TRAVEL

The Dreamy Islands Where Italians Go to Escape

Fortified castles atop craggy outcroppings? Check. Blue coves? Check. Colorful village? Check. Italian islands (like Ischia above) have charm on lockdown.

Photo by Jan Mach/Shutterstock

Some of Italy’s prettiest and most uncrowded beaches are on the islands in the Mediterranean, Tyrrhenian, and Adriatic seas.

When Italians want a quiet getaway, they know to get off the busy mainland and head to the country’s best islands. From pristine Mediterranean coves to fishing villages near active volcanoes, these idyllic escapes off the coast of Italy can fulfill your vacation dreams, whether you’re in the market for a jet-set fantasy, homey beach vacation, or an off-the-grid digital detox. 

Sicily and her satellites

With nearly 650 miles of coastline, Sicily is Italy’s biggest island, with some of the country’s most interesting and diverse culinary delights, exciting cities (like Palermo and Catania), and transporting hilltop hamlets and baroque towns. Sicily is also home to world-class archaeological sites, such as the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, the Greek Theater in Taormina, and the temples of Selinunte and Segesta. But when you want to find a quiet sdraio (sun bed), look to the small islands off Sicily.

Popular with Phoenicians and fashionistas, Pantelleria is midway between Italy and Tunisia.

Photo by Erica Firpo

Pantelleria

Pantelleria, a tiny volcanic island 67 miles southwest of Sicily (and 37 miles east of Tunisia), has long been a favorite getaway for the reclusively chic, like Truman Capote, Giorgio Armani, and Sting. The glamorous allure of the turquoise water is offset by a rugged coastline of jagged lava-rock formations, steaming fumaroles, and mud baths. Reminders of the island’s millennia-long human history—from the Bronze Age, on through its Roman occupation, into its heyday as Arab outpost Bent el-Rhia, and to its inclusion in the Kingdom of Italy—are revealed in its ruins, historic architecture, and even its language. Some of Pantelleria’s dammusi (the island’s iconic white-washed lava-rock houses) have been transformed into luxury resorts like Sikelia, the most coveted. Italians love Pantelleria not only for its remoteness but also for its world-renowned capers and for Passito di Pantelleria, a sweet wine made from zibibbo grapes. This variety of muscat grapes was introduced by the Phoenicians, and its cultivation has been honored by UNESCO by inclusion on its list of instances of intangible cultural heritage.

The Aeolian Islands

Just off the northeastern coast of Sicily are the UNESCO-protected Aeolian Islands. The rich green landscapes of the seven-island archipelago—Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi, and Alicudi—are punctuated by smoking volcanic peaks, making them the perfect setting for lost-at-sea fantasies. Of the seven, Vulcano and Stromboli have active volcanoes, which can provide epic backdrops for nature lovers whether hiking, kayaking, or diving. Lipari is the liveliest and most easily accessible of the Aeolian Islands, while Panarea is the most exclusive: Limited to pedestrian traffic, it’s a perfect place to tune out and recharge. Can’t pick one? No problem: Island-hop via ferries that run between all seven islands. Insiders stay at Salina’s sea-facing Principe di Salina.

Sardinia (Sardegna)

Second in size to Sicily and in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sardinia is also Italy’s second best-known island. Its most popular destination, Costa Smeralda, the northeastern “emerald coast,” is an enclave for the rich and famous, but the island offers more than a berth for mega-yachts. Sardinia’s distinctive personality—insular and a bit secretive—makes the destination fun and filled with surprises to explore. In addition to white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, the landscape includes Gola di Gorropu, the largest canyon in Europe; UNESCO-protected Su Nuraxi di Barumini, a defensive structure from the second millennium B.C.E.; and the Dunes of Piscinas, sand dunes that reach 200 feet in height. Two diverse off-island adventures are also available: From the north coast, the seven-island Maddalena Archipelago offers beaches, lagoons, and uninhabited islets. And off Sardinia’s southwestern coast, tiny San Pietro is a throwback to 19th-century island living at the charming fishing town of Carloforte and the lighthouse at Capo Sandalo.

The Tuscan Archipelago

Yes, Tuscany has islands. Along with novel- and movie-inspiring villages, the province has its  own collection of gorgeous islands where smart Italians dock their boats during the summer holidays. 

Elba was famously home to Napoleon during his exile.
Photo by Stefano Valeri

Elba

Six miles off the Tuscan coast, Elba is the most recognized of the Tuscan islands thanks to Napoleon, who lived here in exile in 1814. Back then, Elba was a quiet place, but today its beaches are busy from June through September with vacationers. Away from the sand, Elba has a lot to discover, including the largest protected marine park in Europe, perfect for underwater exploration, plus mountain biking, trekking, and hiking. 

Giglio

With more than 90 percent of its landscape covered by lush wild vegetation, Giglio is the Tuscan island for nature exploration. The hilly island’s highest peak reaches nearly 1,600 feet, and the seaside cliffs present dramatic descents to Giglio’s beaches and caves. For those looking to simply relax, the Tyrrhenian Sea views from Giglio are ideal for contemplation of the blue waters (expect dolphins and even whales to make an appearance). You can also gaze upon nearby Montecristo, the island made famous by Alexandre Dumas, who set his fictional prison fortress there in The Count of Monte Cristo. (Montecristo, now a nature preserve, can only be visited twice a year, by permit.)

Giannutri

Nine miles south of Giglio, the crescent-shaped Giannutri, at one-square mile, is the least populated island in the Tuscan Archipelago. Though swimming is restricted to certain areas, Italians head to Giannutri for diving and snorkeling—the sea floor presents a landscape of corals, meadows of Posidonia seagrass, and Roman- and Etruscan-era shipwrecks at Punta Scaletta and the Bay of Spalmatoio.

Ponza maintains a low profile but is a quick day trip from Rome.

Photo by Claudio Zaccherini/Shutterstock

Ponza

One of the most charming and least-known Italian islands is only an hour’s drive, plus a ferry ride, from Rome. Blissfully off the popular Italian travel circuit, Ponza has tiny, appealing villages and a charming harbor. You don’t have to be a local to participate in the island’s boating life–here you’ll want to rent a gommone (dinghy) to explore Ponza’s beaches and coves. Ponza happily is not overly fancy, but from among the smattering of cute bed-and-breakfasts, smart Romans choose to stay at Villa Laetitia, a B&B owned (and curated) by Anna Fendi Venturini, of the Fendi couture family.

The Campanian Archipelago

Most everybody knows Capri, the island beloved by the international jet set, but what if Capri were less, well, Capri? The Campanian Archipelago, dominated by the tourism powerhouse Capri, also includes Ischia and Procida, two delightful and much more laid-back islands.

Ischia 

Ischia, the largest of the archipelago, is by far the greenest of Italy’s volcanic islands. The by-products of this volcanic nature—lots of natural thermal springs along the coastline—have made Ischia a wellness-focused retreat; adventure-seekers, meanwhile, can find volcanic treks around the craters of Mount Epomeo. Ischia is also the name of the main city, notable for the Aragonese Castle and a modern port area with boutiques and restaurants. The island’s other outposts, like the picturesque town of Forio and the fishing village of Sant’Angelo, can be visited by water taxi or hired boat. Near Forio, the newly restored Mezzatorre is becoming the place to stay, while traditional favorite Regina Isabella retains its 1950s charm.

Procida 

At two square miles, Procida is the tiniest island in the Campanian Archipelago and possibly the most picturesque, with pastel-hued fishing villages and small ports like Marina di Chiaiolella and Marina di Corrice (locations for such films as Il Postino and The Talented Mr. Ripley). Overlooking the island and the Bay of Naples, Terra Murata is the fortified historic village at the center of Procida. Whereas Ischia has fewer beaches and more rock promontories, Procida offers scenic stretches of sand like Chiaia and Chiaiolella. A perfect day-trip destination from Naples, Procida is a 40-minute hydrofoil ferry from the port and entirely walkable. Most importantly, Procida is known for spaghetti ai ricci di mare (spaghetti with sea urchin)–it’s best enjoyed with a sunset view.

The five Tremiti Islands in the Adriatic are part of a protected national park.

Photo by Paolo Barelli/Shutterstock

The Tremiti Islands

Everyone forgets about the other coast of Italy. Over off Puglia’s gorgeous Adriatic coastline, right above the heel of Italy’s boot, is Italy’s most off-the-radar archipelago—the Tremiti Islands of San Domino, San Nicola, Capraia, Cretaccio, and Pianosa. The remote region long served as a penal colony: In 8 B.C.E., Emperor Augustus exiled his granddaughter Julia the Younger here for licentious behavior; in the 20th century, Mussolini interned homosexual men on San Domino. Today, even though there are a few hotels and restaurants, the Tremiti are a protected part of Gargano National Park. Visitors can expect rugged coasts, limestone cliffs, rocky beaches, caves, and small coves with clear water. The small islands are easy to explore by foot and best visited via boat—whether a personal rental, a water taxi, or a tour boat.

This article first appeared in AFAR, September 2019.

Rome's Cocktail King Patrick Pistolesi Serves up the Eternal City

Patrick Pistolesi And The Drink Kong Team.  Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Patrick Pistolesi And The Drink Kong Team. Credit: Alberto Blasetti

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Patrick Pistolesi knows Rome and its drinking scene. The renowned Irish-Italian barman grew up in the Eternal City and, for more than 20 years, he served up cocktails at the capital’s most iconic night spots. But summers spent in Dublin also gave the future tippler a taste of more casual pub culture from his Irish cousins. 

From no-name, no-frills boltholes to internationally recognized lounges, Pistolesi worked his way around bar counters to become one of Italy’s best bartenders and Rome’s reigning king of cocktails — his last name alone is one of the active ingredients in the evolution of Italy’s craft cocktail scene.

“The nuclear physics [of cocktails] is easy to learn,” Pistolesi said. “But it’s all about trust. You have to earn your clientele. They choose you for a reason.” 

But it’s never been about flair or difficulty for the 40-year-old mixologist. “You definitely need ability,” he said, “but you have to be curious, empathic, cheeky and smiley. Remember: people come to the bar to have a good time. Nobody wants a lesson after work.” Get a taste of Rome’s cocktail renaissance with a tippling tour of some of Pistolesi’s favorite places.

Press play for more on how Patrick got behind the bar and scroll down for his favorite places to grab a drink in Rome.

Drink Kong. Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Drink Kong

Creating an easy, slide-up-to-the-bar-after-work vibe is Pistolesi’s forte. For a taste of his talents, check out his 2018-opened, sci-fi-influenced cocktail lounge. 

With film series Blade Runner and Japanese manga comic books as inspiration, Kong is a 3,229-square-foot labyrinth of dark-hued lounges, backlit bars, neon lights, harlequin floors and arcade games — consider it an homage to Pistolesi’s love of neo-noir 1980s futurism.  

Drink Kong’s Customized Ice Cubes. Credit: Alberto Blasetti

Kong is all about trust. It’s a self-proclaimed “instinct bar,” with a menu based on flavor. Yes, you can get a negroni, but bartenders encourage you to talk about what you like and then trust them to choose one of the carefully crafted seasonal drinks, like Summer Kup, a gin cocktail with grape juice, sambuca (an Italian anise-flavored liqueur) and Scottish peaches. Keep your eye on the ice — smooth, large cubes imprinted with Kong’s logo.

For an ultra-exclusive experience, head through the shoji doors to the Omakase Room. This tiny, cherry-wood-paneled space features a wall of caged alcoves holding rare whiskeys and sake, and a 10-seat table reserved for private tastings and master classes.

Freni e Frizioni

According to Pistolesi, this casual spot in Trastevere is a “good street bar with a punk attitude.” 

Set up like a car repair shop, the street-side stop serves up great alt-rock-inspired drinks (The New York Dolls is a violet-hued tipple of vodka, lavender liqueur and pink grapefruit) and draws a crowd for aperitivi (and its free buffet of nibbles) between 7 and 10 p.m.   

“There are a lot of people diving in and out of the bar, and it’s a great scene,” Pistolesi said.

Tiki Tiki Roof 

“In Rome, you can’t miss the rooftops and there are several with great bars,” Pistolesi said. One of the mixologist’s recent favorites is this island-themed terrace at La Griffe MGallery by Sofitel near Termini Train Station. Come for the mojitos, but stay for the views. 

The Divinity Terrace Lounge Bar

Another of the bartender’s recommendations is this scenic spot atop The Pantheon Iconic Rome Hotel. The alfresco lounge sits eye-to-eye with Rome’s beloved ancient monument and lets the view inspire its drink menu with cocktails like Jupiter’s Martini, an ode to the supreme divinity of Roman mythology. 

Baccano

In need of a classic martini? Pistolesi heads to this Mediterranean bistro near the Trevi Fountain. The French-style brasserie is cozy and elegant with woven seats, leather booths and a well-stocked oyster bar.  

“Baccano is [a] more serious restaurant bar and the food is great,” he said, “but you’re there for the full, good martini that just comes with style.” His choice: the extra dry Baccano Martini with a twist of lemon.

Club Derrière

Pistolesi also grabs a seat at this back-alley speakeasy on Vicolo delle Coppelle, near Piazza Navona. Another secretive spot that requires a password, the tiny bar is all about style, from its exposed walls and leather chairs to the jazz tunes that permeate the moody atmosphere. Its innovative drinks rotate regularly, but past libations have included Floral and Vanity, a spirited combination of tequila, lime, elderflower and agave syrup.

The Jerry Thomas Project

Pistolesi’s late-night lineup always includes this vanguard speakeasy that is credited with introducing craft cocktails to the Eternal City.  

“This is the bar that made [Rome’s cocktail scene] happen,” Pistolesi said. “Before Jerry Thomas, no one was making or drinking quality cocktails.” 

To enter, you’ll need a reservation, the password and a nominal membership fee, but it’s a small price to pay. The bartenders here are some of the very best in the city, and they will change up the menu on a whim. 

If you can’t decide what to order, you can count on a mean negroni here.

This article first appeared in Forbes Travel, August 2019.

Italy. Venice, Italy. See La Serenissima Through the Eyes of James Bond

The city's iconic waterway played host to Bond. (Photo: Getty Images)

James Bond, Ian Fleming’s iconic spy and the world’s number one Casanova, has had a love affair with Venice ever since the final scenes of 1963’s “From Russia With Love,” when Sean Connery’s Bond snuck off on a gondola ride with Russian agent Tatiana Romanova.

There’s no doubt that Venice is an incredible backdrop for romance — a beautiful tangle of 16th-century campi makes it an incredible setting for films, but La Serenissima also sets the stage for dynamic action.

And nobody does it better than Bond, whose spy-jinx brought him back to the floating city in three different films: “From Russia With Love,” “Moonraker” (1979) with Roger Moore, and “Casino Royale” (2006) with Daniel Craig.

