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Elaborate costumes and an explosion of color accompany the Carnevale season in Italy. It is the perfect accompaniment to an already fashion-forward and vibrant landscape of friendly people, delicious food, and dramatic scenery.
Our family’s trek to Italy’s six most iconic Carnival locations lasted over a month. Both of my boys earned their road trip stripes as we traveled by rental car from Italy’s northern Veneto region all the way down to Salento and even over to the island of Sicily.
What Is Carnevale?
Throughout history, celebrations across various cultural groups have coincided with the changes of the seasons. Some believe that the ancient origins of Carnevale date back to the earliest traditions of marking the end of winter and welcoming the warmer spring weather.
In Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, participants honored the gods Bacchus and Saturn respectfully with jovial expressions of pleasure and freedom – which is similar to how the festival is celebrated today.
Over the centuries, Carnevale’s beginnings as a pagan ritual have metamorphosed into a worldwide family-friendly party with established Catholic roots.
The Catholic adaptation of Carnevale proposed a period of merry enjoyment (often in excess) prior to entering the restrictions of Lent – a forty-day period of penitence forbidding parties, rich-tasting foods, and beverages amongst other religious restrictions. This stretch of time coincides with Jesus’ sacrifice during a 40-day withdrawal into the desert marked by spiritual testing and temptation.
During the 15th century, the Renaissance period, the masquerade ball was introduced by none other than Pope Paul II. The Commedia dell’Arte, Italy’s popular theater, instantly approved and provided the stage for some of Italy’s most well-known characters.
When Is Carnevale Celebrated?
Carnevale is officially celebrated on Fat Tuesday – and although the date changes every year (because it is related to Easter and Lent) it will always be on a Tuesday. However, colorful parades, decorative parties, live folk music, and exquisite foods liven up the piazzas (town centers) and surrounding streets in townships and cities all across the Italian landscape for a couple of weeks leading up to the beginning of Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday.
Best Place To Celebrate Carnevale In Italy
Carnevale celebrations can be enjoyed in even the smallest, most forgotten towns and villages throughout Italy; however, don’t miss the country’s most popular Carnevale destinations.
Our flight landed at Marco Polo International Airport, so for us, it only made sense to begin our Carnival celebrations in Venice. The plan from that point was to head south by car taking in the best Carnival locations in the country.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival festivities in San Diego’s Gaslamp District have definitely made a name for themselves in America; however, Venice is undisputedly one of the world’s most famous hosts during the Carnival season.
My family and I arrived in Venice just the day prior to one of the city’s most iconic events, ‘Il Volo Dell’Angelo,’ or the ‘Flight Of The Angel.” This traditional event dates back to Venice’s glory days as a trading empire when local residents expressed their gratitude to the Duke of the Venetian Republic.
Carnevale’s festivities in Venice set off the second week of February and culminate just before Shrove Tuesday the following month.
Throughout the festivities, each sestiere, or quarter, of this magnificent city is known to orchestrate their own particular competitions. These balls and shows can only evoke emotion, fantasy, wonder in the hearts and minds of your kids.
You’ll definitely want to see what’s scheduled before you go and while San Marco Square is the definitive centerpoint for Venice’s Carnevale, your family should plan on heading over to the Cannareggio district for their popular children’s events.
My family decided that instead of merely being spectators, we would all dress up and become actors participating in the festive atmosphere.
Depending on your preferences, you may be happy enough purchasing a cheap mask from any number of vendors, but I’d have to say one of the best investments we made during our holiday was booking a family workshop at Ca’ Macana, a renowned handcraft store specializing in the history and art of creating Venetian masks.
Historically, the masks and ornamental displays most characteristic of Carnevale gave people a voice and a platform to speak up against social and political issues.
Although my wife and I had to pick up gazillions of feathers and decorative rhinestones that our youngest thought looked better on the floor, our oldest son was extremely focused on our instructor and ended up creating his own beautiful rendition of a Bauta mask.
Since we knew we wanted to splurge on masks, we purchased a few yards of material and asked my mother-in-law, a professional seamstress, to put together our own traditional long hooded capes before our flight to Italy. When it came time to attend the highly acclaimed and synchronously choreographed water parade – the Fabiano family was ready.
