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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG Contributor Sharon McDonnell takes us on a literary vaporetto ride of one of Europe’s top tourist destinations to visit museums, marvel at cathedrals, peruse the vibrant art scene and live it up along the canals of Venice.
Whether Venice to you is the crumbling palace in Casino Royale, where Daniel Craig’s James Bond tries in vain to rescue Vesper Lynd, From Russia with Love starring Sean Connery, or countless Monet, Canaletto or JMW Turner paintings, it’s a city you’ve already formed a mental picture of. Still, the first time you actually see it – a city of palaces built entirely on water, that truly resembles a celestial stage set or mirage – emerging from the train station or approaching by boat, is a staggering experience.
The fact Venice was built at all – on tree trunks driven into a lagoon, on over 100 tiny islands linked by 400 bridges over 150 canals – is a miracle. The fact it still exists – and, astonishingly, looks exactly like those paintings from centuries ago – is an even greater one, even for folks who’ve seen it a half-dozen times like me. It’s hard to believe people actually live and work here. (Actually, most live and work on the mainland, in Venezia Mestre.) If your bucket list has room for just one more city, see Venice – periodically threatened by floods – before it sinks back into the lagoon.
WHAT TO DO
Walk. Then, walk some more. No cars, buses or trams are in Venice proper. Take a vaporetto (ferry) down one side of the Grand Canal, the main street, and gape at the dozens of marble and brick palaces in Venetian Gothic, Renaissance and Byzantine styles, some crumbling, others beautifully restored, and many now hotels. Repeat down the other side of this S-shaped canal, preferably at night or sunset when Venice looks even more like a fantasy, softly illuminated, magical and mysterious. Then do it all again as many times as you like.
Venice’s most famous landmarks are in the Piazza San Marco, (St. Mark’s Square). Called “the finest drawing room in Europe” by Napoleon, the square is lined by 18th-century cafes where string orchestras perform at night. Enjoy the concerts for free while sitting on the steps, or have a coffee or cocktail in one of the (overpriced and over-touristed but still nice) cafes.
Looking like it was plunked down from Istanbul with its five onion-shaped domes covered with millions of mosaic tiles, St. Mark’s Basilica is an opulent masterpiece of Byzantine architecture and truly reflects how Venice for centuries was the crossroads of East and West and ruled over a maritime empire that extended to Greek islands, Croatia, Slovenia to Turkey. The city’s famous son, explorer Marco Polo, even traversed central Asia and got all the way to China.
Nearby, the iconic pink-and-white Palazzo Ducale was the headquarters of the Venetian Republic, called La Serenissima, the most serene republic, for 700 years until 1797. The Palace was both the home of the Doge, the Duke elected as ruler of Venice by the city’s wealthy families, and a prison. A Venetian Gothic-style confection with signature keyhole windows and arches, with frescoes by Venice’s greatest artists inside, the palace often hosts exhibits. While a Manet show ends September 1, an exhibit about Venetian Mediterranean fortresses lasts until September 22. Another exhibition about 17th-century Venice’s relationship with Persia starts September 28.
A 45-minute vaporetto ride to Piazza San Marco from Venice’s Santa Luzia railway station stop (Ferrovia) is 7 Euros. Buy a ticket or a timed pass for unlimited travel (12-72 hours or seven days) from a ticket booth at most stops, or a VENICEcard, which allows unlimited travel plus free admission to 11 museums and 16 churches, and discount tickets to cultural events.
While some visitors are shocked to pay admission entering a house of worship, many Venice churches are veritable museums that showcase its greatest artists. The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, the domed 17th-century Baroque masterpiece overlooking the widest part of the Grand Canal, boasts 12 Titian paintings in its sacristy plus a Tintoretto. The nearby Church of Santa Maria del Giglio has a Rubens, a Veronese and a Tintoretto. The dazzling 16th-century white-marble Church of San Giorgio Maggiore and its slender bell tower, located on the island of the same name – designed by master architect Andrea Palladio – has two Tintorettos. And that’s just scratching the surface.
In central Dorsoduro, an arts district a few vaporetto stops from Piazza San Marco but minus the crowds, you’ll find the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the personal collection of the heiress whose uncle established New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Her former home in an old palace on the Grand Canal and houses a collection of modern art from 200 20th-century artists, from Picasso, Dali to Mondrian. Venetian art from the 14th to 18th centuries is on display at the nearby Accademia museum. Verdant estates co-exist with artists’ lofts in brick factory buildings and moderate-priced eateries on quieter Giudecca Island, and you can head over to the Scuola Grande San Rocco in the San Polo district to admire the over 50 Tintoretto works adorning its ceilings and walls.
