Don’t you find it funny how certain people hate other tourists, while they themselves are visitors in the same city? Some folks will go out of their way to avoid tourist attractions at all costs. Personally, I don’t mind doing some touristy stuff, especially on my first visit to a new city, but I always prefer to eat like the locals. Simply because those restaurants have better food. Tourist traps exist for sure. A menu in seven languages is one hint. Dishes on display or illustrated with photos is another. I always plan my trips around great eats, and I try to figure out what the local experts recommend. Last year, we had slightly more than 24 hours in Venice. We arrived late one evening, made the most out of one day, and left early the next morning. Whether you have limited time or not – do like us: Eat like a local, drink natural wine, and be a speed tourist! Here are 10 great things to do in Venice.
How to get there: Flights to Marco Polo airport in Venice if possible. Remember, the airport is on the mainland, not on one of the islands. Take the shuttle bus to the city. Enter Venice.
Where to stay: I can’t recommend the specific place where we stayed, but the area of San Polo was nice. Our hotel was relatively cheap, but the room was falling apart and already swarming with mosquitoes upon arrival. Venice is a bit like London – the hotel quality is poor. Unless you wanna pay a fortune for a high-end place, try to spend as little as possible because it probably won’t be that good anyway. Avoid, if you wish, the more busy and touristy area of San Marco. Check out Hedda’s hotel tips!
1. Prosecco Breakfast at Bacareto da Lele
Locals in Venice start their morning at hole-in-the-wall places like Bacareto da Lele. Here, a glass of prosecco cost €0,90! Can you believe that?! Not even one euro. You could also buy a glass of Chardonnay for €0,60 or the more pricey (not really) Sauvignon for €1,30. Sublime sandwiches are stuffed with different types of cold cuts. The bread is nothing special, it’s only there to support the tasty ham and salami inside. Prices range from €1 to €2 per bun.
Venetian snack bars like these are called bàcari in the local tongue (from the word Bacchus – the Roman god of wine), and the small snacks they serve are cicchetti. These bars can get extremely crowded, especially around lunch hours and in late evenings, with long queues. I guess you could call them the Italian brethren of Spanish tapas and pintxos bars. Evening come, you’ll see locals going from one bàcari to another on a bar crawl – a so-called giro di ombre. Ombre means shadow, which is local slang for a small glass of wine. Historically, the name has to do with Venetian wine merchants who would set up shop in the shadow of the San Marco bell tower. As the day passed, they would keep moving their goods to stay in the shade.
2. The Gondola Ride is Actually Worth it
We were warned against the gondola rides before our trip. People called it a tourist trap and said we would get ripped off. However, some googling told me that the rates are actually fixed, and most gondoliers respect that. Thus, we asked at the hotel and in a café what the current price range would be, and, once we found a vacant boatman, the price actually corresponded with our information. I think any tourist going to Venice should do the gondola ride at least once. It was a pleasant experience, and a nice way to see the city. Is it romantic? Sort of, if you don’t share a boat with strangers.
3. Eat Ice Cream at Gelato di Natura
Gelato di Natura is definitely one of the best ice cream shops in town. Great flavors, and as a bonus, all the ingredients are natural – nothing is artificial. That means you can feel the nuttiness in the pistachio or hazelnut scoops, and you can see the black seeds in the vanilla gelato.
4. Have Lunch at the Vegetable-Focused Osteria La Zucca
Zucca means pumpkin, and while Osteria La Zucca is not a vegetarian restaurant, vegetarians and vegetable lovers will thrive here. However, meat lovers won’t miss anything either – the food is simply too good. Carrots cooked to perfection with just a sprinkle of olive oil, sea salt, and shavings of lime peel, or a vegetable lasagna that is among the best I ever tasted. If you don’t believe me, know that the Michelin guide agrees. It’s not a star restaurant, though, but it is still listed in the French Bible. Unexpectedly, we found some of our favorite natural wines on their wine list – like Franco Terpin “Quinto Quarto.”
5. Walk Across the Famous Rialto Bridge
Yup, it will be swarmed with tourists, but you’ll survive. The Rialto bridge is the oldest and most spectacular of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal in Venice. Get your picture and move on!
6. Speed Tourism at Piazza San Marco
Come on, you’ve already passed the Rialto bridge. Of course, you’re gonna see Piazza San Marco – the principal public square of Venice and the only urban space that the locals bother to call a piazza (the rest are referred to simply as fields).! Just don’t hang out here too long, and please don’t get lured into any of the restaurants. The piazza and the buildings, especially the Basilica di San Marco, are beautiful and unique, and a must-visit on your first trip to Venice.
7. Watch the Sunset in the World’s Most Romantic City
Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words …
8. Drink Natural Wine at Cantina Arnaldi
I would never have guessed that Venice would be such a good city for natural wine. By sheer luck, we got in touch with the right guy on the very evening we arrived in town (see point 10). He recommended us Cantina Arnaldi for a great selection of small-scale producers. Locals might call this place a bàcari or cicchetteria, or even an enoteca. It could also be somewhere in the middle: an osteria-cicchetteria. Not focused enough on the food to be a proper osteria, but larger than a regular wine bar. In either case, we were there for the fermented grape juice, but couldn’t resist a platter of their delicious cheese and charcuteries.
Looking for more natural wine bars in Venice? Check out Vino-Vero (means true wine).
9. Eat Dinner at Estro (and Drink More Natural Wine)
Still high on the funky and fresh juice from Cantina Arnaldi, there was no other choice but to continue to yet another great place for natural wine. Estro was the restaurant of choice for our final meal in one of the world’s most extraordinary cities (that’s a lie, we ate breakfast and drank prosecco again at Bacareto da Lele the next morning). Soon, our glasses were filled with liquids from another favorite producer of mine, Partida Creus, and we finally got some well-deserved pasta and pizza on our plates.
10. Stop by Osteria Trefanti and Meet Our Local Expert
Osteria Trefanti is where we met our local expert, Sam Metcalfe, on the night of our arrival. We showed up without a booking on a Sunday night. I opened the door to the small osteria and we went inside to ask for a table. Sam greeted us, scanned through the packed venue, and quickly concluded that it would be a while – “but would you want a glass of wine while you wait?” Shortly after, two glasses of sparkling wine arrived. Seldom has a drink tasted so good as it did along that canal. Later, I learned that we had been served one of my favorite wines of 2016 – Orsi, Vigneto san Vito, “Siu Lieviti.” Sam, it would turn out, is a wonderful sommelier who enjoys mostly organic and natural wines. His restaurant is very popular, and with good reason. Personally, I have to say the wines and service left even more lasting memories with me than the food.
I owe a lot to Sam. He is the one who tipped us off about places like La Zucca, Cantina Arnaldi, and Estro. By chance, we met Sam again the next evening at Estro. That night, we got to know him even better. We learned that he was originally born in England, but had moved to Venice when he was 8 years old. Which, of course, explained why he was something as rare as a Venetian speaking perfect English. Mr. Metcalfe is among the younger generation in Venice that are passionate about good food and wine, and in particular supportive of smaller producers. He also cares deeply about Venetian culture, and our conversation went something along these lines: “There are two types of tourists coming to Venice. The interested tourist – and the horrible tourist. The latter is the kind that only gets off the cruise ships to walk around and see the sights, but they don’t leave any money behind. They eat and sleep on the boat. In fact, one guy once asked me: Where is the exit? My colleague and I looked at each other – what does he mean? Is he talking about the bus stop? He must think he’s in Disneyland!”
Did you find my guide to Venice useful? Please share other great tips in the comments below.