After-hours conviviality in Venice is understated and civilised. Think a bottle of wine and a platter of good cicchetti (bar snacks) whilst overlooking the Grand Canal, or sipping cocktails in a slick bar with panoramic views of the city.
From whiling away the night in an intimate wine bar to sipping spritzes at a frescoed late-night coffee shop, and enjoying live music with the locals off the beaten track, below our expert shares her favourite Venice nightlife spots.
This piazza San Marco café, founded in 1720, is a living museum of Venetian coffee culture, with a jewel-box of an interior dating back to the mid-19th century. During the Austrian occupation, Venetian patriots (and Lord Byron) plotted revolution here over coffee and cakes. Tables outside in the square are classic Venice but be aware: table service (already steep) carries a per-person 'music surcharge' when the band is playing. Head to the bar area at the back, with velvet stools and no table surcharge, for a ringside view of the barmen's Bellini-mixing skills.
L'Ombra del Leone
This bar/restaurant on the ground floor of Ca' Giustinian is one of Venice's best-kept secrets. The late Gothic palazzo is the headquarters of the organisation that runs Venice's Film Festival, and Art and Architecture Biennales. The high-ceilinged interior, done out in contemporary style, is more atmospheric at night when video installations play across the walls. But the real draw is the outside seating, with its ringside view of the Grand Canal action. They do all the usual Italian bar beverages, plus a few lunchtime salads, panini and sandwiches.
Venice's Rosa Salva empire, which dates back to 1870, now has three cafés as well as running in-house bar-restaurants at the La Fenice opera house. Two outlets stand out. The first, listed here, is where locals flock for morning cappuccino and brioche or ricotta-filled pastries, lunchtime salad or panino, afternoon tea or hot chocolate and pre-dinner spritz. The branch in Campo Santo Giovanni e Paolo has wonderful antique café décor, and plenty of space to sit and rest tired feet as you sip a pre-prandial spritz. If you're looking for gelato, their homemade ices are some of the best in town.
Strategically placed near the beginning of the main Rialto-Accademia pedestrian route, this bright, modern daytime café-pasticceria covers all the bases from breakfast to aperitivi. Their cakes and brioches (croissants) are fresh and delicious; this is also a good place to pick up sandwiches, panini or pizzette (mini-pizzas) to take away. It's generally crowded, and there's nowhere to sit down, but they're popular for a reason.
Contact: 00 39 041 241 3087; facebook.com
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 7.30am-8.30pm; Sun, 8am-8.30pm
Prices: espresso €
This Venetian institution has left its premises near Santa Maria Formosa for a new venue further east. In its original location, the enoteca morphed long ago from neighbourhood drinking den to pricey full-scale restaurant, but locals continued to treat it as a wine bar. Its affable, bow-tied owner Mauro Lorenzon is likely to continue in the same vein: avoid the peak dinner period of 8pm-11pm, and find a corner of the bar counter for a drink and, perhaps, an oyster or two. The by-the-glass wines are almost all from north-east Italy, and many are organic. Put yourself in Mauro's capable hands, and go with the flow. Before you know it, he'll be opening a bottle of bubbly with a scimitar.
Getting in: reservations recommended
This hidden-away café, right behind the Doge's Palace, is one of the best places for a spritz in Venice. It's a tiny, neat standing-room-only interior with beautiful terrazzo grossolano floor (think crazy paving done with coloured marble), run by local ladies who switch between dialect, standard Italian and passable English as required. When you're having a carb crisis, their pizzette (mini-pizzas) hit the spot, as do cakes like the rather fine almond slice. To find calle degli Albanesi, look for the incredibly narrow alleyway entrance at the side of Hotel Danieli.
Contact: 00 39 041 522 7507; facebook.com
Opening times: Mon-Wed, Fri, 6.30am-7.30pm; Sat, Sun, 7.30am-7.30pm
If you're visiting the nearby Art or Architecture Biennales, this wine and cocktail bar in the wide pedestrian street of via Garibaldi makes for an excellent post-culture pitstop. Good wine, good draught beer, good spritz and quality cicchetti at reasonable prices make El Refolo a runaway success. The small brick-lined interior is super cute, but unless it's pouring with rain most habitués choose the outside tables, where you can eat and drink for no extra charge. Food consists of platters of salami and cheese from small, slow-food-style producers, plus panini with interesting fillings such as bresaola and truffle.
Contact: 00 39 320 326 7536; facebook.com
Opening times: Tue-Sun, 12pm-12.30am, Mon, 5pm-12.30am
Sometimes what's lacking in high-density Venice is an ordinary neighbourhood bar: the kind you can sit outside with a cappuccino, writing postcards and watching the world go by. Vincent Bar is exactly that. In Venice's leafy, easternmost Sant'Elena district, this good-value, all-day bar does the usual Italian bar beverages, pastries, sandwiches and toasties, plus homemade gelato, and a decent range of salads and simple pasta dishes. If you have children, it's a godsend: the park in front of the bar has swings, slides and climbing frames so they can work off energy while you enjoy that spritz in peace.
