Review by Fiona Duncan, published 4th February 2007.
Venice, it hardly needs to be said, is full of romance and full of secrets. There are plain churches in dusty squares that shelter masterpieces of Venetian art; crumbling palazzi encasing wildly rich interiors; high walls that hide lush private gardens; rooftop terraces with birds-eye views and tiny neighbourhood restaurants that serve the city's best food. And there are hotels, just a few tucked away, mostly small and inexpensive that have a certain something that sets them apart. It may be a garden or a tranquil, flower-filled courtyard, a frescoed ceiling, a private rooftop terrace or an entrancing view that makes them special, but whatever it is, they make the best boltholes for a few enchanted days in La Serenissima.
Prices quoted are for low season to high season rates and include breakfast. The code for Italy is 0039; the code for Venice from the UK is 041.
Oltre Il Giardino
This peaceful haven is unique in Venice: a country-house hotel in the heart of the city. A stone throw from the Frari, it was the home in the 1920s of Alma Mahler, the composer's widow, and stands in one of the city's many hidden gardens, entered via an unassuming door. The rustic, three-storey villa now belongs to elegant Franco-Venetian Alessandra Arudini Zambelli and is run by her charming son, Lorenzo. The interior is a clever, stylish mix of antique furniture, contemporary rugs and tasteful artifacts, and the six bedrooms are beautifully decorated and coloured, with spoiling bathrooms. Best are the two suites that overlook the garden where a delicious breakfast is served in summer.
San Polo 2542 (275 0015; www.oltreilgiardino-venezia.com). Doubles from £100 to £254.
Its old-world ambience won't charm everyone, but most guests who come across this palazzo, tucked behind Ca' d'Oro in Cannaregio, adore it - and its owner, Signora Rossi. In the early evening, as likely as not, she will invite you to join her in the spacious garden for a glass of Prosecco, and guests really do seem to make friends here. The dozen bedrooms have centuries-old painted beams, frescoed ceilings and trompe-l'oeil walls, plus much gilt, silk and velvet. There's no restaurant, but breakfast is outstandingly good.
Calle Priuli, Cannaregio (241 3784; www.abadessa.com). Doubles from £100 to £300.
Ca' Maria Adele
For more than a touch of decadence (after all, Venice has always been nothing if not decadent) book the Sala Noir, with its purple walls and vast black chandelier, in this 16th-century palazzo across a canal from Santa Maria della Salute. Or opt for one of the four other "concept" rooms: the lovely Oriental room, with delicate Chinese fabrics and antiques, the blood-red Doge's room, the Moor's room or the creamy white Fireside room. The rest of the rooms, nine in all, are traditionally decorated and well-equipped, with plasma TVs and smart bathrooms. No 332 has fabulous views over Salute and a heavily beamed ceiling. Downstairs, in the lovely breakfast room, there's a fascinating photograph of the world's largest chandelier, made by the grandfather of the hotel's owners, two brothers from Murano.
Dorsoduro 111 (520 3078; www.camariaadele.it). Doubles from £245 to £500.
Al Ponte Mocenigo
Two things especially have ensured that this newcomer has become a hit. First, it's right by the San Stae vaporetto, with no bridges over which to lug the luggage. Second, its setting, behind a wrought-iron gate and pretty courtyard (where breakfast is served in summer), is charming. Two Venetian friends, Walter and Sandro, spent much time looking for the right place to convert, and with this old beamed house behind the Palazzo Mocenigo they've chosen well. In the diminutive lobby there's just enough space for a bar and breakfast area, while the bedrooms upstairs are resolutely traditional (damask, Murano glass, gilt) but also stylish, smart and comfortable, with excellent bathrooms. A cosy bolthole, offering value for money.
Santa Croce 2063 (524 4797; www.alpontemocenigo.com). Doubles from £60 to £107.
For an affordable view over the Grand Canal, look no farther than this diminutive upper-floor hotel right beside the Accademia. Its improbable entrance is next to a craft shop, whereupon you climb steepish stairs and travel back in time to the turn of the last century, courtesy of the dark red flock wallpaper, wooden floors and large, old-fashioned wardrobes, beds and chandeliers. The room of choice here is No 10, large enough for four and perfect for two, with a glorious painted ceiling.
Dorsoduro 878a (523 2489; www.hotelgalleria.it). Doubles from £73 to £110.
