Finding an Authentic Venice

September 7, 2006

It's possible to have two experiences of Venice. There's the Venice of your imagination, that mysterious place of centuries old history where the fog rolls over the water, deserted streets seem eerily quiet, the candle light of romantic restaurants flickers through the windows.

Then there's the other Venice. It's hot outside. The cruise ships are docked in the lagoon. The crush of tourists are squeezing through the narrow streets at all hours, and gondola traffic jams make Venice seem more like an amusement park than the world's most beautiful city. 

In a place where, every year, tourists outnumber local Venetians 300 to 1, it can be challenging to have an authentic experience of Venice. The locals have been leaving for decades. Those who stay buy up the palazzi to convert to hotels or tailor their businesses solely for serving tourists.

Despite all of this, an authentic Venice, remains. And, you can find it.

When to go

In late October or November, the crush of tourists has eased. There's a nip in the air and the days are crisp and clear. When the fog rolls in, the effect is enchanting, adding mystery against the backdrop of Byzantine architecture. This is a lovely time to visit.

Your first encounter with the city will likely be the ride to your hotel on the vaporetto. As you travel down the Grand Canal, you pass houses and palaces that seem lost in time. There's a breathtaking sense of history.  

Dinner in Canareggio

After finding your hotel, a walk through Piazza San Marco, across the Rialto Bridge, brings you to Al Fontego dei Pescatori in Canareggio for dinner. Canareggio is a neighborhood within Venice that sees fewer tourists than some of the areas around the Basilica di San Marco.

The service is ever attentive, as the waiters, care as much about their guests as they do about the food, which, incidentally, is a delight. It's no wonder the restaurant has a strong reputation among Venetians. The measured pace of dining that you experience here, as in most Italian restaurants, leaves time for conversation and a grappa after the meal.

An Evening Ride

Next is the gondola ride. It's true that, today, only tourists ride them. But they are a part of the history of Venice. After all, it was the transportation for the aristocracy. It's not everyday that you're in Venice. Taking it at night is the way to avoid the traffic jams and experience a peaceful glide down the canals.

You cn find a gondolier and negotiate an appropriate rate, about 100 euros to match the fee set by the city. Doing so allows you to determine the route through the less traveled canals so that you have many of them to yourself. Alternatively, you can book one in advance.

The gondoliers are native to Venice and learned the trade from family members. Even though Venice seems like a city frozen in time, you'll learn from the gondlier about how Venetians live today, like the high cost of living and the flooding. But the ride is not all gloom and doom.  The gondoliers also give some history about the beautiful buildings as you pass them.

Baroque Music

End up at the Chiesa di San Vidal, a church where a concert might be taking place. Venice is the keeper of all things Baroque from instruments and artwork in the churches to costumes and the music itself.

Through performances of classical music, opera and ballet, theaters here retain their artistic traditions. The performances are a window into the history of the city, the living art and soul of the people. The concert in this particular church with its paintings, statues and intimate surroundings is an experience that's hard to find at home.


The next day, visit Campo Santa Margherita in the Dorsoduro neighborhood.  Since the neighborhood hasn't experienced the complete transformation of its businesses to the tourist trade, it has a more authentic Venetian feel. Shops and outdoor vendors cater to the needs of the locals.

Here you find cafes, wine shops, Venetian fabric stores and an open-air produce market. A visit to this area presents opportunities to chat with shopkeepers. A few Italian words thrown in here and there go a long way in not only getting good prices but also in learning about the products you’re buying, such as how they're made and where they come from.

Side trip from Venice

Many of the tourists are drawn to the glass factories of Murano. So, catch one of the frequent ferries going to Torcello. It was at one time the most important island in the lagoon and its heyday came and went 500 years before Venice came to prominence. But as silt filled up the shallow waters surrounding it, trade became impossible. The people moved to Venice.

Today only 60 people live there. The island has very little in the way of modern life. Medieval buildings dot the landscape and canals crisscross among the stone pathways. 

Visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta with its 12th century mosaics. But the real draws are the green fields and the peaceful atmosphere of the island.

Lost and Found

Back in Venice, what can seem like a short walk on deserted streets can easily get you completely lost. It is an irritation until you find the perfect spot to rest.

It’s a place where you notice a hidden garden behind a gate, a 400-year old statue mounted in the recess of a home's facade, and children playing in the square.

You also find moments of total quiet. A sound as light as foot steps on the street's paving stones sounds like thunder in that quiet.

Realize that only by stopping can you take in all of the marvelous details of this city. The beauty of Venice is in those details. It gets in you, becomes a part of you.

In Brief:

The real beauty of Venice is often found in the mundane and by doing things a little differently.  Here’'s what you can do:

  • Know some Italian. You can connect more easily with the local people if you know a bit of the language.
  • Go in the fall. The summer sees the most visitors, especially August when it’s hot and very difficult to escape the tourists.
  • Take a gondola at night. We admit it; it's the touristy thing to do. But at night, you're more likely to find yourself alone in the canals than in a traffic jam.
  • Visit the markets that serve mainly locals in Dorsoduro away from the tourist shops near Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.
  • Eat in Canareggio. The food is often better and more authentic Venetian, the service more attentive.
  • See an opera at Teatro la Fenice or Teatro Malibran or hear a concert in one of the churches.
  • Wander the city and find a spot to sit and observe the daily life of Venetians who still live in the city.

See also: Travel services for trips to Italy

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