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No matter what your plans are for visiting Venice, the first thing to do is just to get lost. Set out from your hotel or apartment early in the morning without a map, without your phone and without any plans. If you’re staying in the center of town near Rialto or San Marco, I recommend orienting yourself towards the periphery. Just begin wandering the little alleys and streets by foot and get a feel for this strange city.
Wake up early and wander into a nice-looking cafe with a good amount of local people standing around inside. You might be at Tonolo, where the pastries are legendary. Or you might have found Caffe Rosso, in the heart of the student neighborhood. Either way, have a coffee and a few bites of whatever it is that looks good. Italians like to eat little bites like this standing up at the bar, or wherever there’s a bit of elbow room. You should try it as well because not only is it cheaper as you avoid the extra table service charge, it also makes more a great convivial atmosphere.
Once you’ve had your morning coffee, go towards the Rialto market at the center of the city. This is the heart of Venice, where fishermen bring in fresh seafood every day and it’s the perfect place to see the every day rhythms of the city. Stroll through the market slowly, taking time to people-watch and pick up something delicious. Then, head across the Rialto Bridge and towards Campo Santa Maria Formosa, where in an alley close by you’ll find the gorgeous bookshop called Acqua Alta.
The store is truly a reflection of Venice itself, with big piles of secondhand and new books haphazardly filling bathtubs, wagons and even a full-sized gondola. There’s a delightfully eclectic and intimate aesthetic. Cat lovers will be especially happy to see the furry creatures climbing nonchalantly through the bookshelves. If you’re interested in any aspect of Venice, you can pick up something interesting here.
Afterwards, walk eastwards towards Castello. It’ll take a bit of maneuvering and probably one or two wrong turns, but eventually you’ll find yourself at San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, a beautiful little church containing a cycle of works by the Venetian master Carpaccio. Keep an eye out for the sweetest little dog ever to be immortalized in paint. Afterwards, you might pop back over the Ponte della Commenda to take a look at a present day artist’s studio, the Galleria d’arte Stefan Popdimitrov, where the charmingly eccentric artist works in traditional techniques in a gorgeous studio seemingly untouched by postmodern trends.
When you’re hungry from all that walking, go towards Dae Fie, a neighborhood bacaro hidden away behind many twists and turns. This is a straightforward Italian bar with a lovely garden in the back as well as tables out front. They have pasta dishes as well as an assortment of fried goodies. The real treat, however, will be the lasagna made daily by grandmothers in area. Linger over a casual and lazy lunch and perhaps sip at a spritz, Venice’s mascot in beverage form, which is delightfully fizzy and refreshing with a bit of a punch.
After lunch, spend some lazy time window shopping. Along the Fondamenta dei Ormesini you’ll find many little shops selling things like clothing, masks and jewelry. Check out the jewelry boutique called Muranero, where the glass artist Moulaye will blow a Murano glass bead right in front of you. Every bead he creates is different, so if you do happen to pick up a souvenir, it’ll be truly one-of-a-kind. Spend some time wandering in this area where not many tourists will venture.
Afterwards, head back west and north on a winding path towards the hospital, which is actually housed in the historic building of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, a lovely piece of Venetian Renaissance architecture. Next to that building is the Gothic church called San Giovanni e Paolo, where many of the city’s rulers were buried. And if you’d really like a treat, stop by the pastry shop Rosa Salva in the same campo. It’s got some of the most glorious sweets in the city, like the pistacchio cream beignet, which must be tried to be believed.
For dinner, you’ll have already made your reservations at Al Timon, widely considered one of the best restaurants in the city. Try a Venetian specialty, like sarde in saor, or sardines with slow-cooked onions and sultanas, or spaghetti al nero di seppia, which is spaghetti in a sauce blackened with squid ink. Afterwards, grab a drink along any of the bars along the Fondamenta della Misericordia, which turns into a delightfully rowdy party at night.
