Having last visited Italy as a backpacker on a super tight budget, subsisting on bread and cheese and knowing zilch about wines, I was ecstatic to return and meander through enchanting Venice with my husband this time.
TIP: While the weather can be a bit brisk in April, it’s a great time to visit and avoid the crowds.
Get lost (literally) in the backstreets of Venice, the “Floating City”
Despite some stating that Venice was over-rated, touristy and smelly at times, this “Floating City,” comprised of 118 small islands, is now one of our favorite places in the world. This is coming from two people who typically prefer off-the-beaten track adventures to the cacophony of larger cities.
Wanting to differentiate our experience from the 20 million tourists who visit each year, we sought to discover the true heart and soul of this incredibly unique city.
Getting lost in Venice’s back streets (known as calli) is a great way to start.
If you encounter a dead-end, just backtrack, turn a corner and you might come upon a square (known as a campo) with a cute restaurant or beautiful church.
Around the next bend, you might see one of the 180 small meandering canals (known as rio), straddled by one of the city’s 340 picturesque bridges.
Given my directionally challenged disposition, I might still be wandering the calli labyrinth, if it weren’t for my husband. The Venetian map we had was useless – who thinks it’s a good idea to only label every 4th street?
Since my internal compass is literally broken, I used said map to lead us in circles for 45 minutes. Once my human GPS husband relieved me of map duty, he found the hotel in 10 minutes. So, Venice is tricky, but navigable.
Indulge in Venetian-style tapas at a bacari (wine bar)
I highly recommend bacari (pronounced Bah-car-eeh) hopping your first evening.
Bacari are small local wine bars hidden all over Venice where you enjoy cicchetti (pronounced chee-KET-eeh) – Venetian-style tapas. You won’t be disappointed by the mouthwatering selections displayed in the cases at these quaint, cash-only establishments. While seafood features prominently, there are plenty of vegetarian options.
Stand at the counter and pair with a glass of wine or a Venetian spritz with Aperol, a bitter orange liqueur, combined with Prosecco (an Italian white wine). Savoring these small bites priced at 1 to 3 Euros, alongside Venetians who stop to socialize on their way home, is a fun, authentic, local experience.
TIP: Avoid indulging in touristy and over-priced Piazza San Marco.
Bacari places to try (bacari is the plural form of bacaro)
- Cantina Do’ Mori – Sestiere San Polo, 429. The oldest bacaro in Venice – open since 1462. Located down a small alley close to the Rialto Bridge. It was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” TIP: The entrance to the alley is right across from the Chiesa di San Giovanni Elemosinario.
- Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi, Dorsoduro 992, Fondamenta Nani. A legendary, family run bacaro, located across from the Squero di San Trovaso gondola workshop. TIP: They are closed on Sunday.
The early bird gets the worm (and avoids the crowds)
TIP: To avoid the crowds, enjoy relative solitude and photograph in the best light, visit popular sites before 9AM or after 5PM. Early morning fog can lend a mystical feel to your images.
Watch the sunrise over the Grand Canal as blue covered gondolas reflect on the water and seek out interesting reflections in St. Mark’s Square’s ever-present puddles.
TIP: If visiting from November to March, the square often floods due to high water. You will traverse the water via temporary platforms.
Skip the lines and take a Viator tour
While we typically prefer to explore on our own and abhor tours that require following the leader with a silly flag, we really enjoyed Viator’s two-hour tour of St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace. Learning about Venetian history from a local was that much more enjoyable since we skipped the crazy lines wrapping around the square.
After lunch, we opted for a two-hour city walking tour. We ended the day with a one-hour boat tour of the Grand Canal and smaller canals (rios). The combination of these three tours provided a fantastic overview, allowing us to plan where best to explore for the rest of our visit.
Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) is one of the most recognizable masterpieces in Venice. The pink marble, arched windows, and slender columns all contribute to its beauty.
Wander the halls and marvel at the decadent staircases and gilded ceilings of this Byzantine style palace. However, the palace is not all luxury and glamour as it also houses a darker side – the prison.
Moving from the Doge Palace interrogation room to the famed Bridges of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) provides an interesting experience and view.
