Beyond The Biennale: An Insider's Guide To Venice

Beyond The Biennale: An Insider's Guide To Venice

The Venice Biennale – or, to give it its formal name, the 60th International Art Exhibition – runs between 20 April and 24 November 2024. Traditionally, the highlight of the art world calendar, the Venice Biennale is a global celebration of art, old and new amidst the historic setting of Venice. Yet there is much to discover in Venice beyond the Biennale’s borders, as Sotheby’s Claudia Dwek shows in this personal guide to the city
The Venice Biennale – or, to give it its formal name, the 60th International Art Exhibition – runs between 20 April and 24 November 2024. Traditionally, the highlight of the art world calendar, the Venice Biennale is a global celebration of art, old and new amidst the historic setting of Venice. Yet there is much to discover in Venice beyond the Biennale’s borders, as Sotheby’s Claudia Dwek shows in this personal guide to the city

Join Sotheby’s Claudia Dwek in a journey through the art-filled streets of Venice, Italy's cultural cornerstone. Renowned for its Renaissance masterpieces, Murano glass,Baroque architecture, and of course vibrant art scene, Venice attracts art enthusiasts from around the globe, year-round – but no more so than every other year, when the Venice Biennale takes place. In this guide, we'll unveil the city's most treasured galleries, iconic landmarks, and hidden gems. If you are coming to Venice for the Biennale or simply a city break, whether you're drawn to the timeless works of Titian and Tintoretto or eager to explore contemporary art hotspots - or simply want to surround yourself with fish - Venice promises an immersive experience like no other.

Claudia Dwek, Senior Vice President, Chairman, Contemporary Art, Europe (Milan)

W henever I need to take a breather from everyday life and immerse myself in beauty and history, I take a short train ride away from my home city of Milan to Venice, my delight and refuge. There’s so much here that enchants the eye and soothes the soul. I could spend days walking around the island city, savouring the silence of the water, and the peace of the Laguna. As well as the countless stunning palaces, scenic canals, historic architecture, and picturesque palazzos you can wander through the maze of ancient, twisting alleyways. Here, while losing yourself, you’ll always find a charming shop, bar or restaurant. This beautiful city is truly timeless.

At certain moments, Venice’s unique character truly blooms, and the Art Biennale is the most vibrant of them all. Between April and November every other year, Venice thrums with artists, collectors, gallerists and art enthusiasts from around the world. Cutting-edge contemporary artworks hang on the walls and ceilings of Gothic and Renaissance buildings - old and new meeting and meshing perfectly together. And in amidst the ancient buildings, each Biennale presents the latest artistic ideas from all over the world, with artists presenting work within the pavilions of the Giardini della Biennale and the historical Arsenale – and all points in between.

"Venice is my delight and refuge. There’s so much here that enchants the eye and soothes the soul"
- Claudia Dwek

It's true that the canals, palazzos and alleyways have been growing busier by the year. Today, the seasoned Venice visitor might despair of finding anything novel or intriguing, amidst the familiar haunts of the Biennale. But over my years exploring the finest hidden spots Venice has to offer, I’ve come up with some lovely little spots to share with you. So, whether you are a regular visitor or a lucky newcomer, eager to enjoy the best this unique place has to offer, I hope you find something here to pique your interest and make your trip a memorable one.


Wael Shawky at the Egyptian Pavilion

Wael Shawky I am Hymns of the New Temples (2023) Courtesy Lisson Gallery. Commissioned by Pompeii Archaeological Park as part of Pompeii Commitment. Archeological Matters (Collection). Winner of the public notice PAC 2020 - promoted by the DGCC and MiC. Courtesy Lisson Gallery. Commissioned by Pompeii Archaeological Park as part of Pompeii Commitment.

Wael Shawky is representing Egypt at the Biennale this year and I am really excited to see what he will be showing. Shawky is a lyrical and imaginative storyteller, whose work typically interweaves fable, fact and fiction. For his installation at the Biennale, Shawky has created a film, Drama 1882, which is apparently a rendition of an original musical play, directed, choreographed, and composed by the artist, inspired by Egypt’s nationalist Urabi revolution against imperial influence, between 1879-82. As well as the film, the Pavilion will also include vitrines, sculptures, paintings, drawings and a mirror relief made right here in Murano. I’m also looking forward to seeing Wael’s solo exhibition I Am Hymns of The New Temples at Museo Palazzo Grimani (from 17 April).
‘Drama 1882’ The Egyptian Pavilion, Viale IV Novembre, 5, Sant’Elena Island 30132
‘I Am Hymns of The New Temples’, Museo Palazzo Grimani, Rugagiuffa 4858, 30122

Jeffrey Gibson at the American Pavilion

Jeffrey Gibson, with his 2024 blanket produced exclusively for Sotheby's

It’s a historic moment for the United States at Venice this year, as the Indigenous artist Jeffrey Gibson, who is of Choctaw-Cherokee descent, will become the first Native American artist to represent the United States in a solo exhibition, at the American Pavilion in the Giardini.
I love Gibson’s work – especially the way his vibrant paintings and sculptures incorporate Western pop culture and Native American crafts, referencing his heritage. Jeffrey recently collaborated with us to create a limited-edition run of 60 brightly-coloured blankets, which are available exclusively on Sotheby’s Marketplace, and at the US Pavilion, he’ll be unveiling new sculptures, paintings and multimedia as well as a site-specific installation in the courtyard. I recently read an interview with him, in which he said, ‘My hope is that the pavilion is open enough that people can project themselves onto my experience and discover that our differences are probably fewer than our similarities’. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with!

