Venice is a shapeshifter. How do we know this? Just take a look at the artworks that have sought to capture its beauty. From the sumptuous interiors of a Titian to the calmly ordered panoramas of a Canaletto. Not to mention the brilliant skies of a J.M.W Turner painting. Each work reflects a different face of the lagoon. If you’re an art lover in Venice, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
For today’s visitors to the floating city, there is always another side to Venice. Drift away from the well-beaten path and look beyond the famous museums to discover this masterpiece of a city that is constantly transformed with every passing season.
The Venice Biennale
One reason for Venice’s ever-changing face is La Biennale. Or rather the Biennales, as the art and architecture festivals alternate year by year. Inaugurated in 1895 the Biennales set the model for art fairs worldwide. During this time, the international art world descends upon Venice to view the artworks and structures exhibited by competing nations in their respective pavilions. Most of the action takes place down at the official venues at the Giardini and the Arsenale. These monumental spaces, originally used to construct Venice’s shipping fleet, now represent the vanguard of contemporary design.
In recent years, some of the most-talked-about installations have become collateral ones. This is because they allow access to normally inaccessible locations across Venice. Some stand-out experiences include Edmund de Waal’s Library of Exile in the Ateneo Veneto and Jan Fabre’s Glass and Bone in the Abbazia di San Gregorio. The result is a citywide event that coincides with the Venetian summer months, bringing the promise of blue skies. Watch Riva boats sail down the Grand Canal, and discover a pantheon of new artworks.
Explore Castello and Cannaregio
No matter how beautiful it is to bask in the golden light glistening on the water along the Riva degli Schiavoni, try to deviate between the Arsenale and the Basilica di San Marco and lose yourself in the narrow calle (alleys) of Castello. It is one the most characteristic yet undiscovered of Venice’s sestiere (neighborhoods), hiding a number of artistic gems. A 10-minute stroll through the tranquil area takes you between the Chiesa di San Zaccaria, the Chiesa di San Giovanni in Bragora, and the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. They respectively house the masterpieces of High Renaissance heavyweights such as Giovanni Bellini, Cima da Conegliano, and Vittore Carpaccio.
Replenishment in the form of lunch at local and international favorite Al Covo is a must. Start with the local specialties of baccalá mantecato (creamed cod) and sarde in saor (sardines in a sweet and sour sauce). And finish with a grappa under the restaurant’s bottle-green awning. Set along the aptly named Campiello della Pescaria, the restaurant has been running since 1987. Yet its old-world sophistication makes it feel like it’s been there forever.
Afternoon ambles around Venice always pay off—any direction will do. Heading north of the famed Rialto Bridge will bring you to the tranquil canals of Cannaregio. Marvel at the marble walls of the jeweled Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli before dropping in to see Titian’s masterpiece The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence in the church of I Gesuiti en route to the Fondamente Nove. This kilometer-long quayside opens onto the northern front of the lagoon and offers unrivaled views across the waters. On a clear day, you can even see the snow-capped peaks of the Dolomite mountain range.
No matter how far you wander, you should always aim to end the day sitting with a spritz in your hand at the outdoor tables of the long-established Pasticceria and Gelateria Rosa Salva. Here, you can watch the lengthening shadows creep their way across the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo in peace.
Evenings in Venice are a strange affair. Essentially, aperitivo should whet the appetite. Yet once the spritz glasses are full or the wines are poured, dusk fades to night and everyone is too content where they are to head anywhere else. Vino Vero remains a popular go-to option. Partly for their amazing selection of natural wines and partly for their innovative crostini combinations. Try the mackerel and pink peppercorn–which invites repeated temptations. For something a little more intimate, opt for WineBar 5000 in Castello where canal-side tables flicker with candles. Or follow those in the know towards the Rialto and Al Mercà to stand chatting and laughing, a glass of Friulian orange wine in hand. In the Campo Cesare Battisti, you can eat, drink and laugh late into the night.
Artisanship in the Lagoon
Sunsets in Venice are magnificent, but the city is at its best at dawn. In the early morning, you can walk through a deserted Piazza San Marco as the rising sun turns the mosaics into a blazing gold, the white marble into a delicate pink, and the waters glimmer silver.
