For those seeking to escape the brutal East Coast winter, Venice can be a hard sell. It’s cold and damp, and every time it rains, the waterways overflow. And yes, it’s true that the wind coming off the canals is relentless. Chances are the glorious palace you rent will be drafty. You might not see the sun all week. At times you’ll envy the locals in their fur coats and wish you had packed warmer clothes. Or a duvet. But as anyone who has ever been to Venice in winter will tell you, winter is the best time to visit. For one thing, the floating islands collectively known as La Serenissima—all one hundred and eighteen of them—are wonderfully moody at that time of year. For another, spring and summer in Venice are impossible. Every cobbled street and piazza, no matter how secluded, is swarming with school groups and tour groups and church groups, all competing for a glimpse of this fabulous church or that Old Master painting.
But with the onset of cold weather, mass tourism drops off. It’s so quiet you can almost imagine what Venice was like when it was the center of the medieval world. The winter traveler will wander about Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace in a daze of wide-eyed wonder and relative tranquility. Accommodations are somewhat cheaper too. Off-season is a great time to splash out on the Aman Venice, a sixteenth century palazzo and UNESCO World Heritage Site in which some of the rooms feature works by Tiepolo and other Renaissance greats. (George and Amal Clooney slept there.) If it’s intrigue and mystery you seek, plan your trip to coincide with Carnevale. Every year, from January 26th to February 12th, the city’s denizens don elaborate masks and eat, drink, and dance until the small hours.
Which, come to think of it, is another reason to visit Venice in the winter: You’ll be sharing the city not with tourists but with bona fide Venetians. As for the cold, there’s a remedy for that. Hot chocolate and panettone, the sweet egg-enriched bread that is typically eaten during the holidays, are local specialties. At VizioVirtu Cioccolateria, the hot chocolate is so thick that you can drink it with a spoon. Caffè Florian, just off the Piazza San Marco, also serves a delicious hot chocolate and offers world-class people watching. For something stronger, head to Osteria al Squero, which faces one of the last remaining gondola boatyards for wine and excellent snacks from artisanal cheeses to salami and crostini. From there, proceed to dinner at Ai Mercanti, a small restaurant with an inventive seasonally-driven menu. This is the place to go when you’re craving sweet potato ravioli with pumpkin cream.
And, if by chance you find yourself feeling lonely for the Hamptons, you can drop in at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and visit the Jackson Pollocks. For a moment, you’ll forget you’re far from home.