FUTUROREMOTO at Fondazione Ligabue

Work by Domingo Milella at the Fondazione Ligabue

The Italian photographer Domingo Milella’s raw, rugged landscapes have been acclaimed by critics and curators worldwide, ever since the Bari-born photographer began pursuing his obsession with prehistoric caves, rocks and brutally beautiful scenic compositions back in 2001. His images document the dynamics between civilisation and nature and reflect upon how landscape and architecture are invested with individual and collective memory. During the Biennale, the Fondazione Giancarlo Ligabue is exhibiting ten of his photographs at the Palazzo Erizzo Ligabue.
Palazzo Erizzo Ligabue, San Marco 3319, 30124 Venezia

Bernard Venet ‘1961… Looking Forward’

Bernar Venet in front of a pile of coal mixed with tar / Avenue Albert 1er, Nice, 1963
Photo: Philippe Bompuis ©Bernar Venet, ADAGP Paris, 2024

This isn’t part of the Biennale itself, but will run in parallel at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, over the summer. And it’s something I’d absolutely recommend. Many of you will be familiar with the French sculptor Bernard Venet, whose massive steel structures exude massive presence and calm. In this show, a selection of his early works will be placed in an art-historical dialogue with paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. There will be Venet works from the 1960s onwards, revealing how this exceptional artist emerged from unconventional origins and precocious creativity to exert a phenomenal impact on contemporary art.
Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Palazzo San Marco 7, 30124


Gritti Palace Hotel

The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice

Venice boasts a plenitude of hotels, each rich in history, opulence, glamour and hospitality. But there is only one Gritti Palace. This famed 5-star hotel is not only the unofficial art world hub during the Biennale – the best afterparties always are at the Gritti – it’s a museum in itself.

The Palace, situated on the Grand Canal and enjoying spectacular views overlooking the Basilica della Salute, dates back to 1475. Over 550 years, it flourished as a place of art, culture, tradition and beauty. The unique artistic spirit has attracted artists, writers, adventurers and creative spirits over the years from John Ruskin to Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen to W. Somerset Maugham. It’s even rumoured that Hemingway (who was very fond of the hotel's Valpolicella), once held a midnight baseball game in the hotel’s lobby. Instead of being admonished, he had 10 per cent taken off his final bill with hotel management explaining that nobody had ever played baseball on the premises before. (It might not be advisable to check with the concierge beforehand, should you wish to follow his example today, though).

Today, you can imbibe the Gritti's unique atmosphere in one of the 61 rooms and 21 suites, each of which has its own atmosphere while retaining that inimitable Gritti luxury, panache and refinement.
Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, 30124


Piedaterre Venezia

Friulane slippers at the Piedaterre store (Photo courtesy Piedaterre)

The traditional Venetian slipper – friulane - was born in the 19th century north of Veneto, in Friuli. In the 19th century post-war era, Italian families crafted shoes by stitching together scraps of sumptuous curtains from theatres and flattened bicycle tyres. Versatile, chic and - crucially - non-slip, the design was perfect for navigating Venice’s cobbled streets and became a symbol of La dolce vita, across the world. Founded in 1952 with a cartload of friulane on the Rialto Bridge, Piedàterre is now a shop in Campo Santo Stefano, nestled in a narrow calle behind San Marco, and this where to go to acquire a piece of genuine Venetian history.
Piedaterre Rialto store, San Polo 60, 30125
Piedaterre Campo Santo Stefano store, Campo Santo Stefano 2806, 30124


Friulane slippers at Dittura (Photo courtesy Claudia Dwek)

More homely than Piedaterre, Friulane Dittura was founded in 1963 by Gianni Dittura, and is still run by the family, making friulane, the traditional handmade velvet and rubber-soled Venetian slippers. Enter this charming little shop where they have been made for decades and you’ll see them festooned across the ceiling and walls in every colour and size. In addition to the original friulane, Dittura is now producing some limited models, fashioned from vintage damasque and baroque fabrics.
943 Calle Fiubera, 30124

Giberto Arrivabene Glass

Giberto Arrivabene Glass store on the Rialto Bridge (Photo courtesy Giberto Arrivabene Glass)

