By Margaret M. Johnson

Exploring the side canals of Venice
Exploring the side canals of Venice

From the 8th to the 18th century, The Most Serene Republic of Venice was an Italian state originating from that city. Once a powerful naval and commercial force in the Mediterranean, Venice is today more noted for its constant throng of tourists -- more than 12 million annually -- who come to see its spectacular churches, elaborate-but-faded palazzos, incomparable art, and of course, the maze of alleys, canals, and bridges that link the little islands that make up the city as a whole.

Serenissima is no longer "the serene one" it used to be, and you have to go far beyond the limits of popular Piazza San Marco in the sestiere (administrative district) that bears its name to find a little peace and quiet. But who cares? This is Venice -- a place like no other -- where a gondola ride will set you back 80 euros for a half-hour, a Bellini in Harry's Bar costs 15 euros, and where an "entertainment supplement" of 5.80 euros per person is added to your check at Caffe Florian when the orchestra is playing.

You can still get a darned good Pizza Margherita for only 5 euros at cafes in some sestiere, though, and a very decent Espresso for only 2 euros, if you stand while drinking it -- sitting will tack on another 2 euros. But, again, who cares? This is Venice. I keep going back for more.

My latest visit, just before Easter, was glorious. The sun shone every day, the crowds were more manageable than they would ever be in high season, and I finally got a chance to venture way beyond the limits of San Marco, with its Basilica, Doges Palace, Campanile, and classy cafes that line the three sides of the square that Napoleon called "the most elegant drawing room in Europe."

My first stops were San Polo and Santa Croce, two lively sestieris whose most famous landmark is the very touristy Rialto Bridge. From the 11th century, this area has been the commercial center of Venice, and there is still a fantastic morning market where locals shop for fish, produce, wine and cheese. A walk over Rialto is nearly obligatory for a visitor, and I actually found some well-priced gold trinkets in a shop there that I hadn't seen anywhere else in the city.

On the other side of the Grand Canal, the Dorsoduro skyline is dominated by the enormous baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute, which stands at the entrance to the canal. On a previous visit the church was closed, so today it was a "must." For all its majesty when viewed from a distance, the interior of the church is a rather plain octagonal space below the cupola with six chapels radiating from it. Several works by Titian are housed here, but, regrettably, they're beyond viewing by visitors.

We were not completely disappointed, though, and easily spent the morning exploring the neighborhood, visiting the Accademia, which houses the largest collection of Venetian art in the world, and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, an 18th-century palazzo with more than 200 modern sculptures and paintings displayed in the house and garden. Dorsoduro is the neighborhood to visit if you want to see how real Venetians live.

Wander east from Accademia toward Santa Maria della Salute and you'll find yourself in heavenly surroundings -- quiet canals, little tree-lined squares with benches set in small gardens, and tiny restaurants and crafts galleries tucked into colorful buildings. Wander west from Accademia toward Campo Santa Margherita and you'll find a lively neighborhood filled with sidewalk cafes, family restaurants, and fish and flower vendors. In Rio San Barnaba, a canal just off the main parish square, we found vendors doing a brisk business selling fruit and vegetables from a barge moored there, and at Squero di San Trovaso, we watched gondolas being repaired and refurbished in one of the few places where the craft is still practiced.

Looking more Tyrolean than Venetian, the workshop is located close to the Giudecca Canal side of Dorsoduro and only steps away from the Zattere, one of the loveliest promenades in all of Venice. If you arrive in Venice on a cruise ship, you'll pass by the quayside, but if you fly or drive in, you're likely to miss this delightful area. Don't. We had a pleasant late lunch at La Piscina, one of several restaurants that extend out into the canal, and found ourselves surrounded more by locals than tourists, which is always a good thing.

But for the grand get-away-from-it-all, we spent an entire day visiting the lagoon islands that lie to the north of Venice -- Murano, Burano and Torcello. The closest -- only a 10- to 15-minute vaporetto ride on several waterbus lines -- is Murano, famous for its glass-blowing factories. If you want to visit here, you can get a free ride from the many hawkers along the Grand Canal, especially by busy St. Mark's Square, who will take you there by boat and immediately lead you into one of the factories for a demonstration and, ultimately, a sale! You are under no obligation to buy anything, but if you're looking for a Venetian keepsake, you can't go wrong with a piece of Murano glass.

To reach the further islands most directly, you can pick up an "LN" or "N" vaporetto at Fondamente Nuove in the Cannaregio sestiere, where Tintoretto lived (you can see some of his paintings at his parish Church of Madonna dell 'Orto). The ride to Torcello, the smallest of the three with only about 75 full-time residents, takes about an hour, not much longer than it takes to visit the entire island. With the exception of a few quaint restaurants and bars (Locanda Cipriani serves delicious seafood fritto misto), the main attraction here is the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, a Byzantine masterpiece with gorgeous floor tiles and a wall mosaic depicting the Last Judgment. The original church was built in the 7th century with the bell tower added in the 11th century. Even with little else to offer a visitor, the church alone is worth the trip.

