How to Beat the Crowds in Venice

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May 04, 2016

by LEE MARSHALL, Writer

Beyond St Mark’s Basilica, the singing gondoliers and the piazzas packed with people and pigeons is the “real Venice” where locals live, children play in parks, old men argue politics in bars and tiny restaurants serve authentic food. Lee Marshall ventures into three Venetian neighbourhoods off the tourist trail.

Imagine Venice on an evening in late spring at the end of one of those perfect days of penetrating light. From the viewing terrace at the top of the campanile (belltower) in St Mark’s Square, beyond the onion domes of the basilica, past a choppy sea of terracotta roofs, the islands of the northern lagoon stand out in sharp relief, backed by the distant, snowy Alps.

Now imagine queuing for the lift back down and emerging, at last, onto a piazza so crowded with selfie sticks that it looks like a battlefield. Imagine joining another slow-moving queue to get into St Mark’s Basilica and another for the Doge’s Palace. Imagine slumping, finally, into a chair outside one of the elegant cafés that line the piazza and paying upwards of €15 (about $22) for an Aperol spritz and the privilege of fending off the pigeons. Imagine taking a romantic gondola ride and having it ruined by the gondolier’s demand for a fat tip on top of an already outrageous official fee.

SEE ALSO: This is Where to Stay in Venice

Sometimes it can feel as if those moments of sheer Venetian magic are just not worth it. But there’s a way to bring on the magic and cut out the stress. I visit Venice two or three times a year because I love the place – and I love it because I don’t do any of the above. This is a town that needs to be approached with a plan – and one of the best plans is to head for the “real Venice”, the districts where the Venetians live. For me, three in particular are the essence of that other Venice – the Venice that is paradoxically one of the world’s best-kept secrets.

Northern Cannaregio 

Try this: instead of following the crowds that stream along the main Strada Nuova pedestrian drag from the train station to the Rialto Bridge and St Mark’s, take a left after crossing Ponte delle Guglie then a right. There are other routes into the quiet northern reaches of Cannaregio, one of the six sestieri (districts) that make up central Venice, but this is my favourite. It leads through the Ghetto instituted in 1516 – exactly 500 years ago – by a pragmatic, mercantile city keen to keep its Jewish community close at hand while paying lip service to the Vatican’s anti-Semitic diktats. It’s a fascinating and sobering antechamber to the rest of the district, its high-rise tenements a consequence of the Ghetto’s fixed borders – which meant the community was forced to build up, not out.

After you’ve had a kosher cappuccino in the café of the absorbing Jewish Museum (Cannaregio 2902b, Campo del Ghetto Nuovo), head north across the bridge that separated the Ghetto from the rest of the city, over one of three long, parallel canals that slice through this part of the sestiere. The waterside promenades give it a breezy, open feel so different from the maze of lanes in other parts of Venice.

These sunny, south-facing canalside walks, which change name more than once along their length, are great places to detox from the tourist excesses of St Mark’s Square. Little smile-inducing incidents and characters stick in my mind when I think of the district – such as the time I witnessed two Venetian lads, dressed in elaborate black-and-gold costumes that made them look like space-age doges, standing on Fondamenta degli Ormesini, yelling up at their mate who was late for a Carnevale party.

Canalside restaurant Osteria Bea Vita (Cannaregio 3082, Fondamenta de le Capuzzine; +39 041 275 9347) is one of this laid-back district’s “communal kitchens”. With 30 seats in the rustic interior and 20 outside, this workers’ stand-by is best sampled at lunchtime when there’s a two-course-plus-side-dish tasting menu designed to refuel the boatmen, waste collectors and hospital orderlies, who mop up simple, tasty dishes such as pasta with prawns and artichokes.

Further east along the same canal, wine bar Al Timon (Cannaregio 2754, Fondamenta degli Ormesini; +39 041 524 6066) is part hipster hangout, part rendezvous for local families and dog walkers. In the evening I like to sprawl with a spritz on the deck of the barge that extends the bar’s outside seating area; this is about as close as central Venice comes to barefoot on the beach. Food consists of cheese and meat platters and excellent cicheti (bar snacks) such as grilled polenta squares and crostini topped with creamed salt cod or brie and fresh raspberries.

Smart Venetians tend to eat out at lunch, when restaurant prices are lower, and graze on bar snacks in the evening. You’ll need to stand or perch by the bar but the upside is dinner with wine for a third of the price you’d pay if you sat down and ordered from the menu.

Eastern Castello 

There’s nothing grand about the low-rise district that grew up from the Middle Ages onwards in the shadow of the Venetian Republic’s busy Arsenale boat yard. This was where the shipbuilders and their families lived; some of the street names have a practical, workaday slant such as Calle del Forno (Bakery Street) and Calle dei Preti (Street of the Priests).

The art and architecture biennales, which in alternate years take over the Arsenale’s handsome former navy yards and the national pavilions in nearby Giardini, bring waves of galleristas, fashionistas and hipsters to the area between May and November. A few have even bought property here, attracted by the district’s alternative, salt-of-the-earth vibe, but they haven’t (yet) ruined the atmosphere. This is one of the best parts of Venice to come to when you need to (and you will) see “real locals” arguing about football and politics in local bars or shopping in “real shops” – the kind where you can buy a kilo of apples, not a made-in-China Carnevale mask.