Here’s where and how to experience Venice like James Bond.

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal, the main waterway that courses through Venice, weaves its way through all three Bond films, but there was probably no more dramatic and glamorous movie moment than in “Casino Royal.”

In this flick, a newly retired Bond and Vesper sail through the city along the canal, passing all the requisite Venice landmarks, including Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, the Campanile of San Marco, Church of the Salute and the Accademia and Rialto bridges.

Bond’s Eye View: Buy a full-day vaporetto ticket and spend your afternoon coursing the Grand Canal on the local water bus (No. 1 or No. 2 will do). To admire the canal for a longer spell, book a stay at The Gritti Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Venice, or plan dinner at its restaurant, The Gritti Terrace, which overlooks the striking canal.

Piazza San Marco

Make like Bond and dash through the Piazza San Marco. (Photo: Getty Images)

Make like Bond and dash through the Piazza San Marco. (Photo: Getty Images)

Piazza San Marco, Venice’s largest square, named for the city’s patron saint, serves as backdrop to a desperate Daniel Craig as he runs through the square in search of his love, Vesper Lynd, in “Casino Royale,” after realizing she has betrayed him.

Bond’s Eye View: Though the Basel Bank featured in the film doesn’t exist, Piazza San Marco and its beautiful arcades still do and are open to the public.

Torre dell’Orologio

The Piazza San Marco also gets a second of screen time in “Moonraker,” but the true focus is on the Torre dell’Orologio, an early Renaissance clock tower nearing 300 feet in height.

After Roger Moore’s Bond faces an incredible kendo fight sequence in a glass shop — actually the historic Venini boutique in San Marco — he finds himself in a chase with Drax henchman Chang in the clock tower. Bond ultimately tosses Chang through the clock’s stained-glass face, though this face was a replica made for the movie.

Bond’s Eye View: The clock tower is visitable by reservation, Monday through Wednesday, at 11 a.m. and noon, and Thursday through Sunday, at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Rialto Fish Market

On the sestiere San Polo side of the Rialto bridge is the city’s pescheria, a centuries-old fish market set in a neo-Gothic loggia. And it’s in the loggia shade that Quantum agent Adolf Gettler is lurking when Vesper and Bond sail down the Grand Canal in “Casino Royale.”

Bond’s Eye View: Doff your best fedora and head to the Rialto Bridge; from there you can’t miss the market.

Palazzo Pisani

Make your way to the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

Make your way to the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

In “Casino Royale,” the minutes leading up to the demise of Vesper Lynd occur in the courtyard of Palazzo Pisani. The Baroque-style Palazzo Pisani has an incredible courtyard, where Vesper has her fateful meeting with Gettler before Bond tries to save her.

Vesper ends up running through the abandoned palazzo and locking herself in an elevator as the palace’s flotation devices give way and sink into the Grand Canal in one of the most epic Bond scenes ever.

Bond’s Eye View: While there is no way to reenact the sinking palace, Palazzo Pisani is the home to the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello, a second-century music conservatory that regularly holds concerts in its halls and famous courtyard.

You can also get eye to eye with the palazzo’s facade by taking Traghetto S. Angelo to San Toma for just two euro.

Ponte dei Sospiri

Make your way to the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Bridge of Sighs is only appropriate. (Photo: Getty Images)

Venice’s most famous bridge has long been a photo op spot thanks to its picture-perfect setting. The enclosed limestone bridge was built in the mid-1600s to connect the Doge’s Palace to the nuove prigioni (new prisons).

More infamous than famous, the bridge is known as the “Bridge of Sighs” for the last breaths of freedom that convicted persons would have before heading to the cells. In the final scene of “From Russia with Love,” Sean Connery’s Bond cozies up with Russian agent Tatiana Romanova in a gondola as they pass under the Bridge of Sighs.

Bond’s Eye View: Hire a gondola from the Stazio Danieli and reenact the scene for yourself.

This article first appeared in Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, June 2019.

Your Guide to the Venice Biennale

Every two years I make the annual pilgrimage to the Venice for the Venice Biennale, a six-month city-wide contemporary art festival. As an art fan, I am in heaven in my 24/7 full immersion art experience and as a freelance journalist, I am unstoppable, taking advantage as many platforms as possible- Instagram, Twitter and now my podcast- to bring my excitement into your hands. Join me for Forbes Travel, June 2019 exploring every corner and calle of Venice for the maximum Biennale experience.

Venice. Credit: Joseph Costa

Venice may be a fantasy archipelago of beautiful islands caught in centuries past, but every two years, the floating city transforms into the ultimate interactive contemporary art experience. The 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is a six-month event bringing contemporary artists from around the world to create boundary-pushing pieces that inhabit sites all over the city.  

Themed “May You Live in Interesting Times,” the 2019 edition (running through November 24) is an invitation to open your eyes to new perspectives. With 79 artists, 90 national pavilions and more than 20 collateral and pop-up events, there’s a lot to see. 

Of course, with so many options, not to mention Venice’s constant flood of usual tourists, visiting the Biennale can be a bit overwhelming. Luckily, with the guide we’ve drawn up, it won’t matter if you’re a first-time visitor or veteran art aficionado because you’ll know precisely what to see, where to stay and how to make the most of your experience.

Mastering the Basics

To make it easy, the first thing you need to do is head to the exhibition’s original 1895 venue: Giardini della Biennale, Venice’s verdant public gardens where 29 of the national pavilions reside. Boasting both historic architecture and new builds, the country-designated areas showcase handpicked artists interpreting the Biennale’s theme however they choose. 

Inside the Central Pavilion is a densely packed collective exhibition featuring pieces by artists invited by this year’s Biennale curator, London-based Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff.   

The Arsenale, Venice’s historic shipyard, is the other major Biennale venue. The building’s original corderie (a 1,000-foot-long hall used for rope making) houses some of the show’s more avant-garde pieces, including Michael Armitage’s beautiful paintings, large-format photographs by Martine Gutierrez and Alex da Corte’s interactive videos. 

You’ll also find satellite rooms hosting newer national pavilions, including first-time participants representing Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and Pakistan.

Off-site Spectacles

No longer confined to just the Giardini and Arsenale, the Biennale extends across all six of Venice’s sestieri(neighborhoods), with national pavilions and pop-up exhibitions in private palazzi, museums and galleries.  

Start your off-site tour just outside Arsenale with Building Bridges, artist Lorenzo Quinn’s monumental sculpture made of six pairs of hands reaching together to the sky — it’s equally Instagrammable and thought-provoking. 

Next, head west to Canareggio to see “HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails” by artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The politically charged exhibit showcases nearly 60,000 documents neatly printed, stacked and shelved on a very presidential desk on the first floor of contemporary supermarket Despar Teatro Italia. 

Continue your sightseeing tour in the central San Polo district, where contemporary glass installation The Spirit of Murano resides. Created by the Seguso family (Murano glass artisans since 1397), the piece is made of hand-blown glass handkerchiefs, each engraved with a short story or poem about Venice. Before you leave, you’ll be invited to write your own musings on cloth — a memento that will be added to the sculpture.

Visit the renowned Fondazione Prada for a retrospective on late artist Jannis Kounellis before stopping by the southern Dorsoduro neighborhood to take in works from another late talent in “The Death Of James Byers.”  

Last, but not least, visit the Lithuania Pavilion in Castello to see an award-winning 13-person opera, Sun & Sea (Marina), performed while the singers suntan on a “beach” made from sand imported from the Baltic Sea.