Contact: 00 39 041 520 4493; facebook.com
Opening times: Tue-Sun, 7am-10pm
In an area not well-furnished with good evening bars, El Sbarlefo provides cicheti like baccalà mantecato (creamed salt cod) on warm polenta, or polpette (breaded morsels) of meat, cheese or tuna, to accompany wines from an extensive list (on my last visit, they served me a really excellent Pinot Noir from Trentino). Prices are reasonable, with only a small mark-up for table service. The soundtrack is mostly jazz, and they host occasional live concerts. There's a second branch across the Grand Canal. in Cannaregio.
Il Santo Bevitore
This welcoming corner bar just off busy Strada Nuova is a rare Venetian champion of Italy’s recent craft beer renaissance. Beers on tap include Guinness, Pauwel Kwak, and an Italian bitter with the curious name of 'Punks Do It Bitter'. Soak up the brew with a crostino (mini-bruschetta) from a wide selection. There's free Wi-Fi, live sports on television and – if that all sounds a little too home-away-from-home – outside tables in a little square by a canal, where you can actually make yourself heard. They sometimes organise live concerts, and single-brewery beer tastings.
This historic torrefazione (coffee roastery) has been going since 1930 and is the only one still operating in central Venice. The aroma hits you from afar but it just gets better when you actually taste one of their espressos – worth trying it milk-free for the full olefactory high. They also do incredibly chocolate-y hot chocolates, served with proper, fresh whipped cream, and a tiramisù that's made while you wait. The natural décor is in keeping with their artisanal approach to coffee excellence, dominated by jute coffee sacks, stripped wood and a row of traditional coffee-bean dispensers.
If you approach Venice by train make your first stop on arrival and last before departure this lovely century-old cake and coffee shop on the main lista di Spagna pedestrian route, two minutes from Santa Lucia station. True to Venetian form, there's nowhere to sit down, but you'll still come out refreshed and ready to go after a good coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, plus a little sweet indulgence. Next door they recently opened a 'Cioccolateria' selling treats like handmade chocolates, marrons glacés and a range of liqueurs.
Pass by at a quiet moment and you wouldn't give this simple little bar a second look. At busier times, however, crowds spilling out the door can make it difficult to get along the street. Fantastically friendly Masud mixes a champion classic spritz and riffs expertly on the theme with a variety of alcoholic elements. Also on offer, at prices that are difficult to beat, are huge portions of fresh pasta, Masud's trademark hamburgers and cicchetti including deliciously un-Venetian samosas.
San Polo & Santa Croce
Away from the main tourist routes, campo San Giacomo has local children playing tag and dog-walkers catching up on gossip – 'street theatre' which is best enjoyed watching from tables outside Al Prosecco. They take wine seriously here, and the daily by-the-glass selection always contains a few off-the-radar surprises. The Veneto's famous sparkling wine, prosecco, is a strong point; order a 'prosecco fermo' to discover the still version. Cicchetti here are more pan-Italian, with a good salami, cheese and smoked fish selection, served with assorted cooked and raw veg.
The cramped premises under the arches of the 16th-century 'Fabbriche Vecchie' building were once used as storerooms by market traders, but became nightlife central in the early 2000s. Mostly a restaurant these days, the trailblazing Bancogiro is still a good spot for joining locals for a glass from the wine selection in the tiny downstairs bar, or, in summer, at a table on campo Erbaria outside, with its superb Grand Canal view. Order a bottle and a plate of good cicchetti and you're in aperitivo heaven.
Caffè del Doge
Caffè del Doge opened in the 1990s, giving Venetians their first chance to get their caffeine fix in a bar where they could choose between different varieties, from Guatemalan Huehuetenango to Ethopian Yirgacheffe Abaya Lake. Take your pick to sample single blends or single plantation varieties. Their 'signature' blends are the milder arabica-robusta mix Doge Rosso and the stronger 100 per cent arabica Doge Nero. They also do a range of herbal teas and fresh fruit juices, and sell whole or ground coffee beans by weight.
There's hardly room to swing a squid in this compact bar, where aside from a few tables in the lane outside, it's standing room only. That doesn't put off the Venetian punters who crowd in for some of the best cicchetti in town, from baccalà mantecato (creamed salt cod) to crostini (mini-bruschettas) every which way. Wine is the beverage of choice, with a good selection of whites and reds, mostly from smaller producers in north-eastern Italy. The market traders who lunch here are hungry folk: by around 1.30pm they've hoovered up most of the food, so come early.
