Words by: Simon Difford
Ancient, romantic and picturesque, the city of Venice sits precariously on a series of mud banks that lie in a lagoon off Italy’s north-eastern coast. Four hundred bridges traverse some 150 canals in this watery city which lies defenceless to the tidal whims of the Adriatic. Breathtaking architecture is set amidst narrow streets and canals giving a picture postcard view around every corner
Venice is best enjoyed in April or May before the summer crowds and mosquitos arrive or from September to November when the worst of the overcrowding has died down. December and January can be icy cold and July and August blisteringly hot. Also beware that many of the bars, restaurants and hotels close for periods in January and August.
Pack comfortable shoes and top up roaming data on your mobile phone - you'll be needing that or a good map to have any chance of navigating your way alongside the canals and maze of narrow medieval alleyways.
Venetian bars and cafés (the terms are interchangeable in Italian) open early in the morning to serve pre-breakfast grappa to locals and close all too early in the evening. It's not that the Venetians like their sleep or don't know how to party; half the problem is that hospitality staff can't afford to live in Venice and so must finish work early enough to allow them to catch the last train home across the causeway to the bustling city of Mestre where most of them live.
Bacari (singular: bacaro) are particular to Venice. These are bars that have a good selection of cicheto (tapas-style snacks), tramezzino (sandwiches) and panino (filled rolls). They tend to have rustic interiors and be hidden down side streets. They are fabulous places to eat and offer excellent value for money. Avoid establishments on the main tourist through fares.
Osteria are commonplace across Italy. Pronounced 'osteˈria', originally these served wine and simple snacks. As with the English gastro pub, in recent times the focus of most osteria has shifted more towards their food rather than drinks offering. Osterie (the plural in Italian) tend to be informal places with simple menus and decor. Osteria Ca' d'Oro alla Vedova is probably the best-known osteria in Venice and well worth a visit.
Pasticcerie are commonplace in Venice and are bars combined with pasticcerie (patisserie) shops where locals stop for a breakfast of coffee and brioche (croissant or pastry).
Enoteca (plural: enoteche) are bars which also combine a bottle shop (off-licence/liquor store) offering a good range of wines. Our favourite enoteche:
Cantinone gia Schiavi Enoteca.
992 Ponte San Trovaso, Dorsoduro, Venice
Enoteca Al Volto 4/5.
Calle Cavalli (near Rialto), San Marco 4081, Venice 30124
Bottiglierie are cafe bars where customers take bottles or other containers to be re-filled from a barrel. Some bars also combine a gelaterie (ice cream palour) and it's common for gelato (ice-cream) to be served with a liqueur.
Venetians eat and drink on the go. If they bump into someone they know on the street or just feel hungry or thirsty they'll drop into the nearest bacari or pasticcerie and eat, drink and chat whilst standing at the bar counter. The luxury of sitting at a table can cost double that of standing at the bar.
Although Venice is the home of the Bellini and Spritz, other cocktails are not a big thing in the city and are almost solely the preserve of hotel bars which generally only offer the classics.
Bar Gran Canale at Bauer Hotel 4/5
Campo San Moise, San Marco 1459, Venice 30124
Dandolo Bar at Hotel Danieli 4.5/5
Riva degli Schiavoni, Castello 4196, Venice 30122
Caffè Florian 4.5/5
56 Piazza San Marco, San Marco, Venice
Campo Santa Margherita, Dorsoduro 3684, Venice 30123
Harry's Bar 4/5
Calle Vallaresso, San Marco 1323, Venice 30124
Tiepolo Bar at Westin Europa & Regina Hotel 4.5/5
San Marco 2159, Venice 30124
Terrazza Longhi Bar at Gritti Palace Hotel 4.5/5
Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, San Marco 2467, Venice 30124
Skyline Bar at Molino Stucky Hilton
Giudecca 810, Giudecca Island, 30133, Venice
Gabbiano Bar at Cipriani Hotel 4.5/5
Belmond Hotel Cipriani, 10 Giudecca Island, Venice, 30133
Italians are carnivorous by nature and although there are many excellent traditional Venetian seafood dishes, few restaurants offer vegetarian food. While in Venice be sure to sample local specialties such as: Baccalà Mantecata (dried salted cod paste with olive oil, parsley and garlic), Fegeto alla Veneziana (calf's liver & onions), Risotto alle Seppie (cuttlefish ink risotto), Granseole (spider crab), Polenta (basically a maize stodge), Sardine in Saor (fried, then pickled with vinegar, white wine and onions), fegato alla Veneziana (liver cooked with onions) and Polpetti (meatballs made with ricotta cheese). Dessert wise Tiramisù is said to originate from Venice and to round off a meal try 'Esse Buranelle'. These are 'S' shaped biscuits with a slight aniseed taste that you dip into a glass of sweet white wine.
Few dress codes such as tie, jacket or no jeans apply, but Italians like to dress up so pack your smartest and most fashionable 'smart casual' clobber.
We are far from being a restaurant site but through personal experience we recommend these:
Campo Teatro Fenice 2007, 30124, Venice
+39 (0)41 522 4121
Owned and run by the Baldi family since 1921, Antico Martini is one of Venice's top restaurants. It sits on the square occupied by La Fenice opera house, ten minutes' walk from Piazza San Marco. Venetian specialties are faultlessly prepared and delivered with attentive service in classic surroundings. Be sure to book well ahead and in the summer be sure to ask for one of the outside tables.
I Figli delle Stelle
Fondamenta delle Zitelle, Giudecca Island 70-71 (near Zitelle ferry stop), 30133, Venice
+39 (0)41 523 0004
Daily 12:30-14:30 & 7pm-10pm (closed mid Nov & mid Mar)
Lying on the water's edge of Giudecca Island a short walk up from Hotel Cipriani this delightful little restaurant has outside tables with views across to St Mark's. Opened in 2008 by three friends from Venice, Rome and Bari, the name translates as 'The Sons of the Stars' and menu is suitably pan-Italian.
Trattoria da Romano
Via Galuppi 221, Burano Island, 30142, Venice, Italy
+39 (0)41 730 030
Lying half an hour from Venice across the lagoon is the picture postcard island of Burano, famous for its lace and brightly painted terraced houses. Be sure to spend a half day on Burano whilst in Venice and plan your trip around a booking at da Romano (ferry line number 12 from Venice-F.te Nuove to Burano). Housed in a former lace factory the vast room with its long tables is hung with works by famous early 20th century painters who were drawn to this colourful island and the seafood served at this restaurant. This is an impressive room but in summer be sure to ask for an outside table. After your meal visit Della Lidia lace two doors down and ask to see the gallery to the back of the shop.
The Piazza San Marco is the heart of Venice and if you're visiting the town for the first time I'd recommend you choose a hotel in this area as it'll give you a good base from which to discover the rest of the city. We're not a hotel review site but we like to stay at:
Liassidi Palace Hotel
Ponte dei Greci 3405, Castello, 30122 Venice, Italy
+39 (0)41 520 5658
Modernity meets classic old-school Venetian in this 26 room and four suite hotel set in the restored gothic palace of 'Zorzi dalle Colonne Storte' on the San Lorenzo Canal. It is five minutes' walk to San Marco through the labyrinth of lanes. The first couple of times you'll likely to have to follow your phone's mapping app but after a couple of journeys the route is easy to remember. The hotel boasts a private boat dock and it's 30 minutes to Venice Marco Polo airport by water taxi. (We've also taken a gondola back to the hotel after a night of bar hoping.)