Burano, on the other hand, has lots to offer. The island is known throughout the world for its lace, and you will find fanciful items like collars, shawls, baby clothes, and table linens hanging in shop windows and from doorways everywhere. It's also known as a fishing village, and the houses here are painted in brilliant colors -- purple, pink, red, lime green, ochre -- out of the fishermen's desire to see their own houses from far out at sea. Burano canals are lined with boats, bars, and trattorias serving pizza, pasta, and local seafood, and if you want to learn more about the lace-making tradition here, you can visit Scuola dei Merletti (Piazza Baldassare Galuppi). Short of that, it's a delightful place for strolling and shopping, and you can also visit nearby Mazzorbo, an even smaller island that's linked to Burano by footbridge.


Where To Stay:

Hotel Cipriani, Giudecca 10, is one of the world's most exclusive properties. The only hotel in Venice with a pool -- the largest one in Europe -- it sits on the tip of Giudecca Island surrounded by gardens, vineyards, and residential palazzi. Guests can choose from 88 rooms and suites in the main hotel or ultra-private suites in the Palazzo Vendramin or Palazzetto Nani Barbero with butler service and views across the canal to St. Mark's. The Cipriani is open from mid-March to mid-November and offers several packages with rates starting at 640 euros, depending on the season and what's going on in Venice at the time. Phone 041-520-7747 or visit

Hotel Gabrielli Sandwirth, Riva Degli Schiavoni 4110, is where faded elegance meets fabulous location. Owned by the same family for 150 years (some might suggest no alterations have made in that period of time as well), the 105-room palazzi overlooks the Grand Canal and has an interior garden restaurant and rooftop garden for lounging. Besides the need for serious redecoration, the hotel is well situated and comfortable. Rates start at 370 euros based on double occupancy and include breakfast. Phone 041-523-1580 or visit

Pensione Seguso, Zattere 779, is exactly what you'd expect from a family-run guesthouse that originally catered to a mostly British clientele. Furnished simply but elegantly with antiques and reproductions, the guesthouse is located on the Giudecca and San Vio Canals, so guests can easily arrive by boat. It's open from March to November and offers per person B&B rates from 70 euros or half board from 230 euros. Phone 041-528-6858 or visit

Where to Eat:

Ristorante Carpaccio, Riva Degli Schiavoni 4088-4089, is one of the many outdoor cafe/restaurants situated along this busy waterfront in the Castello sestiere. The restaurant, also with indoor seating, caters to a local crowd but welcomes tourists -- courteously, I might add, as opposed to other restaurants we tried -- with Venetian specialties and reasonable prices. My husband and I shared beef carpaccio with rocket and shaved Parmesan to start (24 euros), and then went our separate ways with homemade tagliatelle salmone for me, and spaghetti caperozzoli (with baby clams) for him, both 14.50 euros. With wine, coffee, and dessert, our very respectable tab came to 104 euros. It's open daily from 7 p.m. Phone 041-528-9615.

La Piscina, Dorsoduro 780-782, is located on the Zattere, one of the most picturesque places in Venice. With both indoor and outdoor service, the restaurant specializes in fresh seafood and pasta in interesting combinations -- starters like sea bass with pasta and eggplant (12 euros) or scorpion fish with tagliatelle and zucchini (12.50 euros), and entrees that include swordfish and asparagus (22 euros), turbot with Mediterranean beans (19 euros), angle fish with artichokes (21 euros). Open every day except Monday from noon. Phone 041-520-6466.

Hotel Cipriani, Giudecca 10, offers several places to dine: Fortuny Restaurant and Terrace for ultra fine, jacket-required dining; Cip's Club, a casually elegant eatery on the Giudecca Canal; and the poolside restaurant for lunch. If you stay at The "Cip" money isn't an issue, but you are well rewarded with exquisite choices: goose liver creme brulee with sweet wine jelly or buffalo mozzarella with candied tomatoes and anchovies, perhaps, to start? Cipriani "house specials" include fantastic homemade pasta and risotto, calf's liver with grilled white polenta, and Venetian spaghetti with rabbit sauce. Service is impeccable. Dinner for two with wine 200 euros to 250 euros. Phone 041-520-7747, or visit

Visitor Information:

For general tourist information visit or (041-529-8711), the official site of the Venice Tourist Board. The tourist information office is located in the Venice Pavilion, just off St. Mark's Square on the Grand Canal. Here you can get street maps and vaporetto routes, hotel and museum information, book tours, and buy the Venice Card. The Orange Card, which includes use of public transport and toilets and entrance to civic museums and 16 churches for three or seven days, is the best value. Depending on length of time, adult prices range from 22 euros to 82 euros. All phone numbers are for local calls; from the United States, dial 011+39+local number.


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Vacation Travel - Venice Beyond St. Mark's