The canals, lane-ways, bars, and restaurants of Venice (or Venezia in Italian) have an addictive rhythm, a cadence, that might convince us this lagoon city has all the possible answers to the question of what it means to be human.
As the slick black gondolas bob up and down, a vaporetto (water-bus) glides along the Grand Canal carrying tourists packed so tight their faces appear like apparitions. In contrast, locals and defiant travellers take some air while sipping Aperol Spritz and grazing on fresh seafood at the canal’s edge.
In Venice, having an aperitif is mandatory, art and history are entwined in every corner of the city, and palaces and squares have astonishing beauty. On the whole, the people who live or work in Venice appear friendly and many have the tanned, weathered faces of sailors and fisherman. Indeed, the Venetians love their boats and they love their seafood.
There’s so much to love in Venice, especially if you seek out what matters most to you in the many islands that make up the city affectionately known as ‘La Serenissima’ (meaning the most serene). Perhaps see the Rialto Bridge at dawn, avoid the aggressive pigeons in Saint Mark’s Square (rather than feeding them for an Instagram photo), and pass time on the tranquil La Giudecca island while looking over to the press of tourists searching for the Bridge of Sighs.
It is true that Venice has an effect, or effects, on those who visit, and especially on those who let the city open up to them, which Venice can do with each change in the tide, each bridge crossed, and each mooring post passed.
Each sestieri (or district) of Venice will show you something about what matters in life, though it won’t take long to know which sestieri is ‘yours’.
Yours because it speaks to you, yours because you return to it at the end of the day, and yours because you know you couldn’t live without going back to it at some point in the future.
Here are some Venice experiences that affected me, that made Venice, and in particular the sestieri of Dorsoduro, ‘mine’.
Cicchetti bars are scattered all over Venice though they’re not typically visible as you wander the labyrinth of passageways. Cicchetti (or cicchetto for singular) are small, tasty snacks you can select from the counter to enjoy with a glass of wine. They are often slices of baguette-style bread topped with salmon and cream cheese, tuna and cocoa (delicious!), and other meat, seafood, and vegetarian options. Unlike much of Venice, the Cicchetti bars don’t feel too touristy; rather, they are where you’ll find the locals standing at the counter eating, drinking, and telling their daily stories to the barmen.
Having an aperitif (aperitivo in Italian)
Sitting to have a drink before dinner is one of the great pleasures of staying in Venice. In Venice, the aperitif is an art form, even a ritual, and before dusk there’s a glass of Prosecco or an Aperol Spritz on every table (well, almost). Even when an Aperol Spritz (made from the bitter orange-flavoured Aperol mixed with Prosecco and a splash of soda water) is served in a plastic cup at one of the more casual bars, such as in Campo Santa Magherita, it still conveys the meaning of the aperitif: to honour being alive. For a luxe aperitif, the Hilton Hotel on La Giudecca has a rooftop bar (Skyline Bar) with views over the island of La Giudecca and across to the main island of Venice.
Having breakfast in a pasticceria
The Venetians tend to have a pasty for breakfast with a coffee at their local pasticceria, pastry shop. This is a ‘meal’ they typically stand up for and the pastries are different from (though similar to) those from France. The Venetian croissants are filled with marmalade, Nutella, or my favourite, cream (crema). This may seem like a light breakfast to some, but I prefer to think of it as leaving room for lunch.
Eating local cuisine
Eating local in Venice means eating seafood. Of course, there are options for those who don’t eat seafood (such as eggplant ravioli or gnocchi with pomodoro sauce), but menus in Venice typically celebrate seafood with dishes such as pasta with scampi and black squid-ink risotto. There’s also a lot of polenta to eat and local biscuits are often served with coffee. Dining canal-side is romantic if you’re happy to share your table with pigeons and seabirds, but I prefer a charming lane-way restaurant. I ate lunch everyday at Al Vecio Marangon in Dorsoduro where I shared conversations about food and life with other travellers as well as friendly locals who often dined with their miniature pet dogs.
Taking Italian language classes
Eating and drinking like a Venetian is key to learning about Venice, but so too is attempting the Italian language. Taking Italian language lessons at Instituto Venezia for one week was the highlight of my time in Venice. The teachers are vibrant, the classes are engaging, and some of the first words I learned were important for my stay in Venice: spaghetti (grammar lesson: spaghetto is the singular of spaghetti), biscotti (pronunciation lesson: b “come” biscotti), mangiare (verb meaning ‘to eat’), and bicchiere di vino (meaning ‘a glass of wine’).
Visiting the Rialto Markets
As the Venetian sun rises, fruit and vegetables are sold from boats on the canals. But the best place to see the produce of the Veneto region is at the Rialto Market near the Rialto Bridge. This famous market is divided into the fruit and vegetable market (Erbaria) and the fish market (Pescaria). The fish market, as for much of Venice, smells of the sea and walking through the busy market is life-affirming. There are also places nearby to enjoy some wine and cicchetti, such as Al Mercà at Campo Bella Vienna.
Being on the water
The vaporetto (water-bus) is a one of the best ways to get around Venice and spending time on the water is perhaps the only way to really understand the rhythm of this floating city. The vaporetto is a refreshing way to travel in the less touristy areas, especially from Tronchetto around to La Giudecca, and although a gondola ride is cliché (and expensive), not taking a gondola ride in Venice is no option. So, I recommend taking a gondola ride with friends (5 friends will fit) because, among other reasons, it’s more economical. Further, I recommend taking a gondola ride from a minor canal so you will see how still and how serene Venice can be.
Seeing art in every corner of Venice
If you let yourself get lost in Venice, one thing is guaranteed: you will find some form of art, whether it’s in the street or canal or an art gallery. At present, a Lorenzo Quinn sculpture of two nine-meter-tall hands reaching out of the canal appearing to support the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel can be seen opposite the Rialto Market. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is popular, and in the area surrounding it are numerous other galleries to explore, such as Palazzo Cini.
Taking in the city from all angles
Venice’s lifestyle department store T Fondaco del Tedeschi near the Rialto Bridge has a rooftop viewing platform that has a 360 degree view of Venice. By seeing the scope of Venice (an area barely twice as large as New York City’s Central Park) from above, Venice becomes a manageable city to understand, to learn from, and to respect.
Spending moments alone with Venice
If you spend a quiet moment with Venice, she will speak to you; she will inspire you with each sunset and move you as the darkening sky preludes a thunderstorm. Venice will undoubtably appeal to your senses if you give her a chance and the water levels will surely be a reminder Venice will not be here forever—that nothing will be here forever.
Cover photo: Diners enjoying the tranquility of La Giudecca
Note: Links correct at time of posting