From your first glimpse of the Grand Canal as you exit the Santa Lucia train station, Venice thrills, moves, and overwhelms. Every bridge, every boat, every glimpse up a side canal feels like a photograph come to life, one you’ve looked at all your life and now must find a way to make your own. Tiresomely overused as it is, magical is the word that comes to mind, and stays with you through every day that you lose yourself wandering from piazza to piazza and down alleyways that always seem to dead end at a canal.
But there are also the phone-waving crowds threatening to sap all serenity out of your experience, and the occasional nagging feeling that this has all been done by many before you, and that the memories you leave with be no different than those packaged up for other visitors.
But here’s the thing – just go 20 minutes away from San Marcos square in any direction, and it all dies away. In place of gondolas are workaday motorboats riding deep in the water loaded with construction materials and crates of produce, and in place of gaudy shops selling China-made Carnival masks are dim cafes where locals toss back espressos at the bar and laugh at you when you order a cappuccino.
The way I found this Venice was by visiting off-season (now is the time to start booking for September!) and by choosing as my home base an elegantly appointed apartment booked by Venice Prestige, which represents native Venetians who open their homes to guests. With my windows looking directly down onto the arch of the Academia Bridge, I could keep watch as the city woke at dawn. And I crossed that bridge daily to visit the university neighborhood of Zattere, where miniscule wine bars serve up the city’s best cicchetti, the tiny sandwiches of marinated fish, delicate vegetables and soft farm cheeses beloved by budget-conscious students.
Zattere is also one of the best places to catch the vaporetto water bus across to Giudecca, an island fast becoming Venice’s artiest ‘hood as abandoned factories and warehouses are converted to galleries, craft markets, restaurants and even hotels. Before it became Venice’s industrial port, Giudecca was home to many splendid palazzos, and some of the remaining gardens are now public parks, perfect for strolling on a sunny afternoon.
In fact, realizing that the island we call Venice is just one of 118 that dot the Venetian lagoon offers another way to open up your perspective to possibilities most visitors miss. There’s Murano, of course, of the famous glittering glass studios, but the outlying fishing islands beyond are easily accessible by fast boat if you don’t mind a bit of spray.
Past the farming island of Sant’Erasmo is Burano, quickly becoming an Instagram hot-spot for the rows of Technicolor houses that line its canals, themselves vivid with brightly painted fishing boats. The colorful tradition arose, so the story goes, as a way for tired fishermen to distinguish their homes from their neighbors when they returned in the dark after a long day at sea. Burano is worth so much more, though, than the couple of hours most visitors give it. The seafood at classic restaurants like Trattoria al Gatto Nero couldn’t be fresher, and the famed Burano lace is on display in numerous handicraft shops. It’s now possible to stay on the island in style in the newly opened apartments of Casa Burano, where artful tilework and furnishings crafted by local designers update cozy traditional cottages with sparkling canal views.
Cross a narrow wooden footbridge to the small island of Mazzorbo and you’ll see the stone tower of a 13th-century monastery rising over vineyards of golden grapes. This is Venissa, maker of some of the world’s rarest wines, pressed from ancient varieties of grape once thought lost to history. Inside the winery’s rustic lodge you’ll find a relaxed Osteria and a five-room boutique hotel while in back, looking out over the vineyards, is the unexpected luxury of a world-class restaurant. Helmed by a “workshop” of four chefs in their 20s, Venissa is the first restaurant in the world to earn a Michelin star for a multi-chef team, whose wildly creative menu is largely sourced from the winery’s own garden and local producers.
On the return trip to Venice, I ask to be dropped at the St. Alvise ferry terminal on the island’s less-visited north side. From there, I walk through the bohemian district of Cannaregio, lively with buskers, flirting teenagers, and booths selling fruit ices, hot chocolate, lemonade, and homemade soup. Then it’s a short detour through some of Venice’s most claustrophobic alleyways to the Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Nuovo, where the Jewish merchants of Venice made notorious by Shakespeare were confined to live until the late 18th century. The Museo Ebraico offers enlightening tours, which include entrance to the Ghetto’s synagogues, otherwise closed to visitors.
I pick up some fruit and cheese at a local market, and catch the last vaporetto of the night back to my apartment at the Accademia, watching the lights of the palazzos reflected in the water. I have the boat almost to myself save for a few tired shoppers who, like me, are juggling grocery bags and packages. My footsteps echo across the flagstones on the way to my front door and as I put my key into the lock, I notice a neighbor smiling at me from an upstairs window, and I raise my hand in a wave. Just for a few nights, I’m a Venetian too.
Melanie Haiken is a writer, editor and web project manager based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She operates on two simple assumptions: Everyone has a story to tell. And a story well-told will always find an audience. Her work is characterized by exceptional clarity, depth and insight – no matter the topic covered. Haiken writes for AFAR, Forbes, Via, Yoga Journal and many other national magazines and websites. She has also created award-winning marketing and custom publishing materials and communications campaigns for clients like Adobe, Wells Fargo, Lane Bryant, Kaiser Permanente and Safeway.