A winter weekend in VENICE

January

Moonlit canals, faded pink palaces, and fantastic food, Venice rewards off season travelers

Duration: Weekend

I had been to Venice before, but a weekend getaway in January with cheap flights, off season hotel prices, and empty streets revealed an entirely new city. Venice is strikingly beautiful in a way that almost doesn’t feel real. Without crowded walkways, hoards of tourists, and oppressive summer heat, you can get lost in your thoughts and enjoy all of Venice’s beauty for yourself. There are unbelievable museums, churches, and food to fit in around all that ambling, making for one of Europe’s best winter destinations.  

  • Sight Seeing 100% 100%
  • Food 100% 100%
  • Ease of Transportation 90% 90%
  • Activities 90% 90%

Touristy sites that are actually worth it:

St Mark’s Basilica – Jaded European traveller that I am, I often think ‘you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’ when it comes to most churches you in European cities. However, even if you’ve traipsed through every cathedral in Europe, St Mark’s will blow you away. It’s a shimmering, glittering, gold plated marvel where Byzantine and Eastern influence meets Catholicism. Admission is free and it’s well worth a walkthrough. Download the Rick Steves audio guide if you really want to nerd out (it’s super informative and points out particular panels and ceiling details). You can pay to access the roof and other parts of the Basilica but we skipped these.

Doge’s Palace – right next to St Mark’s Basilica, this beautiful pale pink ornate building was the seat of government for Venice, which was, for a time, the richest city state in Europe. I would highly recommend the guided ‘secret itineraries’ tour, which will take you around parts of the palace closed to regular visitors. Buy your tour, and before it departs, give yourself at least half an hour to walk through all the main halls open to standard visitors. What you’ll see is room after room of frescoed ceilings, brocade wall coverings, enormous carved fireplaces, and slightly creepy senate rooms with wooden throne-like chairs for the ‘Council of 10’ and other government committees. Venice looks rich, prosperous, and ruled by an imperious and efficient state machine. Now comes the secret itinerary tour, where you’ll wind through narrow hidden passageways, attics, and basements above, behind, and below all the grand rooms you were just touring. Here are the prisons, the interrogation rooms, the confession areas. Here are the mailboxes where citizens could inform on one another to the relevant government bodies. You’ll also hear of some of the more famous escapes like Casanova. The effect is an incredible one two punch of façade and what goes on behind the scenes, and was far more entertaining and interesting than I was expecting. One note, I went in January and was able to buy a ticket for the same morning with no problem. I hear in summer this can sell out months in advance online, and some of the secret attic rooms can get absolutely roasting (tour guides themselves have apparently fainting). Yet another reason I’d say winter is the best time to visit Venice.

Peggy Guggenheim Museum – An impeccable collection of the best 20th century Western art housed in a palazzo on the Grand Canal. After two days of sumptuous Venetian art, brocade, gilding, palaces, and churches, the Peggy Guggenheim was like a palate cleanser in the best way. Seeing Picassos, Miros, Pollocks, and Calders in a city of such decaying, romantic beauty was an unexpectedly effective experience. Peggy was larger than life, an eccentric heiress with conviction in her taste and an eye for talented artists. If you took the many floors of New York’s MOMA, took out one or two of the best works by each leading artist, and put them in a manageable, intimate, single-story setting on the grand canal in Venice, you’ll have some approximation of this collection. I absolutely loved it and left wanting to find out more about Peggy.

Wander and get lost – Venice is one of the best cities to just walk and wander. Remarkably safe and clean, with limited ways you can truly get ‘lost’ given its island form, Venice rewards the ambler at every turn. It’s arguably the most photogenic city in Europe. The light (in January at least) was beautiful, and as soon as you get out of the congested center around St Mark’s , there are lovely areas to explore. Castello, Canareggio, and Dosorduro are all worth wandering around. Just walk, wander, and bring a camera!

A final note on walking at night: I arrived alone at midnight on the airport bus (ATVO) and felt safe making my way from Villa Romana all the way to the congested area around San Marco (about a 25 minute walk). It was midnight, the sky was clear with stars overhead, and I walked down quiet narrow streets navigating by google maps (which worked shockingly well and were more accurate in Venice than I would have expected). It was an amazing way to first encounter Venice – with almost no one else around – and quiet streets where I could only hear my own footsteps echoing down the stone walkways.  There are very few bus terminals in the world where I would feel comfortable walking around alone, but this was one of them.

Cruise down the Grand Canal on a Vaporetto – Venice should be seen by boat at some point and a cheap ride on the #2 slow boat from the train station down to St Mark’s hits all the major sites. It takes 45 minutes and is a fantastic way to see Venice from the water. My mom gets full credit for turning me on to the Rick Steve’s audio guides that you can download on your phone. She has faithfully bought every guide book and watched every Rick Steve’s video over the years, but I generally stick to blogs and more contemporary sources (instagram, etc) when I’m figuring out where to go for a short weekend. That said, the quality and content of the Rick Steve’s audio guide is good (if cheesy in parts), and it’s valuable to have your hands and eyes free to look all around you rather than burying your head in a guidebook. His audio tour of the Grand Canal is specifically timed to point things out as you ride the#2, and it really gives you a sense of the layout and major landmarks to explore for the rest of your trip.

Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore – Just a 5 minute vaporetto ride across the canal from San Marco, this church on it’s own little island supposedly has the best views of venice form it’s Campanile. Next time I would love to come check this out.

The Accademia – Between St Mark’s, the Doge’s Palace, and the Peggy Guggenheim, as well as the Frari Chapel and Sante Chapel, I didn’t quite have the energy for another museum. Additionally, Venetian Renaissance art isn’t my favourite Italian style (don’t tell anyone in Venice), so I skipped this. Next time I’m in Venice, I’ll try to make time for this.

What about a gondola ride? This didn’t appeal to me at all. Aside from the set €80 price tag, and the fact that I was alone (no thank you on the awkward solo ride), I wouldn’t have wanted to do this even if I’d been travelling with a partner or friend. I find it a bit awkward and a bit too Disney, but if you want a Gondola ride, by all means get one.

Where to Eat

From cicchetti in boisterous bars, to fresh pasta eaten at an old restaurant on a quiet canal, Venice is a food lover’s paradise. Just avoid St Mark’s Square and any of the major tourist-facing cafés to avoid insane prices and mediocre, inauthentic tourist traps. Make a few reservations ahead of time to get into the really good places where locals eat. And if you arrive in Venice late at night and want to begin your culinary adventures right away, Pako’s Pizza is open 24 hours, whipping up fresh pizza to order. 

1. Antiche Carampane – My best meal in Venice was also my only reservation. I’m trying to get more organized with identifying one key meal a day and trying to get a reservation, as I’ve found in Italy in particular, you can be SOL trying to get into some of the really amazing places, even as a solo diner. I’ve learned the hard way about Sunday lunch being a meal many Italians plan to eat out, and plan by making a reservation. Don’t think you’re just going to walk into a primo pasta place without a booking on a weekend in particular. While at Antiche Carampane, I heard a few walk ins turned away for lunch while I was sipping my cold glass of white wine from the Friuli region. This cosy trattoria checked all the boxes: warm welcoming ambience, familial atmosphere, sublime food, and plenty of Italians and regulars dining and chatting with the maître’s. (Good litmus test: if you are dining in a restaurant with no other Italian patrons, you’re not in the right place). I’ve also heard Emma Thompson and other celebrities stop here when they’re in town for film festivals, etc. I came for moeche since I was in Venice for their winter season and was not disappointed. Salty, lightly fried in an Italian, tempura style, these small soft shell crabs were divine with the aforementioned wine. For my main course, I had the Tagliolini with stone crab ragu. It was heaven. I’ve had salads in the US that were somehow heavier than this pasta dish. The thin ribbons were airy and light, cooked to perfection, and infused with fresh crab and herb flavors with every bite. The entire meal and experience were perfect, and I will absolutely return next time I’m in Venice.

2. Pasticceria Rizzardini– Rather than get dessert at Antiche Carampane, I walked a few blocks to get a coffee and tiramisu at this amazing little family bakery. €1.80 for a small slice of tiramisu was a perfect sweet bite, along with a little cappuccino pick me before walking off my lunch. Note: the tiramisu was so good, I returned the following day to get a selection of 5 desserts to bring back with me on the plane. The pignola and frambosa were particular standouts.

3. Estro-Vino e Cucina – I had lunch at this slick, modern wine bar and the food and service are high quality and delicious. Lunch took a long time, but if you’re not in a hurry, it was a good place for a sophisticated take on Italian favorites. I also saw the maitre d’ from Antiche Carampane dining here with his family so I knew I’d found a legit spot if he was there on his day off! The restaurant was filled with other Italians.

4. Adriatico Mar – Small, charming little wine bar a few doors down from Estre Vino e Cucina overlooking a canal. It has just a few seats but a large selection of wines, knowledgable staff to recommend and let you taste them, and a fantastic cheese and meat plate with crusty bread.

Bacari / Cicchetti around Venice 

These little bars that serve snacks typically eaten standing up are scattered all throughout Venice. Just don’t call them tapas, they’re cicchetti and I’m going to take the unpopular opinion that they’re overrated. For a drink, I would definitely stop in one or two as they’re lively and filled with a mix of locals and tourists. Get a spritz, or try a regional wine, and soak in the atmosphere before moving on. For food, I found the selection to be pretty much the same at all of them, and while it seems like a good idea at the time, you end up filling up on mediocre bread with a bit of spread or a slice of meat or fish on top…calories that I wished I was spending on handmade pasta, but maybe that’s just me. I did go to several that had charming ambience including:

1. Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi – Recommended by the owner of London’s popular Venetian-style restaurant Polpo in this helpful foodie guide to Venice.

