This is the tenth in an eleven-part series covering my June/July 2019 trip to Slovenia and Venice. You can read my last post, reviewing my stay at the Hotel Gritti Palace, here. You can also check out some photos and video of my ride down the Grand Canal here.
Venice is very pretty. Unfortunately, everything you’ve heard about the crowds, particularly in summer, is true. A 1.5 day staying around San Marco in July was just awful. The crowds made everything, including walking, unbearable. It was like the crowds at Disney World the week of Christmas everywhere you turned. The main sights had hours-long lines, and many of the food places I had been recommended were packed, and what I could find was disgusting tourist schlock. I did have some interesting and/or enjoyable experiences though. And I didn’t get to Lido or Murano, or some of the less congested areas in my short stay (or the Bienniale), so I’d actually consider returning…just not in July.
My exploration started at around 1pm on Friday afternoon, after my half-day’s journey from Piran and a refresh at the Gritti Palace. The Gritti Palace is in the San Marco neighborhood, and within a few blocks of the hotel I was hit by the throngs of tourists, mostly from North America and Asia but also other parts of Europe. It was very hot, and I decided right away I wasn’t going to try to the brave the crowds to make it into the most famous sights: Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Campanile—even with a timed, advanced ticket. I did at least walk through the Piazza San Marco. I also stopped into some random Bienniale exhibition spaces—I do regret not going to the main Bienniale spaces, which were a bit farther out of the area.
I wandered to one place I had been recommended to eat at, Rosticceria Gislon, but it was packed and I couldn’t even find counter space. I tried to find a few other places using Google Maps, but none had seats, and finally I just wandered into one that looked fine, and had air conditioning and a table- Ristorante Al Corner. They had a 15 EUR tourist menu, which I later learned you should never order. It was terrible. I couldn’t even eat my black squid ink spaghetti or calamari, and the bread was stale. I was already over it.
I walked around some more and the situation could be best summed up in the following three pictures:
I napped and tried to get less cranky, before heading out for an “Airbnb Experience” I had booked. Airbnb experiences are basically excursions you book through Airbnb, and the idea, like that of Airbnb lodging originally, is that they are more authentic and run by locals, not tourist companies. There had been a promo in the spring for $25 off, so I figured I’d try one. I booked a “Bacaro tour with a Venetian,” which included stops at four of the Venetian bars known as Bacaro, with a glass of wine and a cicchetti – think Venetian tapas or pinxtos—at each one.
I actually really enjoyed the tour. It was in Cannaregio, outside of the nonsense that is San Marco, and the places were mostly local ones. Natale, our guide, was in his late-20s and indeed a native Venetian, and was able to explain a bit about the scene and the city. The other members of my group were all Americans, and their aversion to “new” tastes was kind of hilarious. I say new because nothing we ate was particularly strange. Our first cicchetti was a classic – sarde in saor, a sweet and sour sardine eaten on toast—and the way they looked at it you would think it was monkey’s brain. I dug it. My favorite was the deep-fried meatballs though.
After four glasses of wine, I was a bit tipsy. Natale gave me a dinner recommendation, Casa Mia, where I ordered poorly. The pizzas all looked great, but for some reason I did seafood lasagna. Natale also sent a list of other recommended restaurants, which proved more successful. He also was the first of two people to tell me not to go to any restaurant that has photos in the menu, or that has a menu of more than two languages.
On day two, I started with a 10:30am Free Venice Tour, which was good as it explicitly did not cover the most common tourist sights in town. It was still a large group, though, of 34 people, but I got to see some more interesting parts of town, escorted by Simona, a Lithuanian woman who had been living in Venice for 20 years. It was a nice dose of history for two hours – although it was hot and some of the other tourists were a nightmare.
I also had a negative experience in that I got a phone call from the restaurant I was supposed to have dinner at that night and had been really looking forward to, Covino. The guy said there was a glitch, and they were overbooked, so he would accommodate me at a discount the next day. I wasn’t available the next day, of course. But he said I was the last booking and so would have to be bumped. He said he’d call me if someone else canceled. Annoying, and I thought it was the end of it, but just you wait…
After the tour, I went to my only great meal in Venice, at Osteria al Portego, a place on Natale’s list of recommendations. It was not geared towards tourists, and had an Italian only menu on the chalkboard. There was a bar where you could get wine and cicchetti, but I sat down and enjoyed my book and air conditioning. To start, I had a buffalo mozzarella in gazpacho which was incredible. For my main, I ordered pappardelle with ragu d’asino, which I assumed was some sort of pork. Reader, it was donkey. But it tasted like any other meat sauce and was pretty good. Both courses and some red wine set me back about 33,50 EUR.
I then grabbed some delicious gelato at La Boutique Del Gelato before fighting through the crowds more and going back to rest at the hotel rather than check out the Lido or anything. If it had been the beginning of my trip, or a little cooler, I would’ve pushed myself to do more. But it wasn’t.
Dinner was at Al Giardenetto, booked by my hotel concierge after Covino canceled my reservation. It was…fine. It was extremely touristy, but had a large courtyard where it least cooler. It wasn’t too expensive, with pastas at about 12 to 13 EUR, and meats at 18 to 23 EUR. I asked the waiter for recommendations, as everything sounded like Italian food for Americans. He recommended the gnocchi Bolognese, which I did along with the veal scaloppini. Neither was particularly flavorful, and the portions were fairly small. The meal also took forever as service was extraordinarily slow, and I couldn’t even get a second glass of wine. Over an hour and twenty minutes for two courses. There was an extremely loud Canadian family next to me which didn’t help. It was in all a very disappointing meal, especially since it came out to be the most expensive meal of my entire trip – still only 39,50 EUR. I supplemented with gelato at Jack on the way back to my hotel.
While I was finishing dinner, I saw missed calls on my cell phone…. from CoVino, the restaurant that canceled on me and led me to eating a not good meal. As I was getting back to the Gritti Palace, o then emailed me with a credit card slip for 30 EUR (I’d guaranteed the reservation), saying I was a no-show. I immediately emailed back in protest, but the guy dug in his heels, saying he only “asked” me to move my reservation, and he would have sat me at a dinner table with other diners, and there must have been a “miscommunication.” He insisted he “had” to charge me. Of course, he hadn’t planned for me to be there, since hours earlier he had told me he was overbooked, there was no lost revenue or empty chairs. I ended up doing a chargeback after providing all the documentation to Chase. Not a pleasant end to my underwhelming visit to Venice.
I’m sure there are ways to have a charming stay in Venice. It is a physically stunning place. But July in San Marco was pretty unenjoyable.