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The appeal of the Venice Biennale is now so powerful that the event has officially outgrown its name. The exhibition, which drew more than 100,000 visitors last year, is so popular that organizers have made it an annual event. A contemporary art show is still staged in odd-numbered years, and the Venice Biennale of Architecture, which begins this week, now takes place in even ones.
Many of this season's exhibitions and pavilions will focus on sustainable building, including an off-site symposium on rethinking energy sources. The built environment is an appropriate theme for Venice, since the city is undergoing a resurgence as new hotels, museums, and stores emerge in deftly retrofitted historic buildings. In preparation for the festival, which runs through Nov. 21, here's what to see, where to go, and who to talk about.
According to architect Rem Koolhaas, the terrace of il Fondaco dei Tedeschi (Piazza San Marco 5554) "offers views of the Grand Canal and Rialto and serves as a rare vantage point for Venice's dense roofscape."
A reservation at the 15-table Osteria Alle Testiere (Sestiere Castello 5801) is one of the toughest in town. Many curators book weeks in advance.
On Sunday mornings, locals cram into Pasticceria Tonolo (Sestiere Dorsoduro 3764), a veritable museum of pastry open since 1953. Art savants know this is the place to go for cream-filled donuts, or krafen.
Venice's former Customs House, Punta della Dogana (Dorsoduro 2), has been transformed by architect Tadao Ando into a museum for the vast art collection of luxury-goods mogul François Pinault. The museum will stay open after hours from Sept. 2-6.
This year's Biennale directer, Pritzker Prize winner Kazuyo Sejima of Japan, cites 9th century San Zaccaria Church (Castello, Campo San Zaccaria)—and its Bellini Madonna and Child—as one her favorite spots. "When I am working," she says, "I have lunch or dinner at Corte Sconta (Calle del Pestrin 3886), with its inside-outside space, mix of locals and attendees, and excellent food."
Luca Molinari, the curator for the Italian pavilion is a fan of the late Venetian design impresario Carlo Scarpa and his influence. See Scarpa's modern touch in the garden at Fondazione Querini Stampalia (Campo Santa Maria Formosa Castello 5252) as well as fragments of his pavilion in the Biennale's Giardini. After hours, Molinari joins Biennale insiders at Osteria ai Quattro Ferri (Campo San Barnaba 2754/b) in the arty Dorsoduro neighborhood.
The Audi Urban Future Award honors young designers for their bold takes on creating a sustainable future (below, "The Travel Belt Bubbles" by Beijing-based Standardarchitecture). The location where it's awarded is a must-see. The 14th century Scuola Grande della Misericordia (Cannaregio 3599/a) exemplifies Venice's urban reinvention.
A "Venice Connected" card (about $75 at veniceconnected.com) gives you unlimited public transportation on boats as well as discounts at key museums like the Murano Glass Museum.
The Danish pavilion is chockablock with models from master designers—including Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Jean Nouvel—in an exhibit that looks to Copenhagen as a model for sustainable urban development.
The best place to rest one's feet during a day of browsing is at the psychedelic 2009 Tobias Rehberger- designed bar inside Giardini's Palazzo delle Esposizioni.
Leave the overpriced gondolas to camera-toting tourists. Instead, catch a traghetto, the gondola ferries that cross the Grand Canal for as little as a euro.
Rwanda and Iran are among six new participants this year. (There are 43 in all.) Don't expect controversial subject matter, though. Sophisticated jewelry designs are the focus of Atelier Rwanda, while Iran's pavilion (above) is devoted to the Persian garden and its paradisiac metaphor.
The new Palazzina Grassi (San Marco 3247), with 26 rooms, set between two palazzi from the 15th and 16th centuries, is designer Phillipe Starck's first foray into Italy. The hotel is tucked behind the Grassi museum not far from San Marco. It's the perfect jumping-off point for sightseeing.