Since we had some extra time in Venice, we decided to take a daytrip to Padua (or “Padova” in Italian), just a 26-minute train ride away. Padua is a picturesque town of about 214,000 residents, many of them students at the University of Padua — the third oldest university in Europe, one of the most prestigious, and definitely one of the most progressive. It was founded by a group of radical professors from the University of Bologna who wanted to teach without restraints from the church. Galileo taught here for thirty years and was so popular that his students saved up money to purchase his own podium, which was necessary since his lectures became too popular for a typical classroom.
We took a guided tour, which allowed us to view Galileo’s podium, as well as the Anatomical Theater. This theater, the oldest in the world, was built so the public could study dissections. Viewers would have to stand around in this cramped, candlelit room for hours over multiple days. Because dissections were technically still illegal, whenever someone from the church entered, the professor would flip the bed over quickly to hide the body, and everyone would pretend to be doing something else.
In 1678, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D., and unsurprisingly it was here, at the University of Padua. Copernicus, Dante, and Fallopius (yes, the discoverer of the fallopian tube) are some of the university’s other notable alumni.
Besides the university, Padua is just a lovely place to roam around. It has a dense network of arcaded walkways and cobblestone streets. Its town hall building, the Palazzo della Ragione, has the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe. Right outside the Palazzo is a huge farmers market, second only to the one in Italy’s gastronomic capital of Bologna. Its Scrovegni Chapel, which must be booked in advance to enter, houses some of the most important frescoes in the world. Prato della Valle is an elliptical square and one of the biggest in Europe. In the center is a garden surrounded by a moat, lined by 78 statues of Padua’s citizens.
My favorite part of Padua, however, was the lunch we had at Osteria L’Anfora. In fact, it was the best meal of our entire trip. This discrete (no signage in front!) osteria was packed with Paduans, so we were crammed in the corner at a table with a friendly Italian student and his girlfriend visiting from France. He helped us decipher the handwritten menu — written in only Italian, of course — and taught me how to properly pronounce “bigoli” (bi-go-li, not bi-go-li), the pasta typical of this region. I had the perfectly al dente bigoli with rabbit sausage ragù, while Anthony had a tender oxtail stew served with creamy polenta full of flavor. I would return to Padua just for meals like this. I didn’t tear up on this trip — which is slightly concerning because I cry over everything — but if I did, it would have been at Osteria L’Anfora.
After about five and a half hours in Padua, it was time to return to Venice. It was just the right amount of time to do the town justice but crave a little more action in touristy Venice. We caught a northbound tram with the day passes we had bought at the station earlier and returned just in time to make our train back to Venezia Santa Lucia. Arrivederci, Padova!
Venice is stunning in any season, but if you have a choice, visit in the winter. You’ll have to deal with fewer tourists and might see an eerie fog seductively blanketing the canals. Most importantly, you’ll be visiting at a much more ethical time. In the summer, cruise ship passengers flood Venice every day, and the city’s infrastructure suffocates under the hordes of sightseers. Tourists outnumber Venetians by 140 to 1. Souvenir shops have replaced grocery stores, while luxury hotels have replaced medical offices. When I visited Venice for my second time a few summers ago, I was disappointed by how much the whole place felt like Disneyland or Las Vegas — unabashedly fake and crawling with tacky tourists who are there just to check Venice off their lists rather than to actually learn anything. So we returned this winter for my husband’s birthday and experienced the city the way it should be.
It happened to be Carnevale when we visited, an incredible time to be in Venice. We were there during the first few days of this multi-week celebration, which began with an opening ceremony of glowing floats at night and a costumed gondola parade the following morning. Carnevale brings out the most decadent side of Venice, with people parading around in extravagant costumes and colorful confetti strewn across the pavement.
The tradition of Carnevale began when the Republic of Venice won a victory in the 12th century. To celebrate, Venetians gathered and danced in St. Mark’s Square. Carnevale was celebrated for centuries, and debaucherous revelers donned masks because anything they did while their faces were covered didn’t count. The Holy Roman Empire banned the festival in 1797, and wearing masks was strictly forbidden. Carnevale gradually reappeared in the 19th century, and finally in 1979, the government decided to officially bring it back completely. What surprised us was how egalitarian Carnevale is. Sure, some people spend thousands of euros on elaborate handmade costumes and attend fancy masquerade balls, but other people just buy cheap masks — most likely made in China instead of Venice — from one of the many stands scattered throughout the city. If you want a nice medium, you can also rent authentic costumes for the day and support Italian craftsmanship at a fraction of the cost of purchasing.
