Sophie Bew shares a list of the must-visit spots in Venice, in near proximity to, yet free from, the madding tourist crowds
Introducing a new series of alternative city guides, specially curated for the cultivated traveller.
Comprised of 118 islands, this bustling Italian city, nestled in the Venetian lagoon, is simply one of a kind. A winding maze of canals, bridges, piazzas, crumbling palaces and infinite alleyways, time moves differently here. Google Maps drastically underestimates walking times and ferries, vaporettos (private boats) and of course the very pricey gondolas are the only mode of public transport available (your airport taxi will leave you on the outskirts of the city proper, with your suitcase in hand and only several bridges to scale). As if suspended in a former century this is a place to get well and truly lost in, and yet it’s swarming with tourists on a year-round basis. Coming in by the cruise-ship-load, pulling up alongside the super yachts of the super rich, it’s these hundred-thousand-tonnes of visitors that are endangering the stability of the parapets of the city itself – while the climate-crisis induced flooding it experienced late last year makes it a fragile destination. However, sticking to the public ferries – and particularly embracing the very long walks along its darkened lanes – means you can enjoy the splendour of Venice without further endangering its beauty. Following this list of hotspots will help ensure you enjoy a peaceful visit, too.
Head to the exquisite Hotel Danieli, with it’s orchid-laden foyer, for the perfect rooftop lunch on the fourth floor terrace (if not for your night’s stay – its proximity to the main biennale venue is unrivalled for a luxury stopover during the exhibition season and is otherwise delightful the rest of the year). Choose the Dandolo risotto – it’s made from a 1909 recipe with sole, crabs, sea urchins and tomatoes and feels as old school as it does decadent. Even on a blustery day, the view is sublime (despite the super yachts) and is one of few spacious outdoor eating spots in this often cramped and winding little city.
When in proximity to one of Mrs Prada’s exhibition outposts, it would be rude not to visit. At Ca’ Corner della Regina, the 18th-century Venetian palazzo overlooks the Grand Canal and serves as a spectacular and rusticated wing of the Fondazione, complete with impeccable and forward-thinking curatorial projects. From May, the frescoed gothic palace will host Stop Painting – a show curated by multivalent artist Peter Fischli.
A hop over the Grand Canal into Cannaregio, the city’s 16th-century Jewish Ghetto (where the word ghetto originates from, in fact) will land you a truly excellent meal. In its low-key, unfussy setting, looking out onto the water, sample the modern Venetian menu – the spaghetti with anchovy butter was beyond brilliant. Stop by one of the city’s few supermarkets, situated in an old, ornate synagogue for supplies on your way home. One can also get to Murano from this side of the city, to stock up on the island's covetable coloured glassware (though it can also be picked up in pretty much any gift shop or market stall in the city).
For true tourist fare, you could do worse than Caffè Florian. The oldest cafe in Italy, the 1720-built tea room sits on the edge of one of the busiest spots in Venice: Piazza San Marco. With an excellent view of the Basilico San Marco, one can watch the hordes of tourists stream by from a safe distance with an espresso and one of Florian’s famous Zaletti biscuits in hand – one way to tick off a must-see landmark in serene style.
5. Harry’s Bar
Perched off a canal near this same piazza is another Venetian institution: Harry’s Bar at Hotel Cipriani. A favourite of famous dipsomaniac Ernest Hemingway, as well as Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Truman Capote and of course, the Venice art scene’s own patron, Peggy Guggenheim, it’s an age-old hotspot for culture’s good and great, which somehow maintains its own classical charm to this day. A spritz and a baccala bruschetta (a classic Venetian cicchetti – like tapas – of pureed salt cod), is a must.
6. Carlo Scarpa’s garden at Querini Stampalia Palace
This small but precious garden was a recommendation of gallerist Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, for whom Venice is a regular haunt. Fusing his two favourite influences – Venice and Japan – Italian architect Carlo Scarpa devised this modern paradise for the palatial Querini Stampalia Fondazione back in 1959. This hushed, concrete-clad hideout is a world away from the city’s teeming alleyways – a place to restore one’s equilibrium.
7. Birreria Forst
A great spot to wait for a ferry to the Giudecca – the southern island – just behind St Mark’s Square on Calle de la Rasse. A microbrewery boasting a smorgasbord of cured meats, this is your ideal stand-up pit-stop before hitting the negronis on the other side of the water.
A few blocks from the hallowed cloisters of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia is Gelateria Nico. One of the only sit-and-slurp spots for good gelato, the Wes Anderson-esque awning makes Nico’s a perfectly picturesque place to stop and sample the extensive menu as the boats zoom past at eye level.
9. Bauer Hotel
The Bauer Palace is the ultimate party hotel in Venice. With a vast bar that sprawls out across a pretty magnificent terrace looking out over the Grand Canal to the church of Santa Maria della Salute, it’s a spacious but bustling hub for the biennale crowds come press week. The B Bar makes for a sultry night cap, too.