You’re never going to see Venice quite like this again. Usually swarming with tourists – not to mention the enormous cruise ships that dock in its waters – the city has been given a serious breather by the coronavirus pandemic. Those lengthy queues to get into its most famous hotspots have disappeared; the picturesque back streets lie empty and a dramatic fall in water traffic has seen the sediment in its 150 canals settle, allowing their vibrant colour to return. La Serenissima – much to many of the locals’ relief – has become serene once more.
Where to stay
In a city where five-star luxury errs towards intricate brocades and heavy gilding, Hotel Cipriani is all about understated old-world charm: think crisp white walls, elegant antiques and intricate Fortuny fabrics. Perched on the edge of Giudecca island, overlooking the lagoon towards St Mark’s Square, it’s a firm celebrity favourite: Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and Ronald Reagan have all stayed here, while Elizabeth Taylor’s dog Honey was once served its own ‘cocktail’ at the Gabbiano bar (water in a Murano glass bowl).
Come the annual Venice film festival, the hotel is almost completely taken over by the Hollywood jet set, drawn by the Cipriani’s seclusion and privacy, plus the chance to swim in central Venice’s only pool (Olympic-sized, of course). Although its Michelin-starred Oro restaurant recently reopened, catering to one table only because of Covid restrictions, we recommend Cip’s Club, built at the front of the hotel on a floating pontoon.
Enjoy dishes such pumpkin blossom stuffed with vegetables and ricotta, and potato gnocchi with sautéed scallops, before finishing with a Bellini – the cocktail was invented by the hotel’s founder Giuseppe Cipriani. OK it’s expensive, but if your budget can extend to even just one night it’s well worth it.
This 32-room boutique hotel, part of the Experimental Group and overlooking the Giudecca canal in the laidback Dorsoduro district, has a distinctive Wes Anderson feel. Candy-cane stripes mix with traditional Venetian terracotta and teals, sleek art deco curves and cute nautical touches, such as the anchor door handles (the building was once owned by the Adriatica shipping line).
Its restaurant, Il Ristorante Adriatica, serves a good breakfast, but it’s at night – when Chef Toto D’Aringa, of London’s Italian Supper Club takes over – that the scarlet booths and banquettes really come into their own.
A visit to the bar, created by Cristina Celestino with a tree-lined, canal-fronted garden, is also a must: run by the Experimental Cocktail Club, there’s no better place to enjoy an Aperol Spritz with a twist.
What to see
You may want to head straight to San Marco, where many of Venice’s most famous sights can be found, but resist the temptation and instead use your first day to get your bearings by exploring the city’s quieter Dorsoduro and San Polo districts.
Heavy tourism has done much to scupper the flânerie – the centuries-old practice of meandering along the canal paths – but with the calli semi empty now is the perfect time to revive the tradition. Leave your iPhone in your pocket, tuck away your guidebook map and enjoy the experience of discovering small galleries, tiny churches and traditional taverns. In the afternoon head to the Gallerie dell’Accademia for an expert lesson in Venetian painting or the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which has works by everyone from Picasso to Mondrian.
For your second day, it’s time to go touristy. Even if you’ve been to Venice before you’ll want to revisit all the big hitters: when else will you get to savour Tintoretto’s ‘Paradise’ alone in the cavernous Great Council Room in Doge’s Palace, even for just a few minutes, or enjoy the spectacle of St Mark’s Basilica without the wall-to-wall crowds? We’d still advise you to ditch the gondola ride though – we were quoted an eyewatering €80 for a 15-minute slot.
Where to eat and drink
If you want to splash out on one big (read expensive) meal in Venice, let it be here. Overlooking the Giudecca canal, just a stone’s throw from Il Palazzo Experimental, this chic restaurant, boasting one of the best views in the city, is hugely popular with everyone from couples on a mini break to gourmets looking for their next carb hit. Run by a former rock star, GP Cremonini, it boasts an à la carte menu from €65 for two courses, featuring the freshest seafood and rich desserts, or if you’re feeling peckish try the eight- (€98) or 12-course (€135) tasting menus, made up of ingredients chosen that day in the markets.
You’ll be forgiven for walking past this Venice institution, which at first glance looks more like a wine shop than foodie hidden gem. But step inside and you’ll see dozens of delicious fresh cicchetti (Venetian tapas – but don’t use the ‘T’ word to locals) lining the bar. Order a handful, grab a Prosecco – at a wallet-friendly €2.50 a glass – and settle by the canal to watch the tradesmen in the gondola workshop opposite.
Not all restaurants surrounding St Mark’s Square are bland and overpriced, as this little bistro proves. Just two minutes’ walk from the main basilica, ‘The Laughing Cat’, run by chefs Davide Scarpa and Leonardo Bozzato, has created everything from lighter courses featuring crab linguine and seared octopus, to heavier tasting menus for those with an hour or two to spend. There’s a great wine list made up of 450 labels, too.
You can’t come to Italy and not have a gelato (really, it’s impossible), but with dozens of stalls scattered across the city you need to choose wisely. Gelatoteca Suso, located in a quiet arcade a stone’s throw from the Rialto Bridge, has everything: creamy, classic flavours – dark chocolate, tiramisu – and natural ingredients, all for just a couple of euros a scoop.