The Grand Canal is lined with a varying mixture of expensive, tourist-targeting places to eat. But if you want to glimpse some local life, then Catina Do Mori is for you. This traditional Venetian haunt is so local that it doesn’t even have tables. Food and drinks are served at the long wooden bar. Said to have been around since the 1400s, locals claim that years ago the charismatic Lothario Casanova used to frequent the bar with his friends. They offer light food or cicchetti, which ranges from tramezzini – crustless sandwiches stuffed with cured meats and cheeses – to lightly fried artichoke hearts. Wash these down with the local sweet, fizzy red wine, surprisingly refreshing on a hot day.
Bar Do Mori, Sestiere San Polo 429, Venice, Italy, +39 41 522 5401
A stunning Dutch villa sits alone in the south of the lagoon. It is difficult to reach, and you would need to have or rent your own boat to get there. Built in 1925 by a migrant from The Netherlands, the white façade has red dormer-style windows and gables, which top a colonnaded portico. It gives this part of the lagoon a fantastical, even fairytale touch.
Malefatte (or ‘Misdeeds’) Boutique is a non-profit initiative run by Rio Tera dei Pensieri, a work-in-jail cooperative that sells products made by male and female prisoners from the jails in and around Venice. The hand-made goods range from T-shirts to stitched leather notebooks and canvas bags. The prices are low especially when you compare them to those in other Venetian boutiques, and the website claims that all items are made from torturous pasts and hopeful futures.
Malefatte Boutique, Santa Croce 495b, Venice, Italy, +39 41 296 0658
If you do find yourself in Venice on a crowded July day and need some respite, the nearby town of Chioggia will provide a tranquil getaway. The fishing town fancies itself as a scruffy, less touristy version of its well-loved neighbour. With arched bridges and narrow canals it does, in places, resemble it. However, it has far less art and perhaps is an example of how Venice might have looked had it not discovered the riches of trade. With some tasty seafood restaurants, it can make a nice day trip if you’re searching for local life and a slower pace.
This second-hand bookshop is nestled on the waterfront and, during the rainy season, has had problems with floods. Run by eccentric Venetian Luigi Frizzo, this store is home to hundreds of books both new and used as well as a pet cat. The books are chaotically stacked in old gondolas, canoes, bathtubs and barrels. You could spend many happy hours sifting through the selection of Italian and international reads on offer, but take some time to step out into the garden and see leafy plants standing beside a solid staircase made from old, colourful books.
Tourists flock to Murano to see the glass shops, Burano for its colourful houses, and Torcello for its nature reserve. Thus, the charming Sant’Andrea is often overlooked. Home to a ruined 17th-century fort made to defend the city from its enemies, the rest of the island is overgrown and unkempt. The top of the Island’s scruffy ruins makes for an excellent picnic spot with unrivalled views over the lagoon and city.
Another island frequently neglected by visitors, San Francesco is nestled between Burano and Sant’Erasmo and houses a tranquil monastery. With 4,000 cypress trees, the idyllic monastery gardens warrant a long stroll, and the medieval cloisters are also worth a visit. The otherworldly monk who shepherds visitors through the grounds tells the story of St Francis’s arrival on the island in 1220. According to legend, he planted his stick into the ground and it grew into a pine tree, then the birds flocked in to sing to him.
Due to its position at the eastern end of the city beyond the old dockyards, this church is often empty even in the height of the season. Started by Italian sculptor and architect Sansovino in 1534 at the behest of Doge Andrea Gritti, the façade was completed by Palladio in 1572. The Renaissance interior is large and airy and houses some exquisite frescos such as the Madonna and Child Enthroned by Antonio la Negroponte. Here a regal, delicate-faced Mary poses in a rose bower flanked by orange trees; her eyes look down to the naked baby Jesus, who she balances precariously on her knee.
Bacco is a restaurant hidden so far along the quiet Canal delle Capuzine that you are unlikely to just stumble on it. There are a few tables outside in the vine-covered garden, or in the winter you can find a cosy spot in the wood-paneled dining room. It is one of the oldest osteria in town and offers excellent seafood from spaghetti cooked with black squid ink to mussels and grilled sea bass. If you catch the owner in a good mood, he may pull you out of your chair and wheel you around the restaurant to rousing tango music.
Osteria al Bacco, Fondamente Capuzine, Canneregio, Venice, Italy, + 39 41 721 415
Come out at night and discover Venice’s ghosts of the past. Gather at the Rialto Bridge and be guided through hidden Venice, over silent canals and past abandoned piazzas. The guide will tell you of six gripping ghost stories and some little-known facts about the city. You’ll be taken through a labyrinth of quiet backstreet corridors and to sites that have witnessed bloody murders.