It may have recently been in the headlines for the epically gorgeous wedding of George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin, but Venice has long been in the spotlight for its stunning scenery, incredible cuisine, amazing artisanship, and its all-around classic Italian loveliness – not to mention its historic value, of course. Today Skye McAlpine, a freelance writer, , cook, and part-time Venice dweller, shares the ins and outs of this city on canals, giving us insight into some hidden gems and local favorites. – Stephanie
Read the full guide after the jump…
Gondolas on the Grand Canal
Photos by Skye McAlpine
C A S T E L L O
Traditionally the poorest area of the city, this quarter is largely dominated by the Arsenale, the old naval base. Largely residential and untouched by the tourist trade, it’s a great area for authentic food shops and to get away from the crowds in the city centre.
Laundry Hanging out over a sleepy canal in Castello.
S T A Y
. A stunning 15th century palazzo in a quiet residential square, a 15-minute easy walk from Piazza San Marco, away from the fray and the crowds of the city centre. The rooms are basic and the decor is dated – it’s a two-star hotel – but the palazzo itself and the shared common parts are exquisite, like something out of a romantic novel with their cavernous ceilings and heavenly frescoes.
S H O P
. A bookbinding workshop on a sleepy calle in the Castello quarter. The workshop belongs to and is run by an enthusiastic and talented Andrea, who takes an inspiring amount of pride in his craft and is happy to talk about it for hours on end to anyone who shows a modicum of interest. He will take on bespoke commissions – such as photo albums, notebooks or boxes – for a very reasonable fee. He also sells some beautiful printed paper in the shop.
. Fifties style cotton dresses and stylish felt cardigans, all made by hand by the interns at Venice’s women’s prison. A small shop, hidden away in Castello, you can find surprisingly chic and affordable clothes and accessories here.
. A quirky book shop, where the books – both secondhand and new – are stored in gondolas, canoes, tanks and on shelves, pretty much wherever there is space for them. The owner, Luigi Frizzo, believes that books are as much beautiful objects as reading material, and has created a unique, inspiring space to house his ever-evolving collection. The shop also has four resident cats.
E A T
. Family-run small bakery and pastry shop. They bake brioche (Italian croissants filled with apricot jam) fresh every morning, so you can eat them while still hot from the oven. They also make a wonderfully thick, dark hot chocolate with zabaglione cream. And in the summer, their iced cream coffee is sheer heaven.
. Tiny restaurant owned and run by a charming Texan, Diane, and her Venetian husband. They take turns running the kitchen and are both passionate about traditional Venetian cooking. Must have: spaghetti with pesto and bottarga and Diane’s torta alla ricotta, a cheesecake made with buffalo ricotta and honey biscuits, which is not only as light as air but – literally – one of the most exquisite cakes I have ever tasted. Also, the crema Veneziana (deep fried custard) is to die for.
. A smaller, rather more trendy version of Al Covo, run by Diane’s son. One small room with one large wooden table. Rustic chic. They serve light cichetti (Venetian tapas of sorts) and have a great wine list. Edgy without feeling pretentious.
. Tiny artisanal ice cream shop just 10 minutes walk away from Piazza San Marco. There is no seating area in the shop, and you’ll probably have to queue for a little while to be served (on hot days the queue snakes down the street), but they make some of the creamiest ice cream I have ever tasted. And their flavour combinations – which change from day to day – are always interesting. The pinenut ice cream and the lemon, basil and mint sorbet are two of my favourites.
S E E
. Every summer, contemporary exhibits run in the Biennale gardens. Different countries have their own pavilion in the park and curate exhibits with the work of their most prominent contemporary artists and architects. Fringe exhibit spill out across the city – dip in and see what you find.
D O R S O D U R O
Lofty palazzi stretching along the Grand Canal; and lots of arty independent shops selling books, glass, antiques and paintings.
S T A Y
. Simple two-star hotel just by the Accademia Bridge. The decor is fairly chintzy and dated, but it’s relatively cheap and the atmosphere is cheerful. It’s a small hotel (with just 35 rooms) in the wing of an old monastery, that now runs as a catholic school.
