Having just returned from Venice Carnival 2017, I have mixed feelings about visiting this city during this festival. Many of the carnival outfits and the Venetian masquerade masks were truly beautiful. On the other hand, Venice is busy at the best of times and we found the crowds overwhelming. I do think it is an experience worth doing at least once in your lifetime, so I have put together some tips for making sure you have the best experience at Carnival in Venice.
The History of the Carnival in Venice
The Venetian Carnival has a long history stretching back to historic times before the Renaissance. It was a months long festival to help Venetians get through the winter months and ended at the beginning of Lent. Back then, Venice was the original Sin City. The Venetian masquerade masks and carnival outfits were useful in hiding identities which lead to a general licentiousness behind the anonymity.
Then, Napoleon conquered the Republic of Venice and ruined the party. Boo. He decided that masks and disguises made his rule difficult. The French (and later Austrians) did away with Carnival.
In 1979, the Republic of Italy decided to restart the Carnival of Venice as a way to revive interest in the history and culture of Venice. In the beginning, Venice Carnival was just for locals. Nowadays, approximately 3 million tourists a year visit for the Carnival of Venice during the festival which lasts a couple of weeks in February.
Tips for Enjoying Venice Carnival
With so many visitors to Venice, the city is more crowded than usual. Here are my tips for enjoying Venice Carnival without feeling you are knee-deep in a tourist scrum.
Where To Go
- If you insist on visiting St. Mark’s Square, earlier in the day and later in the day is the best time. The area is gridlock during the middle of the day.
- Hotels are even more expensive than usual. You are best situated outside the most popular areas. We chose to stay in Canareggio which was only a 15 minute walk to St. Mark’s Square but felt a world away.
- The tourists seem to all act like lemmings and they congregate around (i) St. Mark’s Square, (ii) the waterfront area by St. Mark’s Piazza and (iii) the Rialto bridge area. Once you leave these main areas, the side streets are remarkable empty and still charming.
- We missed the Flight of the Angel at St. Mark’s Square because we thought we would not need more than an hour to walk the 15 minutes from our hotel to the square. Wrong. The crowds were so thick, the police cordoned of the square. We had a miserable an hour and half being herded through streets until we were able to break away and leave the area.
- In the evening the party scene for the younger non-traditional crowd is by the Arsenale area.
- Plenty of people were dressed up and wandering around Venice in full costume for the day. The outfit hire is for the day. Starting at €250/day, I guess you might as well make full use of the outfit!
- There aren’t that many events for children. The official agenda mentions things like mask-making at the Peggy Guggenheim museum. These events though were sold out and require advance reservations (a fact that unhelpfully was not mentioned in the agenda!).
- We took our children to La Bauta which has a store and a workshop near the Rialto Bridge. At the workshop both adults and children can make masks and learn about Carnival Masks. They loved the experience.
- Make reservations for dinner. There are a lot of day-trippers who come to Venice for Carnival but everyone else needs to eat. Restaurants get full and many have a choice of two seatings – either 7pm or 9pm (the more popular choice). Here’s a complete guide to finding great food in Venice for anytime of the day.
- The Venetian balls are a grand affair with a grand price to match (think hundreds of Euros to attend plus the cost of the outfit/hair/makeup etc). Most of these balls are adult-only affairs.
- We did find a dance class in the afternoon that would take children but we opted not to do it in the end. My daughter would have loved it but getting my son into a period outfit was just too much trauma to contemplate.
- We found Carnival in Venice a much more elegant affair overall than the carnival in Rio de Janeiro that we attended last year.
- You can rent outfits by the day. Our hotel had a small showroom for a Carnival costumes outfitter based out of Milan, Arrigo Costumi. We also went to see their larger collection held at a grand palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. Wow! The outfits are amazing. I have more photos of Arrigo Costume and the pop-up shop at Palazzo Tiepolo here.
- The store where our children made masks, La Bauta, also rents costumes.
- You can buy cheapish costumes from €10-€25 in the stalls of market traders. Having seen the effort that people go to for their costumes, I would not suggest going to one of the masked balls in a cheap outfit.
- Don’t bring your Halloween outfit unless you are a child. We saw a handful of charming little Batmen and Disney princesses. Some children were dressed in traditional outfits as well. We saw a very grumpy little boy in a multi-coloured pierrot outfit which made me laugh. My son would’ve had the same expression (if I’d even been able to convince him to put on the outfit).
Photo Gallery of Venice Carnival
Good To Know Before You Go
Here’s another article on tips to enjoy Carnival in Venice which also encourages you to venture further away from the city’s most crowded areas. Not only will you enjoy the Venice Carnival more but you will also be acting like a responsible tourist avoiding overcrowding an endangered city.
We stayed at Hotel Giorgione in Canareggio which is probably the most local and quietest of the Venetian neighbourhoods. Our hotel was a 5 minute walk to the Rialto and 15 minutes to St. Marks Square. In the past, we have stayed at Hotel Bucintoro which is near the Arsenale section. This hotel would be good if you wanted to go out at night because a lot of night events with DJ’s and concerts for Carnival happen around here. I can’t imagine its the quietest area though. We have also stayed in the Hotel Londra Palace in the past which has a great view of the harbour right near St. Mark’s Square. On the other hand, this area is too busy for us during Carnival.
The official website for Venice Carnival has a lot of information in English. We did our mask making in Venice at the La Bauta store and workshop.
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