Welcome back to our series called “Weekend escape to…” which showcases our favorite vacations spots in practical 48-hour guides. Today we share tips for spending a weekend in Venice, one of Italy’s most fascinating destinations.
Located in the marshy Venetian Lagoon – which stretches along the Adriatic shoreline between the mouths of the Po and the Piave River deltas – Venice is renowned for the beauty of its unique setting, particular architecture, and immense body of artwork. Listed as a World Heritage Site along with its lagoon, Venice is by all means a tourist magnet. However, we’d like to draw attention to Venice’s lesser known aspects by sharing insider tips and allowing weekend travelers to avoid the stereotypes and clichés La Serenissima is most known for worldwide.
When to go and how to get there
Before we begin exploring secret Venice, here are a few ideas about how to get there and the best time to explore the city. Venice is visited by throngs of people year round. During the high season (June–September), massive cruise ships manoeuvre up the Grand Canal and regurgitate thousands of tourists onto its delicate frame. As we often suggest in our travel tips and weekend guides, plan your Italian holiday wisely. If you wish to fully enjoy Italy, consider visiting in the off season, that is between January and April/May. This advice applies especially to Venice. Sure, this may mean encountering acqua alta (tide peak phenomenon whenever the astronomical tides are reinforced by winds) and thick blankets of fog that shroud the sage-hued canals, but this adds to the city’s innate romantic and mysterious character. The closer your Venice vacation will be to high season –– especially during summer, Carnevale and Christmas –– the larger crowds, longer lines and higher the prices for lodging and dining. Traveling during the first week of the month? Remember all museum and state sites are open and free of charge on the first Sunday of every month! This means walking in for free at major museums like Palazzo Grassi, Peggy Guggenheim and Accademia, and the various Scuolas, Palazzo Ducale and the secret Prisons.
If traveling to Venice by car, you should be aware that there are no roads, the old city is entirely built on water. There are two large parking lots on the mainland that serve the city: Tronchetto and Piazzale Roma. Vehicles can be parked here 24/7 for around €25 a day. A large number of ferries and vaporetti depart every few minutes from Tronchetto and Piazzale Roma headed to the old city. The best way to reach Venice however is by train: step off your Frecciarossa or high speed Italo train at Venezia Santa Lucia station and take public transport into the city. Hop on a vaporetto (public water bus) for a slow navigation along the Canal Grande to reach your lodging destination. Ticket booths are located along the water’s edge. My advice is purchasing bulk-day package tickets, since you’ll be moving around the city moslty on foot and vaporetto, and this will be more convenient (a single run on the vaporetto with luggage costs €7.50).
4pm – stroll exploring calli, canali and campielli
Drop the bags off at your hotel and go straight for a walk. If the acqua alta horn sounded at dawn, Venice vacationers and residents walk on raised walkways called passerelle. These are wide wood planks on iron supports that all venetians help to lay out in the middle of larger calle and alleys to allow pedestrian circulation during floods. These walkways reproduce the main urban paths that tourists and locals getting to work or rushing to school all tread, bumping into each other like ants. Depending on the flood level, a good idea is buying a €10 pair of rubber boots. Wellies are sold in any souvenir/umbrella store – there are virtually thousands all over town. If you’re staying in a guesthouse, Venetian home-owners usually leave a few pairs for their guests to borrow in the event of acqua alta.
To experience the “real Venice”, my advice is head into the side streets away from the major thoroughfares (called calli) and the big squares (locally, campi) to find a fascinating maze of pedestrian streets, canals, backstreets, alleys, covered porticos, bridges and magical surprises. Be prepared to get lost. This is totally normal in Venice. Everyone gets lost, even the locals. Don’t rely on the GPS in your phone, it’s a waste of roaming fees: the tall buildings and narrow alleys throw off the technology. Carry an old fashioned paper map and prepare to get lost anyway. Not knowing your whereabouts in Venice is part of the experience. Walking along a narrow and dimly lit rio terà (canals that in ancient times has been filled with dirt to become walkable) and emerging in a dead end to water – losing all sense of direction in the maze of overlapping stone arched bridges – is one of the best things about Venice. And it’s free.
