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Sleep: Venice

This Italian city may be well trodden by tourists, but its accommodation is anything but predictable, whether you want to stay in a neo-gothic grande dame or a converted flour mill

Sleep: Venice
Grand Canal, Venice. Image: Getty

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Nowhere is quite like Venice. With her 118 islands connected by 400 bridges, and wide spread of architecture ­— from Byzantine churches to gothic palazzos – it’s no wonder people flock here. Few cities measure up to her looks: the divine lagoon setting, the jaw-dropping Grand Canal, the near-silence of streets whose only traffic is on foot. Of course, ‘Her most serene highness’, as she used to be known, is rather more fraught these days with visitors; but that shouldn’t put you off. Most stick to the area between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge, but Venice is divided into six sestieri, or districts. That’s not to say you have to sleep off the beaten path. Staying on or near the Grand Canal means easy access to the main vaporetto (waterbus) routes, fewer bridges to cart luggage over, and views from your hotel without the crowds. The islands have a very different pace of life, and staying here can be considerably cheaper than on ‘mainland’ Venice but, because of the added journey time, are best for second-timers and beyond. Giudecca — an easy vaporetto ride from San Marco, with incredible views across the lagoon — is a good compromise.

Gritti Palace

Gritti Palace

For absolute luxury: Gritti Palace
The Gritti is a state of mind as much as it is a hotel. The 15th-century home of Doge Andrea Gritti, a hotel since the 1800s, has long been a favourite of aesthetes such as Hemingway, Guggenheim and Somerset Maugham. Renovations in 2013 saw the building pulled apart and put back together again, but aside from two modern suites, little has changed on the surface. The stucco has been touched up, sumptuous wall fabrics redone, Murano chandeliers rehung and oil paintings on every wall regilded — so you can lie back and live the 19th-century life.
Rooms: Doubles from £500, including breakfast.

For wine-lovers: Venissa
A Michelin-starred restaurant on a peaceful island? So far, so un-Venetian. But, half an hour away from Piazza San Marco, Venissa whisks you back to a time when the lagoon was famous for its farms and vineyards. The local Bisol family — renowned for their Veneto prosecco — have replanted near-extinct vines around an ancient bell tower and built a six-room hotel around them on Mazzorbo, an island of 300 inhabitants that’s linked to Burano by a footbridge. The rooms pair exposed beams with modern furniture and, best of all, offer views across the vines.
Rooms: Doubles from £104, including breakfast.

Hilton Molino Stucky

Hilton Molino Stucky

For views: Hilton Molino Stucky
In good weather, as boats chug past the window and seagulls loop round the rooftop pool, there’s no better place to be than this behemoth of a hotel, a converted flour mill on the far end of Giudecca that was abandoned for 50 years before Hilton breathed new life into it. As big brands go, it’s fairly non-chainy, with striped walls and Murano chandeliers in all 379 rooms, plus original details like wooden beams, steel columns and old grain chutes.
Rooms: Doubles from £108, room only.

For couples: Oltre il Giardino
Hotel or house? Oltre Il Giardino is a bit of both, with six simple rooms around a stylish modern lounge and beautiful garden. Tucked away behind the Frari church, the house was once owned by the redoubtable Alma Mahler (wife of composer Gustav) and it’s been meticulously restored. Breakfast is served in the garden on good weather days — to the soundtrack of gondolas sloshing down the canal on the other side of the wall.
Rooms: Doubles from £162, including breakfast.

For design: Cima Rosa
A short walk from San Stae in the Santa Croce district, this beguiling B&B has Grand Canal views from three of its five rooms (it’s worth the upgrade — the other two have no view to speak of), yet, there’s none of the pomp and circumstance of its prime location rivals. Rooms are dressed in the colours of the lagoon — sober greys, greens and blues — with antiques restored and repurposed by the owners alongside modern beds and sofas. There’s a small courtyard and a communal living room, where breakfast is served while light sparkles on the ceiling, reflecting the water outside.
Rooms: Doubles from £162, including breakfast.

Bauer Palladio

Bauer Palladio

For outdoor living: Bauer Palladio
There’s only one thing not to love about this place — it’s not open year-round, but runs seasonally from March to November. Sitting on Giudecca in a former convent designed by Andrea Palladio that overlooks Piazza San Marco, it’s been transformed by the locally owned Bauer group into a grand hotel where Venice meets Tiki style: traditional decor in the main building, but hessian walls, bamboo-bordered ceilings and palm-frond lamps in the garden annexes. And those gardens are expansive — part lawn, part meadow. There’s a free shuttle to the sister hotel near Piazza San Marco.
Rooms: Doubles from £226, including breakfast.

For a local hideaway: Relais Alberti
You taste Venice as it was centuries ago at this upmarket B&B on the far end of the eight-mile Lido island. In a 15th-century house in the main square of Malamocco are 13 rooms, overseen by a chic ‘locandiera’ — an ancient word for innkeeper. It’s a world (rather, a bus-plus-vaporetto-ride) away from the crowds, but every bit as chic as the sumptuous properties in town, smothered in antiques, damask walls, siken furnishings — and a simple patio outside.
Rooms: Doubles from £108, including breakfast.

Centurion Palace

Centurion Palace

For laid-back vibes: Centurion Palace
Instead of turning the 19th-century neo-gothic Palazzo Genovese, beside the Salute church, into yet more traditionally styled digs, Italian chain Sina Hotels decided instead on a bold modern look for the Centurion Palace, which opened in 2009. With only 50 rooms in the huge building, there’s a surprising intimacy about the place. Rooms are a stark departure from the Venice norm, with earthy wall palettes of rust, brown and claret, 6.7m-high ceilings (on certain floors), bright modern art, and bathrooms papered with real gold leaf.
Rooms: Doubles from £239, room only.

For history: Palazzo Stern
With its gothic exterior and pretty garden right on the water, Palazzo Stern is one of the most photographed buildings on the Grand Canal. Inside, it’s even more interesting: an early 15th-century Moorish palazzo, later owned by an art lover who stuffed it full of valuables. An intricate coffered ceiling in the lobby gives way to a spectacular staircase leading up to 24 traditionally styled rooms. The crowning glory is the ‘altana’, the rooftop terrace, complete with hot tub.
Rooms: Doubles from £135, including breakfast.

For quirky deco: Novecento
There’s a Marco-Polo-meets-the-early-1900s vibe going on at this jewel-box of a hotel, off a side alley from the Grand Canal, with interiors sourced from all over the globe. Moroccan rugs sit below a reclaimed coffered ceiling; rooms mix heavy drapery with animal-print lampshades, antique beds and traditional terrazzo flooring. The nine rooms aren’t the biggest, but they’re lovingly put together. The owners have a wealth of ideas for getting off the tourist trail.
Rooms: Doubles from £135, including breakfast.

Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)