This is not a guide that covers how to get from the airport to your hotel. Nor is it a guide that talks about what you should do with your 6 hours before you need to get back on your cruise ship. This is a guide that talks about how you can visit Venice more intimately while also respecting the ever declining local population and their struggle to stay in their beloved Venezia. I’m a firm believer in caring about the places you travel to and not just while you’re there. If a place really inspires you, like Venice did for me, find ways to give back.
Helping Venice stay Venetian
Help money reach the pockets of locals by renting apartments during your stay. Many locals cannot afford to keep living in Venice due to the price of keeping their homes in a livable condition as these centuries-old buildings decay. To combat this inhabitants rent out their homes in an effort to keep living in Venice.
In 1931 the Venetian population was 163,000 but as of 2009 the population sits at around 60,000 but that number is declining annually. With insufficient jobs to keep the younger generations and businesses and services geared towards tourists, locals are finding it harder to live in Venice. This guide hopes to help support the locals stay in Venice while also allowing visitors to see its hidden gems most miss.
Top 3 Ways to Stay
Airbnb provides travelers looking for a more authentic accommodation experience and connects them with locals who want to rent out a room or an entire home to those travelers. You’ll save money in various ways but you’ll be helping locals be able to keep their apartment. You can write to hosts to ensure that they are indeed locals and start a dialogue with them. No one knows Venice better than the locals do so tap into that resource.
GowithOh specializes in apartment rentals in 23 European cities and growing. However, you must rent an apartment rather than having the option to rent a room like at AirBnB. It’s easy to use and the properties range from budget friendly to extravagant. Now go find your Venetian dream stay!
Religious Guest Houses:
You might cringe at the thought of staying in a religious guest house like I first did but I found my stay at the Don Orione affordable, comfortable and historic. Breakfast was included along with a few uncomfortable conversations but they accept everyone and it shows at the buffet. Awesome location and great view with a historic church next door.
Now that you have your accommodations situated and if you’re lucky you’ve got a kitchen or at least a fridge. Now go explore the markets! Shop local like the locals do!
The Rialto Market is the most famous of all but when you take a look around you’ll find tourist toting their cameras only looking to snap a shot of the impeccable swordfish or octopus. When you stay like a local you get to actually buy something. Help these vendors and purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Venetian locals have been fighting hard to prevent a development proposition which would have resulted in the Rialto Market being closed after 1000 years of operation. In 2011 activists and passionate locals protested together and won. As the tourists took their photos of vibrant produce and fresh seafood they had little inclination at how close the market was to extinction. Today you may see a red flag hanging in the covered fish display with the iconic San Marco lion roaring in protest.
By all means take photos and appreciate the splendour of the bountiful Rialto Market but buy something and help maintain the future of the locals.
Rialto – when to go: Go before the tourists arrive after their breakfast. Between 7:00 am and 9:30 am would be safe.
What to buy: Follow your eyes and your nose. Be adventurous as long as your kitchen provides you with the utilities to do so. Some locals rarely use their oven or may not even have one so make sure it is in service before heading out to buy a protein you plan to roast.
If you’ve chosen to stay in an apartment I highly recommend finding your nearest grocery store as well. I relied on the Conad supermercato grocery store located in the Dorsoduro sestiere. Do a quick Google search to find a supermercato nearest you.
The Supermaercato is always occupied by locals and students. You can find freshly made snacks and dinners as well as local wines and beers at unbeatable prices. A favourite wine of mine is the Bardolino Red for 3€. Certainly a great way to save money. I became a bit addicted to Italy’s iced tea, San Benedetto Thè and always stocked up on San Pellegrino with each visit.
What to do
Wander Away & Get Lost!
Venice is something different to everyone. For some it may be the food, others it may be the architecture while for many it is the history and art. But for all it is the atmosphere. I’ve heard people complain about the crowds and how it completely ruined their time. That’s because they visited Venice wrong. There’s a right way to do it and it is simple…wander away from the crowds and get lost! Put away your map and don’t worry, you’re in one of the safest places in Europe. Get intentionally lost and you’ll find plenty of hidden gems that all those tourists disembarking from their cruise ships could only dream of. If you get lost you’ll still be alright. Ask someone for directions or just follow the signs back to the nearest attraction to your accommodations. Trust me, my husband and I got as lost as you possible could in Venice and we found our way back after discovering areas of Venice most people don’t get to.