Where to Eat

Take a caffeine break at Gran Caffè Quadri, the magnificently historic and impeccably restored café in Piazza San Marco. The pastries, coffees and setting are incredible and, if sweet isn’t your flavor, come back in the afternoon for an Italian tradition: aperitivi

For heartier fare, check out Osteria Bancogiro, a tiny, rustic bacarò (restaurant) next to the Rialto Bridge, where you’ll find Biennale glitterati catching sun while sipping spritzes. 

Other tasty spots in the heart of Venice include Osteria da Carla, a modernly styled bolthole, or the more traditional Trattoria da Fiore, both in San Marco. 

For an intimate seafood-focused dinner near Santa Lucia train station, snag a seat at the tiny Osteria Trefanti.

If exploring the Gardens and Arsenale has left you too tired to trek across town, book a table at Biennale favorite Corte Sconta in Castello, the sestiere adjacent to the event venues. This popular seafood restaurant has a cornucopia of fresh catches (including moecche, local soft-shell crab) among its traditional revival plates, not to mention a gorgeous garden courtyard. 

Nearby, canal-side Local offers a contemporary version of the classic Venetian trattoria.  But for food as unforgettable as the Biennale’s displays, take a water taxi around the lagoon to the island of Mazzorbo to dine at renowned Venissa. Modern, chic and quiet, this secluded establishment is immersed in vineyards of Dorona di Venezia, one of the world’s rarest grapes.  The cuisine is a modern take on Venetian dishes using only island-grown and -fished ingredients. The result is a one-of-a-kind wine-paired meal that reflects Mazzorbo’s unique terroir. 

The Gritti Palace, A Luxury Collection Hotel. Credit: The Gritti Palace, A Luxury Collection Hotel

Where to Sleep

If you want to hit as many Biennale venues as possible, your best bet is staying central. Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Gritti Palace, A Luxury Collection Hotel, on the edge of the Grand Canal, is an ideal address. Its San Marco-adjacent location makes for easy walks to the Biennale Gardens and Arsenale, and its proximity to the San Marco vaporetto (waterbus) stop means convenient public transport access. The hotel even has a historic yacht you can reserve for a private cruise.  

Should you prefer to explore on foot, Forbes Travel Guide Recommended stays Hotel Londra Palace and Hotel Metropole Venice both offer stylish options less than a mile from Giardini della Biennale. 

But if you insist on Five-Star accommodations for resting your head, Belmond Hotel Cipriani is an ultra-plush retreat perched on the tip of nearby Giudecca Island.

A Design Guide to Milan, Italy

Design Snobs Will Love This Guide to Milan

Assago Milanofiori Nord metro station. Photo by Massimiliano Donghi/ Unsplash.

Milan — once overlooked as the middle child of Italy — is really enjoying its moment in the spotlight. There may be more to the city than fashion and design, but, wow, does it do those better than anyone.

MILAN, Italy — Milan is not like Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. It’s not an idyllic grand tour destination that hypnotizes visitors with listless, collective memories from centuries past. No, Milan is the kind of city that wakes you up and reminds you that time is moving forward. The wake-up call starts the moment you step off the train at Stazione Centrale and look up. The platforms are covered by spectacular, futuristic glass and steel spanning domes, while the early-20th-century station is a marble monument with sky-high, vaulted ceilings and intricate ornament details. Exalting architecture and dynamic movement are the gateway to Milan.

 Once a shy sister city, Milan has become center stage for design and fashion. In addition to the fall and spring fashion shows, for one week every March, the global spotlight is on Milanese design during Salone Milano design fair, but the truth is that Milan is a celebration of architecture and innovation, design, and art every day. Here’s a guide to the best and the most striking design spots around town.

Stazione Centrale

Parco Sempione

Parco Sempione

Walk the City

To understand Milan’s architecture, it’s important to start in the center and even more important to tag along with an expert like Riccardo Mazzoni of Context Travel. Riccardo is practicing architect and professor whose passion is the unfolding the layers of Milan’s architectural history. His tour starts at Piazza San Babila, home to a beautiful convergence of the city’s modern architecture and arguably the birthplace of modern Milan, then winds through Brera, an enclave of incredible boutiques and cafes also knows as the Fashion Quadrilaterial, and on to Castel Sforzesco, a medieval fortress complete with crenellations, bastions, and a retaining wall in the center of the city that's now a museum complex showcasing at least nine different genres and collections — Egyptian, musical instruments, furniture, manuscripts, and Renaissance art among them — and is gateway to Parco Sempione, a bucolic park in the city center.

Along the way, Riccardo picks out slick, futuristic buildings that epitomize the different movements of the 20th century — the unpredictable Novecentismo, the sharplined Rationalism, and the exaggerated Neoclassiscal — and introduces the names — Portaluppi, Gio Ponti, Piacentini, and BBPR — that brought Milan to the future.

Villa Necchi Campiglio Dining Room

Villa Necchi Campiglio Breakfast Room

Villa Necchi Campiglio Veranda

Full Design Immersion

If Milan’s design heritage can be condensed into one space, it would be La Triennale, the gallery on the edge of Parco Sempione that houses an incredible permanent collection of Italian design and hosts temporary exhibitions. Architecture fans must stop at Villa Necchi Campiglio, the 1930s home that’s a Milanese answer to Falling Water and a monument to upper-class living. Every element — from the building to the plates — was designed by Piero Portaluppi, the poster boy of Milan modernists. (Remember the amazing home in the Luca Guadagnino movie I Am Love? This is it, and you’ll recognize everything, including the pool.) The house tour takes about an hour, but you can linger on the property at the garden café. 

Portaluppi also designed Palazzo dell Arengario, a Fascist era complex comprised of two super-modern symmetrical and identical palaces just steps away from the Duomo. The left-side palace houses the Museo del Novecento, a museum dedicated to art of the 20th century.

Fast-forward to the uber contemporary at Fondazione Prada, a sprawling contemporary art complex outside the city center designed by OMA, with a 197-foot tower by starchitect Rem Koolhaas. On the sixth floor of the main building is a restaurant with a panoramic terrace featuring original furniture designed by Philip Johnson for New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant in the 1950s. Near the entrance is the cinematic and very playful Bar Luce, a café designed by director Wes Anderson. 

Though not quite cutting-edge design, stop into Pinacoteca Brera, a historic art gallery with a collection of paintings from late medieval era through the late 19th century. The Brera has put considerable effort in creating a dynamic space with truly fabulous signage, an open restoration lab, and Caffe Fernanda, a newly opened jewel box of a bar.

nilufar-gallery-milan-outside.jpg.1200x800_q85.jpg

Photos courtesy of Nilufar Gallery.

Icons and Boutiques

There are so many iconic design shops in Milan, but the only way to start is at Spazio Rossanna Orlandi, the epic gallery by Rossanna Orlandi, Milan’s original influencer, talent guru, and trend spotter. Orlandi put Milan’s gallery scene on the map — and her gallery is a must-stop on the Milan design tour. So is Nilufar, the gallery owned by Nina Yashar, Italy’s top dealer of modern and contemporary furniture and design, where she showcases incredible emerging and blockbuster designers. Her Nilufar Depot, just north of the Isola neighborhood, is the enormous warehouse she uses to showcase the 3,000+ design pieces she has amassed over more than three decades. 

