Feature: Insider’s Venice

Discover Italy’s floating city.

By Valerie Waterhouse | Photography by Lorenzo Pesce

Venice’s pastel palazzi, canal-spanning bridges and meandering alleyways can feel as picturesque as a movie set. And indeed, the city has served as the backdrop to numerous films, from an interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to the Bond film Casino Royale. But the real Venice, or la vera Venezia, can be elusive, especially in St. Mark’s Square, where tourists seem to outnumber the ubiquitous pigeons on summer days. The key to unlocking the city’s spirit is to visit in the spring, before the crowds have descended, and to make time for its lesser-known sites and neighborhoods. Spring is also the season for time-honored festivities, such as the Vogalonga regatta, during which locals cheer on more than 1,000 vessels as they sail along the Grand Canal. This four-neighborhood guide reveals how to reach below the surface of this vibrant and living city.

Hidden In Plain Sight

San Marco

Listening to café orchestras in Venice as pigeons flit across the glittering facade of the historic Basilica di San Marco (328 Piazza San Marco; 011-39-041-2708311; admission, free; to skip the line, see “Plan Like a Pro” below) is one of the city’s most iconic experiences and shouldn’t be missed. Nor should a stroll through the church’s golden mosaic-tiled interiors.

To see the city at its understated best, cross the square to the Olivetti Showroom (101 Piazza San Marco; 011-39-041-5228387; negoziolivetti.it, site in Italian; admission, $5*). Designed in the 1950s by cult Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa to display Olivetti typewriters, the streamlined shop was restored in 2011 by FAI, Italy’s heritage association. You’ll find bright glass-mosaic floors and eye-shaped windows with views over St. Mark’s Square.

With its gilt and velvet interiors, Caffé Florian (57 Piazza San Marco; 011-39-041-5205641) has been one of the piazza’s main gathering points since 1720. Resist the temptation to take an outdoor table, where a cappuccino costs $10. Instead, do as the Venetians do and sit inside at the polished wood counter, where you’ll spend about half that amount.

Come evening, make a reservation at Quadri (121 Piazza San Marco; 011-39-041-522105; dinner for two, $220), which dates from 1775. The outdoor café is a rival to Florian, but those in the know go upstairs to the restaurant, taken over in 2011 by entrepreneur Raf Alajmo and his brother Max, the youngest chef to ever earn three Michelin stars. With its chandeliers and walls clad in red damask, the interiors are decidedly traditional; chef Alajmo’s creative cuisine, like his “cuttlefish cappuccino” (Venetian seafood in a divinely creamy suspension), is anything but.

Rialto

Following its recent restoration, the graceful Rialto Bridge gleams, once again, like the day it opened in 1591 (it’s the oldest over Venice’s Grand Canal).

Nearby, the four-floor T Fondaco dei Tedeschi (Calle del Fontego dei Tedeschi), a onetime 16th-century trading post, was recently revamped by architects Rem Koolhaas and Jamie Fobert and reopened as a department store. Inside, the eye sweeps from the rectangular courtyard to four layers of arched galleries purveying a dizzying array of apparel, watches, perfumes and shoes from about 300 mostly Italian brands. The ground floor houses Amo (pastries, from $3), an all-day restaurant and café with furniture by designer and Venice resident Philippe Starck and pastries (like the exquisite saffron and licorice brioche) by Max Alajmo. A rooftop terrace that’s open to the public affords some of the city’s most swoon-worthy views.

To see Venetians haggling with fishmongers, cross the bridge to Mercato di Rialto (Campo della Pescheria; open Tues.–Sat.; fish market is open until 12 p.m., produce market until 1:30 p.m. Mon.–Sat.), the colorful fish, fruit and vegetable market at the edge of the Grand Canal. In the spring, you might find castraure, tender purple artichoke shoots from the lagoon island of Sant’Erasmo.

