Every two years, Venice transforms itself from one of the dreamiest Italian cities to a floating arty party otherwise known as the Venice Biennale, a themed art fair where country participants showcase leading artists and exhibitions. From May 9 to November 22, the serene city will become a sprawling celebration of contemporary art, which means navigating Venice requires more than a map — more like a sense of artistic direction.
What to know
Traditionally, the Biennale is hosted in country-designated pavilions at Venice’s Giardini and Arsenale areas, on the less populated southeastern part of the island. You can literally go around the art world in a day with an entrance ticket. The Giardini is famous for its staple pavilions, early and mid-20th-century buildings representing countries such as Great Britain (Georgian style), Russia (onion domes) and Japan (cantilever design) in art as well as architectural style. For example, the United States’ colonial-inspired structure will house a five-room, multilayered piece from New York native Joan Jonas. Look out for Australia’s “Black Box,” a new, minimalist building from the Denton Corker Marshall architectural firm. Just a 10-minute walk north and you’re in the Arsenale, a former shipping yard and now grounds for new entries, like Vatican City, and collaborative exhibitions showcased in a long, hallway-like series of rooms. Arsenale is also home to the Italian Pavilion, and its surrounding docks often house several floating pieces.
Where else to go
It’s safe to say that the Biennale has become Venice. Over the years, the art fair’s popularity has obliterated boundaries, infiltrating every neighborhood of the city. During the event’s six months, various squares feature site-specific installations while several of Venice’s opulent palazzi host collateral events (art shows, collaborative projects, performances) and country exhibitions, giving you inside access to some of the city’s most historic and, sometimes, off-limits buildings.
With art all over the city, walk as much as you can — there is nothing like getting lost and then finding your way around Venice; this proves even more the case during the Biennale months. Time strapped? Give yourself at least one full day in the Giardini and Arsenale, traveling between the two areas by foot and seeing what you stumble across when walking around.
Whether you visit during the Biennale or otherwise, there will always be art around Venice. From the renowned collections of Galleria dell’Accademia and the Tintoretto paintings of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco to cutting-edge contemporary pieces at Palazzo Grassi and the eclectic modernism of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the city has a lot going on. During the Biennale, pay close attention to the brand-new Cy Twombly showing at Ca’ Pesaro, and beautiful exhibition space Le Stanze del Vetro’s Glass Tea House on San Giorgio Maggiore island.
Where to eat
Pastry shop Tonolo is a Dorsoduro morning mainstay. Along with your cappuccino, ask for a bombolone, a cream-filled doughnut bomb local to Venice. In the afternoon, head to Estro, a modern wine bar with an incredible selection of vintages and delicious cicchetti (Venetian tapas-like snacks) or sit pretty with an aperol spritz or bellini (season permitting) at Harry’s Bar, Venice’s legendary cocktail address. No matter what you do during the day, be sure to save room for an unforgettable dinner. For Venetian fish dishes, make reservations at Antiche Carampane, a small Venetian osteria in the Rialto neighborhood whose menu includes spaghetti alla cassopipa (a spicy shellfish sauce) and triglia dell’imbriago (mullet pan-cooked in red wine). Vini da Gigio in Canareggio is perfect for a cozy Venetian vibe and traditional dishes like baccalà mantecato con polenta (creamed codfish with polenta), tagliolini con granseola (flat spaghetti pasta with crab) and sarde in saor (fried sardines in a sour preserve).