Ai Do Mori
If you crave a rooftop terrace all to yourself, consider Ai do Mori, run by the vivacious Antonella Bernardi. With only a lantern discreetly displaying its name, this budget San Marco hotel is hard to spot. Rooms No 6 and 7 have rustic beams but by far the most endearing is what Bernardi calls her "Painter's Room". Tucked under the eves, it's just large enough for a double bed and a few carefully chosen pieces of furniture, but from its sun-trap terrace you can almost reach out and touch the figures on the Basilica San Marco. Just the place for a glass of Prosecco in the sunshine.
Calle Larga San Marco 658 (5204817; www.hotelaidomori.com). Doubles from £40 to £93
Locanda del Ghetto
Surrounded on all sides by water, the Campo del Ghetto is the evocative, melancholy heart of what was the world's first Jewish ghetto. Quiet and contemplative, it lies close to the heaving thoroughfare of Lista di Spagna, but also within easy reach of the Rialto, and the quiet backwaters of Cannaregio. With original decorated wooden ceilings, this stylish nine-room locanda dates from the 15th century and perfectly complements its surroundings. From the front portico, the reception area glows invitingly, while the light and airy bedrooms are all done out in the same elegant, understated style. Two have small terraces overlooking the campo, perfect for dreaming.
Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, Cannaregio (275 9292; www.veneziahotels.com). Doubles from £66 to £174.
Locanda La Corte
What sets this locanda apart? Its original courtyard, part of the 16th-century palazzo in which La Corte is housed. Perhaps not the best choice in winter, this 16-room guesthouse (with spacious bar and sitting room) comes into its own in the warmer months, when you can share a drink or breakfast at one of the pretty yellow-clothed tables with wrought-iron chairs that surround the old well. Lost in the dense, tranquil calli of Castello, it's close to San Giovanni e Paolo, the largest Gothic church in the city, and minutes from the Rialto. The rooms are smart rather than atmospheric, but well-equipped, mostly large and light, with original floors and beamed ceilings.
Calle Bressana, Castello 6317 (241 1300; www.locandalacorte.it). Doubles from £60 to £120.
Hotel Antico Doge
No courtyard or garden at this hard-to-find palazzo, once the home of Doge Marin Falier (whose startled-looking portrait hangs in the Falier suite, with canal view). Instead there is a glittering central salon, resplendent in gold, with vases of fresh flowers, which does duty as a breakfast room and bar. The bedrooms are no less impressive, dripping in silk, brocade and damask on the walls, windows and beds. Huge chandeliers, gilt mirrors, antique furniture and fine rugs on parquet floors complete the picture. You'll (eventually) find this privately owned hotel close to the Rialto, in a delightfully domestic area of Cannaregio.
Campo Santi Apostoli, Cannaregio 5643 (241 1570; www.anticodoge.com). Doubles from £100 to £145.
If finding romance among the pseudo-Baroque gilt-and-cherub flounces of most Venetian hotel bedrooms is impossible for you, then Ca' Pisani, built in the shell of a 16th-century, deep-pink palazzo, might hit the spot. Art Deco meets cool minimalism in one of the city's few design hotels, with individual period pieces, including beds, much use of silver, intricate woodwork, Italian Futurist artwork and Futurist bathrooms too. The overall effect, however, is warm, not cool. Best are the corner rooms with two windows, such as No 16. The location, between Accademia and the sunny Zattere, with tables and chairs set on the pavement outside and a basement restaurant, is excellent.
Rio Terrà Foscarini, Dorsoduro 9789a (240 1411; www.capinsanihotel.it). Doubles from £140 to £360.
Bel Sito & Berlino
With rooms that are small and worn at the edges, the Bel Sito hasn't much to recommend it, to be honest, apart from its very central location between San Marco and the Rialto, and its flowery patio. But it's still a pleasure to stay in one of its 17 front-facing rooms, particularly Nos 1, 7, 9, 30, 40, 52 or 53, with their wonderful close-up views of Santa Maria del Giglio opposite. In the morning, open the window and reach out: you can almost touch its exuberant Baroque façade, like fancy icing on a wedding cake.
Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, San Marco 2517 (522 3365; www.hotelbelsito.info). Doubles from £77 to £135.
This is a palazzo with a chequered past: built in the 16th century, it became a Jewish school during the First World War and later a boarding house. In 1999, the Mestre family bought and restored it, preserving the many splendid features that, remarkably, were never interfered with. With its perfect proportions, moulded ceilings and light streaming in from both ends, the piano nobile makes a memorable setting for breakfast. Alternatively, there's a sunny terrace with wicker sofas and parasols. The best bedrooms are wonderfully light and overlook the canal on two sides, while No 305 has a private terrace. All in all, there's much to recommend here, though it just misses that home-from-home feel.
