Venice is a city of a hundred million details. They are everywhere from small carved bosses half way up buildings, to the 16th Century wells that stand proud in the multitude of piazzas.
You have to look upwards to get the full magnificence of Venice because the vista is completed by ornate balconies, rustic porticos, ramshackle arches holding buildings apart to form narrow alleyways, flaking shutters, family shields and roof-mounted statues standing guard.
There are even some very obscure details you can find if you look hard enough – old street numbers scratched on lintels in Roman numerals in very few streets, interestingly cast door knockers with grimacing faces, exposed corners of buildings (sometimes with creation dates), gargoyles, small sculptures that form balustrades and architectural elements, and intricate panelling on eaves.
But our stereotypical view of Venice is one of canals, and there are plenty.
How to experience Venice
The best way to experience this is to get up at 6am and get onto the streets before the seething masses create an impenetrable ribbon of people in every street. Venice is divided into six districts called “Sestieri”. Go first to the sestieri most popular with tourists: S.Marco, S.Polo and S.Croce. Places like S.Marco square and the Rialto bridge get busy very quickly, so make sure you visit them first (a rainstorm can also help clearing them out as we experienced in the evening), then walking along the canal Grande you’ll be able to admire Ca’ Pesaro and Ca’ Grande.
Not to be missed are S.Giacomo dell’Orio and S.Maria dei Frari, both in the central island, and then just look around and be amazed because there are remarkable edifices everywhere.
Getting lost in Venice
Venice is like a maze, so have a map with you (they generally give one in any accommodation for free) to reach the main attractions, but also wander around and lose yourself; it’s a great way to find hidden treasures.
After the central sestieri work your way outwards towards the less busy zones. Dorsoduro covers the southern part of the city and is simply stunning. Not to be missed are the Church of Carmini, the Church of S.Sebastian, the Galleries of Academy, Campo Santa Margherita, the Church of S.Maria della Salute.
If you are as crazy as we are you can then carry on by crossing the Accademia bridge and walk towards the Cannaregio sestiere, passing by the breathtaking SS. Giovanni e Paolo. We walked around 25-30km in a day, leaving just Castello for the last day. We were greedy and didn’t have much time, but ideally the same walk could be distributed better doing Castello and Cannaregio on a separate day, again starting early in the morning to get the best opportunities for photos.
Not to be missed: S.Zaccaria, S.Francesco della Vigna, Church of Gesuiti, Church of Madonna dell’Orto, Church of S.Geremia, Church of S.Giobbe and the Arsenale.
Of course if you have the time you should go to see the Venice Biennial. Art and Architecture international exhibitions are hosted alternate years in both the Arsenale and the Giardini.
Shopping in Venice
Venice exists mainly to sell you stuff, and there’s plenty of it from Murano glass jewellery to figurines of Jesus to abstract paintings of gondoliers. You won’t see many other businesses apart from the odd dentist and doctor in the back streets – almost everything is devoted to fulfilling the tourist market. I have no idea where a Venetian would buy a washing machine – presumably on the mainland as there’s not the land for a big box store.
Some things are ridiculously expensive (especially so-called ‘traditional’ foods). If you need a selfie stick, there are a hundred vendors on the street, but they’re twice the price of the ones you can buy in the shops.
What is cheap is the Murano glass. You can pick up a nice-looking necklace, bracelet and earrings set for well under sixty euros. There are some more expensive shops mainly located around San Marco.
The general rule is further from the main centre lower the prices. Don’t be fooled though by the very cheap shops as many of them sell stuff made in China.
Canals and gondolas
The canals and gondoliers make Venice what it is renowned for. There are few things more picturesque than a gondolier at sunset plying the still waters of a canal where the buildings look similar to how they might have looked a hundred years ago.
However, they are pricey – eighty Euros for half an hour. It might be less romantic, but gondolas can take up to six people so it gets cheaper in groups. You can choose whether to go around the inner canals (calm and tranquil) or on the bigger Canal Grande and the waters surrounding the islands (choppy at times). Some of the gondolieri (the guys that row the gondoliers) sing, and some dress more traditionally than others. Some gondolas are much more fancy and decorated than others, so it pays to shop around to find the best experience.