If you only have one weekend to experience Carnevale, aim for the final weekend. We went on the first weekend, which felt like a low-key introduction to the festivities. The final weekend has the huge costume competition and entertaining historical reenactments.
My favorite part of Carnevale was just hanging out in St. Mark’s Square and seeing all the costumes. St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace are the perfect backdrop. Every afternoon of Carnevale, costumed people parade around, waiting for you to take photos of their hard work.
Tips for future travelers to Venice:
We stayed at 3749 Ponte Chiodo, a charming guest house that we had stayed at four years ago. It’s located in the peaceful neighborhood of Cannaregio, which feels like a world away from the hustle and bustle of St. Mark’s Square but is only a 20-minute walk or leisurely vaporetto ride away. It also has some of the best restaurants in Venice. Our room was on the top floor and had a lovely view of a small canal. The owner Mattias was as helpful as last time, offering restaurant recommendations and encouraging guests to get to know each other during our intimate breakfasts around the dining table each morning. We loved opening up the heavy, dark green front door with our key and walking through a secret garden to reach the entrance of the house, then climbing up a narrow staircase to get to our room after a long day. 3749 Ponte Chiodo was a breath of fresh air — a real home in a city full of monotonous hotel chains.
We ate fairly well on this trip, which is a bit of a surprise because Venice is infamous for being one of the least pleasant cities to eat in Italy. Typically overpriced and inauthentic, restaurants in this small city feel forced to cater to tourists who visit here once and never return. Fortunately, our research led us to perhaps the best meals possible in Venice.
If you’re not eating cicchetti for lunch every day, you failed at Venice. It’s a Venetian lunch tradition to stand at the bar and order an assortment of toast topped with fresh seafood, and pair it with a glass of Prosecco, the wine specialty of this region. A meal for two will cost you roughly €16. We tried a few places for cicchetti, and All’Arco was by far the best, as evidenced by the stream of locals there throughout the day.
Our favorite restaurants for dinner were Osteria Ai Promessi Sposi, Ca D’Oro alla Vedova, and Osteria ai 40 Ladroni, all of which were just a quick walk from our guest house. They’re all osterias, which is my preferred type of eating establishment in Italy. Osterias began as places serving wine and simple food, with concise menus that emphasize local specialties and whatever’s fresh that day. They are cheaper than ristorantes and have that rustic feel you want when you’re in Italy. In Venice, stick to ordering seafood, risotto, squid ink pastas, and tiramisu, paired with a carafe of house wine or Prosecco.
Dal Moro’s Fresh Pasta to Go is a fantastic place for a takeout lunch. It’s essentially fast-casual pasta, but done surprisingly well. Choose your fresh pasta noodles, the sauce, and any toppings. You can watch the pasta being made behind the glass, and when it’s done you just eat it out of a cardboard takeout container. At roughly €7, this is probably the best deal in Venice.
We decided to take a couple of walking tours with a company called La Bussola and were amazed by how many more facts we learned about Venice — and it’s my third time here! Each tour is free, two and a half hours long, and led by passionate graduate students who specialized in some aspect of Venetian culture. We learned that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, the original Venetians were a bunch of refugees fleeing attack from Germanic tribes, and that Venice was built on wood pilings that have petrified under water without oxygen. One of the tours ended on the rooftop of a fancy department store near the Rialto Bridge that offered a panoramic view of the entire city.
La Bussola also took us to what looked like a modest church from the outside, but entering completely took my breath away. Chiesa di San Pantaleone Martire houses the biggest canvas painting in the world. When you enter, make sure to look up, because an astonishingly three-dimensional painting depicting the martyrdom and apotheosis of St. Pantalon fills the entire ceiling. It was painted on canvas by Fumiani over 24 years, until he fell to his death from the scaffolding as he was giving his painting the finishing touches. Structural features of the church are continued in the architecture of the painting, creating a magnificent visual illusion. Fumiani was a master of perspective. I have been to the Vatican, and I can honestly say that I was more impressed by this than the Sistine Chapel.
If it’s your first time in Venice, make sure to check out at least these tourist attractions:
St. Mark’s Basilica: Book in advance to enter this opulent golden cathedral and symbol of Venetian wealth.
Burano: Take a 45-minute vaporetto ride to this calm, picturesque island of bright colorful homes.
