Venice is a living, breathing work of art floating upon the sea. It is a city like no other in the world. It is also my adopted hometown of nearly two decades. Being quite a small place, I consider every detail to be a part of the community fabric. You, dear tourist, included.
I have created an itinerary here that like a gem in the jewel box of life allows you to examine her many facets acutely. Consciously using your senses; look closely, listen carefully and feel the energy of this particularly magical maze.
I invite you to consider the concept of pretending you live here too. Set out to discover the reality of daily life for a local on this island. I challenge you to define Venetian domesticity by the time you depart.
Be the tourist who recognizes Venice as the living community she is. Observantly explore this abundant visual history, seeking the cities charms hidden in plain sight. Talk to her residents. Taste the fish based cuisine and appreciate the geographical relevance. As you wander the city, become part of the fluidity of it. Glance skyward now and again reminding yourself you are walking about an island, tucked in a lagoon, in the corner of the majestic Adriatic Sea.
Like all of Italy, Venice has peaks and valleys in terms of tourist crowds. The cruise ship season is long and busy. They cease cruising more or less by November 1st. We locals breathe a collective, abet tentative, sigh of relief and hope for the short annual pause to last as long as possible. We set out to enjoy our city during these periods with a vibrant Venetian verve.
I encourage you to be the kind, considerate visitor residents relish. Please, buy locally and sleep centrally in legitimate accommodations. Pursue artisan crafted souvenirs in shops as opposed to generic street stall souvenirs. Dine in restaurants run by locals. Contrary to common critique, we eat very well on this island. My fellow Venetian Spotters have covered many a good locale for your dining needs.
People watch with intention, make a game of identifying the locals! A visit to the Accademia Galleries will aid in this activity. Studying painted portraits housed here you will find features typical of the Venetian people. Slim, spry and sure footed, they confidently stride through the city. Stay to the right as you stroll. This kind consideration shows your respect. Venice is a place where resident numbers continue to dwindle primarily due to the stress of tourists outnumbering us daily.
Look for ladies leaning precariously over their windowsills hanging laundry out to dry above slow moving water. Sure, go ahead, snap that characteristic photo while simultaneously contemplating the reality of island humidity and wet clothes! Perhaps you will catch someone hooking their little sack of garbage to a string. Lowered carefully to wait collection, swinging just above street-rat level. Perhaps, midday you shall stumble upon a gentleman in tightly tailored suit sending up a wicker basket filled with ingredients for the most relevant meal of the day, pranzo/lunch, on that very same string.
Listen for the singsongy sound of Venetian chatter. “Fiori, amore…” they call out pretty terms of endearment to friends. The dialect is actually a Romance language, once upon a time rivaled only by that of the Tuscan tongue. The latter is our recognized national language. Regardless of this fact, street signs are often scribbled in Venetian which commonly confuses the inattentive traveller committed to their map written in Italian or English.
Venetians clamor loudly amongst themselves, “sailor mouth” my mother would call it. This island’s talk is littered with a litany of colorful expressions a tad too risque for my translation. I dare you to interrupt a group of students and ask them to translate for you as they toss obscenities amicably at one another in a conversational tone.
Listen also for the special silence granted a city with no automobiles. Tune in to La Serenissima’s sounds. Lapping waters licking stone as tides roll in and out generally unnoticed by non residents. Locals live by the tides. Fall and winter months often bring high waters, aqua alta it’s called. Tidal hours are carefully considered when organizing daily chores. You might consider them too.
This city is literally constructed on over 100 small islands, or as I imagine them, sturdy little mud flats. Hundreds of bridges connect these flats like frayed, zigzagging, red embroidery thread from a beloved old hand sewn quilt. Feel the subtle movement of breathing buildings built in stone and wood, balanced defiantly upon tree trunks embedded deep in this mud.
There are six sestiere/neighborhoods which you will find conveniently divided, three on each side of Canal Grande. Learn this before you set out on getting lost in this dilapidating puzzle. Embrace this inevitable part of visiting Venice. Being “lost” is a state of mind. Truth be told, I believe a map can be a hinderance to a true Venetian visit. Simply understand as you walk you are crossing over bridges connecting neighborhoods, each of which has a special quality to share. I propose we visit each of these sestiere on foot, in your boots made for walking, as they can easily be visited in this way.
Beneath decades of decay, abandon, abuse and reuse lie this Grand Dame’s gold, still able to glitter. Dust a bit here and there and you too will find her sparkle! Non invasively peek inside those open doors and windows hung with dark forest colored shutters. Find great glass chandeliers collected by wealthy merchants, blown to order on the island of Murano. They still shine brightly, swaying slightly, revealing a ceilings painted narrative, telling tales of days gone by.
Imagine the people who built these palaces. Imagine the festive atmosphere of a city floating between heaven and earth. Create that experience for yourself visiting some of these selected spots. Follow now the Imperial gulls gliding above the two miles of glass green mirrored Canal Grande calling to you, like gossip spreading from district to district… let’s go!
