My first encounter with Venice, as a small child, was a whirlwind of candy-colored palazzi, delicate blown glass, and narrow streets where you could get lost for days.
There was also a spectacular procession of black gondolas, each bearing mountains of flowers, floating down a canal—part of the funeral, it turned out, of the great composer Igor Stravinsky. Venice has always known how to honor its past. It’s the present—and future—that has proved more unwieldy to negotiate. Today, the city manages to defy being characterized as a historical amusement park, one that’s sinking—literally and metaphorically—under the weight of its history. Witness the new (albeit controversial) pedestrian bridge by Santiago Calatrava that spans the Grand Canal. Or the opening of François Pinault’s Contemporary Art Center, designed by Tadao Ando, this June. There are even plans for architect David Chipperfield to build a modern expansion for the ancient cemetery on the tiny island of San Michele, where Stravinsky was laid to rest. Yet despite these changes, Venice remains, as always, committed to its past. Organizations such as Venice in Peril, Venetian Heritage, and Save Venice are leading efforts to make sure the city’s treasures are preserved for future generations. Step into even the smallest of printing or woodworking ateliers, and you’ll find craftsmen working just as they would have generations ago. The addresses on the following pages bring you the best of the city’s traditions and innovations. And while the legendary hotels and landmarks continue to impress, this guide focuses on the lesser-known—and in some cases, more affordable—side of the city: the addresses for family-run restaurants, the workshops and stores, the inns, and the historical sites that I’ve been amassing over the past 20 years.
Where to Eat
Whether you’re seeking an over-the-top meal with a view of the lagoon, seafood tagliatelle at a low-key trattoria, or Venetian cicheti (tapas), these restaurants turn out the city’s best dishes.
The 22 seats at the retro bistro Osteria Alle Testiere are among Venice’s most difficult to book. Sommelier Luca Di Vita presides over the tiny salotto, outfitted with an antique marble-topped bar, where he advises patrons on how to pair the best Veneto whites. Piatti del giorno might include sautéed John Dory with lemon and orange, sprinkled with tarragon, and Luca’s homemade ginger-and-vanilla gelato.
Only those in the know will find their way to Antiche Carampane, hidden within a maze of winding alleys. Over the past couple of years the portions have become less generous, but antipasti such as sour eggplant and creamed codfish are among the best in town.
At Boccadoro, as much attention is paid to the décor as to the food: the sleek dining room has steel-blue walls and photos of Venetian landscapes by local photographer Roberta Riccio. Chef Luciano Orlandi serves regional dishes such as handmade basil tagliatelle with grilled tuna, tomatoes, and capers.
Run by Damiano Martin, son of the owners of Da Fiore restaurant, the canalside Il Refolo, with its 25 candlelit outdoor tables, is the perfect setting for sampling Martin’s savory pizzas. Try the prosciutto crudo, mozzarella, and green-fig pie, available seasonally.
If you’re planning a picnic by the lagoon, stock up on provisions at the recently opened Pronto Pesce Pronto. The delicatessen specializes in seafood to go: spiced couscous with mussels and eggplant, oyster platters, and swordfish croquettes.
Worth the Splurge
The best tables at the barrel-vaulted Da Fiore are on the outdoor balcony overlooking the canal. Just be sure to book these well in advance. Chef Mara Martin’s deceptively simple fare is the main draw here, from plates of deep-fried calamari, scampi, and zucchini to a dessert of pineapple soup with mint and fresh berries.
Chef Corrado Fasolato, at the Michelin-starred Met Restaurant at the Hotel Metropole, uses fresh regional ingredients for his innovative dishes such as a delicious pear-and–sheep-ricotta mousse with raspberry gelée and red-wine sorbet.
Where to Sleep
For years, the grand hotels around the Piazza San Marco have had few rivals. There are two Starwood Luxury Collection properties, the 16th-century Hotel Gritti Palace residence of the former Duke Andre Gritti; and the revamped Hotel Danieli, which now houses 73 stylish new suites. Then there’s the Bauer Il Palazzo, with its spectacular terrace bar, the Bar Canale; and of course, the legendary Cipriani, whose gardens alone are worth the trip to Giudecca Island. But along with these, a host of intimate properties have been opening in the city, promising top-notch service, often at a more affordable price.
