You will get lost in Venice, and it will be a great adventure. Venice is a real-life maze, with twisting alleys and winding canals, and an ancient setting as the backdrop. You will marvel at the majestic churches and palaces built many centuries ago, and wonder what architectural secrets were known back then that keeps them still standing today. There are no cars here in Venice, and sometimes — especially at night — the silence can be deafening.
Venice’s beauty is so astounding that her biggest problem is the massive amount of visitors that are drawn to experience it for themselves. Every year about 22 million tourists arrive in Venice, compared to about 58 thousand residents who actually live here. The crowds can be overwhelming, but it is possible to avoid getting swept up into the hordes with a couple of insider tips.
Forget about trying to figure out what street you’re on. Move from campo to campo, which are public squares. “Campo” means “field” in Italian, and if you can grasp the layout, you will be far ahead of other visitors who try hopelessly to pinpoint where they are on their iPhones. There are six sestieri, or districts in Venice, and within each district there are many different campi, wide open spaces that years ago were actual fields with grass and grazing cows. Within each campo is a church, and the name of the church is the name of the campo — there are exceptions, but that is the general rule. When you arrive at a campo, look around for its name, which will be painted somewhere in large letters on the buildings. Voila! Now you know where you are, and can get your bearings on a map.
All along the way there are yellow signs overhead that point to major landmarks like Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge, the Accademia Bridge, Ferrovia (the train station), etc. If a sign points in both directions, it means you can go either way to get to the same place in about the same amount of time, just like Alice in Wonderland. Always stay to the right, even though it may go against British instincts. Never sit on a bridge, and if you see someone else doing so, feel free to frown.
Although there are many campi in Venice, there is only one piazza, and that is the renowned Piazza San Marco, which Napoleon called, “the drawing room of Europe.” For centuries, the famous and the infamous, the ordinary and the eccentric have strolled across its stones, captured by its impossible beauty. There is usually a long line waiting to enter the Basilica of San Marco and view its golden mosaic splendor, but if you go just after it opens at 9:45am, you can avoid the crowds; dress appropriately, and be sure to keep your shoulders covered; entrance is free. While inside, light a candle and ask for a miracle in front of the Madonna Nicopeia (Madonna of Victory), my favorite Byzantine icon. Part of the war booty captured by the Crusaders in Constantinople in 1203 and brought to Venice, she used to march at the head of the army of the Holy Roman Empire, and is said to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist himself.
Next to the Basilica is Palazzo Ducale, or the Doge’s Palace, the pink fairy-tale structure that was once the headquarters of the Venetian Republic. The Doge was the figurehead of the powerful republic; he actually had apartments inside the palace, much like the President of the United States lives inside the White House today. For those interested in politics, you could spend an entire day inside the ancient structure and gain an eye-opening education. The “Secret Itinerary” tour takes you behind the scenes into the inner workings of the government; the same ticket also allows you to see the rest of the palace, and the glorious mask the Venetians showed the world.
Another must-see is the famous Rialto Bridge, which has been standing for more than 400 years, and the Rialto fish and vegetable market clustered below. The top of the bridge is usually crowded, so stay calm, absorb the spectacular view of the Grand Canal, snap your selfie and move on to the markets, which are open until about 1:00PM (the fish market is closed on Sunday and Monday). In the evenings, the bars and restaurants around Rialto transform into an an open-air living room, buzzing with local and international vibes.
A vaporetto is a water bus, and taking the line #1 or #2 from the train station to Lido Island is a relatively inexpensive trip (€7) on the Grand Canal and across the waters of the Venetian lagoon. Try to get a window or an outdoor seat.
An evening gondola ride is pricey, but there is nothing more magical than a sleek, black gondola gliding through the small canals, then bursting onto the Grand Canal as the sun sets. Although nowadays gondolas are mostly occupied by tourists, it is actually an ancient method of transportation created especially to move around the waters of Venice.
The cultural heart of Venice lies in the area surrounding the Gran Teatro La Fenice, the international opera house that has famously burned and risen from its ashes on more than one occasion, as befits its name, “The Phoenix.” Catching a show there — whatever it happens to playing — is highly recommended. You can also take a self-guided audio tour most days from 9:30am to 5:00pm or 6:00pm.
Not far from La Fenice, on the way to the Accademia Bridge, lies Campo Santo Stefano, an upscale area valiantly trying to hold massive tourism at bay. In and around the campo are several good-quality bars and restaurants. My favorite is A Beccafico, with dining both inside or out. The Veneto Institue of Science, Literature and Art is housed in the impressive Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti and Palazzo Loredon, and usually has a dynamic contemporary exhibition inside.
Tucked off Campo Santo Stefano is a small street called Calle delle Botteghe, the base for an eclectic group of shops featuring high-quality art, Murano glass, Venetian fabrics, wine and vintage clothing. After you shop for a genuine Venetian treasure, if you follow the signs, you will arrive at Palazzo Grassi, the majestic home of the contemporary art collection of the French billionaire François Pinault, towering on the Grand Canal.
Yes, you will get lost in Venice, but you will discover a world you never dreamed existed. And you will always find your way back again.
Award-winning YA author Cat Bauer has lived in Venice since 1998. She was a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune’s Italian supplement, Italy Daily and the Time Out Guide to Venice and the Veneto, and has written about Venice for many other international publications. Her blog, Venetian Cat – The Venice Blog has been featured in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine.