Go with the flow in the Italian city and you risk following the herd. Its riches, from Bellini’s art to Bellini cocktails, are there for the taking if you know where to find them. Photography by Colin Dutton.
Fragments of a Venetian fresco; a couple in evening dress dancing in a partially flooded Piazza San Marco during acqua alta (high tide); a small girl walking her smaller brother to school past a Gothic church façade in a city that hasn’t lost its innocence, despite the daily visitor invasion; the tenebrous glimmer of the golden mosaics in the famous square; and the silver-blue dazzle of anchovies and sardines piled high on a fish stall at the Rialto market. Fairytale Venice is all this and more. The first visit is a gift – you will never again be able to reproduce the rush of wonder when you emerge from the train station onto the Grand Canal. But such is the pressure of tourist numbers that a little inside information and pre-trip planning are needed to keep the magic alive.
Early riser? Jet-lagged? Head for Piazza San Marco as the sun’s first rays illuminate the lagoon, sending paths of gold slanting across the flagstones of the square from the open portico of the Palazzo Ducale like landing strips for angels. Before the daily tourist invasion begins, this handsome civic space fronted by the dreamy Byzantine domes and Gothic pinnacles of the Basilica di San Marco is gloriously empty. Continue east along the wide Riva degli Schiavoni quay, past dawdling streetsweepers and breakfasting gondoliers, for photos to cherish. Venice puts on its best face in the soft, magical morning light.
Head back along the waterfront and duck into narrow Calle degli Albanesi for a truly Venetian breakfast at tiny, delightful café Da Bonifacio (Castello 4237; +39 041 522 7507). Order a macchiatone (a cappuccino but with less milk) and a kipferl, a puff pastry and almond croissant that became popular during the city’s 19th-century Austrian period.
Take to the water with lovely Chiara Curto, the only woman among about 35 registered Venetian sandolisti. A sandolo is basically a less fancy gondola. Traditionally, it was a working boat rather than an aristocrat’s water taxi, though Curto’s craft is beautifully decorated. You can find her most days at the foot of Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio or Ponte de Ghetto Nuovo, two of the three bridges that connect the ghetto – the heart of one of Europe’s oldest Jewish quarters – with the rest of Venice. Rides start at €80 (about $125) for 30 minutes and wend through the quiet canals of Cannaregio, a laid-back neighbourhood at its most glorious on sunny spring and autumn mornings.
By now tourists are starting to outnumber locals. To flee them, take Cannaregio’s lanes (don’t miss Calle del Fumo with its craft shops) to the Fondamente Nove waterbus stop. Hop across to San Michele, Venice’s cypress-studded cemetery island and surely one of the world’s most romantic last resting places. Pick up a plan at the entrance lodge and seek out the graves of Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky and other greats, often adorned with tokens left by admirers (a battered straw hat for writer Joseph Brodsky; ballet pumps for great Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev).
From its San Zaccaria terminus, the No. 2 waterbus coasts along the northern shore of Giudecca, a newly hip residential and boatbuilding district that has become a contemporary-art hub. Lunch on local specialities such as wonderfully inky cuttlefish spaghetti at La Palanca (Isola della Giudecca 448; +39 041 528 7719), a simple trattoria with tables outdoors on the canalside promenade.
“Incandescent” – that’s art historian John Steer’s spot-on description of Tintoretto’s thrilling work in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. These Old and New Testament scenes occupied the great Venetian painter for 23 of his most productive years. Around the corner in the vast, echoing Basilica dei Frari, another Venetian maestro, Titian, left two of his most compelling works: the swirling Assumption, on the main altar, and the recently restored Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro. Nearby, Process Collettivo sells bags, accessories, T-shirts and natural cosmetics made by inmates of the city’s male and female jails. Around the corner in Rio Terà dei Frari, Anatema (San Polo 2603; +39 041 524 2221) is a dazzling colour wheel of a boutique, its good-value scarves and shawls in wool, mohair, silk and other fabrics arranged in striking rainbow gradations.
Hold on to your early-morning vision of Piazza San Marco – you’ll need it as you push through the pigeon-feeding hordes that now occupy the square. Though the Basilica di San Marco is always busy, the hour before its 5pm closure gives you the best chance of seeing this glory of Christendom without the tour groups. Rarely have the spoils of war (like the four great bronze horses, looted from Constantinople) been so nobly repurposed. The interior is a darkly glimmering cavern covered in mosaics that span six centuries, the individual pieces artfully placed at angles so they shimmer in the light that filters through the high windows.
The spritz may have become a global aperitivo phenomenon but there’s nothing like sipping one in the city that invented it. Do so in lively local company at Osteria Ai Pugni, at the foot of the bridge that heads north out of Campo San Barnaba. Alongside the usual range of spritzes (to be different, try one with Cynar, an artichoke-based liqueur), they offer a well-curated range of wines by the glass.
You will, of course, have booked ahead for dinner at new hotspot Local, three minutes’ walk north of the San Zaccaria waterbus stop. Traditional and contemporary play off in the engagingly light and airy décor and in the cuisine of Burano-born chef Matteo Tagliapietra, who pairs organic local ingredients such as eel, scallop or risotto rice with nori seaweed and other exotic influences (he worked for a while at risk-taking Danish restaurant Noma). First-timers should consider the five-course tasting menu, which is a good introduction to Tagliapietra’s “glocal” approach.
Back in Piazza San Marco, glorious Caffè Florian, a jewel case of velvet banquettes, gilded mirrors and 19th-century allegorical painted panels, claims to be the oldest café in the world. It’s certainly one of the most expensive – unless you do what locals do and sit in the cosy bar area at the back, where the prices are much lower. You’ll pay €9.50 (about $15) for that classic Venetian cocktail, the Bellini, compared with €19.50 (about $30) in the main café or at an outside table – and you get to see the cocktail-mixing action at close quarters. ￼
SEE ALSO: How to Beat the Crowds in Venice