But don’t spend all your time in museums. The city itself is a museum and it would be a shame to miss out on its almost infinite picturesque vistas and sights, so be sure to take a walking, boat, history, culture, food or nightlife tour, or hear a concert or opera at Teatro La Fenice. Many concerts also take place in old palaces and churches, including performances of Vivaldi performed on 18th-century instruments by Interpreti Veneziani.
Take a break from all that history and culture along the famous six-mile sandy beach at the Lido on an island a short vaporetto ride away from St. Mark’s. Here you’ll also find one of Italy’s first golf courses (not to mention the site of a Hitler-Mussolini meeting in 1934), and the Palazzo del Cinema, where the annual Venice Film Festival is held in late August/early September. The film festival is part of Venice’s famous arts, architecture, music and theater festival, La Biennale. The Arts Biennale is held every odd year, 2013 included.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Marco Polo Airport (VCE) is on the mainland, seven miles from Venice, east of Venezia Mestre. Delta has seasonal nonstop flights to Venice from Atlanta and JFK, while US Airways has seasonal nonstops from Philadelphia. Alitalia, American Airlines, Delta, Emirates, United and US Airways offer nonstop flights to Rome or Milan from JFK, Newark, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Washington, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Charlotte. Some flights are seasonal. Venice is a one-hour flight from Rome, or 2 ½ -3 ½ hours from Milan by train. The low-cost carrier easyJet has a large presence here as well.
Public water taxis leave right from the airport pier 24 hours a day. Buy a ticket (15 Euros) for the ride to various stops in Venice on Linea Blu at the Alilaguna desk in the airport arrivals hall, or pay one more Euro on board. A private water taxi to Venice, also 24 hours a day, costs 110 Euros but is good for up to four people. Book at the Taxi Desk at the left of the airport arrivals hall. Public buses cost 5 Euros for the 20-minute ride from the airport to Venice’s Piazzale Roma bus depot and car park. Buy a ticket at the machine or ticket desk in the arrivals hall or online.
Venice hotel room and points availability can be tight, thanks to small-sized hotels and up to 20 million tourists a year, and the city is expensive, so book ahead of time if possible, or visit in early winter, when the locals have Venice to themselves (and rain, snow and floods are likely) or during Lent (after the end of Carnevale, a costumed and masked extravaganza like Mardi Gras).
Hilton Molino Stucky Venice: On quieter Giudecca island in a former flour mill, this 379-room hotel is one of Venice’s biggest, and boasts the city’s biggest conference facility, for up to 1,000 people. A rooftop outdoor pool offering spectacular views, spa with Turkish hammam and sauna, fitness center and free boat shuttle to Piazza San Marco are among amenities here. Guest rooms are modern and spacious, and some have beamed ceilings or floor-to-ceiling windows. Executive rooms and suites have access to the Executive Lounge. Restaurant Aromi serves classic Mediterranean food and local ingredients on its outdoor canalside terrace, Restaurant Bacaromi Venetian tapas, called cicchetti, Restaurant Nutella Terrace international and Italian food, and Il Molino a breakfast buffet. There’s also a stylish rooftop bar and lobby bar/lounge. Rooms start at 299 Euros ($395) per night in September. This is a Hilton Category 8 property that requires 70,000 HHonors points (40,000-70,000 seasonally) for an award night.
Hilton Garden Inn Venice Mestre San Giuliano: On the mainland in Venezia Mestre, this modern, moderately priced hotel has free WiFi in guest rooms, a free 24-hour business center, airport and railway station shuttle, outdoor pool, fitness center, jogging area and restaurant. Room rates start at 145 EUR ($195) in September. This is a Hilton Category 5 property that requires 40,000 (30,000- 40,000 seasonally) HHonors points for an award night redemption in September.
Crowne Plaza Venice East – Quarto D’altino: In the rural town of Quarto d’Altino on the mainland, a 10-minute shuttle bus northeast of the airport or a 20-minute train ride from Venice, this moderate-priced 153-room Crowne Plaza has free WiFi hotel-wide, a fitness center and 24-hour business center. Bright modern guest rooms in yellow with red accents have mosaic-tiled bathrooms. Restaurant Il Campiello serves shellfish and pasta. Rooms start at 83 Euros ($110) per night in September. This is a Category 5 property where award nights require 30,000 points.