Milan is full of pocket neighborhoods dedicated to art, design, and fashion. One of the latest emerging areas is Maroncelli Design District, a collective of galleries and boutiques on via Pietro Maroncelli and neighboring streets. Look for Etel, the uncannily clever and eco-sustainable Brazilian furniture design house.

Last but definitely not least is lighting — not just how something is illuminated, but rather how a beautifully designed lamp and expert lighting can transform the entire personality of a space. Every Italian home has at least one lamp or light fixture whose design has a story. A one-way conduit to Piazza San Babila, Corso Monforte is home to the world’s most famous lighting showrooms, including FontanaArteArtemide, and Nemo.

Bulgari Bar

AMOR. Photo by Lido Vannucchi.

Stylish Refreshments

And once you've had your fill of Milan design, the only way to meditate is to enjoy the archetypical Milan aperitivo in the city's very best design bars, like Caffe TrussardiBvlgariLuBar, and The Botanical Club.

If you need to fill yourself up a little more creatively, grab a table at AMOR, the latest by dynamic and Michelin-starred culinary brothers Max and Raf Alajmo. Located at the coveted 10 Corso Como, the groundbreaking concept store created by fashion editor Carla Sozzani, AMOR is Alamo's street food venture — a clever spin on a pizzeria serving Max’s patented steamed pizza. And of course, the design plays a starring role, as the Alajmos worked with long-time collaborator and star architect Philippe Starck to set the playful and striking atmosphere.

This article was first published in Fathom, May 2019.

Gondolas, Markets, Campi and More: Don’t Miss the Top 10 Things to Do in Venice

Visiting Piazza San Marco is a must. (Photo: Getty Images)

Visiting Piazza San Marco is a must. (Photo: Getty Images)

This article first appeared in Bonvoy, March 2019.

Venice is magic: a floating city caught up in the waves of modernity yet resisting the undertow of about-face change; a mind-bending, misleading labyrinth that always brings you to exactly where you didn’t know you wanted to be; and an interactive time capsule that manages to place you in 21st-century Italy and the 15th-century Venetian Republic at the exact same time.

It is a beautiful contradiction and a rebellious landscape of countless canals, narrow calle (streets), romantic palaces and wide-open campi (squares) where nothing is ever what it first appears. Since it’s just as easy to fall in love with “La Serenissima” as it is to get lost, here are our top 10 things to do and see in Venice.

Stand in Piazza San Marco and Climb the Campanile

St. Mark’s Square is Venice’s iconic landmark. It’s a vast piazza lined on three sides with 15th-century palaces and the beautiful Italo-Byzantine St. Mark’s Basilica on the fourth, and just standing in the middle of the square will give you an idea of the incredible riches and power of the former Venetian Republic’s heyday.

But as any Venetian knows, viewing the city is really all about perspective. It’s not about how you stand, but where you stand.

Climb the Campanile, the 320-foot free-standing bell tower in the Piazza’s southeastern corner, possibly the city’s best perch for a bird’s-eye view of the square and surrounding islands. For a little less effort, head to the Basilica’s balcony for a center stage view into the piazza.

Pro tip: Avoid on-the-hour visits or those bell tolls will drive you out of your mind.

Behind the Scene and Screams of the Doge’s Palace

Just behind the Campania, and facing the open waters of the Venetian Lagoon, is the Palazzo Ducale, the residence of the Doge, the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice.

For 400 years, the Doge’s Palace was the seat of Venetian government, as well as command center for all trade and commerce across the Mediterranean waters.

The palace’s Gothic exterior hides a labyrinth of rooms, from residence halls and courts to prisons and torture chambers. And this is where Casanova allegedly was held until his victorious escape.

Pro tip: Skip the queue and sign up for a private tour of the Secrets of the Doge’s Palace.

Get Lost at Libreria Acqua Alta

Photo: Getty Images

Considered one of, if not the, prettiest bookstores in the world, the Libreria Acqua Alta (Bookstore of High Water) is a whimsical secondhand bookshop tucked away in a back alley of Castello sestiere(district), which you can enter on foot or, more interestingly, by boat.

Its number of overstuffed rooms are stacked wall to wall with books, magazines, maps and other ephemera placed in shelves, bathtubs, bins and even a gondola.

Pro tip: You can wind your way through the Castello sestiere to get there or sneak in the back entrance — reachable by gondola — only if you take a water taxi.

Break Away to Burano

Photo: Getty Images

Venice is an archipelago of 118 small islands, each with its own distinct personality. If you want to avoid the throngs of tourists visiting Murano (known for its glass blowing), you’ll find that just a 40-minute water bus ride from San Marco is the city’s most colorful isle, Burano, which is known for its vibrantly hued houses — a patchwork of colors that brightens up any day and Instagram feed — as well its centuries-old traditional lace work.

Pro tip: Make like a local and head to a Burano bakery and ask for a bussolà, a donut-shaped cookie typically flavored with vanilla, rum or lemon.

Scale the Spiral Scala Contarini del Bovolo

Venice’s secrets are usually hidden in plain sight; you just have to know how to find them. Head to Palazzo Contarini, and along the way meander the side streets of Rialto, near Campo Manin. You’ll eventually arrive at an ornate palace showcasing Renaissance, Gothic and Byzantine styles, with an external tower attached to the facade, vaguely reminiscent of Pisa’s famous tower.

The elaborate arcaded tower is actually an open-air spiral staircase, or bovolo (Venetian dialect for “snail”), and after walking up the 80 steps to a domed lookout, you’ll have a private view of the rooftops of Venice.

Pro tip: Bring a camera; the bovolo is decidedly Insta-worthy.

Binge at a Bacaro

Venetians have fine-tuned snacking to an art form. Across the city are tiny bacari, typically rustic wine bars where, for a few euros, you can enjoy a glass of local wine with a taste of the owner’s cicchetti(delectable, homemade snacks) while standing at the bar.

Essentially, it’s Venice’s clever and very delicious version of wine tasting on the go. The idea is to enjoy a few glasses and taste a few snacks while catching up with friends and then move on to the next.

Pro tip: Save your appetite for Cantinone Gìa Schiavi, an 80-year-old outpost in the university-area Dorsoduro noted for incredibly creative crostini and cicchetti.

Catch up with Contemporary Art

Every two years, Venice becomes the global center of contemporary art with La Biennale di Venezia, a six-month-long art fair that takes over the Biennale Gardens and Arsenale shipyard and spills across the island with arty events.

Pro tip: Bring a great pair of shoes and plan to dedicate at least two days to art hopping.

Gondola Ride at Night

Photo: Getty Images

There is nothing quite like exploring Venice by water, but with daytime traffic from tourists and local deliveries, the very best time to catch a true sense of the floating city is in the evening.

Venice’s gondoliers are ubiquitous, standing at the sides of canals in their striped blue (or red) shirts, black pants and white sneakers. It’s easy to catch off-duty gondoliers looking for their next ride. Before you go, check out Gondola Venezia, which details prix fixe daytime and evening rates; gondolas can accommodate up to six people.

Pro tip: Avoid the San Marco area and look for your gondolier at Ca’Sagredo (sestiere: Cannareggio) or Campo Dei Frari (sestiere: San Polo).

Make It a Market Morning at Rialto

The Rialto market in San Polo sestiere is one of Italy’s most historic and unforgettable fish markets. Built in 1907, the neo-Gothic loggia has been shacked up with vendors selling their wares for more than a century.

Of course, time doesn’t stand still, and though Rialto remains a vibrant fish market scene, bars, restaurants and boutiques have taken residence.

Pro tip: Take a seat at the market’s canal-facing bars and enjoy an afternoon spritz.