Start your day with a coffee and then go directly towards Piazza San Marco, as you’ll be hoping to get there ahead of the hordes of tourists. If you manage to arrive at the Basilica before it opens, you’ll manage to skip the wait and perhaps even enjoy the morning vespers. This glorious Byzantine church is truly worth a visit, with its glittering mosaic-lined domes and its exterior dotted with plundered treasure.
If you’re the kind of person who loves history and grandeur, you’ll enjoy the Palazzo Ducale next door, where the Venetian Republic’s central government deliberated court cases, made laws, jailed dissidents and was very nearly overthrown from the inside (twice!). Renaissance art lovers might consider making their way towards the Accademia di Belle Arti, where there are glorious paintings by Titian, Veronese, Giorgione and all the Venetian masters. More modern types will enjoy the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It was once the home of Peggy Guggenheim herself, the heiress, bohemian socialite, and avant-garde art collector who broke all kinds of boundaries, amassed an incredible collection of modern art and discovered Jackson Pollock.
Have your lunch at the Corner Pub, just a few steps away from the Peggy Guggenheim. They make a perfect spritz and probably the best sandwich in the city. The people behind the bar are also terrifically friendly and you’ll find that much of the clientele are regulars who swear by the place.
Afterwards, wander towards the water’s edge along the Zattere, where you’ll find the one of the most delicious gelato shops in the city called Gelateria Nico. You might try the gianduiotto, which is a block of bittersweet chocolate and ground hazelnuts resting in a cloud of whipped cream. Or you might choose from the abundant flavors in the display case. The joyful choice is yours.
For dinner, you’ll take a tour of many different bacari in the city, having a glass of wine and some cicchetti at every stop. Cicchetti is the local version of tapas and you’ll find everything from seafood dishes to cheeses to tiny pieces of bread spread with unusual combinations. At Al Botteghon, you’ll find all kinds of inventive tastes and at 1 euro, 60 cents each, there’s no reason not to be really gluttonous and adventurous. Osteria ai Pugni near Campo Santa Margherita, All’Arco and Al Merca near Rialto market, and Enoteca La Mascareta in Castello are all great places to have a drink with little bites of delicious food.
If you’re really feeling the romance in the air, get up quite early on this day and find a gondolier to take you on a tour while everyone else is still asleep. You’ll find the city gloriously tranquil and the water of the lagoon flat as a mirror. The city is truly meant to be seen from a small boat like the gondola, which can pass between narrow canals and under low bridges.
Afterwards, spend this morning spontaneously exploring the city without a sense of destination and without any fear of getting lost. It’s the best way to see Venice, as you’ll get into all the little back alleys and shortcuts that aren’t marked on any maps. You’ll hit dead ends, but you’ll also surprise yourself as you might go down a twisting path and pop up somewhere completely different than what you expected. The labyrinthine logic of this city is totally unique and it must be approached with a curious and open mind.
For lunch, take the vaporetto across the canal to Giudecca, getting off at the stop Palanca for the eponymous restaurant La Palanca. It’s open only for lunch and it’s a local institution, making simple but delicious dishes that cater to the tastes of locals.
Afterwards, take some time to explore the little island of Giudecca. There are many little art galleries and shops along the waterfront, but it’s mainly a residential neighborhood with a lot of local life and plenty to explore. Lovers of photography will appreciate the museum Tre Oci, which puts on big exhibitions of photographers like Helmut Newton, Sebastiao Salgado and many more.
For dinner, go along with the spirit of the day and see if you’ll stumble upon any place that inspires you. If you see a place that’s buzzing with local people, you’ll know it must be interesting. Or, if you’d like, you can make an appointment at La Zucca, one of the best restaurants in the city that’s still affordable. They turn vegetables into incredible savory flans that will stun and delight you. Just make sure that if you go there, you don’t miss Gelateria Alaska, which is right in the neighborhood. Carlo Pistacchi, the owner, makes all the flavors with ingredients from his own garden and you’ll certainly taste the care and attention that he puts into his work.