Afterward, consider having lunch at Bancogiro (122 Campo San Giacometto; 011-39-041-5232061; lunch for two, $80), a casual restaurant serving food sourced from the market in a barrel-vaulted former warehouse with outdoor tables facing the canal. The house-made pasta with fresh tomato and shavings of smoked ricotta is delightful.

For fascinating tidbits about this unique city built on water, you can prebook an ecology-themed walk around the Rialto/San Polo area with hydrogeologist Luca Zaggia of Context Travel (tours, $80 a person). Zaggia points out metal barriers that defend homes from high water, nonslip paving stones made from volcanic lava, and rainwater wells whose lids were once locked at night by neighborhood priests to prevent the water from being poisoned by enemies.

Off the Beaten Path

Castello

Adjoining the busy San Marco district is Castello, a quieter, residential area to whose outer reaches tourists rarely stray. While visitors are snapping selfies before the famous Bridge of Sighs, about a mile away, many Venetians prefer a moment of silent contemplation in the nearby Chiostro di Sant’Apollonia (Museo Diocesano d’Arte Sacra, Ponte della Canonica; veneziaupt.org, site in Italian; admission, $5), a Romanesque cloister. The entrance is through the Museum of Sacred Art.

Castello is also home to glass jewelry maker Moulaye Niang, who opened his artisan workshop, Muranero (Salizada del Pignater; 011-39-338-4503099), after studying glassmaking on the local island of Murano for three years. Niang hails from Senegal, and his rings, bracelets and necklaces marry Venetian techniques with West African influences; clients can also choose their own colors and patterns (from $2 a bead; custom designs take 24 to 48 hours).

The alleyways beyond the Arsenale (a location for the famous Venice Biennale art fair) eventually wind to San Pietro di Castello (Campo San Pietro; admission, $3), the city’s former cathedral, which has a facade designed by the great 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio. It sits on a small island and is surrounded by some of Venice’s most Instagrammable streets. Here you’ll see fishing nets hung out to dry on terra-cotta walls and laundry strung across canals.

As you return to San Marco, drop in for dinner, or just an aperitif, at the quirky Enoiteca Mascareta (Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa; 011-39-041-5230744; ostemaurolorenzon.com, site in Italian; dinner for two, $85), whose eccentric mustachioed owner is known for his ability to slice the neck of champagne bottles with a sword. Mascareta’s own brand of organic prosecco is refreshingly fruity, and dishes, such as squid in black ink with white Venetian polenta, are simple, unpretentious and delicious.

Giudecca

A 20-minute water-bus ride from St. Mark’s Square across the Giudecca Canal will take you to the long, skinny island of Giudecca. Beyond the waterfront, streets lined with deep pink and ochre houses stretch to the docks on the far shore. Here the vibe is peaceful: Ladies push shopping trolleys down narrow alleyways, children race bicycles around courtyards, and men gather in neighborhood bars.

The island is equally well-known for its historic redbrick factories and green spaces; the Fortuny showroom (Fondamenta San Biagio, Giudecca; 011-39-393-8257651) combines both. Opened in 1921 by Spanish textile inventor Mariano Fortuny, the factory still creates printed fabrics using closely guarded techniques on vintage machines operated by a dozen artisans. Visits to the factory floor are not permitted; instead, wander through the surrounding garden and then drop into the showroom, strewn with fabulous fabrics like the classic Richelieu design featuring tiny lions (from $412 per meter). Or pick up a fabric-clad notebook made by a Giudecca artisan (from $23).

Farther west along the waterfront, the neo-Gothic Casa dei Tre Oci (43 Fondamenta delle Zitelle; 011-39-041-2412332; admission, $13) recently opened as a photography museum and hosts exhibitions by such luminaries as René Burri, known for his portraits of Che Guevara and other historical figures.

Close by, reggae music pulses from inside I Figli delle Stelle (70/71 Fondamenta delle Zitelle, Giudecca; 011-39-041-5230004; dinner for two, $80), a clubby restaurant serving Venetian classics with a twist. But some of the best tables are set along the seafront, providing views over the inky waters to the Doge’s Palace and the pyramid-topped bell tower in St. Mark’s Square. Service can be leisurely, but who cares when the spectacle is this good?