Throughout the week that we spent in Venice during Carnevale, my boys chased after pigeons as I did some twenty-five years prior in San Marco Square, ice-skated in Piazza Mercato, marveled at dynamic street-art performances, watched numerous plays, skirted through busy art museum corridors, and ended our wonderful time with the closing fireworks ceremony.
Throughout this period, the elements of mystery, love, art, and intrigue pervade every square inch of the floating city.
Where To Stay In Venice
When in Venice, I can almost guarantee you and your family will be out for most of the day, especially during the world-famous Carnevale celebrations; however, when the night falls you will be more than excited to return to a comfortable spot such as Ca’ Due Leoni – a quaint Venetian hotel with a beautiful indoor garden for some peace and quiet.
Off the toe of Italy’s boot, you’ll find the island of Sicily. And there, along the coast, at the base of Mt. Etna (one of Italy’s three active volcanoes), lies the town of Acireale where Carnevale is celebrated along its city streets with elaborate masks and intricately-designed floats.
We began our exploration of the city a lot calmer and slower than our Venetian expedition. Each one of our Carnival stops along our month-long trip seemed to get easier and easier.
The recently inaugurated Carnival Museum is an absolute gemstone. While my boys were amused by the miniature floats on display, my wife and I enjoyed learning Sicilian history while exploring how their magnificent Carnevale floats are designed and processed.
Acireale’s colorful parade includes a collection of allegorical floats constructed months in advance from the timeless art of papier-mache. Look out for the flowered floats as well – they are complete with movement and lighting, both features that were first introduced in the year 1931.
But be warned, especially if you have young eyes and ears, that you’ll want to practice coming up with some funny alternative descriptions for the various characters your children may see. My youngest was not talking at the time, but my oldest was at the height of the infamous Why? Why? Why? question phase at four years of age (but trust me he still asks tons of questions). I love the fact that he is so inquisitive but trying to explain satirical allegory to a child who does not give up easily (until he is satisfied with the answer) is not an easy feat, though comical.
There aren’t words simple enough to explain that artists use satirical allegory in the form of humor, irony, or some form of exaggeration as hidden messages to provoke social change. For instance, this year’s Carnival floats included masterful pieces that touched on issues such as social inequality, racism, cultural stagnation, unfair labor law, high taxes, and even the CoVid pandemic.
While you’re in the area, a memorable visit to the Opera dei Pupi Turi Grasso is definitely worth it. The museum annex was amazing to walk through before taking in a show with our kiddos.
Where To Eat In Acireale
Where To Stay In Acireale
We had the pleasure of staying at an 18th-century country house used as a vacation home with a beautiful garden, lemon orchard, incredible views of Etna, and just steps from the sea. If you’d like to rent your own little villa, check out the map below and click on the rentals you’d like to explore.
The northwestern town of Ivrea puts on one of the most nostalgic and biggest celebrations of Carnevale in all of Italy. Reminiscent of medieval times, the infamous Battle of the Oranges is a three-day event symbolizing the people’s revolt against the tyranny of the Napoleonic troops.
More specifically, legend has it that the origins of the orange battle date back to when one brave lady, Violetta, finally stood up against Conte Ranieri di Biandrate- a ruthless leader who thought he could spend the first night with every new bride the city had. The courage of one brave and soon-to-be married Violetta to stop all the madness by beheading the Conte by his own sword sparked a rebellion that had been brewing amongst local residents since the onset of tyrannical depression.
This magnificent reenactment which plays out for three days consists of nine teams that represent the people revolting against the Napoleonic troops. The Aranceri, or orange-throwers, parade the city on horse-drawn carts representing the armies. The citrusy-affair is a mix of enthusiasm, and competition that leaves the streets covered in orange mush.
On the last day of Carnevale, the historical parade reaches its climax with songs and cheer as Violetta, the legendary miller’s daughter, passes through town throwing “sweets, chocolates, mimosas and buttercups to the crowd,” symbolizing solidarity and freedom.
