There's nowhere in the world quite like Venice, or Venezia as it is called in Italy. The city is known as La Serenissima, the serene one, but with today's tourist traffic it can be anything but. Still the canals are mesmerizing and the sun hits the buildings in such a beautiful way that you do need to pinch your cheeks once in awhile to remind yourself it's real. Everyone needs to experience Venice once in their life....and preferably before the city is underwater!
Venice is well connected by Italy's national rail system, Trenitalia, and it is also reachable by plane via Marco Polo International Airport. Some important things to know about Venice--it is made up of over a hundred little islands all grouped together in the shape of a fish with many canals in between them; the Grand Canal is the main thoroughfare or "guts" of the fish that weaves through the middle of the city in a north/south fashion; there really are no cars so be prepared to take boats or stretch those legs to get around (the fish is not that big so walking is a perfectly acceptable mode of transport); and there are only 4 bridges across the Grand Canal...get to know where they are otherwise be prepared to take a boat to cross. If you are looking for a boat, you can take the public "vaporetti" (essentially a water bus with many different lines), a water taxi, or the "traghetti" (which is a public gondola that essentially just goes back and forth across the canal).
Before planning a trip, every traveler should know that Venice is super congested these days thanks to the grandi navi or big cruise ships that dock for the day and the hundreds of people that come for the day by land. It doesn't help that the city is surrounded by water and cannot expand to accommodate the loads of tourists! Unfortunately with all the people it is difficult to find some local charm but if you just know where to look (and what to avoid) your stay in Venice will be a much more enjoyable one. Here are some tips to help you have a more authentic vacation instead of one overloaded by tourists:
- Avoid peak season if you can which is February during Carnivale and May through September. The off-season (November to March) definitely has the smallest crowds (and cheapest rates!) and is great if you don't mind chilly temps and shortened hours for sightseeing. The shoulder season (April or October) is a happy medium both weather-wise and crowd-wise and there will be more open with longer hours.
- Get away from the Grand Canal, Rialto Bridge & San Marco, once you've seen them and taken some of photos of course. Wandering (and getting lost in) the dozens of tiny canals is part of the charm and is also a good reprieve from the crowds. Specifically, the neighborhoods of Dorsoduro and Cannaregio on the outskirts of the fish are really lovely.
- Do your (food) research. There are tons of tourist traps, and actually there are probably more mediocre restaurants than good ones. A good way to know if you are eating the touristy stuff is picture menus and being in proximity of the major sights. Stick to the regional specialties (i.e. seafood, risotto and polenta food-wise; and prosecco, soave and valpolicella wine-wise) and you can't go wrong. When in doubt, you can always hop around from bacaro (bar) to bacaro, trying some cicchetti (Venetian tapas) with an ombre (small glass) of local wine.
- Opt to stay at an apartment. It forces you to live a little more like a local, especially if you make a trip or two to the market for provisions. Plus, hotels in Venice are notoriously expensive!
And lastly my two cents, for what its worth. Be sure to check the hours before you go since some of these places close down in the afternoon and on random days during the week. Also, reservations are always best for dinner...Italians love formalities!
Best Bacari for Cicchetti: Cantina do Mori, All'Arco, Ostaria dai Zemei, Enoteca al Volto
Best Aperitivo: Al Merca (you must order a spritz, it's the best!)
Best Drinks: Osteria da Filo (live music most nights), Time Social Bar
Best Upscale Dinner: Al Coro *reservations a must*
Best Traditional Dinner: Cantina do Spade (do yourself a favor and order the polenta & bacala which is salted codfish...surprisingly the most delicious dish in all of Venice!)
Best Modern Dinner: Osteria L'Orto dei Mori, Ostaria Boccadoro
Best Espresso & Pastry: Il Caffe Rosso, Pasticceria Tonolo
Best Gelato: Gelateria Ca' d'Oro
And if you're sick of wine and are looking for some craft beer both local and imported, head to Il Santo Bevitore and Birreria Zanon.
Heading to Venice soon and need some ideas on what to see? Drop me a line and I'd be happy to help! Happy travels!