Mystery and Intrigue: The Venice Carnival

Festival Essentials

Where: Venice, Italy
When: Annually, between Mid Feb – Mid March
Features: Dressing up and causing mischief
Remember to bring: Kinky costume and an all essential mask

Where’s the Party?

The canals and winding streets of Venice in the north of Italy are the perfect setting for a festival centred around intrigue, mystery and concealed identity.

Dates for the Diary

The Venice Carnival lasts for 12 days, from the Saturday before carnival weekend right through until the following Sunday. The main events take place over carnival weekend itself, which usually falls between mid February and early March.

What’s It All About?

At carnival time, Venice is packed with party-goers in costume and tourists who are eager to experience the event in one of the most beautiful and unique cities in the world. During the day parades weave their way through the streets, and performers keep the crowds entertained for hours. The city’s free ball takes place in St Mark’s Square, but there are numerous other masked balls and private parties throughout the duration of carnival.

Traditionally carnival is the last all-out binge before good Catholics give up all things luxurious for Lent. According to the earliest records, the Venice Carnival began in 1039, but the event only became popular in 1162 when grand celebrations were held after an important victory in the war against Ulrico, Patriarch of Aquileia.

The custom of wearing masks allowed the people of Venice to adopt a different persona for a short time each year. Over time, restrictions were imposed on the wearing of masks in the hope that this would halt the rapid moral degeneration of the Venetians, but certain individuals continued to take advantage of their anonymity to get up to all sorts of mischief. Mussolini finally put an end to the carnival in the 1930s, but the tradition was revived in 1979, and over the last two decades has grown once again into the splendidly frivolous event it once was.

Be Prepared

European Union nations do not require a visa to enter Italy, as long as they are staying for less than 90 days. Nationals from other countries may need a visa, as will all visitors who are intending to stay for more than 90 days. If in any doubt, contact the Italian Embassy or Consulate in your home country before you leave home.

Hotels in the city get very booked up at this time of year, so it’s a good idea to make a reservation well in advance.

Although you can buy or hire some fabulous costumes in Venice, rates are obviously at a premium during carnival so you may prefer to kit yourself out before you go.

If you are planning on going to one of the more lavish balls such as the Tiepolo Ball you’ll need to buy a ticket beforehand. Contact the Consorzio Comitato Per Il Carnevale Di Venezia for information. You can easily arrange a ticket to one of the smaller events once you arrive in Venice.

Getting There

Most of the major airlines fly to Venice’s Marco Polo airport. On arrival, you can take the tourist water bus direct to St Mark’s Square for around US$8, or a water taxi for about US$40. It¹s an incredible journey any time of day, but if you arrive at dawn you can watch Venice come to life. This is no museum, but a living breathing city, where washing lines hang alongside spectacular architecture. The journey across the lagoon takes about 45 minutes.

Where to Stay

Accommodation is very expensive during carnival, and one way to keep the costs down is to book a package.

The most affordable hotels are located on the Grand Canal, near the Accademia and the railway station. For travellers with a very limited budget the Ostello Venezia offers accommodation at reasonable rates. It is located on the Island of Guidecca, opposite St Mark¹s Square, at Fondamenta delle Zitelle 86 Tel: +39 041 523 8211 Fax: +39 041 523 5689.

Other Expenses

Cafes and restaurants in and around St Mark¹s Square are astronomically expensive, but if you¹re prepared to forage a little further afield, around $50 per person per day should be sufficient for food, drinks and gelato.

If you want to splash out on a ticket to a top masked ball such as Tiepolo Ball in Pilazzo Pisani-Moretta expect to pay upwards of US$250. If your budget won¹t stretch to this, try finding a pumpkin and a fairy godmother or get a job being part of the entertainment. One friend got an all-expenses-paid trip to the carnival because she offered her services as a musician ‹ needless to say she had a ball. Alternatively, opt for one of the numerous less lavish events which go on all over the city.

Once You’re There

The coolest places to hang out in costume and procure impromptu invites to lavish private parties are the Florian or Quadri cafes in St Mark’s Square. Both were vital components of 18th century high society, and a vital link to the carnival’s mysterious past. Another good tip is to ask the mask makers and costume hire shops where the action is to be found. They are usually in the know as they provide costumes for the most extravagant parties, and some even organise their own events for customers.

Local Attractions

Highlights of any visit to Venice include St Mark¹s Square and Basilica, the colourful markets around the Ponte di Rialto, a trip on a gondola and hanging out in the cafes with terraces along the Grand Canal. There is a lot more to the city though, including a visit to the Isle of the Dead, where famous Venetians are buried, and the fishing island of Burano and the glass-making island Murano, where all those fragile trinkets you will see around the city are made.



Most of the carnival balls and events are organised through a single co-ordinating committee called Consorzio Comitato Per Il Carnevale Di Venezia.
Tel: + 39 041 717065 / Fax: + 39 041 722285.

The main Tourist Office in Venice is located at: Castello, 4421
Tel: + 39 041 5298711 / Fax: +39 041 5230399

Tragicomica is a company of traditional mask and costume makers, which also organises the mischievous ‘Mascheranda’ ball on the last Sunday of Carnival. Their shop is located at:
Calle dei Nomboli
San Polo
Tel: +39 041 721102 / Fax: +39 041 5240702

Note: Italy is one of the few countries which doesn’t drop the first zero when dialling the country from overseas.

By Juliet Coombe