Stroll along under the arches of Procuratie Nueve, bordering Sankt Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, preferably at dusk, and you will be drawn in by live piano music and soft, flattering lights shining out of art deco windows. You have arrived at the legendary Caffe Florian, the world’s oldest cafe in operation since it was founded in 1720 by Floriano Francesconi.
Originally named Alla Venezia Trionfante (Triumph of Venice), the locals quickly took to calling it Florian after the founder. In the early days, the cafe consisted of just two furnished, windowless rooms, which were expanded to four in 1750 because it became a popular venue in Venice, not least because it was the only cafe that allowed women at the time.
Florian soon became a glamorous meeting place and was frequented by such celebrities as playwright Goldoni, Goethe, Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, and, of course, because of the ladies, legendary Casanova. Later, big names included Coco Chanel, Andy Warhol, and an array of movie stars. Ask for the guest book to see all the dedications and names.
In 1858, celebrated architect Lodovico Cadorin was commissioned with a total renovation of the premises, resulting in several more rooms (and windows, of course), all with different names and themes. More were added to reach the present form of eight halls. The emphasis was and is on art, style, and Venetian traditions.
Enter and take your time to explore all the halls and the rich decorations. Sala del Senato includes the painting The Age of Enlightenment and 11 painted wall panels; Sala Cinese and Sala Orientale include Asian artwork; Sala degli Uomini Illustry includes portraits of 10 famous Venetians; Sala delle Stagioni, or the Hall of the Seasons, includes paintings of four women representing the seasons; Sala degli Specchi is the Hall of Mirrors, and Sala Liberti is in an Art Deco style.
When you have ohh-ed and ahh-ed enough, choose a table, either in one of the halls or on the terrace outside, and dedicate your attention to the menu. Caffe Florian offers two different menus, one at the table and one at the counter.
Your food is served exclusively on silver trays. Coffee and tea come with delicate cups and saucers. Caffe Florian pays attention to every tiny detail. You could start the day with a mouth-watering Doge’s Breakfast or have coffees, teas, and a spritz plus hot and cold delicacies throughout the day and a big part of the night. For their selection, see the Florian Moments.
Talking about the night: during Carnival, Caffe Florian displays its full magic when the lavishly costumed “masks” stroll in. Sit down, and the champagne flows all night long with the occasional hot chocolate, macarons, homemade tiramisu, or Zaletti biscuits in between. You truly feel like you have traveled back in time to the glory days of Venice during Renaissance.
Pro Tip: If you want to blend in, you don’t need to rent a rather expensive costume. Just buy a sequined or black lace mask, a black satin cloak, and a feathered headband and enjoy yourself. During Carnival, these items are sold either in specialized shops or at stalls on Rialto Bridge or Sankt Mark’s Square, and they don’t cost much.
Many of the masks you see parading up and down the streets all day long or attending the famous Flight of the Angel are locals who often keep their precious costumes for generations. Quite a few, though, are professionals who will pose for your Instagram photo for a fee. Make sure to ask before you take your pictures.
Outside Carnival, Caffe Florian is a marvelous, although quite expensive, experience. Their teas with flowers are as good as their hot or iced coffees, and the sandwiches are delicious. You are charged a cover fee because of the music, and a coffee can set you back 6 euros. I prefer to sit inside because the chairs are much more comfortable than the wooden ones without a cushion outside, and I love to look at all the magnificent art around me.
Naturally, you can also buy products to take home with you, plus two richly illustrated coffee table books.
Caffe Florian is Venetian to its core, having been owned by members of the founder’s family for generations. But fame spreads, and that has led to locations in the same style in Florence, Italy, and, with a more modern design, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The traditional recipes, however, have been imported, but you’ll miss the carnival atmosphere that is so quintessentially Caffe Florian and Venice.