Oh Venice. I resisted you for so long, but a little voice told me to go. So we did. I’m glad I listened.
The resistance came from a lifetime of generalisations, of other people’s stories of a hot, smelly, overpriced Venice completely taken over by hoards of tourists disgorging from cruise ships. And Venice had always seemed like the biggest travel cliché, ever. How could it possibly live up to all the hype?
Then I watched the Venice episode of Travel Man. Richard Ayoade and Jo Brand were wearing coats, scarves and cozy, warm hats while eating cicchetti and gelato, or learning how to row gondolas. Wintertime. That was the answer. An answer this introverted misanthrope is almost loathe to share. But hey, my readership is miniscule so I figure any Venetians hoping for winter peace and quiet will continue unmolested by my rapturous praise.
We had a wonderful stay at Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo – a small, well-priced hotel I’m certain we’d never have managed to snap up in a busier season. In the San Polo district, it was a very short walk to everything, mere metres from the San Stae vaporetto (waterbus) station, and our hosts were friendly and anxious to make sure our stay was a blissful one. Our luxurious room’s decor wouldn’t have been out of place in the Doge’s Palace; golden green silk-panelled walls, a gilt headboard and heavy, opulent curtains over windows that looked out into an ancient courtyard.
For stunning photos, check out National Geographic‘s Venice Photos and Harper’s Bazaar‘s 20 PHOTOS THAT WILL MAKE YOU WANT TO BOOK A FLIGHT TO VENICE. (ALL CAPS necessary, therefore not removed)
We referred to Design Sponge‘s 24 Hours in Venice, Italy again and again. It steered us toward great areas that we might not have thought to visit.
Want more specifics on food, drinks and fun?
Food and Drink
I’d like to say that you should take note of the places where we ate, but I’m not going to do that. My list was filled with the same restaurants you’ll find on TripAdvisor, Yelp and The Guardian, and we didn’t bother with any of ’em. I dislike how reservations – at all but the most worthwhile restaurants – clash with the freedom of time and space one should engender while wandering. And Venice, with its utter lack of automobiles, traffic lights, bicycles, or indeed terrestrial transport of any kind, is custom-made for peaceful, unhurried wandering.
I have one “A Year in Provence” restaurant story, though. We were walking along Fondamenta dei Ormesini in the Cannaregio sestieri (district) only to discover that the restaurant we were making for wasn’t open for lunch, so we kept walking down the street in the brilliant sunshine. I slowly pushed open the door to Al Mariner (it was hard to see whether it was open or not), and looked into a busy dining room filled with locals. An extra good sign; tables full of workers with plaster and paint-spattered coveralls were digging into pasta dishes, seafood, thin flank steaks and washing it all down with carafes of red wine. Bingpot! In my first blink of surprise I thought they wouldn’t have a free table, but the friendly server assured me they did. Lunch=solved.
While that was one of the heights of our dining experiences – as lovely as Venice is, you do feel like you are in a museum the entire time and most restaurants are priced accordingly – we usually just made our way toward the nearest commercial area when we got hungry and looked for places that looked good. One of the benefits of travelling in winter meant we simply walked into places that might have massive queues or reservations scored weeks in advance any other time of year.
Another unexpected hit was our visit to Rossopomodoro. I hesitated because it looked like a chain (and yes, turns out it is ), but I ended up having one the best pizzas of my life, the service was great, and their wine list wasn’t bad either.
And even though it was chilly I was determined to have gelato, and Alaska Gelateria was one of the few places we actually steered ourselves toward.
Otherwise, we stopped at cicchetti bars, cafes and unassuming, cozy restaurants whenever it was time to eat or drink.
One of the funnest parts of all the fun we had was the heady thrill of walking into top sites that normally have heart-sinking, two-hour queues in sweltering full sun or crowds that make you feel rather lemming-like.
Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) – excellent for people watching. Marvelled at the staying power of a woman wearing a sequined Venetian mask and taking endless selfies with Saint Mark’s Basilica in the background. More fool me; I was drinking a very expensive cup of tea served by a snooty waiter wearing a tuxedo and a fully-lined opera cape.
San Marco Basilica – Breathtaking. When John Mann of Spirit of the West sang:
And if Venice is sinking
I’m going under
‘Cause beauty’s religion
And it’s christened me with wonder
I have no doubt he was singing about San Marco specifically (and Venice in general, of course).
The Doge’s Palace is a must – worth every penny of the admission price. Your ticket also gets you into Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, if you have time. You can also cross the storied Bridge of Sighs from the palace and have a quick gander at the prison cells.
Gondola – Just do it. I know it’s expensive. But it’s definitely a YOLO moment. Find a gondolier you connect with; we chose ours on the street after he finished helping his previous customers with directions. We hopped in near the Rialto Bridge and his tour took us past Casanova’s old bachelor pad. Venice really is meant to be seen from the water.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection – a soothing, modern counterpoint to all that Italian Renaissance opulence. Walk in through a peaceful garden and treat your eyes to outstanding (and in many cases very familiar) 20th century art. Don’t forget to go outside into the small garden next to the Grand Canal; gorgeous views, and Marini’s little man (with an erection, on a horse) is out there too.
Rialto Market – make this one of your first stops after breakfast, as it closes shortly after noon (and doesn’t open on Mondays).
Museum of Music – visiting this museum was in the back of both of our minds, how wonderful then that we happened on a square during one of our rambles, and there it was.
Wandering – I’ve used that word a lot in this piece and that isn’t by accident. Yes, make your list and yes, see everything you’ve dreamed of, but factor in lots of time for wandering. Get lost on purpose – there isn’t any traffic to worry about and the city is very safe, even at night.
Weeks later I am still struck by the peace I felt in the absence of all the noise, signage and advertising that are constant companions to motor vehicles. It was the closest I’ve ever felt to travelling back in time – especially in quiet residential areas and squares. You’ll meet cats who’ve never had to avoid a car in their life, like this friendly little thing: