Venice is, above all, a city like no other. Built on small islands around the Venice Lagoon, or Laguna Veneta, the city of Venice actually expands beyond the famed maze of canals that grow out from the Grand Canal and includes settlements on other islands as well as a portion of “terra ferma” — where you’ll land upon arriving in Venice Marco Polo Airport. Exiting the airport was underwhelming, but as soon as we arrived (by bus) to the banks of the Grand Canal we were able to see Venice in all its glory. This is also where trains from mainland Italy come to Venice. To get from there to San Marco, where we were staying, we embarked on the Vaporetto.
The Vaporetto is Venice’s answer to mass transit, small sized ferry boats that have a series of routes along the main canals. They don’t veer into the smaller winding canals that cover most of the city, but I can’t imagine a better way to start a trip. If you’ve arrived with copious luggage, it may be better to splurge on a private water taxi, as the public boats become crowded with locals and tourists alike, but with just a backpack I was easily able to stake out a spot along the railing on the Vaporetto to gain my first glimpses, and first many photos, of the palaces and buildings along the Grand Canal.
Though today many of these buildings have been converted to museums, hotels, and restaurants, they were once the homes of Venice’s affluent merchant class and aristocracy. Architecturally wonderful, they rise up off the canal, marvellous in the fact that they still stand centuries after being built on such precarious ground. Be sure to have your camera out for the ride, as it’s some of the best views of Venice that you’ll get.
Departing the boat in San Marco you immediately meet with the phenomenal facade of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), the seat of power of the ruling Doges of Venice and their government from the cities heyday as a republic. Just around from there is the looming Piazza San Marco, headed by the Basilica di San Marco. Both of these are essential sites for a trip to Venice. The Basilica is fronted with gorgeous Byzantine style mosaics, which continue into the basilica — entry to which is free, though usually there is a bit of a wait. Touring the Doge’s Palace is a wonderful education in architecture and in the politics of Venice’s Golden Age.
All around the square are cafes and shops, though directly across the square from the Basilica is the Museo Correr, one of the cities main museums. Venice offers a great museum pass, which includes entry to most of the cities major museums, with the notable exception of the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice’s pre-19th-century art museum. You can purchase the ticket at any museum included, and it can make a big difference in expediting your entry to the more crowded museums.
Luckily I had packed comfortable sneakers for my trip, because Venice is definitely a walking city. Turns out, not only is it the best way to see the city but also the best way to experience the food of Venice. The first morning in town we embarked on a guided walking tour about the food of the city, which was the perfect way to both acclimate to the size and scope of the city and to learn about the traditional food of Venice.
No trip would be complete without a visit to the markets at the Rialto, specifically the fish market which has been a centre of the city’s economy since the 11th century. Nearby are stands selling fruit and vegetables, where you can find locals preparing artichokes for sale. At a shocking speed with what must be an incredibly sharp knife, they remove the outer leaves and separate the heart from the other parts of the artichoke. Around the market, you can find these artichoke parts in trays of water waiting for purchase. The area bustles with activity, misleading to the fact that the market is, in fact, losing business and slowly becoming obsolete. As Venice’s tourism industry flourishes and the island city is decreasingly populated by locals, there is less demand for these markets. At the fish stalls, you find signs indicating “1 euro, 1 photo,” a direct indicator of the market’s status as much a tourist attraction as a place to buy grocery.
Wandering really is the best way to eat in Venice. Down the winding streets and along the sides of the city squares, you’ll find Venetian pubs, or bacari, where people often spill into the street from the thrown open doors. Inside, you can sample Venetian specialities in the form of cicchetti. These little bites are often served on crostini, though also sometimes on small squares of polenta. Many of them feature traditional ingredients from the area, like the aforementioned artichokes, radicchio, and of course fish. Most places, each cost anywhere from 2 to 3 euros.
Baccalà Mantecato is a traditional salted cod dish that takes dried salted cod and beats it with olive oil and other ingredients to make a paste. It’s the sort of staple you can find in any bacari you wander into. Other common toppings included cured salmon and other seafood or various types of cheese. Some of my favourites were covered in herby fresh ricotta, a wonderful treat on warm evenings in town.
One of the best places to head for cicchetti is West of the Rialto Bridge and market, where they’re more densely located. When you arrive you simply order a few bites, and eat standing, or sitting if they even have tables. Here you can also enjoy a glass of wine or a spritz, which usually cost about three euro. An Aperol spritz is a popular drink around Venice, and drinking one while watching the gondolas on the canal really feels like a proper holiday. In terms of wine, Venice is located close to the Prosecco Hills, where the eponymous sparkling wine is made. Well known Italian red wines like Amarone are also produced in this area.
Restaurants in Venice can be very tourist driven, but the simple (and obvious) trick of avoiding places that display photos of their dishes. In truth, you could go an entire trip in this city without ever sitting for a meal, but if you choose to there’s plenty of amazing options. Your best bet is wandering further afar of areas like San Marco, perhaps to one of the other smaller squares or simply down a side street. The best meal I had in Venice was at Osteria La Zucca. The name “zucca” means pumpkin, a nod to their vegetable dominated menu. In a city where seafood abounds, a meal with so many incredible fresh vegetable dishes was a lovely change, especially paired with a bottle of Valpolicella, another type of red wine from the Veneto region.
If you’re in the area for enough days, spend a day visiting the smaller islands of Murano, known for its famous glasswork, and Burano, known for intricate handmade lace. Other day trips can include tours into the wine regions or taking the trains inland to other cities, like Verona, Padua, or Treviso.
Overwhelmingly, Venice is a site for tourism. If you plan right, you can avoid the pressing crowds of the summer high season which also come with the hottest weather. But for lovers of food, art, history, and architecture, Venice is the perfect city for days spent wandering, eating, drinking, and learning.Eliza is a graduate of Boston University, where she studied English Literature and Journalism. Education took her to Sydney and London, but she wasn’t ready to quit travelling with graduation. This brought her to Dublin, where she spends free mornings in cafes and free afternoons wandering museum galleries, all while trying to find even more favourite restaurants.
She loves working on new recipes and has more than a few well-loved notebooks full of favourite experiments. You’d be hard pressed to find her without a coffee in hand, and she’s always looking for the next thing to write about.