13 February 2018

Ten Reasons to visit Venice in winter

I often write about how great Venice is in winter - in case any reader hasn't already got the message, here are ten good reasons why this is a really good time to visit.

 1. No crowds

Since I first fell in love with an empty winter Venice a decade ago, tourism has increased all year round. You won't ever find the city empty of tourists now. But the quietest times are still in winter, when you'll find residents outnumbering visitors, lanes which you can stroll along without queueing, and a low-key 'local' feel to the city. The sights are easily visited and admired, and you can enjoy Venice at your leisure. If you get off the beaten track you might go a long time before you see other outsiders.  As well as lower tourist numbers, there is a very noticeable difference in types of visitor. In the winter there are very few cruises, and fewer day-trippers, meaning that most of the tourists in town are overnight visitors, spread more evenly through the city, and with more of a feel for how to behave.

 2. Cheap accommodation

There is a vast and ever-increasing volume of tourist accommodation in Venice. In winter, places to stay outnumber visitors. So you'll find good value as businesses compete for custom. If you have your heart set on a special place to stay, book in advance. But if you're looking for the lowest prices, and are prepared to gamble, you could risk leaving it until the last minute, and watching as apartments and hotels drop their prices on Booking.com in the days before you arrive. I've seen some excellent deals in the lowest season, such as a comfortable 2-person apartment for €450 a week.

3. Cheap flights

There aren't so many flights to Venice in winter, but some routes, like London-Venice, are still busy enough that you get a good choice of flights each day. Prices are at their lowest, and you can usually still find cheap flights at short notice. This week I've found hand-baggage-only fares with British Airways for £36 each way.

4. More comfort

There are many reasons why travelling to Venice in winter is more comfortable. You'll get better service and more of a welcome than in summer, when Venice groans under the pressure of tourists. You're more likely to find good restaurant tables without booking, to find space in a cafe, to meet shorter queues at the airport, to get an outdoor seat on a boat, to find an empty bench to enjoy the view.

5. It might snow

Venice is cold in winter, the city's humidity giving an extra sharp chill to the air. There will probably be a few snowy days each winter, and although snow doesn't usually settle for long, while the snowflakes are falling, Venice is magical. It's a great photo opportunity, too, as snow briefly settles on gondolas or flutters down past Gothic windows.

6. It might be sunny ... or foggy

Snow may be magical, but you're more likely to encounter sunshine. Venice gets a good amount of winter sunshine, and there are glorious brisk sunny days when laundry flutters against a blue sky, the city is at its best, and hardy diners and drinkers might brave a sheltered outdoor table in the sun. Another typical condition is the atmospheric Venetian fog, so characteristic that it has its own local name in dialect. When it comes creeping in is a great time for taking moody photos of a Venice that summer tourists will never see.

7. Hot chocolate

Casanova swore by it, and rich Venetian hot chocolate is one of the great pleasures of the winter. You can drink a small cup for a couple of euros on your feet in a busy steamed-up cafe or pastry shop, or you can settle down with a luxurious and expensive glass in one of Venice's finest cafes. I love the mint hot chocolate named after Casanova in Caffe Florian.

8. Shopping and fun

As well as designer and high-street shops, Venice has a good range of small artisan boutiques where you can buy jewellery, leather goods, carnival masks, shoes, cloaks, stationery, ceramics and more. It's great for Christmas shopping, or just buying lovely mementos for yourself. And although the city is quiet in winter, in the run-up to Christmas there are festive markets, Christmas lights and special events (including a boat race of Santas), while in Carnival time there is lots to do - although there are also crowds and high prices for that particular fortnight. You'll usually find a small ice-rink in Campo San Polo for most of the winter.

9. Frittelle, panettone and other delights

Unlike the sweltering days of summer, when eating becomes an effort, winter is ideal for tucking into hearty lunches of risotto or pasta accompanied by local wine. Before Christmas the bakeries are full of speciality Italian cakes like panettone, and the popular version at Tonolo known as focaccia da Tonolo. Leading up to Carnival, frittelle (also known as fritole and fritoe) are everywhere, and each cup of coffee or hot chocolate is accompanied by one of these small doughnuts. Produced with a range of fillings including raisins, pastry cream, chocolate, apple and zabaione,  these are hugely popular and are a real, cheap treat of the season.

