I am a great believer that one can never have too much Italy in one’s life. So to end Autumn in style, and to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary, Mr. O and I made our way to lovely Venice. It was a special trip, as from there, we would depart on an epic journey onboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train back to London. Si si!
We landed at Venice’s Marco Polo airport late on a Thursday night, and were met by our Blitz Exclusive driver. As it was at around 10pm, and to ensure we would get to our hotel before the restaurant closed, we had a two-part private transfer, first with a Mercedes and then a speedboat, which took us straight to our hotel, the stunning Gritti Palace. Our boat was absolutely fantastic and the service ran like clockwork.
We got to our hotel just before 11pm, and were starving – the priority wasn’t actually getting to our room, but making sure that we could have a bite to eat. And with minutes to spare, we enjoyed our first meal in Venice with a stunning view. We shared both an insalata caprese and melon with Parma ham and a very nice bottle of Franciacorta sparkling wine. To say we were happy, it would be the understatement of the year.
The next morning, we woke up bright and early – and we were definitely on a mission. Friday was the only full day we had to explore Venice, and we had a packed itinerary, as we had chosen to do a walking tour with Walks of Italy and a Flytographer photo shoot at the same time. The time of the day was perfect, and the sun was shining (which wasn’t to last!)
From our hotel, located a few minutes from St. Mark’s Square, we made our way to the Rialto Bridge, where our tour was to start (at Campo San Giacomo di Rialto, literally a couple of steps away) – but we also got a chance to see something quite special: not a lot of people at St. Mark’s.
We met Giusy, our lovely guide from Walks of Italy, and Serena, one of the local Flytographers, who was to spend part of the tour time with us and capture some of our best moments.
As our time in town was limited (and I was also very keen to help the local economy in the afternoon), we chose the ‘Highlights of Venice’ Walking tour, which takes just under 3 hours, and includes a private gondola trip. We started at the Rialto Market, which is one of my favourite memories from a previous visit to the city. My favourite part was, without a doubt, strolling around the fish market and see all the local varieties of fish and seafood. We weren’t hungry at this stage, but it wouldn’t be difficult to pick the ingredients for a fantastic meal. Our guide was a Venetian and offered some very interesting insights about life in the city – which has only 60,000 residents and with 22 million visitors a year.
From the market, we had some Flytographer moments captured (really lovely ones) and headed towards the Rialto Bridge, which is obviously one of the most recognised sights of Venice – it was busy, but we made it just before the cruises arrived and you could barely walk around town.
I did find it ironic that being a UNESCO heritage site, that should be preserved for future generations, that Venice allows so many cruise ships to dock in the Canal and have dozens of thousands of people just flood the city. I found it quite uncomfortable and not pleasant at all, and was delighted when Giusy made a turn into an alleyway and within seconds, we were the only ones walking around.
Canareggio is one of the loveliest and most authentic neighbourhoods of Venice and we saw not just beautiful sites, but also many locals just going about with day-to-day life – and understand how difficult it is to get things into the city, make building renovations and walk around town with a pram.
We saw stunning buildings and the prettiest canals, but what I loved the most was just chatting with our guide. She was funny, understood how much detail we wanted (or not), and just shared with us some of her favourite parts of the city.
We stopped for coffee and bumped into one of Giusy’s many acquaintances, whose restaurant apparently is one of Venice’s best kept secrets. We had no plans for lunch and wanted to go somewhere lovely (and not touristy at all), and asked for a recommendation of a place where she would really go for a meal with friends and family. Good things would be coming our way.
Before we knew it, we had made our way back towards St. Mark’s Square, which was packed – but we needed to get to the our gondola, and there was really no other option. We hugged Giusy goodbye and wished her well with her baby. We really had a great time.
Our gondola trip was pre-organised, which meant no queueing (priceless, in my opinion). For around 30-40 minutes, we just sat and enjoyed the sights – we were incredibly lucky with the weather that morning, and we saw the sun quite a bit.
Obviously the gondola was textbook touristy – we even heard another gondolier sing (for his guests), and I captured it in a short instagram video. Nonetheless, we enjoyed and finished our morning with a sense of accomplishment. We walked a bit, learned a bit and enjoyed each minute immensely.
At this stage, we were starving, so we took Giusy’s recommendation and made our way (with the very appreciated help of Google Maps) to Vini d’Arturo, which was fantastic. With only 10 tables, you absolutely need to book it for dinner. It was very simple but so lovely, you have to see for yourself. We decided to share a pasta dish and a main course as we knew we would never be able to have two courses each and it was of one of best meals I had in a while. Every celeb worth its weight has visited, and the team is flown every year to Los Angeles for a month to cook for every movie star you can think of.
We had to walk off those delicious and well-earned calories, and that meant helping the local economy, of course. In Italy, I always like to checkout Max Mara (which costs 50% less than anywhere else in the world) and other Italian staples, like Bottega Veneta, but I lost my heart (and a bit of cash) at Celine. Mr. O found a Boggi store, which is one of his favourite casual-wear Italian brands, so we were both happy!
