Venezia è una vera città. These words are proudly unfurled from windows, on dozens of green banners that hang prominently along the Grand Canal. Chewing over the Italian for a few minutes, I ask an older Venetian next to me on the vaporetto for the missing word to help me solve my puzzle.
“Vera?” I ask, while smiling and pointing to the sign.
“Real,” he says, gesturing around him with pride. “Venice is a real city.”
This may be so, yet many tourists miss the ‘real’ city. The key to understanding and enjoying it, is to explore its sestieri, the Venetian neighbourhoods. Go down the back alleys. Sit by the canals. Wander and get lost, and Venice will find you.
It’s dawn, and there are no other tourists but us on the Punta della Dogana at the tip of the Dorsoduro neighbourhood. It’s quiet, but thriving. Runners loop past, an empty vaporetto drops off a single passenger, and elderly men sit on upturned buckets casting a line in the Giudecca Canal. It’s the everyday and extraordinary, awash in the golden light of the rising sun.
Poised between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, the Dorsoduro is home to the city’s most prestigious galleries, including the Accademia, Peggy Guggenheim and Punta della Dogana.
“If you really know Venice, you want to stay here, not near San Marco,” says Paolo Morra, manager of the Sina Centurion Palace, a 50-room design hotel overlooking the Grand Canal. “It’s in the historical centre, but away from the historical centre.”
Despite its elegant pedigree, local life dominates the streetscape. On one canal, a fórcole workshop makes traditional wooden oars, while on a floating barge near the Campo San Barnaba, a greengrocer peels artichoke hearts by hand.
We search for the Squero di san Trovaso, one of the last working gondola shipyards in Venice. We find the backdoor, but to see the shipyard we must double back, cross two bridges, walk along a portico and down a canal: the Venetian version of Pac-Man.
It’s high tide, and water slaps over the path. I slip off my shoes and get my feet wet. It’s no acqua alta (seasonal flooding), but it’s enough to make me smile.
Directly opposite the shipyard is the Osteria Al Squero, a cicchetti bar serving small bites. While reports of €800 (£700) meals in San Marco fill the international press, a water view and lunch for two here costs under €20 (£18).
In the afternoon, we visit a place Morra calls “The real life of Venice”: the Campo Santa Margherita. At 5pm, the square is pumping. Kids shout and chase each other, friends chat in groups, grocers do a roaring trade, and a buzzing set of terrace restaurants drain the city’s supply of Aperol.
Part of the Dorsoduro sistieri, Giudecca is easily seen from San Marco but is considered just a bridge too far for most tourists. Back in the day, Venetians felt the same: the geographical distance across the deep and wide Giudecca canal was considered so daunting that the children of aristocrats not fortunate enough to inherit were exiled here, residing in religious orders, far from the temptations across the water.
Today, Giudecca is one of the few places you can stroll in Venice where locals clearly outnumber tourists, despite the area being bookended by one of the city’s most luxurious hotels on one side, and one of the biggest chain hotels on the other.
“People who come to Giudecca are people who see the real Venice,” says Rosangela, who welcomes me into the showroom of the Fortuny factory, one of the last bastions of thriving industry on the island. Creating textiles for theatre, interiors and clothing using techniques that remain shrouded in secrecy, the Fortuny showroom can be visited during business hours, but book ahead for a glimpse of the secret garden, part of the original convent grounds.
Most recently, Giudecca is experiencing a new life as the home of Venice’s thriving contemporary art scene. Flushed from the centre of the city by rising rents, artists including the Giudecca 795 collective have set up here, and in the cloisters of Convento dei Santi Cosma e Damiano, which has been repurposed into artists’ studios. Described as ‘labs’, the former convent is occupied by a community of local artisans, creating everything from glass to handmade paper, restoring antique books and making masks.
Two major attractions stand out for those who venture this far: the Casa dei Tre Oci, which acts as both a neo-gothic architectural highlight and photography museum; and the iconic Il Redentore church, built to celebrate the city’s salvation from the plague. On the third weekend in July a temporary pontoon is built across the canal for pilgrims to travel to the church, attracting thousands. But outside that one weekend, you get the sense things are slower here.
