I really thought I understood Italian cities by now. After my week-long art history field trip to Rome back in 2006, which was my first visit to Italy as a grown-up, I had returned to Italy’s capital in 2014 for several days and then visited Florence last year. I can order food in basic Italian and I know the correct time frame to drink a cappuccino by now.
Thus when I booked a super spontaneous trip to Venice with my mom back in March, I didn’t think about buying a guide book or reading many blogs beforehand. Partly because I didn’t have time, partly because I (arrogantly) didn’t really think I’d need a whole lot of preparation.
Due to booking this trip on short notice and being crazy busy in March, I did almost zero research.
Although I learned the hard way that looking up restaurants in advance (or going on a guided food tour!) in touristy Italian cities is absolutely crucial if you want to find good food, I let it slack and came to Venice shockingly unprepared. It was however somewhat liberating to arrive somewhere with an empty mind (obviously aside from the 145,895 Hollywood movies set in Venice I had seen) and just be surprised by a new city!
Nonetheless, there are a few things I should have known in advance to make my time in Venice even more enjoyable, but luckily I adapted the following tips soon:
Don’t Even Expect To Not Get Lost
Okay, so to be honest, I still haven’t figured out where right and left is, but I’m usually pretty good when it comes to navigating around European cities with ancient centers. I’ve spent so much time analyzing old cities’ structures and several years of my life walking through streets dating back to the Middle Ages that I usually get how they work rather quickly.
Seriously, Venice crashed my orientation sense confidence entirely. No matter which maps I used, I got lost all. the. time.
Part of the problem was actually Venice’s gorgeousness: Every little street and bridge was so pretty that I simply couldn’t tell them apart.
And with water surrounding the city from every side, I couldn’t even use that to help with my orientation either. After three days in the city, my mom and I had figured out the vaguest sense of how to walk to the main sights and squares, but we still lost our way constantly when we tried to use shop windows to remember new streets by.
Seriously, you really can’t find your way around Venice by trying to memorize a route with the help of mask shops — there are too many of them and they all look so much alike! I can’t even recall how often I said “I think we’re lost. Oh, wait, this looks familiar, I think I know where we are” and after walking a bit further “Nope, we’re definitely lost. Again.”
The funniest moment was when my mom suddenly started screaming “I have seen those black panties before! Am I going crazy?” in front of an underwear store and we only then realized that we had been walking in a giant circle for over an hour (!) without even noticing.
So, be prepared to get lost. You definitely will get lost. Venice is a giant crazy maze and it sometimes doesn’t make sense at all (case point: try to find Piazza San Marco with the help of those signs in the photo below!), but it’s fun getting absolutely lost like that.
You’ll find so many random and pretty things by accident and that kind of the best part about visiting Venice.
Embrace The ‘Banco Lifestyle’
This is something important to keep in mind all over Italy (and all of South-Western Europe actually): Embrace the counter lifestyle!
Now, I may have made that expression up, but accepting that the counter is the heart of every café and bar is absolutely necessary when traveling in Italy. Because when I told people that I was going to Venice literally everyone said “How nice, have fun drinking espresso for 8 Euros!”.
Since I was warned by so many friends, I was worried that they would have a point and that I’d spent a ridiculous amount of money on overpriced drinks. But you know what? I rarely paid more than 1,50 Euro for my coffee.
And there’s certainly no secret behind that: First, try to take a turn away from major sights and squares because naturally a café on Piazza San Marco will be outrageously expensive, especially if they have a band playing and you pay “extra for the music”.
Then, find a little bar, preferably with locals drinking coffee along the counter (this way you’ll know the coffee is good!), join them and order a coffee making clear that you’ll have it on the “banco”, pay right away if you want to do it exactly like the locals.
Of course, drinking coffee like this has nothing to do with the stylish coffee shop concept with comfy couches, but it is utterly Italian and I just love being part of Italian coffee culture like that — and thus I often ended up paying only 1 Euro for delicious espresso in Venice, one of the most touristy cities in the world!
Eat All Of The Seafood
It took me quite a long time to realize that what I considered Italian food has very little to do with what food in Italy is like. Italian food actually doesn’t really exist.
It is way more accurate to speak of Roman food, Tuscan food, or Neapolitan food instead. Regional food is so diverse that the more you understand Italy’s food, the more you understand Italy’s cultural heritage in general.
My Italian food learning process was rather slow though: After eating so much great seafood in Rome two years ago, I was excited to go back to Italy in 2015 only to find out that there is no seafood in Florence. And of course, how could there be any seafood? Florence is surrounded by mountains and forests! Hence they eat lots of boar, thick vegetable soups, and tripe there.
Venice on the other hand — as it is surrounded by water — is seafood heaven and fish is absolutely irreplaceable in the city’s cuisine and history.
That’s why, if you really want a cultural Venetian experience for all senses you should eat as much seafood as impossible: From pasta with clams to fried sardines and all of the other delicious cicchetti that involve seafood of some sort.
Go On A Welcome Tour With Walks Of Italy
Whenever I return to Italy, I just have to go on a tour with Walks of Italy, because I love learning about things that have never even been on my radar. Especially after barely reading enough about Venice in advance, I knew I needed to get an impression of the laguna city that goes deeper than just appreciating its beauty.
