As art enthusiasts and part-takers plunge into Venice and infiltrate the city’s intertwining streets, I thought I would put together a guide that recounts my recent visit, before I reluctantly left on 5th May. I sadly couldn’t stick around for the Biennale as the normality of work beckoned, but in my 10 day, first-time stay, the city had me transfixed, and it gave me a good amount of time to figure out it’s nuances, general daily activities and worthwhile visits aside from the ongoing Biennale.
I thought I had a good idea of what Venice would be like from years of eyeing the Grand Canal in photos and seeing its luxurious palazzos in popular films. It was always somewhere I wanted to visit but in recent years I became less interested in it, always picturing a city riddled with tourism, to the extent that I hadn’t even considered permanent residents in the city. I had pictured a place serving only passers-by. Venice totally defied these expectations, and I was so relieved to discover a city that was as romantic and breathtakingly beautiful as the films made it out to be.
Little things to look out for
The floating white fluff. It’s everywhere! I presume it had something to do with it being Spring but I never found the source of the mysterious cotton wool falling from the sky.
No one told me about something I now call Vap ‘vertigo’, as in the Vaparetto. After a day there, I became aware of the constant wobbliness from taking multiple boat rides. As the night goes on, it’s hard to tell whether it’s the vap or the multiple glasses of spritz and red wine.
Be aware of the number 1 line Vaparetto. It stops at every stop along the Grand Canal and could add an hour to your travel time. It’s often better to walk certain distances when your trip involves the hellishly slow number 1.
The city famous for its water can now also be known for its magnitude of selfie sticks, seen everywhere. Make sure you don’t get knocked by one while quietly enjoying your lunch.
Take away coffees, more often than not, come in a polystyrene cup with no lid.
There are some lovely cats in the area that covers Giardini and Sant’Elana.
Often smaller restaurants and cafés don’t accept card payments when the amount is under €10, so always keep a little cash on you.
Some museums are closed on Tuesdays and others on Wednesdays, so check before you visit.
Eating and Drinking
I spurred some interest in Antiche Carampane after reading a locals guide to Venice on Suitcase Mag. After some research I decided I had to go to this trattoria when I spotted photos of significant film stars visiting the restaurant. It must’ve been Benedict Cumberbach’s smile that gave it the approval I needed. The classic Venetian restaurant offers a variety of fresh fish and seafood, bought daily from the Rialto fish market. Although the food is traditional, Antiche Carampane’s approach to food and undeniably skilful preparation has earned them much attention in travel guides and local discerning diners. The little restaurant is bursting at the seems with character and warmth, and sits in an area that centuries ago was a brothel quarter. It sits alone in a quiet street, so don’t be alarmed if things start quietening down as you approach the restaurant.
This family owned restaurant is on the upmarket side, but is devoid of any pretentious attitude. It’s a family-run business, with the owners present to welcome you in, while their son tells you intricate details of the wine list. They serve classic Venetian cuisine but offer a more experimental approach with changing daily specials. Expect soft shell crab, steamed spider crab, possible raw scampi and a pannacotta to add to your list of best pannacottas ever eaten.
I’d seen this one mentioned online somewhere but I didn’t pay much attention at the time. I coincidently walked passed Corte Sconta one afternoon and it’s gold coffee machine, thick brass counter and overall sleek interior caught my eye instantly. Without making a booking, we thankfully got a table and I had the best gnocchi with Amber fish and zucchini flowers. The welcomed, minimal design of the dining space was unlike any other restaurant I’d been to in Venice, the walls totally bare, with the food and Italian terrazzo floor standing as the only clue to the restaurants origin. The pastas change daily and were all round excellent, as is the tiramisu – from what I could tell, this applies to all dishes.
Sitting around the corner from San Giacomo square, which is a gathering place for locals in the area, La Zucca is a local’s spot through and through with no English version of the menu, however they will be more than happy to describe each dish to you. The name translates to ‘the pumpkin’, with vegatables forming a central part of their menu, most notably is their famous pumpkin flan and zucchini lasanga. The space feels like a stylish mid-century log cabin with diagonal wood wall panneling and matching wood assymetrical tables.
This sits right by the entrance to the Arsenale, Porta Magna, which dates back to the 15th century. The entrance leads to a vast shipyard that was once dedicated to naval boats, and today still serves its purpose as such. Guarded by two stone lions, the entrance sits adjacent to a bridge that connects the Biannale exhibitions to Bar Arsenale, an ideal, easy going bar that serves rolled pizzas and filled ciabattas at reasonable prices. Refuel here with a spritz, or a coffee and enjoy the outdoor sparsness that runs along the Rio Dell’Arsenale canal. (Campo Arsenale)
The Danieli is a sight to behold. I was mesmerised right from the moment I stepped into the atrium that holds the reception area. The Venetian gothic interior has been kept in immaculate condition, and leads up to an extraordinary stained glass skylight that stretches the entire atrium ceiling. It’s sensationally luxurious every where you turn, and the upstairs bar and restaurant are no different, setting a tone of much splendour. The Terrazza is perfect for sundowners as you watch impressively large cruise ships being tugged in and out of the lagoon.
