My parents took me to Venice for the first time when I was 5 years old. I don’t remember much, but I still have the Polaroids. If not for the vintage clothes and the faded colors, they could very well have been taken today. Venice has the charm of bygone times. It may show signs of age, but it retains an immortal beauty. 

Gondola maintenance in the Squero

 

I lived in the city during college, then fell in love with its hidden corners. It has an authentic soul, far from the spotlight and the chaos. As soon as you arrive and walk down the stairs of the train station, you find yourself immersed in another dimension, made of colors, sounds, smells and glimpses of life that don’t exist elsewhere.

The archway of the bridge of sighs
The “Bridge of Sighs”

 

Despite the frenzy of tourists who crowd iconic locations nearly year-round, life here goes at a slower pace. With no cars, bicycles, or electric scooters, one walks, observes, listens. This makes you more receptive to everything. Take a side alley and lose yourself in a quiet, almost unreal, beauty.

Get Lost 

I suggest taking at least a couple of hours to literally get lost. Move away from the crowd and turn where your heart guides you. Wherever you go, the city will amaze you with charming views, lonely bridges over silent canals, neighborhood shops, and small bacari (bars) where only locals go.

A baker in Venice works on confections in a glass case
A “bacaro” in Venice

 

In winter, the feeling is amplified by the fog, whose embrace often makes the city even more mysterious and romantic. To me, this is the best time to visit: the gloomy yet idyllic beauty is unparalleled. Another benefit: fewer visitors arrive at this time.

Iconic locations around Rialto and San Marco are a must, but any and every corner is worth seeing. History, art, breathtaking views are literally everywhere, there is not one inch that’s not intriguing. The magic of Venice relies on its colors, dreamy atmosphere, and enchanting light descending upon the water.

A place where gondolas dock in Venice
Gondolas at Rialto

 

Despite its global fame, Venice is a people-oriented city, where everyone seems to know each other. From fishmongers to gondoliers, from restaurateurs to mask makers, from florists to bartenders, it is like a large neighborhood where you can stop and chat with everyone, and everyone seems willing to give you a hand.

Two gondolieri in Venice in striped shirts, black pants, and wide-brim hats
Two gondolieri chat by the canal


What to Eat

One of the best ways to experience life as locals do is visiting the Rialto fish market, especially on Saturday morning, when people hunt for deals on local delicacies as well as more common varieties of fish and seafood. Venice’s saltwater setting is expressed in its cuisine. The classic dish sarde in saor (marinated sardines) was born because sailors needed a way to preserve fish for their long trips.

Fish for 9.80 euros laid out artfully on a tray
Sea bream for sale at Venice’s Rialto market

 

Other popular dishes also draw from the lagoon and the seas beyond: spaghetti with clams, baccalà mantecato (creamed salt cod), linguini with scampi, risotto with squid ink, polenta with schie (local tiny shrimp), stewed or roasted baby octopus, scallops au gratin and fried moléche (local soft-shell crabs).

A man stands at a fish market vendor table in Venice
The Venetian fish market near the Rialto Bridge

 

Venetian cuisine is also rich in seasonal ingredients from the surrounding region: famous are white asparagus, radicchio, artichokes and savoy cabbage, many of which are grown on the island of Sant’Erasmo in the Venetian lagoon, known as “the garden of Venice.”

A smoked salmon platter on a white background
A smoked salmon platter from Beccafico restaurant


An Unforgettable Experience

Many of the walkways of Venice are full of local artisans who sell their creations, which are beautiful enough to withstand the competition of cheaper, mass-produced goods.

Mask makers and glassblowers are the most famous, but you will also find leatherworkers, tailors, bookbinders, jewelers, potters, lacemakers, luthiers, shoemakers, and much more. Hunt for local shops and be seduced by the uniqueness of handmade masks, bags, cloaks, dresses, hats, necklaces, footwear, and household items.

A set of colorful masks at a Venetian shop
Famed Venetian masks and brocade Carnevale dress

 

Fine art also abounds, both in the form of the city’s architecture as well as in hundreds of museums, exhibitions, shows, installations and cultural events. The city has the Film Festival, as well as the world-famous art and architecture Biennale every two years. There are also rotating museum exhibitions dedicated to internationally renowned artists to small galleries devoted to emerging ones.

The archways of the Colonnade in San Marco
The colonnade of the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco

 

Venice is a buzzing place. Its beauty transcends mere aesthetics, a testament to the ingenuity, artistry, and spirit of its people. The city is an experience, one that still amazes me even after all these years.

Story and photography by Sara Ghedina

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