and is a staple of the region.

Then you have Cicchetti, a typical Venetian antipasto that goes great with a glass of wine. Polenta e Schie, is a dish with shrimp that is only found in the Venice lagoon, it is typically paired with polenta and seasoned with lemon and garlic. Risi e Bisi is a simple Venetian-style peas and rice dish. Bigoli in salsa is a dish that resembles spaghetti and served in a sauce of onions and salt-cured fish.

There are numerous other Venetian dishes that are worthy of trying! So get in the carnival spirit, eat, drink and be merry!

Festa delle Marie

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This traditional event “Festa delle Marie”, is a must for those who love historical re-enactments and are interested in learning all about the history of the city. It refers to the purification of Mary, a day when all the marriages were blessed. The Venetian Doge would offer a dowry to 12 beautiful but poor Venetian girls.

But, in 973, pirates kidnapped the twelve Maries’ and their jewellery during the ceremony. To commemorate this event a parade occurs where the 12 lovely girls are paraded through the streets to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for her help in rescuing the girls. It is one of the main carnival parades and locals and tourists flood St. Mark’s Square to watch.

The parade beings from San Pietro in Castello and follows Via Garibaldi finishing at St Mark’s Square. The award ceremony for the winner occurs on the last day of Carnival in St Mark’s Square with the girls arriving by boat, and leaving from Camp San Giacomo dell’Orio. The winner of the parade will go on to be the person that jumps out of the Bell Tower at the following years Flight of the Angel.

Go on a Venice Carnival Pub Crawl

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A great alternative to the Masked Balls is to go on a Venice Carnival Pub Crawl, or giro d’ombra as its referred to in Italian. It is actually a very Venetian thing to do and a tradition that has been going on for centuries. The Venetians would often move from bar to bar (bacaro to bacaro) and enjoy Venetian tapas, drink good wine and socialise.

Because at Venice Carnival, day time is the best time to see the masquerades and when most of the events are on, there isn’t too much of a nightlife scene. So a pub crawl is a great way to spend an eventing out. Dress in your finest and join fellow travellers from around the world as you are taken to some of the best bars in Venice. You must try some Venetian Spritz as well as some of the great wines that come from the Veneto region.

Watch the re-enactment of the victory of doge Vitale Michiel II

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Another highlight of Venice Carnival is Fat Thursday. In Venice this day was dedicated to the memory of the victory of doge Vitale Michiel II, against the Patriarch of Aquileia, who had conquered Grado, which was a move that was deliberately ddone with the intent to bring Venice under German subjugation. The Doge reacted quickly sending a fleet to Grado, which he surrounded and successfully captured.

The Patriarch, seven hundred soldiers and 12 rebel landlords were captured and taken back to Venice. The Pope however wanted to re-establish the peace and demanded the men were released. In exchange every year Alquileia would have to send one bull, twelve pigs, and 12 loaves of bread to Venice as a form of compensation.

The animals were seen to symbolise the Patriarch (the bull) and the 12 rebel lords (the pigs) and every year a public ceremony was held to commemorate the victory. The animals were publicly taunted before the bulls head was cut off. All the animals were slaughtered, cooked and distributed amongst the people during the celebrations.

This is where that Venetian expression “to cut off the bull’s head”, came from. It means to settle a matter once and for all. The ceremony is still performed today, but don’t worry they no longer use a real bull.

Just wander the city!

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Carnival in Venice is not like other carnivals where you have a series of parades, instead it is a festival for the whole city. And you can discover different people and different costumes all over the city. Our advice is to don’t look at a map and just wander around the city. You can escape the crowds and are bound to bound discover something that will delight and surprise you, that the rest of the crowds in the main square wont see. 

Svolo del Leone – The Flight of the Lion

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A Lion is the official symbol of the city. The official final activity of the Venice Carnival is the flight of the Lion of San Marco, which has been painted on a large canvas. At the end of carnival it gets hoisted from the square to the top of Bell Tower, while the 12 Maries’ and the Doge salute the flag. Following this there is a magnificent firework show that can be seen from practically every spot in the city.

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