On the Road Editor Cathérine Mester offers a guide on how to see Venice through a local’s eyes.
Henry James wrote: “Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there”. Add to that anecdotes of reeking canals, unruly pigeons, hordes of tourists and exorbitant gondola fares and you begin to question why you should bother to travel here at all. The answer is simple: If you do not, you will never sample the scent of mouldy lagoon water, witness the spectacle of a dog-sized seagull devouring a pigeon, or be hit in the eye by someone’s selfie stick. And you will also miss out on one of the most improbably magical places on the planet. So, if you are willing to brave the campi and calli of Venice, here are some (student-budget-friendly) tips on how to make the most of your trip:
- Don’t be a tourist
I think one of the best ways of doing this is by taking a language class in one of several Italian Language schools in Venice. I attended a course at the Istituto Venezia for four weeks and can highly recommend it. The basic languages classes are four hours every morning which means they still leave plenty of time to explore, and you will definitely sound like a local when you order your Spritz al Campari at the bar. The school will also be able to set you up with very affordable accommodation in Venice (I stayed with a Venetian woman in a large apartment in a great location for the fraction of the cost of a hostel or hotel).
If you do not want to study on your vacation, there are still ways to be a better tourist. If you do not visit the lagoon on a cruise ship you are already on a good path. You should also avoid using the canals as rubbish bins and eating your lunch on one of the ponti (sadly the Venetians are rather adamant about this). Tourism is a part of the locals’ daily life and many have adopted a gruff attitude towards travelers. It is still a good idea to try to speak in Italian, no matter how basic your language skills are, as this shows that you are trying to make an effort and is generally well-received.
- Venture off the beaten path
Of course every visitor to Venice wants a picture of Saint Marc’s Square and the Rialto Bridge, and maybe the sinking Palazzo from Casino Royale but these places, and the alleys that lead there, are all brimming with tourists. However it is very easy to escape the crowds, and if you would like to take a bridge photo without any strangers in it or just walk around in solitude, this is possible even during the busiest times in the city. The best sestieri for this are Cannaregio and parts of Castello, which are easily reached on foot from all parts of Venice. Some people (including George Clooney, apparently) also like Giudecca which is an island south of Venice that offers a great view of the city, peace and quiet, but little else besides. One of my favourite places in Venice is Cafè ai Crociferi, a hidden café/bar in Cannaregio, that is situated inside a monastery. In the summer you can relax in a sunchair in the courtyard for hours, drinking their excellent coffee or a good glass of wine whilst listening to the radio and counting the baby lizards on the stone wall. The surrounding area is also good for sampling the authentic Venetian life, as there are few tourists around.
- Do as the locals do
Like in the rest of Italy the cheapest way to drink your coffee is standing at the counter. Breakfast is one of the best and most affordable meals in Venice and if you get up early enough this is also the best way to get a feel for local life in Venice. There are several outstanding bakeries in the city, but the best is undoubtably Pasticceria Tonolo in Dorsoduro, and as a result it is packed every morning. If you prefer to have your espresso and brioche in a more relaxed environment, Pasticceria Rio Marin is a better choice. For a little extra you can also have your wine or coffee sitting by a quiet canal, watch the neighbours cruise along and befriend the most photographed cat in Venice living in the boat workshop next door.
If you are a cinephile and you would like a truly local experience I can highly recommend the Casa del Cinema. This is a film society in San Polo, where anyone can become a member for a small fee. They screen a different film every day and have monthly themes. The times I went there I was the only tourist (and the only person under 50) and this may be one of few places in Venice where locals ever outnumber visitors.
After 11 pm the city is pretty much dead, except for the area around Campo Santa Margherita where students hang out until the small hours of the night.
- Go on a gelato and spritz diet
Food is one of the biggest downsides of Venice. Most restaurants serve sub-standard and utterly overpriced tourist fare, the better restaurants are few and far between. I only had a meal at a Venetian restaurant once during my four-week stay in the city and (I hope my mother does not read this) lived off gelato, brioche, the free crisps that came with my drinks, and panini assembled from supermarket-ingredients (which are actually very high quality and affordable). This worked well for me, but if you cannot live without warm meals, I can recommend a Middle Eastern (I forgot the name, but it is easy to spot) restaurant in Campo Santa Margherita that is run by refugees and serves very delicious, vegetarian-friendly dishes. If you would like to try Cicchetti, the Venetian tapas, Bacareto da Lele is not to be missed. As for gelato, the quality is decent pretty much everywhere, but if you are looking for something special you should head to Gelatoteca Suso. The only downside is that it is located in a little sotoportego close to the most odious place in Venice, the Rialto Bridge, so good luck with that! In general, I recommend sticking to the area around Ca’ Foscari for sustenance, as there are many inexpensive and decent places to eat, plus several bookshops for casual browsing afterwards.
I hope you will find these tips helpful, since no matter how many times Venice has been painted, described and photographed, it is still possible to experience the city in a way that is entirely your own.