School Yourself on Tintoretto

You can thank a 15th-century confraternity — a group of religious laymen — for funding the creation of a literal wealth of Venetian art. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, as this well-funded brotherhood is still known, commissioned La Serenissima’s favorite painter, Tintoretto, to create a masterpiece of Old Testament and New Testament scenes within their headquarters. And he did.

After 27 years in residence, Tintoretto left the buildings of the Grande Scuola in San Polo almost entirely adorned in his inimitable, monumental paintings.

Pro tip: Tintoretto also decorated the adjacent church, San Rocco.

Weekender: Ski escape to Courmayeur, Valle d'Aosta

Enjoying Monte Bianco from Le Massif. All photos by Erica Firpo.

Enjoying Monte Bianco from Le Massif. All photos by Erica Firpo.

Italians are lucky. Aside from amazing food, architecture, design, fashion and art, Italy has incredible geography within a drive from the cities: beaches, countryside, hilltops and mountains. And oh those mountains… approximately 40% of the country is mountainous whether its the peaks of the Alps, the smooth crests of the Appennines or the crazy slopes of an active volcano Mount Etna. Skiing is more than just a pastime, it’s a integral part of Italian culture. Each year, school kids get off for a settimana bianca (white week), and almost annually Italians queue the cinemas to catch the latest Vacanze di Natale film, a groan-inducing comedy series that usually takes place at an Italian ski resort.

Even though I hate the cold, I love ski culture. There is nothing quite like the vibe of a settimana bianca or white weekend, and Italians know it. It’s all about good skiing, fun friends and great, territorial food in the mountain chalets. Year after year, my friends head back to the same white peaks that they’ve always gone to, but each year, we try to test out a new location. Last year, I fell in love with Courmayeur, and I think it’s time for a weekender.

Courmayeur

COURMAYEUR

Courmayeur. It sounds French, right? Nope, Courmayeur is 100% Italian. The quaint Alpine hamlet is located in Italy’s most northwestern region, the tiny bilingual Italian/French Valle d’Aosta, most famously known for Hannibal’s incredible overland march, bringing elephants through Valle d’Aosta’s Little San Bernard pass in the 3rd century BC. Meanwhile Courmayeur is considered to be Italy’s best kept winter secret, Picturesque to perfection, Courmayeur has been a travel destination for over a century. The town is a labyrinth of cobblestone-laden streets, vintage architecture, historic coffee shops, busy ski shops, centuries-old churches and gorgeous contemporary boutiques and chalets. It is where Italy’s very mountain guide society (and the second in Europe) was founded but most importantly, Courmayeur has the honor of being overshadowed, literally, by Europe’s highest peak Monte Bianco.

SkyWay: aka that famous scene in Kingsman 2

Punta Helbronner is hella high.

My Way or The SkyWay

At 15,777 feet above sea level, Monte Bianco is incredible. And incredibly cold. Sharp white, snow-capped peaks cut the cerulean blue sky like an early 20th century Russian avant-garde painting, which quickly turns into a futuristic installation thanks to the SkyWay, that futuristic globular funivie that links the Italian lowland to Punta Helbronner, an overlord look out at 11,371 feet. The courageous will hike up Monte Bianc, ski across the glacier to Chamonix, France or heliski, whereas the rest of us are happy just to enjoy the view. I’d save the skiing for Courmayeur’s slopes, a network of what seems like a million pistes but what is in actuality 31 with lifts. Beginners please note that I am the definition of basic and spent a few days dedicated to Courmayeur’s smooth beginner trails. I organized private lessons, graduated from the bunny slopes, scared myself to death on the chair lifts, and got a great work out.

Ski pass: 49 euro/day, 240 euro/five non-consecutive da

View from Chateau Branlat

Inside Chateau Branlat

Inside Chateau Branlat

Chalet Bites

I’ve learned that the best reason to ski in Italy are for the rifugi, the cosy mountain-ski chalets where eating is an art form. In the case of Courmayeur, the rifiugi are incredible and the food scene is even better. According to Courmayeur Mont Blanc’s official tourism site, there are twenty chalet-restaurants on piste- each with a different, very personal vibe, whether its gourmet cuisine or specialized, local Valdostan delicacies. Ski in to Chateau Branlat, a wooden chalet with beamed ceilings and funky decor, or snow mobile to La Chaumiere, a traditional Valdostan home built into the mountain. i discovered Maison Veille when I was lost skiing and need a restroom. The tiny igloo-like hut was cozy caffe that become a party spot in the evenings.

Back in the town, tiny osterie and Michelin spots creep up in quiet corners, like Al Camin, a traditional osteria/trattoria and Petit Royal, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Hotel Royal and its captivating La Tour, a private medieval tower with show cooking for couples. Superstar chef Heston Blumenthal fell in love with Courmayeur and combined his passion for food and skiing to create The Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience. Think of it as a three-day food fest with incredible Michelin-starred chefs, skiing and local cuisine.

Pro tip: Everywhere I went accepted credit cards, but it can’t hurt to have a little cash for some of the mountain top rifiugi.

Traditional Valdostan vibes at Chaumiere

Superstarred chefs Marcus Wareing, Sat Bains, Claude Bosi and Jason Atherton in 2018’s Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience

Let’s Go Downtown

Courmayeur is the kind of place where everyone skis hard, eats late, goes out late and then gets up incredibly early for another of skiing. The two best take home tips I discovered were that in order to love (and acclimate to) Courmayeur, you must drink a lot of water and get a non-consecutive days ski pass. Of all the amazing things you can do in Courmayeur, most of them revolve around snow- skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating, snow biking, snow kiting, et cetera, but Courmayeur also has a social life a few hundred meters below.

For a bit of daytime culture, head to the Museo Alpino Duca deli Abruzzi, a two-level chalet home that houses the Alpine Museum that tells the history of mountaineering, its heroes, and the region, along with a small exhibition space showcasing photos of Valle d’Aosta’s traditional communities and events. Après Ski the Via Roma, Courmayeur’s thoroughfare and a windy street where all of the posh and quirky shops are located, as well as several caffe and cocktail spots.

Courmayeur is small, so get out and explore Valle d’Aosta. The region is network of castles, and almost every weekend there is a traditional festival in the small towns. And then there are wonderful museums from archaeological and ancient remedies to planetariums and prisons.

Museo Alpino Duca degli Abruzzi.

Alpine Wine, showcased at Pavillon du Mont Fréty (the midway station to Punta Helbronner).

Ski In, Ski Out

So far, my experience has been at the Grand Hotel Royal e Golf, a beautiful yesteryear ski lodge looking out on the mountains, with a lovely outdoor pool. The vibe is a bit Grand Budapest Hotel with its fabulous decor, doormen and bellhops. Location is in smack in the middle of town which means it is not at all ski in/ski out but once I realized I didn’t need to a ride pistes, it was a short and charming walk through town to the pistes. Eventually I felt like everyone knew me. A second option is the tiny Bouton d’Or, a family-run property a few minutes walk from Courmayeur’s main square. for a ski in/ski out vacation, I have my eye on the very new Le Massif, member of Leading Hotels of the World. Last year, I had the opportunity for a hard-hat site visit, and it had me at hello due to its chic contemporary design, its location on top of the mountain and that damn terrace view (scroll back to the top).

Evidence of me as a ski bunny.

Andiamo!

