Spending The Winter Holidays In Venice
Seldom is Venice’ appellation La Serenissima more appropriate than in winter. Mist shrouds the lagoon and its main island, cloaking gondoliers and boatsmen who emerge from out of nowhere as if floating through a fog. By night, Venice’s walkways and bridges are empty, eerie – completely silent were it not for the clip-clop of footsteps on cobble; concealed in darkness were it not for the warm glow of street lamps, craft shops and cafes that line them.
Few tourists visit Venice around Christmas. And as the city continues to groan under its ever-growing number of year-round visitors, you get a sense that their absence is increasingly seen as some redress. Winter returns more of the small city to its residents, adding an air of authenticity – not to mention tranquillity – rarely felt at any other time of year. Visit Venice in winter and when you duck into one of its warm cafés or intimate, inexpensive wine bars, you’ll probably be rubbing shoulders with locals (if indeed with anyone at all).
While Venice is often promoted as boasting a serene winter atmosphere, if you dive a little deeper you’ll see the city on the water is awash with things to do. Combine this with its allure, romance and idiosyncratic uniqueness, and you’ll soon appreciate why spending Christmas and New Year offers a distinct, once in a lifetime experience. Let us at Roman Candle Tours guide you through the best things to do for the winter holidays in Venice.
Soak in some Tintoretto on his 500th anniversary
Venice wouldn’t be Venice without an exhibition dedicated to one of the Italian Renaissance’s great masters. Better yet, this year the subject happens to be a Venetian native. Five hundred years after Tintoretto’s birth, the artist’s home city is showcasing an unparalleled collection of his life’s works, exhibited across several of its cultural centres: the Doge’s Palace, the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia, Palazzo Mocenigo and Saint Mark’s School.
The Doge’s Palace, one of Venice’s first and foremost touristic attractions, will be displaying 50 of Tintoretto’s autographed paintings and 20 of his sketches. Among the acclaimed artist’s priceless works, many are on loan from prestigious collections around the world – including the Musée du Louvre, London’s National Gallery and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Seeing them converge in such a setting, where they will stay until the Epiphany, promises to be an unmissable opportunity.
Another cultural centre taking part in this seminal exhibition is the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia. The gallery’s particular theme, “The Young Tintoretto”, comprises some 60 artworks produced by the artist between 1538 and 1548. When he was in his 20s. At the centre of the exhibition, on permanent display in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, is the Miracle of the Slave – a magnificent painting exhibiting Tintoretto’s masterful use of chiaroscuro (a technique around the rendering of light and dark).
Wander around the many Christmas markets in Venice
Every year, each of Italy’s regional capitals puts on a spectacular Christmas market. In Rome it’s the former chariot-racing circus, Piazza Navona, which transforms into a temporary winter wonderland. In Florence it’s Piazza Santa Croce, a square still home to the annual calcio storico (historical football), which morphs into a miniature Christmas village, home to an eclectic range of souvenir and slow-cooked food stalls.
In Venice, the main Christmas market runs along Campo Santo Stefano, right next to Palazzo Grassi: a hub of Venice’s contemporary artscene. The market transforms the usually relaxed piazza into an atmospheric Christmas village, with quirky trinkets, handcrafted souvenirs and, to keep you warm while you wander around, mulled wine stalls. At the end of the market is the campiello dei golosi, or “greedy area” in English, whose stalls serve up a delectable selection of food and wine (with samples aplenty).
The Lido di Jesolo, due east of Venice’s main island, will also be a flurry of activity this year. Gracing Piazza Mazzini with its presence every Saturday and Sunday throughout December is the cocoa-scented paese di cioccolato, or “chocolate town” – a winter wonderland set up around the square’s central Christmas tree and made up of tasting sessions, chocolate sculptures and enough chocolate to buy to last a lifetime.
True to the trade that’s kept it afloat throughout the centuries, the glass-blowing island of Murano, one of the most characteristic islands on the Venetian lagoon, will also play host to its annual “Christmas of Glass” market. The star of the show this year will be the Tunnel of Lights – a regatta made of stunning glasswork, and even if you’re not planning to splash out on some handcrafted Murano glass, it’s still worth spending a day out on the water and exploring Murano and its neighbours.
Attend Midnight Mass at Saint Mark’s Basilica
Considering Venice’s empty feel on Christmas Eve, you would be forgiven for thinking that it’s the city’s entire population that congregates for Midnight Massat Saint Mark’s Basilica. The service, which is held in Italian, English, French and German, starts at 11.30, but to stand a chance of getting in you’ll want to arrive a little earlier.
Midnight Mass in Saint Mark’s is nothing if not unforgettable. The hymns of its hidden choir reverberate throughout the ornate Byzantine basilica, mixing with swirling incense and flickering candles to create an intimate, and rather ethereal atmosphere. But although the atmosphere inside the basilica will be warm, the temperature (both inside and out) will be seasonably chilly. So to avoid shivering your way through the service, make sure to wrap up warm.
Watch a performance of Swan Lake at Teatro Goldoni
On December 26th, Goldoni Theatre will put on what promises to be an unforgettable production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Performing this classic ballet will be 30 dancers from the prestigious Moscow State Classical Ballet, whose extensive repertoire and fluid, captivating choreography has won them considerable international acclaim in recent years.
