Carnevale traditionally was the celebration preceding Lent, the period of penitence and abstinence prior to Easter; its name is derived from the Latin carnem levare, meaning “to take meat away.” Today Carnevale in Venice builds for 10 days until the big blowout, Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday), when fireworks illuminate the Grand Canal, and Piazza San Marco is turned into a giant open-air ballroom for the masses. The festival is a harlequin patchwork of musical and cultural events, many of them free of charge, which appeals to all ages, tastes, nationalities, and budgets. Musical events, many of them free, are staged in some of the city’s dozens of piazze—from reggae and zydeco to jazz and baroque. Special art exhibits are mounted at museums and galleries. Book your hotel months ahead, especially for the 2 weekends prior to Shrove Tuesday. Check www.carnevalevenezia.com for details on upcoming events. The masked balls are often private; those where (exorbitantly priced) tickets are available are sumptuous, with candlelit banquets calling for extravagant costumes you can rent by the day from special shops. If you can score tickets, splurge some 350€ per person on the Ballo del Doge, or Doge's Ball (tel. 041-523-3851). They throw a real jet-set party (accessible to all) in the 16th-century Palazzo Pisani-Moretta on the Grand Canal (between the Rialto and the Foscari), sumptuously outfitted with Tiepolo frescoes and all the other accouterments of 18th-century Venetian style. Different ballrooms feature minuets, waltzes, baroque chamber orchestras -- there's even a modern disco (acoustically self-contained) -- all catered by posh Do Forni restaurant. Those not invited to any ball will be just as happy having their face painted and watching the ongoing street theater from a ringside cafe. There's a daily market of Carnevale masks and costumes on Campo Santo Stefano (10am-10pm).
The Voga Longa (literally "long row"), a 30km (19-mile) rowing "race" from San Marco to Burano and back again, has been enthusiastically embraced since its inception in 1975, following the city's effort to keep alive the centuries-old heritage of the regatta. It takes place on a Sunday in mid-May; for exact dates, consult the tourist office or www.vogalonga.com. It's a colorful event and a great excuse to party, plus every local seems to have a relative or next-door neighbor competing.
Stupendous fireworks light the night sky during the Festa del Redentore, on the third Saturday and Sunday in July. This celebration marking the July 1576 lifting of a plague that had gripped the city is centered on the Palladio-designed Chiesa del Redentore (Church of the Redeemer) on the island of Giudecca. A bridge of boats across the Giudecca Canal links the church with the banks of Le Zattere in Dorsoduro, and hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes fill the Giudecca. It's one big, floating festa until night descends and an awesome half-hour spettacolo of fireworks fills the sky.
The Venice International Film Festival, in late August and early September, is the most respected celebration of celluloid in Europe after Cannes. Films from all over the world are shown in the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido as well as at various venues -- and occasionally in some of the campi. Ticket prices vary, but those for the less-sought-after films are usually modest. See www.labiennale.org/en/cinema for more details.
Venice hosts the latest in modern and contemporary painting and sculpture from dozens of countries during the prestigious Biennale d'Arte (tel. 041-521-8711; www.labiennale.org), one of the world's top international modern art shows. It fills the pavilions of the public gardens at the east end of Castello and at the Arsenale, as well as in other spaces around the city, from May to November every odd-numbered year (usually open Tues–Sun 10am–6pm). Tickets cost around 25€, 20€ for those 65 and over, and 15€ for students and all those 26 and under.
The Regata Storica that takes place on the Grand Canal on the first Sunday in September is an extravagant seagoing parade in historic costume as well as a genuine regatta. Just about every seaworthy gondola, richly decorated for the occasion and piloted by gondolieri in colorful livery, participates in the opening cavalcade. The aquatic parade is followed by three regattas along the Grand Canal. You can buy grandstand tickets through the tourist office or come early and find a piece of embankment near the Rialto Bridge for the best seats in town.
Other notable events include Festa della Salute on November 21, when a pontoon bridge is erected across the Grand Canal to connect the churches of La Salute and Santa Maria del Giglio, commemorating delivery from another plague in 1630. The Festa della Sensa, on the Sunday following Ascension Day in May, reenacts the ancient ceremony when the doge would wed Venice to the sea. April 25 is a local holiday, the feast day of Saint Mark, beloved patron saint of Venice and of the ancient republic. A special High Mass is celebrated in the Basilica of San Marco, and Venetians exchange roses with those they love.
Finally, the ultimate anomaly: Venice's annual October Maratona (Marathon), starting at Villa Pisani on the mainland and ending up along the Zattere for a finish at the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the tip of Dorsoduro. It's usually held the last Sunday of October.