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.
Tips For Having 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.
To get St. Mark’s Piazza this quiet, you need to arrive at 6:00 AM.
- 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.
Cinderella … you shall go to the ball.
- 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.
Are you looking at little old moi?
- 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
It looks like Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep.
I’m so sad… so very sad.
Halt! Who goes there?
I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
Possibly I should have gone with a slightly darker orange.
A lot of men wore this big beaked mask. Not sure if they were compensating?
Wait … is that a landline??!
What does a girl have to do to get a gondola around here?
Memories… all alone in the moonlight …
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.
Venice … where voguing is still popular.
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.
We payed full price for all the goods and services in this article. This article contains affiliate links for which the affiliate policy can be found on our Disclosure Page.
We were open-mouthed at the sheer opulence of the parade floats and costumes in the Sambadrome at Rio’s Carnival. We have been to a lot of parades but we were completely blown away. Between the sound system, the floats and the dancers, Rio’s spectacle was the most extravagant we had ever seen. A look at the backstage of Rio’s Sambadrome parades, though, reveals a whole lot of work and a fair bit of dodgy dealing.
Preparing for Rio’s Sambadrome Parades
My children got to try on some Sambadrome parade outfits when we went to the H.Stern jewellery museum. The handmade beaded outfits are heavy. My daughter couldn’t even move her head wearing a plumed head dress. I assume that’s why the women’s costumes were so skimpy. It would be hard to dance and smile for an entire hour and a half through the Rio Sambadrome parades if your outfit was heavier than you.
Details from the outfits on display at H.Stern
Each year the theme for each samba school changes as does the costumes, floats and official song. The planning work for the next year’s carnival begins almost as soon as the previous year’s carnival ends. You need new costumes, music, floats, dances and choreography.
The kings and queens of each school proudly displaying their flags.
The beads, feathers etc. of the costumes are recycled from year to year. The costumes themselves are always different though. Hundreds of people-hours are spent designing and creating the costumes for the thousands of people involved.
Detail from a handmade beaded jacket.
The Samba Schools
Rio has more than 100 samba schools and the top 12 are part of the elite Special Group. Below the Special Group, there are other tiers (just like in football divisions), Groups A, B, C and D. Just like in football, samba schools can be promoted a division or relegated down to another group. Also, similar to football, the samba schools inspire fierce loyalty that can make grown men cry.
The incredible variety of outfits and creativity.
The samba schools are a bit like community centres. They provide a recreational outlet for favela dwellers. People are really devoted to their own samba school. Even within the same favela, there may be different samba schools. Each one has its own flag and colours. The samba schools were started in Rio in 1920 based on the centuries old traditions and structures of carnivals held in the city.
The city of Rio set up Samba City located near the port to help the Special Group prepare for Carnival. A massive 93,000 square meters, each Special Group member gets its own warehouse so that they can prepare and rehearse for Carnival. These warehouses are also where the floats and the costumes are made and stored. A trip to a favela would reveal that there’s hardly any room in these shanty towns for oversize floats prior to their use in Rio’s Sambadrome parades.
A Sambadrome dancer on her way backstage to get ready
At any time of the year, you can visit Samba City and get a flavour of the spirit of Carnival. Visiting Samba City is a popular tourist attraction and you can get organised tours to see it. Regular tours are conducted in both Portuguese and English.
Funding Samba Schools
Each samba school works hard to create a masterpiece of showmanship and theatre for carnival. Located in favelas, I wondered how the samba schools funded this extravagance. While many people living in favelas are dirt poor, other inhabitants are the working class. For example, they work as the maids, gardeners and household help in the houses of the wealthy. I can’t imagine either type of favela dweller having the spare cash needed to participate in Rio’s Sambadrome parades.
This castle from the St. George and the dragon story is filled with dancers.
The official story says that samba schools raise money for their activities through fundraisers, government grants, ticket sales and corporate sponsors. Many of the participants in the Sambadrome parades don’t have to pay for their outfits. Moreover, there are people who are paid to work on Rio’s Sambadrome parades as their official job. So, you would need to do a whole lot of fundraising to finance this effort.
The level of detail on the floats was mind-boggling. You can see why it took a year to prepare.
The ugly truth? The millions of dollars needed for the extravagance of the samba school displays at Rio’s Sambadrome parade comes from the underbelly of Carioca life. Drug dealers launder money through the favelas. Drug gangs fund the samba schools to keep the favela dwellers happy and turn a blind eye to the drug dealing in the community.