. Paired down minimalist chic in the heart of Dorsoduro, just by the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. A boutique hotel with an intimate feel in a pre-nineteenth century palazzo, redecorated with contemporary and sleek design.
The Grand Palazzi of Dorsoduro
S H O P
. There are too many mask shops in Venice – and a lot of them, sadly, sell masks that have been mass produced, often in Asia. But at Ca’Macana they craft and paint papier maché masks in the back of the shop. This is where Stanley Kubrick sourced the masks for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. Mask-making courses available for small groups.
E A T
. Tiny bacaro overlooking the oldest gondola workhouse in the city. You eat standing at the bar. A spritz with a few cichetti in the early evening or just before lunch is a Venetian tradition that you can’t not try. The crostini with lardo, thinly sliced pork fat, rosemary and honey taste like sweet butter melting in your mouth.
Al Casin Dei Nobili (Sotoportego del Casin dei Nobile, Sestiere Dorsoduro, 2765. +39 041 520 6895). Charming, cheap and cheerful trattoria a short walk from the Accademia bridge. The building was a brothel in the 18th century and they still have a lot of the adornments, quirky signs and so forth, hanging on the walls. Great for a plate of pasta or a pizza. Popular with students at the University.
Bar Da Gino (Calle Nuova Santa Agnese, Dorsoduro 853A 30123. +39 041 528 5276). A bustling workman’s bar – completely unprepossessing, but Gino (a larger-than-life character) makes the best cappuccino in Venice. Cheap and cheerful.
. A family-run bakery that specializes in focaccia Veneziana, a sweet brioche bread with a sugar crust. All the focacce are baked onsite in their big wood fired oven and then hung upside down from clothes pegs to cool, so that they keep their distinctive shape and light texture.
S E E
. The old customs house, looking onto the Giudecca Canal, has recently been restored and renovated by Tadao Ando. Now it houses François Pinault’s private contemporary art collection. The building itself is full of character with spellbinding views over the water and onto the Palladian fronted Giudecca. Don’t miss the Ronnie Horn glass cylinders.
. Peggy Guggenheim’s private house on the Grand Canal was converted into a contemporary art museum with a uniquely intimate feel. The rooms house an extraordinary collection of works by Picasso and other major 20th century artists from her social circle. There’s also a shady garden at the back, where Peggy’s dogs are buried, each grave touchingly marked with a stone tomb.
S A N M A R C O
The congested tourist heart of the city, where you will find all the big luxury shops and the more famous sights.
S H O P
The oldest paper shop in Venice – it first opened in 1851. A tiny little shop, full of fading character and brimming with beautiful printed papers and paper covered goods in all manner of colours and patterns. You could while away an afternoon in there, sifting through their stock.
. A textile designer who makes delicate and colourful linens, in classic designs often with a playful twist. Her cushions with iconic animals are particularly gorgeous.
. There is a longstanding tradition in Venice of printed silk, satin and velvet. Venetia Studium makes luxurious (and expensive) scarves, bags and lamps using the old techniques. The shop is like a treasure trove of decadent and otherworldly fabrics in dark, rich colours and muted golds.
. A small-scale Italian soap company, founded by the artist, Sue Townsend, and inspired by the aesthetics and colours of Sicily. They have a few shops across Italy and two in London. This is a charming little shop – intimate and filled with beautiful soap, exquisitely and artfully packaged. Each little soap box is like a jewel box.
E A T
. Old fashioned bakery and pastry shop near Piazza San Marco. Their pastries are delightful; and their tramezzini (sandwiches on thinly sliced soft white bread – a Venetian speciality) are pretty much the best in town. Try the carcioffi e funghi (mushroom and artichoke). Stand at the bar for a quick coffee, or sit at one of their tables for a more leisurely break.
