Venice is one of those places that has more magic per square kilometre than almost any other city on earth—and crowds of tourists to prove it.
I’ve actually never been in during the summer, so the Venice I’m familiar with is the misty, atmospheric version. Visiting during “off-peak” winter season means that you get quieter streets, and in my book the cold weather and seasonal flooding is worth it to experience the more peaceful, low-key side of the city—just make sure you bring wellies and warm clothes.
One of my all-time favourite trips to Venice was when I visited my friend Maddy one chilly but beautiful October in 2009, just as the flooding walkways started going up in St Mark’s Square. She was studying there for the term as an undergraduate Art History student, and her lectures were held in a beautiful old room in a Venetian palace, with a glimpse of the gondolas passing by on the Grand Canal through the window behind the lecturer. We stubbornly ate gelato despite the temperature, admired the Rialto by the dazzling golden light of the setting sun, and danced to some awesome jazz flute in a local bar (the same night I tasted grappa for the first—and probably the last—time).
Because the city holds a very special place in her heart, I asked Maddy to add her advice to my own to create an epic travel guide to Venice. She has some great tips for making like a local, and taking advantage of all of the wonderful art that the city has to offer.
Where to Stay
There are, of course, so many wonderful and glamorous hotels in Venice, but I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of experience of these, so I’ll leave it to Mr & Mrs Smith and the wonderful Jo Rodgers writing for Vogue to give you luxury accommodation inspiration.
I’ve been on five visits to the city with various different people, for different purposes, and on very different budgets; the first few times I went as a student and stayed in a dorm in the youth hostel, another time on an air mattress in my friend’s rented apartment. Since my student days, I’ve visited several more times, and have found two nice-but-affordable options for accommodation.
- There are so many great Airbnbs available throughout the city in great locations at very reasonable prices—not that many Italians actually live in Venice proper, which is why it’s so easy for visitors to find apartments to rent (Airbnb is an easy system to use, but I’m sure there are others). Here’s my wishlist, to get you started—though, full disclosure, I haven’t actually stayed in any of these, because they were all booked up when I was organising my most recent trip.
- We had a lovely stay in the Ca’ Amadi guesthouse, and I highly recommend it. It’s in a very central location, is very beautiful, pretty reasonably priced as Venetian hotels go, and has lovely, friendly staff.
Where to Eat (& Drink)
My husband and I went for a long weekend to Venice this past October to celebrate our wedding anniversary; this recent trip reminded me how important it is to plan where you want to eat when visiting this city if you’re there on a weekend and don’t want to do too much trudging around. (Or, maybe that’s just the pregnant lady in me talking!) Usually I prefer to be spontaneous on holiday, but the quality of food/service/atmosphere is so hit-or-miss in Venice that it can be really helpful to do your research and bookmark some places to check out before you visit.
- Lindsay’s Feast has a beautiful blog post full of ideas for great places to eat in Venice, and we found one of our favourite places via her list of suggestions on our latest visit: Da Fiore is an unassuming little trattoria bar and restaurant, very popular with the locals, and I had the most delicious walnut and fennel pasta there on our last lunch in Venice. We tried to drop by without a reservation a few times in the evenings, but they were always too crowded to seat us, so I definitely recommend making a booking in advance. Google maps sent us to the wrong place, so make sure you use the map on their website.
- We happened upon Antica Carbonera a few trips ago via some positive Yelp reviews, I think, and it’s become a firm favourite for a very fancy dinner out; it’s on the pricier side, but it’s worth it if you want to splash out for the delicious food, wines, atmosphere, and excellent service. The interior is panelled with wood from an old-school luxury yacht.
- Caffé Florian is a cliché, but for good reason: it’s one of the most beautiful cafés on St Mark’s Square, and it’s worth sitting inside for the beautiful jewel-box interior (despite the enticement of live music outside). Treat yourself to one of their famous, thick hot chocolates and piece of cake or plate of macarons, and feel like you’re truly in the lap of Venetian luxury. (Perhaps it’s needless to say, but I definitely never came here as a student.)
- Sitting out on the tables outside Naranzaria overlooking the canal with a glass of Soave and some olives is becoming a favourite tradition for my husband and I, every time we visit Venice. They serve food, too, but we’ve only ever stayed for drinks. It’s a lovely place to sit, and feels nicely tucked away from the crowds of the nearby Rialto.
Maddy’s Favourite Places to Eat
“I highly recommend Gam Gam, a restaurant serving traditional Middle Eastern dishes in the Ghetto Vecchio—part of the oldest Jewish ghetto in the world, in the heart of the Cannaregio district. Don’t miss the delicious falafel!”
“Osteria La Zucca (meaning ‘pumpkin’), in Santa Croce, focuses on highlighting the very best of local produce, particularly vegetables.”
“Antico Panificio (meaning ‘the old bread oven’), on Campiello del Sol in San Polo, may not look much from the outside, but in Venice this is usually a good thing. The best pizza I had in my three months in Venice (and I had many) was eaten here! The restaurant also serves a range of other traditional homemade Venetian dishes.”
General Foodie Tips from Maddy
“In my experience, it’s better not to eat along the Grand Canal—the restaurants lining the banks of this infamous waterway may look pretty, but the food will most likely disappoint (and cost a lot, too). For a more authentic Venetian experience, head into the maze of backstreets to seek out a traditional osteria serving local specialities such as seafood, polenta, squid ink pasta or risotto, or risi e bisi—a thick, soup-like dish made with rice and peas.”
