Venice is synonymous with romance, art and architecture but not fantastic food. If you want to find the best eats, beat the crowds and avoid getting ripped off, you’ll need a Venice food tour like Intrepid Urban Adventures’ Cicchetti & Wine Tour of Venice.
You will probably still get lost but that’s part of the fun. In fact, our guide said that in Venice there’s no better way to truly discover the heart of the city.
Finding great food in Venice can be tricky due to the sheer number of visitors. With around 30,000 per day, most of whom are only in town for 24 to 48 hours, it’s not surprising there aren’t many return customers at cafes, bars and restaurants along the city’s main thoroughfares.
There are plenty of great drinking and dining spots which are favoured by the locals, but most of these are tucked away down back alleys or hidden in secluded squares. You just have to know how to find them, and that’s why you need a guide.
Cicchetti is unique to the Venetian language and refers to small snacks or side dishes, typically served in traditional “bàcari” (cicchetti bars or osterie) in Venice. It is a similar concept to Spanish tapas, although of course the cuisine is Italian rather than Spanish.
You can make a meal of cicchetti by ordering multiple plates or share a few with drinks at a bar before going out to dinner. Cicchetti can be sliced meats, seasonal specialties such as artichokes or truffle, pickled vegetables or other classic Italian specialties, and they are delicious.
This visit to Venice was very different to my first one in 2003 when tourist numbers were modest and the cost of a panini almost had me taking out a second mortgage. I have to admit to dining at a few fast food places rather than the restaurants in St Marks Square.
Things have changed and now Venice is more popular than ever with an abundant supply of cafes, restaurants and wine bars on almost every corner. The trick is knowing where to find the good ones.
We met our Intrepid Urban Adventures‘ guide Simona in one of the quieter areas of Venice at the church of Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena.
This is in the suburb of Cannaregio, just a few steps away from the busy Venice thoroughfares but near an area that is popular with locals. Simona was a local and gave us a quick briefing about the places we would visit around Venice.
There were five bars in total and all of them were locally run. She was a great guide with a ready smile and lots of energy and explained about what life is like in Venice, with and without the tourists, and about the art of getting lost.
She loves Venice but not at peak times, as even for her it gets a bit overwhelming, or when it floods and you need galoshes and have to take careful steps.
As we wandered down the paved walkway adjacent to a busy canal, Simona pointed out all the different boats and explained the way of life in Venice and why things are more expensive there.
Firstly, she explained that Venice is built on a forest of tree trunks buried in mud, which don’t rot because no air or bacteria can get to the wood so everything in Venice can still stand.
Simona then told us that the reason things are more expensive is because everything must be delivered by boat then transported by trolleys to businesses and homes. This is dependent on tides and timing as boats can’t move under the many bridges at high tide so there are no deliveries then.
As we were in Venice and on a tour with a local, we also got to try the local’s transport: the traghetto. This is basically a very large gondola rowed by two gondoliers that traverses the Grand Canal.
Simona gave us instructions on how to board and sit in the gondola which is not such an easy task. With lots of squeals from the ladies on our tour (and a few of the gents), we quickly took our seats as the boat swayed from side to side, threatening to throw us all into the water.
Thankfully the gondoliers were as patient as they were experienced and soon had us safely seated and good to go for the quick ride across the canal.
The one local passenger onboard our gondola waved away the offer of a seat and stood up like a pro as the gondolier cast off and had us across the canal in minutes.
Simona told us that if we wanted to ride the traghetto again during our stay, there are six traghetto stations in Venice, mostly used by the locals, and each ride costs only two euros.
We got off the traghetto at the Mercati di Rialto or fish market. This was closed as it only operates from 7.30am until midday for the locals, selling everything from fresh fish to vegetables and local produce.
Simona pointed out the historic marble sign which showed the minimum size for every fish. She also told us that it’s best to avoid ordering seafood in Venice on Mondays as that’s when the market is closed which means the fish you get that day won’t be fresh.
We were soon back into the bustling laneways and ready for our first cicchetti at a place called “WEnice”. This café and delicatessen sold a stunning selection of local, seasonal produce displayed in glass cabinets.
We were invited to choose one item, such as marinated artichokes, grilled vegetables or scallops. My seafood loving son was adventurous and went for squid with black ink served on polenta which he pronounced ‘delicious!’.
I settled on the marinated artichokes as they were in season. Our snacks were excellent and accompanied by a stunning Prosecco sparkling wine.
A great thing about this tour is that it’s capped at around a dozen people which makes for a nice, intimate group. Everyone is interested in food and wine, so everyone gets along.
Make sure you wear very comfy shoes as there is a lot of walking and standing as most of the places on the tour are very small with only a few seats. This means you have to stand outside (even in winter!) as the tiny bars and osterias are too small to accommodate a group.
We were soon off again to our next tasting via many twisting laneways and arrived at Al Sacro E Profano, another local’s hangout. This cosy Venetian wine bar served traditional cicchetti, plus a range of regional wines like red raboso.
Simona told us ‘raboso’ means ‘angry’ which is the screwed up face some people make when they taste it as the wine is very tannic. She also showed us where to find good wine on tap from £2.20 for one litre. BYO soft drink bottle or any other container and fill it up like the locals do.
Simona was fantastic at navigating the seemingly endless labyrinth of laneways and alleys leading into vibrant squares and local hideaways.
For the next hour we bounced between small bars and restaurants sampling more stunning wine and freshly made dishes such as risotto with spring vegetables or fresh bread with sliced truffle with quail egg.
We also learned about different types of Italian wine and drank plenty of them along the way too. Sometimes the tour felt a bit rushed, or perhaps it was just me not being used to drinking each glass of wine so quickly.
However, even if you don’t have time to finish every glass it doesn’t matter as there is always another one to enjoy at the next bar.
As the time passed (and the wine flowed), everyone relaxed and took in the local sights, sounds and smells of the ‘real’ Venice such as locals laughing, glasses clinking and children playing in nearby squares plus the smell of fresh pasta dishes being whisked to nearby tables.
The only problem we faced now was being able to retrace our steps the following day so we could revisit all the great bars and osterias and the amazing gelato shop called SuSo which Simona pointed out at the end of our tour.
Simona finished by explaining her most important tip for tourists in Venice and that is to make sure you have the time to get lost and find your own special places. Easy, I say!
I always get lost when I’m overseas but nothing is better than getting lost in such a beautiful city filled with so many wonderful hidden spots to discover. Especially now we knew how to go about finding them.
Disclosure: The writer was a guest of Intrepid Urban Adventures. Her son paid for his tour and was equally impressed.
If you are passing through Rome while you’re in Italy and looking for things to do, we enjoyed touring the Colosseum and also our food tours around Campo di Fiore and Trasevere. If you want something a little different, check out these Rome hidden secrets.