Where To Stay In Ivrea
B&B Cascina Moncrava is the best place to stay with kids in Ivrea. Everything about this place from its 18th-century charm, large garden, and delicious breakfast exudes rest and relaxation with the opportunity to rent a bike or book a local tour with the owners or just take a family stroll out to the nearby lake.
The southern region of Puglia is known for its dramatic coastline, exquisite food, art, and family-friendly atmosphere. Add textile manufacturing, papier mache, karst caves, and the longest Carnevale celebration in the country to the list, and let’s call it a wrap.
DON’T MISS! Best Family Beaches in Salento, Italy
The Farinella is the official mask representing the Putignano Carnival. The mask resembles a joker complemented by a multi-color patch-style costume and topped off with a two-pointed hat with rattles. The character represents happiness and fun.
Beginning the day after Christmas, the Carnevale of Putignano revels in festivities every Thursday leading up to January 17, the Catholic feast of Sant’Antonio Abate (St. Anthony the Abbott). From that day forward, artists, culinary masters, live musicians, and other local contributors kick it up a notch. The parades, feasts, competitions, plays, and other sources of cultural entertainment become daily occurrences until La Campana Dei Maccheroni – an ancient rite where the town’s mother church sounds their bells 365 times (one for each day of the year) signaling the end of the feasts and welcoming a time of penance.
After Carnival is over, stick around and take in some of the other great attractions that Putignano has to offer. My boys love caves, so we absolutely had to visit the Grotta del Trullo, a beautiful cave of stalagmites and stalactites that is accessed by a winding staircase from inside a trullo (a dry-stone house with vaulted ceiling that is typical of the Apulian landscape).
If your kids would like to learn more about the traditions of papier-mache, then a trip to Il Museo Diffuso Carnevale Di Putignano is totally worth it. And after filling up on farinella, the traditional chickpea and barley flatbread, and other local delicacies for days on end, you may want to move your body to work it off – I recommend checking out the Puglia Hiking Tours and set off on an exhilarating trek by foot or bicycle.
Where To Stay In Putignano
I bet you don’t know anyone who has ever stayed in a traditional Trullo. Book your family’s stay with Micaela at Trulli Terra Magica for an unforgettable culturally-rich experience to include a Trullo suite, a fresh quality breakfast, Mediterranean landscape, swimming pool, and amazing hospitality.
The Carnival of Cento has been historically documented since 1600; however, it was not until 1990, and by the help of one Ivano Manservisi, that it received international acclaim, becoming the first Carnevale worldwide to be “twinned” with the Rio de Janeiro Carnival.
This recognition inspired a cultural exchange between Italy and Brazil that continues to this day. Every year, Italian representatives participate in Rio’s famous Desfile das Campeas, The Parade of Champions, and Brazilian dancers flock to Cento’s streets filling the air with Samba beats.
Prior to the 1900s, the huge floats that paraded around Cento’s streets were displays of humor and irony depicting figures that represented socio-political and economic issues that laid heavy on the hearts of local residents. After Ivano’s revival, a more pure-hearted atmosphere took over the scene prompting the local citizens to create their own Carnevale figure, based on the goodness and people-centered consciousness of their king. This Tasi, named after the king, is the leading character of the huge parades that fill Cento’s Piazza Guercino for five consecutive Sundays during the Carnival season.
The Carnevale di Cento is truly unique in that it hosts Brazilian dancers and percussionists in addition to the town’s striking performances, stunning floats, great music, and animation. On the final Sunday, watch the winning parade float receive its recognition before the culminating events that include a pyromusical show and the infamous lighting of the bonfire of Tasi.
When your there, be sure to take a walk around the castle known as the Antica Rocca di Cento – yes, it seems like every town across Italy has one but this particularly well-preserved defensive structure from the 1300s speaks historical volumes as its rooms and halls are filled with evidence of past cardinals and kings, sultry affairs, ruthless robbers, and more.
Since both of my sons have had an appreciation for astronomy since they first recognized the moon by themselves, I decided to enrich our time in Cento by booking a session at Cento’s observatory. Observatory visits are free and always include explanations and small lessons adequately directed to the age of the audience.
