This article is courtesy of my best friend and Italian soul sister Luna Bloom. If anyone knows Italy, she does!
Venice is one of those unique places in the world—there really is nothing like it, and while it’s not necessarily for everyone, for many it has a certain melancholy beauty that captivates. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Venice many times over the years, and every time I go back I’m reminded of its special-something that makes it a great destination, even if just for a couple of days. Summer is the busiest, and it can be very hot and humid in this part of Italy in July and August. In the winter you run the risk of some flooding (aqua alta). It’s actually interesting to see how people live through it but makes things more challenging. It can also be quite cold in the dead of winter, especially when the humidity is high, which it often is. Nonetheless, you will find the city can be almost empty outside of the peak summer season or around Carnival, and there is something really special about seeing it without masses of visitors—consider visiting in mid-or-late fall or even early spring to find great prices, few people, and Venice at its best.
There’s so much to see in Venice, but the best part is really just wandering around and getting a little lost (away from St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge, both of which are almost always mobbed with tourists). While you’re wandering, here are a few recommendations:
Bar Rialto da Lollo: This is the best sandwich joint in….well, maybe the whole world. It’s right off the Rialto Bridge, and you can get a quick coffee, beverage, aperitif, or panino made to order—it is very reasonably priced, especially considering the location. The tramezzini (little triangle white bread sandwiches with no crust that will typically be pre-made) are easy to grab-and-go and are super yummy. The bigger panini (which is Italian for sandwich…and doesn’t necessarily involve a press or toasting) cannot be missed. There’s one with fig and gorgonzola that I had this summer and am still dreaming about. The sandwich menu is on the side of the soda cooler, and you can take a quick seat to eat it or take it with you.
Going back to the aperitif, be sure to try a “spritz”—it’s a prosecco-based aperitif. Super refreshing, it is a Veneto original that is now a staple of Italian bar culture; you’ll notice everyone drinking bright orange drinks in big wine glasses—that’s a spritz. Usually, if you get one before dinner time (Italians eat late, so aperitif hour is at about 6pm), there will be snack foods at the bar they’ll serve with it—sometimes simple things like chips, but sometimes olives or little pizza slices. (If you find you don’t like the taste of the orange Aperol that’s added to the spritz, you can give a “spritz bianco” a try.)
On coffee drinks in bars (the “bar” in Italy is really a coffee shop where you can get any refreshment you’d like): “caffé” really means espresso. Italians drink it really concentrated so if you want it a little more watered you can order a “caffé lungo”—if you want a touch of milk you can order a “caffé macchiato” and if you want a little cold cream for your espresso, you can order a “caffé macchiato freddo.” If you want more American style coffee, you might find a place that has a “café Americano” or “café tedesco” (German-style coffee). In the mornings you will often see Italians drinking their morning cappuccino with a croissant—those are usually called “briosche” and my favorite is the “briosche alla marmelata,” which has apricot jam filling.
Keeping on the topic of food, be sure to try the Cantina Do Spade—it’s one of the oldest cantinas in Venice (if not the oldest) and is tucked away down a little alley behind the fish market (also not far from the Rialto Bridge). Here you can have some of the best “cichetti,” which is like Venitian tapas (but don’t call them tapas to a Venetian). The fried stuffed olives are soooo delicious, and are probably my favorite. You can sit and have a “piatto misto” of the various snack foods they have there. To save on the cover charge for sitting at a table, you can also get the finger foods to go—usually they’ll come in a paper cone for easy snacking while you walk around. Once you’ve seen the place, you’ll soon spot similar ones (often called a “rosticceria” or “cantina”) all over the city and usually it’s a safe bet for a quick bite of food. (A note about Italian pronunciation: c with a vowel makes a “ch” sound; ch makes a “k” sound; and gn is like the Spanish ñ. So “cicchetti” is pronounced “chickehti”. Bruschetta is “bruskehttah.”)
