The Carnival revels take many forms in Italy, from Venice’s elegant masks to Viareggio’s gigantic floats. To help you make the most of the merrymaking season, we have picked some of the best festivals you absolutely should not miss.

The good thing about living in Italy is that you go from one holiday to another nearly seamlessly. Just as the Christmas season drew to a close in early January another one started—Carnival, the time of merrymaking.

Both Carnival’s name and history are somewhat unclear. Its roots lie deep in pre-Catholic Rome and the subversive revelries of Saturnalia, where slaves and masters exchanged places. Today “Carnevale” is an annual celebration of life that takes place all over the world. However, the word “Carnevale” probably originated in Venice, and although discussions are rife over the original meaning, it may have meant “goodbye, meat!” (a corruption of the Latin “carnem levare”). Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a period of fast and prayer. So the days leading up to Lent became a time of enjoyment before the penitence, the perfect way to use up meat, eggs and butter and celebrate life with masked balls, music and festival activity.

Venice, with its triumph of rich costumes topped by hieratic masks, is of course the queen of the Italian revels, and a trip there is de rigueur, at least once in a lifetime, to plunge into the crowded, colourful, clangorous chaos of Piazza San Marco, admire a Baroque dame and her tricorned gallant sipping coffee at the dainty tables of the expensive Café Florian, or see the stark white masks and dark cloaks of three baute costumes (and their wearers) emerge like wraiths from the mist of a quiet side street late at night.

Carnevale di Courmayeur
Children Parties of Courmayeur

But there is more to Italian Carnival than Venice. Events take place throughout the country—from the snowy children parties of Courmayeur, in the Aosta valley, to the parade of Tricarico, Basilicata. And though these events can’t quite rival with Venice’s magic and sophistication, they bring something else to the Carnival party—reminiscences of popular rebellion against a tyrant in Ivrea’s battle of the oranges; an ancient dance to get rid of evil spirits in Mamoiada; or the bizarre but clever custom of Putignano’s revellers, who donate a candle to the Church on Boxing Day to ask pardon for their Carnival sins before having committed them.

All Italophiles should make a point to visit at least one of these places during Carnival celebrations and enjoy Italy at one of its most animated times of the year. They are all very different from one another, but all worth a trip. Below you can find more information regarding some of the main special Carnival celebrations Italy has to offer.

Venice

Valle d'Aosta

Tricarico

Ivrea

Viareggio

Mamoiada

Putignano