This brings us to debunking another cliché: not everything in Venice is overly expensive! Don’t want to spend a fortune on gourmet dining? Extend aperitivo with cichetti and ombre (small glasses of wine) standing at the counter, like the locals do! Want to ride a gondola but aren’t willing to spend €100 or more for the privilege? You can always cross the Grand Canal in a traghetto gondola for €0,70 – the best transportation bargain in Venice.
7 pm – Aperitivo & Dinner
All the walking and sightseeing will have by now earned you at least a Spritz (or five). Venice’s signature cocktail is a simple drink whose roots date back to the Austrian occupation of north-eastern Italy. Austrian incumbents of the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions regarded wine as too strong a drink and in an attempt to lighten it, often diluted it with water. The local Veneto folk, in order to restore vivacity back to the beverage, responded by adding liquor to the new Hapsburg solution. That’s how Spritz was first invented and how it got its Austrian name, which roughly translates to “injection”. Nowadays Spritz is made with Aperol, white wine and club soda. A great way of enjoying Spritz in Venice is going all out and sitting at renown Caffè Florian in St Mark’s Square. It’s an expensive, cheesy and over the top experience with the live orchestra playing tableside, but totally worth it.
For dinner, consider a 10-minute vaporetto ride to San Silvestro and a 20-minute walk (including detours) to reach Antiche Carampane restaurant. Located in a what used to be a brothel, Antiche Carampane is now critically acclaimed as one of the city’s best restaurants. Depending on the season, the menu may list angler fish baked in a Parmigiano crust, gnocchi with granseola (European spider crab), rigatoni with amberjack ragù. Fish entrees may include John Dory with braised artichokes or radicchio, or the delightful “drunken” reef mullets, which are gently poached in red wine.
If fish is not your thing, get off the vaporetto at Ca’ d’Oro instead and walk straight into the eponymous Venice institution, a bàcaro-restaurant whose nickname among locals is “Alla Vedova”. Located in the Cannareggio sestiere, one of the six “neighborhoods” of the city, this cozy bacaro is very loved by Venetians for its vintage ambiance provided by tiled floors, wood chairs and brass pans on the walls, and for all the Venetian classics on the menu, stellar fried meatballs and local wines.
Morning – Photos, bridges and market finds
The chance to enhance your Instagram feed in Venice is offered by the numerous bridges that cross its hundreds of canals. Rialto, Accademia, modern Calatrava and lesser known Ponte degli Scalzi: go to the top of any of these, find a place at the railing, and capture the constant stream of vaporetti, loaded barges, posh water taxis, busy police boats, ambulances, and romantic gondolas passing below.
Take Rialto for example. This incredible bridge has been the main pedestrian crossing between the two banks of the Grand Canal since 1591. The open air produce and fish markets that run up the center of the bridge and along the banks is where Venetians do their grocery shopping six days a week. There are two more markets north of the Rialto Bridge in the sestiere San Polo. The Erberia market sells fruit and vegetables: arrive here early for the best deals and incredible photo ops. Just beyond, fishmongers at the Pescheria sell their catch of the day: crates spilling with octopus, squid, clams, eel and other fresh fish. Before pushing up to the crushed-ice counter to capture the gleaming aquatic edibles, remember that the person you’re elbowing out of the way could very well be a chef trying to buy the cuttlefish that will be staining the black risotto you’ll be eating for dinner.
Noon – Is it lunch time yet?
Speaking of meals, don’t let the beauty of the surroundings distract you away from enjoying lunch! Should it be cold and gloomy, tuck yourself into warm and cozy Osteria Ai Assassini, where the “Poker di Baccalà” sampler will warm you up and give you the energy needed for the afternoon stroll. If it’s a sunny day on the other hand, my suggestion is parking yourself on the deck and enjoying the view of the vast open lagoon, scattered islands and the snowy peaks of the Dolomites in the far background. This happens from your table at Ristorante Algiubagiò in Cannareggio. Here you can feast on the creative cuisine of the passionate chef and his staff. Their lobster with ginger served with lentil and jerusalem artichoke soup was memorable. The nearby vaporetto station is Fondamente Nuove.