“For early evening refreshment, find a square and head for the bar that has the most people spilling out onto the street. This is likely to be the one with the best cicchetti, small snacks equivalent to the Venetian version of tapas. You may need to shout to place your order, and you’ll definitely have to stand up, but if that’s not a deal breaker then order a spritz (with Aperol if you like it sweeter, Campari if you prefer something more bitter, or Cynar if you’re feeling brave) and enjoy the atmosphere.”
- “To eat pizza like a local: cut it into quarters, pick up a piece, fold it in half lengthways, and get stuck in. Minimal cutlery required!”
Places to Visit
Part of the joy of a visit to Venice is undoubtedly just wandering around, exploring and inevitably getting a bit lost in the maze of streets and canals, but you’ll also probably want to plan in a few “big ticket” items to anchor you. Here are just a few ideas from the many things that the city has to offer.
- A visit to St Mark’s basilica to see the impressive golden domes is probably already on your “to-do” list, but I’d also add that it’s well worth getting a museum ticket so that you can go up to the balcony and get a beautiful view of the square and the lagoon from behind the bronze horses. You can leave your bag at a secure bag check point just around the corner from the basilica (in fact, you’re not allowed into the church with anything larger than a small handbag), but it can be tricky to find for first-timers: it’s in a separate building tucked away down an alleyway to the left of the square, if you’re standing facing St Mark’s basilica with your back to the square.
- One of my favourite church buildings in Venice is Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a beautiful fifteenth-century marble building tucked away from the hubbub and surrounded by serene canals.
- If you’re curious to visit the islands, in my experience Murano (the glassblowing island) can be a bit of a disappointment, but Burano is well worth a visit for its stunning array of brightly coloured buildings. A word of caution, though: it’s such an Instagrammer’s playground that you should expect to see people taking selfies everywhere. It’s also a bit of a tourist trap, so if you want to eat there it’s worth making a reservation from somewhere with a good Yelp review before you go (we didn’t do this, and regretted it).
Maddy’s Favourite Spots & Itinerary Suggestions
- “Alongside the renowned Gallerie dell’Accademia and the many other galleries devoted to the art of the Venetian Renaissance, I’d also recommend visiting the Punta della Dogana, Ca’Pesaro, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for a look at the more contemporary side of the city’s artistic offerings.”
- “If you visit during an odd-numbered year between June and December, you’ll also be able to visit the internationally-acclaimed Biennale di Venezia—a huge contemporary art exhibition based predominantly in the Giardini and Arsenale areas but also spread through citywide pop-ups. The next one will be in 2019.”
- “Don’t miss the Scuola Grande di San Rocco for its incredible collection of Tintoretto paintings, as well as a room of intricately beautiful 17th century walnut carvings by Francesco Pianta.”
- “If you’re feeling a bit claustrophobic amongst all the narrow streets, head for the zattere—Venice’s equivalent of a seafront promenade. You’ll get a great view, a literal breath of fresh air, and some of the best gelato in the city.”
- “The rooftop bar at the Hilton Molino Stucky on the Giudecca (the closest of Venice’s lagoon islands) is a great place to take in the Grand Canal and the scale of the huge cruise ships arriving and departing, especially at night when you can see the lights of the city across the water.”
General Tips from Maddy
- “If your budget won’t stretch to a gondola ride but you’d like to experience some of that Grand Canal magic, make like a local and take a traghetto instead. Designed to take passengers on the short hop from one side of the canal to the other (thus eliminating the need to seek out one of the city’s handful of bridges), the traghetti are essentially pared-back gondolas without the gilded cushioned seats and singing. Your trip will only last a few minutes but, at only a couple of euros, it’s a great way to experience a brief glimpse of true Venetian life. (A word of warning: Venetians will stand, but I’d advise you to sit unless you have extremely stable sea legs!)”
“If you shop at the supermarket, make sure you use the scales near the loose produce to weigh and label your fruit and veg or you risk public humiliation at the checkout!”
“Similarly, follow the rules of the road when you’re out exploring. Stick to the correct side, and don’t stop in the middle of the street to take a photo if you want to avoid the audible despair and frustration of the locals.”
“Unless you’re intent on getting somewhere in particular, leave the map in your bag. Many of the small alleyways in Venice aren’t marked, so trying to find your place in the maze can sometimes lead to getting more lost than you were before. The best way to see the sights is to follow your nose and wander at will.”
“Vaporetto—boats—can arrive from both directions at smaller stops. Make sure you validate your ticket at the machine provided at the stop before boarding.”
“If you want to use the vaporetti (water buses) to get around, consider buying one of the tourist travel cards offered by the ACTV—Venice’s public transport service. Generally I’d say it’s quicker (and far cheaper) to explore on foot, but you’ll need to take the boat if you want to get out to any of the islands. It’s also fun to take a leisurely cruise on the No. 1 route, which zig-zags from side to side down the length of the Grand Canal.”
- “The Rolling Venice card is great for visitors up to 29 years old, as it entitles you to buy a 3 day ACTV youth travel pass at almost 50% of the standard rate, as well as discounted tickets for a number of museums. You can pick one up online, or from any of the Venezia Unica booths in the city.”
So, have we inspired you to visit yet? If you have any favourite things to do or see, or places to stay or eat in this wonderful city that we’ve missed in our Venice travel guide, do leave a comment to let us know, below!