The visual riches of this legendary city have long dazzled travelers. Now it entices with outstanding contemporary art. Here, ELLE DECOR’s guide to making the most out of your trip to the dreamy city.

THE BASILICA OF SANTA MARIA DELLA SALUTE, AS SEEN FROM THE LAGOON.

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The funeral procession navigated the weekday-morning traffic, passing amid construction workers, housepainters, taxi drivers, a fire brigade. But because this is Venice, the hearses were ornate black-painted gondolas and the taxis were sleek teak-lined motorboats—as were the fire engines (painted red, of course), put-putting along the algae-green water of the Grand Canal. Surely this is the only city in the world where the morning rush hour parades such an unhurried spectacle.

OSTERIA OLIVA NERA.

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Yet more than ever, the ancient fantasy city—”lovely as a dream or a fairy tale,” as Mary McCarthy wrote in her 1956 book, Venice Observed—is accelerating with new life, due in large part to an explosive contemporary art scene. The Venice Biennale, which debuted in 1895, is now an enormous international affair involving 88 countries, with art installations presented far beyond the confines of the traditional exhibition spaces in the Giardini and nearby Arsenale.

LE STANZE DEL VETRO, A CONTEMPORARY GLASS MUSEUM

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Last year’s most memorable (and controversial) piece was Marc Quinn’s 36-foot-high inflatable lavender sculpture of the naked, pregnant artist Alison Lapper, who was born without arms, occupying a church’s piazza on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Meanwhile, this year the 14th edition of Venice’s Architecture Biennale brings another striking installation to San Giorgio Maggiore: Hiroshi Sugimoto’s serene glass teahouse built on stilts above an azure-tiled pool, a collaboration with Le Stanze del Vetro, the Annabelle Selldorf–designed museum devoted to modern and contemporary glass that opened in 2012.

FONDAZIONE PRADA

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Historic buildings, especially Renaissance palazzi, it turns out, make sensational contemporary exhibition spaces, thanks to good bones—and deep pockets. French businessman François Pinault commissioned the great Japanese architect Tadao Ando to transform the Punta della Dogana, a 17th-century customs house, into a gleaming museum to showcase his cutting-edge collection. Fashion designer Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, followed suit, enlisting Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architectural theorist, to turn another Venice gem, the Baroque 18th-century Ca’ Corner della Regina, into a gallery to rival anything in New York’s Chelsea.

THE GALLERY NAPÉ DI FILIPPO GAMBARDELLA

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“There’s an overwhelming pendulum swing toward the contemporary, with concerts, lectures, conferences, and book presentations,” says Philip Rylands, director of Venice’s Peggy Guggenheim Collection. “The great geniuses Bellini and Tintoretto are now footnotes.”

BEVILACQUA FABRIC SHOP

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Rylands, an Englishman who has lived in Venice for four decades, oversees a revered permanent collection of modern art as well as a rotating roster of compelling exhibitions. (A sometimes-racy show of surrealist art closes August 31; next up is one on midcentury experimental art, opening at the end of this month.) But Rylands is quick to point out that the frenzy for contemporary art “is quite healthy. It means the city has a future. We’re fully participating in that.”

MARINA AND SUSANNA SENT’S MURANO GLASS GALLERY

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Rylands is, of course, joking about the old “footnotes,” which never go out of fashion. Artist Jeff Koons is a voracious collector of Old Masters (Bernini, for one, informs his latest sculptures), and auction houses are seeing record sales for centuries-old works. In Venice, you don’t even have to go to a museum to see a masterpiece. Just pop into any one of the city’s 100-plus churches. Inside the plain-brick Chiesa Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (i Frari, locals call it), which was completed in the 1400s, moving works by Bellini and Canova join Titian masterworks, including the towering Assumption of the Virgin, which hangs above the altar. “Titian himself decided the position of his painting, so that it could be seen from the door of the church, through the arch of the choir, which is like a frame,” says Venetian glass scholar Rosa Barovier of her favorite church.

THE TERRACE AT THE AMAN CANAL GRANDE VENICE HOTEL

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And for just a few euros, you can gain admission to the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, the intimate, dimly lit two-story building that holds Vittore Carpaccio’s radiant series of paintings, commissioned in 1502, that pays homage to the center’s founding Dalmatian patron saints, George (with his dragon), Tryphone, and Jerome. Because everyone is on foot, it’s easy to take in the many pleasures of this picturesque city—the footbridges and quiet squares, rooftop gardens and fluttering laundry, fanciful architecture and luxe boutiques, ice cream shops and cafés. “Have more wine,” a debonair waiter at Harry’s Bar urges. “You don’t have to drive in Venice.”

A SUITE AT THE GRITTI PALACE HOTEL

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Designer Chuck Chewning, the New York–based creative director of the fabric and furniture company Donghia, visited Venice 14 times in 2012 alone, overseeing the dazzling renovation of the fabled Gritti Palace hotel. He recalls savoring his daily walks, especially during the month of November: “Most of the tourists have left, and that’s when the fog rolls in—it’s otherworldly.”

SIMON WATSON

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“It’s an imperial city, but the human dimension of Venice is very strong,” says Rylands, whose 10-minute walk to the Guggenheim from his San Marco neighborhood can take him a half hour. “You meet people, you stop for coffee. It’s a city of no stress. When I first came to Venice, the pace seemed slow. Now I realize it’s very civilized.”
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