Plan Like a Pro

5 Smart Travel Tips

Skip the Line
If you plan to explore Basilica di San Marco, consider preordering a “Skip-the-Line” ticket online from Veneto Inside ($2). (Without a ticket, the average wait time is 45 minutes.) You can buy tickets up to 10 minutes in advance, and your scannable voucher will be sent to your smartphone.

Zip Around
Discount tickets for water-bus transport are available from the city’s tourism organization, Venezia Unica (visit site for various pickup locations; 1-day, $22; 3-day, $44). If you take at least three rides a day (at $8 each), it more than pays off.

Avoid the Crowds
In the morning, gondola lines tend to be shorter and there’s less congestion in the canals. If possible, depart from lesser-known stops, such as Santa Maria del Giglio or San Toma.

Opt for a Culture Pass
A Chorus pass ($13) allows for discounted admission to 18 historic churches.

Get Directions
Before you arrive, consider downloading a map from the TripAdvisor app. You can then view the city in the app without an Internet connection.**

Play

Celebrate the city’s cultural heritage at these festivities.

Venice Biennale
May 13–November 26, 2017
This world-famous art fair is held every two years. Its main venues are the Arsenale and the Giardini, both in the Castello neighborhood. Marchesa Barbara Berlingieri, a former Save Venice board member, recommends the Australian Pavilion, a canal-side black cube covered in Zimbabwean granite, as well as rarely opened historic buildings, such as the Palazzo Barbaro and Palazzo Contarini Polignac.

Vogalonga
June 4, 2017
More than a thousand rowboats, barges and gondolas take part in this annual 20-mile regatta. The revelry kicks off at St. Mark’s Basin with cannon fire at 9 a.m. The most unobstructed views can be had from hotel terraces around St. Mark’s Square. Arrive at the Cannaregio Canal at 10:30 a.m. to mingle with cheering locals bashing pan lids in excitement.

Festa del Redentore
July 15–16, 2017
An incredible fireworks display in St. Mark’s Basin is the centerpiece of this very Venetian celebration, in which a temporary bridge links the Zattere waterfront to the Chiesa del Redentore on Giudecca island so that people can have the unique experience of walking across the bay. A lively regatta is held on the second day.

STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts near Venice include:
Hotel Mioni Royal San—Half Board A267

Modern and sophisticated room interiors, plus two thermal pools, a spa center and a convenient location adjacent to a railway station. Piazzale Stazione, 10 35036 Montegrotto Terme, Padova
Member Review: “Excellent location.”

RCI® Tip

To help plan your destination activities and airport transfers in Venice, visit City Discovery,*** available for RCI® Subscribing Members! To learn more about this exciting program, see page 68 of the print magazine.

For member reviews (as member review has been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Search Now
Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Venice include:
Ca’ Nova

These three apartments, with canopy beds and Murano glass, are a short walk from St. Mark’s Square. Two overlook a courtyard; one has views of the Grand Canal. Corte Barozzi, 2157 San Marco; 011-33-140-29-47-32; canova-venezia.com; from $530 a night per apartment (apartments sleep 4; 3-night minimum stay)

Oltre il Giardino

Framed Gucci scarves and 1930s chairs decorate this townhouse, once the home of composer Gustav Mahler’s wife, Alma. Fondamenta Contarini, 2542 San Polo; 011-39-041-2750015; oltreilgiardino-venezia.com; doubles from $191 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • **Consult your wireless provider for fees. Rates may apply.
  • ***Many of the products and services available in this program are provided by third party guides, vendors, and service providers (“Third Parties”). RCI does not make any representations regarding the availability of or endorse any of the products or services provided by Third Parties. RCI expressly denies any liability for an individual’s engagement in any activity offered by or the use of any Third Parties. Additional fees, terms and conditions, and restrictions may apply and are subject to change as determined solely by the Third Parties.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Spring 2017