This treasured status is underpinned by its constant battling with the tidal waters of a vast Lagoon that see regular inundations cover grand squares like San Marco. Venice’s uniqueness, however, draws a sometimes frustrating year-round flood of humanity too. But with a little insight, you can avoid the crowds and discover new facets of this fantastic city.
1. Discover the world’s first Jewish quarter
The world’s first Jewish quarter sprang up five centuries ago around the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo in the Venetian sestiere (neighbourhood) of Cannaregio.
Built around an old metal foundry, the local word for that (ghèto) became a pejorative term for segregated minority areas. But this first ghetto is a special place, where ancient synagogues, old shops and striking tall buildings – Venice’s early take on skyscapers – conjure a tranquil ambience far removed from the tourist hordes of San Marco.
2. Savour Venetian tapas
Skip the tourist trap diners (definitely anywhere showing pictures of pizza or pasta), and discover traditional Venetian cooking – often just down nearby side streets.
For a true taste of the city, book Viator’s Venice Food Tour: Cicchetti and Wine tour introducing visitors to a delicious array of cicchetti (Venetian tapas; above) served in local bacari (bars). Every place has its own offerings – smoked ricotta cheese with black grapes perhaps, cod cooked in milk, or maybe fried polenta with seafood – accompanied by intriguing regional wines.
3. Lose yourself in a flood of books
As its name suggests, Libreria Acqua Alta (Bookstore of High Water; Calle Longa S. Maria Formosa, 5176/b, 30122 Castello) has found its own memorably practical approach to dealing with Venice’s constant risk of flooding.
It heaps tottering piles of old books, magazines and other printed wonders into diverse waterproof storage spaces – including bathtubs, and a full-sized gondola! As well as curious bookworms, the store has become home to various stray cats, who escape any rising tides by climbing on top of book stacks.
4. Scare yourself on an island of spooks
Other than Murano and Burano, many visitors miss out on the dozens of other islands scattered around the Lagoon. The most infamous is Poveglia – widely considered the most haunted island on Earth.
Its dark history saw it first become an 18th-century plague quarantine station, then home to a mental hospital, closed in 1968. Wilderness is reclaiming the abandoned hospital ruins, where whispers may not just be sea breezes. Hire a private boat to take you – if you dare.
5. Discover the true birthplace of The Republic
Take the no.12 vaporetto (water bus) to Torcello, the island where the Venetian republic began centuries before its shift to Venice. This tranquil green oasis draws walkers as well as lovers of history who come to poke around the tiny archaeological Museo di Torcello beside the 7th-century Basilica of Santa Maria dell’Asunta.
The Lagoon’s oldest church boasts a glorious interior and stunning views from the bell tower. Torcello also attracts Ernest Hemingway fans – the novelist enjoyed an idyllic stay in the 1940s.
6. See how gondolas are crafted
Dotted around Venice are a handful of traditional boatyards known as squero – some dating back to the 17th century – where skilled artisans maintain the city’s fleet of iconic gondolas – and make around 10 new ones a year.
Book a specialist guided tour by Walks Inside Venice to visit master gondola maker Roberto Tramontin and discover the rules behind building a boat for Venice’s unique canals, bridges and waters. You’ll also hear how Tramontin’s great-grandfather redesigned the classic boat in 1884.
7. Kayak the canals
Forget about hugely expensive and often cheesy gondola rides, and get out on the water yourself with a guided kayak tour by Venice Kayak. Dip your paddle into the city’s historic waters as you glide through quiet backwater canals, discovering tiny waterways and ducking under ancient bridges.
Tours range from just half an hour to a full day, with a chance to explore half a dozen districts off the Grand Canal, or head out onto the tranquil waters of the Lagoon.
Learning even a few basic Italian phrases will win you credit from the locals, particularly if you try and deliver them with an attempt at a proper accent and a friendly smile.
Rent an apartment
Often considerably cheaper than a hotel, renting an apartment lets you get a real taste of local life, including shopping for provisions at Venice’s atmospheric food markets – most famously, the Rialto. Think wonderful vegetables, beautiful cured meats, delicious cheeses and antipasti, plus gleaming fresh seafood plucked from the Lagoon. Look out for the wonderful local soft-shell crabs (moeche) during spring and autumn.
Venice’s tourist throngs seem to march on almost prescribed paths from famous site to famous site. So one simple way to find the many quieter corners of the city is to simply go the opposite way to them! That means that if everyone seems to be turning right at a street junction, turn left – or vice versa. Within a few steps, you will likely end up in a tranquil square or quiet side street, perhaps with a little cafe to recharge with some of the locals. And Venice is compact enough that you won’t ever be far enough off the beaten track to feel truly lost.
– TEXT BY NORMAN MILLER
PHOTOS: 123RF.COM, VENICE KAYAK, WALKS INSIDE VENICE
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.