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Venice: Bring On the Off-Season

I've put on my thinking mask because I'm having second thoughts about Venice.

Is it that the views have lost their magic?

That I'm angry about the city tax?

That I've run out of wall space for masks?

No. (In fact, I'm glad about the city tax.)

I'm rethinking the notion that Venice is best enjoyed in high season.

Please to soak in the photo below. That's Saint Mark's Basilica at Piazza San Marco at the end of February. (Yes, this post is quite late.). When have you ever seen it with ONLY ONE PERSON in front of it??!!

Anyone who's been to Venice during the high season, which is loosely May to end of September or early October, knows how crazy the crowds can be. It's part of the reason some people don't like Venice, which seems impossible to me, but to each his own (incorrect and benighted) opinion.

Take a good look at this batch of photos. What's missing? If you guessed Rosie, my jaunty traveling companion and sister, you'd be wrong. She's the sole being in the top center pic.

The correct answer is, of course, throngs of fellow tourists.

Even the canals were low-traffic.

Sure. There's something -- even a lot -- to be said for navigating these fairy-tale alleys and lagoons in the brilliant summer sunshine when the air of festival is everywhere. But I submit the following for your consideration: Is it worth paying two or three times what you'd be paying in the off-season? After all, sunshine isn't the sole province of summer, though, granted, it's almost guaranteed in those glorious months. And it's not as if the place is a ghost town in winter. There were still people around. There just weren't too many of them. And let's just say it: Other people are best in small doses.

Moreover, the fact is that Venice and other popular spots like Rome in summer can be brutally hot. (Think coliseum, where you needn't be thrown to the lions to feel a bit tormented.) Touring in summer can get so hot and tiring that I've taken to booking hotels with pools or sea access. But here's the problem there: Retiring to a hotel oasis or to the lido beach interferes with the flow of the day, to say nothing of the nuisance of having to shower and dry your hair again after a dip.

Advantages to the low season are thinned-out crowds, dramatically reduced hotel prices, the tantalizing possibility of hotel upgrades, and the ability to snag restaurant tables that are likely already booked through the summer of 2030.

True, outside of summer you can’t be sure what you’ll get, weatherwise. But you could get lucky. We, for example, saw forecasts of daily clouds and rain for our visit dates, but in actuality only had to deal with limited sprinkles. What's more, the temperatures in the last days of February were mild. The earth may be hastening to its demise, but we had pleasant temps for strolling. Thanks, climate change! You did us a solid.

One note: I still wouldn't risk going in November because that's the high-risk month for high water, and it's just plain depressing to walk this waltzing city on dreary platforms.

The 5-star experience: We may be ruined forever.

This was our room at the Nolinski Venezia on the boulevardian Calle Larga XXII Marzo, steps from the Piazza San Marco and Fenice Opera House. We'd splurged because we'd be splitting the hotel cost at off-season rates, so why the heck not stay in a 5-star? And, bang, we were upgraded at check-in because the property was far from full.

Our private little bar was a sensual experience. The cut crystal decanters and glasses bounced light around like shooting stars trapped inside a bottle; the spirits options included a 7-year-mellowed rum. The very act of pouring myself a drink made me feel like some up-to-no-good diva named Iris in a daytime soap opera. I came home obsessed with dazzling decanters and aged spirits and spent hours on eBay choosing my own decadent and diva-wrothy bar set.

Then there was the bathroom, where the toilet did everything but apply my lipstick.

We were delivered a tray of cookies upon arrival and found full-sized bars of dark chocolate on the pillows that night, followed by moisturizing eye masks the next. We didn't even have to leave a tooth, though I probably could have ground one out sometime in the wee hours had it proved necessary. I wondered what little delight we would have found on the pillows had we stayed a third night.

We had the gorgeous hotel bar to ourselves, and everything about it worked: the marine-themed frescoes; the raspberry-infused water; the easy elegance of the waiters; and the tray of bar snacks that included taralli that somehow tasted like Christmas, salted walnuts, perfectly seasoned potato chips, and chunks of velvety dark chocolate.