Libreria Acqua Alta: This adorable bookstore stuffs its books into waterproof basins to highlight the flooding that Venice must coexist with. There is now a long line to enter because it recently exploded on social media.
One of the best ways to see Venice is by vaporetto. These water buses travel along the Grand Canal, around the lagoon, and even to the other islands. It’s easy to get lost in Venice, so while walking is often quicker, catching a cheap vaporetto is sometimes a preferable mode of transportation. If you’re under 29, you get a discount through Rolling Venice. We purchased unlimited three-day passes and validated each time we entered a station.
You can probably tell from my last post that I was pretty excited about Venice. I had been to the city long ago with my family and had grown up hearing their stories of skinny Santas roaming the deserted streets, and well-intentioned Italian women scolding my mother for carrying me around in the cold.
After a nearly three-hour Trenitalia ride from Milan, Anthony and I arrived in Venice. I was still tired from my lack of sleep the night before, but I was immediately energized when we entered Venezia Santa Lucia. The station opens up to the Grand Canal, which is literally a water highway. Cutting across the sparkling waters were big boats, little boats, speed boats, paddle boats — it was like a Dr. Seuss book. I was amazed by how effortlessly each boat just missed crashing into another.
Thanks to straightforward instructions from our B&B, we knew to catch Vaporetto #1 four stops to Ca’ d’Oro. Vaporettos, which are basically water buses, are the most efficient way to travel in this car-free city. Mattia, the owner of 3749 Ponte Chiodo, buzzed us in, and we walked through a secret garden behind the gate up to the residence. It was as picturesque as I had hoped. Mattia ushered us into his office on the bottom floor of the pink, three-story home. He was the main reason 3749 Ponte Chiodo was one of our favorite hotel experiences. He gave us a map of his favorite restaurants (sounds like something I’d do!) and, based on our interests, traced out some routes for us to take to various sites. He was very blunt about where to avoid and what not to eat — and I appreciate that level of taste. He led us to our room, which was the only one on the first floor. I had requested this exact room because I knew it had a view of the canal and the strongest WiFi connection. Decorated in pale yellows and Klimt prints, it was much more charming than our previous room in Milan.
By that point, we were pretty hungry, so Anthony navigated us to one of Mattia’s recommendations for lunch. Our route led us over the Rialto Bridge, and, just like in Times Square, it was almost impossible to get across. Obnoxious tourists (I’m just going to guess that they’re American based on their widths) blocked all paths, crammed into every photo-worthy spot, and struggled to climb the few stairs required.
We finally got to Osteria Bancogiro, which has fantastic seafood due to its proximity to a large fish market. We started off speaking to our server in what little Italian we could muster up, but, as we’ve noticed in every city, if you try even just a little, Italians will be grateful and continue the conversation in English. Anthony’s calamari-stuffed cuddlefish and my cold pesto spaghetti with shrimp in a tomato gazpacho were refreshing on such a hot day.
After lunch, we were still pretty exhausted and too sweaty to want to explore, so we returned to 3749 Ponte Chiodo. Now I know why Italians take siestas! We rinsed off, turned our air conditioning on high, and took a nap. Eventually, we made our way out again. As we walked along Ca’ d’Oro, we noticed all the public water fountains, which are everywhere in Italy — some more ornate than others. I had brought my green CamelBak water bottle with us, so we constantly refilled it throughout our trip (until Anthony left it on a train somewhere between Rome and Naples).
We caught Vaporetto #1 again to follow Rick Steves’ self-guided Grand Canal Tour, which took us all the way to St. Mark’s Square. Though everything was beautiful, I was a bit overwhelmed by how touristy everything felt — and the hot sun made everything feel even more tacky, almost like a Disneyland. I longed for the seductive Venice that my parents had experienced when we were here in the winter.
On our second day, we spent the afternoon exploring two other islands: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass-making and, honestly, isn’t that interesting unless you plan on purchasing glass. However, Burano was a lovely escape. Though the island is famous for its lace-making, tourists now go to take photos of its small, brightly-painted homes. If someone wants to paint their house, one must send a request to the government, which then decides which colors are permitted. While Burano is clearly touristy, it felt much more relaxed than Venice, since it has no iconic landmarks and is enough of a trek from Venice that only the truly dedicated tourists make their way here.
By the time we returned to Venice, it was drizzling, which felt great after another sweltering afternoon. Since we had some leftover risotto from the night before, we decided to pick up some pizza, cookies, and wine and take advantage of our secret garden by having dinner at one of the tables. I love B&Bs because you really feel like you live there. I’m not sure where the four other guests were, but it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. We borrowed a bottle opener, utensils, and wine glasses, and made sure to wash everything afterward. We felt like local Venetians.
