One of the best known in Italy, the Carnival in Viareggio has its origins at the end of the 19th century.
The parades draw thousands of visitors of all ages, who come to see both the spectacular floats and parade as well as participate in the festive air that can be breathed in the town on the days of the masquerade processions.
The "Carnevale di Viareggio" actually takes place over an entire month with 5 days of processions each year. These are held on 4 Sundays and one on Fat Tuesday. The parades take place between the end of January and beginning of March, in the fours weeks that precede Lent (which is the forty day period before Easter).
The Carnival in Viareggio is not just for adults, children are more than welcome and have loads of fun together with their parents. The whole procession takes place during daylight hours, in great celebration with everyone in costumes one way or another and lots of music. The festive spirit draws everyone to join in and dance around as well.
I would personally add the Carnival to the list of "things to do at least once in a lifetime", but I'd also bet that anyone who has the chance to visit and participate will come back more than just once.
I've been able to go several times to see the floats in Viareggio's carnival and each time enjoyed it a lot: the masked groups of dancers and floats competing against each other are stupendous, real works of art and the entire parade is fun. The event draws many people so expect a bit of crowds, but that's to be expected of all carnivals of a certain size and the one in Viareggio is a top one in Italy (the other being in Venice).
If you enjoy painting your face and dressing in costumes, you can also participate in the parade showing off your costume and feel much more than just a spectator!
If you're on the more conservative side or don't have the chance to arrive already dressed up, you can buy masks, wigs, hats and more to join in the fun (both before you go into the parade area as well as inside).
The Burlamacco, the symbol for Viareggio's Carnival
The Burlamacco is the character shown in the first photograph at the top of this page and is the official mask and symbol for the Carnival in Viareggio. It is inspired by other costumed characters of Italian "commedia dell'arte" including Harlequin, Balanzone, Pierrot and Rugantino. Burlamacco is dressed in a long red and white checkered suit, with a cocked hat and long black cape at his shoulders.
In each of the parades, the Burlamacco is accompanied with a float composed of only female participants called the "Ondina" in honor of Viareggio's tie with the sea and the summer (onda means wave in Italian).
Papier-mâché Floats at the Heart of the Parades
The floats made in papier-mâché are the stars of the Carnival of Viareggio. The floats run in the parade in a closed circle along the city's promenade between the beach and the city's shops.
Huge, majestic, and quite thought-provoking, the floats are inspired by Italian and international politics and other current events, often represented in satire form, most times with a lot of irreverence.
Aboard the allegorical floats, each playing their own musical soundtrack, are both dancers and other figures seeking to captivate the public that surrounds their passage.
The floats participating in the parade are actually competing against each other in two separate categories, one as group floats and the other as single floats. The winners in each category are proclaimed and awarded on the last day of Carnevale.
How to get to Viareggio at Carnival time
Viareggio is easy to reach by both car and train.
On the days of Carnival, considering the large amount of people it attracts, the train is a much more practical solution. The train station is just about 15-20 minutes walking distance from the promenade where the parade passes by.
For those that prefer to get there with a car, you can reach Viareggio with the autostrada.
If you're coming from the South: take the A1 to Florence, then take the A11 "Firenze Mare" that heads to Lucca. From there, take the A12 Livorno-Genova, and exit at Viareggio.
If you're coming from the North: take the A1 to Parma, then the A15 to "Santo Stefano Magra". From here, get on the A12 (Genova-Rosignano) until you reach the exit for "Viareggio", where you'll exit.
You can find details on the free parking lots available on this map we created of Viareggio. Click on each one to get more details of how to get to the center - generally you can catch a bus and sometimes free rental bikes!
For a few more details (although not that many more in English), you could also check out this page on the official website for the Carnival.