Piazza San Marco is NEVER crowded if you know how to schedule your visit. It would be a pity to leave the Piazza out, or not being able to take in its beauty during your visit just because it’s too crowded. In the next three blog posts, I’m offering you a virtual guide on how to spend a marvelous three days in Venice, but with a focus: The coffee houses. Visiting coffee houses implies you’re here for breakfast – and these criteria may give new insights into a Venice you miss on a hit-and-run visit. In this first part of the series, I’d like to show you around virtually the way I would if you came to Venice.
The FAMOUS coffee houses of Venice center around the Piazza and yes, they may be expensive, but they’re worth it, taking in the Piazza at a time of the day when it’s not crowded. Then there are the POPULAR cafes, I mean those much loved by the Venetians. Again, come at the right time of the day and you’ll meet the Venetians. You’ll be able to see – and ask of course – what they love to eat and drink. These coffeehouses are part of their daily life, while you’ll find not too many locals sipping tea in the first category. Category #3 is the TRENDY coffee houses. They are trendy because Venetians love them, because they’re in an exclusive location offering an exclusive view, or simply, because they are setting trends in pastry making and/or coffee flavors, or because they are taking up antique trends and thus present to you a Venice of other, forgotten times.
DAY ONE: We’ll start your visit in the early morning. Come before eight o’clock on a sunny day, and you’ll have the Giardinetti Reali to yourselves. These are the gardens next to the Piazza, shielded by pittosporum and pine trees. In early summer, elderflower, acacia and pittosporum will scent this copse next to the Piazza and you’ll be mesmerized by the voices of the birds. So relaxing to breathe in deeply, and then continue your walk to Piazza San Marco – for that’s how you’ll experience at the early hours on a summer day:
Chances are you won’t be seeing so many crowds if you come at 08:00 am. The above is one of my favorite videos revealing the atmosphere of a summer morning – take at least a look at the first part, dedicated to Piazza San Marco. This is a video by Venizavion, voted by the Venetian daily il Gazzettino the “most beautiful video on Venice”. Check out Venizavion’s Page here.
In the early morning, you’ll be able to explore the mosaics and pavements of the Piazza too, which are laid out in an artistic manner – as you can see in the video and the picture on the left. Then, do sit down and have breakfast on the Piazza. I’d do it under the arcades, on the soft black leather seats at Caffé Florian. Every year, they add new coffee specialties to their menu, though personally, I’d start a perfect day with tasting their rose-flavored tea té alla rosa venexiana and a plate of biscotti assortiti (Venetian biscuits such as zaleti).
If you are in the mood for chocolate, they have a special summer drink you shouldn’t miss – cioccolata alla menta – mint-liquor flavored chocolate. Yes, even if it is a hot drink the way it should be in the morning, you’ll notice the refreshing notes of peppermint. I’d then take a cup of one of their coffee specialties, like marocchin or caffé dalmato, which is flavored with maraschino cherry liquor, evocating the common history of Venice and Dalmatia.
By now, a special exhibition just across the Piazza will have opened – where you can marvel at – and receive lots of information – not just on pizzi (lace) from Burano, but from all parts of the lagoon. For there is a lace-making tradition not just on the island of Burano, but also on Pellestrina, and on the mainland – in Stra, Mira etc. You’ll notice all the difference in lace-making fashion and style, and you can also take home a high-quality souvenir to remember, at reasonable prices – despite the prominent location.
Finally, visit the prominent church which is on the other side of the Grand Canal. There’s a gondola tragheto leaving from Calle Vallaresso behind the Piazza to reach the other bank of the Grand Canal and Santa Maria della Salute. Experience this short ride across the Grand Canal, again at a very low price. Imagine how the place is deserted in the summer, while it’s rather crowded on 21 November when Venetians celebrate La Festa della Salute.
Do walk up the marble steps and into its cool interior, and again, take a look at the mosaic-layered floor of the church – you can see it in the picture below. Chances are you’ll have the church rather to yourselves, if no morning mass service is celebrated. Upon returning to the Piazza the same way you came :-) there’s the temptation to take a second breakfast by this time, under the cool arcades.
This time, try a late-morning breakfast spuntino at Caffé Quadri’s cicheti venexiani assortiti – a Venetian mouth-watering antipasto treat. It’s probably just now that you can understand the real meaning of the word ombra – watch how the sunny seats of Caffé Quadri remain empty because it’s far too hot by now, while people move to the shade.2