Venice in the summer is charming — you get long days to wander the streets, dine al fresco, and while away the hours out on a plaza nursing an Aperol spritz and watching the crowds stroll by. Venice in the winter is also charming, but the days are short, the cafe chairs have all been put away, and it’s likely to be chilly or rainy (or both). So what are the options for visitors who decide to show up when the crowded have thinned and the days have grown colder? Here are early January activities that I would happily repeat:
A trip through St. Mark’s Basilica, one of the most famous churches in the world, is a nearly obligatory experience for visitors to Venice.
But there are well over a hundred churches in the city, and it’s usually easy to pop in for a look. I very much enjoyed Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (generally just called “the Frari”), with its brightly-lit interior …
… and a rood screen featuring some of the most interesting woodwork I’ve ever seen in a church …
… Basilia di Santa Maria della Salute (generally just called “La Salute” — you’re probably noticing a theme here), with it’s dome so reminiscent of the Vatican…
… and Palladio’s Chiesa di San Francesco della Vigna, with its wonderful side chapels …
… and outdoor cloister walk:
Antonio Vivaldi was born and raised in Venice — and while you can’t see any place that he lived (because they’ve all been burned down or otherwise been destroyed), you can visit some of the churches and other institutions where he trained and worked. You can also hear his music just about any night of the week. I caught a lovely concert performed by Interpreti Veneziani at Chiesa di San Vidal, a desanctified church.
You can catch all sorts of Renaissance and Baroque music here, from Mondeverdi (another Venetian native) to Bach.
Searching for Sweetness
Venice has some excellent baked goods, and you could make a whole project of finding and sampling the best ones. I can say from experience that the offerings at Pasticceria Tonolo were so good that I went back for a second visit.
You can always order your pastries to go, but if you’re looking to stay warm and dry, you’re welcome to eat your delicious baked goods along with a cup of tea or coffee at the counter.
Ducking Into the Scuola Grande San Rocco
The Scuola Grande San Rocco is home to a confraternity, in this case a group of Christian lay-brothers who venerate St. Roch. I didn’t know any of that when I stepped inside of their building; I just thought it looked like a place with great art where I could keep warm (it turns out that I was right about the first part — you can find over 60 works by Tintoretto here — if not about the second, because this vast space feels entirely unheated).
Tintoretto received a commission to paint Bible scenes here in the late 16th century, and you an find everything from the fall of Adam and Eve to the ascension of Mary:
There’s a huge amount to see at the Scuola Grande San Rocco, and much of it is on the ceiling — so they give you mirrors for better viewing purposes:
There are also fantastic wooden carvings of allegorical figures on the walls — and even a wooden bookcase!
There’s also an entire room filled with reliquaries, including the finger of St. Roch himself! Here’s one labeled Reliquiario della Spina (which means, presumably, that this is part of a random person’s spine):
Somewhere between bruschetta and tapas, cicchetti are a Venetian snack speciality. They’re sometimes fried, but more often are piles of wonderful stuff on bread.
My favorite places to eat cicchetti were el Sbarlefo (more upscale, with more space) and Osteria el Squero (more of a student vibe, and more crowded but with room to stand by a canal if the weather permits). Have a few of these snacks with a glass of wine (my notes say, “Amarone wine, where have you been all my life?”), and you’re all set for lunch.
There’s lots of shopping to be done in Venice, from trinkets to high-end fashion — and while it’s overpriced, it’s a good way to stay warm and dry. Some of the more interesting options for perusal include hand-made masks …
… paint powders …
… and mosaics:
And then there’s Libraria Acqua Alta, one of the most wonderful bookstores I’ve seen in my travels. This isn’t just a place to get books — you can climb their book staircase for a view of the canal, sit in their gondola while you read, or pet the very well fed cats!
Sitting in Cafes
The cafes of Venice are best enjoyed when you can be outside, but there’s something cozy about sitting indoors and wrapping your cold fingers around a cup of hot cocoa. I chose to go the extravagant route with a visit to Cafe Florian.
They might offer the most expensive hot chocolate in town, but Cafe Florian has played host to the the likes of Casanova, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, and Alexander Dumas, so I couldn’t resist.
Taking in the View
Okay, this isn’t a warm option — but if you have a clear day, a ride up to the top of St. Mark’s Campanile (bell tower) is an incredible experience.
From the nearly 99-meter tower, you can look down over St. Mark’s Basilica …
… the Doge’s Palace and San Giorgio Maggiore Island …
… and all of the buildings that surround St. Mark’s Square:
Exploring the Doge’s Palace
Right next to St. Mark’s Basilica sits the giant Doge’s Palace, the seat of power in Venice for over 400 years.
The candy-pink exterior and delicate architectural details belie what’s inside: room after room that were obviously designed to impress.
The palace wasn’t just the residence of the Doge — it was the home of Venice’s entire government and courts. This room held all of the 1,200+ members of the Great Council, all of the male noblemen who gathered every week to help create the Republic’s laws:
If it looks a little like the Scuola Grande San Rocco, that’s no accident: both buildings were designed at the same time, and the Doge also commissioned Tintoretto (in addition to Veronese and a number of other local artists) to paint multiple canvases in his palace. The Doge also seems to have had the same central heating system as the Scuola — that is to say, none at all.
Going Outside Anyway
Yes, it may be cold — but as long as it’s not raining, there are beautiful sights to be seen outside.
You’ll pass through all sorts of tiny alleyways, cross over little bridges …
… look down the lengths of dozens of minature canals…
… and get lost in spite of Google maps (truly — this happens all the time).
Walking will take you past some of Venice’s most iconic sights, including gondolas …
… the tragic Bridge of Sighs (so named, supposedly, for the prisoners who had to walk over it to get from the courtroom to their prison cells) …
… and the Grand Canal (here, seen from the top of the Rialto Bridge at sunset):
I even woke up to take in sunrise from the Ponte dell’Academia on two very different mornings:
So yes, it may be chilly, but this is the stuff that earmuffs were made for. Put on a pair and enjoy — if you get too cold, you can always return home by vaporetto!