Afternoon – Art everywhere
Take the afternoon to digest and visit some of the many museums and sites the city has to offer. After regaining your breath from the overwhelming beauty and vastness of Piazza San Marco – St Mark’s Square – be sure to walk into the basilica. The cathedral’s five-domed exterior is a riot of Byzantine architecture, and the interior is equally spectacular, with gold mosaics that come to life when illuminated by the afternoon sun. Next, hop on the vaporetto and get off at the Accademia stop to admire the works of Tintoretto, Titian and Leonardo’s Vitruvian man at Gallerie dell’Accademia. Another short ferry ride to the San Zaccaria Pietà “A” stop allows you to be amused by the cartoon-like frescoes by Vittore Carpaccio adorning the walls of the Scuola di San Giovanni degli Schiavoni.
8pm – Dinner plans
For a relaxing dinner, I can always rely on Trattoria Da Fiore, which offers classic cichetti appetizers in the front room bàcaro – where you can stand at the counter with a glass of wine and snack on fried anchovies, steamed artichoke heels and mini-meatballs – or provides table service in the back. Not to be confused with posh and overly expensive Fiore restaurant located one alley over, this trattoria’s menu features both Venetian classics like sarde in saor, baccalà mantecato and moeche (when in season), and lesser known dishes like bigoli in salsa (thick homemade noodles dressed with onions and anchovies), linguine al nero di seppia (black cuttlefish ink), steamed schie (miniature shrimp) served with white polenta, and a sublime local specialty: fegato alla veneziana (liver and caramelized onions).
Day trip to the Lagoon Islands
Get up bright and early and have breakfast at any corner cafe before embarking on an island adventure. To reach the lagoon islands you can either take the vaporetto departing from Fondamenta Nove to the fascinating San Michele Cemetery then to Murano and Burano, or invest in a water taxi. Water taxis are the limousines of Venice: Riva-type motorboats with spacious leather-upholstered cabins, open-air seating in the stern, and private captains to chauffeur you around the lagoon or between the station and your hotel/guesthouse. Taxis offer an experience (and a fee) that you won’t forget in a hurry. On the other hand, water taxis can hold up to 10 people, and the cost per person can be reasonable if you’re splitting the fare with family or friends.
A series of islands linked by bridges, Murano lies about 1.5 km north of Venice, and houses a population of just over 5,000 inhabitants. Murano is famous for its glass making, and is the center of the Venetian lagoon’s glassblowing industry since 1291. You can visit a factory and watch a glassblower at work without paying (or buying) anything. Massimiliano Schiavon’s Art Team is probably one of the most striking glass blowing facilities, and their interactive demonstrations welcome guests daily, and make the kids participate in the magical art of shaping glass.
Traditionally Burano was Venice’s lace-making island, famous for its brightly painted houses. Painting homes with striking colors was the local fisherman and oarsman’s way of finding their home in the fog that thickly embraces Burano more than any other island. The colors of the houses follow a specific system, if someone wishes to paint their home a different color, a formal request to the government needs to be placed in advance. The government official then released a notice of the colors permitted for that lot before issuing the permission. There are a handful of great restaurants in Burano. Osteria Gatto Nero is a charming, family run ristorante that offers sublime seafood served in an elegant dining room or at canal-side tables outside. Order the best fried calamari of your life, the trio of crustaceans au gratin and continue with the house risotto which is droolworthy. Another option is dining at Venissa, a Michelin star restaurant and wine resort with boutique hotel located on the neighboring island of Mazzorbo. If romance is the leit motif of the vacation, this place is a must.
Navigate back to Venice, collect your bags in the hotel storage room and hop on the vaporetto headed to the train station. Bid arrivederci to Venice, knowing full well you’ll be coming back. Cities like La Serenissima demand more than just one visit. And don’t forget that Venice is only a 3.5-hour train ride from Rome.