Venice may be overcrowded, overpriced and sinking, but it remains so miraculously beautiful that on each visit I am once again lost in astonishment and admiration. The city’s treasures are innumerable and inexhaustible. And the crowds can often be mitigated by strolling a few hundred yards from St. Mark’s Square.
Since Venice is surrounded by a vast lagoon, it is no surprise that seafood — including prawns, squid and clams — takes pride of place on the menus of its more distinguished restaurants. Keep in mind when ordering seafood that the price will refer to the cost per 100 grams, and don’t expect fresh fish on Monday, when the market is closed.
As for when to visit, I avoid the summer, as the city is overrun and the heat is often oppressive. Venice is one place I enjoy visiting in winter, when swirling mist and a veil of rain make it extremely romantic in a melancholy sort of way. It is seldom too cold, the light is soft and, except for the Carnival period, the crowds are absent.
Venice at a Glance
My favorite view in Venice is from the campanile of the Palladian San Giorgio Maggiore church. You can take an elevator to the top of the bell tower — the line (if there is one) is much shorter than at the campanile of San Marco — and because you’re across the Canale di San Marco, you can see the entirety of Venice at a glance. The free Le Stanze del Vetro glass museum is along the fondamente behind the church.
Contemporary Art Venues
Restored by Tadao Ando in 2008-2009, the Punta della Dogana (Venice’s former customs house) occupies a prominent triangle of land at the very end of the Grand Canal. It now host temporary art exhibitions including pieces from the Pinault Collection as well as site-specific works. The Palazzo Grassi, also restored by Ando, is a sister institution.
The Eolo, a restored wooden sailing vessel, offers unique cruises in the Venetian lagoon and up the Brenta River. Itineraries, which range from day trips to in-depth eight-day explorations, are fully customized and take participants well off the tourist track. Overnight accommodations are not on board, but rather in inns along the way.
Venice’s lagoon yields an abundance of exquisite seafood. Several types will be breaded and fried in the delicious fritto misto. In sarde in saor, sardines are cooked in a sweet-and-sour mix of onions, raisins and white-wine vinegar. Look also for the representative pasta of Venice, bigoli (like bucatini), often served with a sauce of anchovies and onions.
One of the most enjoyable ways to spend a day in Venice is in the company of Countess Enrica Rocca, whose cooking school imparts a new appreciation of Venetian cuisine. After a shopping excursion in the Rialto market, participants make their way back to the loftlike apartment of her family’s palazzo. There they are guided step-by-step through the preparation of a complete multicourse lunch, which is then enjoyed with fellow students.
Venetians often break their days for a snack of cicchetti (like tapas) in one of the city’s bacari, or wine bars. Here are three of our favorites: The romantic Trattoria Cà d’Oro Alla Vedova has been run by the same family for a century. I like to stand at the bar and sip an ombra de vin while snacking on polpettine (deep-fried meatballs). Just opposite the gondola workshops on the San Trovaso canal, Cantinone già Schiavi serves superb cicchetti, including cheese and fennel crostini, and smoked swordfish with Parmesan. And Trattoria alla Rampa occupies the ground floor of a 17th-century palazzo. It is always full of locals chatting over spritz al bitter or Prosecco.
Idyllic Day Trip
Torcello was the first island in the lagoon to be settled by the Veneti in the mid-fifth century. Today it makes an ideal day trip via a delightful 40-minute ferry ride. Chief among its attractions is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639, which features superb Byzantine mosaics that alone make the journey worthwhile.