Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the Carnival of Venice

There are various carnivals that happen across the world, with the most popular, and largest, being Rio de Janeiro’s famed week-long event. But there’s a different carnival that also takes place each year. This year from the end January through the middle of February. In the historic city Venice, Italy, their carnival takes on a slightly different light. More focused on tradition and less on the party atmosphere, Carnival of Venice (Carnevale di Venezia) uses the ancient city’s history of elegance and mystery to great appeal for locals and tourists alike.

Festivities kick off the final days of January with the Festa Veneziana, a light-drenched boat parade on the Grand Canal and Rio di Cannaregio. Music and light combine here for a spectacular show as boats float through the city covered in decorative lights. This two-day event is a much-anticipated parade for the locals before the bulk of tourists arrive. Though, the official starting event is the Flight of the Angel. In the beginning of February, the centuries-old tradition finds the previous year’s Maria of the Carnival hoisted to the top of the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square only to descend upon an eagerly awaiting Venetian crowd.

The beginning of February, there’s the Official Dinner Show and Ball, where the personality of Carnival of Venice reveals its true renaissance style. Thankfully for guests, there is over a week of the same event – with the last dinner taking place mid-February — allowing everyone a chance to experience the beginning of carnival. The Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a palace sitting above the canal, will play host as this mixture of culinary, performance, visual and costume art combine into a spectacular scene that truly represents the Carnival of Venice.

The Carnival of the Youth of Zelarino will kick off the parade side of things. Running both the beginning of Febraury and the latter part of the week mid-February, this parade is really an event-within-an-event. For 50 years, the children of Venice have not only been standing street side en mass to witness the colorful characters of Venetian folklore, but they also participate by riding floats and interacting with the crowd.

If you’re at all familiar with the Venice carnival, you know how important masks are. Every party you attend will be filled with elaborate costumed individuals hiding their identities with even more elaborate masks. Throughout the week in St. Mark’s Square, the whole city gathers together to witness the Best Mask Contest. As a beloved, albeit very competitive part of the carnival, the mask contest is highly looked-forward to and brings out the most creative sides of Venetians. Some of the more decorative masks can take numerous weeks to complete, and if you’re purchasing one, it can cost you upwards of €300.

As another week-long event, the Mestre Carnival Street Show combines both the artistry of masks and costumes with the flair of a parade. Musicians, acrobats, street performers, jugglers and everyone in between will take to the streets to impress passersby. There’s the self-explanatory Parade of Masks, the Imaginarium featuring the mysterious Blink Circus and Le Petite Cabaret 1924, a circus/cabaret show modeled after those from Paris in the 1920s.

While it’s easy for the allure of the carnival to take over, don’t let everyday Venice pass you by — especially the food. Surely you’ll want to keep in the spirit of carnival though, so why not check out Paradiso Perduto Venezia, a local osteria and jazz club in the Cannaregio neighborhood. Music lovers will be just as pleased with the superb musicians invited on stage as foodies will be with the menu — the local specialty-pasta bigoli with cheese and pepper is simple, yet screams of Venetian flavor. Osteria sa Alberto is another great spot for local delicacies. Since 1920, these guys and gals have been dealing in local dishes like creamy cod and spaghetti with cuttlefish ink. The cozy CoVino embodies everything a Venetian restaurant is supposed to. Local, fresh ingredients, friendly staff and an intimate setting. Plus, each course comes with an accompanying glass of wine.

Venice is, of course, rife with historic bars and restaurants. Caffe Florian, for example, has been in business since 1720. Yes, it’s hard to get more historic than that. The grounds are stunningly Venetian with red suede seating, gold trimmed walls and intimate lighting – and their bar is no exception making it a great spot for a midday cocktail. The el Sbarlefo sits in the Venice lagoon and caters to those missing that New York style ambiance. Live jazz and blues music plays in the background while your bartender pours you a glass of Lagavulan 16-year. And if you want to check out Venice from above — a rare treat in a congested city such as this — look to Skyline Rooftop Bar in the Hilton Molino Stucky Venice Hotel. At the Skyline, molecular mixology meets traditional cocktails by way of drinks like the Smokey Old Fashioned which is made maple syrup featuring a “nice smokey surprise.”

Speaking of mixing old and new, Venetian hotels have a surprisingly effective way of doing just that. Palazzo Ca’Nova Venice boasts modern “apartments” in an historic building at the mouth of the Grand Canal. They specialize in short-term stays (perfect for a week at carnival) with spectacular views of the city and canal. La Villeggiatura uses the charm of old Venice throughout its property to make it an utterly unique hotel experience. Also near the Grand Canal, here guests can choose from the floor level bedrooms with traditional Venetian flooring or pick a loft room upstairs where the Italian sun shines bright through the large windows. Like Ca’Nova, Cima Rosa too melds the old and new. As a 15th century palazzo, this boutique B&B has a simple elegance inside while the exterior is the vine covered old-world Venice that you’d expect.