Tickets for the two performances (17:00 and 20:30) can be purchased from the ticket office online. Prices range from €26 with reductions to €64 for full price entry. Don’t wait too long though – high levels of sales are already paying testament to the popularity of this Boxing Day event.
Be serenaded by Vivaldi’s ancestors in the Rialto District
Okay, so not technically Vivaldi’s ancestors. But as the Baroque maestro was born in Venice back in 1678, it might not be that farfetched to assume. In keeping with a longstanding December tradition, Venice’s the Musici Venezianiwill be putting on two of their ever-popular performances of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the central Rialto District.
The concert, which will take place at 20:30 in the Scuole Grande di San Teodoro on the 27th and 29thof December, has already established itself as one of the highlights of the city’s winter events calendar. The Four Seasons, played by an orchestra dressed in full eighteenth century costume, is certainly the centrepiece. But it’s not the only performance: the orchestra will be playing another three, so far unannounced, string concertos throughout the evening.
For more information about the event (and about the eccentric orchestra who will be performing it) make sure to visit their website. Here you can purchase your tickets, which currently sell for €24 each, and browse the list of other performances they’re putting on during the Christmas season, including the Baroque and Opera performance and their annual New Year’s Concert.
Christmas food in Venice
Venetian winter food is emblematic of the regional cuisine of Veneto as a whole. For the lagoon locked city, fish is a predictable fare, and fish soup is a standard winter warming starter here in Venice. A popular winter main sure to delight every carnivore is fegato alla veneziana (calf’s liver with caramelised onions), which usually comes served with polenta.
Though more typical of nearby Friuli, brovada e muset (slow-cooked pork sausage served with sauerkraut-like shredded turnip) makes a special appearance on many a Christmas dining table throughout the region, and perfectly encapsulates that convergence of Italian and Austrian cuisine so typical of the Italian North.
Panettone, a light, fluffy cake encasing dried fruits and iced sweets, is perhaps the classic Christmas dessert both here and elsewhere in Italy. It traditionally hails from Lombardy and its regional capital of Milan to the west. In Veneto, though, the humble panettone takes on a distinct if no less delectable twist – as it comes stuffed with sweet, creamy mascarpone cheese.
Combing the city for traditional Christmas foodis a must for any visitor to Venice. But make sure you save time (and stomach space) for some year-round treats as well. Should you find yourself around Rialto Bridge, which you must at some point visit on our tour, search out the popular Rosticceria Gilson just a couple of minutes’ walk away.
Rosticceria Gilson offers up a delicious display of cheap and cheerful treats to satisfy every appetite. For those cheese lovers among you, try their mozzarella in carrozza (an Italian fried food staple consisting of warm, gooey mozzarella inside deep-fried crunchy dough). Best served warm with a cold glass of warming beer.
See in the New Year in Piazza San Marco
Though lively all year round, Venice is particularly packed on two occasions during the calendar year. The first, in February, is during Carnival. Carnival transforms Venice’s streets and waterways into an open-air masquerade ball, providing a spectacle that’s at once bizarre, exciting, and completely and utterly captivating. The second is what the Italians call capodanno, and what we call New Year’s Eve.
Whether on sea or land, there’s no shortage of festive New Year events in Venice to whet your appetite. Following a traditional New Year’s Eve feast, either in one of the best restaurants in Italy or aboard a boat departing from the Riva delle Zattere, spend an evening at the opera or walk off your dinner wandering the city’s enchanting backstreets. Or for something more off the beaten track in Venice, catch a vaporetto south for a lively night on the Lido or north for a classy, bar-centred New Year’s Eve on Murano.
The New Year festivities culminate where all Venetian evenings always do: at the beating heart of the centre in the historical Saint Mark’s Square. At the stroke of midnight, a magnificent fireworks display lights up the lagoon, playing out against the square’s colourful backdrop of Christmas lights, which are designed to resemble a flickering flurry of snowflakes. This is the annual “Love” event (so called because of the traditional kiss and toast couples make to welcome in the New Year).
As a sinking island situated in a lagoon, Venice is no stranger to flooding. And as recently as October this year, the world witnessed the effects of aqua alta (high water) on the city’s day-to-day. New Year’s Eve has seen its fair share of flooding, most memorably NY 2010, but don’t worry if it happens: it’s far more exciting than dangerous.
Should the water reach Saint Mark’s, the opalescent reflection of the New Year fireworks at your feet is a unique and unforgettable experience. You won’t be caught out though: sirens sound to warn of any impending flooding and, besides, the water tends to reside after two hours anyway. Just make sure you pack your Wellies!
Celebrate Venice’s festive season with Roman Candle Tours
At Roman Candle Tours we run two main tours of Venice. Our first, the Saint Mark’s and Rialto Bridge tour, guides you through an exciting itinerary of two of the city’s most famous attractions, as well as a number of other must-see sights like the Bridge of Sighs. Our second, rather more atmospheric Venice Evening Boat and Walking Tour starts in Piazza San Marco before taking to the water so you can see Venice as it’s meant to be seen – from the city’s famous Grand Canal.
But as always, if you think any of these itineraries are missing something or you want to explore something in particular with one of our expert guides, get in touch and we can design a tailored tour. And if you want some more ideas about what that particular site might be, or are just looking for some interesting nuggets of information before your visit, be sure to check out our best of Venice blog.
If you liked this article, also read “How to Visit Venice on a Budget”