Carnival in Rome: essential guide for visitors!

by marta
Sunset on piazza del popolo

All you need to know for celebrating Carnival in Rome: when it is, what to expect and what to eat!

If you are traveling to Rome in February, chances are you are going to be in the city for Carnival.

Italy is famous for carnival celebrations, Venice and Viareggio being the two most famous cities for carnival events.

Rome, on the other hand, is not a carnival hot spot if what you have in mind are big parades and masquerade balls. However, this doesn’t mean carnival doesn’t happen in Rome.

All it means is that the city does carnival in a more understated way. Carnival in Rome is very much a kids’ festivity and grown-ups usually partake in it tucking into Rome’s amazing carnival food rather than sporting elaborate costumes.

I know the carnival in Rome well. As well as having spent most of my life in the city, I am a February baby and this means carnival has always been ‘my festivity’, the one that gave an extra special taste and look to my childhood birthday parties!

In this quick guide, I share what you need to know about visiting Rome in the carnival season.

When is Carnival in Rome?

The exact dates of Rome carnival change every year and depend on the date of Easter Sunday.

Carnival happens the week before Ash Wednesday and in 2020 this means carnival week in Rome is between Thursday the 20th (Fat Thursday, Giovedi’ Grasso) and Tuesday 25th February (Mardi Gras, Martedi’ Grasso).

Does Carnival affect your trip to Rome?

If you are in Rome in February, you are likely to encounter some of the carnival festivities however, Carnival doesn’t impact much on visitors’ plans.

Carnival does not affect the opening hours of Rome’s main attractions and it also doesn’ usually cause problems with traffic or transport.

However, what can happen over Carnival is a higher number of visitors to Rome, often visited before or after the celebrations in Venice.

As well as foreigners, you are likely to have more Italians out and about, making the most of the city’s events of the season and eating out.

Because of this, I do recommend you book your accommodation in advance. If you are looking for a hotel or apartment, I recommend you look at our guide to the best places to stay in Rome here.

What to pack for Rome at Carnival

Unless you are invited to a fancy dress party in Rome, you don’t need any special gear for carnival in Rome and only need to dress for the season.

February/March are transition months in Rome and your best bet is to pack for changeable weather and dressing in layers.

In February, you are likely to have warm enough hours in the middle of the day and colder evenings. Rain is possible and a winter coat a must.

You can find here my full packing lists for Rome in winter and Rome in spring: depending on the year and climate patterns, February in Rome can fall into either season!

A quick history of Carnival in Rome

The tradition of carnival has ancient origins (source here, in Italian).

History tells us that the first mention of carnival in Rome as such dates back to the XII century, under the name ludus carnevalarii, when the Pope would ride across the city celebrating propitiatory rituals

The event was special and unusual and to mark it, local families would partake in duels, tournaments and celebrations that attracted visitors and public from within the city limits and beyond.

Over the course of the centuries, these original gatherings grew in popularity and importance in the Renaissance, Rome started celebrating carnival big time, with parades and tournaments taking over the area of via del Corso and Piazza del Popolo for days at a time.

As time went, the carnival started attracting visitors not just from Italy but the rest of Europe too and several artists still in 1700/1800 celebrated the debauchery and incredible energy of the Rome carnival in literature and figurative arts.

However, the carnival wasn’t meant to survive until now. After the Unification of Italy, the messy carnival celebrations started to be considered too dangerous and disorderly and slowly came to an end.

In Rome, nowadays, despite some interesting events, the carnival is very much a festivity for kids and not much else.

How does Rome celebrate carnival

Despite lacking big parades and events, there are a couple of special things that happen in Rome this time of the year only.

Time to dress up

Traditionally carnival is the time of the year for dressing up and this is very much the aspect of carnival you will notice more than any other if visiting Rome at this time.

Taking a stroll in the city center, you are likely to meet many kids dressed up in the various types of costumes, usually throwings clouds of confetti following their steps like petals following a bride!

Dressing up is not for kids only, however, it is not that common for adults. If you want to dress up yourself, you may be better off looking for local events and fancy dress parties rather than taking the streets in an elaborate costume.

