Planning a trip to Venice? Here are some unusual suggestions and tips you probably won't find in your guidebook, including some of our favourite places to eat
Everyone has their very own private Venice, with their favourite secret corners that they want to share (or perhaps not) with other admirers of the city. This is our guide to the Venice that we enjoy and even if you’ve visited before, it may reveal aspects of La Serenissima that you haven’t yet discovered.
If this is your first visit, remember that you only get one chance to arrive in Venice for the first time and nothing compares to the delight of your first ride up the Grand Canal. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one of the older vaporetti with seats at the front. Sit back, and start to enjoy Venice. When you disembark, make sure you have your map to hand, as you don't want to get lost before you've arrived!
Your guidebook will tell you all about the places you really have to visit in Venice - St Mark’s, the Doge’s Palace and the Accademia, to name but three. However, here are some more top recommendations that you shouldn’t overlook.
When a friend returned from her first visit to Venice, we quizzed her about the places she’d visited. She had to admit that she actually hadn’t gone in anywhere; she was so fascinated by the city, she had simply wandered round looking at it. And you know, I think she got it right. There is nowhere like Venice, and no two parts of it are alike (as you will discover when you inevitably get lost).
Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Rome has the Sistine Chapel - Venice has San Rocco. Tintoretto spent 23 years working on this guildhall. The ground floor has scenes from the life of Mary, with a blood-curdling 'Slaughter of the Innocents' included. However, the magnificence begins as you mount the grand staircase and enter the great hall — your jaw will drop. And the side room contains the greatest of all Crucifixions and perhaps Tintoretto’s greatest achievement.
Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni
This is a smaller guildhall, and it’s like stepping into a jewel-box. The ground floor was decorated by Carpaccio - you'll see Saint George and the Dragon, but look out for all the background details where a whole world is at work and play.
Many people think they’ve been here, but they may have missed it, as it’s actually a very small area with low-ceilinged seven storey buildings. On the Fondamente di Cannaregio, look for the kosher restaurant Gam Gam — the entrance to the Ghetto is right there. It’s a fascinating little area, and a welcome relief from the nearby busy Strada Nova.
EIGHT TOP TIPS
1. Find a vaporetto that has seats at the front and is going to the Lido. All the other passengers will get off at the Lido, so you can move into the front seats and return to Venice and enjoy the ride up the Grand Canal in style.
2. The best way to see St Mark’s is to go to Mass on Sunday morning. This is what the basilica was built for, and as the lights will be on, you will see it in all its glory, and for free!
3. Coffee in St Mark’s Square? You pay a fortune at Florian or Quadri - instead, climb the grand staircase in the Museo Correr (directly opposite San Marco), find the cafeteria, take a table by the window, order your coffee and gaze down on life in the piazza while you enjoy it.
4. You have to see St Mark’s Square at night - magical!
5. Why stand in line to get into the Accademia when all the artists in there are represented in the churches around Venice? For a few euros, you can buy a Venice Chorus Pass at any church in the programme. This will give you admission to 16 churches in the city, including the Frari. You don’t have to visit them all right away, as the ticket is valid for one year.
6. Al Bottegon is hardly a secret, as it’s mentioned in all the guidebooks. But we're not recommending it here because of the amazing selection of wines and brandies or for the very cheap prosecco or for the mouth-watering cichetti (like tapas). No, the reason we mention it is that Signor Schiavi has a special secret: vino fragolini, a dessert wine made from strawberry-shaped grapes. He keeps it under the counter, so ask for it, and tell him if you want the rosso or the rarer bianco. (Cantina di Vini Gia Schiavi, Fondamenta Maravegie 992; +39 041 523 0034. Closed on Sunday.) Competition! Another bar has opened (2012) further along the fondamenta towards the Zattere.
7. Instead of joining the queue in Piazza San Marco to climb to the top of the Campanile, why not jump on a vaporetto and zoom over to the church of San Giorgio Maggiore instead? Arrive early and head for the bell-tower - the elevator will carry you up to another level where you can view Venice, the Giudecca and other islands in the lagoon from sky-high. And what a view! St. Mark's Square and all of Venice is spread out before you. Count the leaning towers! We think this is the very best view in Venice.
8. Try fior di latte flavour ice cream. It’s heaven!
All the restaurants we recommend are of a good standard, and affordable. Prices are comparable to London. There are plenty of pizzerias where you can eat cheaply, but beware of the menu turistico - these vary in quality and quantity and can be really boring. Most restaurants are closed one day a week.
Casin dei Nobili
One of our favourites. There’s an indoor room and a room that’s open to the stars (don’t worry, they have a canopy that completely encloses it if it rains), which is very pleasant. It opens for lunch, and in the evening, it’s a combined restaurant and pizzeria. It has an interesting menu, which is worth studying. For instance, under Contorni, you’ll find Olive Ascolane. The olives are covered in a thin layer of sausage-meat and deep-fried, and we usually share a portion of these as a nibble to whet our appetite. The fish is very good, and the pizzas extraordinarily cheap. It may give your appetite an edge to know that you’re eating in a former brothel!
