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Carnival in Venice is one of the most iconic events in Italy that takes place in the weeks leading up to Lent, with the main celebrations occurring in the ten days before Ash Wednesday. The Carnival has a rich history dating back to the 12th century when it was initially held to celebrate a victory in battle. Today, the festival is celebrated for its elaborate costumes, masks, and festivities.
Having already been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio De Janeiro in past years I always wanted to tick Carnival in Venice off the bucket list, and thus completing my triple crown of the wildest parties.
Getting to the Carnival of Venice
For 70K Aeroplan points (~$100 in taxes and fees) I flew business class on TAP Portugal from Toronto to Venice, via Lisbon: YYZ-LIS-VCE. For the YYZ – LIS segment, I was seated in 2B, a “Throne Seat”. The seat was spacious though the bed was a bit tight especially at the legs when it rolled out compared to other lie flat beds in business class I’ve slept in.
I love to try new spirits when travelling, and this flight had a few choices on the menu I haven’t had before. I tried The Licor Beorao and Sour Cherry Liqueur, Rumar Old Brandy and Madeira Wine. For my main course, I went with the Sea Bass with Putanesca Sauce and it complemented well with the white wines on offer. Of note, TAP Portugal does allow passengers to pre-book meals ahead of time (like Air Canada does now, on select routes)
Overall the flight and food were okay (7/10). The lack of Portuguese drinks in premium cabin, the poor boarding experience, average breakfast, and a 3 hour late arrival were the reasons for the average score. Tip: Passengers in LIS Airport need a bus to get from the plane to the airport so give yourself at least an hour from the time you land to the time you clear immigration.
My next leg from Lisbon to Venice was on a traditional EU business class with an empty middle seat for business class. An unremarkable but comfortable ride got me into Venice!
Hotels during Carnival of Venice
For my 5 night stay in Venice I opted for pocket friendly convenience over opulence, and stayed at The Best Western Hotel Olimpia (HO). A great location, the hotel was a 10 minute walk from the train station and a 30 minute scenic walk through the streets and bridges of Venice to St Mark’s Square.
With discounted gift cards bought during Christmas, I got a 25% discount for the 5 nights which cost €421 or €84.15 a night (or $122 CAD). Better yet, I charged my hotel expenses on the Scotiabank Amex Gold card and applied my Scene+ points toward the hotel charges to make this stay a $0 out-of-pocket expense.
Carnival of Venice – The Experience
The Carnival let’s people escape from the everyday routine and let their imaginations run wild. The masks are an essential part of the Carnival and add an air of mystery and intrigue to the festivities. The masks were initially worn to hide the identity of people from different social classes who mingled during the Carnival. Today, they are worn as a symbol of the festival and a way to add to the atmosphere of the event.
St. Mark’s Square is the place to be during the Carnival, where you’ll see the famous Venetian costumes that make Carnival so famous. Everyone is more than happy to pose for a picture though please remember good etiquette and manners and ask first and wait for your turn to take your photo. There are many dressed up around the square and some costumes are so intricate and detailed they will leave you amazed.
You can’t be at the Carnival and not have a mask or two, and an average one will cost €15-20 but there are ones that can cost upwards of €150-200 as well. All depends on if you want yours made in China or elsewhere.
St Mark’s Basilica, the Campanile Tower (for a panoramic view of the city) and Doges Palace are a must. The line up to get into the Basilica can take up to an hour. I stood in the line and watched some amazing costumes walk by during my time in line.
Carnival of Venice – Masquerade ball
This WILL be pricey. A good ball in Venice during carnival will cost you €300-500 min. and that does not include the historical costume rental. That’s another €150-300 plus there is a delivery and pick up fee to your hotel (unless you pick it up and drop it off ) and some Atelliers (Costume shops) also charge a dry cleaning fee. So set aside €500-1,000 per person for the ball experience. I gather those that do these balls are people who have their own costumes so they save close to half the fee that way. So another way to reduce the cost is to pack your own historical costume.
There is an after party ticket you can get for around €200 that starts at 11pm however even with this you do need to wear an historical costume to attend. I went to a Cabaret Show and dinner, and a costume rental and open bar was €250 all in. It is about a €20 Taxi ride away from the main bus station. You can take a bus but the 4-hour party ends after the bus service ends. So add on another €60 to get there and back.
Other Venice attractions
The Gallerie dell’Accademia is the main art museum in Venice and their prized possession is the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci. If you’ve seen The Da Vinci code you are familiar with this work. However, and this is why I would not recommend this museum, due to the fragile nature of the piece (exposure to light) it’s only displayed for a few weeks every 5 years. The other works of art in there were okay, though not the same caliber as the Uffizi in Florence or the Vatican Museum in Rome.
Any tourist guide will say you have to ride a Gondala when in Venice, but travelling solo for this trip and at €80 for under an hour ride I found that a bit steep. Plus if you want the Gondala man to sing that’s extra. Instead, I purchased for €25 an all-day pass for the ferries and rode of them for more than half the day exploring the city. One place to visit by ferry is Lido, where the Venice Film Festival is held in August-September. It happens right before the Toronto Film Festival on the “film festival” circuit. While I would say don’t leave Venice without exploring the city by boat, I found it is best explored by foot. Again this is February, so pack your winter jacket as the boat ride can get cold if you choose to stand outside versus the heated inside of the cabin.
Carnival in Venice vs Rio & New Orleans
Having been to all three now I will say that each festival is unique in its own way. Mardi Gras is New Orleans is much more “crazier” and definitely not family friendly with all the beads, booze and boobs in the French Quarter.
While Rio is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, I found that during carnival the police presence in Rio is elevated and highly visible so it is much safer for tourists. Attending a float parade at Maracanã stadium was the highlight of that festival. It reminded me of the Caribbean Festival (AKA Caribana Festival) in Toronto in August.
I found Venice to be a lot more family friendly and there is definitely more history in Venice and more things to see if you are a history buff. After all Venice, the city itself, is a UNESCO heritage site. Though Venice is also the most expensive of the three when you factor in the masquerade ball.
If you are travelling with family and small kids Venice is easily #1, but if you are single and going with a few single friends you should check out New Orleans. Rio is also worth a visit, but if you are travelling that far make sure to book a stop-over trip and check out another place in South America (like the Galapagos in Ecuador or Easter Island in Chile), or explore more of Brazil.
If you have any questions about the Carnival in Venice, please share below and I will try my best to answer it. Lookout for a follow up post highlighting my experience with fine dining in Venice and Vienna!