Harry’s Bar in Venice: the incredible story of an iconic place 

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Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Laura Teso

I’m sure many of you have already heard of Harry’s Bar in Venice. It’s so iconic that in 2001 Harry’s Bar in Venice was declared a national heritage site by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage. It’s the only venue in Italy to have received such recognition in the last 100 years. 

But are you also familiar with its peculiar story? Well, let me fill that gap. 

Harry’s Bar in Venice

The story begins in Venice with Giuseppe Cipriani. In the 1920s he was a barman at the Hotel Europa. Today the beautiful Venetian Gothic building, overlooking the Grand Canal, is not a hotel anymore. Instead, it’s the seat of the Venice Biennale. 

Anyways, his dream was to open his own place in Venice and so he was saving money for this goal. But something, or better, someone got in the way. At the hotel there were two wealthy guests from Boston, Harry Pickering and his aunt. They had a huge argument over Harry’s drinking habit. As a result, the aunt left the nephew in Venice without a penny

Feeling sorry for him, Giuseppe Cipriani resolved to lend Harry 10.000 lire to pay for his stay and fly back to the US. A huge sum at the time, especially for a barman (about 9,000 dollars now). And a big part of the savings destined to his dream. 

What happened next? Nothing for 2 years (according to some versions, even 5 years). Then, Harry got back to Venice and paid off his debt. In addition, he gave Giuseppe extra 40.000 lire to thank him for his generosity. It was enough to open his own bar.  Giuseppe immediately started searching for the perfect place. He found a former cordage warehouse not far from Piazza San Marco. And what did he call it? Harry’s Bar of course. It was May 1931

The success of Harry’s Bar in Venice

The place served both as a bar and a restaurant. The success was almost immediate, especially among intellectuals and celebrities, such as orchestra director Arturo Toscanini, painter and sculptor Georges Braque, art collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim, writer Truman Capote, opera singer Maria Callas, actors and directors Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.

The reason for this popularity was the relaxed atmosphere it offered, as opposed to the formal one people used to find at the time in the hotel’s bar. 

Problems during fascism and World War 2

Fascist authorities were suspicious of Harry’s Bar client base. They considered it a meeting point for Jews and homosexuals. In 1938 the regime issued the racial laws and gave orders to display in every shop and venue a sign that said Jews cannot enter. Cipriani hung it on the kitchen door. So basically just the staff could actually see it. 

Later, during World War II, authorities confiscated the bar, transforming it into a canteen for naval soldiers. Finally, at the end of the war, Harry’s Bar resumed its regular activity. 

Ernest Hemingway

American writer Ernest Hemingway became a regular customer during the winter between 1949 and 1950. So much so that he became a very good friend of Giuseppe Cirpiani. He even had his exclusive personal table. At the time he was writing the novel “Across the River and Into the Trees”. In fact, he mentions Harry’s Bar several times in the book.  

Harry’s Bar creations

Giuseppe Cipriani invented several original recipes during his management years. The two most famous ones are surely the Bellini cocktail, a sparkling drink made of Prosecco wine and white peaches puree, and the Carpaccio, a cold dish with very thin slices of raw beef sirloin topped with a tasty sauce.

Locanda Cipriani, Torcello

During a trip to Torcello island, Giuseppe Cipriani fell madly in love with the island. So he decided to buy and restore an old tavern. He transformed it into a small hotel with a restaurant and called it Locanda Cipriani (locanda means inn). As with Harry’s Bar, the inn was an incredible success among celebrities and aristocrats (including Queen Elizabeth).

Giiuseppe managed the inn and Harry’s Bar until his death in 1980. At that point, Harry’s Bar passed to his son Arrigo, while the inn to his daughter Carla, wife of the director Tinto Brass, who managed it for a few years before giving way to his son Bonifacio. After 40 years, in 2023 Bonifacio sold the place to Giuseppe Cipriani, grandson and namesake of his grandfather.

Hotel Cipriani 

Well yes, Giuseppe also opened a hotel. Or rather, two. The first one on the island of Giudecca. It happened in 1958, together with the three daughters of the Earl of Iveagh, Rupert Guinness (yes, the one of the beer factory). Needless to say, the hotel was another success. 

So much so that Count Guinness asked Giuseppe to rebuild and manage a hotel on his property in Asolo. It’s a beautiful hotel and every time I pass by Asolo, one of my all-time favorite villages, I look from the outside dreaming of staying there.

Over the years, the Cipriani hotel on the Giudecca grew in size, and was then purchased in 1976 by the company which years later was rebranded as Belmond Ltd. In fact, the hotel is now called Belmond Hotel Cipriani.

Cipriani International brand

In short, over the years Cipriani has become an international hospitality brand, with restaurants, hotels and clubs in many cities all over the world, including Miami, Los Angeles, Dubai, Hong Kong, Ibiza, Mexico City.

Casa Cipriani in New York and Milan

In 2022 the group opened Casa Cipriani, a boutique hotel and a member club in Manhattan. The chosen place, the Battery Maritime Building, dates back to 1909. It was the old terminal of the Brooklyn – Manhattan ferries. Carefully restored, it features 47 rooms with amazing views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. On the fifth floor, there’s the club with restaurants, lounges and cafés. Additionally there is a spa and a fitness center. Same thing for Casa Cipriani in Milan. 15 rooms and an exclusive club inside Palazzo Bernasconi, a twentieth-century building overlooking one of the oldest parks in the city. 

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