Venice’s hidden gems lay in the city’s quiet side streets, full of charm and away from the crowds.
I visited Venice once with a tour group and we saw all the major sites in less than a few days. We visited the Piazza San Marco and fed the pigeons. We took in the royal splendours at Doge’s Palace and admired the views from atop the iconic campanile.
It was my first trip to Venice but I hardly remember it now. I recall crowds, our hurried guide and the cool interior of the marble churches. Venice was beautiful but it didn’t leave me with much besides postcards.
My second time in Venice was different. I didn’t plan on visiting Italy again, but a business trip in Northern Italy came up and I decide to extend my stay for a few days of sightseeing.
The hidden gems of Venice
The plan was to spend a day in Venice and then head south. But I wasn’t looking forward to all the train rides and the hassle. I decide to stay and rest for awhile.
I spent a few days in Venice wandering the streets without an itinerary. It was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had in Europe.
Venice, like many cities along the Mediterranean, suffers from overtourism and is literally sinking under the weight of massive cruise ships. In the summer the crowds induce claustrophobia, pushing through narrow streets full of plastic Venetian maps and overpriced espresso.
But Venice doesn’t have to be that way. The charm of the city that’s inspired generations of artists can’t be found along the well-beaten tourist path. The magic of this city lays in its side streets.
Venice shines in the off-season. And it’s a rainy day in November when I arrive on my second trip. I’m soaked by the time I find my hotel and I spend the rest of the afternoon pumping Euros into a dryer. It’s not a promising start but there’s no rush. I have a few days to explore the city and I have no expectations.
Without an itinerary
I take the bus into the city every morning and arrive at the nondescript main station, Piazzale Roma, to begin my day. I have a map from the hotel reception and I make my way, approximately, towards St Mark’s Square. Because that’s where the crowd seems to be flowing.
There are a couple main routes to get there, and they’re well-marked with signs pointing the way. But soon the smaller canals and bridges become all too tempting. I wander into a side street and realise I’m just a few steps away from the crowded main route but it’s as quiet and peaceful as a small town on Sunday afternoon.
I see a few other tourists, curious as myself, and a few locals. But mostly it’s serene and I feel I’ve got the city all to myself. I find my way back to the main route eventually, but after a few digressions I ask myself: do I really have to follow the main routes at all?
I stay on the side streets (I’ve never liked crowds) and I find hidden courtyards, balconies overflowing with blossoms and grand hotel lobbies to duck into and escape the rain.
When I get lost, I normally ask for directions. In Venice, I don’t mind being lost. Can you really be lost when you’ve got no destination in mind?
Exploring the side streets
I find a shop with vintage dinnerware sets from old cruise ships, and a small shop where a woman looks protectively over miniature puppet theatres as I browse. Waiters take their cigarette breaks in alleyways and a home displays vintage Pinocchio figurines on the windowsill.
I once ask a couple for directions, but they only point vaguely at my rain-soaked map and say “we’re probably around here.”
My daily walks vary but I always use St Mark’s as a rough landmark. One day I follow the Canal Grande to the square, another day I walk along the Giudecca Canal. The city’s better-known landmarks like the Rialto Bridge begin to take on an easy familiarity. But on most days I don’t often pass the same sights twice. The city is endlessly fascinating and the more I explore, the more my wanderlust grows.
There’s enough in Venice for at least a few days and it’s unfortunate how many visitors will rush through without taking time to explore its side streets.
It’s impossible to really get lost in Venice, after all. It’s surrounded by water so you’ll always know when you’ve reached the edge and it’s time to turn back.
And although it has remarkable museums and historic sites, the magic of Venice lays in its atmosphere.