Its Old-World chic, mixed with a New World style, will have you at buongiorno. Join our globe-trotting Lance Avery Morgan as he spends the perfect 72 hours in Venice seeing the sights, and yes, some by gondola.
ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS
If you’re doing a whirlwind trip to Italy, visiting Venice in the northern part of the country is a must. Long fabled in literature and film, its glamorous, historic sights make it one of Europe’s most enchanting destinations – especially in the fall when the crowds are smaller and the weather is perfect. To get there from Rome, we booked first class tickets for a very reasonable 59 Euros (about $65 US Dollars) on the Italo high-speed train that sped through the Italian countryside in about three hours, as opposed to the normal eight. Although the longer train routes give you a great view of the region, the high-speed option is sixty percent faster, and the gorgeous view as we snaked through the wine country was majestic. In fact, we’d seen eons-old Roman artifacts and a flea market in the morning and then briskly arrived in time for a late lunch on the water in the Queen of the Adriatic, as Venice is lovingly known.
Like Texas, Venice was its own republic at one time, so it sits gleaming in the distance as travelers approach, asserting its independence. Any city with 120 islands connected by 391 bridges traversing 400 canals and containing 159 churches would certainly have an independent state of mind. The architecture, prominently Middle Eastern due its global presence as a historic trading center connecting both eastern and western cultures, is omnipresent in the six harmonious sestieri districts. After having just left a rather modern apartment in Rome, it was time to discover the charms of Venice at an accessible, pre-Renaissance flat with a rooftop terrace found through AirBnB. There are also plenty of luxury hotels (Hotel Danieli, Hotel Cipriani, Hotel Gritti Palace, Ca’ Sagredo Hotel and San Clemente Palace, to name the best with canal views) to dazzle your accommodation if you might not choose to reserve your own private residence. Since the city has no cars, it’s been paved with concrete and dreams over the years. In fact, the few trees it does have are a tourist destination. Forgoing the lack of greenery, Venice is all about the art, architecture, food… and people.
Think the streets of Paris or London are great people watching? Venice beats them all by a mile. With about 50,000 local residents, the visitor rate can often grow six times beyond that. And, of course, we’ve all heard about how the city swelters in the summer heat, so opting for a fall arrival shortly before Halloween was a well-made choice. With the weather cool, yet comfortable upon arrival, we immediately set out to find a lunch spot nearby.
One thing to note throughout all of Italy, and almost everywhere in Europe, is that the food tastes notably fresh. Perhaps it’s because of the lack of additives and preservatives than we know in the United States. But the point is that you’ll consume more food with fewer calories. No worries because you can walk it all off and there’s likely a gelato stand nearby should you become hungry (always have the whipped cream on top like the locals do.) If you have a pedometer on your phone or fitness band, you’ll want to track your miles of sightseeing. Don’t be surprised if you’ve logged as many as fifteen to twenty miles in a day’s exploration – yet another reason Europeans stay so svelte. If you want a walking tour phone app tailored for the city, try the Ecco Venezia.
With a plate of pasta, pizza and a spritzer to refresh us, it was off to see the local artisans and stores in the area. As we noticed in Rome, clothing is much less expensive in Italy. Yet it has the exact same high style you’d expect with the Italian reputation of attention to detail. Sure, the Buccellati jewels can easily be found, as well as the Fortuny fabric, yet there’s so much more authenticity to the city to discover from the Piazza San Marco and walk along the Basillica di San Marco. It’s the heartbeat of the city and the nexus from which all things occur.
From there, hop on a vaparetto, the ubiquitous water taxi, and the connected set of islands are yours to discover. To see the wonders of the Canal Grande, the number 1 at the dock just in front of Santa Lucia rail station can guide you to admire all its noble palaces from the boat. Ca’ Rezzonico, with its museum of 18th century treasures (a plethora of frescoed rooms, chandeliers, furniture, paintings and incredible ceilings) or Palazzo Mocenigo (furniture, paintings, ancient suites and some rooms dedicated to the history of perfume) would be perfect destinations for the just-arrived.
That first evening we went on a Venice by Night walking tour and gondola ride, meeting in the central Academia di Belle. As with any sightseeing endeavor, reserving the skip-the-line or private tour are the best options. Known historically for its masked balls, the city’s vibration changes when the sun sets. The aged palazzos take on a different patina as the shimmery water lights the winding cobblestone paths ahead. The bars and restaurants are but a mere bustling distraction while learning about the city’s royal feuds, architecture and customs of long ago. All the tour guides are academic experts from the country’s universities and they speak on firm authority of the area they call home. They are as vibrant, knowledgeable and animated as the subjects of their centuries-ago stories who experienced the history the guides share with you.
After a refreshing breakfast near our accommodations, seated next to three elderly locals discussing the news of the day in their native Italian, which was entertaining in itself, we pursued our private tour of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The American heiress lived there and then founded the museum that houses her extensive Modern art collection in 1951. A supreme hostess, she had most of the famous artists and literati of her day as guests, and collected them all with her heart and her head. The truly stunning all-white palazzo is the place where I easily had the feeling I was surrounded by a billion dollars of art. In each room. For any Modernist art lover like me, it was sheer heaven to be surrounded by rare Magrittes, Mirós, Pollock’s and more.
Since the tour was extensive, we decided to duck into the sidewalk crowd and grab lunch at Harry’s Bar, starting with a Harry’s Bellini (fun fact: according to the boys in the bar there, “a few weeks after the liberation of Venice in April ’45, Cipriani was summoned by the U.S. commander of the Allied forces. “You are not a good Italian,” he told Cipriani sternly. “Why?” he asked. “Because you have not reopened Harry’s Bar.”) No other bar in Europe has a richer history than here. I’m almost positive we sat at Papa Hemingway’s table, the one where he wrote The Old Man & The Sea, in the late 40s. It was where Café Society loved to dine when it first opened in 1931… and it remains a primo destination.
After mango gelato cone desserts, we toured the city’s extensive canal system (Google Maps is a lifesaver here since you can be strolling on a sidewalk that can easily end at a brick wall) and continued to be amazed with the street style of the city. A key destination for many is the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a lavish, high-end shopping center that has been updated by OMA and Rem Koolhaas, where you will find luxury brands and a great view over the Rialto Bridge. After a brief rest it was time to live like a local and dine al fresco on a crisp, yet comfortable fall night in one of the many Venetian restaurants tucked away near our flat in the Tolentini neighborhood. The cuisine, and house table wine that most restaurants offer, are universally pleasing on the palette and only about two to three Euros for a glass.
NO MAN IS AN ISLAND
The next day we embarked for northern Venetian island of Murano for a glass blowing tour. We met our private guide at the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop in front of the lagoon. The water taxis routes are as scenic as they are efficient. Once on Murano, as any luxury glass lover can attest, the crystal-clear essence of its fame is readily apparent. Murano’s colored glass is used for everything from jewelry to estate-worthy chandeliers. Seeing the artisans handcraft the glass into a decorative object in less than 15 minutes is a feat, and a treat to watch. In fact, on the island of Murano, ornaments such as embellished trees and just about every other object are created from the glass and most are ready to purchase in the quality shops that line the streets. Burano, a nearby island is just a twenty-minute speedboat ride away. The island of Burano is known for two things: the nearly lost art of lacemaking and the colorful house facades so that sailors, according to legend, could easily locate their homes after returning from their long journeys.
Our final stop in our tour de Venice was a finale beyond our wildest dreams as we spend the evening in a private tour of Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica by the Piazza San Marco and the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts. One word. Wow. Seeing the Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s Square is a must-do. The throngs of daytime tourists clamoring to see the beloved palace and church is usually enough to keep anyone at bay. So do yourself a favor and take the nighttime excursion instead.
You’ll have the palace and time in the cathedral to yourself. From the dazzling gold and bejeweled altar to the anterooms, real aficionados will want to dig even deeper and explore the hidden corners of the palace on Itinerari Segreti del Palazzo Ducale (the secret tour of the Doge’s Palace.) It follows in the footsteps of the most important, or really, infamous leaders of Venice. On their trips through the palace, according to lore, these men wouldn’t use the public doors and stairways, they would slip through hidden passageways and concealed doors. Intriguing, and somehow appropriate in this smoke-and-mirrors city where mask and illusion are so popular and where duplicity was always an essential element of politics. It was a hangout of Casanova, too. Imagine seeing where that covert action happened… all in the darkness of night.
After touring through Doge’s Palace, we continued our after-hours tour at St. Marks Basilica This tour was the ultimate VIP experience courtesy of Walks of Italy, who we also used for our private tour of Venice the first night, as well as our day in Murano. At exactly 7:30 p.m., our tour guide led our group of ten to the rear entrance after speaking with the security guard in Italian. Leading us to a staging area since the parishioners were not finished with daily mass, our tour guide gave us a history of St. Mark’s. After the church congregation vacated the church, our small group (along with one other group of ten) was escorted inside. We were able to view this incredible landmark with access to places not open to the general public, including the ability to go up onto the pulpit and view the church in a way that few get to see, the perfect way to cap a once-in-a-lifetime trip with a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would wow even the most discerning of VIP’s.
Without a doubt the cuisine in Venice is wonderful. Every one of the numerous sidewalk cafes are remarkable in their own way. One tip learned ahead of time: never order Parmesan cheese as a garnish, it’s an insult to the chef. For special evenings out, we made reservations at two venues that were highly recommend from foodie friends: Algiubagio (at Fondamenta Nuove Cannaregio 5039) and La Lanterna de Gas (at Sestiere Santa Croce 24) and each was exemplary in its own way. From the service to the ingredients to the wine (don’t worry about a wine list anywhere in Italy – just order the house wine that’s always meritorious in its own right) each choice was sublime. Algiobagio was bustling and felt like a happening scene. La Lantera was more of a romantic spot, and with any restaurant in Italy with idyllic weather, try to dine al fresco on the front patio for… you guessed it, more people watching.
Whether Venice is your next major destination, or it’s a 72-hour stop like we experienced, the city will always beckon you back with its sweet serenissima (serenity) that is as energizing as it is soul-satisfying.