One of the most popular cities in the world, Venice is more than a collection of famous sights to tick off - it's the perfect place to sit at a cafe, sipping a coffee and watching the world go by
Venice is so much more than just a tourist destination: it’s a real living, breathing city, but it is easy to forget this as you take in the main sights. It is best to throw away the map and wander around the labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and over the countless bridges that criss-cross the canals. Sip a cappuccino at a café on a quiet square, sample some fine local food, and indulge in the local pastime of people-watching. Quieter districts outside the main San Marco area, such as Cannaregio, Dorsoduro and Castello, are worth exploring.
When to go
Try to avoid the crowds during Carnevale time (February), and summer, and go in spring or late autumn instead. It can rain in November, causing minor flooding, but the Venetians are used to this, and you have the novelty of crossing St Mark’s Square on raised ramps to keep your feet dry. We had first-hand experience of the flooding when we walked into the breakfast room in our hotel one morning to find about two inches of water on the floor and all of the waiters frantically engaged in trying to pump out the water - breakfast entertainment!
The centre is quite compact, easy to get around on foot or by vaporetti, water buses that follow set routes around the main canals. They're great value: tickets are €5, or you can get a 24-hour ticket for €12. Hire a gondola if you really want the experience; they're expensive, at about €70-€80 for an hour, but time and price are always negotiable.
What to see and do
I would recommend limiting yourself to two or three main sights, and spending the rest of your visit exploring and absorbing the beautiful surroundings of wherever you find yourself. However, here are a few must-dos.
St Mark’s Square and the Basilica
Go very early to avoid the crowds. Afterwards, have a coffee at the opulent Caffè Florian, Venice’s most renowned café. A word of warning: it is expensive, at about €15 for a coffee. However, it has the best vantage point in the square to watch the pigeons flock around unsuspecting tourists! This is also a popular meeting place during Carnevale. A stroll on St Mark’s Square is romantic, magical and the perfect way to end an evening. Oh, and it is also free!
Palazzo Ducale and the Bridge of Sighs
Without doubt, the Palazzo Ducale is the most beautiful building in Venice and is not to be missed. Once the seat of the Doge, this is by far the finest example of gothic architecture to be found in the city. The Bridge of Sighs, with its fine and unusual sculptures, also lies nearby.
The Peggy Guggenheim Museum
This beautiful 18th-century Venetian residence houses modern art and offers a quiet space. Because of the crowds that swarm on to the Rialto Bridge, I would recommend viewing it from a gondola or one of the vaporettti, preferably in the evening, just as the sun is starting to set and Venice takes on a magical air.
Shopping is limited in Venice, but you should look out for some fine hand-made carnival masks, colourful Murano glass and delicate Burano lace (though avoid the tourist shops near St Mark’s Square). Venice is also known for its pretty stationery, hand-made books and fine pens.
Where to stay
Hotel a la Commedia
This is an excellent, centrally located hotel, between St Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge. All attractions are within a five-minute walk, and there are many restaurants and cafes nearby. Rooms are of a good standard, with lovely décor and furnishings, and start at about €250 per night.
Palazzo Sant' Angelo sul Canal Grande
Good value for money, this luxurious four-star hotel is in a quiet street near St Mark’s Square. It has beautiful spacious rooms (many overlooking the Grand Canal), wonderful breakfasts and friendly staff, and is less than a five-minute walk from the nearest vaporetto stop. Rooms start at about €300 in low season.
Hotel Savoia & Jolanda
This is a good bet if you are arriving from the main airport, with a location just beside the main San Marco vaporetto stop, and less than five minutes from the square. In the historical centre, it has stunning views across the lagoon. Rooms are medium in size, quite decadent and of a good standard, with huge bathrooms. Breakfast is good, with coffee made to order. Doubles start from €300.
Where to eat and drink
San Marco; +39 041 5237027, www.anticomartini.com
This beautiful, traditional-style fine dining restaurant, with a terrace overlooking La Fenice, is reputed to be the oldest restaurant in the city. It has an excellent, varied menu, with everything from pasta to tantalising meat and fish dishes, and crepes flambéed at your table! There's a great wine list and they serve Prosecco at about €10 a glass. Expect to pay about €80-€100 per person for a three-course meal with wine. A real treat.
Osteria Al Bacareto
Calle Crosera, San Marco; +39 041 5289336
This was a real find. A tiny, characteristic trattoria, it was packed to capacity with locals, and serves fantastic antipasti platters, with all types of Italian meats, cheeses and olives, accompanied by a glass of local wine. About €20-€25 per person.
Near Rialto Bridge; www.bacarojazz.com
Venice is generally quiet after 11 pm, but a mixed crowd hangs out at this lively cocktail bar until the early hours. The cocktails are great, and there's jazz on some evenings.