Calle Tolletta (near Campo San Barnaba), Dorsoduro 2765. Vaporetto stop: Ca’ Rezzonico.
Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili
This elegant restaurant is a slightly upmarket version of the Casin dei Nobili. It has a terrace on the Giudecca Canal, and adjoins the Gelateria Nico, Venice’s top ice cream emporium. The Caprese as a starter is enough for two people to share. We had amazing tomato and melon soup and we recommend the stuffed zucchini flowers. The mixed grilled fish is enough for two, and the sea bass with pistachios is excellent. One friend (who says he doesn’t like desserts) lapped up his chocolate souffle, and another thought her semifreddo with cherries the best dessert she’d had.
Zattere, Dorsoduro 924/25. It's right by the Zattere vaporetto stop.
Everyone finds their way here, and though it’s extensive (and they’ve opened an annexe around the corner), it’s still necessary to book. The standard is good, and it’s exceptionally good value.
Fondamente Maravegie, Dorsoduro 1016.
There are two sittings at this small restaurant, at 7pm and 9pm, and you should make your booking at least one day ahead. The menu changes daily, and they take it very seriously. However, the rich imagination in the cooking and interesting combinations of flavours it produces are worth their effort.
Calle del Tentor, Santa Croce 1762, Dorosodoro. Vaporetto stop: San Stae, and follow your map towards Campo San Giacomo del Orio.
You’ll know it by the huge demijohn at the door. It has heavy timber tables and wooden chairs, and doesn’t look like anything special. But the food is something else again! Booking essential.
Fondamenta della Sensa 3272, Cannaregio. Vaporetto stop: Sant Alvise.
Al Vecio Marangon
This useful intimate restaurant is open from 10am till 10pm, and is closed on Wednesdays - but we've found that this is very flexible indeed. It serves typically Venetian cichetti and dishes of the day, all delicious and very reasonably priced. It isn't fine dining, but the patrona has the knack of serving the food attractively, and it's very friendly. You can sit outside or enjoy the cosy interior and watch the food being prepared. Campiello Cento Pietre (off Calle Tolletta), Dorsodoro 1220, 3123 Venezia Tel: 041 523 5768
First you have to make your way to Torcello, one of the furthest islands, but worth the visit for the ancient basilica. Villa 600 is at the top of the canal, opposite the Locanda Cipriani. The Villa is a converted farmhouse, and it’s heaven to eat in the garden. Enjoy a lazy lunch, watch the butterflies, enjoy the peace. They use a lot of local produce, and it’s a total delight.
Fondamenta Borgognoni 12, Torcello; +39 041 527 2254.
It’s not easy to find, but it’s worth tracking down. Small, elegant and very busy, with an interesting modern menu with the finest ingredients – and at moderate prices. We’ve only been once, but we’ll definitely go again (and again!)
Calle dei Preti/Crosera, 3815 Dorsoduro, 30123 VeneziaTel: 041 275 0836 Vaporetto stop San Toma www.improntacafevenice.com
It’s reputed to be one of the very best restaurants in Venice and naturally tries to discourage tourists by not serving pizzas or ‘tourist menus’. Do go, and tell us what you think (and if you find it, you win a prize!)
San Polo 1911 (near Ponte delle Tette) 3125 Venezia Tel: 041 524 0165
We do have a favourite but I'm not telling! It's difficult enough to get a booking without even more people trying. My tip, if your heart is set on a specific hotel, is book as early as possible for the best rooms (we book, when we leave, for the following year!) or cross your fingers and hope for a late cancellation. Our favoured area to stay is in the Dorsoduro district which is less crowded than the touristy area near St Mark's Square and yet is in easy reach of wherever you want to go, either on foot or by vaporetto. There are wonderful views across the Zattere, the sunniest outdoor eating places, shops which the locals use, and both the Accademia and Dogana Galleries are on your doorstep for Art, ancient and modern.
Once you have booked your hotel, your next step must be to find it on a map. Some hotels give bookers advance details of exactly how to find their address when you arrive in Venice, which vaporetto to catch and at which stop to disembark. As you will be carrying luggage, you will want to find the shortest walk to the front door. Remember some hotels were built with the front facing a canal for easy access by gondola, so if you arrive on foot you may now have find the new entrance in a narrow back-street. Do your homework first - pinpoint your hotel, or at least its street, on a map before you begin your journey to Venice. One year, we rescued some tourists lost at midnight without a map, pulling heavy luggage up and down the narrow streets with no idea which direction to turn. Be like the boy scouts - be prepared.