. Woefully extravagant, but oh-so-beautiful. Kind of a must at least once on any trip to Venice. The oldest coffee shop in Venice, complete with gilded Rococo rooms and red velvet chairs. Their dark hot chocolate with whipped cream is legendary. In the summer, you can sit out in Piazza San Marco and listen to their band playing tunes.
S E E
. A collection of paintings, textiles and photographs belonging to the 20th century artist and textile designer, Mariano Fortuny. All on display in his magnificent gothic palazzo.
S A N P O L O
Centred around the Rialto Market, this quarter is filled with food shops and small boutiques. You will find that it is crowded in parts and completely undiscovered in others.
S T A Y
. A charming palazzo right on the Grand Canal. The hotel looks onto the water and you can arrive to the door by water taxi – all very romantic. It’s easy walking distance from the Rialto Market and hidden away, far from the bustle of the crowds. Recently and extravagantly renovated – it feels cozy and luxurious inside.
S H O P
Mazzon Le Borse (Campiello San Tomà, San Polo 2807. +39 041 520 3421). Chic and classic bespoke handbags, belts and other leather goods made onsite in the back of the shop by Signor Mazzon. Reasonably priced and you can choose every last little detail from the colour, to the kind of leather to how many pockets and where you would like the zip. Turnaround is about 3-4 weeks and they will post worldwide.
. In the arcades of the Rialto market, this shop sells furlane, velvet slippers that are traditionally worn by gondoliers. These come in all the colours of the rainbow and are handmade using recycled materials, like bicycle tires for the shoe soles. They also sell adorable little velvet slippers for children.
. A tiny family-run shop that sells handstiched leather gloves, in all manner of chic designs and colours. Available with cashmere, wool, silk or even fur linings. With polka dots, leather trims or just plain.
. A family-run spice shop just by the Rialto market, that remains unchanged since it first opened 50 plus years ago. They sell a fabulous array of loose teas, spices, spirits and candied fruits, as well as old fashioned sweets and chocolates in big glass jars. Everything is weighed out to the gram and then carefully wrapped in pretty printed paper.
. A small chocolate shop, halfway between the Rialto and Accademia bridges. You can watch them making the chocolates in the back of the shop. Their sweets are pricey, but exquisite – especially the chocolate covered glacé figs.
. Part medieval apothecary, part modern day pharmacy in Campo San Polo. With dark wooden shelves, bottles full of potions and golden mosaics. Beyond the day-to-day essentials that you would expect to buy in any chemist, they also sell their own range of natural herb-based products – teas, essential oils, lotions and so forth – all boxed up in irresistibly old fashioned packaging.
E A T
. Cheap and cheerful pizza spot in a old brewery looking onto the charming Campo San Polo, a 10-minute walk from the Rialto market. Great pizzas, baked onsite in wood fired oven with all manner of toppings, and lovely freshly made pasta.
. A bustling baccaro just by the Rialto Market. Perfect for a mid morning pick-me-up and to soak up some of the market atmosphere. Exposed brick and bare tables. You can eat standing at the bar or stay on for a more leisurely, table-service meal.
Fruit Stalls at the Rialto Market
S E E
Rialto Market (at the foot of the Rialto Bridge). Fruit and vegetable stalls laden down with fresh and local produce: anything from wild asparagus, artichokes, persimmons or flat peaches, depending on the season. Fish stalls with great local catches: eels, turbot, sea snails and so forth. Bustling, manic, bursting with atmosphere. If you love food, this is a must. Open every morning except Sundays (Sundays and Mondays for the fish market) and starts to wind down around midday.
C A N A R E G G I O
Mostly quiet and residential winding streets. It’s easy to get lost in this part of the city, but so enjoyable to wander around that you won’t mind. This quarter is home to the world’s first ghetto.
Lunch at Quaranta Ladroni
E A T
. Rustic seafood restaurant hidden in the depths of Canareggio. Garish decor, with painted murals and harsh lighting, but the very best seafood and a welcoming atmosphere. Ask them to bring you a selection of antipasti to include the polenta with fried baby shrimps, razor clams with parsley and lemon juice, and sautéed potatoes with scampi. And make sure to order the gnocchi with granzeola (spider crab), which is out of this world.
