Hiding in the elegant shadows of Venice‘s palaces and must-see monuments are Venetians’ most beloved hangouts. (Krzysztof Dydynski/LPI)
Hiding in the elegant shadows of Venice‘s Grand Canal palaces and must-see monuments are Venetians’ most beloved hangouts. But from the major tourist thoroughfares, you may only glimpse the locals as they slip under archways into labyrinthine calli (backstreets) or hear their soft, assured footsteps gliding over Istrian stone footbridges.
To get to know Venice as Venetians do, follow their lead, like Alice following the white rabbit into Wonderland. You will not need to imbibe any magic potions – though every true Venetian adventure begins and ends with a glass of Prosecco -- just follow this guide for tips on where to go morning, noon and night.
When tour guides refer to the Rialto they mean the Rialto Bridge, Antonio da Ponte’s dazzling Renaissance span across the Grand Canal. But when Venetians refer to the Rialto, they are usually referring to the historic Rialto Markets, which date from Venice’s founding circa 809 AD, when Venice was just a Byzantine backwater with fish and ambition to spare.
The current Pescaria (fish market) is a 19th-century incarnation of the original Venetian fish market that lasted at least 600 years, until constant pounding finally wore out the paving stones. Beneath the fish gargoyles that adorn the peaked roof, sustainable lagoon fishing standards are literally set in stone on a carved sign, and shameless bragging about Venetian moeche (soft-shell crab) and moscardini (baby octopus) still begins around 5 am Tuesday through Sunday.
By late morning, fishermen (who are often up before 3 am) are good and ready for their midday meal. Join them for a glass of Prosecco nearby, in one of the many backstreet bacari, hole-in-the wall pubs that have served Rialto market workers for hundreds of years. Pre-noon arrivals at All’Arco, Pronto Pesce Pronto and Dai Zemei get first pick of ultra-fresh cicheti, or Venetian tapas: delectable, market-inspired bites of lagoon seafood, cured meats, cheeses and creative salads.
While away the hours between markets and meals by shopping the artisan’s studios alongside the Rialto bacari. Lagoon ripples are perfectly captured in marbled-paper handbags at Cartè; stationery imprinted with gondola images rolls hot off the antique press at Veneziastampa; and Cartevenezia illuminates handmade paper lanterns with an embossed lion of St Mark, Venice’s patron saint.
In the neighbourhood of Dorsoduro, the banks of the Grand Canal are lined with art museums, from Tiepolo’s glorious baroque ceilings at Ca’ Rezzonico to Maurizio Cattelan’s cheeky horse’s hind end apparently jumping through the brick walls at avant-garde Punta della Dogana. But duck around the corner to the Giudecca canal bank, known as the Zattere, and you will find sunset strollers and sun-tanning Venetians.
Along this sunny stretch is the Magazzini del Sale, the historic salt warehouses that were recently reinvented by Renzo Piano and the late, great Venetian expressionist painter Emilio Vedova as a public gallery, now hosting local talents alongside international artists like Anselm Keifer and Louise Bourgeois. Heading west along the Zattere past the Fondamenta degli Incurabili (Canalbank of the Incurables), you will pass local art students casually flirting in front of the ancient syphilis hospice that became Venice’s Accademia delle Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts), recently graced with a dedication to the poet Joseph Brodsky. Along these canal banks, the Russian-born American Nobel Laureate wrote Watermark, his passionate ode to Venice – as the plaque says, “He loved and sang this place.”
Turn off the Zattere to reach Chiesa di San Sebastian, the tiny parish church covered floor to ceiling with masterpieces painted over three decades by Paolo Veronese. Legend has it that the Renaissance master found refuge here after fleeing murder charges in his hometown of Verona in 1555, and lavished this church with gratitude. Over a bridge from San Sebastian is Calle Lunga San Barnaba, a narrow alleyway lined with some of Venice’s most affordable pizzerias and osterie (a small local restaurant) specialising in meat dishes – a rarity in this lagoon city.