Once upon a time, the Independent Republic of Venice made most Europeans blush a hot scarlet, attracting every queer writer, artist, and royal on the continent with its allowances for pleasure and sexuality. Nowadays, while plenty of LGBT folks still live and travel there, clearly defined gay locales are scarce, largely integrated into the Venetian urban geography.
The floating city is also one of few destinations where three days is enough, at least during the mad tourist blitzkrieg innocuously called "high season," which threatens the city from April to June, September, October, and around the major Christian holidays. It easily overwhelms, but is still quite an experience. Queer writer Truman Capote said it best: "Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go."
Catching the palace-like Venezia emptied of foreigners is as magical as it is rare. Three such days stretch to feel like twice that, especially if one spends the time between To-Do List items lost in the labyrinthine, hallway-sized streets that often end, inexplicably T-ing with a canal rather than a bridge. No worries -- there's only so "lost" one can be on an island, after all.
Lay of the Land
At its widest, Venice is just shy of three car-less miles, with most major sights concentrated in three adjacent neighborhoods: San Polo, across the Grand Canal from the train station; Dorsoduro a little further south; and San Marco to Dorsoduro's west, again across the Grand Canal, which winds like a Carnevale ruffle around all three sestiere ("neighborhoods").
Riddled with dead-ends and twisted back ways, it is absolutely impossible to walk from A to B in a straight line. Seemingly for safety, most visitors cluster on the beaten path between attractions, an easily avoided stream of bodies that signals one's proximity to something worth seeing.
It can seem like every room in Venice is for rent, but stellar demand fetches astronomical figures and around holidays, even the worst hovel has a wait list, so book ahead.
Gay-owned bed and breakfasts are particularly popular here, affording a charming experience and neighborly access to current queer events. Converted antique palaces masquerading as top-shelf hotels, on the other hand, can be well worth the bragging rights.
Nestled down a lovely, aged side street in the San Marco area, conveniently just off the Ponte di Rialto bridge, the gay-owned Corte Gherardi (Corte Gherardi, Castello; +39-041-523-7376; 80+ EUR) harbors three stylish rooms with wonderful views. Breakfast in bed comes free of charge, often accompanied by superb dining recommendations and travel advice.
On the shores of the Lido sandbar, which ranks among the world's most coveted island real estate, sits the Grand Hotel des Bains (Lungomare Marconi 17, Lido; +39-041-526-5921; 300+ EUR). One of Venice's most luxurious hotels, it is also one of the oldest, having hosted Thomas Mann -- and his sailor-suited companion, according to rumor -- in 1911. Gustav von Aschenbach, the protagonist of Mann's Death In Venice, also fitfully resided here as he pursued a young Polish boy.
The gay-owned Fujiyama Bed & Breakfast (Calle Lunga San Barnaba 2727A, Dorsoduro; +39-041-724-1042; it; 60+ EUR) gets points not only for it's East Asian design-themed rooms -- "Shanghai" is the best -- but also for the stylishly prepared concoctions available downstairs in the leafy, outdoor tea garden. A short walk across the Grand Canal from the Piazza San Marco, Fujiyama is a few blocks into Dorsoduro, where tourist traffic is lighter and quieter.
More luxe but not explicitly LGBT, the Dorsoduro outpost of the Epoque (Fondamenta Gerardini 724, Dorsoduro; +1-866-376-7831; 200+ EUR) boutique hotel chain is sparingly modernist in design and warmly sumptuous in color and light. Very chic, like avant-garde Swedish architecture.
A neat package of reasonable price, comfort, and cleanliness, the Hotel ai Do Mori (Calle Larga 658, San Marco; +39-041-520-4817; www.hotelaidomori.com; 60+ EUR) beats most nearby high-end hotels for spying from the rooms on the Piazza San Marco, a block away.
Day 1: A Grand Day Out
Start off strong and early with a deceptively tiny Italian caf?, then hop on Vaporetto (water bus) Number 1 at the central train station for a swift sashay down the Grand Canal. This is the best way to meet -- and photograph -- Venice's canal-front Gothic, Renaissance, and Moorish palaces. This route also establishes a mental map of the three bridges that cross the waterway, which is essential.
Like an everyman's gondola ride, the vaporetti are the best way of getting around quickly and cheaply, a few set routes stopping just about anywhere one would want to go. Number 1 drops off at the Piazza San Marco, where many of Venice's prime sights cluster around its astounding, simple grandeur. Don't miss the parents cooing and clicking cameras at their progeny who, terrified and covered in birdseed, are being swarmed by pigeons.
The enormous Byzantine confection at the end of the piazza, the Basilica di San Marco (Piazza San Marco; +39-041-241-3817), was erected around 1000 A.D. to entomb Saint Mark, stolen back from Egypt in a barrel of pork. One section of the Basilica's mosaic-tiled, cavernous innards holds the Pala d'Oro, a gold altarpiece dripping with priceless gems.
Break for lunch at the nearby VinoVino (Campo San Fantin 2007, San Marco; +39-041-522-4121; 12-20 EUR), where an excess of 350 wines await in this faithfully crowded, traditional Venetian eatery.
Back at the Piazza San Marco, swing over to the Palazzo Ducale (Piazza San Marco 1; +39-041-271-5911; closed holidays), or Doge's Palace, for all the gilded splendor that the most powerful man in the Venetian Republic -- the known world's trading juggernaut from the 7th to the 18th centuries -- could buy. It's a monument not only to diplomacy and naval empire, but also to interior design.
From the museums and endless rooms of the Palazzo Ducale, cross the Ponte dei Sospiri into the dungeons' cramped, stone shoeboxes. Condemned prisoners usually went the other way, with the Ponte dei Sospiri, or bridge of sighs, earning its name from those who last saw Venice like this.
From Piazza San Marco, the La Zucca restaurant (San Giacomo dell'Orio 1762, Santa Croce; +39-041-524-1570; 25-35 EUR) is either a short ride on Vaporetto 1 to the Riva di Biasio stop or a long stroll along the length of the Grand Canal. Very vegetarian-friendly, the osteria's small-ish capacity fills up with life-long lovers of their vegetarian lasagna and ginger pumpkin soup, so reservations are recommended. In warmer weather, try to snag a canal-side outdoor table.
If you are up for it, there's a cute bar a few blocks away called I Due Girasole (San Stae 19908, Santa Croce; +39-034-7702-8802), owned by a pair of lesbians. Queer folks tend to leave the island for gay nightlife, making overnights to Mestre, Venice's mainland half, or nearby Padova to party.