Capital of Italy’s Veneto region, Venice occupies a cluster of islands connected by a maze of arched bridges, allowing its famous gondolas to glide silently underneath. Founded in the 5th century by refugees of barbarian invasion, the once-marshy lagoon proved an excellent sanctuary. To firm up their settlement, early Venetians pounded massive beams of timber meters into the soft earth, atop which wooden platforms were constructed that could bear the weight of permanent buildings. The resulting community was remarkably resistant to invasion, and over centuries, the city’s unusual foundation of wooden stakes petrified from submersion in saltwater. Not only did the independent state prove very resilient, but its dominance as a trading and military force in the Mediterranean also brought its citizens enormous wealth.
That wealth resulted in some of the most opulent buildings ever created looking out on stunningly blue water. On account of this dream-like atmosphere, Venice was an early destination for the affluent to spend their leisure time. In the 18th century, Caffè Florian on the Piazza San Marco served exotic Asian teas and coffees alongside elegant cakes and fine wines from its Mediterranean neighbours. Meanwhile, the Hotel Danieli threw lavish parties for visiting nobility. Speaking of parties, there aren’t many that can top the Carnival of Venice, the annual winter festival that sees glitterati arriving by water limousine dressed in full 18th-century costume, complete with ornate masks and powdered wigs.
If you’ve ever been tempted to pull out all the stops on a holiday, the city honoured with the title “La Serenissima” – the most serene – is certainly rife with opportunities to indulge. While avoiding crowds isn’t quite as easy at some of the more typical attractions, a VIP arrival via charter flight to Venice certainly sets a tone befitting of the city’s nickname. While there’s no denying its mass-market appeal, the city is also full of hidden and not-so-hidden treasures that cater to a more refined aesthetic.
Five star hotels are aplenty and many offer carnival packages complete with period costume rental and tickets to the Il Ballo Del Doge, the world’s most exclusive masquerade ball. With the Grand Canal on its doorstep, the Palazzo Venart features everything one could dream of, including a private courtyard, stunning frescoes, elegant décor, and the aptly named Michelin star restaurant, Glam, which is a creation of celebrated chef Enrico Bartolini. In the heart of Venice’s most picturesque quarter, the Gritti Palace was restored in 2013 and offers spectacular views of Santa Maria del Giglio square from its luxury suites as well as the intimate Acqua di Parma spa.
Another recently restored (2014) Palazzo, the Aman Canal Grande represents the ultimate extravagance. Its signature rooms are distinguished by original creations from among the greatest Italian artists, including onetime occupant Tiepolo, the 18th-century painter after whom the property’s largest suite is named. Its 1,100 square feet includes a hand-painted Chinese sitting room and a frescoed ceiling above the bed. Reserving the full hotel (24 rooms and suites) affords the opportunity to make exclusive use of the Canal Garden and the Piano Nobile, where the ballroom and most magnificent dining rooms are located. The hotel also offers three spa suites, a fitness studio, and a rooftop terrace.
Few cities rank as high on the distinctiveness scale, and that’s certainly true of Venice’s fashion scene, which tends to be on the more ostentatious side of the Italian aesthetic (perfectly exemplified by local designer Emiliano Donaggio). Another of Venice’s must-visit boutiques includes Ca’ Macana, where brilliant mask makers faithfully reproduce designs from the past. Shopping on an even grander scale arrived in the newly opened T Fondaco dei Tedeschi by DFS, completely transforming the interior of a four-story 16th-century trading house into a profusion of 300 top brands and exceptional eateries.
Venice’s rich cultural history and remarkable architecture make it a ubiquitous choice for travellers with extensive palettes. It’s not a city you can really miss, but breathing in its beauty and charm through unparalleled accommodation and activities outside of the typical tourist’s agenda assures you an experience truly befitting this legendary setting.