Campo SS Filippo e Giacomo, Castello 4765 (528 6138; www.casaverardo.it). Doubles from £60 to £220).
Ca' della Corte
In a tranquil, canalside location, yet close to Piazzale Roma, this is a private, family-owed palazzo, with nine rooms for guests (plus self-catering apartments nearby) which are let out along hotel lines, with a simple breakfast served in the rooms. You will be greeted with great warmth, and one of the distinct advantages of staying here is the help and advice offered at reception. Try for a suite, particularly the gracious yet affordable Piano suite (with grand piano); the Marco Polo, Blue and Stucci suites are also recommended. There's a small, communal roof terrace that you'll probably have to yourself, and next door a building, under the same ownership, in which you can have a party or even marry.
Corte Surian, Dorsoduro 3560 (715 877; www.cadellacorte.com). Doubles from £46 to £164.
Bauer Il Palazzo
The most romantic place to dine in Venice is, without doubt, on the waterfront terrace of restaurant Pisis at the Bauer Hotel, and you will not be disappointed by the gourmet cuisine. By moonlight and candlelight, its setting is heart-stoppingly lovely: at the meeting point of the Grand Canal and St Mark's Basin, with views not just of Santa Maria della Salute but of San Giorgio Maggiore as well.
With both the legendary Gritti and the Danieli currently in gentle decline, Il Palazzo, under the same private ownership as the bland 1950s Bauer and sharing the Pisis restaurant, but with its own discreet entrance, is a much more recent addition to the luxury scene, yet with the timeless atmosphere of a palazzo hotel that has been receiving the great and the good for decades, with dedicated staff for whom nothing is too much trouble. Rooms and suites are lovely, whether clothed in regal red or duck-egg-blue silk, but if you have about £3,500 per night to spare you'll gravitate effortlessly to one of the two Royal Suites (or both of them if you like: they adjoin) on the piano nobile. With entrancing views from their balconies, they are frothy, elaborately stuccoed confections in pastel shades of green and pink, with chipped stone floors, vast, glittering Murano glass chandeliers and marble bathrooms that are slithers of sheer glamour. At the top of the building: a discreet spa (book the rooftop Jacuzzi) and a spacious roof terrace for breakfast.
San Marco 1413d (520 7022; www.ilpalazzovenezia.com). Doubles from £230 to £4,000.
Any list of romantic hotels in Venice wouldn't be complete without mention of this country inn on the tiny lagoon island of Torcello, the cradle of Venetian civilization, where all that remains are two serenely beautiful religious buildings: the church of Santa Fosca and the Byzantine cathedral. This guesthouse has just six bedrooms: simple and homely, yet sophisticated. Plus, its rustic dining room and sprawling garden overlooking the cathedral, is surely one of the most romantic places anywhere in which to lunch or dine.
Torcello (730 150; www.locandacipriani.com). Doubles from £175.
British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) has return flights from London Gatwick to Venice from £108 and Flybmi (www.flybmi.com), from London Heathrow, from £91, travelling in mid-February. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Venice from around £35.99 one-way for the same period, if you book now. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Treviso, which is around half an hour from Venice, from London Stansted and Liverpool, from £9.99 one-way.
Five tips for romance in Venice
Arrive in style: take the Orient Express from London, arriving in Venice at sunset and transferring to a water taxi or gondola right outside the station to waft you to the water gate of your hotel.
Stick your map and guidebook in your pocket and get to know Venice by getting lost. The city’s greatest romantic charms are in its backwaters and its hidden surprises; and wherever you go you can be sure that you won’t come across a single ugly site.
Forget a daytime gondola ride with all the other tourists. Instead, negotiate with a gondolier for a midnight ride, perhaps after a candlelit dinner on the terrace at Pisis, on the Grand Canal.
Alternatively, head after dinner for Piazza San Marco, eloquently described by Napoleon as Europe’s grandest drawing room. At Florian’s and Quadri, the café orchestras play on towards midnight, even if there’s just a smattering of people left in the square, some of them waltzing to the music
When Venice becomes too much, take a boat trip and explore the mysterious, often misty lagoon and its islands – Torcello, Burano and Sant’Erasmo to name but three. Lunch in colourful Chioggia, with its amazing fish market, is highly recommended.