Nuns in brown habits wheel shopping trolleys in and out of the supermercado, while men sip beer and eat cicchetti outside the Osteria da Moro. A self-service laundromat has a prime water view of the Giudecca Canal across to San Marco; but its occupants flick through their phones as their whites and brights spin, indifferent to the vista some wait a lifetime to see.
Part of the Jewish Ghetto from the 16th to 18th centuries, Cannaregio has primarily become more of a middle-class residential area. It’s a place where locals visit the unassuming shop front of Nicolao Atelier in the back canals for their carnival costumes, and the local Spar supermarket sits in the belly of exquisitely restored theatre. However, it’s also a neighbourhood growing in popularity.
“This area has become a lot more lively,” says Jane Corporal from Row Venice, as we paddle her traditional prawn-tailed batellina along the canals. A champion Venetian rower who has lived here for 27 years, she founded the non-profit Row Venice, which offers lessons in voga alla veneta, or Venetian stand-up rowing.
A chance to paddle the neighbourhood with oar in hand is not to be missed. We dip beneath bridges and glimpse private gardens obscured from street view, skim the petticoats of crumbling buildings and cross paths with other new operators along the waterway, including a stand-up paddle-boarding outfit.
Jane sees the SUP operation, run by local Eliana Argine, not as competition, but a complement to the city’s growing menu of paddle sports. While passing, Jane calls out in Italian on my behalf, to ask if anyone ever falls in.
“Only occasionally,” Eliana replies.
Staying firmly in our seats, we pass bars and restaurants, their terraces packed with punters. Most recently, Fondamenta della Misericordia and Fondamenta dei Ormesini streets have become popular, garnering a reputation for quality bites and wine at reasonable prices.
Accompanying Cannaregio’s new popularity, there’s been an upswing in people interested in staying in the area, and we struggle to find a hotel, with slim pickings and high prices on Airbnb. Luckily, locals have taken things into their own hands. One B&B owner who’s booked out recommends a collective called Breakfast in Venice.
It offers ‘true traditional B&B’ set to a strict criteria: accommodation must be family-run with no more than three rooms, and guests share the house with the owner. I send off an email and within a few hours, my inbox is filled with vacancies. It’s a nice twist that in an area increasingly encroached upon by tourists, tourism has strengthened the sense of community.
When in Venice
Rowing is everything in Venice: a means of transport, a sport, a profession and pastime. Amateur and professional races run throughout the year, but two of the most prestigious events are Vogalonga to Burano in May, and the Regata Storica, which travels along the Grand Canal in full costume.
Renowned worldwide, Venice’s Biennale showcases art during the odd years (the next is scheduled for 2019), while the architecture Biennale runs during even years (2018). Held in public spaces throughout Venice as well as purpose-built pavilions, the central organisation also overseas dance, theatre, film and music events.
Served with an ombra (glass of wine), and costing just a euro or two, the small bar snacks known as cicchetti keep the city fuelled and ready to go — at least until the locals go home for dinner.
When locals want to escape the crowd, they head to the outer lagoon, where a sea breeze cools things down and the tourist crowd thins out.
With space at a premium, Venice’s parks and gardens are treasured. One of the biggest is the Giardini della Biennale in the Castello.
Osteria da Moro. 00 39 041 099 5884
Ca D’oro Alla Vedova.
00 39 041 528 5324
Venice, by Jan Morris (Faber),
Venice & The Veneto (Lonely Planet 9th Edition, 2016), RRP: £12.99.
111 Places in Venice That You Must Not Miss, by Gerd Wolfgang Sievers (Emons; Gerd Wolfgang Sievers), RRP: £10:99.
Expedia offers five nights at the Sina Centurion Palace and flights from London from £1,441 (peak season). All hotels must collect an additional tourist tax (of a few euros), dependent on the length of your stay.
Published in the July/August 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)