“I found the scoundrel in a café, drinking hot chocolate and flirting with the waitress” – Giacomo Casanova
Winter is a great time to be in Venice. It’s an intimate time of year for the city: when footsteps and boat engines are muffled by mist and damp, Venetians reclaim their lanes from tourists, and local residents cluster inside steamed-up cafés. Summer’s cruise ships, spilling up to 30,000 visitors a day into the town, have vanished from the skyline. From its inescapable slide into a tourist Disneyland, Venice returns temporarily to being a ‘local’ town, where local people stride along alleys, greeting acquaintances as they pass.
There are marvellous sunny winter days, when Venetians promenade along the sun-trap waterfront of the Zattere. And though the weather is often grey, misty, damp and bitingly cold, that adds to the pleasure of the great Venetian winter treat. There is nothing as satisfying, in a Venetian winter, as diving into a cosy café interior and warming up with a cup of rich hot chocolate (cioccolata calda). This is the archetypal Venetian winter activity; a pleasure that makes the cold weather seem worthwhile. Hot chocolate here is rich, thick and nothing like the powdery versions back home. It’s been a prized Venetian drink since the eighteenth century, and Casanova swore by hot chocolate for breakfast.
A posh hot chocolate in the frescoed rooms of Caffè Florian, on St. Marks’ Square, will set you back more than 10 euros, but give you access to the ghosts of Goldoni, Casanova and Byron. They even make a delicious hot chocolate with mint called the Casanova. For a cheaper and authentically Venetian experience, pop into one of the many marvellous pasticcerie – pastry shops with a bar serving hot drinks – that dot Venice’s lanes. My favourite is Tonolo (Calle di San Pantalon), in Dorsoduro, where a dainty little hot chocolate in a pretty blue and white china cup and saucer will only cost a couple of euros, and can be consumed standing by the counter with Venetian firefighters, elderly ladies in furs, and workers popping in for a dose of sugar. Buy a small cake or pastry to eat with your drink, and peep through the doorway to the back room lined with shelves groaning with Tonolo’s speciality Venetian version of the Christmas panettone (focaccia da Tonolo).
If hot chocolate is not enough to warm you up, try some roast chestnuts from a street stand, or a take-away glass of mulled wine (vin brulé) , available from cafés and stalls around the shopping lanes.
A walk along Venice’s wintry lanes is warmed by bursts of light, heat and the strong scent of coffee as cafe doors swing open. Venetians stride around in furs and puffy coats, accompanied by little dogs in knitwear. Without the summer crowds, curious tourists will come across a wealth of little Venetian vignettes. Walking around in December before writing this page, I passed gondoliers, without much business, joking around as they returned from a long lunch by the Rialto bridge, stealing each other’s hats, and pouncing on a colleague with a mobile phone glued to his ear. Two erect elderly ladies in furs and hats stood gossiping in a little square lined with dilapidated palazzi, while inside the window of a fancy paper shop, I spotted a young man jiving cheerfully on his own.
In winter some of Venice’s restaurants are draughty and empty of atmosphere and clients. But there are good places for a snug lunch or intimate dinner. La Zucca (Santa Croce 1762) – my top Venetian restaurant – has small, wood-lined interiors and very warming food at decent prices. In cold weather, it would be hard to find a better pasta dish than their tagliatelle with gorgonzola and pine nuts. Another cosy spot, with smaller dishes and higher prices, is the Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisti (Fondamenta della Toletta, Dorsoduro 1169/A), where you can perch on a stool or at small tables and watch the busy foot traffic along the canalside through big windows.
In winter, in the weeks leading up to and after Christmas, you can usually find a small ice rink in Campo San Polo offering some traditional winter fun. Alongside the rink you’ll find some enticing food stalls selling hot snacks, sweets, cheeses – including straw-covered truckles of cave-matured pecorino – and other speciality food products. Campo Santo Stefano is another location where you’ll find a festive market selling food and craft gifts.
For Christmassy photos, there is generally a big Christmas tree alongside St. Mark’s and another by the Salute church, plus a few more dotted around the islands (you may find a glass tree on the glass-making island of Murano). There is a midnight mass in St. Mark’s on Christmas Eve, and mass and vespers on Christmas Day. The council and independent organisations arrange various other winter events, varying from year to year, such as little Christmas markets, a Santa foot race and a rowing regatta for Santas. Most recently, the pretty canals of the Dorsoduro district have come alive with Christmas lights, a little food market, a visit from Santa (arriving in gondola, naturally) and a craft and gift market inside the elegant Palazzo Zenobio.
New Year’s Eve in Venice is marked by a big firework display over the Basin of St. Mark – and a mass kiss-in in the Piazza. Health and safety is rarely a consideration in Italy, and all around Venice, families and friends set off little fireworks by their houses and canalsides (update: this has now been banned, in theory).
Towards the end of winter, when the cold is wearing down even the most resilient resident, Carnival comes as a burst of colour, excitement and profiteering.
Venice is a good place to do a spot of Christmas shopping. If you’re a collector of intricate Italian pieces for nativity scenes (presepi), you’ll find a kiosk selling models alongside the church of San Giovanni Grisostomo, near the Rialto. The shop of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection sells arty and unusual gifts. Luxury chocolates, including special Christmas delicacies, can be found at the marvellous Viziovirtù near the Rialto. As well as all the shops selling Murano glass and papier mache carnival masks, Venice is also good for more unusual artisan-made gifts such as jewellery made from paper (Carte – San Polo 1731) and colourful wooden clocks, puzzles and ornaments (Signor Blum – Dorsoduro 2840).
Winter trip practicalities
In practical terms, Venice’s museums and attractions are open for business all year round – and you will find them much, much emptier in the winter months. Of course there are always a few tour groups, with increasing visits from Chinese tour parties in winter, but generally winter is a time for Venice aficionados and repeat visitors, so most of the tourists who are here are spread through town, exploring out-of-the-way sights and churches.
Some tourist restaurants and bars may close for a couple of weeks in the depths of winter, usually after the 6th January and before Carnival, but not as many as close down in August. You’ll find more space on the public vaporetto ferries – and may even be able to grab a seat outside, as long as you wrap up very thoroughly. Gondoliers will be working as normal, even when the weather is cold.
Hotels are a lot cheaper in the winter, though other tourist costs are little different. You may save some money on meals simply because there is less competition for a bargain, and the better-value restaurants are not packed out.
Combine a city and skiing break
If you need any more incentives to visit Venice, it is worth remembering that Venice is only a bus ride or car journey away from the Alps, and the ski slopes of the Dolomites. Cortina d’Ampezzo is one of Italy’s smartest and most popular ski resorts and there is a bus service from Venice operated by ATVO, which takes three hours and operates throughout the winter.
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