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Your guide to Venice Carnival

Venice Carnival is one of the world largest and most popular celebrations and takes place form the 4th to the 21st February 2023 and will attract tourists from across the globe looking to experience the assault on the senses that come with Venice at carnival time. From masquerade balls, elaborate costumes, historical re-enactments and much more.

We take a look into the carnival’s long history and what it means today, whilst also exploring this year’s events and how you can enjoy carnival time whatever your budget.

The Venice Carnival is over 900 years old. It was first mentioned in 1094 but grew from 1162 when Venice Republic won a battle against Aquileia – a city in the Udine region of North East Italy. Upon the victory Venetians gathered in the world famous Saint Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) to meet and dance, and the celebration has continued ever since.

As time went on the carnival became an attraction in itself and the connection to the victory over Aquileia has been somewhat forgotten with not many people, particularly those visiting, recognising the historical significance.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing for the carnival however. Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II banned the carnival and the wearing of masks from 1797 and it only made very brief reappearances publicly through the 19th century – though in private Venetians managed to keep the tradition alive.

In 1979, the Italian government decided to revive Venice Carnival as a way to boost the economy and culture of Venice bringing thousands of additional tourists to the city each year, but there are still historical re-enactments and celebrations of Venetian merchants of days gone past to connect the modern day festival to its roots. 

As the saying goes “Anything goes at Carnival time!” and articulates the spirit of Venice during the 2 week Carnival in Venice.

The aim of the festival is to celebrate and often challenge social norms, shedding true identities and assuming the role of something completely different. The famous Venetian masks make it possible for you to become whoever you wish. 

Carnival starts with Il Volo dell’Angelo (The Flight of the Angel) which back in the 1500s involved an acrobat walking a tight rope from a boat anchored just off Saint Mark’s Square to the top of the bell tower inside the square.

Nowadays, the event involves a Venetian woman who wins the title of ‘Mary of the Carnival’ for the previous year being sent at speed down a rope towards the Palazzo Ducale.

Sadly in 2023 this event is cancelled due to construction work that is taking place in Saint Mark’s Square.

Historically, this event was used to offer 12 attractive but poor Venetian women the gift of jewels and an expensive wedding far beyond what they could have afforded. It was very much a bridal parade.

This has changed, however, and now takes the form of a beauty pageant where 12 young Venetian women walk from Via Garibaldi to Saint Mark’s Square and then the winner of the contest is named Mary of the Carnival – and they get the honour of opening the Carnival for the following year.  

This is a spectacular flotilla almost of extravagantly decorated boats which make their way along the Grand Canal heading for Cannaregio. It’s a wonderful sight which takes place from 1pm leaving plenty of time afterwards to enjoy some wonderful Italian food and a glass of wine. 

The Venice Carnival is all about masked balls, but a common misconception is that these events are hideously expensive, and whilst some are in excess of £2000 per ticket – many are not and you can find tickets from as little as £100.

Remember to factor in the cost of renting your costume for the evening too, but don’t worry if you can’t afford or don’t want to wear the most glamorous of costumes – a simple mask and a cape will suffice and you can also find make up artists on the streets during carnival offering their services for less than £10.

If you’re looking for a souvenir to remember your Carnival experience or fancy wearing your creation to a Venetian masked ball then there are plenty of mask making workshops available from around £70. 

A full list of Venice Carnival events and timings can be found on the Venice Carnival website.

Naturally like any city at the time of a major event it’ll be busy in the city booking early will get you the best deals and a wider choice.

To be in the heart of the action then choose hotels close to St Mark’s Square or Cannaregio – they are likely to be more expensive but you’ll have the carnival atmosphere on your doorstep.

Whilst if you prefer to be a little further out then consider Castello, which is a mere 20 minute walk from Saint Mark’s Square, is a little quieter and cheaper.

If you’re working to a tighter budget then the most affordable accommodation can be found in Dorsoduro, Guidecca or Mestre. 

For any trip you should consider having travel insurance in place to protect you against unforeseen issues whilst you’re away. This can help you from flight delays and cancellations, lost luggage, stolen belongings and medical expenses along with much more.
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