Whilst many claim that mass tourism has turned the merchant city of Venice into little more than an European museum, our expert on Italy, Alice Mulhearn, has a different story to tell…
Nowhere on earth is as still as Venice at night. No street vendors, no tourists, no sound – only the occasional splashing of oars in a canal. Some nights, the acqua alta siren breaks the stillness. Slow and melodic, it warns of an incoming high tide. A few hours later and the city is submerged.
Ethereal, brooding and lonely, the streets of Venice echo a history that spans a millennium. It is the story of how a swampy lagoon – inhabited first by a group of refugees turned fishermen – was transformed into one of the richest trading powers in the world. Yet, for all her history, Venice is not a museum (or a mausoleum, as some commentators might see it). Within this labyrinth of narrow bridges, cramped courtyards, twisting canals and shuttered squares, is a living, breathing city.
And the wonderful thing is that the Venice of the Venetians is not at all difficult to find. You’ll stumble across slivers of this real Venice in a quiet side street in Dorsoduro, or within the crowds huddling round the fishmonger’s boat in Cannaregio or, without fail, in the stillness of Piazza San Marco at midnight.
Best of the Beaten Track
First off, don’t expect to see the whole of Venice in a weekend. This is a city made up of 450 bridges, 120 islands and a maze of narrow, twisting streets (according to Jan Morris, mere decades ago you could find Venetians who’d lived in the same ward their whole life and never travelled to St Mark’s square). Speaking of which, make this grand piazza your first stop. Bordered on the East by the façade of St Mark’s, it’s changed little during the 1000 years of its existence, and whether crowded with people in the height of summer, flooded in high tide, or silent in the moonlight, it is always magic.
Once you’ve had your fill of the orchestras and pigeons battling it out in the square, climb up the Campanile. Rebuilt in 1912 after it collapsed unexpectedly (amazingly, killing nobody bar the caretaker’s cat), the bell tower offers a breathtaking view of the clustered roofs of Venice. If there’s not too much of a queue, visit the Basilica, if only for the glittering mosaics that line the inside of her five grandiose domes.
Next, follow the yellow signs to Rialto. While the bridge is impressive, the fish and vegetable market tucked away to its side is far more interesting. Bustling with chefs and old Venetian housewives, it’s awash with colour, noise and the smell of the sea. From here you can hop on the tragetto – a gondola that will ferry you across the Grand Canal for the princely sum of 50 cents.
In a city like Venice, where almost every home is rendered fascinating by the remains of ancient arches and windows juxtaposed with flowery window boxes and strings of washing, there’s little scope for galleries and museums. However, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is an exception. Regarded as the best place in Italy to see twentieth century art, the bright and modern museum offers a welcome respite from Venice’s tangled streets.
Dusk in Venice is best seen from the Lagoon – the perfect excuse for an afternoon trip to some of the city’s closest islands. The glass-making mecca of Murano is the most popular, but Burano is also well worth a visit. Known for its lace production, this colourful isle is the perfect spot to watch the sun set over La Serenissima.
Thomas Mann once described Venice as ‘part fairy-tale, part tourist trap’. Yet, for all the crowds and souvenir shops, Venice is still a living and working city. From the laundry-lined streets of Castello to the bustling markets at Rialto, you can glean a picture of real Venice if you look hard enough.
A good place to start is the Ghetto. Break away from the bustling Strada Nuova and within five minutes you’ll find yourself inside Europe’s oldest Jewish ghetto. With its distinctive tall buildings, quiet courtyards and fantastic Jewish museum, it offers a fascinating slice of Venetian history, while being mercifully free of tourists. Before venturing back towards the city’s clogged streets, cross Ponte delle Guglie and head towards Parco Savorgnan – a shady park that’s frequented only by Venetians, their children, and the city’s cats.
No trip to Venice is complete without a boat ride out to one or two of her islands. Murano and Burano are the most visited, but Torcello is arguably the most enchanting. Once the most importing trading centre in the Adriatic, this dishevelled island now has a population of 11. The main sites are huddled around one square, including the Byzantine cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the Museo di Torcello. After you’ve trekked up the cathedral’s bell tower (well worth it for views over the island lagoon), walk past green meadows to Taverna Tipica Veneziana. Feast on fritto misto out of edible bread bowls, before catching the vaporetto back to Venice.
Experience & Events
Tucked away from Venice’s narrow streets lies dozens of lush green gardens. Gardener and author Tudy Sammartini offers tours of these secret gardens, painting the city’s history through stories of lilac and lavender. For a different view of the city, book yourself onto a kayak tour. Venice Kayak offer evening tours, giving visitors the chance to paddle through the unlit canals of the city – an unforgettable, if slightly eery, experience.
