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The 11 best events in Venice

From the Venice Biennale to Carnevale, see the City of Canals come to life at the best festivals and events in Venice

Written by
Jess Simpson
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They know how to throw a party in Venice, make no mistake about that. The best events in Venice are a celebration of this magnificent place, with more than 30 million visitors making their way to the Serene Republic annually to take part in the fun. What are the highlights? Well, there seems to be something big going on every month here, but it is difficult to look past the iconic Carnevale (late February) and the fabulous Venice Biennale. In a world full of spectacular events, those two take some beating.

There is plenty more on the calendar, and Venice serves up a real ‘something for everyone’ atmosphere with its events. There’s nowhere quite like Venice, after all, and there’s no party quite like a Venice party.

Best events in Venice

For two weeks leading to Shrove Tuesday (Martedi Grassor Mardi Gras), the city is aglow with pageantry and the spectacle of Carnival. Many events centre on St. Mark’s Square, such as the highly-anticipated “Flight of the Angel” (Volo dell’Angelo), which sends a young beauty flying overhead via zip line, but celebration can be found in every neighbourhood and nook. Colourful parades on water and land, regatta boat races, kids’ fairs and free live performances keep the city abuzz, especially during weekends, but the ultimate Carnivale experience is attending a masquerade ball. Many are private and invitation-only, while others are ticketed affairs like the famously extravagant and expensive official ball held at Ca’ Vendramin Calergi on the Grand Canal. Hotels and guest houses can help arrange event tickets, costume rentals and photography sessions. Sign up for locally-led mask-making workshops for insight into the centuries-old tradition and a truly meaningful souvenir – your one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted Venetian mask.

Founded in 1895, the mighty Venice Biennale presents world-famous exhibitions dedicated to contemporary art, architecture, dance, film and theatre. The International Art Exhibition is one of the world’s most prestigious forums for contemporary art. From mid-May to November, biennially on odd years, the festival beckons artists, curators, collectors and curious travellers to experience visionary works unified by a common theme. The exhibition’s six-month duration and footprint – with two official areas in the former Arsenale shipyard and Giardini gardens, as well as complimentary events all over the city – make for a surprisingly accessible and relaxed experience.

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Veneto Jazz

The ambitious Veneto Jazz organization programs live performances and events throughout Italy’s Veneto region during two annual sessions, winter from January through April and summer, from June through August. Events include a Venice-centric Jazz Festival in July, as well as concerts staged in famed Venetian villas along the Brenta Riviera, including Villa Pisani in Stra. From superstar, boundary-pushing artists like Gilberto Gil and Patti Smith to rising stars, the roster always offers a mix of international and local talent and traditional jazz and beyond. Don’t miss the opportunity to see a live performance in Venice’s historic Teatro la Fenice or Chiesa della Pieta, both extraordinary venues.

Venice International Film Festival

The Venice International Film Festival is the oldest and one of the most influential celebrations of cinema in the world. For more than 75 years, the festival has shaped and showcased the industry, attracting movie stars (think Robert Redford, Jennifer Lawrence and Matt Damon), film moguls and fans to Venice’s Lido island. For 11 days in late summer, a red carpet is unfurled in characteristically Venetian fashion, exuding glamour in a relaxed and casual manner. While mainstream movies are usually the focus, international and art films, documentaries and virtual reality works are also featured. Individual screening tickets or subscription passes are usually available and surprisingly affordable. Even at its celebrity and people-watching peak during A-list screenings and events, a passion for the art of cinema shines through the event.

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Su e Zo per I Ponti

On a Sunday in spring, locals and visitors, young and old, join together to march around Venice, weaving through historical sights and into less travelled areas. Choose between routes, including the long option beginning in St. Mark’s Square and travelling for 15.5 kilometres, up and over 42 bridges or a shorter route beginning at Santa Lucia Railway Station and venturing 6 kilometres over 20 bridges. Along the way, expect to find folk musicians and entertainers in neighbourhood squares (campi), ample refreshment and a spirit of community and camaraderie.

