“It’s Venice dear the whole city is a museum.” – my friend Dacotah R.
As we packed our bags for the summer, last year, to head off on the road trip that took us to 3 destinations, I had no idea how true these words, by the lovely, Dacotah, were going to be.
Venice has been on my bucket list forever and the fact that we were finally managing this trip was more than exciting. We had just a few days in the city and I wanted to make the most of it.
Yes, I wanted to see those famous landmarks and attractions that every travel guide mentions as a “must see,” but I really wanted to experience the Venice real Venetians live everyday. Walk the narrow streets, beyond the tourist attractions, sip an ombra in a bàcaro, nibbling on a variety of cicchetti with the locals away from the hustle and bustle of the exploding crowds so well known for Venice.
There are days when tourists outnumber locals by two to one, but Venice never loses its ability to enchant. A cityscape of stone palaces seemingly afloat on water with candy-striped pillars standing anchored in the gentle lapping waters of the canals, lace the city giving Venice a truly magical charm and making it worth every cent!
Venice is expensive with prices sometimes double or triple to what they are elsewhere in Italy. But Venice is also extraordinary and visitors pilgrim to this wonder of a city that defies all notion of logic to experience its fragile beauty in hordes. While you should be prepared to dig a little deeper into your pockets, there are a few things you can do to save some of the vacation budget for, maybe a more extravagant meal.
We decided to book our hotel not directly in Venice, instead we picked the Hotel Ambasciatori in Mestre.
TIP: There are 2 sister hotels with the same name however one is the Ambasciatori Delfino, which apparently is not as comfortable as the 4 star Ambasciatori.
As we would be here for 2 nights and 3 days, spending most of our time in Venice, we were looking for a clean, comfortable hotel with good service on a budget. This hotel provided everything we required, with spacious rooms, clean elegant bathrooms and a very competent and helpful staff. Free Wi-Fi is provided however in the room it is extremely patchy. The connection is much better in the lobby and bar area of the hotel. There is a supermarket next to the hotel and you can buy drinks and snacks at a reasonable price. A very conveniently located bus station right in front of the hotel will take you directly to Piazzale Roma, in Venice within 10 minutes. The bus tickets can be bought at the reception of the hotel for €2.60 per person return fare. The reception staff is extremely courteous taking the time to advice and give their insider tips for things to do, where to eat and shop. So, make sure you ask them! Breakfast is served in buffet form, with a lot of variety from scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon to fruit, granola, croissants and preserves. It is not a luxury breakfast atmosphere but designed to provide a good, quick yet solid meal for an entire day of adventure in Venice.
Corso Del Popolo 221,
The Piazzale Roma is the gateway to Venice. This utilitarian square, with its parking garages and bus bays, lies on the Venice side of the long causeway from the mainland. From here you can buy and board the water buses or cross the Ponte di Calatrava to discover Venice either by water or on foot.
From the Piazzale Roma, head to the Hellovenezia office where you will be able to buy tickets for the vaporetti (public water buses).
TIP: Prices for single boat trips are obscenely high, so consider buying a 12-hour to a 7-day tourist travel card for longer stays. A 12-hour travel card will cost €18, and a 48-hour travel card costs €30 per person. Don’t buy more time than you need. The beauty of Venice is that it is compact and pedestrian friendly so you can get around on foot quite easily.
We arrived in Mestre in the early afternoon and headed into Venice early evening to enjoy the city’s atmosphere at dusk. After organizing our vaporetti tickets for the next two days, we crossed the Ponte di Calatrava and headed to Cannaregio.
Cannargio offers a glimpse into the “normal” Italian life with almost a third of Venetians living in this district of Venice. Here you will find a relaxed atmosphere far from the overflowing and crowded Piazza San Marco. Although the tourists flock in hordes around streets of the main train station of Venice, in the eastern part of Cannargio where the Strada Nova stretches through the district, a quainter and relaxed atmosphere can be enjoyed. This is where the locals shop in small, often family owned shops, where along with a friendly chat you can buy fresh cacciatore and prosciutto, fruit and vegetables or a gorgeous bouquet of flowers. The most appealing part of Cannaregio lies quietly to the north, waiting to be explored. The quieter stretches of canal here can be amazingly serene and attractive. In the tranquil side streets the locals chat lively with each other while their bambinis play catch on the cobbled streets and the housewives hang out their colorful laundry on washing lines just outside their windows. .
