by Luc O Cinnseala
Few destinations can summon up as much mystery, awe and wonder as Venice does. The canal-etched city on Italy’s north-east coast is somewhere that will have you asking more questions leaving than you had before you arrived. It’s a comparatively small city, yet crossing each of its 409 bridges and exploring every one of its 117 islands would take a lifetime. Here’s how to get the best out of a whistle-stop tour of the Floating City.
One of Venice’s many unique charms—as few people need to be told—is a complete lack of cars, buses or motorbikes anywhere beyond the end of its bridge to the mainland. This means that your feet and boats are your best friends for your time here.
Considering most of the city’s attractions are no more than 20 minutes on foot from each other, you’ll spend a lot of time walking. Comfortable shoes and water are essential, the latter being especially useful for surviving the 30-degree summer heat.
To travel longer distances quicker, to access areas that are not connected to the rest of the city by bridge or to simply appreciate the urban landscape from a different perspective, you can take the vaporetto. The city’s water bus covers all of the city and its surrounding islands, running 24 hours a day with varying frequency.
The service is a bit expensive, costing €7.50 for a single journey and €20 for a day ticket, so if you’re trying to cover large distances in one day, the latter might be suitable.
Most vaporetti have disabled access, making them a good choice for visitors with impaired mobility, for whom the city’s many bridges can form extremely inconvenient obstacles. Tickets for users in wheelchairs are a more reasonable €1.50.
The city’s more famous type of boat, the gondola, is slightly less reasonable, starting from €80 per boat for a half hour journey, rising to €100 after 7pm. That choice is yours.
Start your day with an authentic breakfast right in the middle of town. Caffe Del Doge (Calle dei Cinque 609) is a truly Italian experience, serving a range of fine Italian coffees far below the extortionate prices you’ll come to expect in Venice. If you need to see an endorsement for Del Doge, just look at the amount of locals it attracts, from gondoliers to shop-keepers—and Venetian locals don’t compromise on their morning coffee.
Morning: see the big sights before everyone else
Now that you’re set up for the day with good coffee, cross the iconic Rialto Bridge, stopping to look down at the Grand Canal and take in the nautical pageant that is rush hour in this fairytale city. From there, a short five-minute walk will bring you to grand and ornate Piazza San Marco, before it gets invaded by its daily barrage of selfie stick-wielding tourists.
If you’re organised enough to be at the square’s 98-foot-tall bell tower before it opens at 9:45am you should have access to the undisputed best view in the city with little or no queuing time.
Afterwards, spend some time exploring St Mark’s Basilica and spend at least two hours exploring the fabulous gothic Doge’s Palace, home to (amongst many things) the largest oil painting in the world—that’s 74.1 x 29.9ft! If you want to take a comprehensive tour of the palace, booking is highly advisable.
Roughly three minutes’ walk from the north-east corner of the square, and away from its notoriously overpriced cafés, you’ll find Dal Moro’s (Calle De La Casseleria, 5324), a unique take-away pasta shop with fluorescent signatures on its windows and pasta decorations inside. Grab a delicious pasta box from one of this hip eatery’s friendly staff and find a nice spot by a nearby canal. While you fuel yourself for the afternoon’s sightseeing, watch life on the water leisurely drift by.
Afternoon: get lost
Once you’re sufficiently fed and hydrated, walk east towards the city’s Castello neighbourhood where you’ll find the city’s Arsenale, formerly one of Europe’s greatest ship yards and now one of the primary locations of Venice Biennale, the contemporary visual art exhibition the city hosts every second year between May and November. Ordinarily, the building hosts a Naval History Museum chronicling the city’s sea-faring past, whose exhibits include weapons, models, illustrations and paintings.
Now it’s time to see Venice from the water! Hop aboard Vaporetto scenic route number 1 at the adjacent dock and travel up the Grand Canal at a suitably relaxed pace, taking in the stunning architecture of palaces, churches and bridges that line the waterway. There’s really something worth getting off for at every stop.
If you find yourself with some extra time, alight at Accademia and visit the nearby Squero di San Trovasao, where you can watch real Gondolas being built and repaired by master craftsmen. This is Venice at its most Venetian!
Continue to the other end of the Grand Canal on Vaporetto 1, alighting at San Marcuolo-Casino DX. As evening falls, explore Cannaregio, the sestiere (district) that traditionally housed the city’s Jewish ghetto—arguably the most authentic area in the city. Think narrow alleys, ornate squares, people conversing across balconies and few tourists.
Just across the Grand Canal in Santa Croce sestiere, aim for Trattoria alla Ferrata (Calle Larga dei Bari 1103), a traditional establishment adored by locals and tourists alike, serving the best in pasta, pizza and fish. It’s all boosted by friendly English-speaking staff and very agreeable prices. Whether you’re eating in its simple dining room or the inviting garden you’re guaranteed to leave with a full stomach and a smiling face.
Venice isn’t a clubbing destination but that doesn’t mean you can’t discuss your busy day of sightseeing over a glass of fine Italian wine or the local favourite spritz. As expected, the best wine bars are set in the narrow alleys off the busier tourist streets and are scattered around the city, with many offering tapas-style nibbles (cicheti). If it looks dark and mysterious from the outside give it a go; if the bar man smiles and only speaks Italian, you’re on to a winner.
Beer isn’t at the front of most Venetians’ minds but Il Santo Bevitore (Cannaregio 2393/a) has a good selection of craft and bottle brews, while showing sports on TV. Not particularly authentic but it’s one of a handful of bars in the city serving a specific purpose.
Arguably the swankiest of the Europe-wide chain’s properties, this hostel is situated in a in a former granary on the southern Giudecca Island, looking directly across to St Mark’s Square and served by Vaporetti lines 4.1, 4.2 and 2, which run 24 hours. With its accommodation and communal spaces situated in grand warehouse-type rooms, Generator boasts pool tables a late bar and restaurant.
Ostello Santa Fosca
Located across town in the aforementioned Cannaregio district, this hostel is conveniently close to the city’s main train station, not to mention a great base for the above itinerary. True to the city’s habit of recycling old buildings, this ostello is partially located in a 15th century church. It offers twin rooms, mixed and female dorms.
Swap the convenience of central Venice for cheaper accommodation and a late-night party atmosphere in one of the many quality campsites around the city’s less-famous mainland neighbour, Mestre. Fusina is one such campsite. This ‘tourist village’ offers private two-person cabins as well as a late bar, an on-site pizzeria and mini-market. A shuttle boat from the adjacent dock will also have you in Venice in 15 minutes.