THE CAPPUCINO HABIT
All bars in Italy are required by law to display their tariff outside their premises, so you should always check how much you’re going to be charged before you order your much-needed cappuccino. If you choose to sit outside and enjoy people-watching in the sun, then you will be charged more than if you stand at the bar. And if you’re in a busy tourist area, the prices rise as well – you pay half the price in the next street around the corner!
A useful addition on the busy tourist track near the Frari and the San Rocco is Bottega Del Caffe Dersu
which sells extraordinarily cheap refreshments in a bright modern setting.
There is no shortage of shops in Venice where you can buy glass, and many people like to visit Murano, the traditional home of glass-making. A lot of the glass is not of good quality, and it’s a great shame that Venetian glass is judged on the basis of this mass-produced rubbish. Beware pseudo imports from China that will not have an authentic Murano label. A number of talented craftsmen and women are working in the Dorsoduro, and you will find them if you stroll from the salute to Campo Santa Margarita. You will find very high quality at reasonable prices (though some can be very dear!) and much better value than you will find in some other areas.
You will need an up-to-date guidebook to check opening times of museums, restaurants and churches. I like the Rough Guide, Lonely Planet and Time Out series. But you may want to extend your reading with books that give you the taste and flavour of the city.
Venice by Jan Morris is the standard work, but you will enjoy it more if you are already familiar with the city. One to read on the journey home.
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt will make you feel as if you’re on nodding terms with Venetian aristocracy and high society. It’s bursting with gossip – he'll never be invited again!
No Vulgar Hotel by Judith Martin is my favourite, and is essential for the Venice addict. Martin understands Venice and confides its secrets in an irresistible style. It’s only published in America (by Norton) but it’s worth getting on Amazon.
TEATRO LA FENICE
If you can’t get tickets for a performance, you can take a tour of the theatre building instead, and it's well worth it, especially as in 2003 the Phoenix rose once again, beautifully restored, from the ashes of the fire in 1996 that destroyed 80 per cent of the building. Tours are offered daily, and you can now do it in your own time with an earphone guide in your own language. (Enquiries: Phone +39 041 24 24; www.teatrolafenice.it).
Note that the loading bay for the scenery is at the back of the theatre, on a canal. Yes, everything arrives by water - this is Venice, after all. And notice that this is the Calle Maria Callas; as far as I can make out, she's the most up-to-date person, and the only woman who isn't a saint (though she was a diva), to have a street in Venice named after her.
If we gloomily think of death in Venice, of course we must blame Mann and Visconti for the book and the film. And then there was Don't Look Now to add an extra chill to our associations with the city. But don't forget that Katharine Hepburn gave us Venetian sunshine, laughter and romance in Summertime, and more recently even James Bond made our pulses quicken when he demolished a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Casino Royale. Yes, there's a lot of life in Venice, and far from being a dying city, it keeps reinventing itself in order to stay alive. For centuries Venice crumbled away and that is part of its charm, but we want Venice and all its ornate flourishes to continue to cast their magic spell on us for more centuries to come and that is why a new urgency is being given to restoration. Today you can't look at Venice's skyline without seeing cranes towering over domes; scaffolding is covering many palazzos, canals are being dredged and their walls repaired to keep dampness out of foundations; new drainage is being installed; and most importantly a barrier is being built to keep the high tides out of the lagoon. All this is hugely expensive and so every effort is made to raise extra cash. Large adverts promoting designer goods are placed on the hoardings covering scaffolding - in July 2010, the Bridge of Sighs was surrounded by ads for designer watches and the Accadamia Gallery was shrouded in huge Burbury ads as expensive restoration took place out of sight. By the summer of 2012 the restorers had moved on. Big summer concerts bring big spenders to St Mark's Square where a large stage and banks of seating sometimes compete for attention against the backdrop of St Mark's Cathedral. I can hear you groan with dismay at the thought of such monstrous intrusions into the historical and picturesque ambience of this unique city. But we must be realistic - all this work is vital to Venice's continued existence. We may regret the dwindling population and the disappearance of small local shops, but the city will flourish as long as visitors continue to come, and they surely will. As scaffolding comes down and delapidated buildings are returned to their former glory, Venice proves it is a city with life in it yet, a very special city which still retains all the romance and the magic we expect from it.
'Dove le toilette?' is a life-saver. Incidentally, the public toilets in Venice are very well maintained, and quite well signposted, although you’ll only find them in the popular tourist areas. The toilets in small bars and cafes are not always so well maintained but the facilities in better restaurants should be up to standard.
On entering a shop, always say 'buon giorno'. Thank you is 'grazie' and 'prego' means 'you’re welcome'.
Another useful phrase is ''va bene', which means 'OK'. You'll be very OK in Venice!
Arrivederci - buon vacanze!
Mike and Fredo