There is no city in the world that is made of the stuff of dreams like la Serenissima, Venezia, Venice. From the limpid canal waters, a haunting oxidised copper green, to the grandeur mixed with decay of some of the most harmonious buildings ever conceived by the human mind. Venice is still alive, rebounding while dying, symbolised by the sea water lapping at its foundations, a little clearer each year, a sign of a return from the polluted past, symbol of which are the oysters clinging to every pylon.
The word “Serenissima” means “supremely serene”. The serenity of the place is palpable if you let it speak to you…the buildings, the water, the vanishing way of life, the idea that it is vanishing, that a city is slowly sinking, all of it contributes to this sublime feeling of timelessness, history past and present, and a wistful drift into the future. This feeling is compounded by the morning mists, the rising tides that often flood the streets, the colours, the flavours, the sky, the presence of the sea, and the fantastical dreamscape that the city lives and breathes.
Covid has not been kind to Venice, decimating real estate prices, driving away the tourists on which the city depends for 80% of its revenue, pushing businesses to the brink, and many over. Even Carnival, that most spectacular of festivals, has been a muted affair, but given that the festivities had been cancelled over the past few years, this was a much-improved sign of life.
So many visitors to Venice lament the astronomic prices, the touristic feel, the rip-off menus and outrageous prices, and of course the hotels don’t come cheap. But this is what happens to those visitors who don’t know where to look, how to visit, or when to come. Now is the time.
When planning a visit to Venice, the off-season is the time to come. Winter. During the week rather than the weekend. These two factors alone will transform your experience—you will be able to get a table in the good restaurants, the streets won’t be choked with people, the sites will be accessible, and honestly, Venice is far prettier in the cold and misty weather of winter than in the sweltering funk of summer.
Where to Stay
If you are staying for more than a few nights, certainly consider an apartment. VRBO and Airbnb as well as the hotel booking sites, have plenty to offer. I have had better luck with the specialist Venice apartment site of veniceaparment.com, which seems to have a more curated set of places to choose from, offers more on-the-ground hand-holding…something I appreciated a good deal when checking in. The idea of a key lock box on some very-hard-to-find apartment doesn’t inspire in the same way that meeting someone in an easy-to-find-place or being escorted to the property. There are times when an AirBnb is just a little too laissez-faire.
These are hotels that we have stayed in and which have delivered fabulous experiences, but there are many to choose from.
The Gritti Palace (5*L) (Santa Maria delle Salute), Campo Santa Maria Del Giglio, 2467. Elegant and timeless. One of the most beautiful hotels in Venice without doubt. It helped of course that we were upgraded from an eye-wateringly expensive room to the Hemingway suit, giving us a breathless perch over the Grand Canal and two balconies on one of the side canals. The experience will last a lifetime. As part of Marriott Luxury Collection, you can always use points!
The Bauer (5*L) (Santa Maria delle Salute), San Marco, 1459. One of Venice’s top hotels. Beautifully located, impeccable service. The bed wasn’t the most comfortable, but the bar and breakfast are exceptional.
Hotel Saturnia and International (4*) (Santa Maria delle Salute), Calle Larga XXII Marzo, 2398. A bit like a medieval maze, this hotel is quirky and well located. Our room looked over one of the canals, but during the “garbage boat” run, the sound of bottle collection was deafening. Apart from that, the location is right in the heart of it all.
Ruzzini Palace Hotel (4*), Campo Santa Maria Formosa, 5866. We loved the location and setting a bit off the beaten track but near many of the gastronomic delights which keep bringing us back to Venice. They have a room on the piano nobile which is one of their top suites which has incredible views over the piazza on one side and over the canal on the other. Sumptuous and fabulous.
Things to Do
Venice is a city to be felt. This is best done by getting lost and staying lost, walking and walking until your legs and feet give out. Given that every turn, every building, every canal literally sings out to you with glory, it can be forgiven to not be deliberate about hitting the sights. Of course, if you do hit the sites, visit the churches, there are so many guides to help you along…but among the not to miss should be the Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo, a museum of perfume and textiles, trades in which the Venetians excelled. The Guggenheim Museum for its superb selection of Modern Art. St. Mark’s Cathedral for its unforgettable beauty.
La Fenice. This is perhaps the most glorious opera house in the world. Being inside is like being inside a gilded wedding cake, frosted from the inside. It is so ornate, so beautiful, and the acoustics so perfect, to see a concert there is a treat of a lifetime. Do check their schedule ahead of time and see if something, anything, is playing there whilst you will be in town. It is so utterly worth it.