10. Nuisance-free living

By the middle of winter you're unlikely to encounter one of Venice's nastiest little hazards: the mosquito - and any surviving mosquitos are unlikely to penetrate winter layers of clothing. This unpleasant creature plagues the lagoon and can make summer and autumn painful and unromantic, so winter comes as a relief for the tender-skinned. The sun is also no longer the same threat, and you can explore the city without anticipating sweat or sunburn. Without sun-lotion, after-sun, insect repellent and all the other hot-weather necessities, winter permits much lighter packing.
Other nuisances you're more likely to avoid in winter include the pickpockets who descend on the city in crowded periods, and the ill-mannered trippers who block bridges and alleys and, of course, the crowds described above.

Winter in Venice lasts from December till February; Venice is briefly busy at New Year and is busy for the fortnight of the Venice Carnival. Winter won't suit everyone, of course. You do need to dress warmly - hat, coat, scarf, gloves - and the weather can be unpredictable. High water can be an occasional problem - or an attraction - depending on your perspective. But for many Venice-lovers, this is the very best time of year to be in the city and appreciate its marvels.
> When to visit Venice (a fun quiz)
> More about winter in Venice
> Find somewhere to stay

1 January 2018

Italy 2018 - Where to go, month by month


Venice is wonderful in winter - at its quietest and most 'local'. January begins with the last celebrations of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, and this year it ends with the first weekend of the famous Venice Carnival. Inbetween you have a great opportunity to explore the city without crowds and linger in its churches, museums, restaurants and cafes. With potential for sunny days as well as icy mists and high water, it's good for atmosphere and photographs as well. Just wrap up warm.
> Venice in winter
Blue sky in Venice in January


If you're craving sunshine, one of the best chances you have for mild weather is Sicily. Although it's not tourist season and you won't find a big choice of flights (try Easyet), there is lots to do in Sicily regardless of the season. Catania makes an interesting city break, sitting between the sea and active volcano Etna, which is snow-capped in winter and offers skiing opportunities. There are historical sights to see, a picturesque city centre and colourful street markets and convenient public transport links to little coastal villages and to Siracusa and Taormina, both fascinating and beautiful destinations. Sicily's capital Palermo is also a colourful and varied city, famed for its food, which would be a good weekend break destination at any time of year. You could expect daytime temperatures in the teens in February, and an average of five hours sunshine a day. If you're feeling bold you could even head to the sea.
> Sicily


Although you could consider heading to traditional holiday areas by March, the nights can still be cold and many would consider this transitional season ideal for a city break. You'd find Italy's famous art cities less crowded at this time of year but why not consider a slightly less-known destination? Bologna is a fine university city with some wide piazzas where you can soak up spring sunshine, and you might even be able to eat lunch outdoors at one of the city's renowned restaurants or food stalls. With handsome buildings, churches, art museums and pleasant walks, it's a well-off and laidback city. An easy journey from the UK (regular flights, convenient airport), this is an ideal weekend break destination, especially for those who enjoy Italian cuisine.
> More about Bologna
Bologna in March


The Bay of Naples is an excellent holiday destination for a week in spring or autumn. In April, with lengthening sunny days, flowers blooming and spring in the air, you can find a real buzz in Naples and the surrounding areas, before the summer tourist crowds descend. Naples itself is a fascinating and vibrant city. As it's also hectic and a trifle stressful, I'd suggest combining a city centre stay - do the historic centre, the sights and the fab underground itineraries - with a few nights in a quieter location. The island of Capri will be much more affordable at this time of year, offering gorgeous scenery and walking, while Sorrento is a very good base for exploring the hills, coast and Roman archaeological sites including Pompeii. Ischia and Procida, the other two islands in the Bay of Naples, are also delightful destinations. With a bit more travel, you could add in a few nights on the glorious Amalfi coast.
> Campania


Just about anywhere in Italy will be idyllic in May. This is the perfect month for travel, with sunshine, warm temperatures, flowers and greenery - but without baking heat, too many mosquitoes or the tourist crowds of summer. You could consider a tour of Tuscany, taking in the great art city of Florence and other treasures like San Gimignano, Siena and Pisa. A countryside stay or a trip to the coast will provide a break from city sightseeing - if you like islands, you could catch a ferry to Elba or the little-known Capraia.
> Tuscany
Livorno, Tuscany