Contact: 00 39 041 520 5666; facebook.com
Opening times: May-Oct: Mon, Tue, Sat, 8am-3pm; Wed-Fri, 8am-7.30pm. Nov-Apr: Mon-Sat, 8am-3pm
In the early years of the third millennium this Rialto market area became a Venetian nightlife hub. This tiny hole-in-the wall bar has been here from the start, the default option for locals stuck for a place to meet. There's nowhere to stand except out in the square – so everyone does – winter and summer, drinking spritz (pay the extra €1 for the version with prosecco rather than still white wine) or one of several good wines by the glass, and munching on cicchetti. Among the latter, the lightly-fried polpettine (breadcrumbed morsels) of beef, tuna or aubergine stand out.
Contact: 00 39 346 8340660
Opening times: Mon-Sat 10am-2.30 pm, 6pm-9.30pm
Bacareto Da Lele
Lele's little bar is a Venetian institution. Students and boatmen stop off here on their way to or from work (often both) for a little 'ombra' (a small glass of wine), perhaps accompanied by one of their famous mini-panini, which come with simple, fresh fillings. They're not the only thing that's mini: with more than eight people standing in the elevator-sized interior, you're gasping for breath. Most punters spill outside. Prices are seriously low: a small glass of Chardonnay costs 60 cents, and you can have a good stand-up panino lunch here, with wine, for around €4 a head.
Contact: 00 39 347 8469728
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 6am-8pm; Sat, 6am-2pm
Giudecca & islands
Skyline Rooftop Bar
You may not be staying at the Hilton Molino Stucky, the hotel that dominates the western end of the Giudecca island. But it's worth heading here for a panoramic sundowner in the Skyline Rooftop Bar. The view from the outside terrace stretches across the whole of Venice and the southern lagoon. Drinks are pricey, but think of it as a view surcharge. It's worth reserving if you want a table with a view – the other advantage being that if you tell the driver you have a booking, you can take the free hotel shuttle boat from Zattere.
Getting in: Reservations essential
It's amazing what they turn out at this pint-sized kiosk on the waterfront Zattere promenade: not just cocktails, spritzes and fruit juices but also a range of hot and cold dishes, from mega-salads to piadine (a sort of flatbread pizza with delicious fillings). The best part though is the view from the outside tables (the only kind of table they have) across the Giudecca Canal, especially at sunset. Between May and September they do live blues and jazz concerts (check their Facebook page for dates). In the off-season, the owner tends to open only on sunny days.
Contact: 00 39 348 396 8466; facebook.com
Opening times: Mar-Nov: Daily, 8.30am-2am. Dec-Feb: Usually open on sunny days only
Campo Santa Margherita is the classic Venetian student nightlife hangout, and the Caffè Rosso – also known simply as 'Il Caffè' – is a campo classic. The mirrored interior, with its old-fashioned, still-functioning brass coffee machine, is boho-elegant. But most customers spill outside, occupying a pavement table or just standing around looking hip. But for all their trendsetter status they're also serious about quality, with a better-than-average selection of wines by the glass, including a deliciously grassy Cabernet Franc. Food consists mostly of tramezzini (sandwiches).
Contact: 00 39 041 528 7998; facebook.com
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 7am-1am
Cantinone - Già Schiavi
This ultra-traditional daytime wine bar just by the bridge that leads across to the church of San Trovaso is the sort of place you might pop in for a quick drink around 6pm and end up reeling out to dinner at closing time with a bunch of new friends. The clientele is a mix of Venetians, visitors, and bohemian ex-pat residents – including some of the pillars, and decorative frills, of the city's Anglo-American community. The good-value bar snacks and sandwiches are surprisingly gourmet – crostini (mini-bruschettas) might come topped with pistacchio cream, or ricotta, pesto and sun-dried tomato.
Osteria ai Pugni
This buzzing student bar by the 'bridge of the fists' (Ponte dei Pugni), where the average age can't be more than around 28, is a lively, friendly place to stop off for a drink if you're in the area, and prices are low. You can knock back a couple of glasses of wine, hoover up a bar snack or two – don't miss the polpette di melanzana, delicious aubergine balls in breadcrumbs – and still come away with change from €10 (£9). Occasional DJ sets and live rock and jazz sessions keep things loud, but even without them the joint is usually hopping.
Contact: 00 39 346 960 7785; facebook.com
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 8.30am-1am; Sun 10.30am-11pm
Osteria al Squero
This compact bar is across a canal from one of Venice's few remaining squeri, or gondola workshops. You can stand outside, cradling a glass of good wine while observing craftsmen working in the open-to-view boatyard. The other reason the place is worth visiting is because they take their wine and cicchetti seriously. They have some good mountain wines from Alto Adige and Friuli, and the owner seeks out hard-to-find cheeses, salamis and other treats from small organic producers, particularly in the Carnia region of Friuli. The crostini (mini-bruschettas) – pumpkin, porcini mushrooms and smoked ricotta, for example – are delicious.