By Julie L. Kessler
For those interested in art, history, and great food, numerous cities around the world will keep travelers fascinated, engaged, and well-fed. But how many of those cities can boast that they are replete with architectural masterpieces built on water and have 118 small islands and 426 public bridges located within the city center? Or that you can take a speedboat taxi from the international airport to your hotel and vice-versa?
So while Venice can indeed be hot and crowded in peak summer season, it’s one of the world’s most unique and beautiful cities and is always worth a visit or revisit in the fall or spring when the weather is more temperate and the crowds have gone. However, even if you find yourself in Venice during peak summer season as I recently did, you will no doubt still be inspired and mesmerized by its undeniable beauty, both architectural and artistic, as well as its uncommon geography that makes getting around by foot bridge, boat taxis, and gondolas one of life’s distinct pleasures.
Without doubt, Venice’s best address is the St. Regis Hotel. Located on the Grand Canal, a leisurely five-minute stroll from Piazza San Marco and just behind the Calle XXII Marzo offering high-end retail therapy and contemporary art galleries, the St. Regis has incomparable views of the canal, fronts the beautifully imposing Santa Maria della Salute Basilica and provides a bird’s eye view to some of Venice’s most important and historically significant architectural feats. Following two years of comprehensive renovations, the St. Regis reopened in late 2019, restoring the 124-year-old hotel – formerly the Grand Hotel Brittania – to its initial elegance and élan, while adding an excellent, modern art collection.
St. Regis’ Grand Salon with its mosaic amber, black, gray, and white floors, has as its focal point, a breathtaking masterpiece chandelier by Ai Weiwei that weds traditional glass-blowing techniques with contemporary art. Weiwei’s glasswork also takes center stage at Arts Bar, open evenings. On the Salon’s four walls are massive installations by German artist Gregor Hildebrandt using ink jet print and cassette boxes representing four seasons and four women – spoiler alert, one is Zooey Deschanel.
Italian artist Esther Stocker’s geometric black-and-white aluminum paper wall sculptures grace a room next to the Salon while Jaume Splenda’s white marble sculptures are intensely mesmerizing.
The hotel is comprised of several Venetian palaces seamlessly combined. It has 130 rooms including five Grand Canal terrace rooms – where I hung my hat – and 39 suites. My room boasted over 320-square feet with high-pitch ceilings and wood beams that accentuated its spaciousness. A silver velvet Napoleon-style chaise was perfect for relaxing while royal blue and silver accent pillows added panache. The free-standing wood bar hid the coffee machine, minibar, and fridge while an interior dining table doubled as a workspace.
Most impressive was that my room had not one, but two furnished terraces, the second of which made me almost sad that I wasn’t traveling with 10 of my closest friends as it was large enough to easily host all 10 for cocktails. I made good use of both, in the morning with coffee, and just before sunset when Venice’s enchanting light dances on the water in everchanging hues.
Bathrooms are likewise spacious graced with granite counter tops, lighted make-up mirror, towel warmer, deep-soaking tub, two-person Carrera-style marble walk-in shower with both oversized rain and European shower heads, and with a full array of Acqua de Parma amenities.
St. Regis’ daily breakfast buffet was lovely with fruit, yogurts, muesli, charcuterie, cheeses, and breads and pastries galore, along with Prosecco, Bellinis, and a made-to-order menu which made lunch gratuitous. The sun-ripened tomatoes perched next to my avocado toast were so sweet, it seemed sugar had been added. It hadn’t, so I ordered a side of tomatoes the next day. Turns out so did the table next to me.
For typical Venetian food, Ristorante Anonimo Veneziano has a convivial atmosphere, friendly staff, and great seafood risotto. To enjoy some of the best Southern Italian pizza, head to 1000 Gourmet. The porcini pizza was top notch, and even if you have no room for dessert, order tiramisu anyway. It’s a busy place – it’s that good – so go early if you don’t want to wait. Rosa Rossa also has good pizza and a nice wine selection.
