If Rome is the eternal city, then Venice is surely the enchanted city. Even thousands of tourists with Crocs and selfie sticks cannot mitigate the sheer romance of the Grand Canal, though we’d all rather avoid them. These tips allow you to experience the best of the city without the marauding hordes.
Arriving in Venice is a treat: by air, you have to take a water taxi to the city. The train ride takes you on a long bridge from Mestre (the mainland town) with a breathtaking view of Venice rising from the sea. And then you’re dropped, promptly, in the center of a city unlike any other. No streets, just narrow pathways (“calle” in the Venetian dialect) and bridges. Luckily, the Aman Canal Grande has a private gondola dock, and you’re whisked away into a palazzo fit for a duke. The Aman is beautifully restored, without the rococo excess of most Venetian hotels; here, the interiors retain their heritage of grandeur, complemented by clean, modern furnishings. You could spend all day here, luxuriating in your oasis, but after a quick lunch you’re off to explore.
The greatest joy of Venice is getting lost. The greatest frustration, too—maps are often inadequate, and street numbers incomprehensible, rendering addresses practically useless. The easiest way to get places is to follow the ubiquitous signs “PER SAN MARCO” (to San Marco, the big piazza), “PER RIALTO” (to the Rialto bridge), or “ALLA FERROVIA” (to the train station). This type of navigation requires knowing, roughly, the area where you’d like to go, but it will set you on the right track after a meander.
Piazza San Marco is a sight to be seen, with its basilica and campanile, its pigeons and strolling musicians. The clock tower’s lapis-blue and gold mosaics and winged lion, the symbol of Venice, are particularly striking in the midday sun. The square may be swarming with tourists, but the shopping arcade under the clock tower provides a welcome respite. The Roberto Coin boutique was chosen to live in this piazza by the Venetian jeweler to emphasize the diversity of this storied city through his kaleidoscopic collections.
Across the canal from the crowds in San Marco, Dorsoduro is an excellent starting point for exploring lesser-known Venice. Punta della Dogana, one of two outstanding contemporary art museums run by the Francois Pinault Foundation, is the Venetian customs house, restored by Tadao Ando. From Punta della Dogana, walk along the Canale della Giudecca at Zattere for a glimpse of lesser-known Venice. This neighborhood backs up to the Accademia, so expect students. Stop in at Osteria Al Squero for crostini and aperitivi with a view of the workshop where traditional gondolas are built.
Aperitivo culture in Venice is sacred; starting around six o’clock, you’ll see cafes fill with Venetians stopping off for a drink and snack before going home for dinner. The traditional Venetian aperitivo is the spritz—a cool cousin to a “spritzer” made with Prosecco, sparkling water, and either Aperol or Campari. An Aperol spritz in Venice more often than not will come with a green olive garnish, and the combination of the bittersweet spirit, the tangy Prosecco, and the salty olive strikes a perfect balance.
Fortified by a spritz, you’re ready to brave Rialto, the storied bridge that spans the Grand Canal. On the San Polo side of Rialto, amid the countless stalls selling sequined carnival masks and striped gondolier t-shirts, jewelry designers Stephano and Daniele Attombri use antique Venetian glass to create strikingly unique necklaces. Their sculptural pieces are a more fitting souvenir of the city than any of the generic Murano beads you’ve seen so far.
Venetian food often gets a bad rap—outdoor cafes with photographic menus serve soggy pizza to the masses, but off the beaten path, Venice boasts some of the finest food in all of Italy. All this shopping can leave you peckish and ready to stop off for more snacks. Cantina do Mori, a short walk from Rialto, offers a classic spread of “cicchetti,” the Venetian version of tapas. Pair these seafood specialties with another spritz or a glass of local wine, and you’ll feel that all is right in the world.
As the alleys of Venice begin to darken and the gaslights come on, it’s time for dinner. Cross the Grand Canal like a local on a traghetto from Pescaria to Santa Sofia. The traghetto, a small gondola, brings you to the neighborhood of Cannaregio, and as you wind your way through the old Jewish ghetto of Venice, you’ll revel in the sounds of the city. It’s easy to forget that Venice isn’t just Italian Disney World, but from behind the shuttered windows along your walk you hear children laughing, pots clanging, and television news reports in Italian. The evening is enchanting, like the city itself.
And so, you find, is dinner. Anice Stellato, a rustic restaurant deep in Cannaregio, serves local foods prepared with an eye to tradition and innovation. The wait staff speaks English sparingly, but their recommendations are always spot-on. Dinner in Venice is languorous, an event to be savored course by course. Through the ruby lens of your wine glass, you see other patrons laughing; their infectious joy like the effervescence in Prosecco, what Italians call “bollicine,” and you’re subsumed by the magic of Venice.