Murano…of course you can organise a tour of some kind through your hotel—an expensive but also convenient way to be taken to a glass-blowing factory and a shop…but it is just as easy to save and enjoy by taking the traghetto across and just walking the streets.
There are many ateliers that you can poke into and around, and see glass being blown by master craftsmen, and some truly spectacular showrooms of some the older and finer master glassblowers. There are many places to visit, some rather spectacular showrooms, and most are willing to let you have a look around. To think that it might take as many as six people three months to make one of the larger, more ornate chandeliers, it is not so surprising that they can cost upwards of $300,000. One place we visited had a salmon pink dining room on the top floor of their palazzo complete with salmon pink glass walls, salmon pink chandeliers, and salmon-pink topped tables. Extraordinary.
Burano is a pretty little island worth visiting for its colourful houses. It is intensely photogenic and worth a stroll. The island was famous for lacemaking, and stopping there is an opportunity to add to your collection.
Cafes and Pasticcerie
Rosa Salva, (near Fondamente Nove), Campo Santissimi Giovanni e Paolo, 6780. This neighborhood is a bit of a curiosity, as it is where the stables used to be located. I know. Horses in Venice? Yes, once upon a time. There is a nearby pharmacy and medical museum (same square) that is intriguing. Rosa Salva makes a delicious Rhum Baba, one of my favourite desserts. A tiny little place that also makes delicious cakes. (Quite close to the Libreria Acqua Alta).
Dal Nonno Colussi (Dorsoduro), Calle Lungo San Barnaba, 2867A. A traditional little bakery that makes delicious, sweet focaccia that is more like cake. Their amaretti are to die for.
Pasticceria Nobile (Canareggio—across from DeSPAR), Canareggio, 1818. They make nice cakes but their meringues are out of sight.
Pasticceria Giovanni Pitteri (Canareggio), Canareggio, 3843/4. They do a top secret pistachio and prosecco cake that is made with almond flour, bitter almond extract, the Venetian sweet focaccia and is covered with an apricot and prosecco glaze, and studded with candied fruit and pistachios. It is heavenly.
Florian, (San Marco) Piazza San Marco, 57. This historic café is one of the most beautiful and historic places to have coffee in Italy. It is a tourist location too, one of the only ones included here. But it is worth a visit at least once in your life. During Carnival, Renaissance costume is often required. Looking through the windows is a step back in time.
Harry’s Bar (San Marco), Calle Vallaresso, 1323. I know. But if you want to have a bellini or bloody Mary in the place that invented these drinks, then it is an obligatory stop. Never mind that one drink is as expensive as a meal in a trattoria, it is a once-a-visit experience.
There are lot’s of things to buy in Venice. Handmade paper, handmade leather goods, gondolier slippers, carnival masks, felt hats, gloves, hand-blown glass, just as a start. These are some of the less obvious.
Antica Drogheria Màscari (San Polo—not far from Rialto), San Polo, 381. A cross between an old corner store and a spice shop, this place is filled with curious eats—jars of delicious jams and preserves, bottles of unusual herbal concoctions, and healing potions, a treasure of spices, and other culinary curiosities.
Libreria Aqua Alta (Fondamente Nove), Calle Longa Santa Maria Formosa, 5176b. Floating book store. This quirky bookseller of used and new books located near Fondamente Nove, has most of its books in floating plastic containers, and some even in the hulls of old boats. Given the noted damp of the floors, and just how close the water level is out the back door and onto the canal, is illustrative of how at certain times of the year you might be ankle-deep in water as you peruse the shelves! There are plenty of foreign-language titles to choose from.
G.R.A.L. (Ca d’Oro), calle de l’oca, 4303. My family long ago realised that going anywhere with me went stopping to look at pots and pans. If you have room in your suitcase, and buying cooking supplies wherever you go is an affliction for you as it is for me, then this “little” restaurant supply store is well worth stopping in to.
DeSPAR (Canareggio), Campiello de l’Anconeta, 1939-1952…I know it is silly to include a supermarket here, but the setting in Teatro Italia for this supermarket is an inspiration. Stop in if you happen to be nearby. You will likely pass it on your way to the Cicchetterie along the Misericordia.
