I live in Venice – here’s why it’s best in winter

Winter is almost upon us, and it is a magical season in Venice. The city that appears frozen in time is cloaked in a layer of fog, making it more intimate – and mysterious. It enters a kind of semi-hibernation punctuated by the squares of lit-up windows.

For a sinking city of just 2.7 square miles, Venice attracts an unsustainable number of visitors. There were around 13 million tourist arrivals in 2019, according to the Italian National Statistics Institute. In the high season, they can outnumber residents.

Next year, a €5 charge will be introduced for daytrippers on select dates between April and July. Tourists who only come to Venice for the day account for two thirds of all visitors, and those who stay overnight are already subject to a tourist tax that is applied to their accommodation bill.

It is hoped that the entry fee, which is controversial among some residents, will encourage people to come on off-peak days. But why wait until the spring?

Ancient buildings close to the Grand Canal in winter fog.
Fog often cloaks the city on winter days (Photo: Horst Gerlach/Getty)

The city is quieter in winter. It is also more cost-effective. Hotel prices can be significantly cheaper: the average price of a double room in a three-star hotel in Venice last January was €157.79 (£136.56) less than in June, according to data from Lighthouse.

Indeed, despite the low temperatures, winter is a perfect time to visit Venice – and I know the city in all seasons.

I was born here and, because I like to travel, it has remained the base from which to start my journeys. Like the Venetian merchants, I often leave, but I always return to the city.

When I presented my hometown on television, it gave me the chance to get to know the deeper the story of Venice – and to see others’ perspectives on its history and culture.

Francesco da Mosto Photographer: Cosimo da Mosto cadamosto1961@icloud.com
Francesco enjoying the view in Venice (Photo: Cosimo da Mosto)

This place in the middle of a lagoon ignites the imagination of people around the world, which is, in part, why it attracts so many visitors.

But the queues for major attractions dwindle in the cooler months. In the summer, the queue for Saint Mark’s Basilica can go all around the square. In winter, there is sometimes no queue.

On Venice’s windy winter days, when the air is clear, you can see the snow-capped mountains of the Dolomites. Inside the city, without the hum of tourist crowds, individual sounds emerge from the near-silence. Heels click along the empty streets, seagulls squark, bells ring.

This is when I love to catch a semi-empty vaporetto. The weather adds to the scene. Temperatures can fall to zero, but they rarely dip any further. The air is humid, which increases the perception of cold.

Photo of a canal in Venice during a snowing day with a boat in the middle
Snow is infrequent, although tales of colder winters are passed down through generations (Photo: Getty)

Memories of more extreme winters are memorialised at The Querini Stampalia Foundation. In 1700, it was so cold that the lagoon froze over. Paintings depict children skating on the frozen water.

When I was a child, my father use to sing a song he heard from his father about the frozen lagoon. It had been passed down through the generations.

Among the lines I recall are: “Our elders told us, that in the year 1788, one could trot and walk on the ice.

“What a beautiful thing. What a beautiful thing, to go walking on the ice.”

The city does look particularly handsome around Christmas, when it is decorated with lights and market stalls. Concerts of baroque music and operas at the Fenice theatre add to the cheer. New Year’s Eve is celebrated with fireworks.

Then, on 1 January, dozens of brave Venetians take their first bath of the year in the Lido. I’ve not found the courage to join them yet.

Italy, Veneto, Venice. Rialto bridge stairway at sunset with Christmas lights
Rialto Bridge stairway is among the places decorated with Christmas lights during the festive season (Photo: Matteo Colombo/Getty)

After this communal dip, the area turns into a small party, with sandwiches, wine and lentils. Lentils are included as they are thought to bring riches. You are supposed to eat them the beginning or the end of the year. The idea is that the more of them you eat, the more money will come to you. I try every time.

On 6 January, the city marks Epiphany. On this day, a “witch” called “Befana” leaves gifts for all the children who have behaved well, as well as coal for the naughty ones.

The Befane regatta marks her arrival. Members of Venice’s rowing clubs, all dressed as the witch, compete in a race along the Grand Canal between San Tomà and the Rialto Bridge. Built in 1600, it is the oldest bridge on the Grand Canal.

While these events add an air of festivity, the city is atmospheric throughout winter. Doge’s Palace and Saint Mark’s Basilica – and the view from its bell tower – are unimpeded by tourist crowds. I enjoy walking under the Procuratie Vecchie and taking in its Murano glass chandeliers.

Time-warp cafés and bars offer respite from the cold – when some of them first opened, coffee was considered a medicine. They include Caffè Florian, which dates to the 1700s, Gran Caffè Quadri (1638) and Lion’s Bar (1925).

You will find Venetians among the tables. They are well disposed towards visitors when the city is calm.

Visitors can pick up traditional Venetian souvenirs, such as masks (Photo: Getty)

Historically, Venetians have welcomed travellers. As a port city, it is used to transience. Venice’s unique geography has made it a door between land and sea for generations.

While the city is quiet, there are more opportunities for conversation with vendors at independent businesses. Gondolas, masks, damasks, silks, velvets and brocades are among the items produced according to long-standing Venetian traditions.

“Bacari” or taverns serve as rest stops at which punters can try Venetian “cicchetti” (snacks). These might include creamed cod, marinated anchovies, sardines in saor (onions with pine nuts, raisins, white wine, vinegar and olive oil), meat or fish meatballs, fried courgette flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, or marinated anchovies.

Then there are the welcoming lights of the restaurant trattoria Alla Madonna or the dim ones of the Antiche Carampane. They recall the prostitutes’ lamps that once shone through the winter fog, but now they signify the preservation of Venetian cuisine.

This winter, before 2024 arrives, I will go to the beach of the Lido. Here, I will look at the sea and dream of my next journey – just like the Venetian merchants from centuries past.