The Viareggio Carnival is one of the most famous festivals in Italy. And rightly so. Every year in February, this upmarket town on the Versilia coast puts on a carnival like nothing you’ve ever seen before, turning the town into a real factory of fun.

Viareggio is a popular seaside resort in Tuscany in the province of Lucca. During the Carnival, the famous Viareggio promenade, with its Liberty style buildings, becomes the setting for a dazzling spectacle. Huge colourful floats, often with satirical themes, make their way slowly down the road, accompanied by  music and plenty of people in fancy-dress. It’s fun, exuberant and a great chance to get involved with a bit of real Tuscan tradition.

viareggio carnival
photo @attilovaccaro on pixabay

Viareggio Carnival. A local tradition with global appeal

But these floats aren’t just there to amuse. Every year they take on themes are highly relevant, often satirical and almost always politically incorrect. Over the years they’ve included crazy, over-sized politician’s heads, Merkel with her legs spread, a wild-west style Donald Trump, Putin and Pope Francis. What’s more they’ve even tackled environmental issues.

The floats are like huge travelling theatres that comment on global issues. And it has a huge audience in Italy, shown on the Italian RAI TV and attended by VIPS and politicians. It’s very much part of Italian culture, and at the end of the carnival, a jury decides which float takes the cake.

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viareggio carnival
Viareggio Carnival – photo @aleperini on pixabay

The Burlamacco mask is the symbol of Viareggio Carnival. This character, created in the 1930’s by the hands of futurist artist Uberto Bonetti, represents a way of life for the people of Viareggio. He invites you not to take life too seriously, and to keep smiling even when things get tough.

When and where to see the Carnival parades

The Carnival period is before Lent (“Quaresima” – the 40 day period that precedes Easter) according to the Catholic calendar. It falls between the end of January and beginning of March, with 4 parades on the weekends plus one on Shove Tuesday –  the last day of Carnival.

In 2024, the dates are as follows: 3rd, 8th, 11th, 13th, 18th, 24th February.

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Ticket – you can buy tickets on line on the official site, or directly from the ticket booths on site.

How to get to Viareggio: Best way to get here is by train – the train station is 20 minutes from the seafront where the Carnival parade takes place. We advise not to take a car, as parking can be difficult to find. If you do, allow yourself plenty of time, and arrive at the ticket booths at least half an hour before the start of the parade.

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viareggio carnival
By VinimaOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The long tradition of Viareggio Carnival Festival

At the end of the 19th century, Viareggio Carnival became the greatest folk festival in Italy: at that time the show used to happen in the heart of the old town, along the historic Via Regia. In February 1873, the first decorated carts made their appearance. They were made with wood and jute by the artisans that worked in the shipyard.

Since then the festival has grown with every passing year, the floats getting gradually bigger and bigger and adding movement to the figures. Eventually the parade was moved to the seafront, where there was more space to accommodate the floats which can reach 20 metres in height, and 12 metres  in width.

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tuscan coast
Viareggio – photo credit

The floats – Artisan talent on display

The floats are the real heroes of the parade, each competing with the other for originality and ingenuity. From papier-maché masters to expert artisans, the float makers work all year round to get them ready. Viareggio has its own little city dedicated to the making of floats (Cittadella del Carnevale – with a 16 hangar-workshops) where there’s even a museum dedicated to the history of the Carnival and one (Carnevalotto) which hosts contemporary artistic pieces inspired by the Carnival. It’s all taken extremely seriously, as part of the cultural history of the town and Italy.