Churches and basilicas
Venice is dotted with nearly 150 churches. Whilst it is impossible to visit them all, an attempt should be made to visit at least the major ones of each sestiere. Each one has its own peculiarities and each one is rich with sculpture and paintings and frescos from Tiziano, Tintoretto, Pietro Vecchia e Jacopo Palma Giovane.
Most are free, some suggest a donation and a select few are between one and five Euros to enter.
Eating in Venice
Venice isn’t cheap, especially when it comes to eating out. During the day we opted for carrying something to snack on. There are a few food stores (mini-supermarkets) called Coop or Conad where you can buy supplies or even prepared food in their delicatessens. We enjoyed a lot of ice cream, too.
In the evenings instead there are options for nice aperitifs and trattorie, but the chances of finding good local places increase going away from the centre.
Unfortunately in one of the evenings we were there we got stuck in a touristy restaurant to avoid a massive rainstorm. We had two over-priced average/frozen mains (Daniela’s salad seemed fresh, but made her feel sick a couple of hours later), a €5 bottle of water, another €5 was charged for bread we didn’t ask, but compulsory and on top of that they charged also a 12.5% for a really bad service.
The lesson there is to ask locals for recommendations if you want to try something more authentic. We found a trattoria/pizzeria called Tosi Grandi in the Castello area
What did we miss?
We wanted to see a Vivaldi concert as it was his birthplace. These play frequently, but unfortunately not on the nights we were available. We also didn’t go into San Marco Basilica because of the queues and we didn’t take a gondola because of the price.
It’s worth booking good restaurants ahead (there are multitude of guides online as to the best restaurants) as if you go to one of the ones in the main tourist areas they are overpriced before they’ve added any service charges.
We stayed in a small ‘bed and breakfast’ in Castello close to the Bienniale locations. However, it wasn’t a bed and breakfast – just a two-bedroom apartment with a shared bathroom and kitchen. To be fair, it did everything it said on the tin, but in general in an average way.
The location is about 20 minutes’ walk from San Marco down Calle Dei Preti, a very old, narrow street with an interesting portico at one end. Some of the houses even have the old numbers scratched into the lintels in Roman numerals.
As regards the facilities, there’s a kitchen and lounge but no TV. There’s a Coop just around the corner, so it’s convenient for getting your own food.
What’s bad about Veneziacentopercento?
The place wasn’t particularly clean with cobwebs in the rafters. The shower head needed replacing as it spurted water everywhere. Our room had a toilet, but no sink. There was an air conditioning unit in the room that said it was silent, but it was so noisy it was impossible to sleep with it on. Plus, in the toilet there was the water pump so whenever anyone was in the shower, it was noisy, too.
Our room backed onto a small courtyard and it was possible to hear everything that was going on in all the other apartments that backed onto it, too, including people in the toilet, talking, watching TV, etc.
Probably the worst experience was our welcome. The owner is basically a grumpy old man. If we hadn’t already have paid a deposit we would have probably gone somewhere else.
Check-in time was quite late at 3:30pm. They have wi-fi but seem to block YouTube video, even through the phone app. With no TV, you then have no option to watch anything…except Vimeo, maybe (we didn’t check). Although, you probably will want to start sorting through the 1000 photos you’ll undoubtedly take in the first day.
What’s good about Veneziacentopercento?
It’s quite cheap. The beds were comfortable. The kitchen was well-appointed. Very convenient for Biennale. It’s in the quieter end of town.
Would we recommend Venezia Centopercento?
Not really, and especially not if you’re a light sleeper. There are options just a few Euros more that would have been better. We ended up paying 156 Euros for two nights including the local tourist tax.
You can get there by walking from the train station (about an hour), or taking a water taxi. If you arrive there during the day, carrying your luggage is a mission with the amount of people. If you have wheeled luggage, you’re in for a special kind of torture on the paving and the many bridges. We had rucksacks which were easier to manoeuvre.