Day 1: 09:00 – 14:00
An early story of our city tells the tale of one single elderly woman staying behind on the isle of Malamocco. When the expected invaders arrived and asked where all the inhabitants had gone, she raised an arthritic finger and pointed in the direction of Riva Alto saying,”sempre dritto”. Those unwitting invaders were quickly ambushed in the muddy lagoon by those residents who had taken refuge on the high banks of this area of the young city. Like the legend of the crone, I too point you in the direction of Rialto with a friendly warning, Venetians still give directions gesturing and saying, “sempre dritto!”
If you are coming from the train station walk down Strada Nuova to Traghetto Santa Sofia. A
2 euro ride to cross the Grand Canal here, standing up like a local deposits you directly in the heart of the city. The famous Rialto Market for over 500 years this spot has vibrated with the energy of Venetian life. Daily, residents shop for fish, fruit and vegetables here. They chat with friends and grab an ombra, a small glass of wine, before heading home. Pick yourself up some fruit for breakfast, just don’t touch the goods! Use your best Italian and point, fondling the fruit is absolutely not allowed. Note the market signage, nostrano indicates locally grown, mostly on the island of St. Erasmo. Find the markers indicating the acceptable size of fish to be sold, high on the wall between the two covered loggia. Fishermen attempting to sell fish too small would have been fined.
From here let’s side trip across the Rialto Bridge and visit the currently free of charge roof top terrace of Fondaco Tedesco. An excellent way to orient yourselves for the rest of this adventure. See how Canal Grande curves just here. Spectacular aerial views and nice plaques clearly indicate visible palaces, churches and bell towers.
Crossing back over the bridge to the San Polo district, cut through the market stopping for a quick ombra or espresso as you do. It’s about time for sustenance. For lovely lunch time options let’s head towards the Santa Croce district. Family oriented Campo San Giacomo del’ Orio offers the shade of a few, hard to find in these parts, trees! Benches, cafes and restaurants too. I am a fan of the pizza at Il Refolo, just off the campo, with canal side dining. Here you can sit, dine and watch the gondolas glide by.
After lunch let’s walk over to the Frari Church I always feel so irrelevant in grand Gothic buildings, the Frari is no exception. Filled with masterpieces by Donatello, Bellini and Canova’s tomb. The cherry on the proverbial top is arguably the Titian. Tiziano, as the artist was known, is probably the most famous Venetian Renaissance master. Here in situ we find his masterpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin. While many Venetian churches pause at midday the Frari conveniently stays open. This spot still rings for residents. Notice all the locals popping in and out to pray and socialize.
Day 1: 14:00 – 19:00
Now let’s take an afternoon stroll towards the Zattere in Dorsoduro. Exiting the Frari church walk around to the back side and consider again the scale of this building. Take the calle directly behind the altar, walking under the sottoportego through tiny Campiello S. Rocco. Pass by the fresh flowers and plants being sold here. Cross the bridge and ask yourself, do I desire a coffee or a sweet? If so, Tonolo is the most popular with locals of the many options in the area.
Exiting Tonolo to the right, walking a few minutes, take the next right passing the fire station. As you cross the bridge ahead look left to see fire boats tucked in their water garage waiting. One of the many duties of Venetian fireman is to bailout sunken boats. A true treat to see from the practical perspective of your newly minted local eyes.
We are headed towards Campo San Barnaba. This area stretching between Santa Croce and Dorsoduro is lively with university students, artisan shops, vintage and antiques stores. Enjoy yourselves as you look for those daily life details suggested earlier. Cultural activities to consider include Ca’ Rezzonico, an excellent example of 18th century palace living. Hidden down on Canal Grande, just before you cross the bridge into San Barnaba.
The Salute church is our ultimate destination this afternoon. Reachable along the Giudecca Canal via a seductive strolling area called the Zattere. Or, if you prefer, internally passing some of the above sites.
The Salute Church is one of those Baroque architectural delights that visually remains with you forever. Enjoy the interiors spectacular pavement, the stunning Madonna icon painting hanging daintily over the main altar. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to catch an organ concert. After, take time on the steps
to muse upon all you have witnessed today. Across the canal holds the districts for tomorrows adventures for now we head back towards an apertivo and cena / dinner.
Along the Zattere, heading towards Campo Santa Margherita, stop by Nico’s. It’s time for gelato! If vino and cicchetti are in order at this hour, hang a right after Nico’s before the bridge. This brings you to a fine spot for an apertivo with a view of the Gondola repair shop! Osteria al Squero. Does it look familiar to you? Scenes from the remake of the Italian Job movie were filmed here. Continue your conversation further down this fondamenta as you find the multi generation family run Cantione gia Schiavi for another ombra and frankly, the best cicchetti in town.