Heading back southwards you'll come to a livelier stretch of canal along Fondamenta della Misericordia, where there are some great canal-side bars and places to eat. Although this street is buzzing in the evenings, with locals mixed with a few tourists drinking there early evening Bellinis or Aperol Spritz, it is not enough to spoil the Venetian atmosphere.
We decided to walk around and check out what people were eating and simply stop for dinner where it looked and smelled good. Our trip brought us to a halt at a bacaro with barrels and tables scattered across the sidewalk and diners clustered on each one of the tables, chatting and enjoying divine looking platters of cicheto, meat, fish and cheese.
I poked my head in the door and watched the staff busily working behind the bar and around further filled tables inside. But what caught my eye was further behind in the room. A counter filled with fresh fish, seafood, meat and plenty of greens and vegetables told me that this was the place to stay. I walked up the chef behind the counter hoping to get into some friendly chitchat and eventually finding a free table.
“What do you want?” asked the chef without taking his eyes off the fish he was preparing.
“Whatever you make for me!” I said, smiling.
“I have fish and some beef” eyes still on the fish
“Fish is good!”
“Ok I make you some fish!”
“Perfect! Now I need a table for three to go with that fish!” I said grinning from ear to ear. For the first time he looked up at me. With a gentle nod and a hint of a smirk he said
“You want beer?” We make our own. Outside – you will find a table.”
I walked outside and waited till a cheerful Italian lady ushered the three of us to a table that had just become free. She came back with glasses filled with Aperol Spritz, crayons and paper for Soeren.
Just as we were sipping the cool aperitif, the chef popped his head out of the door and hollered in our direction,
“Your fish … raw? Or cooked?”
Soon a platter of antipasti and charcuterie appeared on our table accompanied with bottles of the promised beer. Our waitress kept us busy with stories and jokes while the chef worked his magic indoors. Finally a huge platter filled with some of the most divine looking fish arrived at our table steaming, evocatively. Local fish, prawns in olive and herbs, scallops, mussels, sardines coated with polenta were just a few of the variety we were treated to.
The food at La Cantina was exquisite. You will not find a menu, the best way to dine at La Cantina is to simply leave yourself hands of the very capable chef, Francesco Zorzetto. He is moody, slightly coarse and wonderfully Venetian. We were so thrilled with our experience here that we came back the next evening. For our meal of antipasti, the fish platter, and the large bottle of beer we paid €80.
Campo San Felice,
Telephone: +39 041 52 28 258
The following day we threw ourselves in the hustle and bustle of Venice starting the day at the Pescheria and the Erberia, Venice’s fish market and produce markets. It is best to arrive early if you want to see these markets in full swing. The barges begin arriving at dawn, the vendors bargain with customers and restaurant chefs examine the daily supply of fish, crustaceans, and bivalves while delivery men push handcarts laden with fruit and vegetables all by 8 a.m – it’s a great show!. The wholesalers and most of the retailers close up shop by midday and head off to their favorite bacari for their well earned ombre.
Apparently over 50 000 ombre or glasses of wine, are consumed daily in Venice. If you consider that Venice only has 60 000 residents, that is an impressive figure. The glass of wine here is not a simple break in the day but a way of life – conviviality, without constrains.
Follow the fish and produce retailers into one of the bacari on Rialto. You won’t be sorry. From 11 a.m. onwards they are extremely full but the experience of rubbing shoulders with locals and eavesdropping on their conversation as they joke and tell stories, while nibbling on sardine cicchetti is so much better than getting stuck in a massive sweaty crowd. Avoid all places that offer menus in 5-6 languages as these are tourist traps and offer bad food for extremely high prices.
The oldest bacaro in Venice is Do Mori, which dates back to 1462 so it is an obligatory stop for us foodies. Order the house speciality – francobollo - a white-bread sandwich filled with sliced meats, radicchio, gorgonzola or roasted vegetables and ask for the local or house-wine which is not only good but cheaper than the overpriced other wines offered.
San Polo 429,
Calle dei Do Mori
Getting into the vaporetto we headed up the Canal Grande to throw ourselves in the unholy crowds and make our way to the soul of Venice – San Marco. The cruise along the Canal Grande is certainly a must and an unforgettable experience. Try to get one of the coveted outdoor seats on the vaporetti, and simply sit back and take in the sheer opulence of the hundreds of palazzi (or Canalazzi as they are called on the canal), churches and imposing buildings dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries. Soak up the afternoon sun rays and allow yourself to absorb the sights and sounds of Venice from another perspective. The weather-worn colors of the homes of Venice’s former elite are kindled by the soft light and reflected in the rippling waters of the canal and the busy, seemingly chaotic traffic of delivery boats, gondolas, barges and water taxis fill the city’s main channel.
