Hollywood and Venice: A love story

Explore the backstreets and backlots of one of Hollywood’s favourite film location.

More so than Los Angeles, New York and London, there is one city above all others that film producers, directors and location scouts depend on: Venice.

The city’s good looks have provided the backdrop to some of the world’s most popular movies and blockbuster franchises; there is a high concentration of glitzy hotels and seductive restaurants, making it a firm favourite with movie stars; and the city is home to the world’s oldest film festival, taking place from 28 August to 7 September this year as part of the Venice Biennale. On top of all this, there is the Venetians’ near obsessive love affair with Hollywood.

There are dozens of film locations in the city, featured in both classics such as Death in Venice and Don’t Look Now, and contemporaries such as James Bond and Indiana Jones. But many of these locations are hard to pinpoint, so equip yourself with a reliable map and some sturdy walking shoes before heading out on a self-guided tour. If the skies are grey, make sure you also bring a set of Venetian galoshes, or plastic slip-over boots – notoriously, the city floods every year and the famous Piazza San Marco can sometime lie under 1.5m of water.

Start at the portico walkways that surround the iconic Piazza San Marco. Over the years, they have been used as a stage for Orson Welles in the 1952 version of Othello, Heath Ledger in Casanova ­– and by Venetians as a gigantic umbrella when it rains. The grand, elegant courtyards of the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica di San Marco still reflect the power of the Republic of Venice, but also the power of movie magic: they were used to stage important scenes in two classic James Bond films, 1963’s From Russia With Love and 1979’s Star Wars-influenced Moonraker. Caffè Florian, a contender for the world’s oldest coffee house, dating back to 1720, looks directly onto the square and was used by Katherine Hepburn in 1955’s Summertime and by Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. It does a brisk trade in cappuccinos and cafe lattes, and is perfect for a mid-morning pick-me up. As in the rest of Italy, you will save a few euros by standing at the counter, rather than sitting at a table.

Continue towards Campo di Santa Maria del Giglio, an area just west of the Piazza San Marco, where Woody Allen stalked Julia Roberts in the light-hearted comedy Everyone Says I Love You, then turn north to the theatre Teatro La Fenice and the nearby Ponte Maria Callas bridge, dedicated to American-born Greek opera singer Maria Callas who debuted at the theatre in 1947. Pass the Verona Canal, where gondolas effortlessly glide by, on your way to Campo Santo Stefano, a square that leads to a number of secretive Baroque courtyards and portico arches. Both Roger Moore and Daniel Craig played 007 here, the latter chasing Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in the dramatic closing scenes of Casino Royale.

A short 300m walk south takes you to the late 15th-century Palazzo Contarini Polignac, an early Renaissance marble palace located alongside the Accademia Palazzo Barbaro, a 17th-century Gothic palace on the Grand Canal that was used as the home of Lord Marchmain in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with Laurence Olivier. Cross the iconic Ponte della Academia to the hard-to-find Palazzo Contarini, another of the city’s enduring private palaces, where the 2004 version of The Merchant of Venice was filmed. This setting a classic example of why Venice works so well on screen: its dark, atmospheric courtyards and streets are perfectly suited as a stage for the wry Shakespearean dialogue between Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons.

Not far from the palazzo is Campo della Salute, one of the most recognisable squares in the city and where Steven Spielberg brought to life the third part of his Indiana Jones trilogy. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the San Barnaba church served as a more photogenic double for the exterior of the nearby Biblioteca di San, and after Harrison Ford descends to explore the catacombs, he then emerges from a manhole in the centre of the Campo della Salute for one of the film’s pivotal action sequences. A 1km walk south back along the promenade that fringes the Grand Canal brings you to the charming Hotel Palazzo Stern and its adjoining boathouse, where Mark Wahlberg and Jason Statham embarked on the explosive bank heist that kicked off their 2003 update of The Italian Job.

No trip to Venice is complete without crossing the Ponte di Rialto, located a further 1.5km along the canal. Thanks to its mix of vendors and unparalleled viewpoints, it should come as no surprise that the bridge has been the backdrop to numerous Hollywood flicks. Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie fooled around on it in The Tourist, and Joseph Fiennes fell into the water from it in The Merchant of Venice. Spend some exploring the surrounding bacaro (Venetian tavernas) that dot the neighbourhood, such as Al Pesador Osteria and Osteria Antica Dolo. If you use your imagination, you will also be able to place the two false buildings that were destroyed during the climatic finale of Casino Royale on the opposite side of the Grand Canal.

If you want to splurge like only a movie star can, stay at the luxurious Hotel Danieli, located next to the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs. It is made up of three historic palazzo, and both Depp and Jolie have stayed here. Alternatively, take a short gondola or ferry ride from the boat stations in front of the Palazzo Ducale, next to Piazza San Marco, to the Hotel Cipriani on Isola Della Guidecca. George Clooney regularly stays here and, even if you cannot afford the pricey room rates, it is worth popping in for an early evening cocktail at the Gabbiano Bar. When Clooney was in town to promote Good Night, and Good Luck, he popped behind the bar and created two cocktails: the vodka and cranberry concoction Buona Notte and the elderflower and passion fruit Nina’s Special, which he dedicated to his mum.

Clooney is not the only convert. Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Charlize Theron also stayed at the Cipriani; when Theron was in town for the Venice Film Festival she even persuaded the long-serving head barman Walter Bolzonella to conjure up her favourite pasta dish at 3 am after the kitchen closed. The luxury hotel is also notable for its Cips restaurant, where Daniel Craig parked his yacht in Casino Royale, and has unparalleled views across the lagoon to the Campanile, the bell tower that dominates central Venice.

If you want to share a changing room with some of these stars, then do not miss the hotel’s swimming pool, one of the few in the city and certainly the most extravagant, due to its size and unparalleled butler service.