This charming trip report by London-based Rosemary Wilmot will be a help to anyone planning to spend the Holidays in Venice, or temptation for anyone planning to spend it elsewhere. Find info about the Christmas Market, restaurants open over the holidays in Venice, what to eat and do.
My dream has always been to spend Christmas in Venice. This was brought on by reading a travel article from a writer who did just that years ago – it sounded just magical – this year my dream came true.
I have always had a real passion for Venice, and with my love of photography it’s a totally unique destination. My husband Brian and I spent 12 days in Venice for Christmas and New Year. We left home on the 21st of December arriving to glorious sunshine that lasted for the whole holiday.
There is nothing more pleasurable than arriving by water taxi, especially with the light streaming onto the palazzi of the Grand Canal, turning them to burnished gold with the light once again reflected back into the canal streaked gold and blue, just divine and the thing of Venice legends… Speeding along towards the grand canal it’s the light that seduces you every time and makes you feel so very alive.
Christmas market in Venice
We stayed in an apartment in Campo San Vidal with a view over the Academia Bridge. The first thing to discover was the wonderful Christmas Fair (Natale in Laguna) in Campo Santo Stefano, just seconds away from our wonderful apartment. What a lovely sight, beautiful Christmas lights, strung around 30 little alpine huts full of all manner of Christmas gifts, wines, and hot mulled wines (we tried this out more than once). The Campiello dei Golosi (Gourmands Square) is where producers from all over Italy sell gastronomic products so this is a great place to try lots of different samples: yummy rolls of porchetta, Sardinian cheeses (we bought a huge slab for the apartment to have with our amaretto), or Refosco wine. There were wooden toys, beautiful pictures and cards to buy, gloves, scarves and things to buy for our girls including lace and soaps.
All of a sudden a father Christmas on huge stilts ran past us ringing a bell; alongside her (Santa Claus was female) was a companion dressed in carnevale dress – all very exciting, I had never seen a 7 foot Babbo Natale before. Other entertainment included a stage at the end of the campo where there was a group playing all wrapped up in coats and scarves. It was cold!! At night the wonderful Christmas lights were magnificent. If only we had this in the UK.
The Christmas market would be worth a trip on its own: it opens every year from the beginning of December, usually from 2nd to the 24th of December. It was sad to see it dismantled and all taken away on barges just outside of our apartment window. It had brought real festive cheer and warmth to Venice.
I also enjoyed the window shopping around town – wonderful leather goodies, purses, handbags, jewellery, murano glass, shoes, boots, elegant coats – and the fact that just after Christmas the saldi (sales) start as well!
Where to eat
This is one time of year it is particularly important to do some groundwork before traveling because a lot of restaurants are closed between the 23rd and 26th of December. I emailed restaurants we were interested in trying and took a list of opening and shutting dates.
As we stayed in an apartment rental, we stocked up at one of the nearby supermarkets upon arrival (the usual staples: milk, water, Amaretto, wine, some nice chocolate and a few nibbles).
We decided to buy some nice red wine from Al Bottegon in the Fondamenta Maravegie on the Rio san Trovaso Dosoduro about 5 minutes from our apartment. We love this old wine bar; it has really lovely cichetti [Venetian appetizers] which always tempt us. We say we’re going to have just one but that turns into 4 or 5 each; they are too tasty for words and at only €1.50 each a great nibble to have with your “ombra” (glass of wine). It took at least an hour or so to buy the 2 bottles of red we had come in here for; we chose a “Lamole di Lamole riserva” which we discovered when staying right next to Lamole in Tuscany and a Capo di Stato, which is always a good choice, nice and smooth.
On the way back to the apartment we passed Bar alla Toletta in Corte Toletta this is the very first place I tried tramezzini, the very fat little sandwiches in white bread that are full of very tasty fillings. My favourite Tonno e Cippoline (tuna and baby onions) is usually my breakfast in Venice… how I miss them when back in the UK!
Now for dinner. The first evening we tried L’Incontro, a Sardinian restaurant close to Campo San Barnaba. The reviews are great it specialises in meat which makes a change for Venice. The food was really tasty and full of flavour, and it was nice to try a different area of Italian cuisine. We started with Culurgiones, a really unusual ravioli stuffed with potato and mint then topped with a lovely tomato sauce. The carta di musica – a thin bread drizzled with olive oil – was tasty. Brian had suckling pig smothered in wild herbs with herb crusted crackling. I had a lovely costine d’agnello, lamb cutlets with rosemary and wild mint. We had some marvellous after dinner sweets bursting with orange and lemon flavours. For wine we were happy with our choice of Cannonau red (a Grenache).