Holiday Inn Venice: On the mainland in the Venezia Mestre Marghera suburbs, this hotel is under a mile from the Venezia Mestre train station.
Boscolo Venezia: In Venice’s Cannaregio district between the Grand Canal and the lagoon (and home to Venice’s 16th-18th-century Jewish Ghetto), this 66-room hotel is in a former 16th-century palace with huge garden. An Autograph Collection hotel – a group of hotels marked by character and distinctive details within the Marriott family – this smoke-free property has high-ceilinged guest rooms furnished with period-inspired luxury touches including chandeliers and marble features. The hotel includes 10 suites, and offers free WiFi and a spa. Restaurant Il Giardino Segreto serves traditional Venetian and international food. Rooms start at 221 Euros ($292) per night in September. This is a Category 7 property and requires 35,000 Marriott Rewards points.
There is also the Courtyard Venice Airport which provides a free airport shuttle and is only a 20-minute bus ride from Venice.
Gritti Palace: Arguably Venice’s most famous palace hotel, this Luxury Collection property is right on the Grand Canal near Piazza San Marco. Originally built in 1525 for a ruling Duke of Venice, it re-opened in 2013 after a 15-month, $55-million restoration. All 82 rooms, including 21 suites, are unique, and the design is a resplendent palatial style with grand touches like gilt-trimmed ceilings, Venetian velvets and tapestries, Murano glass chandeliers, marble tiles, antiques, oil paintings and rich colors. Standard rooms have a 32-inch TV’s and non-smoking Venetian Rooms have hand-painted ceilings, silk damask walls, pastel furnishings hand-painted in floral motifs and oak parquet floors. Ten Signature Suites are inspired by famous guests including Hemingway, Guggenheim and Somerset Maugham. There is complimentary WiFi available in all guest rooms and the magnificent public areas, plus 24-hour room service, an Acqua di Parma Mediterraneo spa with a steam bath adorned by Venetian mosaics, two Turkish baths and two treatment rooms, and and private Lido access (with discounts at its Venice Golf Club). The Epicurean School hosts cooking classes and wine tastings, while the Explorers’ Library contains books by famous writer guests. The restaurant, Club del Doge, is formal – men’s jackets are required at night – and serves gourmet Venetian specialties like spice-encrusted sea bass from the lagoon next to the Grand Canal. The smart-casual Bar Longhi has a canalside terrace. Rooms start at 960 Euros ($1,269) per night in September. This is a Starwood Preferred Guest Category 7 property where you can redeem 30,000-35,000 Starpoints for an award night.
The Westin Europa & Regina: Converted from two former palaces on the Grand Canal a few steps from the Piazza San Marco, this hotel has opulent gilded public areas, and 185 spacious rooms and suites decorated in 18th-century Venetian style in a palette of either ivory and brilliant blue, or traditional-style, in gray and blue with punches of orange. Standard rooms have Murano chandeliers, Westin signature Heavenly Beds with down duvet and pillowtop mattress, Heavenly Bath amenities with their white tea-aloe scent, a 32-inch LCD TV, WiFi (12 Euros daily) and Internet TV (cost also), while pricier rooms have marble bathrooms and terraces on the Grand Canal. A gym, 24-hour room service, golf club access, and in-room spa treatments in some rooms and suites are among amenities. Restaurant La Cusina, which has a terrace facing the Grand Canal, serves traditional Venetian and Veneto specialties, while Venetian cicchetti – like crunchy prawns in Indian sauce or fried veal and potato meatballs – and cocktails are served in La Chic..cheterria, a red leather-accented area inside La Cusina. Sit at the pink marble bar at Bar Tiepolo on gilt barstools to nibble light fare like brie-and-cured meat pizza and melon with prosciutto. Rooms in September start at 300 Euros ($396) a night. This is a Starwood Preferred Guest Category 6 property requiring 20,000-25,000 Starpoints for an award night.
