1. Where to Stay
Sleep closer to the locals at the Molino Stucky Hilton (rooms from $290), located on the blue-collar island of Giudecca. Interiors may be slightly chain-y, but the hotel’s recent $330 million renovation gave birth to Venice’s first rooftop infinity pool with stellar canal views, plus a brand-new spa—the city’s largest.
Leave behind the dark, dowdy Venetian aesthetic by booking a room at the Hotel Palazzo Barbarigo Sul Canal Grande (from $152), located in off-the-path San Polo. Hidden at the end of a quiet alley, with its own private landing dock, the hotel’s sixteenth-century exteriors are expectedly worn, but the room interiors—including four suites with views of the Grand Canal—are luminously modern.
2. Where to Eat
Follow the smell of boiled octopus and roasted dorade through a large boatyard on the lagoon side of Giudecca to Ristorante Mistra (Giudecca 212A; 041-522-0743). Housed in an airy, sun-drenched loft above a gondola workshop, the restaurant caters to boatyard workers with delicious, cheap lunchtime specials like simple pesto and spaghetti.
Have a meal with the Penzo family, who’ve owned Trattoria Altanella (Giudecca 268; 041-522-7780), resting on a quiet canalside in Giudecca, since 1889. If it’s not too chilly, take a seat on the canopied terrace and nibble on the house special, gnocchi with inky cuttlefish, or scarf down hot plates of fritto misto with bottles of Raboso, a red from the adjacent Piave region. Desserts are still homemade by Mama.
Zigzag down a few streets from the overlooked Campo San Paolo to friendly Taverna del Campiello Remer (Cannareggio 5701; 349-336-5168), on the southern flank of San Paolo, a residential district. The place bustles with stylish locals and a handful of tourists agog at the heaping plates of prosciutto, Parmesan, and pasta.
3. What to Do
Between November and February’s Carvivale, Venice’s population is less than half what it is in August. It’s the perfect time to stroll around the Complesso Cosma e Damiano (Calle D. Pistor), a Giudecca convent turned artist commune, a five-minute walk from the Hilton. The cloistered studios are a hub for young, surfacing artists and the headquarters for the ongoing 8x12 Project, a lively mix of reality-TV theatrics and art.
There are many tried-and-true walks around Venice, but none are as melancholy, romantic, or far from the tourist din as the Fondamente Nuove, a 60-minute trek that traverses the northeastern flank of Cannaregio. Built in the sixteenth century as part of the city’s first reclamation effort, the embankment offers splendid views of San Michele (Venice’s cemetery), Murano and Torcello islands, and the crooked bell tower of Burano. On clear days, you can see the snow-capped Dolomites; at other times, just watch the flat-bottom sailboats creaking through the lagoon.
4. Insider’s Tip
Venice may be virtually void of tourists during Christmas, but its churches remain crowded with local characters. Unheated basilicas all over the city furiously one-up each other with ornate presepi (nativity scenes) and crèches (Christmas cribs). The most over-the-top display belongs to the Friars Minor in the Basilica of the Frari, where an elaborate mechanical nativity scene, replete with lights, sounds, and clockwork characters, occupies the chapel.
5. An Oddball Day
It’s a touristic tradition to wake up early and witness dawn in St Mark’s Square, but there’s an even better view on the roof of the Hilton Molino Stucky, one of Venice’s highest points. Grab breakfast at the tiny Rialto Biocenter (San Polo, 366-041-523-9515), the city’s best organic market long overshadowed by the Rialto, which you’ll pass along the way. Stumble beyond the mask, glass, and lace shops toward the eastern flank of Castello, where quiet mom-and-pop bakeries, fish markets, and vegetable stands are still supported by locals. For lunch, ditch your guidebook and follow the vaporetto drivers on their breaks to modest Trattoria Cea, just off the Fondamente Nuove. And to really get away from the crowds, hop aboard the 41 or 42 vaporetto to the peaceful walled Isola di San Michele, an island cemetery that includes the final resting places of Igor Stravinsky, Joseph Brodsky, and Ezra Pound.
6. Related Links
Stay abreast of Giudecca’s vivacious art scene with updates from the Giudecca Venezia site.
Find out what’s happening at Venice’s seemingly never-ending Biennale art festival.
The city’s official Website lists ongoing events and gives info on tides and forecasts.