With its Adriatic lagoon, historic palazzi, splashy new hotels and emerging contemporary art scene, Venice always has something new to discover (and that's whether you've been there twice or 20 times). Our 4-day insider itinerary takes you to the city's best boutiques, museums, restaurants, landmarks and more.
No traveler should miss out on the landmarks around Piazza San Marco; thankfully, there are ways to beat the crowds. Sign up for a private tour with Walks of Italy, which takes you to parts of the Doge's Palace typically closed to the public, from secret passages to Casanova's prison cell; the company also offers an after-hours visit of the mosaic-covered St. Mark's Basilica. While you can't forgo a gondola ride down the Grand Canal, consider renting your own topetta (a traditional flat-bottomed vessel) from Brussa is Boat to explore the lagoon as you please.
Hungry? Head to CoVino, a tiny, contemporary eatery that opened in the Castello district a couple of years ago and quickly became a favorite among in-the-know Venetians, thanks to its seasonal small plates and wine pairings. Another standout: the recently expanded, brick-walled Il Ridotto, where chef Gianni Bonaccorsi creates dishes inspired by the land (guinea hen stuffed with mushrooms and truffles) and sea (black spaghetti with sea-urchins, candied peppers and black cabbage). And what's Italy without gelato? Don't miss the nearby artisanal Gelateria Mela Verde, with flavors that change daily.
As for where to stay? Take your pick. Both JW Marriott and St. Regis just made their Venice debuts on private islands — the former with glass-walled guestrooms and a rooftop infinity pool on Isola delle Rose; the latter a revamp of a 12th-century monastery on Isola di San Clemente. There's also the new Hotel L'Orologio, housing 43 rooms that look over the Grand Canal, and the Aman Canal Grande, in a 16th-century palazzo, with contemporary furnishings, original Tiepolo frescoes and gilding galore. If you're looking for more affordable digs, try Generator Hostel, a freshly converted grain store with antique fixtures and funky common areas.
Start with breakfast at Pasticceria Alla Bragora, a small, family-run pastry shop that serves fresh-baked brioche and frothy cappuccinos in the Castello district. It's not far from the 56th International Art Exhibit at the Venice Biennale (until November 22) — "All the World's Futures," curated by the Nigerian art critic Okwui Enwezor. This year, 53 countries are participating from Italy and France to Mongolia and the Republic of Mozambique, and there's a new, David Adjaye-designed live art Arena.
Even when the Biennale isn't on, Venice has a booming contemporary art scene. At the tip of Dorsoduro island, the Punta Della Dogana, restored by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, showcases the standout collection of French businessman Francois Pinault. At the nearby Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a lovely palazzo on the Grand Canal, find her personal collection of 20th-century American and European masterpieces. Another worth a stop: the Fondazione Prada, which hosts rotating experimental exhibits.
Evening in Venice means aperitivo time, and you're right near the bustling Rialto market, whose back alleys are filled with bars that serve wine with Venetian-style tapas. Stop at Al Merca for polpette (meatballs), or Osteria Bancogiro for crostini topped with whipped, salted codfish. Or sign up for a cicchetti and wine tour with Urban Adventures; a local guide will take you to some of the city's most historic and hidden wine bars.
Sure, you could go home with a kitschy mask and/or a gondolier hat, but if you’re after more rarified gems, make time to check out Venice’s stylish homegrown boutiques. Not far from Piazza San Marco, there’s Nardi, which has been handcrafting colorful gemstone baubles since the 1920s; the Merchant of Venice, whose perfumes are sold in Murano-glass bottles and inspired by the city's historic trade routes; and Chiarastella Cattana, where you'll find chic jacquard cushions plus linen kimonos. For gorgeous gold-plated ceramic bowls and vases, all made by hand, head to Danghyra on Dorsoduro. The posh Cannaregio area is your go-to for whimsical men's and women's shoes. We love Giovanna Zanella.
For lunch, swing by chef Bruno Gavagnin's buzzy Osteria alle Testiere, near Santa Maria Formosa. The intimate spot has just 10 tables and is packed with locals who come for the grilled razor clams. Or head to the authentic trattoria Antiche Carampane—the place for spaghetti del doge (with crab) and other Venetian classics.
Walk five minutes west to the 10th-century Church of San Giovanni Evangelista where the Venice Music Project hosts Baroque concerts featuring period instruments, with a portion of the proceeds used toward the restoration of the church. Other performance venues worth checking out: Francois Pinault's Teatrino, the latest phase of his Palazzo Grassi cultural center on the Grand Canal, and the historic Teatro Malibran, where operas are put on in a grand palazzo that once belonged to the family of Marco Polo.
End the day with dinner at Locanda Cipriani on the island of Torcello. Although a little on the touristy side, the restaurant's setting is unbeatable and the Venetian classics like seafood risotto are pitch-perfect.
Don't leave Venice without buying some one-of-a-kind glassware (just beware of touristy shops selling subpar objects). For the real deal, hop a 20-minute vaporetto to Murano island. Check out Seguso Gianni, which specializes in decorative vases and custom-designed chandeliers, and Murano Collezioni, where you'll find Italian designer Carlo Moretti's colorful contemporary vases and plates. Don't feel like heading back to Venice? Grab dinner at the seafood-focused Acquastanca before checking into Villa Lina, which has three elegant rooms.
Or head farther north to the island of Burano, lined with candy-colored houses and known for its lace-making tradition, which dates back to the 1400s. The streets are full of artisans selling cloths and linens, but we like Merletti d'Arte Martina for its delicate blouses and Emilia Burano for table and bath linens. Cross the footbridge to sleepy Mazzorbo island, where the winemaking Bisol family has opened Venissa, a modern-rustic hotel featuring a walled vineyard and vegetable garden, along with an experimental restaurant helmed by a team of four young chefs.