You might be surprised to hear that among The Lonely Planet’s Top 25 Experiences in Europe, #5 on their list is “Venice in Winter.” Having now been in Venice over New Years, I understand why it rates so high. There is something magical about Venice on a sunny winter’s day. The light bounces off the water creating unbelievable photo ops, the tall buildings with narrow streets provide cocoon-like wind protection, and there’s the bustling of enough tourists to make it feel lively but not overrun. And when you’re not competing with 60,000 daily visitors in the summer, you are more likely to snap a photo without Susie from Tulsa photo bombing it.
Venice’s photographic overexposure might lead you to believe it’s a city you already know. But can you really imagine a city without any cars, where all deliveries are done by boat, and where the smell of the sea – not GPS - is your guiding light? It is not normal Italy. Not everyone pinches your blonde haired/blue eyed seven year old. English is the default language more quickly. And, MOST service is not with a smile. Venetians are notoriously grouchy, and with the exception of a few people, we found the locals to be some of the most unfriendly of all our European travel. Then again, you wouldn’t like it either if your streets were clogged with untrained Paparazzi in trainers hoisting a map in your face with a directional question that can’t be answered. Venice can’t be an easy city to live in. We saw more pet stores than grocery stores, and while seeing food delivered by boat was picturesque imagine trying to get your IKEA wardrobe home. Even with the lack of Venetian warmth, the magnanimousness of the city draws you in a way that catches you by surprise.
Venice is a city that is only truly understood through walking and getting lost. Conventional wisdom tells you to toss the map and welcome the experience of getting lost, which works most of the time except when you are trying to get across the Grand Canal. More useful advice is to keep the map, study the street names of those that cut through to get to the next neighborhood and don’t sweat the names of the other ones – 75% of which will dead end anyway. Following the pack is also good advice as there are only a few routes that go through. This funnel like experience means that you will be forced to crisscross the highly touristy areas to get from point A to B. Once out of the fray however, the payoffs for going off-piste in the neighborhoods of Dusodoro, lower Castello, and Cannaregio are quiet back streets, charming cafes and unique stores. In these parts of the city, you won’t find Venetian Universidad tee-shirts or masks made in China. Instead you’ll be wowed by artists painting hand-made masks (some places which offer workshops) and shops with eye-popping Venetian glass and glass jewelry made on the neighboring island of Murano.
We (Brett) made some games out of walking by having each family member take turns in deciding which way to go at every crossroad. My game idea (which I read online) was to go “Lion Hunting” in teams with our iPhones, only to realize that there weren’t near as many lions (the symbol of Venice) as we thought there would be. I tried to audible by making it a team game of snapping photos of bridges instead, but clearly I didn’t “sell it” because no one was feeling my flow. Instead I was told it was my turn to pick “which way” and “that, by the way Mom, you can’t pick straight again.” Game or not, with 400+ bridges the visual rewards that come with every turn was more than enough to keep the troops moving.
We took the Vaporetto (water bus) when we arrived in Venice and again when we left with our luggage, but otherwise we did everything on foot. We had no intention of breaking the bank by taking a taxi or gondola ride, and although the gondolier’s would consistently offer “Gondola, Gondola” every time you passed, it was never a hard sell. The gondolier’s got plenty of business without having to beg for it, and our enjoyment was standing on a bridge watching them navigate the tiny canals and each other. It all made parallel parking look so very JV.
We stayed centrally located in a small six room bed and breakfast called La Villeggiatura near the Rialto Bridge and market. We read about the place from a NYTimes “36 hours in Venice” article written in 2006. It was a great location and very comfortably and tastefully decorated, and a place we’d recommend staying for couples or families with older kids. With any small place, voices carry and you’ll want to make sure that your children’s voices don’t disturb what could be honeymooners in the room above you. Breakfast was included, but if you don’t already know this, Italian breakfast is really just tasteless white bread, marmalade croissants, and yogurt. AM protein is not the Italian way.
The best thing about our location was the proximity to some of the most well-known bacaros (Italian bars) serving cichetti (Venetian tapas) and wine. Every early evening, we would return to the hotel to let the boys rest by watching a movie filmed in Venice (“The Italian Job” and “Casino Royale”) while Brett and I grabbed some cichetti and a drink to wash it down before dinner. Cantina Do Mori (the oldest bacaro in Venice), All’ Arco (express-made cichetti with no tables or menu), and Osteria All Ciurma (a neighborhood bacaro) are all within three minutes of each other in San Polo neighborhood. The bacaro experience is not to be missed. Once you have your first glass of Prosecco, you won’t even sweat what’s happening with those voices back at the hotel.
Any sought after place, especially a floating theme park that absorbs tourists year round, requires a degree of vigilance. You must mind your step at all times. Slippery stone footbridges are aplenty. Not all canal banks have railings. With 100% of the population on foot, cutting a corner too tight comes at a cost. Piles of domesticated litter rival the streets of Paris. Similarly, there is good food to be had in Venice, but you have to work to dodge the abundance of spurious places pushing Tourist Menus and Free Wifi. In Venice’s few thoroughfares, very bad (and often overpriced) restaurants are so successful in enticing undiscerning tourists that they don’t even bother to take down the computer printed “We have Air Conditioning!” window signs during the winter. More than in other places in Italy, dining out on recommendations in Venice is highly advised.