Because I mean, who builds a city in a swampy laguna with brackish water? And how can a comparably small city with no agriculture and no clean water supply even become a dominating power in world trade?
Although I figured that Venice was a little different from all the other cities I have seen in Europe and beyond, it only became clear how downright absurd its existence and history are when Sara, the guide on our Welcome to Venice tour, uttered all those questions above.
In so many ways, Venice just doesn’t make sense. And it really takes some historic facts to understand just how little sense it makes that this city was founded in the first place and that you can still walk through it today.
It not only became clear that I knew shockingly little about the relevance of salt in Venice’s history, I also would have walked straight past the house world famous explorer Marco Polo once (most likely) lived in — the window with those pretty green shutters could have been his! — if it hadn’t been for Walks of Italy. Aside from learning about the city’s history and visiting the major sights, my favorite thing about this tour was realizing that I had been all wrong about Venice though: Many of the touristy places I have visited in Europe are so swamped with foreigners that the real city seems hidden under many veils of pictured menus and questionable selfie stick vendors.
I was convinced that Venice was going to be just like that as well.
However, I was genuinely surprised how many locals I met thanks to this tour. Our guide Sara was born and raised in Venice and thus gave our tour a super personal touch: She not only showed us the hospital where she was born and the market where her 80+ year old grandmother still shops for groceries every week, but she also kept subtly waving at people on the street because she seemed to know every other person passing by.
The ultimate highlight of the Welcome to Venice tour was going on a real Venetian gondola ride. Actually, I had previously been convinced that a gondola ride was the kind of thing I’d never do in my life, because it seems so cheesy and probably not worth splurging on.
But Sara said something really simple that had never occurred to me before: Venice was built to be seen from the water. Seen from a gondola, Venice presents itself the way it has been meant to be seen centuries ago. So, no, going on a gondola ride in Venice is not cheesy — it’s actually the one true way to get to know the city!
My favorite thing though, were not the views (which were obviously spectacular!), but our gondolier. Born and raised in Venice, he told us with the biggest possible excitement how every gondola is uniquely adjusted to its gondolier’s weight: Gondolas are always slightly tilted and only the person it was made for would be able to balance its weight out perfectly.
When we were busy inhaling all that Venetian canal beauty and taking photos, he joyfully joked with passing gondolieri or shouted greetings to people on the streets and bridges. Just like our tour guide, he seemed to know every local in town and I once more understood what a close-knit local community Venice must have.
The affectionate way both our guide Sara and our gondolier spoke about their home town (“Oh no, Venice is not sinking! It’s settling!”) were the most perspective-changes experiences I had in Venice: Although the city often feels like this surreal theme park and is sometimes absurdly crowded, it’s a real place where real people live no matter how crazy the challenges are (they have a major flooding every other week during winter time!) and most importantly, where people love to live!
I booked a trip to Venice because I needed a little Italy in my sun-deprived life, and because I (somewhat greedily) wanted to check “Italy’s big three cities” off my to-do list.
But I found so much more than pretty canals that look good on social media feeds: On this tour, I got to see a glimpse of people who love their weird city with all unique quirks and tiny dead-end streets so much they would never want to live somewhere else — even if they’ll never get to transport their groceries in a car and have wet feet for a bigger part of the year.
Indulge In As Many Aperol Spritzes As Possible
Confession time: I had never even had an Aperol Spritz before this trip to Venice and was pretty convinced I wouldn’t like it.
But for the sake of being an open-minded traveler, I decided to try it anyways since it’s the Venetian aperitif after all. And let’s just say, I fell in love and certainly I made up for missing out this drink in the last years!
What I liked even better than the drink itself (and the olives in it!), was the aperitivo culture in Venice in general: One night, I could even convince my mom to skip dinner entirely and just go from bar to bar (like the young Italians), ordering spritzes and cicchetti and observing the crowds.
Once again, I noticed how everyone appeared to know each other and they also seemed to always know their bartender’s first name. Even though I barely understand a single word of Italian, I could see that going out for a spritz with friends to chat in a bar is so essential to Venetian culture that the bars (and the streets in front of them!) are always full of locals, even if it is just a random Wednesday night.
Obviously, the counter is the heart of every bar at night as well and you might even recognize an authentic aperitivo location by checking if they even have any chairs at all.
Now, I’m the first one to crave a comfy chair after a long day of sightseeing, but I promise you, standing in a bar with that delicious orange drink in your hand, listing to the gorgeous chaotic half-yelling that is the Italian language, is vitalizing like nothing else. It’s Italy at its best.
Have you been to Venice?
What were your favorite things about it?
Disclosure: Walks of Italy kindly hosted me on their Welcome to Venice tour in exchange for a review, but all of the opinions in this blog post are 100% my own. I’ve taken several tours with them by now, and all of them have been so amazing that I not only recommend them on the blog but to my personal friends and family as well.
A little special thanks also goes to my lovely friend Edna, who sent me a super helpful list of restaurant recommendations (and whose recent video collaboration with BBC Travel makes me want to go back to Venice right away)!