Socialites come out and play, disguised in 18th-century costumes, in a spectacle that transports visitors to an age of opulence. Venice Carnival is unapologetically upscale and thrives on it. The elaborate Carnival balls are among the world’s most elite parties and come with a high price tag, but the most alluring aspect of this festival is just wandering the labyrinthine island city of historic canals and alleyways filled with costumed revelers and soaking up the one-of-a-kind ambiance.
The Carnival of Venice starts ten days before Ash Wednesday or, as in most Carnivals, the time of feasting before the fast of Lent. Contrary to Rio’s Carnival or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, this is a distinctly formal affair. The location alone sets the tone. One of the Carnival balls is bound to leave a lasting impression in your memory.
The most revered of the events is the official opening of Carnival at St. Mark’s Square, which is the center of most festivities. Not to be missed is “The Flight of the Angel,” which begins at noon and commemorates the 16th-century Turkish acrobats who wowed crowds with daring tightrope walks. In the modern-day celebration, an “angel” flies on a steel cable above the costumed crowd to the string music of Vivaldi. The plaza is packed with everyone from disguised dignitaries to the colorful masses. From there, the crowd disperses into the back alleys and canals to wander by foot and gondola.
Theater is an essential element of Venice Carnival, from street performances to the Gran Teatro in St. Mark’s Square. The Grand Theater offers performances 12 hours a day with daily costume contests, musical performances and theater. Each year a new theme governs the year’s shows. Teatro Goldoni, Malibran and La Fenice are classic locations to catch performances.
Don’t miss the candlelight water parade on Shrove Tuesday. Rowboats, gondolas and other watercraft, all illuminated by candlelight, provide a romantic, ethereal spectacle. Being “Fat Tuesday,” many revelers are caught up in the festival’s most raucous night of partying, but you should join in, ideally from the water on one of the boats, to bid this Carnival “ciao” in style.
The ten-day party’s grand finale is the Notte de la Taranta (Night of the Tarantula) with a massive fireworks show at midnight. After that, the party is essentially over as it’s time to fast, so dance like you’ve been bitten by a spider and won’t live through the night!