If you aren’t planning on coughing up 80+ euro for a gondola ride (or even if you are), do like the locals and take the gondola ferry (traghetto) across the canale grande—it costs a couple of euro, and the main one will take you right near the fish market. The ferry has been around for a long time. It’s an easy way to cross the canal when you’re not wanting to deal with the Rialto (which is always packed) and the other two bridges aren’t close (Ponte degli Scalzi (bridge of the barefoot), which is near the train station, and Ponte del Academia (named after the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia), which is the wooden one at the other end of the canal, closer to St. Marks).
A note about the Rialto Bridge–it has been undergoing restoration since this spring, so unfortunately, there isn’t much to see of it currently. I’m not sure when it’s supposed to be completed, but Italians are not known for their efficiency. Regardless, it’s typical for some site or another to be under restoration in the city—it’s been in continuous use since the 7th century AD so it takes some effort to maintain its treasures!
Going back to the fish market, there’s a fruit and veggie market right next to it, and is a great spot to get some fresh fruit in the morning for breakfast or to snack on throughout the day—there’s a water fountain along the side that’s furthest from the fish market, and you can wash all your fruit there.
Speaking of fountains, bring a reusable water bottle—there are fountains all over the place throughout Venice and the water is excellent!
Take a free walking tour—these are just as good at the ones you will pay 40-50 euro for, and are by donation to the guide. There’s a couple of groups that run these free tours, and I think they’re all pretty similar so it’s more about which times you’d prefer. Google will help you find one, but here are two: http://freetourvenice.com/ and http://venicefreewalkingtour.com/
It will cost you 8 euro to go up the clock tower in St. Mark’s. It’s worth the view of the lagoon, and though the line will probably be long, it moves fast.
If you like rooftop views, you could also take a pop over to Giudecca (the skinny island right across from Venice) for a drink at the Skyline Bar. I haven’t been, but I’ve heard it’s pretty nice:
On the topic of jetting around the lagoon–don’t miss out on some of the surrounding islands. You can do three in one day: head to Murano first in the morning, and then from there to Burano and Torcello—if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the sunset on the way back to Venice, which is beautiful from the water…it will take at least 40 min to get back to Venice from Burano or Torcello):
- Murano: This is where the Venetian glassblowers live, and it’s just a quick 15 min ferry ride from Venice. The island itself isn’t very beautiful, but it’s worth a little wander to see some of the glass sculptures that are around. The can’t-miss part is watching the master glassblowers at work. Many of the workshops give public demonstrations. You’ll see signs that say “fornace” and these are usually open to visitors if they are open (they are ALL closed on Sunday, and they are more active/likely to be open and working in the morning). If you can find it, near the Colonna ferry stop is the V.I.A. fornace where Maestro Imperio Rossi works; it’s a good one to check out. Regardless of where you go, beware that there may be a pitch after the demonstration, and they will drive a hard sell. (Also, avoid the guys in Venice that will try to sell you on a “free trip to Murano/free glass demonstration”—they’re looking to make commission on a sale and won’t really offer anything special that you can’t find on your own.) There’s a museum on the island that you may find interesting as well as a church.
- Burano: known for the colorful houses, handmade lace and the buranei cookies, this island is so quaint and cute you’ll want to make sure you give yourself plenty of time to wander around. It’s a small island but it’s huge on character—I would make a trip to Burano over Murano if you are short on time.
- Torcello: Right next to Burano, and home of the original Cipriani, there’s not a ton to see here but it’s a quick hop from Burano, has a beautiful little church, and Attila’s throne. Save Torcello for last: if you’re really tired by the time you’re done in Burano, you can skip it. If you’re looking for a splugy dinner, you may want to see about making a reservation at Cipriani before you leave.
I think it’s worth it to get the 7-day vaporetto (ferry) pass. You can ride it as much as you want, which is handy getting around the island when you’re tired of being on your feet, or you want to pop over to another island, or go down the grand canal by water. It should be about 60 euro, but a one way is 7.50, so if you use it more than 10 times then it’s worth it (just to do the day trip to the outside islands you’ll use 4). You also have the option of the water taxis, but they are a little pricey. You can get the pass at the train station when you get in, and can find information on it here.
Finally, be sure to check whether you’ll be going during a Biennale year!! This is a bi-annual modern art exhibition with lots of events that’s worth a trip!