Venetian food. Many people don’t realise that Venice, and the Veneto region more broadly, is one of the most important gastronomic areas of Italy. The Venetian lagoon offers a bounty of seafood, particularly molluscs, crustaceans and cephalopods that rival even such places as Hong Kong. But the Veneto is also the capital region of polenta, risotto, many pickled preparations (of vegetables but also fish—note the Spanish and Byzantine influence), but also unforgettable dishes like liver served with onions. The radicchio of Treviso is another such local specialty.
While most of these places will have a menu, it is often a good strategy to throw yourself on the mercy of the host/ess and just ask what is particularly good that day, or what they would recommend. “Mi metto nelle sue mani” (I place myself in your hands) or “Ci fidiamo di voi” (we have faith in you are useful expressions to have to hand. “Mangiamo tutto” (we eat everything) is also guaranteed to please. You will be repaid handsomely for your openness and curiosity.
Venetians are obsessed with the seasons, and indeed, the seasonal regulations around what seafood can be harvested and served when is a fascinating lesson in just how many different things are on offer, but also how fleeting the seasons are, and how delightful. These are some items worth looking out for: anguilla (eel, filleted and grilled), mollecche (baby soft shell crabs, fried), granseola (spider crab, usually served just so or with salad), cannocchie (mantis shrimp, served raw or lightly cooked), piovra (octopus, typically grilled), xxx (razor clams cooked with a little butter, white wine, and parsley).
Trattoria Antiche Carampane, (San Polo—not far from Rialto Bridge) Rio Terà de le Carampane, 1911. This is a delightful little restaurant tucked away where google maps struggles to compute. A traditional Venetian.
Osteria Da Fiore (San Polo—not far from the Rialto Bridge), Campo San Polo, 2202. This restaurant began as a cichetteria. It is in a barge, and every now and again you can feel the sensation of being on the water, but without knowing that, you might never notice, so seamless is the margin between building and barge. It is a Michelin-starred restaurant, and while their specialty is seafood, you will also find steak and other plates to satisfy the carnivorous. It is expensive, but I cannot honestly say I have ever had razor clams that tasted anywhere near as delicious as these, or a plate of pasta cooked with ricci di mare, sea urchin, that was more satisfying. It is elegant and excellent and the wine list is superb. They have their own cookbook which is excellent.
Osteria Alle Testiere, (Castello) Calle del Mondo Novo, 5801. This is a wonderful local traditional Venetian restaurant. It is tiny. Medium-expensive.
Al Covo (Castello), Campiello della Pescaria, 3968. We have been eating in the restaurant for many, many years, and to see them grow from a small, quality, neighborhood place to a small temple to fine Italian cuisine, has been a delight. The consequence of this is the necessity of reservations well in advance. The food is exceptional, based as it is on local, seasonal ingredients. The hostess, an American gal who was swept off her feet many decades ago by her husband who presides over the kitchen, has become so Italian you would never know…this place is a real gem. Expensive.
Corte Sconta (Castello), Calle del Pestrin, 3886. This is an absolute favourite. The seafood is fresh and abundant. The restaurant is lively. The preparations are traditional. It is a restaurant in the old style. On warmer days, sitting in their sun-dappled courtyard is a real treat. Seasonal Venetian seafood at its very best.
Osteria al Cantinon (Canareggio), Calle de le Colonete, 2152. Creative Venetian, canal-side dining, delicious, well-priced. The squid ink pasta with cuttlefish on a recent visit was exceptional as was the grilled St Peter (John Dory) with artichokes. Their tasting menu is worth experiencing.
Osteria Anice Stellato (Canareggio), Fondamenta della Sensa, 3272. This restaurant has maintained a traditional Venetian experience, but does so with modern interpretations of classic dishes. It is reasonably priced, woman-owned and operated, and consistently good.
Trattoria da’a Marisa (Ghetto, Stazione, Canareggio), Fondamenta S. Giobbe, 652. A true hole in the wall restaurant. It follows the old tradition that whoever calls first sets the menu for the evening. The options are fish, meat, or selvaggina (hunt). The family was originally Macellai (butchers) and so their skills with meats are exceptional, as is their access to quality ingredients. The restaurant is very off the beaten track, and is just down from the old slaughterhouse, which is an architectural curiosity with its marble effigies to the beasts once slaughtered there. The prices are good, the food is abundant, and some of the dishes were unforgettably delicious when we ate here. The bacala mantecato (this is stockfish, dried salt cod, that has been de-salted, soaked in milk to soften, and whipped to a light and airy texture) was superb. Their pickled “sarde in saor” was divine, and the bite-sized fillets of pickled white fish was so delicately handled, they tasted still fresh from the sea. The polenta was unbelievably smooth, almost like a pudding, with a pleasant gumminess that went beautifully with the fish. The baby octopus served in a tomato sauce laced with cinnamon was off-the-charts scrumptious. The wine is carafe house wine, perfectly good. There is no menu. You eat what they prepare. Cash only. Prix fix. No substitutions. The owners are characters.
