Backstreet Venice: steering clear of the main sites

Travel writer Julia Hammond explains how she learned to love Venice by avoiding some of its most famous attractions. 

Allow me to let you into a secret: I hated Venice the first time I went. I ticked off its sights like I was completing a childhood iSpy book: a gondola ride, a visit to the Doges Palace, coffee in St Mark’s Square, a souvenir of glass blown on Murano Island. 

The second time, persuaded to give the city a second go by those more enchanted by the place, I spread my wings a little and liked it a touch better. But it wasn’t until my third trip that I found a Venice that I could truly say I loved, for it was then that I gave up on the sights and ventured off the beaten track.

Beyond the tourists
Backstreet Venice is a world apart from the tour guide clipboards and over-inflated prices that blight the likes of St Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal. It’s no wonder the shrinking resident population is fighting to preserve the character of their beloved home city—they number just 55,000 people, fewer than the number of tourists that visit per day. But Venice is compact and you don’t need to stray far from those crowded, must-see spots to escape the masses. 

Take the Rialto Bridge, for example, rammed with tat shops and selfie-stick wielding tourists. A micro-stroll away, you’ll find yourself in the Rialto Market, still busy of course, but its visitor contingent is diluted by locals grabbing armloads of fresh produce for dinner. There’s fresh seafood, capsicums tied up like posies of flowers, and more varieties of mushroom than you probably knew existed.

Bars and bookstores
A few streets in from the water and you’ll encounter the oldest bacaro (bar) in the city. It’s called the Cantina do Mori, a tiny bar which manages to cater to a loyal local clientele without excluding visitors keen to experience a piece of Venetian history. Pull up a stool beneath a ceiling laden with copper pots and pans. Order an ombra, local slang for a glass of wine, and drink where the great Casanova once drank—this bar’s been a fixture since 1462.

Once you know how to spot them, you will find the city is littered with places like that: trattorias, bars, churches, and shops tucked away into impossibly narrow alleyways, known only to those who live there or those lucky enough to stumble upon them.

Backing onto a backstreet canal is the delightful Libreria Acqua Alta. This bookstore is packed with piles of books stacked on every imaginable surface. There’s a resident cat, books piled in bathtubs, and even a beached gondola. Duck out the back and there’s a tiny waterfront yard that forms the perfect reading nook, so long as you don’t mind being interrupted by a passing boat. 

When it comes to securing a view, don’t climb the campanile in St Mark’s Square like everyone else. Instead, hop on a vaporetto (water bus) to the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. It overlooks the square and provides a bird’s eye view of the vessels entering the Grand Canal, yet you’ll have the belltower to yourself. Brace yourself, though: when the bells chime the hour they’re loud enough to startle you!

My favourite part of Venice is Cannaregio, home to the city’s Jewish quarter. Its Jewish heritage extends back to 1516 when the Doge Leonardo Loredan issued a decree formally segregating the city’s Jewish population. The area was previously used as a foundry, known as ghèto in the local vernacular, a term that became the modern word ‘ghetto’. 

These days, if you want to sightsee, there are ancient synagogues and kosher bakeries, but the real treat is simply to wander aimlessly through its unassuming residential streets. When your feet need a break, emerge onto Ormesini canal and beat a path to a bacarocalled Al Timon. Time it for early evening and munch delicious cicchetti—Venetian tapas—while the sun sets behind the buildings on the opposite side of the water. Ask the bartender for Campari rather than Aperol in your spritz and you might just pass for a local.