Opposite the Church of the Frari in the city’s historic center lies the discreet town house–style hotel Oltre il Giardino. Beyond a wooden door, a narrow path leads you through a brick-walled garden full of magnolia and olive trees to a stylish six-room villa. Owner Lorenzo Muner has furnished the space with family heirlooms and antiques, including 18th-century oil paintings and a framed vintage Gucci scarf.
Guests at IQs should expect to be lulled to sleep by the opera-singing gondoliers on the nearby canal. This hidden gem of a hotel, accessible by gondola, is a favorite among privacy-seeking celebs attending the Venice Film Festival. The four large rooms and suites are done up with contemporary furnishings by Moroso and B&B Italia in shades of chocolate, cream, and lacquer red.
A fresco of The Fall of the Giants by 18th-century Rococo master Pietro Longhi flanks an elaborate marble stairway at the entrance to the regal Ca’ Sagredo, a 42-room palazzo dating back to the 15th century. Book Suite 316, which has frescoes of mythological characters by artists Abbondio Stazio and Carpoforo Mazzetti from the 1700’s.
The new B&B San Luca is a loftlike hotel in an 18th-century palazzo near the Rialto Bridge. The wood-beamed rooms are edgy, but classic: colorful Kartell lights, Venini vases, and Starck Ghost chairs are paired with antique wooden dressers. The hotel’s only real downside is its lack of an elevator, though Paolo will be happy to carry your bags up the three flights of stairs.
Glamour comes naturally to the Campa brothers, owners of the intimate 12-room Ca’ Maria Adele. Their grandfather created the world’s largest Murano-glass chandelier, now in a casino in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium (a panoramic photograph of the piece is on view in the breakfast salon). Rooms have crystal chandeliers and silk wall fabrics, and bird’s-eye views of the Santa Maria della Salute, a 17th-century church that resembles a tiered wedding cake.
What to Do
From the 14th-century Doge’s Palace to the stone arches of the Rialto Bridge, Venice has its share of legendary landmarks. While you shouldn’t skip the tried-and-true, don’t miss the following lesser-known spots and experiences.
The Museo della Fondazione Querini Stampalia which also has a collection of paintings by Pietro Longhi, is a Modernist reprieve from the city’s Gothic architecture. In the 1960’s, the Veneto-based architect Carlo Scarpa refurbished part of the 16th-century palace, incorporating walls of washed concrete and travertine and a tranquil Japanese-inspired garden.
To teach travelers about the ecological challenges facing the city, the sustainable-tourism organization Context Travel organizes guided walking tours, where you’ll learn about Venice’s preservation efforts.
The best way to explore the hidden islands is by private charter. Il Nuovo Trionfo a double-masted 1926 sailing vessel, is available for small groups.
Spend a day visiting the island of Murano, full of tiny boutiques selling delicate glasswares. One of the best is Marina e Susanna Sent a favorite of Venice resident Michela Scibilia, co-author of The Comprehensive Guide to the Island of Murano.
Don’t miss the San Michele in Isola, on the island of San Michele. The tombs of luminaries such as Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky surround this Renaissance church.
Where to Shop
There’s more to shopping in Venice than kitschy plastic gondolas. The city is brimming with handmade accessories and clothing, along with glass, fabric, leather, and wooden goods from local craftsmen.
CRAFTS Architect Francesca Meratti is on a mission to bring Venetian design into the 21st century. Her contemporary boutique Madera stocks whimsical porcelain teapots by Verona-based ceramicist Maria-Grazia Perlini; minimalist aprons by Inzu that double as halter-necked pinafore dresses; and finely sculpted wooden bowls from Meratti’s own line.
Legendary designer Mariano Fortuny assigned the colors for his fabrics’ poetic names: “Rembrandt rust straw and silvery gold,” “Bayou lime green and old ivory,” “seafoam green.” You’ll find these and more at the Fortuny Factory and Showroom, where 16,000 yards of Egyptian cotton are handcrafted every year.
The owners of the 62-year-old workshop Legatoria Polliero create their unique handmade papers using a collection of 300 antique Asian printing blocks. The duo specializes in notebooks, wrapping paper, and photo frames.
An oarlock might not be at the top of your shopping list, but step inside the woodworking shop Le Forcole and you’re likely to change your mind. Designer Saviero Pastor hand-carves sinuous, one-of-a-kind pieces in walnut, cherry, or pear wood. In fact, the works are so stunning, they’ve been snapped up as sculptures by I. M. Pei.
