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Discovering Italy's Veneto Region

© Marcello Cominetti

Departures leaves Venice to check out the best of the surrounding region—old and new.

The Veneto, the Italian regione of which Venice is the capital, stretches west from the Venetian lagoon to the shores of Lake Garda and north from the Po Valley Delta to the Dolomites’ chic ski resorts. A diverse region, it has natural splendor, historic cities like Padua and Verona, wineries that can compete with the best Tuscan and Piedmontese producers, authentic trattorias and some of the country’s best-regarded restaurants. It’s worth a week of anyone’s time, but visitors to Venice are often so focused on seeing the city that they miss out on the pleasures of the surrounding areas.

Thanks to local brands like Benetton and Luxottica, the Veneto is second only to Lombardy (the region centered around Milan) in its share of Italy’s export revenue. All the textile factories, precision-tool plants, industrial jewelers, hide tanneries and furniture manufacturers tend to mass along freeway corridors between economic hubs like Treviso and Mestre or Vicenza and Verona. Which is why, outside the well-preserved town centers, it’s important to know exactly where to go to seek out the best the Veneto has to offer. The following nine spots highlight some of the region’s quintessential places and experiences; some, like the Verona Opera and the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, are old favorites, but most are true finds, waiting to be discovered.

Opera + Cooking: Verona

The Arena di Verona Opera Festival (arena.it), held every summer in the city’s Roman amphitheater, is perhaps the best-known and best-loved open-air opera celebration in the world. Poltronissima Gold tickets, the front-center seats, sell for up to $255, but real aficionados go for the banked Poltroncina Numerata di Gradinata section ($120–$135). Even the side-view Gradinata Laterale seats ($95–$110), where the press sits, are decent. Umbrellas are frowned upon, so bring a raincoat if bad weather is predicted.

In Italy, cooking schools sprout like porcini mushrooms, but few have the credentials of Cooking with Giuliano Hazan. The son of Marcella, doyenne of la cucina italiana, Hazan is a fine chef in his own right, and his weeklong courses, which take place at Villa Giona, a 16th-century estate a few miles north of Verona, emphasize fresh and simple Italian cuisine. In the morning, participants—at most 12 per course—shop at Padua’s produce market or visit artisanal Parmesan makers and culatello ham curers; afternoons are given over to hands-on lessons. In addition, Marilisa Allegrini, a top Valpolicella producer, offers wine tutorials. Courses start at $4,695, including six nights’ accommodation and all meals; giulianohazan.com.

Cucina Grande: Pedemonte + Rubano

The Veneto’s strong culinary traditions and relative affluence have made it one of the top regions in Italy for gourmet restaurants. The best tend to be in the country, within an easy drive from the main cities. In Pedemonte, outside Verona, the hotel Villa del Quar, a converted 16th-century manor, has the Michelin two-star Ristorante Arquade (dinner, from $120; 12 Via Quar; 39-045/680-0681; hotelvilladelquar.it), where chef Massimo Sola creates complex dishes like seared tuna and eggplant in a raspberry-mint vinaigrette with cinnamon-scented burrata. Near Padua, in the town of Rubano, Le Calandre (dinner, from $160; 1 Via Liguria, Località Sarmeola; 39-049/630-303; calandre.com) is one of only six restaurants in the country to have earned three Michelin stars. Chef Massimiliano Alajmo’s adventurous dishes, like cappuccino di seppie al nero—cuttlefish stewed in their own ink, served in a transparent cappuccino glass with a top layer of potato purée—are much more than party tricks. This is contemporary Veneto cuisine at its finest.

Giotto’s Masterpiece: Padua

Painted between 1303 and 1305, Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus, are some of the strongest examples of early narrative painting in Italy, if not the world. Since 2002, when an intensive restoration was completed, the chapel can only be viewed at set times by advance booking—though outside peak times (weekends in spring, early summer and autumn), walk-ins rarely have to wait more than an hour. Each reservation gives visitors only 15 minutes with the frescoes, so those who want more Giotto face time should sign up for a double slot. At 8 Piazza Eremitani; cappelladegliscrovegni.it.

