Poor old (actually, very old) Venice has taken something of a beating from the weather in recent months, but its spirit is nigh-on unbreakable, so it is onwards and upwards for years to come. When you read through our tips on what to see, do and experience you will quickly discover that we haven’t mentioned some of the old reliables such as Doges Palace, St. Mark’s Cathedral, and no churches whatsoever (there are about 140 of them, so do you blame us?). Instead, we have selected a personal blend of what we regard as the best of the bunch. Enjoy the read – and when you finish, think of heading over to one of the world’s most beautiful (and endangered) cities.
It is a question that most people who visit Venice for the first time ask themselves after getting, quite predictably, well and truly lost: do I need a map? What you need to know first is that, despite the city being such a tourist magnet, actual signage isn’t good. For people who like to know where they’re going this isn’t great news; for people who like to wander, get lost, and then, as if by accident, find their chosen destination, this is a bonus. The only tip we can give you is that with its many tiny bridges and warren of passageways, Venice is a perfect place in which to get disoriented. So, yes, have a street map to hand or on your smartphone, especially if you’re a once-off or occasional visitor.
One of the best ways to orientate yourself is by taking a walking tour. There are many to choose from: food/drink, history, art, architecture, hidden gems, nightlife, ‘secret Venice’, islands, and evening walking tours are easily the best non-frustrating visitor experiences. Various companies provide these (Google ‘Walking Tours Venice’), so we’re not here to plug any one of them in particular. What we will direct you to, however, is Venice Free Walking Tours (venicefreewalkingtour.com), a Venice-based company that offers ‘free or pay-what-you-like’ honesty tours created especially for solo travellers, couples, and small families. Unless you’re a skinflint, then they really are free, but suggested donations (which come in at least 50% of other walking tours) are always gratefully received.
Crikey, there are so many to choose from (and so many are also significantly expensive). Here is this writer’s personal top two, based on location, comfort and price. Ticking all of these boxes is Avogaria (Calle Dell’Avogaria, avogaria.com), a five-room boutique hotel that blends cosy/luxury with contemporary design. Somewhat pricier but more centrally located is Hotel l’Orologio (Riva de, Calle de l’Ogio, hotelorologiovenezia.com), a decidedly non-Venetian-like place situated right at the Grand Canal. Cue amazing views, and a place bang in the centre of the hip bar/café area around Rialto Mercato. The hotel also has two apartment accommodations, which offer more affordable options.
As with hotels, the visitor is completely spoiled for choice. Two important things to keep in mind: Venice caters to tourists, and transient tourists at that, so there can be complacency in food offerings; and the residents rarely visit (generally) expensive restaurants, preferring instead to eat in traditional bars that serve Cicchetti, or tapas snacks. With these pointers in mind, here are two great recommendations: the very affordable All’Arco (Campo San Polo, no website) is a traditional and very small wine bar (or bacaro) that is stuffed with food fit for purpose (especially if the purpose is to fill the gap between breakfast and dinner). Be warned: prepare to wait in line. At the opposite end of the food and finance scale, we have Glam (Calle Tron, Santa Croce, palazzovenart.com), the in-situ Michelin 2-star restaurant at the 5-star Palazzo Venart hotel. Expect supremely executed high-end service, as well as classic Venetian food created and prepared by chef Enrico Bartolini.
With Venice being such a tourist magnet (this is an understatement), it’s a given that the best bars are to be discovered and visited away from the obvious visitor hot spots. Here are some that might hit the mark. If you fancy a customised, craft cocktail or two, then Il Mercante (Fondamenta Frari, ilmercantvenezia.com) is the place. Named among the best in Italy by Gambero Rosso (one of the country’s most famous food/drink guides), this place is beyond classy. Birreria Zanon (Fondamenta dei Ormesini; facebook.com/birreriazanon) is a small and practical canal-side bar in the Cannaregio neighbourhood. It is particularly popular with young crowds that can’t get enough of its array of global craft brews and more-ish Cicchetti and tramezzini (tiny sambos served up crisp and toasty). From ground to sky, and hello to the Skyline Rooftop Bar, located on the 8th floor terrace of the Hilton Molino Stucky (Guidecca, skylinebarvenice.it/en). Inevitably, fees here are as high as the bar itself, but the breath-taking panoramic views are priceless.
Ancient art and architecture can be seen on virtually every street and corner of Venice, while the number of museums and very grand palaces are plentiful, but what about contemporary art living in different kinds of spaces? Displaying the work of developing and proven artists from across the world, Victoria Miro Venice (1994 San Marco, victoria-miro.com) opened in the city over two years ago and quickly established itself as a space that is part exhibition room and part artists’ retreat. The city’s first gallery to highlight street art, Giudecca 795 Art Gallery (795 Fondamenta San Biagio, guidecca795.com) displays many genres in non-traditional media that you wouldn’t usually associate with Venice. Finally, seek out Bugno Art Gallery (Sant Marco, bugnoartgallery.com), which is known for its art fairs as much as its showcasing of modern art.
Located less than 2km from Venice, the island of Murano is a perfect away-day trip from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Depending on what part of Venice you leave from, it can take about 30 minutes by Vaporetto – the frequent water bus service – to get here, and once you set foot on the ground you will quickly realise why it is so world-famous: its manufacturing of glass. There are other things to do and see on Murano, and as it’s less frantic than Venice you would be advised to take advantage of the elbow room. This said, have a good look at the glass on sale from pretty much every street shop – the quality and craftsmanship are beyond impressive.
Yes, it is quite likely one of the most obvious tourist traps that everyone falls into, but it has to be said that it’s also one of the most atmospheric. We are, of course, talking about gondola rides. The gondola was the primary form of transportation in Venice from the 12th century onwards, but choose a gondola these days and you’ll soon discover that you’ll have to pay through the nose to get from one part of the city to another. So, yes, it is one of those things you’ll be sorely tempted to experience, no matter what your thoughts on the topic are, but just remember that for 40 minutes (or so) you’ll be charged anywhere between €80-€100. Budget accordingly!
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA