Venice, Venice. Aka: as La Serenissima, ‘the most serene’. (Maybe a long, long, loooong time ago). Venice was the city that introduced me to Gondolas, bridges, canals and, sadly, even mass tourism!
We visited last month, which is considered low season. Yes, it rained, rained and rained. But, there were fewer tourists than the overwhelming crowds I was warned about. Honestly, I can’t imagine peak time being nice for anyone.
How are you even enjoying sightseeing from the back of Susan’s head?
Venice is one of those places that looks EXACTLY as you have seen it in photos. Absolutely stunning, and as echoed by E. Temple Thurston in The City of Beautiful Nonsense, the city is magical at night.
“You’ve got to see Venice,” he began, “you’ve got to see a city of slender towers and white domes, sleeping in the water like a mass of water lilies. You’ve got to see dark water-ways, mysterious threads of shadow, binding all these flowers of stone together. You’ve got to hear the silence in which the whispers of lovers of a thousand years ago, and the cries of men, betrayed, all breathe and echo in every bush. You’ve got to see it all in the night – at night, when the great white lily flowers are blackened in shadow, and the darkened water-ways are lost in an impenetrable depth of gloom. You’ve got to hear the stealthy creeping of a gondola and the lapping of the water against the slimy stones as it hurries by.”The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E. Temple Thurston
I wished we had longer, but made the most of your short time and took plenty of photos.
We arrived in Venice just as the sun was dipping and made for Sestiere Cannaregio. Our neighbour is one of six districts in Venice. It’s between Santa Maria Train Station ( where we arrive in Venice) and Rialto Bridge. Cannaregio felt somewhat off the beaten track, save for touristy Lista di Spagna and wide Strada Nuova (the main road it runs off).
Our base was a typical Venetian home (for the weekend) that is slap-bang in a residential area. On one side it sits on the edge of the canal and has a view to match. Eager to settle in (and I mean explore). We dumped our stuff and hot-footed it out the door to roam the magnetic tullis of Venice.
We didn’t come to shop. But if you are, you’ll find plenty of places ready and waiting to capitalise.
After parading past rows of illuminated windows displaying Venetian masks, panettone, jumbo hams and pasta, it wasn’t long before we found a bacaro (bar). So, we stopped for an aperitif and cicchetti (the Venetian answer to tapas) to whet our appetite. Next, we headed to the infamous San Marco Square before dining in a trattoria and returning to our quiet home to rest. Between jetting on a plane and railing it across Northern Italy, it had been six hours of travelling, and we were shattered.
We got an early start and made for coffee in nearby Lista di Spagna. After hearty “buongiorno” and cups of Americano’ it was time to explore.
St Mark’s Basilica
Of the 137 or so churches in Venice, St Mark’s Basilica is the most visited and is top of any must-see on any Venice itinerary. What I love most about visiting any city- home or abroad are the stories attached. With an origin stretching back to 891, it wasn’t surprising to learn St Mark’s Basilica is bursting with as many tales and legends as it has gold. I won’t tell you all of them. Otherwise, we’ll be here all day (possibly longer).
But I’ll share one!
Apparently, this church was built to house the body of St. Mark the Evangelist, STOLEN from Alexandria, Egypt. I daresay you’ll be surprised by the number of jewels inside this church. It’s a fact that seems to follow many European churches. But if you’re curious, there are 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts and waaay more. Mind you, that isn’t including the 85,000 mosaic pieces that are mainly pure gold!
Venice is a city of bridges and canals, so here is a fun fact for you. There are over 150 canals connecting the city and over 400 bridges.
Rialto Bridge, AKA Ponte di Rialto is the oldest and possibly the most iconic. Fortunately for us, our base in Cannaregio was close to Rialto Bridge, so when we arrived first thing, it was pretty empty.
Bridges have always stood here to transport people over the grand canal. During the 11th century, this was a popular shopping spot and spices, jewellery, you name it, could be found here. Unfortunately, due to the heavy foot traffic, the first Bridge collapsed in 1280. Again in 1310, following a revolt. And for a third time in 1524. From the time what we see here today was commissioned, it took three years to build – opening its crossing to the public in 1591.
The Rialto Market is on the other side and hums with a colourful old-skool charm. It’s a lovely doorway to watch colourful Venetian life. Yep, even in the rain!
St Mark’s Square
Seeing St Mark’s Square in the cold light of day, I must admit I preferred it under the moonlit night. Don’t get me wrong, the square wears dreich weather fashionably. After years of alterations, adaptations and restorations, St Mark’s Square remain surpassingly beautiful, and I understand why Napoleon styled it as the “drawing room of Europe “.
Flanked on either side, you’re greeted by just the most enchanting architecture. You have the imposing Doges Palace, San Mark’s Basilica and The BellTower all competing for your attention. And all winning. From about 10ish, the queues for most of the attractions began to sprawl out.
The square (even on grey, gloomy days) paints a vivid picture of Venice’s architecture and its stunning backdrop to the history and culture that has played out since the 9th century. I’m becoming a serious architecture and history geek, but it’s hands down a sight to be seen. Wandering the square, you’ll also see shops and cafes, including Cafe Florian, the oldest in the world. The cafe has been serving espressos since the 1720s. It’s highly touristic here, with prices to match. So you’ll either have the oldest coffee or the most expensive. An experience either way.
Libreria Acqua Alta
Whimsical and quirky, I first saw Libreria Acqua Alta doing the rounds on socials. Of course, I had to see it for myself. It’s actually a bookshop and has earned the title of the most beautiful in the world. I’m not sure about that. But, I’d definitely give it an award for being the most original. Libreria Alta Library means The Bookshop of High Water.
You see, Venice is prone to extreme flooding. So, to keep the 100’s of books from getting soggy, the owners have stuffed books, magazines (and other knick knacks) into basins. And even piled books high into a gondolier.
Honestly, it’s all a bit of an organised mess! With people milling about between the small spaces, a huge boat and basins…it can feel a bit chaotic inside. Think: More an attraction than a chill spot for reading.
The owner has created a paper-mache-like staircase for all the books that didn’t make it, and the “staircase” overlooks a view of the canals. Although I didn’t buy any books, it’s worth a visit. When life places you in a city prone to floods, create a waterproof bookstore!
Today, the happy pops of colour guide tourist-filled vaporettos over to discover the quirky town.
You can spot Burano’s spectacular rainbows before you dock. It’s like a fairytale set in the middle of a carnival. Less all the noise.
Only 4000 residents live here, and bar a few shop owners, no one seemed to be around. So what to do on a beautiful colourful Venetian island? Apart from exploring and swooning at the artsy houses, you mean (cue the photo’s).
Burano is also renowned for lace-making. You can learn more about the history by visiting the lace-making museum (Museo del Merletto). There, you’ll discover more about Burano’s iconic lace trade.
There are also plenty of artisan shops and churches, including the bell tower of San Martino Church, to fill a few hours. Not to mention fabulous cafés and restaurants to enjoy a glass of Spritz and a plate of Cicchetti.
There is also a Michelin-star restaurant here (Trattoria Al Gatto Nero) if you want something a little fancier! A curious fact for you: Burano have its very own sweet! So even if you leave without buying any lace. Make sure you stop and enjoy a buttery Bussolai.
Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs, known in Italian as Ponte dei Sospiri and romanticised by lovestruck poets and playwrights worldwide. Made from white limestone and hemmed in by Palazzo Ducale (Doges Palace), on one side and the prison on the other. There’s no denying The Bridge of Sighs isn’t an architectural beauty. Who can resist the charm of such enchanting masonry? It was built by architect Antonio Contin, (nephew of Antonio da Ponte – the man responsible for Rialto Bridge). Soo they kept it in the family!