Tiepolo Frescoes: Vicenza

Palladio’s Villa Rotonda may take the prize for architecture, but for sheer art, neighboring Villa Valmarana ai Nani wins hands down. Here, in 1757, Count Giustino Valmarana commissioned Giambattista Tiepolo and his son Giandomenico to decorate the walls. The father frescoed the main Palazzina with stories of classical and chivalric heroes, while in the adjacent guesthouse, the Foresteria, the son created a series of rustic and carnival scenes. The current owner, Carolina Valmarana, offers tours of the property and even lets out two stylish apartments—a one-bedroom and a three-bedroom—for short-term stays. $ Apartments start at $1,300 per week; 39-04/4432-1803; villavalmarana.com; villavalmaranaflats.com.

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Grappa Tasting: Bassano del Grappa

About 50 miles northwest of Venice, the ancient walled town of Bassano del Grappa is home to two of Italy’s finest grappa distilleries. At the downtown end of the iconic Ponte degli Alpini, an elegantly rustic wood bridge over the Brenta River, locals crowd into the historic spit-and-sawdust bar run by one of those producers, Nardini (nardini.it). The other, Poli ($ poligrappa.com), offers tastings in a much sleeker space nearby, on the corner of Via Gamba and Via Menarola. Most grappa connoisseurs would rate Poli over Nardini, though in Bassano itself, Poli’s single-varietal, barrique-aged spirits are considered a bit fancy.

Boutique Luxe: Treviso

Just 25 miles north of Venice, the town of Treviso is infrequently visited by tourists, who mainly know it as a low-cost-airline hub. Located in the centro storico, the stylish guesthouse Maison Matilda is the perfect base from which to explore the many charms of the town, such as the church of San Nicolò, home to one of the Veneto’s most important fresco cycles painted by Tommaso da Modena in 1352. Antique and contemporary furnishings outfit tasteful communal spaces and six smartly appointed bedrooms. Designer Luca Rossire’s coolly elegant palette of violets, creams and charcoals is balanced by the warm welcome from owner Elena Cinel. Rooms start at $315. At 44 Via Riccati; 39-04/2258-2212; maisonmatilda.com.

Country Trattorias: San Giorgio + Asolo

The cuisine of the Veneto reflects the region’s varied terrain, and every area has its specialties, from Adriatic seafood to delicate Vialone Nano rice to hearty mountain polentas. Nowhere are these culinary traditions better sampled than at the Veneto’s finest trattorias. In the tiny village of San Giorgio di Valpolicella, roughly 15 miles northwest of Verona, the Dalla Rosa family has been running one such spot, Dalla Rosa Alda (dinner, from $50; 4 Strada Garibaldi; 39-045/770-1018; dallarosalda.it), for more than a century. The menu features local dishes like tagliatelle enbogoné (in a red bean sauce) and beef braised in Amarone, and the wine list, with its selection of Amarones and Valpolicellas dating back to 1959, is worthy of a much grander establishment. In pretty Asolo, about 35 miles north of Padua, Ca’ Derton (dinner, from $65; 11 Piazza D’Annunzio; 39-04/2352-9648; caderton.com) offers classic renditions of regional recipes like bigoli (thick spaghetti) in duck sauce and baccalà (salt cod) alla vicentina.

Canova Sculptures: Possagno

One prominent architectural historian recently described the sculptures of 18th-century artist Antonio Canova as “perfect—and vacant,” but the Museo Canova in Possagno, near Asolo, restores life and even some unintended humor to his neoclassical gods, goddesses, emperors and presidents (including George Washington in ancient Roman garb). Dating back to the 1830s, the luminous gallery mostly displays Canova’s plaster-cast models, though there are ten finished pieces in marble as well. The models are freckled with iron pins that were used as pivots for the special compass the artist used to map out their proportions. The spots look like measles, helping to humanize Canova’s cold, white archetypes. At 74 Via Canova; 39-04/2354-4323; museocanova.it.

Great Outdoors: Cortina d’Ampezzo

Originally from Patagonia, Agustina Lagos Marmol has lived in the Dolomite Mountains for 16 years. The former Butterfield & Robinson guide has always been an avid outdoorswoman, and last year she started her own company, Dolomite Mountains, which leads trips throughout the seasons. In warmer months there’s hiking, climbing and biking; in winter the focus is on skiing (including backcountry routes), snowboarding and snowshoeing. Not solely for athletic types, all the itineraries can be customized to match the desired level of intensity. From $1,825; 347-826-6271; dolomitemountains.com.

Treasure Trove

Hidden among the anonymous office parks on the southwestern edge of Vicenza, Bottega Veneta’s outlet offers discounts of 55 percent or more on its previous year’s stock, and even on some newer items. Stop by in February or September for the freshest selection. At 15 Viale della Scienza; 39-04/4439-6504.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.