If I had to sum up eastern Castello in one image, it would be the HQ of the local Rifondazione Comunista party on the corner of Corte Nova and Fondamenta de la Tana, which runs along a canal under the Arsenale wall. Outside what poses as a party office – but is really another bar where old guys argue about football and politics – the Marxist insignia of the hammer and sickle on the red flag that hangs outside is a neat contrast to the shrine of Christ set into the building’s wall. The communists have painted up to and around the shrine in red; whoever looks after the shrine makes sure there’s always a vase of flowers on a lace doily in front of the Saviour. This stand-off, believe me, will run and run.

What I like to do around here is just wander. I might aim for San Pietro in Castello, once Venice’s cathedral but today a little-visited Renaissance church that seems bemused to have been deposited by the tide of history in what is now a cheerful sea-girt residential neighbourhood. At the end of June you’ll stumble on the week-long Festa di San Pietro, an old-fashioned, family-oriented street fair.

For lunch I might wend my way down to Sant’Elena, the leafy easternmost suburb of Venice, for pasta or a meal-sized salad (not easy to come by in Venice) at friendly Vincent Bar (Viale IV Novembre 36; +39 041 520 4493). It has tables outside overlooking a park – the kind with local kids playing on swings and slides.

If it’s aperitivo time I’ll saunter down the district’s main artery, Via Garibaldi, to sit at an outdoor table at buzzy bar El Refolo (Castello 1580, Via Garibaldi). There I’ll have a spritz or a wine from the range of decent bottles from Italy that owner Massimiliano selects for drinking by the glass. Food includes cheese or salami plates and panini filled with creamed salt cod, aubergine and bresaola or Gorgonzola, rocket and walnuts.

For something a little more upmarket, CoVino (Castello 3829, Calle del Pestrin; covinovenezia.com) is a corner restaurant in the maze of streets north of the Arsenale water-bus stop. It’s run by Andrea Lorenzon, the son of Mauro from La Mascareta wine bar, one of my favourite characters in Venice. It has just 16 covers so book ahead for a meal that makes no play-safe concessions to tourist tastes. The culinary traditions of mainland Veneto are as prominent here as those of the Venetian Lagoon; for example, in a winter dish such as risotto with borlotti beans and luganega sausage. They apply a set price of €38 ($56) a head for three courses and you can order vini naturali (natural wines) from Veneto and further afield, as well as good craft beers.

Giudecca

Andrea Barina is not just the life and soul of La Palanca (Giudecca 448, Fondamenta Ponte Piccolo), a trattoria in front of the main Giudecca water-bus stop that serves some of the best no-frills Venetian food on the lagoon. He’s also something of an ambassador for this narrow island that extends like a crooked smile south of Venice proper. Long seen as a no-go area by well-to-do Venetians across the water because of its industrial past and former reputation as a refuge for bandits and ne’er-do-wells, Giudecca has recently become, well, not quite gentrified but certainly a district with an interesting social mix and a new creative energy. 

Artists’ studios and galleries – including Galleria Michela Rizzo and Spazio Punch – have sprung up in former industrial spaces, such as the Dreher brewery. And a council-sponsored regeneration scheme has brought students, Venetian families and a few in-the-know foreigners to a string of new-build or renovated apartments and residences (some with stunning views of the southern lagoon), such as those occupying the former Junghans watch factory. Barina and a group of friends are behind the mid-September Festival delle Arti Giudecca-Sacca Fisola, when for three days Giudecca and its low-rent neighbour, Sacca Fisola, come alive with concerts, readings, art shows and performances.

Last time I came to La Palanca for lunch – oh, that grilled cuttlefish done to perfection! – this affable restaurateur and cultural promoter told me that although everyday life can be tough on an island that’s undersupplied with necessities such as food shops, banks and chemists, Giudecca’s “otherness” plays in its favour in other ways. “The canal that separates us from central Venice acts as a kind of filter,” he said. “We don’t get the package tourists; just the real Venice-lovers.”

The 16th-century Palladian church of Il Redentore is just about the only sight on Giudecca that makes it into the guidebooks but, for urban explorers, there are rich pickings in a district that seems to specialise in off-the-beaten-track. The great irony of this island is, it’s bookended by two hotels – Belmond Hotel Cipriani and Hilton Molino Stucky – that have little to do with one of Venice’s most vibrant neighbourhoods. (Cipriani guests come and go on the complimentary shuttle boat to St Mark’s; the hotel’s landward gate feels like the tradesmen’s entrance.)

One of my favourite activities on Giudecca is to take any calle (street) off the main northern waterfront promenade and see where I end up. That might be a still-functioning boat yard where nobody seems to mind if you find a sunny seat among the paint pots and upturned hulls. Or the little-known public park at the end of Calle San Giacomo with views over the southern lagoon – one of the most secluded spots in Venice for a picnic. Or the long canalside walk in the shadow of Venice’s female penitentiary, where on Thursday mornings volunteers staff a fruit and vegetable stall selling organic produce grown by the women on the other side of the wall. Maybe I’m odd but stumbling upon the convict courgettes and malefactor marrows was, for me, a more precious find than all the Tiepolos in Venice.

However, I will list one “tourist” experience that should not be missed. Duck into the Hilton (Giudecca 810, Fondamenta San Biagio) and take the lift to the eighth floor. At the top of the former flour mill, Molino Stucky, Skyline Rooftop Bar is a marvellous spot for a Giudecca sundowner – and here, in Venice’s highest and most panoramic bar, it doesn’t get more literal than that. 

SEE ALSO: 5 Cultural Experiences You Shouldn’t Miss in Venice