To me, giving Venice a chance to show off for you means you must do the following things.
1. You must stay the night - and you must stay in Venice proper.
signsThat means no Mestre, no mainland, no Lido - and, if Iím being really picky, not even the Giudecca. Iím perfectly willing to say that after a first visit people can stay wherever the heck they like, but for a first trip to Venice youíve got to give the city every chance to demonstrate why sheís worth the effort. And she canít very well do that if you arenít there at the right times and in the right places.
So stay overnight on the main islands, for at least one night and ideally for two. If your budget wonít allow staying there for the whole time youíre there, or youíre just interested in trying something different after a couple nights, then switch to a Mestre hotel or some place off the main islands. But only after 1-2 nights actually in Venice.
And if you need help with a place to stay, Iíve got some suggestions on finding a hotel in Venice - including some around the train station for getting in and out with ease, and some near St. Markís Square as well.
2. You must get away from the tourist areas.
quietstreetYouíll need to spend some time in tourist central (AKA St. Markís Square) because it is the sight in the city, but youíll want to get more than a few blocks away from that and the other tourist magnets for most of your stay. Wander. Get lost. No, really - get absolutely and completely lost. Whatís the worst that can happen? You are on islands, you cannot wander so far that youíll never get back again, and you will stumble upon the most interesting parts of the city this way.
When youíre through wandering aimlessly, just ask someone how to get back to St. Markís, or the Rialto Bridge, or the train station, or whatever major landmark is close to your hotel and from which you can navigate back to familiar ground. Keep asking the same directions from people you pass until you get where you want to go. Youíll get lost again doing this, because thereís more than one way back to where you came from, but youíll get there. Just be patient. Which brings me toÖ
3. You must be patient.
lostVenice requires time. Donít have a set agenda. In fact, youíll need to have as much unstructured time as possible, because youíll get lost even when youíre already lost. And getting frustrated that youíre getting lost doesnít help you enjoy your vacation or think kindly of the city in which youíre fumbling. The key is to enjoy the getting lost part - which is infinitely easier to do if you arenít trying to get somewhere or keep to a schedule.
Itís good to note the Venetian addresses are seriously unhelpful if youíre ďnot from around these partsĒ and donít know the city like the back of your hand. Theyíre basically the name of the district (i.e. Canareggio) and the number on the building - but usually donít include a street name of any kind. For hunting down exact locations, Iíve found this website to be extraordinarily helpful (itís the same one used by the Venice tourism office!) - just mark the spot on a good map (I mean really good, very detailed - the tourism office sells excellent city maps for a euro or two) and youíre off.
If youíve made dinner reservations in a spot thatís difficult to find, leave a little extra time when you set out to re-find it. If youíre trying to catch your train out of the city, take the easy route and hop on a vaporetto thatíll drop you off right in front of the station rather than trying to negotiate the winding back-alleys. And, above all, donít blame Venice if you get lost. Sheís been the same confusingly-laid-out city for centuries, she didnít do this just to piss you off.
4. You must see Venice at her best.
loversIn addition to getting well away from the day-tripper hordes, this means that youíve got to either get up early or stay out later in order to see the city when she is - in a sense - naked to the world. Itís at these times when Venice is peaceful, before the cruise ships have docked in the morning or after theyíve left for the day, when the crowds arenít drowning out all the natural noises of the city.
I prefer the mornings, when the only people out are the workers who are sweeping away yesterdayís refuse or the vendors setting up their market stallsÖ But nights are nice in a different way - when the last pairs of lovers are making their way back from dinner to their hotel, a few gondolas are giving the last evening rides of the day, and the fog rolls in to shroud everything in a not-so-cozy (but oh-so-beautiful) blanket. If you canít hear the sound of the quiet canals lapping at the walls of crumbling homes over the din of people, then youíre missing out.
5. You must steer clear of awful food.
seafoodThis is harder to do than the other points on this list, because how do you know if you havenít tasted it yet? But there are things you can do to help minimize the chances of getting stuck with bad food in Venice.
* If the restaurantís menu is translated into several languages, this is a yellow flag.
* If the restaurant is in a very touristy area, this is a yellow flag.
* If the place advertises quintessentially Italian (but decidedly not Venetian) dishes like pizza, this is a yellow flag.
* If the restaurant has a waiter out front luring in patrons, this is a yellow flag.
* If the only patrons are tourists, this is a very serious red flag.
Find places that are on weird back streets and which seem to be full of locals. Find places serving up local dishes (seafood, risotto, etc.). Carry a copy of ďThe Hungry Traveler: ItalyĒ with you and learn what to look for on a Venetian menu. Will you be guaranteed a great meal? No. But youíll stand a much better chance with these tips than without them.