There’s no place on earth like Venice. Its history, its unique features, the sheer beauty of its architecture all contribute to its status as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. No bucket list, honeymoon catalogue or travel blogger wish-list is complete without a trip to Venice. Like in Rome, you have absolutely no chance of experiencing everything this incredible city has to offer, unless you have a few years at your disposal and a superhuman amount of stamina. If, however, you find the traditional tourist routes – with their unforgiving timetables and their impossibly-priced attractions – ever so slightly overwhelming, you might want to try out these insider tips. While you should definitely pay a visit to world-famous landmarks such as Piazza San Marco or the Rialto Bridge, taking the road less traveled is a unique chance to get the feel of the real city. You can briefly sneak behind what often appears like a painted backdrop, set in place for the benefit of tourists that come to Venice expecting it to fulfil their expectations, rather than hoping to discover its true essence.
1. History, far away from the city centre: Basilica di San Pietro di Castello
The Basilica of St Peter of Castello could have been a major cathedral, were it not for its inconvenient position in the north-west corner of the main city, in the Castello sestiere (the city of Venice is divided into six main areas or neighbourhoods, called sestieri). As it happens, this basilica has always been overshadowed by the more famous and central St. Mark’s Basilica. The history of this church dates back to the 7th century, when Venice itself was nothing more than a precarious collection of scattered village communities on the quaggy islands of the Laguna. It is inaccurate to refer to this establishment as one church throughout history: centuries of fires and wars have caused the structure to be destroyed and rebuilt at different times. The last occasion in which St Peter of Castello sustained serious damage, requiring major restoration work, was during the first world war. The current exterior is based on a design by Andrea Palladio, implemented by architect Francesco Smeraldi, who chose to act on a less complex project than the Palladian original. The church has a huge dome and one of the most beautiful steeples in Venice. Despite being considered a minor church – from a strictly touristic perspective – St Peter contains several remarkable paintings, including SS John the Evangelist, Peter and Paul by Paolo Veronese and The Martyrdom of St John the Evangelist by Padovanino.
2. Drink spritz like a Venetian in Campo S. Margherita
Have you ever wondered how the Venetian cope with the unreasonable prices for a glass of spritz and a bowl of peanuts? They don’t. Because, much as Romans, Londoners and Parisians, they don’t drink in the same places where tourists usually hang out. Campo Santa Margherita is a favourite spot for students and local residents, not entirely tourist-free, but still blessed with a healthy mix of international elements and an authentic atmosphere. A beautiful, lively area during the day, by evening it turns into a constellation of small bars and pubs, where you can enjoy a contemporary classic of a ritual: a spritz-based aperitivo. Spritz is a cocktail, hugely popular all over the Country, particularly in the North-east. The original recipe includes Aperol, prosecco and soda, but you are likely to find different recipes in different cities. Having an aperitivo can be a complicated affair. The concept extends beyond the literal translation of “aperitif”, meaning an appetiser or a light alcoholic drink consumed before a major meal. It is a social ritual performed by large groups of people, involving a lot of bar-hopping. Think pub-crawl, but with less alcohol and more food, so that those who partake do not wake up the next day next to a half-eaten kebab.
3. Acqua Alta Bookshop. Book. Cats. Enough said.
Book lovers can’t possibly miss this incredible place. In fact, if you are a book lover, it’s worth a trip to Venice just to visit one of the most famous and extravagant bookshops in the world. You might not find the particular book you are looking for, you might not even find a book in a language you can actually read – even though there’s a large selection of international titles – but you’ll get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to step into the book equivalent of Narnia and Wonderland rolled up into one. Forget shelves: books are arranged in bathtubs and gondolas, in canoes, in bookshelves made of other books or steps made of encyclopaedias. This is what Hansel & Gretel’s gingerbread house might have looked like, if the witch had been trying to lure in nerdy kids. And there are cats, of course. Cats are a distinctive feature in Venice: they are everywhere, they are loved and respected by the local population and they pretty much count as citizens. Four of them live in this magic bookshop (although the number might have changed by the time you get there). They lounge lazily, sleep and sit among the pillars of books, looking at you with the air of someone who knows something you don’t – as cats are wont to do. If you are a cat person, a book person or both, this might very well be the most beautiful corner of the world to you.
4. Le Carampane: lunch in Venice’s red-light district
No, Venice does not have an actual red-light district. Any more. But it used to. For centuries all the major cities had brothels, particularly international hubs such as Venice. Through its busy harbour soldiers, merchants, artists, philosophers and criminals passed, creating a dazzling melting pot of customs and cultures. Prostitution was therefore broadly tolerated, but still frowned upon: prostitutes were bound to live in what was by all intents and purposes a ghetto, where they were obliged to return to every evening. Severe punishment awaited women of ill repute who were caught out of their allotted neighbourhood at night or trying to accost men during religious holidays. In the early XIV century, Venetian courtesans used to live in the areas known respectively as Castelletto and Le Carampane – the second being mostly a residence for older women who had left the trade. Nowadays, le Carampane is where you go if you want to enjoy a delicious meal far away from the crowded hassle of the city centre. The restaurant by the same name is hard to find and it has built a reputation among locals and discerning tourists. It proudly boasts a sign advertising that no pizza, no lasagna and no tourist menus are to be found here. A real, local trattoria, specialising in fresh seafood.
5.In the heart of Venice: Rialto Market
Wherever you are in the world, if you really want to immerse yourself in the flesh and soul of a city, you should go to a local food market. In Venice, you couldn’t do better than the Rialto Market. Located by the famous bridge of the same name, this is one of the most ancient markets in Venice and it still conveys the real atmosphere of its popular culture. Fresh fish and seafood, as well as fruit and vegetables constituting the basic ingredients of Venetian cuisine can be bought here, but the market itself is worth a visit even if you are not planning on cooking sarde in saor: the smells and sounds, the colours and the crowd will sum up Venice and fix it in your memory better than any postcard-shot or museum catalog.