We’ve been lucky enough to visit Venice twice, and both times in the off-season. But even then, the streets were crowded with tourists, many just there for a quick stop off a cruise ship to snap a selfie, buy a souvenir, and be on their way. Given that it’s such a tiny island – Venice is only a couple of kilomteres wide and a maze of tiny streets and bridges – it’s easy to get overwhelmed with heavy crowds.
But even with all of that, Venice is an indisputable must-see. And we’ve crafted a few ways for you to get the most of it while still escaping the throngs of people.
1. Just because you’re looking for a respite from the tourists, doesn’t mean you have to forego gelato. In fact, by refusing to follow the ubiquitous yellow signs, you’re likely to find a more authentic ice. Instead of looking for a vendor around St. Mark’s Basilica, seek out an artisanal shop. Gelato should be hand churned using fresh ingredients, so avoid anything that looks to have food color added, or that appears to be whipped—this is likely mass-made. Gelateria Alaska in Santa Croce is known for the real goods, or seek out a Grom Gelato. This chain is known for quality.
2. The Rialto Bridge is a sight to behold, but so is the rest of Venice. Cruise by the Rialto for a look, and then carry on away from the centre. There are hundreds of bridges and canals in the city, each with its own character, so don’t be afraid to wander. While you can get lost in Venice, the shape of the city makes it impossible to stay that way for long, so savor it!
3. The restaurants around Piazza San Marco do a brisk business catering to the throngs of hurried (or unadventurous) travellers, and it’s common to be offered drinks deals by hawkers soliciting business on the street. For an authentic snack done the Venetian way, set out and find a bacari. These wine and snack bars serves chicchetti (small plates) and drinks, and are a very common way to take the evening meal, usually between 5 and 8pm. Inexpensive, and by virtue of their size intimate and social, bacari will introduce you to real Venetian dining culture.
4. The architecture and urban milieu of Venice is totally unique, yet tourists tend to come with a checklist of must-see sights. The truth is, if you explore freely, you will better enjoy the flavour of the place. Some of the lesser-known noteworthy structures in the city include the Women’s Prison on Giudecca Island, which among other things, operates a market. The former shipyard Arsenale in Castello is a like a miniature city unto itself, and contains loads of nautical history (including the Naval History Museum). The Jewish Ghetto, just over the Cannareggio canal, dates back to the 1500s; indeed, the word “ghetto” comes from this very place. For those interested in churches, there is the Gothic Santa Maria Mater Domini in Santa Croce which houses a small collection of exquisite painting, or Vivaldi’s childhood church, San Giovanni in Bragora.
5. Don’t forget that Venice is a cluster of islands, each with its own character. Many tourists take the day trip to Burano, which has become famous for its brightly painted houses and for its fine Italian lace, but what about the others? Murano is a short vaporetto ride away, and it’s the origin of the beautiful blown glass arts. The monastery and church on San Giorgio Maggiore date back to the 1500s, whereas Sant Erasmo is a bucolic farming community offering a peek into a very different side of the region.