Getting to Courmayeur is quite easy. Airplane, rail, car, I’ve done it all and my experience, the easiest arrival is by car, once you’ve decided where you are coming from. Milanese will tell you to fly to Milan Malpensa MXP, and I agree, especially if you want to add on a few extra days for shopping. If you are a foodie, consider flying into Torino-Casselle TRN (or even Geneva GVA, if you have some banking to do). MXP and TRN offer bus shuttle service to Courmayeur but the least hassle is driving. Car rental services are always available or you can hire a driver service if you aren’t interested in exploring Italy’s smallest region.

Getting to Courmayeur by rail is a bit of a pain, especially with gear. From MXP and TRN, you’ll shuttle to railway stations Milano Centrale or Torino Porta Nuova, then catch a regional train to Pré-Saint-Didier , and finally take a bus to Courmayeur ( SAVDA buses run from airport and train stations to Aosta and Courmayeur). Do the math: you’ll save more time and energy renting a car/hiring driver - approximately 1.5 hours from Torino and just under 2.5 hours from Milan.

Wheels up: CiaoBella's Guide to On-The-Road Entertainment

If you haven’t guessed, I am one of those people who loves every aspect of travel from planning and packing to airport perusing and arrival adventures, but I’d be kidding you if I didn’t tell you that my in transit experience is key to it all. Just the mere words in transit can stress out even the most expert of travelers - even more so during the holiday travel season when patience levels are at their lowest.

Flight delays, seat issues, comfort concerns, inflight entertainment malfunctions or tired, already views films and tv shows- we’ve all been there. Enjoying an airport afternoon and flying off into the sunset requires just a little bit of prep, reliable wifi connection and my iPad mini, aka my best friend and its holy trinity of apps.

  • Kindle: I am bookworm and fall in love with novel which is good and bad. Good because I have no problems re-reading great books. Bad because my habit makes me very anti-social. Lately, my go-to authors for long haul travel are Marisha Pessl, Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson

  • Texture: Texture is the app world’s best kept secret. It’s monthly subscription magazine app that gives unlimited access to all of my favorite glossies- AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Women’s Health, National Geographic and so many more. Though I love a great print magazine, I love how they are re-interpreting themselves digital- with extra, multimedia content. Remember to download magazines in advance.

  • Netflix: Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone knows Netflix but here’s the secret to Netflix and travel: season-spanning television series. Films (especially the cheesy ones) are great in flight entertainment but they can leave you wanting more which is while you’ll want to download multi-seasonal series. My latests fave are Versailles, three tawdry seasons of the Sun King, and the time travel triptych Travelers.

Head Space

Travel is all about the headspace, and how you curate it. Most of the time, I want my mind and eyes elsewhere but sometimes people watching is good enough for me, especially if I can pick the sound track. Podcasts, playlists or meditation are on repeat. Here’s my current line up:

  • Travel: In Situ Archaeologist Darius Arya’s travel podcast (yes, this is spousal sponson). Darius goes on location to the medina of Tunis, the agora of Athens or just the backstreets of Rome to talk contemporary travel and ancient history.

  • The Trip: Roads & Kingdoms’s podcast uncorks a new bottle of travel, food, adventure and politics. You’ll want to open your own bottle for each episode.

  • Amazon Music: I just discovered I can download playlists of any kind. Binaural beats to increase my brain waves. Meditation. 1980s hip hop. Enough said.

All about Analog

Loading up an iPad with digital goodies is my ideal companion for any travel but what happens when I’m asked to put my devices away? If I’m lucky, I’ll have popped into Hudsons for a Read-n-Return book during my airport strut, but that’s only when I’m in North America- which means I better have one very strategic item in my bag, maybe two, for my Wheels Up ritual.

Wheels Up ritual, you ask? Analog entertainment with a time limit that helps those painful minutes in tarmac purgatory pass by - in other words, a competitive distraction before take off. My Wheels Up ritual is simple: the crossword puzzle and/or sudoku from the inflight magazine must be solved before take off and for that, all I require is a fully sharpened pencil (Blackwing602) or a pen (Lamy Safari). Both are incredibly beautiful writing devices, but if necessary a Dixon Ticonderoga or Bic will suffice. When I’m feeling creative and my bag isn’t overloaded, I’ll bring a Rhodia notebook, which can be a miracle maker when traveling with children.

LAMY Safari. Image: LAMY.

Essential Gear

Traveling light is my obsession, but I am willing to weigh down my carry-on with a few essential items that I know will upgrade my travel experience.

  • External Battery Charger: I can never have too much battery support so I will always bring my Mophie Powerstation Plus. So far, Mophie has proven the most reliable and durable product I have ever used, and it packs a large charge by powering up both my iPad and iPhone. If you need to reanimate your MacBook as well, Mophie’s Universal USB-XXL is a life saver.

  • Headphones: I’ve learned the hard way (ear aches, muffled sound, ambient noise) that not all headphones are created equal, and that quality headphones and sound filtering/noise canceling can transform my travel experience to sublime. Since I need headphones that will also block out my family as I work from home, Santa is bringing me Bose QuietComfort35 wireless II. Note to self: wireless headphones do not jack into the inflight entertainment.

  • Sleep Mask: Sleep masks may have the reputation of being for the oh-so-spoiled, but a well-made sleep mask can project you out of your seat and into your podcast. The freebies will work, but for those willing to invest in self-indulgency for under $20, take a look at 40 Blinks.

Mophie’s Powerstation USB-C XXL. Image: Mophie

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5 Places To See Contemporary Art In Rome

Palazzo Merulana. Credit: Palazzo Merulana

Want to spend a weekend exploring Rome as a contemporary outpost? I’ve lined up where you need to go and stay in my latest update on contemporary art in Rome for Forbes Travel, December 2018.

Rome is where the art is, but these days it’s more than just colossal monuments, dusty archeological sites and beautifully decorated Baroque churches.

Contemporary art is finally making a significant mark on the Eternal City’s landscape. The destination is now replete with an itinerary of museums, galleries, concept spaces and creative hubs. We’ve plotted out five top places that bring this ancient city back to the future.

WHAT TO SEE

Palazzo Merulana
One of the newest galleries on the scene, this former municipal office building underwent a three-year renovation in preparation for the eclectic, 90-piece collection of Elena and Claudio Cerasi, prominent local patrons of the arts. Most of the museum’s works are Italian pieces created between World War I and II by artists such as Giacomo Balla, Giorgio de Chirico and Alighiero Boetti.   

Art aficionado or not, you’ll want to hang around at CafeCulture, the palazzo’s boutique and coffee shop. The menu features a variety of fare sourced from local purveyors, such as cheeses from ProLoco DOL, hamburgers from famed butcher Bottega Liberati and sweets from patisserie Cristalli di Zucchero.

Contemporary Cluster 
This avant-garde experience is the 21st-century manifestation of those iconic multidisciplinary performances of the 1960s and ’70s: a boutique/art gallery/event space housed in a decadent 17th-century palace on a side street off Campo de’ Fiori. 

The hybrid art and commercial venue hosts monthly exhibitions, weekly performances and DJ sets, while its grounds have permanent and pop-up shops and cafés.

In essence, Contemporary Cluster is a concept store with an artsy vibe that constantly draws an eclectic crowd with almost everything being for sale as a bonus.

Sarah Sze at Crypta Balbi
It’s not every day that one of the world’s most famous contemporary art galleries joins forces with an ancient archaeological site. Gagosian, whose imprint in Rome has upgraded the art scene over the past 10 years, has turned to the past for a site-specific, National Roman Museum-partnered installation at the Crypta Balbi ruins.