Venice is famed for her winter Carnivale, but the real party happens in July, during the Festa del Redentore. Intended as a feast to mark the end of a plague that ravaged Venice in 1577, the weekend festival is still a religious celebration – but with plenty of pyrotechnics and prosecco thrown into the mix. Do as the Venetians do on Saturday evening, and watch the fireworks from a waterside restaurant or onboard a boat in St Mark’s Basin. Steer clear of the Grand Canal after the show though, lest you be stuck in the world’s worst water traffic jam.
You can’t move for hotels in Venice, whether it’s a cosy room in the eaves of a B&B or a suite in a waterfront palazzo, there’s something for everybody. For those on a budget, you can’t get better than Generator Hostel. This newly renovated warehouse on Guidecca island is clean, hip, and best of all, unbelievably cheap. The only minus is that getting there by the €7 per ride vaporetto is expensive – something to factor into your budget. If you’re after the perfect hotel for that romantic getaway, look no further than Cima Rosa. Tucked away in the quiet streets of Santa Croce, this 15th century palazzo turned boutique B&B offers enough style and luxury to rival the Danieli, but with a far smaller price tag. If you’re after something all together more simple, perhaps a stay at the San Giorgio Maggiore monastery might be up your street. You pay the monks whatever you can afford, and in return you get to stay in a 16th century monastery with views towards St Mark’s.
Any winter traveller to Venice will know there are times when the fog rises from the canals and the damp sticks to your bones. These are the days for real Venetian cuisine. Eat the mozzarella in carrozza and baccalà mantecato at cheap and cheerful Gislon. For the best Venetian street food, stop off at Frito Inn on Strada Nuova and pick up a cone of unbelievably delicious fried vegetables. Not forgetting some seriously delicious Venetian biscotti from the legendary Pasticceria Rosa Salva in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Osteria al Diavolo e L’acquasanta (‘The Devil and the Holy Water’) is located near the grandiose Rialto bridge and is the favourite watering hole of the city’s gondoliers, who can usually be found eating nervetti, or calf’s tendon, at the bar. For something a bit more refined, book a table at Pensione Calcine. With incredible views over the Giudecca Canal, this is a must for those balmy Venetian nights.
There can’t be a better place for a bar crawl than Venice. The Venetians even have their own term for it – un giro d’ombra. Like the tapas bars of Spain, the city’s bàcari offer small glasses of wine and plenty of tasty cicchetti, from fat balls of deep fried mozzarella to crispy battered seafood. The bright, young things of Venice can all be found in Campo Santa Margherita, drinking spritz and grazing on polpette. Join them at Caffè Rosso or Caffè Margaret Duchamp for some of the best cocktails in town. Not to be missed is Paradiso Perduto in Cannaregio. It’s the sort of place that serves their spritz with an olive and a side of jazz. As well as putting on regular live music, the white-bearded owner and chef ensures there’s always a plentiful supply of cicchetti atop the bar. While drinking starts early here (a 9am glass of grappa is perfectly acceptable), most bars close by midnight. So anybody looking for a club will have to make do with the slightly tamer jazz variety, or head to the mainland.
Getting There & Around
While travelling to Venice on the Orient Express remains an unrealistic option for most of us, it’s still possible to bag affordable train tickets from London to La Serenissima (fares from London start at £100). For those after a slightly speedier option, all the major airlines fly to Marco Polo airport. From there you can take either a bus or ferry into the city. Once in town you can walk to most places, although some islands are not linked by a bridge and only accessible via the vaporetto, which carries an extortionate price (€7 single) for foreigners. Check if your hotel is on such an island and budget accordingly. One option is to buy an unlimited journey travel card, which for three days costs €40. If your plan on taking in more of Italy, there is a direct train to Verona that takes less than an hour, whilst Milan, Bologna and Florence are also nearby, whereas the high speed train can get you to Rome in just over three hours.
There are various blogs about Venice life (mostly written by expats) that can help orient you in the city, but one that I particularly is The Venice Experience – essential reading for discovering those bits of the city that most people miss. For information on everything from the city’s (limited) wifi hotspots to the latest exhibitions, visit Turismo Venezia.
There is only one book you need to read before a trip to La Serenissima, and that is Venice by Jan Morris. Originally published 60 years ago, nothing written before nor after has so accurately – and eloquently – captured the history, character and magic of this city. It’s also wise to read Watermark by Russian poet Joseph Brodsky during your trip, if only for his wonderful descriptions of Venice in the depths of winter.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Venice has been host to a string of films over the past century, some more forgettable than others. One of the most interesting, however, is The Comfort of Strangers – an eery film based on Ian McEwan’s novella. Starring Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson, the movie sets out to draw the viewer into the dark and narrow streets of Venice. Featuring a similarly unsettling theme, Don’t Look Now is another must-see movie that masterfully illustrates the claustrophobic nature of the city.