Who needs religion? The opiate of the masses can be sparkly costumes and dancing. It wasn’t just the theatricals, music and dancing that reminded me of Bollywood movies. Indian Bollywood movies are immensely popular and cheap to attend. They are a way to keep people entertained and their minds off their problems. At least the Brasilian samba schools require audience participation. There are at least 4000 people marching in each school’s parade and countless more behind the scenes doing the artwork, music, construction etc.
Not content with ordinary animatronics, this float had people in swings!
In addition, carnival is funded by gambling sources. Although gambling is illegal in this very Catholic country, back-street gambling in the form of a lottery called ‘jogo do bicho‘ is very popular. This money is laundered through samba schools, too. Our guide, Marco Bransford, told us that the government is considering making Jogo do Bicho legal. Brasil is not doing well financially and the government could use the tax money raised from the lottery.
The floats are giant, with exquisite detail and dancers in outfits wearing incredibly detailed outfits too.
The dodgy funding isn’t limited to Brasilian sources either. The 2015 Carnival winner, Beija-Flore, was rocked by controversy that its floats were funded by the dictator of the small West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. The people of Equatorial Guinea are among the poorest in the world even though the country is oil-rich. It’s a bizarre form of wealth transfer to take from the poor of one country to give to the poor of another country (and not even for health, education or other resources that would improve their lives long-term). Such controversies are old news in Rio’s Sambadrome parades. For example, in 2006, another school was accused of being funded by Venezuelan President Chavez.
I went to Brasil thinking that Catholicism was its religion and football was its main preoccupation. Now, I know that samba schools are another form of religion. Between Catholicism, football and samba, the people in the favelas of Rio are kept too busy to complain about their miserable lot in life. It’s a win/win for everyone, or so it seems.
This post is linked up with Weekend Travel Inspiration and The Weekly Postcard.
The first thing I notice at the Rio Sambadrome is the crush of humanity. People are packed into the stadium seating with just enough room for little Brasilian surgically-enhanced bottoms. Personal space, as we Americans like to call it, is disregarded. Luckily, pretty much everyone is standing and many are dancing. The supporters of each Samba school enthusiastically wave their flags. The beer was free-flowing and the party atmosphere infectious. Everyone was somehow dressed up (or down!) even if the adornment is just a garland of flowers.
Tickets to the Sambadrome
Most people in Brasil (or even Rio) don’t go to the Sambadrome. It is way too expensive. They watch the Samba School’s parade on television and celebrate Carnival itself at the blocos (street parades) or other private parties.
We got tickets to the Rio Sambadrome for $250 per person. We would have liked to have box seats but they were going for $1000/person. We were seated in Section 9 which is reserved for tourists. It’s a terrific location right across from where the judges sat. Every parade that passed us was going all out to impress the judges.
The box seats didn’t look that special.
Having been to the Rio Sambadrome, I don’t think the more expensive box seats were any more comfortable. They did, however, have a lounge area behind the seats so that our children could have slept there. On the other hand, it was still cheaper to bring along a nanny and send the children home before they were too exhausted.
The kids are dressed and ready to party.
We used Carnaval Turismo to book our buy our tickets and bus transportation to the Sambadrome. They dropped us off in front of Stand 9, the foreign visitors stand, and picked us up there as well.
Tip: Most of the people in Rio are out partying on the night of Carnival. Taxis are few and far between. Pre-organised transportation is a must.
Food and Drink at the Rio Sambadrome
The food served at the Rio Sambadrome is of the usual stadium quality found worldwide. The Brasilian chain, Bob’s Burgers, has a stand that was doing brisk business of burgers, beer, whiskey and vodka. The other option we found was pizza – a thick gelatinous layer of cheese on thick bread. Neither food option was impressive but the beer was great!!
food and drink stands at the Rio Sambadrome
In the stands, the vendors selling beer, water and ice-cream weaved their way expertly through the crowds. People were joyous but we did not see anyone drunk or messy. Although we felt safe in the crowd, as a precaution we did not bring any valuables or bags with us.
The ice-cream sellers were a real service in the heat of the night.
The Rio Sambadrome Stadium
The Sambadrome is a stadium like I have never seen before. It is long and thin with a pretend road down the middle. The stadium seats are on either side of the fake road. Each samba school parade starts with a parade and ends with a flurry of workers sweeping the road clean behind them in preparation for the next samba school parade. Each samba school had their own theme, song and costumes. A lot of the sartorial references were beyond me though.
An Empire of the Sun?
The Sambadrome parades started at 8 pm and went on until about 4:30 in the morning. Each Samba School had a maximum of an hour and a half to parade before they would start losing points.
The parade has a clock which counts the time for each school.
Each night there were six schools that get to parade. Although there are shows from Friday through Monday, the best schools perform on Sunday and Monday. The whole thing was run with an impressive efficiency which I thought would make Brasil a world power if only they would apply it to their economy.
