Venice is a city unlike any other. No matter how often you've seen it in photos and films, the real thing is more dreamlike than you could imagine. With canals where streets should be, water shimmers everywhere. The fabulous palaces and churches reflect centuries of history in what was a wealthy trading center between Europe and the Orient. Getting lost in the narrow alleyways is a quintessential part of exploring Venice, but at some point you'll almost surely end up in Piazza San Marco, where tourists and locals congregate for a coffee or an aperitif.
Dining options in Venice range from the ultra-high end, where jackets and ties are a must, to the very casual. Once staunchly traditional, many restaurants have renovated their menus along with their dining rooms, creating dishes that blend classic Venetian elements with ingredients less common to the lagoon environs.
Mid-range restaurants are often more willing to make the break, offering innovative options while keeping traditional dishes available as mainstays. Restaurants are often quite small with limited seating, so make sure to reserve ahead. It's not uncommon for restaurants to have two seatings per evening, one at 7 and one at 9.
Venetian magic can still linger when you retire for the night, whether you're staying in a grand hotel or budget locanda (inn). Some of the finest Venetian hotel rooms are lighted with Murano chandeliers and swathed in famed fabrics of Rubelli and Bevilacqua, with gilded mirrors and furnishing styles from baroque to Biedermeier and art deco.
Though more-contemporary decor is working its way into renovation schemes, you still may find the prized Venetian terrazzo flooring and canal views in more-modest pensioni. Your window will open, sometimes onto a balcony, so you may enjoy gondoliers' serenades, watch the ebb and flow of city life in the campo (square) below, or simply contemplate what the lack of motor traffic permits you to hear, or not hear.
Your first impression may well be that Venice doesn't have a nightlife. As the last rays of daylight slip away, so, too, do most signs of a bustling town. Boat traffic drops to the occasional vaporetto, shutters roll down, and signs go dark. Even though bacari (wine bars) would seem to be natural after-hours gathering spots, most close before 9 pm.
But boulevardiers, flaneurs, and those who simply enjoy a little after-dinner entertainment can take heart. Sprinkled judiciously around the city's residential-looking calli and campi (streets and squares), you'll stumble upon locali (nightspots) that stay open until 1 or 2 am. Some even offer live music, though rarely past midnight—a city noise ordinance prohibits too much wildness except during Carnevale. Though there are no suitable venues for rock shows, Piazza San Marco has hosted some less-rambunctious concerts on summer evenings.
Both private and city museums regularly host major traveling art exhibits, from ancient to contemporary. Classical music buffs can rely on a rich season of concerts, opera, chamber music, and some ballet. Smaller venues and churches offer performances that often highlight Venetian and Italian composers. Though the city has no English-language theater, during Carnevale you'll find foreign companies that perform in their mother tongue. All films screened at the Venice Film Festival (some in an ad-hoc amphitheater constructed in Campo San Polo) in late summer are shown in the original language, with subtitles in English, Italian, or both.
It’s no secret that Venice offers some excellent shopping opportunities, but the best of them are often not the most conspicuous. Look beyond the ubiquitous street vendors and the hundreds of virtually indistinguishable purse, glass, and lace shops that line the calli, and you’ll discover a bounty of unique and delightful treasures—some might be kitschy, but much will show off the high level of craftsmanship for which Venice has long been known.
Alluring shops abound. You'll find countless vendors of trademark Venetian wares such as Murano glass and Burano lace; the authenticity of some goods can be suspect, but they're often pleasing to the eye regardless of their heritage. For more sophisticated tastes (and deeper pockets), there are jewelers, antiques dealers, and high-fashion boutiques on a par with those in Italy's larger cities but often maintaining a uniquely Venetian flair. Don’t ignore the contemporary, either: Venice's artisan heritage lives on in the hand and eye of the today’s designers—no matter where they hail from.
While the labyrinthine city center can seem filled with imposing high-fashion emporiums and fancy glass shops, individual craftspeople often working off the main thoroughfares produce much of what is worth taking home from Venice. In their workshops artful stationery is printed with antique plates; individual pairs of shoes are adroitly constructed; jewelry is handcrafted; fine fabrics are skillfully woven; bronze is poured to make gondola décor, and iron is worked into fanali lanterns; paper is glued, pressed, and shaped into masks; and oars and forcola oarlocks are hewn and sculpted in the workshops of remér wood craftsmen.