Day 1: 19:00 – ???
As the sun sets on this day it is time to consider that Venice holds a famous history for debauchery and pleasure. Contemplate why this is so… Could it be the special way sunlight twinkles across highly adorned architecture creating a sense of theatrical folly or is it instead the easy way those little glasses of wine slide smoothly down the gullet!
Our next destination is one of my very favorite people watching spots, Campo Santa Margarita which holds many options for drinking and dining activities. My favorite being Franco’s Osteria alla Bifora Another popular spot for students and locals is Caffe Rosso. With your belly full of cicchetti and prosecco you can consider continuing the party with an evening of local musicians honoring Jazz greats at the fabulous Venice Jazz Club.
There is nothing quite so spectacular as catching Europe’s most famous living room at sunrise. A true shutterbugs delight, the morning light literally dances about this space…
While Piazza San Marco located in the San Marco district is a mass tourist destination generally avoided by locals during the afternoon we do enjoy the peace of the piazza early mornings. It seems unlikely to me that you will travel all the way to Venice and not want to visit this spot. So, I suggest the earlier the better. Perhaps even treat yourself to a cafe, just as it opens, standing up with other locals at legendary Caffe Florian. This cafe has been here since the 1700’s. You are drinking coffee in the same bar that many a famous face has visited, to name drop just a few… Casanova, Hemingway, Monet, Lord Byron, Dickens, me and now you! This experience should get your day of role playing as a local going! Note: the moment you sit, the price of your espresso triples.
Day 2: 09:00 – 14:00
Visiting the gold laden Byzantine Basilica is free and well worth a short wait in line. Leaving the Piazza before the masses arrive, walk along the water towards the trees in the distance, we are now in the sestiere of Castello. Passing through Vivaldi’s old stomping grounds, humming the Four Seasons as you go. Cross the Arsenale bridge, just past the boat stop of the same name, hang a left and seek the door to the Arsenale Naval Museum’s Ships Pavillion. A wonderful experience for fulfilling all your seafaring curiosity. Upon exiting notice that wooden bridge in front of you, remember it, we’re coming back to cross it later. For now let’s back track towards the waterfront and head left to Via Garibaldi and the Giardini. Here you find yourself entering a true Venetian neighborhood. The overly photographed laundry hangs about, children play, women shop, men smoke and gossip. Imagine living here, notice there are a few less bridges in this area. The islands of Castello are larger than the others we have visited thus far.
Time for a lovely coffee break at the Serra dei Giardini breathe in the green. I find this part of the city to be most relaxing. Lunch and markets can be found along Via Garibaldi. Perhaps you packed a picnic with goods picked up at Rialto yesterday? If so, head out further to Fillipo’s favorite spot, the Parco delle Rimembranze.
Day 2: 14:00 – 19:00
A siesta in the park might be just what you need as you take time to ponder all this urban beauty. Heading back into the thick of it all, digesting your lunch as you meander through the labyrinth connecting Castello to Cannaregio.
From the Arsenale area take that previously noted wooden bridge. This time we walk away from the lagoon towards a visit to San Francesco della Vigna. This is truly the best part of town to be lost in. Streets are narrower here, bacari / small Venetian bars pop up here and there, locals roam with rolling shopping carts, Church doors are open and shutters are ajar. Take time to just BE here.
We are slowly heading towards Fondamenta Misericordia in Cannaregio to catch the setting sun. To get there you can choose to walk along Fondamenta Nova (on a clear day you can see the Dolomite Mountains in the distance) or walk internally through Campo San Giovanni and Paolo bobbing and weaving in the direction of the Ferrovia.
Day 2: 19:00 – ???
All along the lengthy Fondamenta Misericordia and connecting Fondamenta Ormesini there are options to stop for a glass of wine, a spritz and a meal. My fellow spotters like these great options, Paradiso Perduto and Al Timon. I, of course, eat my husbands cuisine at Chef Domenico’s Bentigodi, just off this fondamenta towards the highly recommended neighborhood of the Jewish Ghetto where you can also find my favorite Kosher restaurant, Gam Gam.
Some final thoughts, throughout your visit you are noticing reflections upon the waters surface that appear to be entire other worlds. Gaze deeply but please don’t go in. The waterways of Venice are clean enough thanks to the tides, but one should never swim here in the historic center. It is unsafe and illegal. This includes the terribly tacky tourist activity of dipping in a toe. Don’t do that. You are likely to slip on the seaweed covered marble steps and end up visiting the hospital in San Giovanni and Paolo. That is a spot I only recommend to cat lovers seeking a visit with our local feral felines.
La Serenissima is profoundly beautiful in a way no other place has yet proven to me to be. I hope this itinerary shows you that. In her grit and glitter the islands soul shines. Keeping that alive are the residents you meet while you wander and you too, dear traveler. Enjoy and go forth to share the truth about a magical place built upon the sea.