Winter isn’t exactly peak season for tourism in Venice — and that’s exactly why it’s the best time for you to visit. Unlike summer, when the city belongs to out-of-towners, La Serenissima in winter is deserted, quiet and, yes, serene. If the mist-shrouded canals and melancholy romance aren’t enough of a draw, rooms at luxe hotels like The Gritti Palace and the Baglioni Hotel Luna are available for a fraction of their high-season rates, while landmarks like St. Mark’s Basilica sit blissfully empty. There’s still plenty of excitement, if you seek it:
Carnival kicked off on Jan. 23, breathing life into the city’s sleepy streets with food, music and dancing. Sure, Venice is enchanting any time of year — but go now, while you can have it all to yourself. Venice Carnival From Jan.23 through Feb. 9, La Serenissima sloughs off its winter gloom and comes alive for Carnival, an annual open-air festival that fills the city with music, dancing and masked party-goers. There are events every day — from colorful boat parades on the banks of Cannaregio to masquerade balls — but the highlight of Carnival is the world-famous masked costume contest that takes place in Piazza San Marco on Feb. 7. Also not to be missed: The King’s Banquet, a nightly feast held at Venice’s magnificent historic shipyard, Arsenale (tickets must be booked online in advance).
Campo San Polo Ice Rink
Every winter, from the beginning of December until the end of Carnival, Venice’s largest square, Campo San Polo, is turned into a gigantic ice-skating rink. The ovoid rink, which can accommodate up to 200 skaters, features a decorative ice sculpture at its center and is flanked by market stalls selling food, mulled wine, and local arts and crafts. A day pass to the rink is quite reasonable for Venice: €10 for adults and €8 for children, with rental skates included. Pro tip: Visit after dark to avoid the crowds and skate amid the glittering city lights.
Being Italy’s oldest coffee house, opened in 1720, the iconic Caffè Florian is worth visiting any time of year. But during the chilly, dark days of winter, its plush red velvet banquettes and warm ambiance are especially enticing. What you’re here for is the hot chocolate: It’s thick, creamy and ganache-like, served in a porcelain cup with biscotti for dipping. It’s no wonder that literary greats like Casanova, Goethe, Proust and Dickens were said to be regulars, finding inspiration in the cafe’s charming atmosphere and belly-warming beverages (try Casanova’s namesake hot chocolate, topped with mint cream and chocolate shavings).
St. Mark’s Basilica
There’s no denying the magnificence of St. Mark’s Basilica, Italy’s most famous Byzantine cathedral, even when it’s packed with tourists. But in the off-season, when it’s deserted? Downright magical. You don’t have to line up for hours for a peek at its glittering cupolas and priceless relics, or fight through a suffocating crush of tourists to admire the lavish, gem-studded Pala d’Oro high altar. On those chilly winter mornings, you’ll have the basilica — and its 40,000 square feet of gold-backed mosaics —practically to yourself.
A gondola ride might not sound appealing in below-freezing temperatures, but winter is actually the most romantic time to hop on board. From December through February, the canals are hauntingly quiet, shrouded in mist and illuminated by soft, hazy winter light — like a scene straight out of a movie. Steer clear of the congested Grand Canal, which is best seen by the cheaper traghetti ferries anyway, and head for the gondola stops along the small, narrow side canals for a more tranquil and authentic experience. Added bonus: Being low season, it’s much easier to broker a lower price with your gondolier (you can likely knock €5 to €10 off the steep €80 average for a 30-minute ride). —Krisanne Fordham