Bed, breakfast & Italian chic: five great locandas in Venice

by Lee.Marshall

It's often translated as 'inn', but the word 'locanda' denotes small scale, a warm family welcome, quality and Italian style in an urban setting. Here are five of my favourite new places in Venice

Venetian nostalgics – and we are many – sometimes forget that not everything has gone downhill in the lagoon city. Yes, it has lost some of the elegance it possessed (in parts, at least) before the advent of McDonald's and internet booking and vast cruise ships that blot out the campanile of San Giorgio as they chunder through St Mark’s Basin towards the Lido. Yes, it’s hard to find any restaurant, even in the most "secret" neighbourhood, that has not been discovered by some guidebook writer or online blogger. And yes, there are very few Venetians left in Venice – fewer than 60,000 registered residents at the last count – in a city that attracts an average of 150,000 visitors each day.

Do you remember, though, how uninspiring the accommodation options used to be? Before Italy’s liberalisation of the sector in 2000, complacent hoteliers had a stranglehold on the market – and apart from a few wonderful one-offs such as La Calcina and the Pensione Accademia, the choice was between prohibitively expensive luxury hotels on the Grand Canal and mostly uninspiring four-stars or lower with identical sub-Casanova décor. Budget options were limited to some dubious one-stars near the station, the youth hostel, and a couple of stern residences run by nuns and imposing curfews.

In the past 10 years or so, all that has changed. Every calle or campo now seems to have at least one b&b. The city has its first design hotels, such as the neo-Venetian Ca' Maria Adele or the retro-chic Ca Pisani. Traditional hotels are starting to get their act together, too, aware that unless they offer value for money, efficient service and a pleasant ambience, the word will spread on the internet and their bookings will suffer.

Though I’m partial to the occasional princely suite with a Grand Canal view, some of my favourite new places to stay in Venice are in the small-but-chic category. Some are b&bs, some more like mini hotels. Italians would probably use the word locanda – a term that is generally translated into English as "inn", but tends to have more of a friendly urban connotation in Italy. It conjures up not coaching stops or pubs with rooms upstairs, but small family-run hotels where everything is on a human scale. Here are five of my favourites:

Oltre il Giardino

Fondamenta Contarini, San Polo. Doubles from €150.

Fronted by a lovely garden in which magnolia and olive trees shade bucolic breakfast tables, this delightful six-room refuge feels like a country house somewhere in the Veneto – and yet it is right by the Frari church in the centre of Venice. The property once belonged to Alma Mahler, widow of the famous composer; today it is a welcoming guest house with a classic-contemporary design mix that could make the pages of an interiors magazine – yet it never feels pretentious. For value, plump for one of the two cute standard double rooms, Ivory and Cocoa.

DD724 & IQs

DD724 – 724 Ramo da Mula, Dorsoduro. IQS – 4425 Campiello Querini, Castello. Doubles from €155.

Venice’s first designer b&b when it opened in 2003, smart, urban DD724 is centrally located not far from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Those looking for the romantic Venice of Casanova and Vivaldi should steer clear; the main selling point of this compact seven-room lodging is that it is so refreshingly not that. Clean beige, grey and brown dominate in the modern minimalist style, the only splashes of colour being the contemporary artworks on the walls and the funky Frigerio fabrics on the armchairs. Owner Chiara Bocchini has since expanded her mini-empire with a nearby apartment in similar style, DD694, and new arrival IQs, a suave, moody, four-suite luxury home-from-home near Santa Maria Formosa.

Venice 3C

Ramo dei Padovani, Castello (+39 041 5281215). Doubles from €90.

I came across this tiny four-room b&b on my last visit to Venice – in a secluded calle right behind the Doge’s Palace, a two-minute walk from St Mark’s Square. Set back from the street in a restored 15th-century palazzo, Venice 3C makes the best use of its limited space, with three tête-a-tête breakfast tables lining the entrance corridor. The rooms themselves are spacious and striking, with exposed brick walls, original terrazzo floors, exposed beams, contemporary lighting and designer bathroom fittings combined in a sapient mix. Owner Fabio is an attentive host, and an authority on restaurants and bars in the area. All in all, it’s a great find – and considering the location, also a real bargain.

La Villeggiatura

Calle dei Botteri, San Polo. Doubles from €110.

"Charming" is an over-used word in travel writing, but this place really merits the adjective. Overlooking an untouristy shopping street in the San Polo neighbourhood, La Villeggiatura has six rooms done out with playful verve, mixing antiques with rich silk fabrics and special touches – such as the life-size copy of a Giandomenico Tiepolo fresco in the Mondo Nuovo suite. Each room has coffee- and tea-making facilities, and there is free Wi-Fi. Breakfast (homemade cakes, croissants, fresh fruit, and much more) is a highlight.

Locanda La Corte

Calle Bressana, Castello. Doubles from €80.

With 16 rooms, Locanda La Corte is the largest and most hotel-like of my selection, but friendly service and a real dedication to helping guests get the most out of Venice make it a true locanda in both name and spirit. The setting is just perfect: a 16th-century palazzo not far from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, centring on a pretty, flower-filled Gothic courtyard where breakfast is served on all but the coldest days. Rooms are done out in a fairly standard Venetian settecento style, with terrazzo floors and velvet flock wallpaper. Unless space is an issue, the "classic" or "moderate" doubles are just fine – in fact, the larger suites can feel a little bare. Another plus is the fact that, with so many rooms to fill, you can often get susbstantial low-season or last-minute discounts here if you book online.

Lee.Marshall

I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (www.maxxi.beniculturali.it), due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?