2. Ca’d’Oro alla Vedova – Famous for their meatballs, this stop was heaving with people and did not disappoint. Spritz, toothpick, meatball (or two), and you’re on your way to the next bar! (Note: these ara a unique dry/friend sort of meatball. Don’t come here expecting a wet, sauce covered meatball).

3. Ristorante La Cantina Venezia – Another Polpo rec, they were playing great American jazz and blues records on vinyl when I was there.

4. Cantina Azienda Agricola – Seems to be on the walking tour of bacari itinerary, I overheard tourists being guided through the bar snacks menu by their local guides. My experience was good, not great.

5. Bakaro – Very small but quaint place to have a glass of wine standing at their outside bar. The typical cicchetti on toast offerings.

I still want to try…

1. Osteria All’Arco – I didn’t make it to this one but it’s highly recommended on multiple food lists – I’ll try to go next time!

2. Al Merca – I was saving myself for lunch when I walked past this packed cichetti stall that was featured in the NY Times 36 Hours in Venice article. People were spilling out into the street sipping wine from sleek stemware and eating tiny sandwiches that I am still regretting I missed trying. Next time!

3. Al Timon Bragozzo – this looked highly recommended on various food blogs but was closed both days I was in Venice.

4. Osteria alle Testiere – I tried (and failed) to get a reservation at what is widely lauded as the best restaurant in Venice so this is definitely on my list for next time. Everyone from 36 hour NYTimes, to culture trip, to the Polpo guide all called this out for it’s impeccable classic Venetian cooking experience.

5. Ristorante al Covo – This is Ruth Rodger’s recommendation in Venice so I was dying to go. (Ruth is the chef/God behind The River Café in London). Sadly it was closed the weekend I was in town so I’ll have to make another trip for this!

A few other restaurants that I read about and bookmarked but just couldn’t get to: 

In Canareggio

1. Vino Vero – We walked by and it looked popping off on a canal in Canareggio, this came highly recommended by a friend.

2. Paradiso Perduto – For late night, hip drinking on the canal

3. Ostaria da Rioba

4. Trattoria da Bepi – Has a crab appetizer that is highly recommended.

5. Ciccheteria Venexiana da Luca e Fred

6. Osteria Anice Stellato

7. Al Bacco

8. Trattoria dalla Marisa – No frills, home cooking.

In San Polo

1. Osteria La Zucca – Vegetarian focused menu, great pastas.

2. Acqua e Mais – Street food

3. Al Ponte Storto Osteria Con Cucina

4. Naranzaria – On the canal

In Santa Croce

1. Gelateria Alaska – This is supposed to be the best in town with fresh, unusual flavors. Sadly it was closed when I was there.

In Dorsoduro

1. Il Caffe Rosso – I read about this bohemian, student-loved caffe in numerous places but never quite made it there.

2. Al Chioschetto – Nice outdoor bar . It wasn’t a priority for me in January but it looks great for the summer.

In Castello

1. Osteria Alla Staffa

2. El Refolo – for an authentic Venetian spritz involving Select, not Aperol.

3. Trattoria alla Rampa, an authentic local spot supposedly filled with workers from the neighborhood.

Venice sources I found helpful:

This guide of where to eat for those visiting the Biennale mentioned a bunch of places that popped up on other lists (if I see a restaurant pop up on multiple lists, that’s when I tend to add it to my own list to check out), it also had a few additional Castello spots that often get left off of other tourist guides

This writeup, by a popular London-based, Venetian-style restaurant. Always good to get food recommendations from people in the industry.

And then the usual suspects that I always consult; The Culture Trip, and old New York Times 36 Hour In… just make sure places are still in business if you’re using an old article from years ago. There are often a few that no longer exist. I try to look for Rick Steves’ recommendations, and blog articles, and then see which places rise to the top with mentions from multiple sources when I create my own hit list. If someone whose taste you share makes a personal recommendation, or a recommendation comes from a local, always check it out. In Venice, Antiche Carampagne, Osteria alle Testiere, Ristorante al Covo, Gelateria Alaska, and Al Merca were some of the obvious must do’s that came up again and again.

I read while in Venice:

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann – I’d somehow never read this famous novella so this was the perfect opportunity. Um, wow I really didn’t know what it was about. Think Lolita but instead of a young girl, it’s a creepy older man following a young boy around…I didn’t love it. Yes I know it’s a metaphor for art and divine inspiration and creativity and yadda yadda… reading it in 2019 I think we’re all a bit over the old male creep masquerading as a deep, artistic genius, no?

I then read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi by Geoff Dyer and absolutely loved it. I remember reading the review in the NY Review of Books years ago and thinking ‘I’ll get to that’ and this seemed like the perfect time. For a modern riff on male malaise in Venice, with the Biennale in the background, this hits the right note of self awareness.  

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