No one will stop you if you do, but you will in for a bit of a let down if you are expecting masks and costume Venice-style.

Time to eat frappe and castagnole

The other big way to celebrate carnival in Rome is partaking of Rome’s carnival food.

From the beginning of February, bakery and deli shops start offering seasonal treats and I can tell you, they are a delight! Among the most famous, there are:

Frappe (aka chiacchiere, o cenci as they are called in other parts of Italy): strips of dough, fried or oven-baked and then dusted with icing sugar

Castagnole, another fried delicacy, in this case, small balls of dough usually dusted with icing sugar or honey

Bigne’ di San Giuseppe, soft balls of dough filled with custard cream

Indeed, you do not come to Rome at carnival to be on a diet!!

All these food are sold in bakeries, deli shops and pasticcerie and you are unlikely to find them in restaurants on the dessert menu.

To partake of them, go to the local forno (bakery) or bar and ask for one to go with your coffee or order a little tray to bring home as a Sunday treat like locals do!

Rome Carnival food: frappe and bigne di San Giuseppe

Rome carnival with kids

Carnival in Rome is fun for kids. This is the time of the year when Italian children traditionally dress up and while Halloween is slowly becoming popular, Carnival is still the time to go absolutely wild with your fancy dresses!

There is no special theme for carnival marks: while Italy and Rome, in particular, have some traditional costumes such as Rugantino and Meo Patacca, the kids don’t know and don’t care about them.

Truly, you will see many more Elsas than Arlequins!

As well as dressing up, kids usually celebrate carnival with confetti and ‘stelle filanti’, colorful paper dots and stipes that kids throw at each other and anything they encounter and end up like a colorful carpet on the streets.

They are sold for less than a Euro in supermarkets and tabacchi shops.

If you are visiting Rome with kids at carnival, I highly recommend you bring a costume for them and bring them to a park and playground: it will be a wonderful opportunity to meet local kids!

Rome carnival events for kids and adults

Rome celebrates carnival week with a series of events and exceptional opening on museums.

You can find the whole list of events here (most in Italian however, due to the nature of some of them, they can be fun for non-Italians speakers too).

Some of the events of notice in Rome ar Carnival 2020 are:

Free Museums

On Mardi Gras (25th February 2020) many Rome museums are free. The initiative is called ‘Carnevale in Citta” (= Carnival in the City) and involves all the museums of the Rome municipality with the exception of some temporary exhibitions. You can find the list of the museums involved in the initiative here

Please note that main Rome attractions such as the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums do not partake in this offer.

Music and theater

The Carnival weekend sees several opportunities to listen to live music in Rome.

On Saturday 22 and Sunday 23rd, the Foro Italico will host a parade with music and dance in the free area of the 6 Nations Village, part of the event ‘La Tarantella del Carnevale, which will also continue the day after at the Rome Auditorium. These large events include concerts, musical events and guided tours both inside and outside the auditorium and special events for kids.

On Sunday 23rd, the band of the local Police will entertain grown-ups and kids in Villa Torlonia, one of our favorite parks in Rome, which transforms for the occasion into an extravaganza of music and cheer. Kids are particularly welcome at this event and are encouraged to dress up.

Teatro India offers special carnival events for kids, including a wonderful workshop to make your own costume with the help of professional costume designers from the theater itself! This event is in Italian but the nature of it can make it a fun cultural immersion experience.

The San Carlino Theater, the puppet theater inside wonderful Villa Borghese, has a special show of ‘The Carnival of the aminals’ just for carnival. This is a lovely thing to do in Rome with kids and a great addition to an afternoon in the park one of the biggest and most beautiful in Rome.

Other kids events at carnival in Rome

  • 25th February: Mask making workshops at the Casina delle Civette in Villa Torlonia, Via Nomentana. Info here
  • Carnival at the zoo: dress up as your favorite animal and go to the Zoo for a special guided tour just for kids. Info here
  • Carnival at LunEur: Rome’s Luna Park (Theme park with rollercoasters etc) celebrates carnival with a massive ‘confetti battle’ for kids. Info here.

I hope you enjoyed this quick overview of the carnival in Rome. Safe travels!

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