Prebook the Popular
This guide is all about making your stay as authentic as well as respectful as possible. So how can you do that if you’re part of the problem, ie. the crowds? Pre-book your visit to the Palazzo Ducale and the Basilica San Marco as these are the two most visited spaces in Venice. It is what you should see when you’re in Venice after all. There’s a reason these places are busy!
But pre-booking your ticket allows you to do so without waiting in those ridiculous lines in the sun or rain. You save time and in some cases money when you book online with a tour company or on the official websites.
I’m going to give you some tough love on this…Don’t screw around! If you like to live by the seat of your pants and refuse to commit to a set schedule or plan then you’ll be committing yourself to wasting your time in lines should you decide to go. Trust me on this and pre-book the damn tours!
An Art Historian’s Guide
Think art history is boring? So much of Venice is art history so develop an appreciation before you go. The architecture of all buildings in Venice, yes all, are apart of the bigger story of the Venetian Empire. Within each building are ceiling frescos, immaculate and ancient flooring, and not to mention the obvious altar pieces, tombs and masterpieces that adorn the walls of so many churches and buildings.
This portion should really be titled, “An art historian’s guide to unknown places devoid of crowds”. Much of Venice is hidden yet in plain sight. I learned what to look for when I first ventured to the lagoon city with a group of 40 students staying in unique locations and exploring mostly empty historical spaces that many just don’t know about. It’s not that they aren’t worth pursuing but rather they take a back seat to those who leave only enough time for the most popular sites like San Marco.
This is my must-see list for those who want a more intimate experience as 55,000+ tourists come and go each day.
Why go: It’s in the heart of Venice, in plain sight within St. Mark’s Square, yet you should find that this museum highlighting Venetian history is a much calmer place to be that the neighbouring Palazzo.
When: Morning or late afternoon.
Hours: April – Oct 10-7 Nov – March 10-5
Closed: Christmas & New Year’s Day.
Ticket: Book here.
Scuola di San Rocco
Why go: Venetian painter Tintoretto was commissioned to provide paintings for the entire interior. On the ceiling each side is dedicated to the Old Testament & New Testament. Do I know the difference? No but if you go with a religious friend they might be able to help you out. I personally just went for the pure enjoyment of the art.
When: Morning or late afternoon although it is lesser known so you may not need to prebook.
Hours: 9:30 – 5:00
Closed: Open all year round.
Ticket: 10€ including audio guide
Basilica dei Frari
Why go: My favourite church in Venice (if not Europe) it is home to the impressive tombs of Canova and Titian. It also holds Venice’s most famous painting, Assumption of the Virgin by Titian. If you need some context and prefer to have a guide, Context Travel offers art history tours that are suitable for children.
When: Anytime. You may run into a line mid-day or during service. If you do, go do something else until the line dies down.
Hours: Mon-Fri 9-6
Closed: Check website for special events.
Shop: The Imitation Game
It’s tough to tell the knock-offs from the real thing when you’re in Venice. Some of the glass items you’ll find in the trinket shops are from China…not Venice nor Murano.
So how can you help locals preserve an age old tradition? Buy only Venetian made products. This is tougher than you might think.
In Venice locals are talking about implementing an official stamp of approval for Venetian made items to make it easier for tourists to tell the real from the fake. Until this happens I rely on those in the know…the locals.
You can now find a few local Venetian bloggers who are always more than willing to help you help their friends and neighbours.
One such blog is OGVenice.com, a website that helps you plan you trip to Venice with a local’s insight. Learn where the best locally owned shops and restaurants can be found.
Eat, Drink, Repeat
Unique places and resources
Drink at The Hilton Molino-Stucky
For a different yet memorable perspective of Venice head to the top of the Molino-Stucky for some Prosecco. It is a bit of a splurge but the photo opportunities are spectacular and there’s the occasional DJ pumping the jams atop of the hotel too. I did stay a couple nights here and found it to be one of the best stays if you want to the comforts of a hotel yet desire to be away from the crowds. It does require a vaporetto to reach this area as it is located on the Guidecca across from the Dorsoduro sesitere. Less touristy restaurants in this more industrial area of Venice but a great alternative to the busier “main” island of Venice.
