when in venice


Venice has a reputation for being smelly, with bad food and lengthy queues. In 24 hours, there's no time to waste. Instead, follow a carefully and strategically planned tour of the city, which takes into account the necessary getting-lost-in-the-back-alleys drama. Kate Gibbs sets a 24-hour itinerary

When in Rome, do as they do. When in Venice, especially when there is only 24 hours to do it, the same goes. And there are two very effective ways to pretend to be a Venetian while in Venice.

The expensive way is to take a room on the Grand Canal near a vaporetto stop and stand on the balcony. In doing so, the tourist-turned-Venetian should wear blue and white stripes. As the water traffic passes and passengers wave, they will be thrilled and take pictures as the wave (from an apparent local) is returned.

The cheap way to pretend to be a Venetian in Venice is to buy a plastic mobile phone, or turn off an actual one, and yell “Pronto, chi parla?” into it. This should be done in a traghetto while being ferried across the Grand Canal.

Arriving in the evening, travellers need to get on to the important task of booking somewhere for dinner. Osteria Alle Testiere, in Castello, has a strong following and only fits 22 people, so a reservation is essential.

Alle Testiere is known for its ability to give proper local treatment to local seafood. Here it’s safe to eat things that shouldn’t be considered in San Marco square, like razor clams and spider crabs. And here the linguini with coda di rospo, or monkfish, and the gnocchetti with baby octopus are local culinary legends. The tables are so close to each other it’s hard not to strike up a conversation with some local who is virtually sitting on your lap, but the intimacy gives the place an Italian feel. When diners are not chatting to their new close neighbours, they will be distracted by the presiding sommelier Luca Di Vita, who advises them on how to pair Veneto vino with the piatti del giorno.

If that fails, though, there is the all-important option of getting lost in the back streets of Venice and finding the ultimate Osteria for little fried vegetables, two-bite sized bread rolls filled with truffled prosciutto or tomato and cheese, and local seafood marinated or pickled. Have these while standing on the cobbled street, a beer or glass of Prosecco in hand, rubber-necking with the local twenty- and thirty-something Venetians.

Now find any means possible to travel – be it being rowed by someone else, or rowing – through the quiet, intricate canals in the dead of night. This is time travel at its best, and getting lost at night through eons of literature and architecture is to see Venice.

For a morning pit stop, the American Bar (in San Marco beneath the Torre dell’Orologio), though humble in appearance, serves the best pinini and sandwiches in Venice. Kids ride on the marble lion while adults stand up and clink their Campari glasses on a place gladly discovered.

Nearby, the clock to the left of San Marco is the well-known Torre dell’Orologio, where two Moors ring the hour and little figures come out and dance.

The Bridge of Sighs is called what it is because that is the sound prisoners might have made as they caught their last view of Venice before they were taken to their cells. The limestone bridge connects the old prisons to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. Actually, the bridge had not yet been built when inquisitions and summary executions were taking place, but tourists still sigh at the sight of Venice through the window as they shuffle with the modern crowds.

Visitors can take in the sighs, and the Bridge, on a “secret itinerary” tour of the Doge’s Palace, or Palazzo Ducale. The tour takes them to the prison cells, secret passageways, inside the Bridge, and on to the roof of the Palace if the group is smaller. There, on top of Venice, there are no handrails, but standing on the sloping lead-sheeted roof offers views to San Giorgio.

Visitors need to get lost to notice that the rain gutters along the edges of some rooftops are made of marble. Venetian Gothic architects appear to have dismissed the concept that building with such a heavy stone may not be in keeping with the sad truth that the city is built on stilts, in the water, and is sinking. This, on top of Venice being unlike any other city because boats are not like cars and canals are not like streets, is what makes it so beautiful.

A quick traipse through San Marco may be necessary, but then fast foot it to Campo Santa Margherita, where the overpriced espressos and overheated tourists of San Marco are replaced in the late afternoons with local conversation, Prosecco, fiery Grappa, and generally brash activity. While it doesn’t have the architecture of its older sister, it has the present day locals, and therein lay many potential broken-English conversations about why the city won’t build a moveable barrier to protect their lagoon.

With tourists lost, or confused, in conversation with locals, 24 hours ticks by as the sun sets over the city.

This article was published in Travel Weekly magazine.