This chic and cosy little wine and snack bar and ristorante sits just near the Rialto Market alongside similar bars. At night it turns into a lively setting of locals and tourists sipping on the street or sitting at the outside tables overlooking the canal. The other cluster of bars on the next block up get a little more rowdy as they stay open ‘till around 2am.
Yes it’s in about every guide but its worth the tick off the list. It’s like a little time capsule, and you might get to see Giussepe Cipriani himself, who invented the bellini that you’ll be drinking. It is more pricy than most bars but remind yourself that Hemingway and Charlie Chapman were once regulars, perhaps even at your very seat. See more about Harry’s Bar here.
Serra dei Giardini
Another spot ideally situated near all the Biennale happenings, in the Giardini. This delightful café sits inside a high-rise conservatory, which also includes a little cultural centre and a nursery outside. It’s suited for a simple brunch or lunch, or late afternoon cocktails outside in the garden. Say hi to the cappuccino cat that gallivants in the area.
Another one that many might tell you to steer clear of, because this is undeniably a tourist trap, it’s location on St Marks square giving it away. But again, the fact that this is considered the oldest café in Europe, means you cannot pass through Venice without at least stopping off for a drink at Caffè Florian. Centuries of Venetian decadence seems to hang right here on the ornately-designed walls, generously brushed with gold and aged wall art. The various tea rooms have different themes from Oriental to Art Nouveau, with the signature velvety maroon seating throughout. Order the Casanova breakfast for a taste of what wooing was like in the 17 hundreds.
Situated in Dorsoduro, this is a boutique bespoke leather goods store, signified by their minimal approach to design and brightly coloured leather in a variety of pouches and bags. Office 904‘s studio originated in Pienza, and this Veniciantian outlet is one of a handful of physical stores in the country. The design approach embodies the superior quality associated with Italian products, appealing to a clean and practical aesthetic and functionality. Bag and pouch styles can be matched with various colours, with manufacturing taking place in Tuscany.
[Calle Lunga S. Barnaba, 2864]
L’Armadio di Coco
I visited two vintage stores on my trip, this one being the easy triumph of the two. The boutique offers pristine vintage finds for men and women, categorised neatly by colour. Being Italy, it is very likely that you could find some luxury labels, casually hanging on the rails, but overall, there are some really lovely pieces here from stacks of Levis 501s to detailed embroided jackets.
[Campo Santa Maria Nova, 6029/B]
Tonolo Selezioni Di Gallo Federica & C. Sas.
A tiny boutique store selling various designer clothes and accessories and some homeware. The shop is filled with superlative, niche goods like a variety of Freitag bags, Come des Garcon Play T-shirts and some labels that promote a general Scandanavian aesthetic and quality. There’s also a small selection of skincare products.
[Campo Santa Maria Formosa 5248/a]
Nino and Friends
This is the go-to shop for gifting with unique Italian foodstuff. The shop cleverly offers samples that float about on trays, and make sure you walk out with some tasty treats that you’ll wish you had brought more of home with you. They have everything from pasta to biscuits, to their sensational lemon almonds, all prepared under their house brand, and well-packaged for take-home gifts.
[Salizada San Lio, 5581]
T Fondaco dei Tedeschi and Coin Excelsior
Both of these are huge designer stores with much luxury clothing and accessories. They also both offer duty free shopping and Coin often has specials on specific goods.
Il Fondaco dei Tedeschi, is a site to behold. Right next to the Rialto bridge the ancient building, built in 1228 has been refurbished and repurposed to house a large scale department store. The design included Rem Koohaas on the project, who’s involvement no doubt would have contributed to the building’s tastefully integrated modernity and successful fluidity to the old and new elements of the design. The red escalators are a highlight as is the central bar and café, which offers a good vantage point of the boundless atrium, and a good spritz of course.
[Coin Excelsior – Via Cola di Rienzo, 173 and T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, Rialto Bridge]
Any keen architectural admirer should not visit Venice without seeking out Venetian architect, Carlo Scarpa’s works dotted around the city. He’s known for his bold use of concrete that often was designed to negotiate with the overflowing Venetian waters. Japanese like lineage can be seen at the Olivetti showroom which features intricate and almost hidden wall details that expose brass and precisely filter light.
Another work can be viewed beside the water by the Giardini, which serves as a reminder of the women who fearlessly retaliated against Nazi fascism. The monument shows a bronze-covered reclining female (designed by Augusto Murer) who appears to be floating on the water beside concrete blocks of various heights that gradually disappear into the water – designed by Scarpa.
I sadly didn’t make it to the Querini Stampalia Foundation, but it epitomises Scarpa’s mastery. See more information about it here.
Don’t stay here, but do visit. Lido is pretty removed from all the action and can be a hassle if you’re heading back to your hotel late at night, however it offers an entirely different Venice to the one you find at the centre, at times suffocated by tourists. Lido enjoys a sparseness that does not exist in central Venice. The preparations for Summer was evident, which sees Lido’s expansive fill up.