Crossing the bridge, you can envision how prisoners must have felt peering through the stone barred windows at the beautiful gondolas in the Rio di Palazzo one last time, before entering the Venetian prison.
Feeling the chill as you walk through the prison and peer into the tiny, cold and damp cells, you can imagine how difficult being an inmate here must have been.
After exploring Doge’s Palace and the prison, we reveled at St. Mark’s Basilica’s elaborate interior and exterior. Highlights include the intricate mosaics from the 12th to 17th centuries embellishing the ceilings and floors, a gem studded altar, and the beautiful chapels.
Ending the day with a boat tour of the Grand Canal and the smaller canals was a highlight. Viewing the city and beautiful palaces (palazzos) from the water provides a unique perspective. Some of our favorite places in Dorsoduro were recommended during this tour (more on those later).
TIP: Splurge for a tour that includes the smaller canals as it provides a more intimate glimpse into the Venetian lifestyle.
Discover the real Venice in charming Dorsoduro
To escape the tourists and higher prices of St. Mark’s Square, explore this secluded, authentic Venetian neighborhood where many artists and designers reside. Dorsoduro is one of Venice’s six districts, known as sestieri.
Start at the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (Vaporetto stop Salute), one of Venice’s most recognizable landmarks.
Then, admire Dali, Picasso and Jackson Pollock at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, which is housed in a palazzo on the Grand Canal.
TIP: Make sure to visit the outdoor terrace, which has a great water level view of the Grand Canal.
Continue your art appreciation with a visit to the Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice’s famed Art Gallery.
TIP: If you’re hungry, stroll along Fondamenta Nani. Indulge in a super tasty pistachio or nocciola (hazelnut) gelato at Gelateria lo Squero (Dorsoduro 990, Fondamenta Nani). One of our tour guides indicated it’s a local favorite, with some of the best gelato in the city – we definitely agree.
Or, grab cicchetti at one of the best bacaro, Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi, Dorsoduro 992, Fondamenta Nani.
Look across the canal from the bacaro and be treated to a view of one of three remaining Gondola boatyards in the city, the Squero di San Trovaso. They have likely built or repaired many of the 350 black gondolas plying Venice’s waters.
If you’d like to revel at the opulence inside one of the palazzos on the Grand Canal, check out Ca’ Rezzonico. Enjoy the paintings, furniture, chandeliers, ceilings, and Venetian glass displayed throughout this 17th century palace.
End your exploration of this charming area at the Campo Santa Margherita, filled with children playing during the day and young people gathering in the evening.
If you’re interested in capturing a quintessential sunset shot over the Grand Canal, with Basilica di Santa Maria in the background, head to the Accademia bridge (near the Accademia museum).
TIP: For the best results, use a tripod (or a high ISO) and stay after sunset to capture the captivating blue hour. Notably, Venice is particularly alluring during this period after sunset before darkness descends.
Other Tips to maximize your time in Venice:
- Buy a day pass or multi day pass for the vaporetto (a public water-bus). This is much cheaper than water taxis and provides a leisurely view of the Grand Canal.
- Most places are open 9-12:30 and 3-7:30. Keep this in mind when planning lunch or you might go hungry.
- Rialto Market (in San Polo) is closed on Sundays.
- If you have Starwood points, consider splurging at the Westin Europa, located on the Grand Canal and a 5 minute walk to St. Mark’s Square
Eateries to try:
- Ristorante Al Covo (Castello 3968) – Indulge in tasty seafood and dark chocolate cake while enjoying the warm, inviting ambiance.
- Antiche Carampagne (Rio Terra delle Carampane ) – Enjoy the catch of the day. Located in San Polo, hidden away and hard to find.
- Gatto Nero (Burano) – open since 1965. Try the Risotto di go and tiramisu.
- Pasticceria Garbo (Burano Via S. Mauro 335) – Run by Giorgio Garga, third generation baker and owner. Try the Burano specialties – the S shaped “Essi” and spicy “Pescatore.”
- Try frito misto, a mixture of deep fried squid, octopus and prawns.
- Grab a drink at the Gritti Terrace at The Gritti Palace. This outdoor patio overlooks the Grand Canal and is open April-October.