Some cities in the world are overhyped. Venice most definitely isn’t one of them. The exquisite floating city of grand buildings and marble palaces never fails to enchant every single one of the millions of visitors that float through its canals every year.
Here are our local’s tips for keeping afloat in this most serene of cities…
1) Getting around
It goes without saying that the best way to get around Venice is by foot and by boat. The city isn’t big and once you have oriented yourself (see point 2) it is quite possible to walk from one end to the other in an hour.
Vaporetto’s are the water based equivalent of buses and are great option for moving around the city more quickly or for travelling to other places in the lagoon. Water taxis can be pricey, but they are very fast and reliable. Gondolas are hardly a practical way of getting from A to B, but do provide the quintessential Venetian romantic experience (see point 4).
Unfortunately, for those who are a fan of two wheels, it is forbidden to ride a bike in any part of Venice and anyone caught attempting it will receive a heavy fine.
Piazza San Marco, Flickr/José Manuel Ríos Valiente
2) Getting lost
Venice has a truly incomprehensible address system that even locals don’t fully understand. Addresses are categorised by building number and borough but don’t include a street or path name meaning that it’s incredibly difficult to find your way around. Using a GPS map on a phone can help, but still won’t eliminate the possibility of getting lost.
Though getting lost is not a bad thing, as you are more than likely to find yourself away from the hordes of tourists in a more secluded city, one full of secret campi (squares), handsome Gothic palazzi and lively neighbourhood wine bars.
Sign in Venice, source: Flickr/Didier Baertschiger
Italy is still a new country, (unification only occurred 150 years ago) and for this reason many Italians identify themselves with their region first, and their country second. Nowhere is this more true than in Venice.
The 1000 year old democratic Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia (which was only subsumed into Italy in 1866) still very much sees itself as separate to the rest of the country. In 2014, inspired by Scotland’s separatist ambitions, 89% of the residents of the lagoon city and its surrounding area opted to break away from Italy in an independence referendum. This ballot was unofficial and is not recognised by Italian law but many locals have strong feelings about this. Which leads me on to...
4) Gondola rides
If you do choose to take a ride on a Venice’s most famous water-based transport then don’t automatically expect your gondolier to break into song. Some like singing, some don’t, but it’s not part of the job description. And whatever you do, don’t ask them to sing “O sole mio”. This is a Neapolitan song, and for the aforementioned reasons (see point 3), many Venetians don’t like being lumped into the same bucket as all Italians, particularly those from the south.
Gondolier, source: Flickr/José Manuel Ríos Valiente
5) When to visit
The best time to visit Venice is in the early spring or late autumn, as this is when the city is a little less packed with tourist and the weather should be reasonable. Venice Carnival in February is generally cold and crowded but on the plus side the city is filled with masked balls and revellers on the streets creating a fun party atmosphere. Summer is hot, but the city’s proximity to water generally cools the city a little in comparison to other Italian cities.
The art and architecture biennales take place on alternate years and generally run from late spring to early autumn along with shorter festivals for music, dance, cinema and theatre.
Venice Carnival, source: Flickr/Salvatore Gerace
6) Exploring the ghetto
The Venetian ghetto is where the Jews were compelled to live under the Venetian Republic. The English word ‘ghetto’ actually comes from this Venice and is derived from the word ghèto which means ‘slag’ in reference to the foundry in the same neighbourhood.
Nowadays this area is part of the Cannaregio area of Venice, and is a less crowded area of the city where you can dine or drink by the water with the locals. It also makes for a slightly alternative and very interesting Venetian history lesson.
Canal, source: Flickr/Artur Staszewski
7) Exploring the lagoon
If you’re staying the Venice for a few days then a visit to some of the other islands is highly recommended. The island of Murano is world famous for its glassmaking and is the most popular day trip from Venice.
Slightly further off the beaten path is Burano, famous for its lace and beautiful coloured houses, uninhabited Torcello with its calm serenity and archeological proof of its glorious past and also Choggia to the south which has the best fish in the lagoon.
Burano, source: Flickr/José Manuel Ríos Valiente
8) Learn some Italian
In Venice you will be hard pushed to find a waiter who won't speak English. Despite this it's always an idea to learn some conversational language which helps build a rapport with the locals. Here are some basics that should get you through any eating experience in Italy…
Prendo (I'll have) tre birre, un caffè, una pizza etc.
Per favore, Grazie (please, thankyou)
Un tavolo per due (a table for two)
Il conto per favore (the bill please)
9) Cicheto e ombra
The Venetian equivalent of the Italian aperitivo is cicheto e ombra, that is a glass of wine or light alcohol like a spritz plus a selection of light tapas style bites (cicheti). You can sample this at one of Venice’s many bacari (wine bars).
Settimo Cielo at Il Palazzo
10) The waiter isn't being rude when he leaves you alone to eat
This phenomenon isn't unique to Venice, but it's worth mentioning because it catches so visitors many off-guard. Italian food rituals command that food (and people) take their time, so it's up to you to wave a cameriere (waiter) down and ask to order and also for the bill. The same relaxed attitude also applies to tipping for meals, which is rarely done in Italy.