Venice: An alternative city guide, for quirky travellers

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Stylist Editor Lisa Smosarski heads out along the canals to explore the modern side of Venice.

Billie Piper says:

“I was at the Venice Film Festival last month for the debut of my film Rare Beasts, and although I didn’t have much time to explore, I was struck by how the old and new are merging in this beautiful city. I’d love to know more about how Venice is changing.”

Stylist editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski took on the challenge…

Lisa says: 

Venice may always be associated with Cornetto ads and gondoliers, but the arrival of Il Palazzo Experimental, part of the Parisian Experimental Group’s hotel chain, has provided a welcome alternative for design-loving travellers who want a contemporary hotel that reflects their tastes. 

It’s based in the less commercialised Dorsoduro area, where you’ll find the city’s university and a young, cultural crowd spilling out of low-key bars, quirky vintage shops and refreshingly unpretentious restaurants.

The hotel has set up home in the Adriatica di Navigazione building (an old shipping company HQ), which has been stunningly, sympathetically restored, and it manages to cleverly clash old and new; from the eclectic teal and scarlet palette that offers a distinctive splash of colour across every room to the excellent team who offer impeccable service in a relaxed, friendly and unstuffy style.

In our wonderful canal-side room we found a minibar packed with cocktail ingredients and pre-mixed drinks, fluffy robes emblazoned with the signature “funny face” of the group alongside heavy carved-wood Italian furniture and nautical-themed touches like anchor door-knockers.

Il Palazzo Experimental is putting a fresh spin on Venice's old-time Glamour.
Il Palazzo Experimental is putting a fresh spin on Venice's old-time Glamour.

Il Palazzo Experimental overlooks the Giudecca canal and neighbouring island, which, at just an eight-minute hop away on the vaporetto (water bus), is well worth a visit. This is the place to go to rub shoulders with locals and escape the crowds of the main island, and slowly, a few hoteliers have made their way to this tiny strip of land, from a Generator hostel to the landmark Hilton Molino Stucky – worth a visit for the view from the rooftop bar alone. Nevertheless, the island is largely untouched by tourism and we lost ourselves as we walked through back streets and looked out across the canal.

Back on the main island, Il Palazzo is located just a four minute walk away from the Grand Canal, which means you can be at the heart of the action in no time.

But those four minutes make all the difference, especially to the price tags. After a day pounding the pavements and bridges while avoiding every restaurant with an overpriced picture menu and pushy door host, we nipped back to our room to change for dinner.

There we discovered a simple kiosk bar outside the hotel entrance buzzing with post-work crowds, and we joined the locals to sip €3.50 Aperols in one of the few places you can watch the sun set. The hotel’s own Experimental Cocktail Club also offers reasonably priced classics with a twist. My favourite was the arcipelago: prosecco mixed with melon, lemon juice and deliciously salty sumac.

Lisa liked the hotel's modern take on classic cocktails.
Lisa liked the hotel's modern take on classic cocktails.

Nearby in Campo Santa Margherita, we tucked into slices of pizza larger than our own heads for just €2.50 each at Pizza al Volo. Even in the more populated, touristy areas we discovered real gems, like the street food at Acqua e Mais, where we ate grilled squid, stuffed courgettes, calamari and polenta from paper cones – the lunch of kings for under €10.

Venice is famous for its food, especially cicchetti (pronounced chih-ket-ee) – tapas-sized dishes served with early evening drinks. There is a cicchetti trail for the most serious snack hunters, but our favourites were served in the secret garden of our hotel. Traditional plates with a modern twist, we devoured the parmesan and lime croquettes, toasted brioche with anchovies and pecorino, and crostini with baccalà mantecato (a local salt cod dish) that was out of this world.

Venice isn’t big, but being in Dorsoduro means you can easily see it all. Our favourite evening involved a two-hour post-dinner stroll that took us around the back streets of Venice, through Piazza San Marco, around many basilicas and over innumerable bridges, with no other tourists in sight. We went past some fantastic local bars too, like Corner Pub (a corner yes, but more of a bar than a pub) and Bacaro Risorto near Piazza San Marco, where drinks come without the Venetian mark-up.

Lisa on a cicchetti hunt at the Piazza San Marco
Lisa on a cicchetti hunt at the Piazza San Marco.

It’s worth saying that if you’ve not been to Venice before, you should still do the tourist trail – these places are busy for a reason. The Basilica di San Marco is breathtakingly beautiful, the Rialto Bridge is an impeccable example of 16th-century architecture and the art at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is worth every cent of the €15 entrance fee, with its haul of Kandinsky, Picasso, Mondrian, Magritte and Dalí originals.

It’s even (just about) worth paying a ludicrous €22 for a bellini in Harry’s Bar, the room where they were invented, despite the fact you’re treated a bit like a battery farmed drinker and table-turned in the time it takes to finish your thimble-sized cocktail.

Venice won’t lose its classic reputation anytime soon, and nor should it. I gleefully handed over €80 for a rip-off 15 minutes sat in a gondola-shaped traffic jam, while a (presumably drunk) tourist sang O Sole Mio at us – and I loved every minute. Because here it’s all magical, and like nowhere else I’ve ever visited.

A trip to Venice is like stepping back in history – a snapshot of many different centuries through a romanticised, Hollywood lens. So see the sights, ride the gondolas, accidentally hum that old Cornetto song to yourself… then revel in the new generation of Venice, somewhere that feels a lot more like you.

Rooms at Il Palazzo Experimental from £79 a night;

Images: Provided

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