If you're not tied to school holidays, June is an ideal time to take a summer holiday in Italy. It will be hot, but probably not as uncomfortable as July or August. The tourist season will be up and running, but many seaside destinations - especially those most popular with Italians - will still be relatively quiet, without the crowds, the inflated prices, the packed beaches and the noisy discos of the Italian peak season. The Aeolian islands, in Sicilian waters, make up the most varied and beautiful archipelago in Italy, with active volcanoes, mud baths, clear waters, footpaths, archaeological sites, fishing hamlets and a lively small town. Go for at least a week and spend time on two or three of the islands, with trips to others. The journey is a bit long-winded (plane to Catania, coach to Milazzo, ferry to the islands) but it's worth the effort for an unforgettable vacation.
> Aeolian islands
Dreamy Panarea


July and August are tricky times for visiting Italy.  Traditional holiday destinations are extremely busy, and the temperature is often uncomfortably hot. A leisurely resort where you can avoid the crowds in comfortable accommodation, within reach of the refreshing sea, is a good idea for coping with the climate and crowds. Puglia, in Italy's south, will be very hot but does have lots of green countryside with high-standard rural accommodation, often with spas or cookery classes on-site. The coast is beautiful, with lots of beaches, and the region's towns, from Baroque Lecce to the charming trulli houses of Alberobello, are lovely to visit. The famous cave-town Matera, over the border in the Basilicata region, can be combined with a Puglia itinerary; the town has a colourful festa on the 2nd July which is well worth a visit.
> Puglia


Italians almost all flee their baking cities in August. They are generally divided into two groups: those who head for the sea, and those who head for the mountains. Italy's peaks offer cooler temperatures, green slopes and dramatic scenery to summer visitors, along with excellent walking, climbing and cycling opportunities. The Dolomites, in the north-east of the country, are scenic and make a good holiday base. They can be combined with one of the nearby cities, such as Verona, Venice, Treviso or Trieste. Cortina d'Ampezzo is probably the most well-known resort in the area, with good facilities and an attractive town centre.


September can begin with summer heat, but as the month progresses, temperatures drop and rain arrives. However, a late summer holiday can offer good weather, quiet beaches and a great chance to be in the open air surrounded by glorious scenery, before the inevitable return home to colder climates and the onset of autumn. Heading for islands is a good bet - a low-key island like Ponza or Ventotene will be beginning to breathe again after the summer onslaught of holiday-makers, and you'll find good food, company, boat trips, warm sea, and heaps of island charm.
> Pontine islands


October can be quiet and the weather's getting cooler, but autumn brings handsome colours to the wooded slopes around Italy's lakes. You should check ferry timetables when planning a lake trip, but generally October is a fairly good time to make an out-of-season visit to a lakeside town, admire the scenery, and perhaps take day trips to nearby sights and towns of interest. Lake Iseo is one of northern Italy's less well-known lakes, but it has its own charm, and a large inhabited island which visitors can explore on foot. Nearby sights include the city of Brescia, and the UNESCO-listed prehistoric rock carvings of the Valcamonica.
> Lake Iseo
Lake Iseo


For November, with shorter days and colder weather, a city break is a good bet. Genoa is a fascinating city with many attractions, including family-friendly sights like the large aquarium, and an interesting transport network which includes boats, escalators, unusual lifts and funiculars. There are also fine historic palaces and art collections as well as good restaurants to try local Ligurian specialities. It's also a short flight from the UK (frequent BA flights) with a conveniently-central seaside airport.
> Genoa


December is a time for wrapping up warm, hunting out the finest cafes for warming coffee or hot chocolate, and enjoying culture and Christmas shopping. Italy's most famous art cities are all good places to visit in the run-up to Christmas; you'll find speciality food stalls, Christmas markets, elaborate church nativity scenes and artisan crafts to buy as gifts. Rome is lively all year round, and in December you could enjoy the usual sights and museums, a bit of culture at the Teatro dell'Opera, strolls in the winter sunshine, and look for the little Christmas markets which pop up in the city. Venice is another good pre-Christmas destination, much smaller and more calm than the hectic capital.
> Rome
> Venice in winter
Portico of the Pantheon, Rome

Venice at Christmas