You may have heard that Venice is an engineering marvel, with marble churches built atop ancient posts driven deep into the barene (mud banks) – but the truth is that this city is built on sheer nerve. Reasonable people might blanch at water approaching their doorsteps and flee at the first sign of acqua alta (high tide). But reason can’t compare to Venetian resolve. Instead of bailing out, Venetians have flooded the world with voluptuous Venetian-red paintings and wines, music, Marco Polo spice-route flavours, and bohemian-chic fashion. And they’re not done yet.
But don’t go expecting to have the city to yourself. Even in the foot-stomping chill of January, Venice has its admirers. The upside is that you’ll keep fascinating company here. More accessible than ever and surprisingly affordable given its singularity, Venice remains a self-selecting city: it takes a certain imagination to forgo the convenience of cars and highways for slow boats and crooked calli. Sculptors, harpsichordists, sushi chefs and dreamers passing as accountants might end up bumping elbows over heaping plates of risotto di seppie (squid risotto) along scuffed wooden tables in authentic osterie (pub-restaurants). Judging by the crowd, you might think the Art Biennale must be happening – but no, that’s just an average Wednesday night in Venice.
Venice is best when caught between acts, after the day trippers rush off to beat afternoon traffic, and before cruise ships dump dazed newcomers off in Piazza San Marco with three hours to see all of Venice before lunch. Those visitors may never get to see Venice in its precious downtime, when gondoliers warm up their vocal chords with scorching espresso on their way to work, and mosaic artisans converge at the bar for tesserae shoptalk over a spritz (prosecco-based drink).
When to Go
Travellers looking for elbow room for sketching in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, casual conversation with Venetians and spontaneous weekend dinners without reservations would be better off going in Venice’s quieter months of October through March. But even solitary types will find that some Venetian experiences are better in a crowd: happy hours, thunderous encores at La Fenice, and the chorus of ‘ooh!’ as crowds pass through the portals of Basilica di San Marco to glimpse shimmering gold mosaic domes overhead. For a balance of quiet moments and collective euphoria, stay at least overnight in Venice, so you can see what the city is like after the crowd thins out and the moon rises, and in the morning when the town throws back an espresso and starts the show all over again.
You’ll probably pay a premium for the privilege of being in town for masquerade balls during Carnevale, gala art openings for the Biennale, or star-studded premieres at the Venice International Film Festival. But this city has been internationally famed (and notorious) for its party-throwing prowess since the 16th century, and you can see why at any of the city’s major shindigs.
Since Venice is gorgeous inside and out, bad weather doesn’t have to scuttle your travel plans. The only thing more splendid than your first glimpse of Venice may be the sight of Venice reflected in a puddle – or on very rare occasions, Venice’s Gothic arches and gondola prows poking through a white blanket of snow. Bone-chilling weather in January and February can bring crystalline blue skies ideal for photo ops and gooey hot cocoa in Piazza San Marco. The heaviest rains fall from December through March, but you might luck into a freak summer thunderstorm – after you see lightning strikes over the lagoon, you’ll have a whole new appreciation of Tintoretto brushstrokes and the thunderous summer movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. July and August tend to be hot and muggy, but if you get uncomfortable, make like a Venetian on vacation and escape to Lido beaches or the Riviera Brenta.
Festivals & Events
Three rules for revellers are posted in major vaporetto stops: no littering in the canals, no defacing historic buildings, and no strutting about bare-breasted. The fact that Venice feels obliged to post that last regulation shows that opportunities for, erm, self-expression don’t begin and end with Carnevale.
Whether you like to spend your downtime getting arty, sweaty, mystical, or all of the above, Venice has you covered with Biennales, marathons, and weddings to the sea. The busiest months for traditional festivities are May through September; find out more about many of Venice’s upcoming events at Cultura & Spettacolo.