Proudly Venice born and bred, glass maestro Giberto Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga is renowned worldwide for his mastery of traditional Murano glass. His love for the medium, dedication to traditional craftsmanship, and a unique aesthetic sense inspired by the artistic environment in which he grew up, are at the heart of his work. And to this day, each piece is designed by the maestro himself. Typically, he will start with a watercolour sketch, which is then handed to expert glass blowers in Murano, the only ones who are entrusted with the fabrication of the design. The resulting glass is something special indeed.
Giberto Venezia, Ponte di Rialto 2, Venezia


Gelateria Paolin

Gelateria Paolin (Photo courtesy Gelateria Paolin)

This cafe and ice cream parlour on the corner of Campo Santo Stefano and the Calle that leads to Palazzo Grassi, is the coffee shop where at any time during the year I bump into someone I know. It’s one of my favourite meeting point for friends and art people for a chat, coffee and great ice cream!
Campo Santo Stefano, 2962, 30124

Gelateria Nico

Gelateria Nico (Photo courtesy Gelateria Nico)

Nico is known for some of Venice’s best cocktails and ice cream. It’s located on the Fondamenta Zattere ai Gesuiti promenade, opposite l’Accademia and has stunning views of the Giudecca. And the café itself is prettily scenic, especially at sunset. Grab an outdoor table and enjoy an Aperol Spritz, while enjoying the café’s signature gianduiotto – the devilishly-delicious dish that comprises a hefty slab of gianduia (chocolate hazelnut) gelato, submerged in whipped cream. Their tiramisu and cassata are also favourites, when I need a decadent scoop of luxury. Nico is one of the definite must-visits whenever I am in Venice.
Fondamenta Zattere al Ponte Longo, 922, 30123

Do Forni

Do Forni restaurant (Photo courtesy Do Forni)

Do Forni Restaurant is a wonderfully atmospheric and elegantly traditional Venetian restaurant, with a history that dates back to the Middle Ages. Today, it’s a luxury experience, with décor inspired by Orient Express dining cars. On the menu are classic Italian and Venetian specialities, with the accent on seafood – their shellfish is sourced directly from the Adriatic (via the legendary Rialto Fish Market, see below).
San Marco 468, 30122

Antica Locanda Montin

The garden at Antica Locanda Montin

From Modigliani to Bowie, numerous celebrities, artists and notables have passed through the beautiful portals of this distinguished family-owned trattoria over the years - one of the few restaurants in Venice with a garden. It’s also an inn where, if you are lucky enough to find a room, you can enjoy a true slice of old-fashioned Venetian hospitality. If the food is to your tastes, you can even sign up for one of their renowned cookery courses.
Fondamenta Borgo, 1147, 30123

For more Venice restaurant suggestions click here

A canal in Venice
A canal in Venice (Photo Claudia Dwek)


Gallerie Dell'Accademia

If you want to give your eyes a break from the kaleidoscopic presentation of international contemporary art at the Biennale, head to the Gallerie Dell’Accademia, for an overwhelming and significant visit through the most important paintings by Venetian masters including Tintoretto, Canaletto, Giorgione, Bellini, Veronese and Titian, including the latter’s Saint John The Baptist.
Calle della Carità, 1050, Dorsoduro 1050, Venice 30123 

Peggy Guggenheim Collection 

Inside the Peggy Guggenheim art collection in venice
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Photo: Matteo De Fina)

One of the most important museums of Western 20th century art in Italy, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is located in the legendary art patron’s former home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal.
The museum presents Guggenheim's personal collection, masterpieces from the Hannelore B. and Rudolph B. Schulhof collection, a sculpture garden as well as temporary exhibitions. For this year’s Biennale, I can highly recommend visiting a retrospective dedicated to Jean Cocteau, Jean Cocteau: The Juggler’s Revenge which is the largest show ever organised in Italy dedicated to this eclectic and influential figure.
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Dorsoduro 701, 30123


Rialto Fish Market

The Rialto Fish Market (Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)

Amidst the swirling bouquet of odours that characterise Venice – some definitely more appealing than others – a delicately fishy note is discernible in the vicinity of the Campo della Pescaria. Here, one finds the Pescheria, the historic Rialto Fish Market where generations of Venetians have been shopping for their fresh daily groceries since 1097. I always suggest visitors make a trip to the fish market just for the fun, authentically Venetian experience.
It’s a large indoor market in a neo-Gothic structure (surrounded by predatory seagulls) and plentiful with everything from eels to massive swordfish, tuna, moeche (soft shell crab, fresh from the Laguna) and much more, all fresh and artfully presented on ice.
Predictably, this is a very early-morning experience (and is closed on Sundays, be aware!) but worth the effort – time it right and you might catch local fishermen hauling the morning’s catch, fresh from the Laguna!
To find it, cross the Rialto Bridge from the San Marco side of the Grand Canal to San Polo, then turn right and follow the edge of the canal to Campo della Pescaria, the open square where the Erberia (fruit and vegetable market) is located. Beyond that is the Pescheria, the covered fish market. (“Rialto Fish Market (Mercato di Rialto) - Viator”)
Calle Pria de la Donzella, 306, Veneto, 30125


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