For an utterly unforgettable meal in a superb atmosphere, Gio’s Restaurant & Terrace at the St. Regis combines the culinary artistry of Chef Giuseppe Ricci and Sous Chef Matteo Penazzo with a transcendent location fronting the Grand Canal.
It was challenging not to devour the all the house-made warm potato bread and aromatic Sicilian olive oil, but proved critical as the cuttlefish bonbon in Jerusalem artichoke Saor sauce was outstanding, while the Yakitori grilled octopus with tomatoes, capers, and taggiasche olive crumble was divine. Paired first with a 2022 Furia Rosé, then a 2021 Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo, the meal nearly had me belting out Volare.
Whether one is religious or an atheist, the many churches of Venice provide an indelible backdrop to both history and art. A stone’s throw from St. Regis is the Chiesa di. S. Moisè. Founded in 8thcentury thanks to Moisè Venier, rebuilt in the 10thcentury and again in the 12thcentury after a fire, the final transformation occurred in the 17thcentury. Its Baroque facade is based on Alessandro Tremignon’s design in homage to his patrons, the Fini family. The marble Corinthian columns surrounding each of the painted panels are mind-bogglingly beautiful both for the intricate carvings and the range of natural coloring. The altar’s enormous set piece of Moses at Mt. Sinai, also created by Tremignon, is hauntingly life-like.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in the San Polo neighborhood is a Gothic treasure trove. There are 14thcentury works of Paolo Veneziano, new-Baroque bronze skeletons by Francesco Cavrioli, and Benedétto Pesaro works bearing a striking resemblance to Sean Connery.
For more modern pieces, BelAir Fine Art on Calle dello Spezier has several lifelike swimmers in various states of repose by German-American artist Carole Feuerman and French artist Fred Allard’s acrylic plays on designer and travel bags are whimsically unique. Banksy admirers should head to the Ponte di S. Pantalon bridge where his 2019 installation of the flare-carrying, shipwrecked/migrant child is located.
One of Venice’s darker historical periods is that of the Venetian Ghetto, Europe’s first. From 1516 to 1797, the city’s Jewish residents were compelled to live on this small island in the Cannaregio district. By 1608 there were about 6,000 inhabitants living there in cramped conditions and it took until 1797 when Napoleon’s troops finally liberated the residents. The Jewish Museum has a walking tour of two of the five temples. There’s also a library, secret garden, and unleavened bread oven.
To uncover the art of Venetian perfume making, The Merchant of Venice’s flagship store in Campo San Fantin has terra cotta sculptures and ornate wood carvings from the 1850s. The Santa Fosca location was restored to its 18thcentury splendor, keeping its original fixtures that represent the daily activity of a pharmacy.
At Chiesa San Vidal there are concerts with an eight-piece orchestra at 9pm. Stellar church acoustics made listening to Vivaldi there utterly ethereal.
Palazzo Franchetti houses the Institute of Science, Letters & Arts. Breathtaking painted ceilings and arched stairwells compete with the intricate circular wood staircases and dozens of iron-handled drawers flanking the third floor which originally served as bank archives. Until November 26th Kengo Kuma’s onomatopoeia architectural exhibition with models of his fascinating work can be seen in arguably Venice’s most remarkable interior.
If like me you are one to consume more gelati than is safe to publicly admit, leave space for delectable chocolates from Nino & Friends. Their motto, “Nine of 10 people love chocolate. The 10th lies.” feels like gospel truth. You’ll also want to stop in at one Venetian baker extraordinare Rosa Salva’s three Venice storefronts – one is near the St. Regis – for the best Burano Bussola cookies to take home. They are so good that St. Regis offers a taste to guests at check-in.
The Lessons Learned
Despite balmy days and plenty of visitors to Venice, graciously warm Italian hospitality was abundant at every stop. In keeping with the true spirit of warm hospitality, the staff at St. Regis has taken this to an art form, equally as priceless as much of its fine art collection and glorious views of this magical city. Happy travels!
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
Written by Julie L. Kessler
Read more posts by Julie L. Kessler