Venice has both Italian restaurants and Venetian restaurants. In our experience, the familiar traditional Italian restaurants with pizza, lasagna, and red sauce tops out at good. The better and more interesting options are the smaller-menued Venetian restaurants where fresh seafood and briny pastas take center stage. Here then are some of our dining recommendations. None of them have a Tourist Menu. Many of them had seasonal radicchio braised into their seafood pasta dishes which caused me to swoon.
- Oniga: nice, cozy Venetian restaurant in Dorsoduro. Located on a main square, so easy to find. 18 euros for lunch special that included pasta with mussels and a whole piece of grilled sea bass with polenta. They stop serving lunch at 2:30. Around the corner are two other restaurants that were highly recommended for dinner that we didn’t have time for: La Bitta (one of the few restaurants with a non-fish menu) and Osteria ai 4 Feri (a small place that was written up in Time.)
- Grom: gelato in Dorsoduro. Unlike in Southern Italy, there is not gelato or cappuccino on every corner so you have to map out your gelato stops more strategically. If you can stand the squeaky door and cranky service, stop in one of three Grom locations – including the one adjacent to Oniga in Dorsoduro – for a dark chocolate or pistachio scoop of gelato goodness.
- Rosso Pomodoro: a large, modern pizza and pasta restaurant in San Marco. Because sometimes you need a go-to restaurant RIGHT now. Located a stone’s throw from the commotion of San Marco square, Rosso Pomodoro has authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas made in wood burning ovens, above average pastas, a nice atmosphere and a kitchen that stays open all afternoon. As a couple, you can skip it. As a family, you may find yourself there more than once. I had read somewhere that wood-burning pizza ovens weren’t legal in Venice (just like the glass blowing that was moved out to the island of Murano), but something was lost in translation when I tried to get to the bottom of this conundrum with our harried server.
- Imagina: a casual café for an inexpensive lunch in Dorsoduro. Great paninis and a hearty salad with tuna. Off the main square where Oniga was located, along a canal – a good spot for either lunch or a drink.
- Birraria La Corte: a large, modern Italian restaurant in San Polo. Another solid family place (and one of the few that was open on New Year’s Day) with a bigger menu that worked for everyone. Better than expected gnocchi. Get the front room where the ambiance and lighting is better if you can.
- Antico Giardinetto: a 7-8 table Venetian restaurant run by a nice couple in San Polo. Each seafood pasta was fresh and special, and worth the more expensive price tag. Though the fish options were the most memorable, there were also some lovely non-fish choices on the menu Two dinner seatings – one at 7:30 and one at 9:30. Exactly as a cozy neighborhood restaurant is meant to be. 140 euros for a family of 5 with a bottle of wine.
- Caffe del Doge: a sit down coffee shop worth seeking out for a great cappuccino, interesting coffee drinks and decadent hot chocolate that will keep you kids motored for hours. In San Polo. A routine morning stop for us.
- All Frasca: an even smaller Venetian restaurant in Carnnaregio specializing in simple seafood dishes. Hard to find, but worth the trip for a taste of simple mixed fish grill, pasta with anchovies and onions, fusilli with swordfish, olives and tomatoes and penne with shrimps and radicchio. Front of house run by very friendly guy named Bruno. Would be even more special in summer when restaurant spills out to many more tables onto quiet courtyard. Only minor complaint was ordinary tiramisu and crème brule desserts. Like Antico Giardinetto, also has two seatings and similar price point. More talked about and expensive restaurant Boccadoro (which we didn’t have time for) is a few streets away.
Of course I don’t need to tell you about the big sights like the Basilica di San Marco, the Palazzo Ducale and the Secret Passages Tour (book before you come!), and the Gallerie dell Accademia. You will read all about then and no doubt visit them. What I should mention however were some of the smaller sites and museums we visited that are worth a look, and perhaps depending on the attention span of your traveling company – a better alternative.
- Ca’Rezzonico : an 18th century Venetian palace on the Grand Canal in Dorsoduro. It is three floors of palace rooms with paintings, frescoes and decorative arts and a fourth gallery floor. It’s small, manageable and interesting for all ages. The seven year old starting crying and heading for the exit with some of the disturbing art on the fourth floor, but don’t let this detour you. The first three floors are well worth the price of admission.
- Naval History Museum & Arsenale: A maritime museum in the Castello neighborhood that spans some 40+ rooms featuring scale models of Venetian built vessels and gondolas. At less than 2 euros a person to get in, it’s dirt cheap and a welcome change of pace when you’re churched out. It’s also worth the great views looking back at San Marcos and out to Lido.
- Da Vinci Museum: Though not specifically Venetian, a permanent exhibit of over 120 different of his machine inventions is a fun hands on museum experience. Exhibit housed in an old church in Dorsoduro. Also includes dramatized video of DaVinci’s unsettled life in a sordid time with English subtitles (not for the squeamish.)
I apologize in advance for the obscene number of photos. This was the short list. My camera and I were having a mini love affair during our four days together in Venice. Do not forget yours, and remember to pack your extra long lens. And now for the rest of the Canalbum.