Over the next few days we shopped had a fabulous lunch at Antiche Carampane (do not miss), a wonderful dinner at Osteria Vivaldi, walked, shopped, sat, laughed, talked and spent some wonderful quality time together in a fairy tale festive atmosphere.
We had read a poster in the local wine bar at the Campo San Giacometto at the Rialto that Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) would arrive by Gondola at 11am on the 23rd of December to give children “caramelle e dolci”. We arrived early to have a coffee but by about 10.45 the only sign of any life was a fold up table on its own and a really lovely children’s sleigh which was obviously where Babbo Natale was going to distribute the goodies to the bambini. Realizing that on local time 11am could be any time up to noon, we waited patiently until a rather late Santa showed up, providing me with the perfect photo opportunity.
Christmas Eve and Day
On Christmas Eve we went to midnight mass at St. Marks Basilica. I had read that you needed to be there at least an hour before to get a seat. We arrived at 10.50pm and literally grabbed the last 2 seats. But what an experience – you have to do this once in your life! Again I had researched this on the internet so we knew that the service was held in Italian, English, French and German, so at least we could follow the service in the book we had been given on arrival. It was truly beautiful… culminating in the total illumination of the ceiling of St Marks, which is a breathtaking sight, and worth attending to see this shimmering ceiling. There were many people standing at the back of the basilica and down the aisles. There were children sleeping in their parents’ arms, children running up and down the aisles, and it all added to the wonderful atmosphere.
On Christmas Day we awoke to the most sparkling blue sky you could have ever wished for. Far to nice to sit down for a coffee, so we just walked and walked, along the Riva degli Schiavoni where the views were stunning with sun hitting the water and shimmering like a million diamonds – oh how divine is this Venice… On we went until we reached Campo Santa Maria Formosa where luckily one of our favourite neighbourhood bars, Bar all Orologi, was open. It was even warm enough to sit outside.
Then off to Christmas lunch at the Cantinone Storico in Dorsoduro. This lovely trattoria is very popular with the Venetians so book ahead (although it has extra seats on the canal in the summer). This is where we had our wedding lunch after renewing our vows for our silver wedding; this also is where my daughter Niki had her wedding lunch after she married at the Palazzo Zenobio in Venice 2 years ago. So of course this restaurant has a very special place in our hearts and the owner Alessandro Tridenti has become a friend of ours.
We had the special of the day, which was a lamb dish for two; fuelled by a very nice Chianti and a bottle of Venetian liqueur and sgroppino made with prosecco instead of vodka, followed by a wonderful Venetian Christmas pudding. A long walk along the Zattere taking in the sights – could the canal really be that blue – amazing!
The evening found us grabbing a bite of pasta at Baccaro Jazz and really chilling out to the music – what a prefect Venetian Christmas day.
The rest of the holiday was just as lovely. We visited the Ca Pesaro Museum of modern art, a beautifully restored palace (take a look at the ceilings and floors too!). We also visited the Ca Rezzonico, the palace in which the Brownings once lived, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large collection of art on the top two floors.
This is the place of which dreams are made. You will never forget hearing the Four Seasons played by the Vivaldi Ensemble at the oldest church in Venice. The music was pouring out of the Scuola San Teodora and that tempted us to buy tickets for their Baroque and Opera concerts. This time we chose two music venues that were heated, which proved essential in winter.
On New Years Eve Day we shopped, then had lunch at the Cantinone Storico again. We sat outside Quadri’s in the sun – just blissful – what a life!! It was glorious. We’d hoped for fireworks (there were some great ones when we visited in 2006) but instead there was a competition in St Marks Sq for how many people could kiss at once. There was great music but no fireworks (the photo you see here is from the previous year).
The light bouncing off the gondola as we glided past a side canal, the magnificent Frari church and last but by no means least Venice herself and her people who are warm and friendly. We had the most wonderful time. Go to Venice at Christmas? You bet. Don’t leave it to long – you will have memories to savour that will linger for your lifetime.