TIP: Hop on the vaporatto no. 1, the ride from the train station to San Marco will take 40 minutes and the best time of the day is after midday when the traffic has eased up a little on the canal.
There are squares that every passionate traveller just has to see; the Times Square in New York, London’s Trafalgar Square or the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Venice’s St. Mark’s Square or the Piazza San Marco is not only a major tourist magnet but one of the most stunning squares unparalleled to its counterparts.
Napoleon called the Piazza San Marco "the most beautiful salon in the world." Indeed this piazza truly invites people to relax and chat with a stunning backdrop to boot. The patterned ground of the piazza is brimming with pigeons, but on every step or balustrade or on the ledges around the Campanile, wherever there is any space you will find people from all corners of the world settled down, just like the pigeons, engaged in lively conversation or just taking a repose in the sultry heat. The cafés around the piazza invite you to take a much needed break before you dive into the incredible monuments that surround this square.
The most grandiose of them all is probably the Basilica Di San Marco – a mixture of Byzantine bulbed domes and spectacular gold mosaics – it is exotic and mysterious and unlike any other Roman Catholic church.
For centuries, Venice was Europe's main gateway between the Orient and the West, so it is not surprising that architectural style for the majestic Basilica di San Marco, with its five mosque-like domes, was adopted from Byzantine Empire. According to legend, in 828, the remains of St. Mark, the Evangelist from Egypt was smuggled into Venice by two enterprising Venetian merchants They packed these remains in pickled pork to avoid investigation from the Muslim guards. St. Mark replaced the Greek St. Theodore as Venice's patron saint, and a small chapel was built on this spot in his honor. Over the centuries, wealthy Venetian merchants and politicians donated gifts to expand and embellish this church and it became a symbol of Venetian wealth and power.
Visit the outdoor Loggia dei Cavalli, which is a fantastic highlight, providing an excellent view of the piazza. The 500-year-old clock tower, Torre dell'Orologio stands to the right; to the left is the Campanile (Bell Tower) and, beyond the glistening waters of the open lagoon is Palladio's Chiesa di San Giorgio, on its own island. It is a photographer's dream!
For a breathtaking view of the cupolas, the red rooftops of Venice, the neighboring islands and the church domes take the short elevator ride up to the top of the 99m tall bell tower. The Campanile San Marco is compulsory and provides simply the most stunning view of Venice. The bell tower was originally built in the 9th century but in 1902 it collapsed unexpectedly, miraculously hurting no one. The present-day structure was rebuilt in 1912 as an exact replica of its predecessor, using most of the same materials, even rescuing one of the five historical bells that it still uses today.
TIP: The guards at the Basilca di San Marco will not allow anyone access to the church if they are inappropriately dressed. This means no shorts, sleeveless shirts and skirts above the knee. Free tours are given 4 times a day by volunteers from Monday to Saturday in July and August. Tours start at 10:30 and meeting point is in the atrium.
Basilica di San Marco
San Marco, Piazza San Marco
Vaporetto: San Marco
Telephone: +39 -41-522-5697
Web site: http://www.basilicasanmarco.it
Prices: Free admission to the Basilica, Museo Marciano - St. Mark's Museum, (includes Loggia dei Cavalli) - 4€
Campanile di San Marco
San Marco, Piazza San Marco
Vaporetto: San Marco
Telephone: +39 -41-522-4064
Prices Admission 8€
Venice also offers a lot more than old buildings, palaces and churches. If you enjoy contemporary art, you are in for a real treat. Venice has a wide variety of museums and galleries. I was extremely looking forward to Peggy Gugenheim Collection in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni directly on the Canal Grande. Peggy Gugenheim lived here for 30 years until she passed away in 1979. Her work is legendary and her taste for art exquisite. Picasso’s La Baignade, Kandinsky’s Landscape with Church and numerous works by Dalí, Chagall, Duchamp or Mirò, are just some of the treasures and big names you will find in her collection. She was personally acquainted with many of them and the collection is considered to be one of the most comprehensive and important collections of modern art in the world. The canal-side patio of the Palazzo watched over by Marino Marini's Angel of the Citadel is one of the best spots to simply linger and watch canal life.
TIP: I picked up a flyer from Cristina Gregorin a licensed guide, Ph.D., and book author. Cristina organizes visits to museums, galleries, and artists' ateliers, including glassmakers' studios. Unfortunately we did not have time to take one of Cristina’s tours but I am sure it is a great way to see some of Venice’s incredible art museums.