The third Starwood property in the city is Hotel Danieli, a Luxury Collection hotel where you can redeem 30,000 Starpoints for a free night in September, which participates in both American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts and Visa Signature Hotels.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Hotel Danieli: Converted from three palaces – the first built in the 14th century palace – and a short walk from Piazza San Marco, this Luxury Collection property has an iconic four-story stairwell that is a fantasy of Venetian grandeur in its arches, balustrades, marble walls and gilded mirrors. In its time, this palace has welcomed kings, ambassadors and celebrities from Dickens and Wagner, to Princess Grace of Monaco, as guests. The design of its 215 guest rooms ranges from Venetian Gothic in the Palazzo Daniel Excelsior, redesigned by famed hotel decorator Jacques Garcia in 2008; to Venetian Baroque with lacquered furniture and tapesties in the 19th-century Casa Nuova; and classic Empire style in the Palazzo Dandolo section of the property. Executive suites offer rare Palazzo Ducale views, and have parquet floors, marble bathrooms and 42-inch LCD TV. Room service, business center and concierge are all 24-hour, and free WiFi is available in Dandolo Hall, Bar Dandolo, ,the concierge area, Sala Maschera and the restaurant (guest rooms and business center charge for Internet access). The rooftop Restaurant Terrazza Danieli offers mesmerizing panoramic views, a Mediterranean menu piqued by Asian spices and flavors, gourmet vegetarian food and a tasting menu (129 Euros). A private boat goes to the Lido. Rooms in September start at 550 Euros ($727) a night.
Hotel Cipriani: On Giudecca island, this 95-room Orient-Express hotel was opened in 1958 by the founder of Harry’s Bar and includes 16 rooms and suites in the Palazzo Vendramin, a 15th-century residence linked by a courtyard and flowered loggia, with garden and Piazza San Marco views. Venice’s only hotel with an Olympic-size pool – outdoor, seawater-filled and heated – the Cipriani also has a spa set amid gardens where Casanova once trysted, tennis courts and a fitness center. Guest rooms offer lagoon, garden and vineyard, or Piazza San Marco views – the latter also come with butler service and kitchenettes – plus LCD TV’s, iPod docking stations and twice-daily housekeeping. Suites have marble baths, luxury fabrics and furnishings, and some have Palazzo Ducale views, while garden-view suites have a private patio or terrace. Restaurants here include Cip’s Club, serving Venetian food beneath umbrellas on a terrace facing Piazza San Marco or in an art-filled dining room, Fortuny for lagoon-side dining, and a bar set in lush gardens, and a pool eatery. The Cipriani offers tours of Venice by kayak or water bike, plus tours of film locations and the Collio vineyards. Rooms in September start at 600 Euros ($793) a night, and include a breakfast buffet, WiFi and use of the hotel’s 24-hour boat shuttle to Piazza San Marco, a seven-minute ride.
Bauer Il Palazzo and Venice’s oldest hotel, Luna Hotel Baglioni, built in the 12th century as shelter for the Knights Templar, and featuring frescoed ceilings, Murano chandeliers, and many rooms with balconies facing the Grand Canal or San Giorgio island, are also part of the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts collection.
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve,US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Bauer Il Palazzo: This 18th-century palace with a striking Gothic-Byzantine façade right on the Grand Canal is just a few minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco and was converted into a hotel in 1880 by its Austrian owner. However, a Venetian family has owned it since 1930. The 72-room hotel, which includes 34 suites, offers standard rooms furnished with marble bathrooms, Murano chandeliers, silk fabrics, and handmade bath products produced on Giudecca with Mediterranean scents handmade on Giudecca island. Pricier rooms have balconies on the Grand Canal. Guests at all Bauer hotels can use the business center in Bauer L’Hotel for free Internet. Breakfast is served on Venice’s highest outdoor terrace, the rooftop Settimo Cielo. At Restaurant De Pisis, ornately-furnished and offering Grand Canal and Santa Maria della Salute views, a Japanese chef creates dishes with Mediterranean essences but Asian accents. Red Bar Canale offers live music nightly, while B Bar is the place for cocktails. Guests can use the spa at Bauer Palladio across the Grand Canal. Rooms in September start at 630 Euros ($832) a night.
Ca’ Maria Adele: This exquisite 12-room former palace in the quieter Dorsoduro arts district, a mere two-minute vaporetto ride from Piazza San Marco across the Grand Canal, wins rave reviews for its personal service, privacy and dramatic, vividly-colorful themed rooms – like Moorish (the only one with a balcony), Doge, Oriental, Fireplace and Noire. Amenities include complimentary internet access and a glass of Prosecco upon arrival to your guest room, which also feature the modern amenities such as 22-inch LCD TV’s. There is a fitness center on-site. Black-velvet walls at reception and heavy drapes separating public areas add to the feeling that you’ve entered an exclusive private club. Rooms in September start at 390 Euros ($514) a night.
Other Visa Signature properties include, Bauer Palladio which is modern-style hotel in cool tones located in a former 16th century convent on Giudecca Island, Bauer L’Hotel, Hotel Danieli, Hotel Cipriani and Hotel Splendid Venice.