Photo Gallery of the Samba Parades
The Samba parades were amazing! While the tickets were expensive, each parade was a spectacle in itself. Stumbling home at 4:30 in the morning, we watched 4 of the parades at the Rio Sambadrome. We felt we had gotten our money’s worth as each parade was an individual show in itself. We went on the Sunday so we did see some of the best floats. Unfortunately, this year’s winner was in the Monday parade.
The outfits for both men and women were amazing.
It was great to see the floats arrive as well as leave!
A real crowd pleaser was a Pele lookalike running on top of a football.
All sorts of fantastical creatures were made into floats.
Portuguese influenced tea cups? Not sure why these people were dressed in these outfits.
Nor did I understand why a bunch of football players came running out of the orca’s mouth.
Criminals and a taxi? say what??
A drag queen dressed as the Queen of England (Ok, they are playing on the word queen).
Bow to my magnificence peons!
This post is linked up with Pierced Wonderings, Weekend Wanderlust, Weekend Wanderlust Inspiration and City Tripping.
Like many people I thought Carnival in Rio de Janeiro in Brasil was just one giant party over 5 days. In fact, Carnival in Rio consists of a number of different events (samba parades, balls, and blocos). Here are my top tips for Carnival in Rio if you are thinking of going to the greatest party on Earth in the future.
Main Carnival Events
There are four days of samba school parades at the Sambadrome, followed by the choosing of a winner and 9 runners-up who will strut their stuff in the Champions’ parade at the Sambadrome the following weekend.
There are also balls in the tradition of Venetian balls. The Copacabana Palace’s legendary Magic Ball has a full-blown red carpet entrance which my friends arrived in time to watch. The other balls are neither particularly pricey nor exclusive. For example, the Scala ball happens every night of Carnival. The Gay Gala ball is so famous that it is broadcast to the rest of Brasil.
There are lots of blocos (street parties) around the city spread out over mainly the 5 days. For Carnival 2016, there were 505 official licensed blocos and countless other spontaneous street parties. Not all the streets were busy at all times. The city lists the official blocos and everyone is welcome to attend.
At the blocos, you can either watch from the sides or join the parade.
Top Tips for Carnival in Rio
Dressing Up for Carnival
If you are going to carnival in Rio, you simply have to get dressed up. The outfits fall into distinct categories. The women wear something skimpy and dress up with accessories. For men, anything goes but there’s a lot of cross-dressing. Children like to wear Disney or movie costumes.
Top Tip! There are lots of street vendors. You can buy outfits or accessories fairly cheaply.
Accessories for sale by a sidewalk vendor.
If you are going to get to Carnival in Rio, expect to get dirty. The streets can get muddy, beer can get spilled and garbage cans overflow. Don’t wear clothes or shoes you care too much for. On the other hand, I was surprised by how quickly the city cleaned up after itself for the next day’s festivities.
The Carnival Atmosphere
Everyone we met seemed to like having their photo taken. Not only do they enthusiastically agree if you ask to take their photo, they will occasionally ask you to take their photo. Entire sidewalks will be full of people taking selfies.
This little boy is attending his first carnival before he even enters the world.
People like to to drink and party. We, however, did not see violence. With the party atmosphere and the free-flowing beer, if Rio’s carnival took place in Britain, you know fights would have broken out, people glassed and the ambulances would be out in full force.
Whether you are straight or gay, lots of men cross-dress.
You should, however, be careful with your belongings as pickpocketing is common. My friend saw a chain being snatched off someone’s neck right in front of her face.
We wore our money in those traveller pockets that strap around your body under our shirts. Other people wore belt bags that they wore with a shirt untucked over the top. Frankly, not flashing your cash and keeping your money on your person is a good general tip for visiting Brazil anytime of year!
We kept small bills that were easily accessible for buying drinks, snacks or souvenirs in our pockets. Women tucked their phone into their bras. Men who weren’t cross-dressing tucked their phones into their speedos. Yeah really.
Top Tip! Don’t take a bag if you can help it. Use a belt bag or similar to keep your personal items safe.
It’s not like he has many other options where to put his phone. The sign says ‘yes’ by the way.
Everybody wants to be your new friend. Brasilians are friendly and no more so than during Carnival. I had any number of people warn me to be careful with my camera. I didn’t have my expensive DSLR but the Olympus mirrorless camera I bought in Japan. It was still relatively flashy.
Brasilian time is flexible. Don’t expect things to start on time. Don’t worry about being late for anything. If you are going to carnival in Rio, the mantra “don’t worry, be happy” could not be more applicable.
Clown hair and a sequin top. Why not?