. Stunning seafood and traditional Venetian cooking in a cozy trattoria setting, just a 15-minute walk or so from the Rialto bridge and market. The restaurant feels intimate – think copper pots hanging from the walls and low wooden beams – and the service is delightful. Have the fritto misto (mixed fried seafood) which is so good it’s cult, and comes served in little brown paper cones.
S H O P
Gianni Basso (Calle del Fumo 5306, Canareggio 30121. +39 041 523 4681). A tiny workshop near the Fondamente Nuove, where Signor Basso makes headed stationery and cards on ancient printing presses. Signor Basso is something from another era: he has no email and no mobile phone, but makes stationery for a number of celebrities, such as Hugh Grant and Ryuichi Sakamoto. His work is fine and his attention to detail unparalleled.
The Sun Setting over the Canals of Canreggio
G I U D E C C A & S A N G I O R G I O
A sleepy island a stone’s throw away from the centre of the city. Almost entirely residential, you can only get to this part of Venice by boat – vaporetti (water buses) run every 10 minutes.
S T A Y
. A hostel on the Giudecca Island. Recently redecorated in a kind of shabby, eclectic chic. Think exposed wooden beams and extravagant Venetian glass light fittings. You can either hire a bed in a dorm or rent a double (or twin) room for yourself, which comes complete with its own shower room. It’s a 5-10 minute vaporetto (water bus) ride across to the main island of Venice.
E A T
. The Cipriani Hotel restaurant. Expensive, impeccably chic with unparalleled views over the water on to Piazza San Marco. Their bellini, made with fresh white peaches, is the best in Venice.
S E E
Campanile di San Giorgio (Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore. +39 041 522 7827). Go up the bell tower on the island of San Giorgio. There are never any queues (it’s in a relatively undiscovered part of Venice) and the views over the city and the lagoon are sensational. Great to do at the start of your stay so that you can get a feel for the geography and scale of the city.
M U R A N O, B U R A N O & T O R C E L L O
If you’re in Venice for a few days, you should take the time to explore the islands around the city. Each has it’s own character: Murano is a hub for glass making; Burano is full of picturesque and colourfully painted houses; and Torcello has the peaceful atmosphere of a rural idyll.
S T A Y & E A T
. Idyllic bed and breakfast on the Island of Burano (Mazzorbo), set in a vineyard where they make their own wine (sold in hand blown bottles with labels made from beaten gold leaf). Peaceful and sleek – there is nowhere else quite like Venissa. Their restaurant serves a trendy rendition of classic Venetian dishes as part of a many-course tasting menu. They cook with ingredients foraged from the lagoon and their dishes include beef carpaccio with wild blackberries and smoked rice risotto.
. A small inn on the secluded Island of Torcello. Ernest Hemingway used to stay here and that is where he wrote Across the River and Into the Trees. Sit out in the picturesque gardens in the summer, and settle in by the big, open wood fires in the winter. Great for lunch or dinner too, simple Venetian food.
Under the Pergola at Locanda Cipriani
S E E & S H O P
. Old and traditional glass factory (with shop) on the Island of Murano. You can watch the glass being blown in the furnaces. It’s kind of a touristy experience, as they run you through in groups, but watching the craftsmen at work is hypnotic and definitely a must-see, at least once.
. Proof that glass is art. The Venini shop on the Island of Murano is excruciatingly expensive, but each piece is crafted by hand using the most complex of glass blowing techniques, often as part of a limited edition run and often in collaboration with renown independent artists. Worth going to have a look just to admire their workmanship and designs.
P E O P L E O F N O T E
Donna Leon. American author of a series of crime novels set in Venice, featuring the fictional hero Commissario Guido Brunetti. She has lived in Venice for over 25 years.
Philipe Stark. French interior and architectural designer. He has a home on the island of Burano (Mazzorbo).
Elton John. British pop star. He has a home on the Giudecca.
Ludovico de Luigi. Venetian artist and sculptor.