Senegal-born Moulaye Niang is the city’s first African glassmaker. His store, Muranero, sells contemporary jewelry that uses bright colors from his homeland. Best finds: bulbous glass rings in orange and lilac.
Looking for a hard-to-find edition of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice? Old World Books stocks rare English-language volumes about Venice bought at auctions and private sales.
Dress Like a Venetian
At the clothing shop Hibiscus, you’ll find boho-chic styles such as flared knee-length silk skirts in rouge and rust, and kimono jackets in red and fuchsia.
During periods of acqua alta (high water), opt for a pair of stylish high-heeled rain boots in splashy red at Dittura Massimo.
Milliner Giuliana Longo has been creating her signature hats in her workshop since 1968. Pick up a brightly colored beret made of rabbit fur and felt.
Slip your feet into a custom pair of shoes by avant-garde shoemaker Giovanna Zanella. Her wild designs run the gamut from lace-up boots in green and pink leather to frog-skin flats.
Dried fruits, truffles, 80 kinds of spices, and 100 varieties of chocolate fill the shelves at Drogheria Mascari, the best grocery store in town. Expect a wait at Alaska, a hole-in-the-wall gelato parlor where owner Carlo Pistacchi serves up his unusual flavors of gelato—artichoke, fig, and ginger. Swing by the pint-size VizioVirtù for dark chocolates spiced with lavender, cayenne pepper, star anise, or cinnamon.
Visiting Venice without going to Harry’s Bar is almost sacrilege. Granted, the crowds may be overwhelming, but people-watching doesn’t get better than this: the 1931 venue is a favorite with A-listers, especially during the Venice Film Festival, which runs September 2–12.
Come nightfall, young locals head to the no-frills bars around the Rialto Market. Among the most popular is Naranzaria, with a bottle-stacked bar, illuminated by Ingo Maurer lights, and outdoor chairs that overlook the Grand Canal.
Ca’ d’Oro alla Vedova is perhaps Venice’s most authentic osteria. Inside, patrons fill up on Venetian cicheti such as lightly spiced meatballs, a pre-dinner favorite.
For the best view of the city, head to the Skyline Bar in the Hilton Molino Stucky hotel. Here, young professionals and artsy types sip glasses of Campari soda and Prosecco.
A 23-year resident and associate director of Save Venice, a preservation organization
“One of my favorite paintings is Madonna and Child Enthroned, in the San Francesco della Vigna church (Campo San Francesco della Vigna; 39-041/520-6102). It’s reportedly the only work by 15th-century Greek artist Antonio Falier da Negroponte.”
“Don’t miss a tour of the Jewish Ghetto, run by the Museo Ebraico (Campo del Ghetto Nuovo; Cannaregio 2902B; 39-041/715-359). You can visit three of the five area synagogues, each with its own character and design.”
Countess Marie Brandolini
Owner of the glass showroom Laguna B (lagunab.com)
“L’Angolo del Passato (Campiello dei Squelini, Dorsoduro 3276A; 39-041/528-7896) features modern glassware along with rare vintage finds, such as 1940’s glass vases by Carlo Scarpa.”
“Serious collectors go to Caterina Tognon’s (Calle del Dose, San Marco 2746; 39-041/520-7859) for paintings and sculptures by top contemporary international artists such as Toots Zynsky and Silvia Levenson.”
“Bruno Amadi (Calle dei Saoneri, San Polo 2747; 39-041/523-8089) crafts beautiful decorative glass objects—starfish, coral, animals, and dragonflies.”
Catherine Buyse Dian
Costume stylist for theater, films, and operas in Venice
“The Palazzo Mocenigo (Salizada Stae, Santa Croce 1992; 39-041/721-798) has an incredible 18th-century clothing collection that includes the fur-trimmed crimson brocade tunics once worn by city councilmen.”
“To rent a costume for the February Carnevale, go to Nicolao Atelier (Fondamenta della Misericordia, Cannaregio 2590; 39-041/520-7051), which carries more than 10,000 period pieces.”
“Venetian movie costumes often take inspiration from textile company Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua (Campiello della Comar, Santa Croce 1320; 39-041/721-566; by appointment; fabrics from $230 per yard), a historic workshop frequented both by Vatican priests and fashion designers. Take a guided tour to see how weavers create velvets on 18th-century looms.”