Every February, the canals, piazzas and palaces of Venice are transformed into a fabulous spectacle of parading and partying in splendid costumes and extravagant masks. This year, Venice Carnival stretches over three weekends, kicking off on 4 February and running through till Martedi Grasso (Mardi Gras) on 21 February. From morning to night, the city is jam-packed with a non-stop parade of outrageously-dressed people pursued by an entourage of snapping paparazzi photographers and whirring video cameras. While it's tempting to pay the earth to get yourself all decked out in opulent costumes and bejewelled masks and attend extravagant balls in gilded palazzi, there's just as much fun to be had for free in the Piazza San Marco itself, where carnival enthusiasts are proud of their home-made bumblebee and Mexican mariachi costumes. There are mask shops on every corner in Venice, but nothing compares to Mondonovo (Rio Tera Canal 3063), the artisan atelier that supplied masks for Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. If you want to hire a flamboyant ballgown, head straight for Nicolao Atelier (Fondamenta della Misericordia 2590; Nicolao.com), costumier to the stars. (To find out more about Venice carnival, the official website with a full programme is: Carnevale.venezia.it.)
Where to Stay in Venice:
When it comes to places to stay in Venice, choice is rarely an issue. Price, though, is another matter, with even the cheapest B&Bs starting at somewhere approaching the £100 mark. The golden rule is always book as far in advance as possible, especially at weekends when Venice is often fully booked. Budget-wise, friendly B&B Sandra (Corte Trapolin 2452; +39 041 720957; BBalessandra.com) is difficult to beat, especially their wood-beamed suite on the top floor with its canal views and access to the ‘altana’, a wooden rooftop terrace that's perfect for sundowners. For a splurge, there's always the internationally-renowned Hotel Cipriani or Danielli (the wonderful Gritti is closed for renovation). Possibly even more enticing, though, is to enjoy a more personal touch at a privately-owned Venice palazzo, such as the quaint Gabrielli (Riva degli Schiavoni 4110; +39 041 5231580; Hotelgabrielli.it) with its idyllic panoramas over St Mark’s basin, the chic boutique property, Novecento (Calle del Dose 2683; +39 041 2413765; Novecento.biz), which is sumptuously decorated in Fortuny-inspired silks and velvets, or either one of Hotel San Cassiano ca Favretto or Palazzo Abadessa. Bear in mind that hotel rates shoot up to stratospheric levels during Venice Carnival and any of the other annual mega events – be it the Biennale of Art or La Mostra Film Festival.
Where to Eat in Venice:
Right now, everyone wants to get a table at the historic Caffe Quadri (Piazza San Marco 120; +39 041 5222105). For years it was the old-fashioned ‘other’ address on St Mark’s Square, opposite everyone’s favourite, the quintessentially Venetian Caffe Florian. Now, though, Italy’s top triple Michelin-starred chef, Massimiliano Alajmo has taken over, serving creative dishes like beef carpaccio with a subtle clam sauce, seaweed and caviar. For celeb-spotting, don’t miss PG’s (Ramo Grassi 3247, +39 041 243 3297), Johnny Depp’s favourite hangout while filming The Tourist, where chef Luigi Cascella puts on a theatrical show every night in a sleek open kitchen designed by Philippe Starck. For delicious, reasonably-priced Venetian fare, stick to the traditional ‘bacari’ bars, where a glass of Prosecco will cost a couple of euros and a tasty plate of ‘cichetti’ - grilled baby squid on polenta, chunks of mortadella, plump artichoke hearts, creamy baccala salt cod - not much more. Al Bottegon (Fondamenta Nani 992; +39 041 5230034) sits right on a romantic canal, Alla Vedova (Calle del Pistor 3912; +39 041 5285324) and has beautiful decor that hasn’t changed in a century, while Al Timon (Fondamenta degli Ormesini 2754, +39 041 5246066) is a funky modern ‘bacaro’ with occasional live music on a boat moored outside.
Where to Go Out in Venice:
To soak up classic Venice, the evening has to begin around Piazza San Marco with a Bellini at Harry’s Bar (Calle Valaresso 1323; +39 041 528 5777). But don’t expect to see many locals, and don’t even think about how much the bill will be. A better bet is to hunt down the cool Taverna Del Campiello Remier (Campiello del Remer 5701; +39 041 522 8789), with the ultimate waterside view of the Grand Canal and a lavish complimentary buffet to accompany your evening ‘aperitivo’.
When it comes to nightlife, the Serenissima lives up to its name – there basically isn’t any. Take a vaporetto over to the island of Giudecca to check out the hip Skyline rooftop bar (Giudecca 811; +39 041 272 3311), with its unparalleled vistas over the city, Martinis and Margaritas, and DJs every weekend. For a more laid-back scene – and a great place to meet the locals – there’s live jazz most weekends at Round Midnight (Ponte dei Pugni 3102; +39 041 523 2056); it's just by Campo Santa Margherita, which has cool bars like Orange (+39 041 5234740) and Caffe Rosso (+39 041 528 7998), serving Venice’s favourite drink, ‘spritz al bitter’, a combination of white wine, Campari and seltz. Be warned, though: don’t order too many.
Where to Shop in Venice:
From Prada to Versace and Fendi to Bottega Veneta, every Italian haute-couture designer has a prestigious showroom in Venice, most situated around what could be called ‘Via della Moda’ on Calle Valaresso and the adjoining Calle Larga XXII Marzo. But Milan is where to go fashion shopping, and for really original discoveries, Venice has plenty of insider addresses like Malfatte (Calle Zancan 2433), which stocks hip accessories made by prisoners in the city jail. Their ‘Spritz’ T shirt is a much better souvenir than any carnival mask, and now they’ve created a funky range of Freitag-inspired bags at bargain prices. Track down the irresistible vintage outfits stocked in the Aladdin’s cave-like boutique of Laura Crovato (Calle delle Botteghe 2995), from classic 50s and 60s styles to labels like Ralph Lauren and Gucci. And for fabulous fantasy shoes, don’t miss the atelier of Giovanna Zanella (Campo San Lio 5641) where each shoe is hand-made and totally unique.
What to Wear in Venice:
Comfortable flatties or trainers are indispensable for tearing around during the day. While tourists invariably dress down, Venetians themselves make an effort to be stylish at all times, so high heels are de rigeur for going out at night – though beware of tripping on one of the many bridges. If you visit the city in the Aqua Alta season (October-March) when the city often floods, a pair of wellies comes in very handy.
Don’t Leave Venice Without:
…something made of Murano glass. While it’s very difficult to find something original and creative that doesn’t cost the earth, it’s also the perfect reminder of Venice if you come across the right item. Avoid tourist-trap boat trips to Murano’s glass factories and either be tempted by one of the wonderful limited-edition glasses in the Carlo Moretti showroom (Campo San Moise 1468; +39 041 522 1973), or delicate, glittering earrings by American designer, Leslie Genninger (Campiello Barbaro 364; +39 041 522 5565).
Beauty SOS – Where to Go for Pampering in Venice:
Venice is not really not a spa city, but if you have time to kill and money to burn, then jump in the Cipriani’s private motorboat at San Marco, and be whisked off to their luxury Casanova massage and beauty centre (Hotelcipriani.it). Getting dolled up for a glitzy carnival ball is important, and the crucial insider to know is Pascal Cariou, a coiffeur who used to snip for French ELLE fashion shoots, and who’ll primp your hair for you round at his place (Calle del Frutariol 3865; +39 041 241 1868).