Follow with a morning espresso at the marble-topped counter of Gran Caffé Quadri. This 400-year-old building recently underwent a restoration by local architects and craftsmen. Venice’s flourishing artisanal culture is indebted to the city’s historic trade routes with the East. This contributed to the import of artistic techniques and materials including silk, gold, and ultramarine that are still used today in workshops. Oftentimes, these workshops remain in the same families for centuries.
This fusion of tradition and innovation is visible at the Stanze del Vetro, located on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, which showcases Venice’s glassmaking industry. Here, a pure white space serves as a backdrop for an ever-changing roster of exhibitions by master glassmakers. This roster includes artisans Ettore Sottsass, Paolo Venini, and Maurice Marinot.
The myriad of forms and colors of the displayed objects are a testimony to their genius. They make the seemingly impossible, possible. Their mission is to show that Venetian glassmaking is very much a living craft. To this end, they inaugurated the annual Venice Glass Week. Giberto and Yali Glass are two designers everyone should know. They adopted a fully modern vision to create pieces that turn the everyday into art.
Venetian Fabrics & Paper
Similarly to Venetian glass, Venetian cloth is globally renowned for its quality. The 200-year-old looms at Bevilacqua still click-clack away to weave sumptuous upholstery fabrics. Meanwhile, on the island of Giudecca, the secrets of Fortuny printed fabrics remain closely guarded. You can, however, admire all the patterns in their airy showroom. Mull over which fabrics to take home over a Bellini cocktail next door at Harry’s Dolci. The city’s other famed tessitura (textile factory) is Rubelli whose rich silks can also be found at Banco Lotto No.10. Banco Lotto is an initiative in which female prisoners make whimsical dresses, coats, and tops to purchase or to order.
Along with fabric and glass, paper is another of Venice’s historic trades. Hand-marbled notebooks from Alberto Valese make the perfect gifts. While customized business cards from Gianni Basso Stampatore are the ultimate symbol of a Venetian insider.
Venetians have honed the skill of blending old and new across the centuries thanks to the spatial limitations of their islands. Byzantine churches stand alongside Baroque façades while the recently renovated Renaissance Palazzo Grimani boasts a room filled with classical sculptures. No one, however, has had as much of an impact on the modern face of Venice as Carlo Scarpa.
His designs pepper the city, from the Biennale’s now-defunct ticket booth to the Olivetti Glass Showroom, and the Fondazione Querini Stampalia. At the Fondazione, he famously reduced Venice’s architecture to its essential elements: the portego, the garden, the entrance, and the bridge. Strolling through the zen garden of the museum to the sound of lapping water, surrounded by crumbling palazzi, it is impossible not to think of the defining sentence of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice.”
Where to Stay in Venice
This vibrant artistic community is a constant reminder that Venice is a city to be lived in and experienced. This means that choosing the right place to stay is key. Among the latest openings, The Venice Venice Hotel is a contemporary art-filled palazzo by the Rialto bridge, while the Ca’ di Dio’s medieval structure has just undergone a renovation by Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola. It now seamlessly merges gothic architecture with contemporary elegance. For complete artistic immersion, the best place to stay is at the Aman Venice where you can dream under the frescoes of rosy-cheeked putti by Tiepolo.
Even if you don’t stay at the Aman, it is a must to reserve a table for dinner at the hotel’s gourmet restaurant. Dining in the soft glow cast by age-speckled Murano mirrors is a dream. The hotel’s restaurant Arva is among a new generation of restaurants that have modernized Venetian cuisine together with other favorites Ristorante Local, Estro, and CoVino. Using the lagoon’s fresh fish and vegetables that are grown on the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo, the food at these spots is light, and innovative, displaying pride for Venice’s local produce.
For a complete sense of terroir, the ultimate dining experience is at Venissa, an idyllic winery, and resort. Catch a boat across the lagoon to reach the tiny island of Mazzorbo where you can indulge in Venissa’s farm-to-table tasting menu accompanied by the golden-hued Dorona wine grown in the surrounding vineyards. Opt to spend the night in one of their sleekly designed rooms and in the morning, you will be rewarded with the sight of the early sun burning through the mist on the water.
After a sumptuous breakfast, head over to the neighboring island of Torcello to stand before the oldest mosaics in the Lagoon. Located in the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta–and created by artisans who traveled from Istanbul–they serve as a reminder that Venice was once considered both the center of the world and a world of its own. Maybe it still is.