Don’t forget to earn Hilton Honors points when you book any Hilton stay!
Avoid the restaurants that have bilingual menus and photos of their food on the menu. It’s a sure sign that it is overpriced and taking advantage of hungry tourists.
I loved using Elizabeth Minchilli’s app, Eat Venice. Her website also provides a wealth of knowledge for those looking to eat at authentic Italian food in Rome, Venice and Florence. It’s on my bucket list to visit Puglia with her as she hosts week long food experiences as well as food tours, day trips and more.
Learn the word cicchetti. It is a Venetian tradition where you bar hop, not unlike tapas in Spanish culture. You go from wine bar to wine bar sampling the cicchetti such as fried mozzarella, fresh sardine filets, prosciutto sandwiches and more. The best area to do so is in the Cannaregio sestiere. If you feel too intimidated by entering an authentic cicchetti bar, known as a bacari, and ordering in your best Italian, whatever that might be, the blog, Mr and Mrs Smith, provide an excellent cheat sheet featuring cicchetti bars.
A few more ideas
Modern Art at The Peggy Guggenheim
If you’re utterly lost in all of the religious art work that tends to populate each historic building and street worth seeing in Venice then check out the modern art at the Peggy Guggenheim. Picasso, Dali, Duchamp, and my personal favourite Magritte are all adorning the walls of Peggy’s old home now turned art gallery. Additionally, the Guggenheim is set against the Grand Canal so bring your camera and head out onto the patio for some shots or selfies.
If you find yourself in Venice during the last 2 weeks of May you’ve hit the jackpot! Not only is the Vogalonga held during that time but the Peggy Guggenheim hosts an evening Spritz party. What’s a Spritz you might ask? Only the most popular drink in Italy made with Aperol Spritz.
Despite being very hot during my visit in May the beach on Lido island, a short vaporetto ride away from Venice, has a long beach ideal for taking a nice break from being on your feet. This is the only island part of Venice that has cars. However, you won’t need one to get to the beach, just walk the width of the island to get to the other side where the beach and Adriatic Sea awaits.
Day Trips or Travel Further Afield
Venice is part of the Veneto Region of Italy. If you find yourself tiring of Venice or would prefer to explore more than the island then head to any of these cities and towns for a respite away from the hustle of Venice. These options are accessible by rail. If you prefer to travel by boat then head to the famous Burano and Murano islands for day trips nearer to Venice.
Mantova (Mantua): I have fond memories of this small walkable town. I did a paper on the Sala Dei Giganti at the Palazzo del Te, a worthy palace to visit. Also visit the Capella Deli Scroveigni, a small historic chapel famed for its frescos by Giotto – reservations recommended.
Padua (Padova): The main attraction in this small town is the impressive and massive Basilica of St Anthony. Many flock to this church leaving trinkets at the tomb of St Anthony in hopes of a miracle. There are many relics thought to belong to saints and believed to possess healing powers.
Vicenza: I stayed in this small town for 3 nights and fell in love. It was the perfect size, walkable yet had plenty of hikes and walks into the Italian countryside to visit the iconic landscape dotted with Palladian villas. The name to know in this town is Andrea Palladio (hence Palladian) as he designed many of the 15th century villas, the Teatro Olympico and over twenty other buildings in the town.
Note: Smaller towns like this also can mean a more affordable stay. If Venice is too far out of your budget consider staying in Vicenza or Verona and venture out by train whenever you feel like it with a train pass.
Verona: “…In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”
No doubt, many travel to Verona to get their picture taken with their hand on Juliet’s breast (for luck) and to see what supposedly is the balcony that inspired Shakespeare’s Rome & Juliet. But there’s so much more to this mid-sized town. It’s a town with mixed origins at one time thought to be a Etruscan city, the Romans erected the ancient Verona Arena which is still in use today during opera season – well worth planning your trip around!