News to Us

Beyond adopting a new attitude toward off-season Venice and discovering that we loved 5-star hotels, we found a few things we'd never noticed before. Maybe it was owing to the simple fact that big fat heads weren't blocking our every step and cluttering up our peripheral vision.

For starters, there was this spooky -- even by daylight -- palazzo along a far-flung canal. It looked like a good setting for a remake of The Other or even The Others.

Speaking of scary things, this vegan cornetto al carbone vegetale was a first for us.

Italy is often at the forefront of health trends, and this is one example. Vegetable carbon, aka activated charcoal, is carbonized wood powder and qualifies as a natural organic substance. Evidently, it can help with intestinal issues -- and I think we've established by now that obsession with one's digestion is an Italian birthright.. However, vegetable carbon shoudn't be consumed simultaneously with medications because they, together with vitamins and minerals, can bind to the carbon and thus fail to be absorbed. The aspect of the cornetto was unpersuasive, I'll grant, but the taste was very good.

In Cannaregio, we hit what has to be the world's fanciest supermarket, housed in what was once the Teatro Italia.

Among our restaurant finds was La Caravella, a place whose window I'd pressed my nose to many a time. It's in the lobby of the Hotel Saturnia. Both atmosphere and food were great. The menu included truly original and excellent vegan options.

La Bitta, a nabe place we'd spotted during a long day trek, clearly was popular with the locals and had precious few tables, but we managed to book in for dinner. Another find for a no-frills lunch of minestrone for me and fried calamari for Rosie was Osteria Ai Storti. And, we finally found the restaurant our father had taken us to years ago where Rosie had the best branzino she'd ever tasted, as all these years later she'll still tell anyone who'll listen. We'd long been trying to hunt it down. It's called Da Bepi and is near the far end of Cannaregio from the train station.

An atelier called Gualti in the Dorsoduro section was nearly my undoing. Designer Gualti's jewelry creations are drop-dead stunning. (Obviously, I didn't have the right foil for the necklace to hand, but you get the idea.) His architectural wraps not only are gorgeous; they're miracles of design ingenuity that can be arranged into all kinds of flattering, wearable art with the help of bead magnets so powerful I had to keep the two sets pretty far away from each other to photograph them. (Look closely to the left of the wrap.) Longer versions of the piece have shown up here and there as red-carpet looks for European opera stars.

I will make a point of visiting this shop every time I'm in Venice.

In lieu of any museum discovery, I'd like to close with this virtual triptych that speaks volumes about the jazzy good time Rosie and I had getting our off-season on. I call it "Glass Fully Empty."

So remember: If you're on a budget or crowd-averse or sick of missing out on restaurants the experts have recommended or having trouble making family summer schedules work, don't give up on La Serenissima. Consider joining Team Off-Season Venice.

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May 07

Love this post, love seeing you and Rosie having a smashing great time, you both look so gorgeous and glam and happy. I'm forwarding this to Mary Ann in case she hasn't seen it as we've been talking about visiting Venice post Carnivale and pre-summer madness forever.

I don't care about inclement weather at all, it's my favorite kind. Ever since I saw Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now, I've longed to visit a deserted Venice under gray skies with rolling fog while running down blind alleys fleeing a dwarf in a red rain coat wielding a knife. Now THAT's a vacation.

Thank you for the many restaurant recos and the pics of the wonderful food. That…

Kathryn Casey
Kathryn Casey
May 07
Replying to

Christopher, i’m not at all surprised to hear that the plot of don’t look now constitutes your dream vacation. Still, I got a good laugh. As I noted in another post, the movie also contains one of the longest sex scenes on record, one Rosie and I watched with our father and wanted to poke her eyes out. I think broidy, blustery Venice is your natural habitat.


May 04

First, you look absolutely fabulous. Second, you've sold me on off-season travel ... especially Venice, especially that hotel and that food! Yes, please!

Kathryn Casey
Kathryn Casey
May 06
Replying to

Jean, I'm so glad you're joining Team Off-Season Venice. You'll class us up a bit. Thank you once again for your generous words. You must have been a cheerleader at some point in life.

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