It was after dinner that we learned that the magic happens after the sun goes down. The day-trippers take their cruises back to the mainland, and the city becomes shrouded in mystery. My friend had suggested a gelateria near St. Mark’s Square, but we had some trouble finding it and ended up strolling through dark alleyways. You haven’t lived unless you’ve gotten lost in Venice at least once. Venice is laced with narrow alleyways that squeeze between old buildings and often do not lead to anywhere useful, but simply provide access for local residents or businesses. One thing that impressed me was Venice’s lack of bugs and rodents. If New York had these same alleyways, there would be at least cockroaches crawling around, but we didn’t see any. Few alleyways continue for a significant distance, and there are not a lot of street signs. Getting lost in them transports you to another world — away from the tourist swarms.
After we finally found the gelateria, we carried our towering scoops of gelato to St. Mark’s Square and listened to the dueling orchestras. Each caffè in the square seems to have a small stage for an orchestra. While we say they “duel,” each orchestra really just take turns playing, usually songs that they know will pull American tourists’ heartstrings, like Sinatra. While you can pay (too much) to sit at the caffès, we were fine just standing and enjoying our gelato. Moments like these were my favorite in Venice.
When we got tired of St. Mark’s Square, we took a late-night vaporetto back to our B&B, which also felt like a different experience in the dark. Light reflections from hotels and palaces glittered against the ominous waters, and the Grand Canal felt more romantic than ever.
The next morning, I woke up with a tenderness for Venice that I hadn’t felt before. All those stories I had grown up with felt real; I just had to experience them at night. We enjoyed one last Venetian breakfast and caught a traghetto across the canal. Traghettos are like gondolas, but just cross the Grand Canal and thus are much cheaper. It was a short, no-frills ride, but it satiated our need to try a more leisurely boat ride than our trusty vaporetto. We walked to the fish market and gawked at the sword fish, snails, and octopuses.
For our final meal in Venice, we tried another one of Mattia’s recommendations and ate cicchetti at Bacari. This was my favorite meal in Venice. In true Venetian fashion, we ordered different cicchetti (basically, crostini topped with different ingredients, served on a toothpick) with a glass of house wine and ate at the bar. We tried shrimp, tuna, salmon, pumpkin, octopus, and caviar cicchetti. Everything was cheap and unbelievably fresh.
I had heard about a unique bookstore called Acqua Alta, so we made our way to it. Just like the night before, we enjoyed meandering through the alleyways and discovering things along the way. Acqua Alta stuffs their used books into boats (hence, the flood theme), and stacked old encyclopedias into a staircase in the backyard. There is a nook in the back at which you can sit facing the canal and occasionally get your feet wet when the tide rises. We met the eccentric owner, who beamed with pride as he told me what other little oddities his bookstore held.
By then, it was time to head to Florence, so we picked up our luggage from 3749 Ponte Chiodo and caught our last vaporetto ride to the station. Ciao, Firenze!
Tips for future travelers:
There’s a reason why Italians take siestas. If you’re visiting during the summer, plan to spend an hour or two resting in the early afternoon to avoid the worst heat of the day. It doesn’t get dark until almost 9 pm, so you’ll still have plenty of time to explore after your siesta.
If you’re under 29 and staying in Venice for multiple days, look into Rolling Venice passes, which give you unlimited vaporetto rides and discounts to some museums. If only the U.S. realized that anyone under 30 is still not an adult!
Any time you can buy online tickets in advance for major sites, do it. Our pre-purchased tickets to St. Mark’s Basilica allowed us to bypass a huge line.
You must partake in the cicchetti tradition while in Venice. It was my most memorable meal there because we actually felt like Venetians. Anthony and I shared six cicchetti and two glasses of wine and spent no more than €15. I get tired of flavors quite quickly, so tapas-style meals are perfect for me. Cicchetti allow you to try all of Venice’s seafood offerings.
Two recommended restaurants that will make you feel Venetian: Bacari for cicchetti and Osteria ai 40 Ladroni for dinner overlooking a small canal or in their backyard. Try Venetian specialties like polenta and risotto.
Get lost in Venice. Wander around at night. Listen to the dueling orchestras in front of St. Mark’s Basilica. Enjoy the idiosyncrasies this unique city has to offer.