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:
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.
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.
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.
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.