Venice: A Cheapo’s guide to free Carnival events

Posted in: Venice Sights


Venice Carnival
Taking in the Carnival for free in San Marco. Photo: Kevin H

By Monica Cesarato in Venice—

Ah,  the “Carnivale di Venezia,” an experience that should be had by every traveler at least once. Extravagant costumes, colorful masks, crowds dancing in Piazza San Marco, and special Carnival desserts that bars and cafés display proudly all make it unforgettable, and unique to Venice. What’s better is that many events are entirely free.

A Cheapo Carnival

Though hotel rates do spike during this time of year, it’s nice to know that virtually all of Carnival’s public activities are free. Of course I am not talking about the elegant aristocratic “behind closed door” parties, attended by the rich and the famous. Rather, I’m speaking of the real Carnival, the people’s Carnival, which is the Carnival at its best and the most enjoyable–and it’s open to everyone.

The 2011 Carnival

The theme of the 2011 Carnival is fantastic: “Women and the 19th Century,” timed to celebrate Italy’s 1861 unification.

The festival will be held Saturday, February 19 and Sunday, February 20, 2011 and then from Saturday, February 26 through March 8, 2011. The days packed with the most events are any weekends and on Thursday, March 3 (Shrove Thursday) and Tuesday, March 8 (Mardi Gras).

Here is a short list of some of this year’s free Carnival events. You can find more on the city’s official Web site.

Saturday, February 19: The Great “Brindisi
Piazaetta San Marco
7 p.m. – 8 p.m.

This is a joyful and elegant “toast” (“brindisi”) that offers the Venetians and tourists an opportunity to officially welcome in the Carnival. The festival will open with dances in San Marco Square, to the tune of the most famous Brindiam.

Sunday, February 20: Feast of the Venetians
Grand Canal and Cannargeio
10 a.m.

On Sunday, February 20 at 10:00 a.m. on the Grand Canal and around the Cannaregio district the “Feast of all Venetians,” dedicated to the citizens and visitors of the city, takes place. Rowing associations will perform a water parade from San Marco and will row along the Grand Canal until they reach the Cannaregio district.

Once in Cannaregio, they swish past the crowds lining the banks, waiting for the now famous “Flight of the Venetian Rat.” Upon their arrival, the wine and food booths open, dishing up and pouring out Carnival treats, such as the Venetian fritole, Galani and the beloved cicheti.

Saturday, February 26 and Tuesday, March 8: Feast of Marie
Various locations and times

On Saturday, February 26 the Feast of Marie departs at 2 p.m. from San Pietro di Castello, arriving in Piazza San Marco at about 4 p.m. On Tuesday, March 8 the water procession departs from St. James Gold at 3:30 p.m. and arrives at 5 p.m. in Piazza San Marco for an awards ceremony.

The event, called the “Festa delle Marie,” recalls the annual tribute that the Doge presented to 12 beautiful and humble Venetian maidens, awarding them with a generous dowry. The festival is a great opportunity to take in the traditional Venetian costumes.

Sunday, February 27: The Flight of the Angel
Piazza San Marco

The “Flight of the Angel” is an exciting “flight” of a secret guest of the city (usually a celebrity) from the top of
the bell tower in Piazza San Marco to the center of the square. The guest, or rather the “angel,” wears a beautiful costume with a special Carnival theme.

Saturday, February 26 to Tuesday, March 8: Shows in the Grand Foyer of San Marco
Grand Foyer, Piazza San Marco
2 p.m. – nighttime

The Grand Foyer of San Marco will host the festival’s “main stage.” Among the not-to-be-missed events offered are live music concerts hosted by DJs and radio stars, a circus with international artists, parades and comedians. The space will also host the festival’s famous dances every evening starting at 8 p.m. Don’t miss the grand finale on March 8: the Feast of Women and Mardi Gras.

Other events

Throughout the Carnival, from February 26 to March 8, you will be able to catch other events, such as performances in many of the city’s major squares by the commedia dell’arte. Additionally, costumed guides will lead city tours, and churches will be open late into the evening, many with classical concerts on offer.

Tuesday, March 8: Closing Night: The Rowing of the Silence
Grand Canal

Don’t forget about the “Rowing of the Silence,” the event that closes the festival on Tuesday, March 8, at midnight. The Carnival’s big finale features a long procession of gondolas and rowing boats that travel the Grand Canal from Rialto to the Basin San Marco, following the sounds of a trumpet crying out from the first boat.

Along the way, the Grand Canal will be lit by candles and lanterns, recreating a subdued 19th-century atmosphere. Upon arrival in St. Mark’s Basin hundreds of bright balloons will be released into the air, signaling the end of the Carnival, and the metaphorical entrance into Lent.

I hope you’ll be able to take part at this year’s Carnival. Remember, you don’t need to shell out a fortune to have a blast!

About the author

Monica Cesarato

About the author: Monica Cesarato blogs about life in Venice and the Italian lifestyle at, and offers tours and Italian cooking classes through

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