The Lido – the Lido that gives its name to countless bathing establishments, bars, arcades and cinemas all over the world – is one of the long spits of land, or lidi, that form the protective outer barrier of the Lagoon.
For most of its history it was a wild sandy place, a place to go riding, as Lord Byron did daily to cure his urban claustrophobia, and a place to store the French Crusaders in 1202. Even in the 18th century, the only people who swam off the Lido were courtesans, whose lascivious beach parties were one of Venice’s tourist attractions.
In 1857, the first reputable bathing establishment was opened, and to the horror of precious aesthetes such as John Ruskin and Henry James, Venice began to attract seaside holidaymakers. It also soon began to draw in discrete gay visitors from abroad, including Baron Corvo, John Addington Symonds and Horatio Brown.
By the early 20th century seaside holidays on the Lido were the rage. On its 12km of beach, the world’s poets, potentates and plutocrats spent the halcyon days before the First World War in palatial hotels and villas, making the Lido the pinnacle of Belle Époque fashion, so brilliantly evoked in Thomas Mann’s novel and Visconti’s 1971 film version of Death in Venice, featuring the grandest hotels of them all: the Grand Hôtel des Bains (which later served as the set for the Cairo hotel in The English Patient, but has recently been converted into flats and villas) and the beach of the Excelsior Hotel (also used as a set in Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in America, and still a luxury hotel).
And even though families with their trunks and maids no longer descend on the Lido for the entire summer, it’s still a popular enough place, the playground of the Venetians and their visitors, where they can drive their cars, go riding, play tennis, parachute out of aeroplanes or play golf (when Hitler came to visit in the 1930s, Mussolini challenged him to a round and clobbered the Führer).
It is also expensive and overcrowded. The free beach, the Spiaggia Comunale, is on the north part of the island, a 15-minute walk from the vaporetto stop at San Nicolò (go down the Gran Viale and turn left on the Lungomare d’Annunzio), where you can hire a changing hut if you need one and frolic in the sand and sea.
Hire a bike to explore with Venice Bike Rental, Gran Viale S.Maria Elisabetta 79a, +39 041 526 1490.