As a Venetian, I must admit that sometimes Carnival feels less like a celebration and more like the beginning of the tourist season — the end of our few days free from floods of people and complete chaos. But then it also reminds me of my childhood, when we would dress up like superheroes or other masked characters, eat loads of sweets, and throw confetti on anyone passing by.
These days, I no longer wear a costume (unless you count wearing neon bunny ears at a dance party!), but I still celebrate Carnival and can tell you how to experience it like a local, away from the tourist traps.
First off, the dress code. Locals don’t necessarily need to go back in time with big Marie Antoinette-style dresses and heavy, powdered wigs. Because do you know what’s more fun? Making your own costume.
Use your imagination; Carnival is about fun, colours and creativity. The best costumes I see are always the homemade ones, created together by small groups of friends. Get inspired by the annual theme that rules the entire festival (2018’s is about entertainment and playing, so maybe impersonate your favourite game and add some traditional touches to it.) Masks are the main accessory and are the easiest costume piece to find — just make sure you are getting a real one made in Venice by professionals (mascareri). These guys know how to make magic with papier maché, creating a piece of art that is totally unique (and safe to wear). A cheap plastic mask is a big no-no for us. Keep it local!
Carnival is historically known as the period preceding the 40 days of Lent before Easter, and thus is considered a time to indulge, especially with food. Your Carnevalesque menu starts with the queen of all sweet treats, her majesty the fritella, a sort of deep-fried, round donut covered in sugar. They come with different fillings and can vary in size — but a good one will always have a crispy exterior. My favourites are at Pasticceria Rizzardini and Pasticceria Tonolo. Try a plain one first, and then go for all the other fillings.
But don’t forget to leave space in your tummy for the crispy and light galani, a flat, deep-fried pastry. Yes, again with the deep-frying, but don’t worry about calories — you’ll burn them off walking around to all the different parties. (And if that’s not enough sugar for you, hop on our Sweet Taste of Venice tour in between all your partying!)
Once you are fuelled up, you’ll be ready to attend the many local parties. But be warned: the streets during Carnival are packed with people, so plan ahead as to where you want to go and please, please, please, keep to the right side of the road (which is the right-hand side). Getting elbowed or yelled at by some frustrated Venetians who are just trying to get home is never fun.
Here are my picks for the best parties that you simply can’t miss if you’re in Venice during Carnival. You may even see me there, too!
Don’t miss the amazing opening night (this year it falls on January 27), which takes place on the water in Cannaregio. An extraordinary show of boats that marks the beginning of Carnival, it is performed in one of the most beautiful districts of the city. This event is a fairly recent addition, created in counterpart to the more traditional celebrations happening in St. Mark’s Square.
The opening is so loved by locals that it gets a double run the very next day (January 28). The program? A regatta on the Grand Canal that finishes in Cannaregio, where lots of food stalls are waiting to serve delicious comfort foods and mulled wine — great for beating the cold weather.
If you really want to burn those calories though, dance the night away at Arsenale Quays. Explore the neighbourhood of Castello, grab dinner in Via Garibaldi, and then head over the scenic Arsenale, once home to the majestic Venetian fleet.
Carnival only lasts a couple of weeks (ending on February 13 this year), but trust me, the program is packed with extraordinary events (that aren’t all touristy). The trick is to wander off the main path. Guaranteed, you will always find a small bacaro having a party or a quirky band playing in some square. So get in the spirit and have fun!
Venice Carnival lasts from January 27 to February 13, 2018.
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