You will find more information on Cristina Gregorin's art and architecture tours, at contemporary-venice.com.
Take a leisurely walk, crossing the Rialto bridge, to San Polo which is Venice’s ancient trade quarter. The graceful Rialto Bridge arches over the Grand Canal and is lined with overpriced shops and jam-packed with tourists. You’ll have to be free from claustrophobia and not mind getting up close to people if you want to cross the bridge.
In San Polo do visit the glorious Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, an immense 13th – 14th century Gothic church just around the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which should also be visited. After the Basilica of San Marco this is the largest church in Venice. “i Frari” as it is known to the Venetians houses a number of important works, including two Titian masterpieces: the striking Assumption of the Virgin over the main altar, painted when the artist was only in his late 20s and the Virgin of the Pesaro Family in the left nave.
On the Campo San Rocco you will also find the Il Genio di Leonardo da Vinci Museo. If you are in Venice with children this is a great exhibition to visit. Featuring many large scale machine inventions, many of which are interactive, crafted by modern day Artisans in Italy, this travelling museum provides a comprehensive look into da Vinci’s life. The machines are based on the Artisan’s meticulous and lengthy studies into Leonardo’s codices, the Last Supper 3D animation projected in actual size, the creation of the Mona Lisa in 3D animation and many of his drawings, we literally took refuge from the heat outside and spent hours discovering everything about Leonardo da Vinci and his amazing work.
Il Genio di Leonardo da Vinci Museo
San Polo, 3052, 30125
We covered most of Venice on foot and made sure to take left turns when signs told us to go right and got happily lost in the different sestiere. Castello with its distinct flair, where only a few tourists stray here, even though a wide promenade from the St. Mark’s Square will bring you directly into this neighborhood. Once you leave the canal side and wander further into the neighborhood over the Via Garibaldi you will suddenly find yourself in a different Venice. Where previously you were surrounded by many tourists, here you will find pure tranquillity and feel nothing of the chaotic hectic. Very relaxed was also Dorsoduro just south of the Canal Grande. The Peggy Gugenheim collection and the Santa Maria della Salute church are just a few walking minutes away but one does not feel the commotion and bustle. You will often find yourself walking along the canals beside shops and churches, alone. In the afternoon this neighborhood seems to wake up. Craftsmen repairing boats, housewives running errands and shopping at the small corner shops and handymen chugging on the canal with loaded boats, were the common sights we enjoyed as we sat on one of the worn wooden piers. Linger around the University area and as you walk past some of the imposing houses try to snatch a peek into one of the private gardens. In Cannaregio visit the back canals and hidden campi, the Jewish Ghetto and the church of the Miracoli and stop for a cup of coffee at Bar Ai Miracoli on Campo Santa Maria Nova, where you can enjoy the company of the locals gathered under the protective shade of the trees. Although the atmosphere was vibrant, we stayed there undisturbed for a few hours just reading and writing. From Campo Santa Sofia view of the Pescaria and the Fabriche Nove is superb.
TIP: Travel the backwaters in a gondola. Yes an expensive luxury, but if you are good at haggling you might get lucky. Often if you ask them you would rather experience the less travelled canals of the city, they are usually willing to reduce their prices. The true soul of Venice is found on quiet backwaters where a lazy boat ride takes you into another world, away from Venice’s seemingly ever-present crowds.
If you plan to stay in Venice for a further few days, I recommend visits to the other islands in the lagoon. Murano - famous throughout the world for the products of its glass factories, colorful Burano with its lace offer great destinations for day trips.
There is so much to Venice and you can spend several days discovering the 200 palazzi and churches but Venice has another side to it. This was Venice my way – making the best of the few days we had here. When I am older I’d love to rent an apartment in Dorsoduro or Castello, spending a few weeks in this city to really feel the heartbeat of Venice. Live like the Venetians and enjoy the routine of everyday life in a museum of a city.
Hope you enjoyed traveling with me to Venice. When planning your trip be prepared to allocate a generous travel budget. It would be a sacrilege to plan just a one-day trip to Venice. You just won’t be able to grasp the essence of this city. Take time and plan your trip your way, hopefully some of my tips and recommendations make it to your list.
TIP: You might want to consider adding a few extra days to your trip and plan a stay slightly north of Venice in the Province of Treviso. Here you will find a small luxury hotel, Villa Barberina. This Venetian villa lies at the foot of Prealps in Valdobbiadene owned by the wine producers, Nino Franco.
More details: www.villabarberina.it
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