Through January 27, the first-century theater provides a rustic backdrop for contemporary sculpture Split Stone (7:34) by American artist Sarah Sze. Using an ultra-modern process by which thousands of tiny cavities etched into the rock are filled with pigment, Sze has created a captivating crystalized sunset scene on the stone’s mirror-like surface.  

Sant’Andrea de Scaphi. Credit: Erica Firpo

Gavin Brown’s Enterprise: Sant’Andrea de Scaphis
To find the pulse of the international art scene, head for British art dealer Gavin Brown’s Rome outpost — it’s everything and nothing you’d expect. Located in a nondescript, deconsecrated church on a side street of Trastevere, Sant’Andrea de Scaphis is a single, rustic room of hauntingly charming medieval architecture that usually features a single artist installation.

Exhibits rotate every few months, so it’s unlikely you’ll run into the same works twice. The historic space is hosting a politically charged display by American graphic designer Sam Pulitzer, “May The Last Nationalist Be Strangled With The Guts Of The Last Technocrat,” through December 8.

Palazzo Rhinoceros. Credit: Pino LePera

Palazzo Rhinoceros
The name Fendi is synonymous with Rome’s fashion scene, but the designers’ youngest sister, Alda, opts for a more innovative interpretation with Fondazione Alda Fendi — Esperimenti, her nonprofit arts foundation.  

The group’s latest experiment is Palazzo Rhinoceros, a new creative hub in the Velabro neighborhood that opened in October. Architect Jean Nouvel rebooted a centuries-old palazzo into a multi-level gallery, 24 luxury apartments and a rooftop restaurant, without altering the building’s historic bones.   

While the interiors are stunning, some of the venue’s highlights are actually found outside, including a can’t-miss portrait projection of Alda by Pierre et Gilles on the façade and a life-sized resin rhino that lurks in the front yard.   

Hotel Eden’s La Terrazza. Credit: Hotel Eden

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Eden
Rome’s undeniable harbinger of style and hospitality, this Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star stunner is dripping in fashionable touches — think art deco details, custom furniture and resplendent marble accents.

For a picture-perfect end to a day of gallery-hopping, dine at La Terrazza, the luxury hotel’s rooftop restaurant boasting some of the best views of the city.  

Gran Meliá Rome Villa Agrippina. Credit: Melia Hotels & Resorts


Gran Meliá Rome Villa Agrippina
Located on the bluffs of the famed Janiculum hill (between Trastevere and Vatican’s Borgo neighborhood) on the site of an imperial villa, this Four-Star retreat is a city-center oasis that comes complete with a 1920s-era pool and lush greenery.

Though its origins are ancient, Gran Meliá’s style is contemporary: sleek modern furnishings, wide-open spaces and the sophisticated My Blend by Clarins spa.

The Rooms of Rome
Stay in the heart of the action when you book into Palazzo Rhinoceros’s fully immersive-art experience on the edge of the Roman Forum. Each of its 24 rooms is minimalist chic, meticulously designed and curated by the aforementioned Jean Nouvel, the superstar architect behind the cutting-edge Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The stylish rooms are outfitted with luxe touches, too, like Bang & Olufsen TVs, fully equipped kitchens and L’Occitane amenities.

Window Seat: Quadri in Venice

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Venice in its inkiest hours is my favorite time to walk through La Serenissima, and perhaps the only time to peruse St. Mark’s Square. The arcades are lit with a warm glow, reflecting in the basalt pavement and setting the square on fire. Foot traffic is different. It’s not rushed, it’s not crowded. People quietly cross the piazzas to get from here to there. Stragglers are trying to snap a Basilica night shot, while others are hiding behind columns to catch some bars of Brahms or Mozart from the small ensemble orchestras at Quadri and Florians. A St. Mark’s evening is decadent, romantic and slightly heartbreaking, like a fading memory that won’t disappear.

Me? Time and time over, I chose to stay. St. Mark’s is an old friend, and so are its cafes. The square comes at a premium, even with knowing a few secrets on how to enjoy an aperitif at the most expensive bars in Italy. And I am willing to pay for the experience if it is unforgettable. Quadri is more than just one of the epic cafes in the square with a live orchestra and front row seats to Basilica San Marco. It is a gastro-cultural experience. In 2011, the Alajmo brothers took over the more than 200-year-old property, with the intent of creating the very best pastry and coffee bar, along with opening up the first floor to an experiment restaurant. If you know the Alajmo brothers you know that they are full immersion- they idealize, create and personally execute every detail from concept, mentality, and dishes to vibe and design down to the glasses in your hand. At the beginning of 2018, the Alajmos brought in expert conservation artists to restore the Grand Caffe Quadri, original hub to writers and artists of the Grand Tour, and asked their friend and constant collaborator Philippe Starck to come back to the Michelin-starred Ristorante Quadri for a design upgrade.

Flavour Hunter in Condè Traveller, September 2018

This grand cafè opened in 1775 on St. Mark’s Square and over the years gained a list of regulars than included Lord Byron, Alexandre Dumas and Marcel Proust. But the romantic veneer of the square diminished amid the relentless commercialism that swept over venice at the end of the 20th century (along with pigeon photographers and gondolier hats), and Quadri was no longer the place to be seen.  Then, in 2011, chef Massimiliano Alajmo and his brother Raffaele arrived, a duo with three Michelin starts at Le Calandre in Padua, and it wasn’t long before Quadri earnt one of its own.  The Max and Raf menus highlight each of the brothers’ personalties; Max is the innovative one, Raf the more traditional. But the tasting menu- 16 courses for two- is a combination of oth, with dishes such as cappuccino di laguna, a mix of lagoon seafood and moeche, a soft-shell crab only found in the Venetian islands served with green fronds of samphire-like agretti. 

Yet it is only this year that the restaurant’s 250-year-old interior caught up with the kitchen’s contemporary attitude.  Philippe Starck, the man responsible for projects as diverse as the Mama Shelter hotels, Steve Job’s yacht and the interiors for a new space station, set to launch in 2020, has uncovered the palace’s original stuccowork from beneath layer upon layer of paint. Old-fashioned wall coverings have been replaces with earthy tones modelled on a 16th-century silk brocade - but look closely as there are rockets and satellites as well as portraits of Massimiliano and Raffaele within the fabric.  And on shelves above the doors, whimsical taxidermy rabbits and foxes are ready to take flight, a nod to the winged lion that guards the city.  Reserve a table by the window on the first floor for a front-row view over the square, high above the crowds - because this is once again the most-coveted spot in Venice.a

Peep the Alajmo brothers’ portraits in the brocade. Photo credit: Quadri.

Quattro Atti. Photo credit: Quadri.

Have I eaten at Quadri? Twice over the past two years at Ristorante Quadri and both times (a lunch and a dinner), I have not only relished the view, but loved the dishes. Massimiliano is a genius, fact. He is clever, he is instinctive, he is innovative. His dishes are heart-warming, reminiscent of past lives and history. And most of all they are unexpected. But let’s be serious- I love Quadri for its location, especially the window seat in the evening where I have the glowing piazza below me.

Mornings, I am at Grand Caffe Quadrino as much as I can. I frame myself below the beautifully restored walls and mirror next to the elderly German man who sits in the corner every morning. On a brisk and clear morning, I will sit outside, but usually before the orchestra starts so that I can read. Tip: For the experience with less of a price tag, you can also get stand up service at the bar.

Me enjoying Quadrino, the ground floor Grande Caffe Quadri.