We thought we should take it slow, and decided to head back to the hotel for a little nap. We had had a long week and not a lot of sleep, and as we were only staying for 2 nights in town, we wanted to enjoy our fabulous suite at the Gritti Palace. Our room was stunning and I was sorry we were not there for longer.
Also worth mentioning, that the hotel was the best smelling hotel ever. Ever. If you like Acqua di Parma, you are in for a treat. Or many treats, actually. As soon as you walked in, that familiar smell just lingered and it was wonderful.
Mr. O decided he should check out the spa himself, and booked a massage, whereas I had a hair appointment at a nearby hairdresser, which the hotel had booked for me. I was very jealous of Mr. O (I really wanted to go to the spa), but one needs fabulous hair to go on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, so it was non-negotiable.
I understand Italian reasonably well, but I cannot speak a word, except for a few pleasantries. So to say I was a bit nervous to go to a local salon, it would be an understatement.
English was not spoken at the hairdressers, but the international language of hair styling (with a lot of hand gestures and smiles) took over, and I did have fabulously bouncy hair. Whilst the salon itself wasn’t very fancy, I was actually very happy with the end result (and good value at €38)- I am pretty sure the hotel would have not organised a place that wasn’t good. So I was a happy bunny, who needed something very important: a Bellini!
It would be rude not to have a Bellini in Venice, and I decided that the best place to have it would be back at the Gritti – I seriously loved the canal-side bar terrace and wanted to make sure we used it as much. Plus, everything was just around the corner, so it made perfect sense. I had been to Harry’s Bar on my previous visit to Venice and have to say, I wasn’t that impressed. I mean the Bellinis were good, but it all felt to touristy and rushed. Getting a seat was a nightmare, and the Bellini was tiny (for a mere €15 back then). The Bellini at the Gritti was around €20, it was lovely, the setting was stunning and service outstanding, so worth every cent.
We were totally in the mood for cocktails, and had decided that there was a stop that we needed to make – we simply had to go to the Belmond Hotel Cipriani, in Giudeca island and have a couple of liquid specialities before dinner. So we made our way towards the canal side of St. Mark’s Square and boarded the hotel’s private boat shuttle (which is complimentary and operates in a continuous basis). The views we had on our short journey to the hotel were nothing short of extraordinary.
My friend Lynsey and her fiancé James were in town and were due to meet us at 7pm – but they were late, so we decided to make our way to the Belmond Hotel Cipriani and have to say, arrived just as a huge storm began. It was quite dramatic to see such a sudden weather change – but even more dramatic to think about my friend who was getting drenched just because she was 10 minutes late. But this was her punishment for having a long afternoon nap!
From the his and hers timed cocktail (we did well, I promise), we moved on to the cocktail that Walter Bolzonella created for George Clooney (which as everyone knows by now, had his wedding reception at this very same venue a week after we were there). This second drink was made with Prosecco, passionfruit and elderflower liqueur. When he asked Clooney, who was visiting the hotel, for help naming it, the pair came up with Nina’s Special, in honour of the actor’s mother. I have to admit that I liked this one better, and we all know why.
Happier than we arrived, we left the Belmond Cipriani (with our friends), and joined them for a great dinner at Ristoteca Oniga, which was lovely and one of Lynsey’s favourite places in Venice.
All good things come to an end, and our day was drawing to a close, but we were so excited about the following day, I could not tell you! We woke up the next morning like children on Christmas Day – it was *the* day.
At 9am, were met by our Blitz Exclusive boat driver (who were super punctual on both our journeys), who ‘drove’ us towards Santa Lucia Station, where our incredible return back to London would begin.
The transfer took around 30 minutes (it does depend on canal traffic, so check first!) and we took some time to reflect about our short but very sweet stopover in Venice. We saw a fair bit of the city, ate and drank pretty well, shopped a bit and even saw some friends, which made it even more special. We loved our hotel and to be honest, it was the perfect wedding anniversary.
But we knew that even better things awaited, and could not wait to get to the train station.
Our journey from Venice to London took 30 hours, which we won’t forget in a hurry (and you can read all about it here).
Disclaimer and fact box: a huge thank you to those who made this trip so special, namely Blitz Exclusive, Walks of Italy, Flytographer and the Belmond Hotel Cipriani, who organised great experiences for us.
Sleep: we stayed at the Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection hotel by Starwood, where rooms start from €350 per night, and suites from €1200.
See: Walks of Italy organises various tours in Venice (and other Italy locations) starting from €59 per person in a group setting, and €369 for a private tour for two, which we really enjoyed.
Play: a 30-minute photoshoot with Flytographer costs $250
Drink: we had drinks at the Gritti Palace and Belmond Hotel Cipriani where cocktails start from around €20 and come with views.
Get around: with Blitz Exclusive, who provides luxury private transportation services. The combined transfer from the airport to our hotel cost €420 including a €80 night surcharge, and our transfer from the hotel to the train station cost €260.