Every October, one of the running world’s most famous and scenic events welcomes 8,000 runners to experience the city from a wholly unique perspective. Participants set off from historic Villa Pisani, 25 km west of Venice, to tackle a flat and fast course along the beautiful riverside area known as “Riviera del Brenta,” passing 18th-century Venetian villas before winding through San Giuliano Park in Mestre and, finally, setting foot in historic Venice. Once on the island, runners dramatically cross the Grand Canal via a temporary pontoon bridge to the waterfront near St. Mark’s Square. For those not ready to tackle a full marathon, there’s also a 10k event, starting in San Giuliano Park on the same day, along with a scenic Moonlight Half Marathon in May.

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Festa della Sensa

Venetians celebrate the city’s inextricable bond and coexistence with water every year by staging a historically-infused, symbolic wedding ceremony between the city and the sea. The father of Venice (once the doge; today, the mayor), in a majestic parade boat, leads a colourful procession of rowers into St. Mark’s Basin, where a ceremonial ring is tossed into the sea to mark the union. Venice rowing associations are joined in the procession by contemporaries from towns along the Adriatic, once part of the mighty Venetian empire, followed by a series of highly-anticipated regattas, including a women’s race on boats and men’s four-oared gondola race. Traditional markets, period-clad entertainers and trumpeters add to the festive spirit of this day-long celebration.

Often described as a celebration of “oar over the engine,” for more than forty years, this spring-time event has raised awareness about the adverse impacts of motor traffic on the Venetian lagoon. What began as a protest has blossomed into one of Venice’s most unique and beloved festivities, bringing together nearly 7,000 rowers in over 1,700 non-motorised boats of every size and shape. Boats set off from the Doge’s Palace to row a 30-kilometre circuit through the lagoon with cheering crowds lining canals and bridges nearly every paddle along the way. From the ceremonial lifting of the oars to the very last stroke, the feeling of reclaiming the lagoon is palpable for rowers and onlookers alike.

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This creative extravaganza on Venice’s cultural calendar shines a much-deserved spotlight on the island’s emerging artisans and art spaces. On a summer evening in June, Venice Art Night is an initiative shepherded by Ca’Foscari University that encourages galleries, museums, shops and collectives to showcase and illuminate local, creative talent. Doors stay open late, free tours and exhibitions are featured, and creativity spills into local squares (campi) with artists and entertainers on display and digital art projections illuminating some of the city’s most striking historic structures. Young, modern Venice shines in glimmering light on this evening.

Festa del Redentore (Holiday of the Redeemer)

This most revered of Venetian traditions is rooted in the 16th century, when Palladio was commissioned to build a church on the island of Giudecca to commemorate and give thanks for the ending of a devastating plague. Once a year, on the third weekend of July, the island and church of Il Rendentore are connected to Venice’s Zattere via a temporary bridge and locals of all ages and backgrounds make a 1,000-foot pilgrimage across it. On Saturday night, friends and family gather on colourfully decorated boats in the lagoon or along the fondamenta and in Sant’Elena, with each party enjoying their own, often-elaborate picnic dinner. Everyone waits in anticipation for the city’s most impressive fireworks celebration, beginning at 11:30pm. On Sunday, following pilgrimage and mass, races become the focus, with boats and rowers filling the lagoon with good-natured competition and revelry.

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The first Sunday in September marks an event so historic and beloved that the mere mention of Regata Storica brings mist to the eyes of Venetians across generations. Rowers donning 16th-century costumes glide in a procession of historic and ornate boats to launch a day packed with races and excitement. Events include a women’s regatta and young rower’s race in agile boats known as pupparini, leading to the highly-anticipated championship regatta in two-man gondolini, originally designed and built specifically for this race. Everyone has a favourite, and cheers are enthusiastic as competitors speed toward the floating stage in front of Ca’ Foscari Palace on the Grand Canal. Find a viewpoint, pick a boat and join in on the cheering.

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