The Bridge got its name because of the sobering sighs of convicts. Through slithers of encased stone, this intoxicating view was thought to be their final glimpse of Venice for one last time. (think: dead man rowing).
Lost in translations as so often happens in tourism, the Bridge of Sighs ss also the path of eternal love. At least, that’s the way starry-eyed lovers believe it to be.
Their version is: If you pass along Rio di Palazza (the canal passing the Bridge of Sighs) on gondola, of course! To ride the waves of eternal love, you must pass under the white limestone passage at the very moment the sun is setting…
And: you must seal your love with a perfectly-timed kiss.
Ahhhh, and that’s the Bridge of Sighs.
San Simeon Piccolo
We got our first glimpse of San Simeon Piccolo as we choo-choo’d and chugged into Santa Lucia train station. Coming out of the train station, it just sort of glares at you. Or you it. The dome at least. So near, yet so away. Oddly, I ran towards it, only for boats, gondolas, vaporettos and everything else to pass by like moths. Oops. Didn’t I say? The Grand Canal stands in between. Whenever visiting anywhere new, I just want to see it! But pair clumsy jubilance, hours travelling by air and rail, and an eager-to-meet Airbnb host. San Simeon Piccolo had to wait.
After many “head straight” that lead to bobbing moored boats and gondola stops. On day 2, we made it over to the other side. Making it inside just in time because not 20 minutes after we arrived, the lights were snapped off by a hand-hipped caretaker, who stood by the door, tapping his foot.
The current San Simeon Piccolo (consecrated April 27, 1738, and of the last ones in Venice) was modelled on The Pantheon in Rome (personally, I don’t see the resemblance, do you?) But sources show an older church stood here from as far back as 1271. A curious fact about this church: it’s the only church in Venice where mass is held in Latin.
Fondamenta della Misericordia
Even after a weekend in La Serenissima, you get the feeling you have barely scratched the surface. Venice is an open-air museum with sights that bewitches you. I love exploring without a rigid itinerary, and feeling lost in Venice comes easily. One minute you’re weaving labyrinthine paths; the next, hot-footing it over bridges overlooking sparkling canals.
Down here, we saw baroque and gothic architecture, including Palazzo Labia. Not too far from where we were staying, We almost stumbled upon Fondamenta della Misericordia, which feels tucked away and off the beaten track. There’s an authenticity about this spot in Cannaregio. On one side, you have residential houses, and on the other…
A burst of quaint cafés, art galleries, artisan shops, antiques and restaurants.
People Watching & Eating
Our Venetian host gave us his restaurant recommendations to help us “eat like a local”. So we timed this with Appertivo time. As we headed back down Fondamenta della Misericordia fumbling our way along the lightless canal, it wasn’t long before the silvery light illuminated the wave of locals spilling out of packed bars. Considering it was still cold and damp, there was a warming just-got-out-work-for-the-week buzz in the air. Some were chattering away between sips of fizzy liquids, which I imagine was Spritz. Others stood around small tables filled with plates of Cicchetti. Despite the touch of glamour from the bridges and patches of canals that lit up from either moon or bar lights, everything was oddly normal. I love people-watching!
We ate in Ostaria Rioba, a beautiful restaurant with an atmosphere to match.
With a colourful seafaring past, surely you’ll expect many restaurants to serve seafood in Venice right? (Yay) Ostaria Rioba also served meat as well as vegetarian. What stood out was the old-fashioned service. We were greeted at the door humanly, not in that generic, robotic (nor pretentious) way. There are only nine tables, so although the restaurant is busy, it’s not bursting at the seams and offers many different local plates. (Try: Sarde in saor marinated sardines) 😋
We took a direct flight from Malta to Bergamo. From there, you can take a train to Milan and set off there or go via Verona. Italy is generally well connected by train, with many daily trains running to Venice daily. My friend on this trip was the app Omio, which I cannot recommend enough to get you anywhere you need to go. You can also buy your tickets too!