24 hours in Venice

A cocktail at Harry’s Bar, breakfast at Caffè Florian, masterpieces at the Gallerie dell’Accademia... if you’re only in Venice for a short stay (or you’re a first-timer), it’s all about hitting the city’s famed landmarks, writes Colman Andrews. Here’s the perfect plan.

The first time I went to Venice - with an English girlfriend, on my maiden trip to Europe, back in the days when my age and my body mass index were both in the low 20s - I spent a week there, and we covered every museum, every monument, every visitors' cliché. The second time I went to Venice, a couple of years later, my visit lasted for half-a-dozen hours (I was making a train connection between Croatia and France). I wandered the canalsides, had an apéritivo, ate a good lunch, had afternoon coffee - and in a way (and with no disrespect meant to the English girl), enjoyed myself more than I had the first time. Truman Capote once famously remarked that going to Venice was like "eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go". The place is so very rich (in more ways than one) that I almost think a short stay might be more purely enjoyable than a longer one. A stay, for example, of 24 hours. This is how I'd probably spend that stay:
Noon. A Martini at Harry's Bar
The visitor to Venice inevitably confronts the Harry's Bar dilemma: to go or not to go. The problem is that this Venetian institution is something of a tourist trap, usually crowded (with loud non-Venetians often in the majority) and stunningly expensive (it costs about $80, for instance, for the famous carpaccio - which was invented here, but still…). On the other hand, it is Harry's Bar, a landmark, a must. If you haven't stopped in, it's almost as though you haven't really been to Venice. My recommendation, then, is to belly up to the small, low, somehow incredibly elegant bar before the place gets too full and have, no, not a Bellini (also invented here), which I've always considered a cocktail for people who don't like cocktails, but one of the bar's (gin) Martinis, ice-cold, poured from a pitcher into an exquisite little glass. Sip, observe, drink in the atmosphere. Then get back out on the street.
1pm. Lunch at Hotel Cipriani What? Am I crazy? You've only got 24 hours in Venice and I'm sending you off to a luxury hotel across the water from the city's heart? Trust me on this. There are three very good reasons to make this choice. One: the boat ride out to Giudecca in the stylish varnished-wood Cipriani launch will make you feel very jet-set and give you a spectacular look back at the Piazza San Marco (the boat ride is free, but don't forget to tip the captain). Two: the food is excellent. Reserve a table at Cip's Club, outside if the weather's good, and gaze across at the heart of Venice while you feast on fried soft-shell crabs with white polenta, pasta e fagioli Venetian-style, or cuttlefish with fresh peas. Alternatively, lunch near the Olympic-sized swimming pool (said to be the only one in the city). The spectacular buffet offers everything from San Daniele prosciutto (and jamón serrano) and cold half-lobsters to orecchiette with baby shrimp, and fried scampi and calamari with eggplant and zucchini. Make the experience even more special by ordering a bottle of Casanova Salso, a cabernet merlot blend vinified in Tuscany from grapes grown in a tiny vineyard in the Cipriani gardens - themselves a lovely place to stroll after your meal. Prices for both the buffet and the Cip's lunch are rather frightening, but it's worth the splurge.
3.30pm. A tour of Gallerie dell'Accademia
Time for a little culture. Venice is full of museums, but the treasure house of non-contemporary art in the city - and one of the great art museums of Italy, period - is the institution officially known as the Gallerie dell'Accademia, a one-time school of painting occupying the former grounds of a school, convent, and church. Talk about an entire box of chocolate liqueurs. The Accademia is absolutely chock-a-block with riches, with hundreds of masterpieces displayed in at least a couple of dozen rooms. The works represent almost 500 years of Venetian art, alternately dramatic, breathtaking, and unsettling. They're the kinds of paintings your art appreciation teacher back in school would have wanted you to spend an hour apiece with. Well, plenty of time for that when you come back for 24 weeks in Venice. For now, my recommendation is to simply graze, moving through the galleries at a fair pace, stopping to spend a few minutes with the works that particularly catch your eye - the seductive, glowingly illuminated works of Giovanni Canaletto or Francesco Guardi, maybe, or Paolo Veronese's dazzling intricate set piece The Feast in the House of Levi, which takes up an entire wall (it was originally titled The Lord's Last Supper but Veronese renamed it after he was accused of heresy) or works by those unwitting muses to Harry's Bar, Vittore Carpaccio and Jacopo Bellini (and his sons Giovanni and Gentile).
5.30pm. Shop for souvenirs Go ahead and buy some corny souvenirs (you'll have a dozen opportunities on every street). Seek out high-quality Murano glass if that's your thing - and yes, it does exist (try L'Angolo del Passato on the Campiello del Squelini for both antique and modern pieces). The Calle Vallaresso and the nearby Calle Larga XXII Marzo are lined with chic boutiques and purveyors of brands such as Frette and Prada. If you're gastronomically inclined, stop at I Tre Mercanti on the Campo della Guerra, just north-west of the Piazza San Marco, for an intelligently chosen selection of wine, olive oil, pasta, chocolates, preserves, baked goods and other indulgences, or visit Antica Drogheria Mascari on the Calle degli Spezieri for chocolates, spices and artisanal dried fruits.