It’s a public holiday from Friday evening until noon on Ash Wednesday. The banks are not only closed but the doors to the ATM’s in the foyers are locked to prevent vandalism. Some of the shopping centers have ATM’s that work but they do run out of money by Saturday or Sunday.
Tip: Make sure you have enough cash before the bank holiday starts. You can change foreign currency at the airport even during the bank holiday.
Getting a taxi during peak carnival times can be difficult. Taxi drivers need to party, too! Streets get closed randomly and routes rerouted for the blocos.
Top Tip! The new Rio subway system is clean and efficient. If you don’t want to deal with public transportation, stay in Copacabana or Ipanema where there are lots of street parties (blocos) happening. There will also be chartered buses to take you to and from the Sambodrome leaving from designated hotels.
The parties mostly start in the late afternoon and run into the wee hours of the morning. Most people are probably sleeping off hangovers during the fierce daytime heat. If not, they are baking on the beach.
A sea of colourful umbrellas on Ipanema beach
Tip: February is the hottest month in Brasil. Be prepared to stay hydrated and to wear sun protection. The humidity will also make you wilt, and not in the glamorous way the Cariocas do.
Everything in Rio gets more expensive for Carnival. They know they have you by the party whistles so there is nothing you can do about prices.
Carnival with Children
We took our children to Carnival because we went with friends who also took their children. Our friends also brought their nanny with them which was handy for sending the children back to the apartment relatively early around 9pm – before the real partying starts!
Top Tip! You should be able to organise babysitting through your hotel. Alternatively, bring a nanny or relative along to help with babysitting. Trust me, you will want to go out until the early hours of the morning.
A family outing to a Bloco
The children really enjoyed the Children’s Bloco as well as seeing the samba schools perform at the Sambadrome. For children, there are also the children’s samba school parades on the tuesday (Fat Tuesday) which is free to attend at the Sambadrome.
We saw lots of families with kids (both locals and tourist) out and about during the day. It’s really your judgment call on whether you think your child is able to handle the crowds and noise of carnival festivities. The issue wouldn’t be safety so much as the intensity of the experience.
The first thing our children noticed at the Banda de Ipanema Kids Bloco was the shaving cream being squirted by gleefully chuckling Brasilian children. Then, they noticed the confetti being thrown around. Our children have never thrown confetti (or squirted shaving cream for that matter) so they were really happy to get into the full spirit of Carnival Bloco for Children. And, did they have fun!
The bloco for children, Banda de Ipanema Kids, takes place in the park around Praca General Osorio in Ipanema. It has been happening since the 1990’s. This year the party was on the Monday afternoon. Similar to Children’s Day at the Notting Hill Parade, Rio’s carnival bloco for children is a family-friendly and lower-key event than the main parties.
People congregate on the outskirts of the gated park while the main activity happened inside the park. Unlike other blocos, the parading does not leave the park so it is a nice confined area.
The streets around a bloco become car-free for the safety of the revellers.
Blocos are street parties that happen during Carnival in Rio. Considering the Sambadrome can only seat 90,000 people but there were an estimated 500,000 visitors as well as the millions of locals, blocos are a way for everyone to enjoy the carnival spirit. There were 505 official blocos licensed for Carnival 2016. Not all of the blocos are family-friendly but the Banda de Ipanema Kids at General Osorio park definitely was.
An enterprising vendor brought caiprinhas for the adults so we were able to live and let go in the mayhem. It’s easier not worry about such concerns as environmental damage caused by confetti with a caiprinha in your hand.
Caiprinhas for the parents!
Photo Gallery: Carnival Bloco for Children
The whole event was good natured fun. Not only did the children chase each other around to cause maximum shaving foam damage, the party atmosphere extended to cotton candy and caramel popcorn. Because, of course, sugar is exactly what over-excited children needed.
I really also enjoyed people-watching. Brasilians are friendly anyway and they LOVE their children. The interaction between families was really sweet. Our kids were the right age and blended right into the event. The only teens we saw were there with younger relatives.
I love this little girl’s gleeful smile and her father’s long-suffering look. Do what you must, that look says.
This little one was cackling in glee at having confetti sprinkled at him.
A little girl and her mother having fun.
My son, the victim of a sneak foam attack, by his sister.
Thanks to the Caiprinha I couldn’t even get mad about the fact that we told them NOT to spray in each other’s faces. Breathe.
This kid’s smirk clearly means he is up to no good with a spray can!
Of course, there was a band playing music.
No kid ever got tired of popping bubbles.
This guy good-naturedly let himself be a target for our kids. We simply had not drunk enough to volunteer for such an act of valour.
The thing about Carnival? Everyone likes to have their photo taken.
This post is linked to Travel Photo Thursday.