Hostaria Baccanera, (Fondamente Nove area) Campiello de la Cason, 4506. This is a relatively new addition to the dining scene in Venice, but has quickly established itself. The wine list is excellent, it is a small place, nestled on the corner of a small piazza, and the menu is an inspired, elegant, update on traditional Venetian cooking. Pasta with octopus, pasta with duck, pasta with shad roe…starters of smoked octopus, main courses of perfectly grilled fish and meat. Elegant. Fairly expensive.
Osteria Ae Botti (Giudecca), Giudecca, 609. A bit off of the beaten track. Food is good and proper, not so expensive, and the place is not at all touristy. On the waterfront. Best in the warmer months when you can sit outside.
Vecia Cavana (Canaregio not far from Fondamente Nove), rio Tara S. Apostoli, 4624. Traditional Venetian. Elegant setting. Expensive.
Trattoria Anzolo Raffaele (Dorsoduro), Campo dell’Angelo Raffaele. Tucked away in a small piazza behind the Chiesa di San Sebastiano, well worth a visit for its amazing frescoes by Veronese, this restaurant is tiny, yet the wine list is fantastic. The food is part Friuli, part Venice, and has an excellent wine list. It is well-priced, and what every neighbourhood restaurant might aspire to be. Superb.
In continuing the thread of echoes of Spanish culture, the Venetian joy in tapas is echoed in the many cicchetterie, a mix between bar, tavern, and food temple, are found across Venice. While individual places are scattered around the city, there are a couple of areas in particular that are particularly rich. This is an evening experience, beginning around 18:30, with the idea being to take an aperitivo and a few nibbles in one, probably standing, a glass of something and a few more nibbles in another, still standing, and then settling down for something if the appetite is so inclined. As such, it is nicest to do this in one of a handful of areas where this type of dining is on offer.
Every establishment will have its own specialties, and while Venice is justifiably famous for seafood, in truth, there is plenty on offer that is meat or vegetable based.
The old Rialto Market
This is an atmospheric spot, and there are many wonderful little places, tiny even, serving an interesting variety of yummy things to eat. It is an area that tends to get more crowded, is a wee bit more expensive because of how central it is and is really bustling at night. Generally you will not go wrong with any of them.
Canareggio (rio della Misericordia)
This is my favourite area for this, as all of the cichetterie are arrayed along one long canal, with plenty of space for outside seating, and an abundance of places to choose from. The food quality is superb at almost all of them, and some of them also have exceptional wine lists to sample from.
These are some favourite spots
Oficina Ormesini, rio della Misericordia, 2689. This is a lovely stop, more modern in style, but exceedingly gourmet selection of cicchetti and an excellent selection of wine.
Il Paradiso Perduto, rio della Misericordia, 2540. The cicchetti here are traditional Venetian, arancini di riso (meat or fish filled rice balls), sarde in saor (pickled sardines), carciofi grigliati (grilled artichoke hearts). Prices are good, flavours excellent. This is a cheek by jowl restaurant and a wonderful place to stop after taking the edge off in the other places. Some nights they have live music.
Vino Vero, fondamenta misericordia, 2497. An intimate canalside wine bar with an excellent selection of wines by the glass.
Al Timon, Fondamenta dei Ormesini, 2754. More a restaurant, but a good wide-ranging menu taking in seafood and meat, with an excellent selection of wines.
Fondamente Nove (I do have that book on Venetian food from one of them
This is a very busy area for traghetto stops being one of the main landing points for people visiting the islands of Murano and Burano, but also coming from the mainland, or on one of the express services going around the lagoon and out to Lido or the other islands. There are many excellent tiny restaurants in the streets just south of the traghetto stops, and you will not likely go wrong with any of them because you are far from the tourists in this area.
Osteria alla Frasca (Fondamente Nove), Canareggio, 5176. This is a delightful little place tucked away in a small piazza. Dining out in the warmer months is divine, as they have a wisteria covered overhang that looks and smells divine.
Getting a sense of Venice before you go
I would strongly recommend Francesco da Mosto’s BBC series Francesco’s Venice is worth watching to give you a good historical and artistic background on the city before you go. It is highly informative and not at all boring.