7pm. Catch your breath Time for a nap or a shower or a quiet cocktail in your hotel bar.
8.30pm. Dinner at a wine bar
Bacari are Venetian wine bars, similar to tapas bars, serving an array of "cicchetti", or little snacks, along with assorted beverages. The best way to enjoy these places, as with tapas bars, is to wander between two or three or four of them, having a glass of something and a nibble or two at each. I particularly like three near the Rialto market, beneath a 16th-century loggia on the Campo San Giacometto. All have indoor seating, but also terraces out the back that face the Grand Canal. Bancogiro has an upscale feel and has been known to serve foie gras and oysters - neither being typical Venetian fare - as well as the assorted cicchetti and well-cooked seafood dishes that are its standard fare. Al Pesador, next door, specialises in carpaccio; there are always five or six varieties, mostly involving fish (I love the combination of smoked tuna interlaid with smoked swordfish, both sliced translucently thin). At the far end of the loggia is Naranzaria, which has the best wines of the three (the proprietor owns a winery in Friuli) and offers platters of cold meats piled with first-rate prosciutto, salami, and an extraordinary mortadella made from goose instead of pork. Naranzaria's carne crudo is the anti-carpaccio, finely chopped instead of sliced and very subtly seasoned. (Avoid the sushi, no doubt appreciated by the locals, but a disappointment if you're used to the real thing.)
11pm. A nightcap at Paradiso Perduto Venice isn't much of a town for nightlife. Zoning laws and noise ordinances keep clubs and late-night bars out of many areas, or mandate early closings. Hey, what do you expect from a city with the nickname La Serenissima - the most serene? Young locals (and there aren't very many of them; the average age of Venetian citizens is about 50) tend to go to Terraferma - the mainland, to bars and discos in Mestre, the populous industrial part of Venice. There are some nice little places to end the evening, though, as long as you don't mind ending it by midnight or 1am. One of my favourites is Paradiso Perduto - Paradise Lost - an intimate, candle-lit club that offers live music three or four nights a week (more or less at random, as far as I can tell) and Sunday evening jam sessions. The music is often jazz, and every once in a while somebody famous shows up (veteran saxophonist Archie Shepp played here). Mostly, though, this is just a fairly lively place to sip a glass of organic wine or grappa before wandering back to your hotel.
8.30am. Breakfast with history The Venetian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire first brought news of "kahve" - coffee to you - back from Constantinople in the late 16th century. Before long, the portico along the western flank of the Piazza San Marco was filled with shops serving tiny cups of the steaming potion. In 1720, a particularly elegant establishment called Caffè alla Venezia Trionfante (Café of the Triumphant Venice) opened its doors, under the direction of one Floriano Francesconi. Soon everyone was calling it Florian's place, and Florian's is still going strong. Everyone from Marcel Proust to Igor Stravinsky has perched at its little marble-top tables or slid into the dark-red velvet banquettes beneath the smoky gilt-framed mirrors. The generic outdoor tables and chairs on the piazza are more popular today with tourists (who like to take in the kitsch orchestra music), but I prefer sitting inside, or just outside the windows under the portico. The coffee is excellent, short and intensely aromatic, and there is an assortment of wonderfully light breakfast pastries that might remind you of the influence of Viennese bakers here after the city fell under Austrian rule in the 18th century. Or it might just remind you that all you had last night for dinner were a few snacks, and you'd better order another one.
10am. Visit the Punta della Dogana More culture. In 2005, the French zillionaire businessman and art collector François Pinault (his company owns brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, along with minor amusements such as Château Latour and Christie's auction house) bought the venerable Palazzo Grassi in Venice to house part of his extensive contemporary collection. Last year, he opened a second gallery, the Punta della Dogana, in the old Venetian customs house, which is the rather sober-looking building you see extending out on the prow of land where the Grand Canal meets the Giudecca Canal. Japanese architect Tadao Ando removed all the interior walls from the customs house, and transformed the mouldy warren-like interior into a magnificent art palace, flooded with natural light. Pinault and his curators have launched Mapping the Studio, an exhibition divided between the two buildings of some 200 works by 60 artists - among them Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Takashi Murakami. If you love contemporary art, you may want to see both parts of the exhibition, but your time in Venice is almost gone, and the Punta della Dogana is the more enthralling of the two, and can easily be digested in an hour or so. And the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is just around the corner.
11.30am. Off to market
Okay, it's nearly time to leave Venice. If you can get to the Erbaria, just over the Rialto Bridge, before the fruit-and-vegetable-sellers close up shop (they're usually open till noon), you can buy locally grown grapes or pears or maybe a slender bulb of wild fennel, then stop into the 1936-vintage Casa del Parmigiano in the heart of the market for some cheese (extraordinary parmigiano, as you might expect, but plenty of other kinds too) and prosciutto or salami. (If you have time to spare, take a look at the adjacent fish market, where you'll see sea creatures you've never imagined.) Take your picnic with you (picnicking is discouraged on the streets of Venice) and eat it on the way to wherever in the world you're headed next, while thinking to yourself, "It seems like only yesterday…"