Where To Stay Cento
When in Italy, staying at what is locally referred to as agriturismo is the best of both worlds. Agriturismo is just another marvelous Italian feat of combining agriculture to another business activity- in this case a hotel. Monteborre is an organic farm complete with a vineyard, groves, and ponds. There is also a large swimming pool on the property, a sauna, and the opportunity for you and your kids to learn more about the farm’s activities.
When I hear Tuscany, I begin to fantasize about rolling hills and good wine while listening to my favorite classical tenor, Andrea Bocelli. The Tuscan seaside town of Viareggio offers residents and visitors unforgettable beaches, gorgeous hiking trails, great museums, and even a marine research observation group that offers dolphin sightings.
If you haven’t already caught Viareggio’s biggest celebrations on international broadcast, then your family will be in for one huge surprise if you choose Tuscany as your Carnevale hotspot this year.
Burlamacco is the official mask of the Viareggio Carnival, depicting a clownlike figure and a feminine model named Ondina. While he represents fun and festivities, she is more characteristic of the coastline’s personality: fun, frivolous, and holiday-packed summers.
At some point during your stay, I highly recommend visiting Viareggio’s Carnival Museum and taking a peek around the Cittadella del Carnevale, a 16-warehouse complex where artists prepare their larger-than-life papier mache displays and house their past creations for people to admire.
When your kids ring the bell for breaktime, do what the Italians do and take a nice breezy walk along the seafront on Viareggio’s main partly-pedestrian street better known as La Passeggiata. Here you will find access to the various beaches, quaint little coffee shops, boutique shops, and outstanding dining options.
Day-Trips From Viareggio
If you stick around Viareggio for a few days, some great day trip opportunities that we took advantage of include visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa (30-minute drive), discovering the medieval town of Lucca (also just 30 minutes away), and even driving out about an hour-and-a-half to check out the Leonardo da Vinci Interactive Museum of Florence – one place your kids can actually touch things (total win!!).
Where To Stay In Viareggio
Hotel Lisa is just minutes from Viareggio’s acclaimed Passeggiata by foot complete with kid-friendly amenities such as games, rides, and bicycle rentals. Enjoy the garden and a delicious breakfast spread full of fresh fruits, good coffee, and traditional treats.
Which Carnival Celebration Is Right For You
It is definitely not an easy choice picking which city to experience Italian Carnevale with your children, especially because the most special events are so culturally entwined to its specific location.
That said, any of the six cities I have shared with you are kid-friendly destinations that offer plenty of fun and activities to enjoy beyond the colorful parades linked to ancient traditions of the carnival season.
My only advice would be to sit down as a family and discuss some of the activities I’ve included in the areas surrounding the major carnevale locations. Once you find a few points of interest that everyone can agree on then I would call that a match made in heaven (because we all know agreement is not in the books for families with more than one child).
Plan Your Budget Accordingly
The biggest expense will be international travel; however, don’t forget to consider accommodations, food, and the admission prices of various museums and tours. When in Italy, you will want to be especially mindful of price inflation during the high season. Although Carnevale is celebrated during the traditionally low season, don’t be surprised for prices to take a hike as businesses try to maximize their returns during the festivities.
I suggest you check online for vouchers and available discounts, and don’t forget to use your student, veteran, or other organizational benefits where applicable. And just to protect your pockets from spur-of-the-moment decisions, it would be best to have an itinerary planned before you go with a list of all the extra side trips your family can afford to explore.
Schedule Your Visit Ahead Of Time
It would be helpful to visit the official website for the particular Carnevale event you plan to explore with your family. The posted calendar of events will help you organize your day, making time to experience the city’s most special events, taking in other sites, and even scheduling time for kid-centered breaks and rest.
How To Maintain Your Joy Throughout Carnevale
Carnevale is a jovial and extremely fun time to roam the various quarters of some of the most beautiful Italian towns in the country. But remember that the celebrations include larger than normal crowds, plenty of noise, and distractions.
It’s likely that you and your significant other will be begging for a break before your kids do; just remember to reiterate the importance of staying close to each other before heading out for your day’s events. Also, you’re in Italy so take advantage of its infinite number of cafes serving heavenly gelateria throughout the day to give everyone an enjoyable break plus a jolt of renewed energy for walking around the city.
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