The palatial facades and peeling pastel backstreets of Venice are slowly sinking into the sea. Paula Hardy shows you how to experience Italy’s Floating City before it goes the way of Atlantis.
Few visitors to Venice make it out of bed before breakfast, so sunrise is the best time to catch the city unawares. Join early morning joggers on one of the world’s great promenades, the Riva degli Schiavoni, for peerless views across the lagoon to Palladio’s marble marvel, San Giorgio Maggiore. Then grab a heavenly almond croissant at Pasticceria da Bonifacio (Calle degli Albanesi 4237, 041 522 7507) if you can elbow your way in past the crowd of gondoliers and Venetian housewives. With the city still waking up, now’s the time to sneak a picture of the Basilica di San Marco (Piazza San Marco, 041 270 8311) as the morning sun strikes the golden mosaics on the facade bathing it in an otherworldly glow.
As the city finally swings into action, jump aboard vaporetto (Venetian water bus) No 1 for a ride up the Grand Canal past 50 palaces and mansions. To your left you’ll spot Longhena’s pearly white Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute beside the Punta della Dogana (Dorsoduro 2, 044 523 0313), Venice’s old customs warehouse now reinvented as a contemporary art gallery. Then you’ll duck under the wooden Ponte dell’Accademia and round the bend by the baroque palace of Ca’ Rezzonico. When you hear your fellow passengers catch their breath at the sight of oversized contemporary sculptures outside the neoclassical Palazzo Grassi (Campo San Samuele 3231, 041 523 1680), disembark to enjoy its world-class exhibitions rounded off with a coffee in its artist-styled rooftop café.
Return to the Grand Canal and re-board the vaporetto northwards to the Rialto market (San Polo), where fishmongers and farmers have been selling the daily catch and seasonal produce for over 700 years. Peering over strange lagoon delicacies such as moscardini (baby octopus) and granseole (spider crabs), you’ll find the source of inspiration for many a Murano glass chandelier. As nonnas (grandmothers) fight over the last Bassano asparagus for lunch, duck out of the market and head to All’Arco (Calle dell’Ochialer 436, 041 520 5666) for the city’s best cicchetti (Venetian tapas), where father-son chefs Francesco and Matteo create dishes from ingredients you just saw in the market.
If you’re in town on the last Friday of the month, don’t miss Palazzo Mocenigo’s (Santa Croce 1992, 041 721 798) 2pm tour of its secret attic storeroom when costume historians lead up to 15 people through palace closets, revealing 17th-century peacock frock-coats and teetering heels worn by fashionable courtesans. Otherwise, head south to the hip neighbourhood of Dorsoduro, where heiress Peggy Guggenheim lived in style at art-crammed Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (Dorsoduro 701, 041 240 5411). Here you can wander through interiors styled by major Modernists enjoying the work of over 200 breakthrough modern artists including Kandinsky, Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Umberto Boccioni. Afterwards enjoy a coffee in the pavilion overlooking the sculpture garden where Peggy was buried, by special dispensation, beneath her Giacometti sculptures.
The shopping scene in Venice isn’t all about ghastly glass figurines and carnival masks. The neighbourhood of Dorsoduro, particularly around the Guggenheim Collection, is chock full of artisan studios such as Murano masters Marina e Susanna Sent (Campo San Vio 669, 041 520 8136) who craft statement jewellery out of molten glass. A little further north along the Rio di San Barnaba, you’ll find ceramicist Danghyra (Calle delle Botteghe 3220, 041 522 4195), silk and wool weaver Arras (Campiello dei Squelini 3235, 041 522 6460) and Signor Blum (Campo San Barnaba 2840, 041 522 6367), a carpenter who fashions 2D puzzles of Venetian landmarks, model boat kits and Calder-esque mobiles.
It’s about time to check into your hotel, and you couldn’t find a more luxurious place to drop off those shopping bags than the Aqua Palace (Calle de la Malvasia 5492, 041 296 0442), where 25 suites interpret the spice route past of Marco Polo with a burnished gold colour palette and acres of marble and silk. Kinder on the purse, but no less artful, is Domus Orsoni (Cannaregio 1045, Corte Vedei, 041 275 9538), with its palm-shaded garden. It’s tucked down a quiet lane in the historic Ghetto neighbourhood, where Venice’s Jewish population were once segregated. Make neighbourhood friends quickly by joining a tutored wine tasting at La Cantina (Campo San Felice 3689, 041 522 8258) with sommeliers from Venetian Vine.
Lucky for you Cannaregio is a residential area and therefore well stocked with good quality dining options. For a unique experience, book ahead for dinner at Dalla Marisa (Fondamenta di San Giobbe 652b, 041 720 211) where you’ll dine on whatever’s cooking that night. Pace yourself through a multi-course meat or fish extravaganza with bountiful house wine to boot. Fish night is Tuesday and usually sees an impressive haul of lagoon seafood grilled, fried and perched atop pasta. Another neighbourhood Venetian stalwart for fine dining is Anice Stellato (Fondamenta del la Sensa 3272, 041 720 744). After 2100. Osteria alla Bifora (Campo Santa Margherita 2930, 041 523 6119) is a chandelier-lit medieval wine cave that sets the scene for gentle flirting over big-hearted Amarone (rich Italian red wine). For cocktails, Harry’s Bar (Calle Vallaresso 1323, 041 528 5777) is unequivocally the most famous drinking hole in Venice and is worth a look for the historical associations alone. When you’ve drunk your fill of outrageously priced cocktails, follow the stream of students towards Campo Santa Margarita in Dorsoduro where the city’s hip young crowd drinks at café-bars until dawn.