An intricate tapestry of canals, colonnades and faded architectural masterpieces, Venice has a well-deserved reputation as the most romantic city in the world. Behind the Renaissance facades that line the Grand Canal is a world of washing-hung back alleys and secret squares, where getting lost is the best way to explore. Take a stroll around Piazza San Marco, share a romantic moment on the Rialto Bridge and take a ride in a gondola – but spare some time as well to explore the locals’ city that still exists behind the living museum. That spider’s web of quiet backstreets hides a collection of hidden gems that are well worth hunting for.
The City of Water shows its best colours in the summer, when chic locals drink spritzers outside street cafés and the heat bakes the buildings lighter shades of pastel. The film festival in August is the glitziest event of the season, attracting international stars for 10 days of new and classic screenings. It generally coincides with Regata Storica on the first Sunday in September, when the Grand Canal hosts four competitive and fabulously ceremonial boat races. But the summer’s biggest party is undoubtedly the Festa del Redentore in July – a weekend of picnics, fireworks and general revelry that takes place around the Giudecca Canal.
Canals are the highways of Venice, and the quickest way to get from A to B is to catch a vaporetto. These industrious water buses ferry tourists and locals around the city – the frequent route map changes can be confusing, but the Venice Connected website has good, up-to-date information on timetables and ticketing costs. Water taxis offer a pricier but more personalised service, and then of course there are always the iconic gondolas. If you’re not planning an extended journey, Venice is a supremely walkable city, and exploring on foot is a good way to discover the charming backstreets that many tourists never get to see.
Top cultural sites
Venice revels in its reputation as a cultural melting pot. In addition to the countless grand churches and old master galleries, it is home to one of the world’s most impressive modern art collections – the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Dorsoduro 701), which abuts the sweeping Grand Canal. Nearby Punta della Dogana (Dorsoduro 2) blends the old and the new with a contemporary art exhibition housed in a 15th-century customs house. The Accademia Gallery (Campo della Carita) specialises in classics by old masters, and in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (San Polo 3052), a stunning collection of Tintoretto paintings vies for attention with the hauntingly beautiful painted ceiling.
Best for families
Ca’Macana (Dorsoduro 3172) is a glitter-tastic mask shop that invites visitors to decorate their own carnival mask, providing hours of sticky fun for the whole family. In summer, cool off with a visit to the Lido, a pristine beach bordering the Adriatic, where swimming is secondary to a raft of more adventurous outdoor activities. Try sailing, windsurfing, kite-surfing or waterskiing, before hiring a bike at Noleggio Cicli and exploring the surrounding coastline. Over at the Doge’s Palace (Piazza San Marco), entertain the kids with the legend of the Bocca della Verita – this ‘Mouth of Truth’ will reportedly bite off the hand of any liar who dares placing his fingers inside it.
Best for couples
Legend has it that any couple who kiss on a gondola beneath the Bridge of Sighs at sunset will be assured of eternal love. Whatever the truth of the myth, there’s no doubt that Venice is at its most romantic after dark. Take the opportunity to visit some of the busier public sites, such as Piazza San Marco and the Accademia Bridge – if you leave it late enough, you could get these spectacular backdrops all to yourself. The Campanile bell tower also allows visitors to admire the panoramic view from its roof until sunset. Afterwards, take your other half to Venissa (Fondamenta Santa Caterina 3, Mazzorbo) for supper in your own peaceful, rural idyll.
If you love a thrill
The urban islands of Venice don’t lend themselves to outdoor adventuring, so if you’re hankering after an adrenaline rush then book a day trip to the Dolomites. In the summer, this spectacular mountain range is an adventure junkie’s mecca, with some of the best rock climbing in Europe. It transforms into a skiing paradise over the winter months, and the classy Dolomiti Superski resort is within easy driving distance of the city. For something equally spine-tingling but a little less strenuous, explore Venice by night on one of the ghost walking tours that start at the Rialto Bridge.
Best hidden gems
In this city of secluded squares and secret backstreets, it’s easy to escape the well-worn tourist trails. The best way to avoid the crush is to start early – the fish market down at the Rialto kicks off at 7am, and it’s a fascinating tapestry of local Venetian life. Nearby, open artisans’ studios sell everything from handmade paper lanterns to handbags, and it’s easy to while away a few hours of blissful souvenir hunting here. If you’ve ‘done’ Venice’s major art galleries, amble down to the Magazzini del Sale (Via Marignana 108). These ancient salt warehouses have been converted into a public gallery that showcases local artistic talent as well as internationally acclaimed modern artists.