Venice is pure magic, one of my favorite cities in the whole world. I'm not sure why but I think any city on or near water instantly becomes my favorite. Venice is still one of those old-world European cities that remains largely unchanged. You can wander through the streets, getting very lost as you cross each and every bridge (trust me GPS doesn't really work very well here). OR just take your time sailing along the canals on a gondola ride.
I'll write more about the city of Venice another time, because there's a lot to unpack, but when you think of Venice one of the absolute must-dos is the annual party Carnival! I stumbled upon Carnival when I was in Italy during the 2020 COVID outbreak, which was nonetheless very strange and somewhat scary to experience, but I'm beyond grateful that I was there and got to see it. Getting to experience Carnival in the city that started and still celebrates it, was an absolute thrill for me. Here's everything you need to know when planning an upcoming visit to the city and take part in one of the world's biggest parties!
Like I said, Venice during any time of year is pure magic, but it's particularly special during the Carnival season in February. Specific dates always change year to year so it's important to check when the events will be. Suffice it to say the multi-day party is usually sometime in February. In 2020 (the year I was there), the Carnival ran from February 8th to February 25th, so you'll definitely have a good window of time to explore the city, see the partygoers, and just be in awe of the festivities and costumes that will make you feel like you've traveled back in time.
Some of the first group costumes I saw for the day, I think my jaw dropped in awe!
So what is Venice Carnival? It's basically a giant party with shows, decadent balls and even party cruises. It was historically celebrated right before Mardi Gras, the day before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday for Catholics. The dates vary, but many say the celebration dates all the way back to the late 1100s, after a military victory of the Venetian Republic, which then became an official celebration during the Renaissance. Carnival was more and more well-known during the Baroque 17th century and later became famous worldwide in the 18th century. Unfortunately, the festival became outlawed in 1797 and the use of masks was forbidden and didn't return to the masses until 1979.
But since then, almost 3 million people swarm on Venice to see this annual celebration, with one of the most important events being the contest for the la maschera più bella ("the most beautiful mask"), which is judged by a panel of international costume and fashion designers.
Speaking of Masks...
When you think of the Carnival in Venice, one thing that surely comes to mind are the costumes! The most noticeable part of those being the famous masks. Masks have always been a staple during Carnival so people could celebrate and 'party' in disguise. They were also used in response to the rigid class system of dressing according to your station. These masks can be made in leather or porcelain, and the decorations were originally very practical in nature, but have since evolved to include some of the most elaborate designs ever seen, including mask designs with gold leaf, glitter, feathers and gems to name a few. I'm sure you've also seen the famous 'plague masks' which were originally used by Doctors to fight the spread of plague, but now they're used purely for decoration.
There's a lot of history behind these masks, they've been celebrated and banned consequently over the years, but are currently a crucial part of the famous Venetian costume during Carnival.
Key Dates and Events at the Venice Carnival:
If you're planning a trip to see the Venice Carnival, be sure to take some time to plan out which events you'd like to see and possibly be part of (although just going for a few days, wandering around the Piazza San Marco, and admiring the costumes is a lot of fun too).
Here are some key events to check out when visiting Venice during Carnival (from the 2020 calendar year when I went)!
The Grand Opening of the Venice Carnival: Usually takes place on the first Saturday and Sunday to kick the Carnival off in style. This is one of the biggest events at the Carnival and includes a massive water parade.
The Festa delle Marie Parade: Usually on Saturday February 15th, this is a re-enactment of the traditional Venetian beauty contest, where 12 women dressed in their finest and were presented to the Doge, who would then choose a winner and gift them jewels to use as part of their dowery.
Official Venice Carnival Dinner Show and Ball: There are several dates for this on the 15th, 16th, 20th, 21st, 23rd, 24th and 25th of February. This is held in the Ca' Vendramin Calergi Palace which overlooks the Grand Canal and includes dinner, games, and traditional performances.
The Best Mask Contest: This begins February 20th and occurs daily until the end of Carnival, usually around February 23rd. This is free and a great way to get involved in the celebrations.
What to Wear at the Carnival:
When I was in Italy in 2020, my trip to Venice was sort of last minute, and originally I didn't plan on attending the Carnival at all, and definitely didn't dress up, but if I ever get to go back I'll absolutely go in costume. In general, if you're just walking around the piazzas and different areas in Venice and don't want to dress up that's absolutely fine. You'll be sure to see PLENTY of other costumers walking around in their finest. Some were very traditional and what you would expect someone to wear a few hundred year ago, but others were really modern and were clearly the creation of the person wearing them. This was really the most special part of the Carnival, just walking around in awe of the costumes people had put together, feeling like I had traveled way back in time.
I also have to say that I was pleasantly surprised, and very thankful, at how friendly everyone was. When I held up my camera and asked to take pictures, EVERYONE was more than willing and each had a little pose to give. You could tell everyone was so excited to be there and were very proud of their costumes.
If you do decide to go to one of the balls, you'll need to follow the dress code of that particular event (usually black tie with a mask), but if I were you I'd go all out in the traditional elaborate costumes (think high collar and puffy sleeves), wigs, and masks. Most people don't have these types of costumes so you can either make your own mask, purchase one throughout the city, OR you can go the easy route and rent the entire outfit here!
All in all, the Carnival in Venice is an absolute must-see for any traveler who likes a good party. This was an interesting trip for me, because as I said, I was there in February of 2020, right during the COVID outbreak in Italy, before we knew where the pandemic would take us. In fact, I was actually there the LAST day of the Carnival, because it was shut down early to help ease the spread of the virus. But on top of wandering around this amazing city, seeing so many different costumes, it was really otherworldly to see people running around in plague masks right before a pandemic would change the world. But despite all of the weird COVID related energy, I'm so grateful I decided to take some time out to explore not only Venice, but was also lucky enough to be there during the Carnival. Like I said, if you're going to be there a few days it might be worth it to really plan, dress up, and go to a few of the official events. But if you like to be more casual and just want to wander around, see the sites, and the other partygoers, you'll be sure to have just as good a time.
Nothing to see here, just a carnival clad group enjoying some aperol spritzs.
If you'd like to read any of my other posts about my time in Italy check these links out below:
One more, because it's just so pretty <3