In winter Italy’s waterside wonder can be magically quiet – or bedlam during Carnival in February. Whichever you prefer, Anne Hanley highlights its treasures
Venice is a city torn between what it knows it is, and what it would like to be: a showcase of almost preposterous, peerless beauty, and a thriving 21st-century city with a vibrant life beyond tourism. The visitor can sometimes come off worse in this identity clash: it’s easy to feel the locals resent the awe-struck hordes, despite the fact that tourists provide so many of them with a livelihood.
Yet attentive visitors realise the city’s real fascination lies at the interface between the extremes of this split personality. Going off-track, eroding the them-and-us barriers and honing your appreciation of the mechanics that keep this unique city afloat, figuratively and literally, will turn Venice from familiar picture-postcard perfection to a city like no other.
Venice’s hallmark sight is the Basilica di San Marco (q Piazza San Marco). The present basilica, the third on this site, was built mainly between 1063 and 1094, and its entire interior is covered in golden mosaics: visit in the evening, when the setting sun makes them glow.
Another of Venice’s must-see landmarks is church of San Giorgio Maggiore (w Isola di San Giorgio), across the water; Andrea Palladio, arguably the most influential figure in Western architecture, designed it.
For Venetian painting, the essential one-stop shop is the Gallerie dell’Accademia (e Campo della Carità, Dorsoduro; www.polomuseale.venezia.beniculturali.it), one of the world’s greatest art treasure houses. It’s currently a hive of construction and restoration work, although the gallery will remain open throughout its grand makeover.
Modern art enthusiasts should head to the Punta della Dogana (r Campo della Salute, Dorsoduro; www.palazzograssi.it). This triangular warehouse houses French fashion magnate François Pinault’s collection of 20th- and 21st-century art, one of the most impressive private collections in Europe.
If you’re in Venice on a Thursday, go to the women’s prison (t Penitenziario Femmenile, Fondamenta delle Convertite, Giudecca Island) to buy organic vegetables grown by the 80-odd inmates. Behind the walls of this 13th-century former convent, inmates also run an industrial laundry and make beauty products, furnishings and clothes. Their clothes are on sale at Banco No 10 (y Salizada Sant’Antonin, Castello), near the church of San Giovanni in Bragora.
There are few finer places from which to soak up the glories of the Grand Canal, glass in hand, than Taverna del Campiello Remer (u Campiello Remer, Cannaregio). Cantinone (già Schiavi) (i Fondamenta Nani, Dorsoduro) is a good setting for the Venetian ritual of prosecco and spritz (a white wine, Campari and selzer aperitivo). Da Bonifacio (o Calle degli Albanesi, Castello), near the Danieli Hotel, is a favourite with Venetians, who queue to squeeze in for a coffee and a cake.
One of the hottest culinary tickets in Venice is Alle Testiere (1) Calle del Mondo Novo, Castello; www.veneziaristoranti.it), serving creative variations on Venetian seafood. For an excellent family pizzeria, head to Dai Tosi (1! Secco Marina, Castello 738), a bit hit with locals. Finally, one of Venice’s best ‘alternative’ trattorias, not to mention one of the best value, is La Zucca (1@ Ponte del Megio, Santa Croce; www.lazucca.it). Its menu features vegetarian specialities, such as pumpkin and seasoned ricotta quiche, as well as mouthwatering meat dishes, such as ginger pork with pilau rice.
Just two minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco is Ca’ del Nobile (f San Marco; doubles €80-260). The service here is spot-on, there’s free Wi-Fi and the decor is warm classic-contemporary.
Another good option is the family-run Al Ponte Antico (1$ Calle dell’Aseo; Cannaregio 5768; doubles €200-€450), in a 16th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal with views of the Rialto Bridge.
One of the few Venetian B&Bs that comes close to the British concept is B&B San Marco (1% Fondamenta San Giorgio dei Schiavoni, Castello; doubles €70-€120). Three cosy bedrooms, furnished with antiques, share a bathroom; there’s also an apartment that sleeps four (€100-€160).
Competing with Venice isn’t easy, but there are still a few places nearby that are worth the trip: Verona, Padua, Vicenza and Treviso all make good excursions. That said, due to Venice’s improbable location (on a saltwater lagoon), you don’t have to travel far to feel a world away from the crowds of San Marco.
There are 34 islands on the lagoon. Most are uninhabited, home only to crumbling masonry, seagulls and lazy lizards. Such destinations as Murano (five minutes’ boat ride from the city) and Burano (40 minutes) can be crowded in high season, but the views of the lagoon’s empty reaches from a vaporetto (water bus) are enough to soothe even the most frayed nerves.
Sant’Erasmo (30-plus minutes) is the best-kept secret of the lagoon: larger than Venice, but with a tiny population. The island’s main appeal lies in the beautiful landscapes and lovely walks among farmhouses, vineyards and fields of vegetables and crops. For those who want to pedal around, bicycles can be hired from the guesthouse Lato Azzurro.
Also worth a visit is charming Torcello, a five-minute boat ride from Burano. This sprawling, marshy island – the first in the lagoon to be populated, in the fifth century – is where Venice’s history began. In the 14th century more than 20,000 people lived here; in 2009 its population is a mere 20.
The lagoon itself covers some 520 sq km. Its unique combination of fresh and salt water makes its flora and fauna very particular. To learn about the lagoon’s ecosystem, catch the blue bus for Chioggia or Sottomarina from Piazzale Roma and ask to get off at the WWF’s Oasi Valle Averto (www.wwf.it/oasiaverto.sh – in Italian). Or contact Limosa (www.limosa.it – in Italian), a group of environmentalists who arrange day trips (and holidays) by boat or bike.
Some people might argue that there’s no point in going to Venice and staying on Torcello, but the famous green-shuttered inn of Locanda Cipriani (Piazza Santa Fosca; www.locandacipriani.com; doubles from €200 [£180]) is special enough to justify its remote setting. A great spot to sample lagoon cuisine is Alla Maddalena (Mazzorbo Island, connected by bridge to Burano). During the hunting season, there’s no better place for wild duck, sourced directly from local hunters.Anne Hanley has lived in Italy for 25 years. When not editing the Time Out guides to Rome and Venice, she designs gardens (www.laverzura.com).