We spent a few hours walking around Lido one afternoon and it felt like a holiday from our holiday. I can imagine Venetians skipping off here to a café for a bit of peace. The paradoxical island has much architecture to explore, notably Arte Neavou hotels like the Excelsior and the Grande Albergo Ausonia & Hungaira Hotel, as well as mid-century, cooky apartment blocks.
The island is also home to the Venice film festival which is when the Excelsior Hotel really starts to kick off – it was a bit haunting and deserted when we went, however this allowed us to sneak into the various areas of the hotel unnoticed. Some of the décor has been preserved and you can almost hear the chatter and music from it’s hay day when glamorous film stars would frequent the exclusive resort. Black and white photos on the wall at the Blue Bar tell stories of a hotel that once glittered in opulence, but today the remainder of the interior is more subdued and minimal, and missing it’s multitude of palms, that once sat in the atrium.
Cannarggio, a.k.a The Ghetto
There was something I learnt during this trip which took me totally by surprise and that was the fact that the word ‘ghetto’ is derived from the first ever Venetian ghetto. The area lies in Cannaregio, a suburb with a sordid history of anti-Semitic segregation, and now the proclaimed less commercial or touristy area of Venice. The area does offer a realness and a less romanticised version to the rest of Venice. It also has a monument dedicated to Jews from the area who lost their lives during the Holocaust.
There are also good late night bars that offer a sliver of nightlife, which is quite hard to come by in Venice.
Art other than La Biennale
Sottsass at Le Stanze Del Vetro
(ending 30 July 2017)
I cannot express enough the value I attached to this show, both in curation and the actual museum space. The Glass, a glass retrospective for Ettore Sottsass, marked the inception of the new permanent museum space at Le Stanze Del Vetro, a non-profit initiative solely focused on the art of glass making, offering free exhibitions to the public. I couldn’t be happier that my trip coincided with the show, which displays Sottsass’ ability to manipulate glass and defy conventions in his creation of sculptural objects. His lively, evocative sculptures become a series of characters, and eloquently display his various waves of eccentric glass making, from the 90s to the early 2000s.
The Carlo Scarpa designed showroom showcases the highly respected and once widely used Olivetti typewriters and other computing machines. The type writers achieved notoriety for their design, Etorre Sottsass having a hand in this at times, as well its mechanical integrity. Olivetti produced a multitude of computing equipment, which is still used today. Harry’s Bar, for instance still has a big old Olivetti till in use.
The interior design of the showroom however at times steals the show(room), detracting from the historical timeline of typewriters. On the other hand there is no greater match for displaying the worlds most attractive typewriters, than Scarpa’s smooth-as-silk concrete surfaces, reserved use of brass and the sleekest, zen-like lineal layering. This is design symbiosis like no other.
Treasure from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at Palazzo Grassi
Damien Hirst’s mammoth show coincides with the 7 month Biennale. The show fabricates a ship wreck, which is salvaged by Hirst, who discovers various iconography, gold and other treasures which he has displayed at the museum. Recognizable figures like Micky Mouse and Yolandi Visser are amongst the statues, as well as other figures that touch on various ancient cultures and mythical narratives, display an incoherent array of treasures, one that is totally ‘unbelievable’.
The sheer breadth of the show and highly refined quality of each piece and overall curation and execution, make for an exceptionally impressive show, although it is not without contention. The Palazzo Grassi itself is also a marvel, and the museum store has great books and trinkets to take home.
Peggy Guggenheim Museum
Peggy’s private collection is on display here in her former home. Her avid appreciation for art and multiple friendships with prolific artists of the 20s and subsequent decades, enabled her to accumulate an astounding collection of works. From Dali to Chegale to Miro to Picasso, the luminary list of artists goes on, spanning a sculpture garden and multiple viewing rooms.
The grand, elongated house, so ideally located, gives some insight into the life of the heiress while she lived in Venice. The house itself stands out from the vertically stacked buildings along the canal, it’s length and height very unusual in Venetian architecture.
Peggy bought the home in the late 40s, and began opening her house for public viewings in the Summer months, sharing her art with fellow admirers. She lived in Venice for around 30 years, and today her ashes lie scattered in the garden at the museum.
The collection and home belongs to her uncle’s foundation, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which she donated upon her death.
The museum has a lovely, peaceful café inside the grounds, and a brilliant gift shop which is outside, just before you approach the museum entrance.
I decided I didn’t need a gondola to validate my Venice trip and I wasn’t sorry. At €80 a pop, it just sounded like too much pressure to make the trip worthwhile, also contrived romance, personally, makes me uneasy, which then in turn will make certain little romance takes place. I guess this is one of those clichés I just couldn’t face. I felt I got what I needed, in the form of a more local experience, from the Vaparetto, which occasionally chugs along but is also highly efficient and acts as an all-encompassing site-seeing vehicle. Make sure you get the travel pass, which offers unlimited journeys during a specified period.
Taxis are also pricy but not bad if you’re sharing with a couple people, and they make sure you arrive in style.