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Off-Season Venice


To the north and east of the teeming Piazza San Marco is the Castello section, which takes its name from the ancient fortifications that defended the island city. Here, the contrast between the mob scene at San Marco and the tranquillity that reigns only yards away is most dramatic.

From the front of the Basilica of San Marco, follow Calle Canonica around the church's north side and cross Rio Canonica o Palazzo. Just south of the bridge (toward the Canal of San Marco) you can visit the soothing Romanesque cloister of Sant'Apollonia (Chiastro Sant'Apollonia, Castello 4312; 522-9166), which is rarely intruded upon by sightseers. Walk east one block to Calle degli Albanesi and you'll find Bonifacio (Castello 4237; 522-7507), a bar that may well make the best Americano (sweet vermouth, bitters, and soda) in the city that invented this refreshing drink; they cost far less than at the bars on San Marco.

Back up the block, at the eastern corner of Campo Santi Filippo e Giacomo, is a building made of thin, Roman-style bricks (circa 1755) that was Venice's first speculative rental apartment house, a landmark in the emergence of the middle class. On the north side of the plaza, hidden by a kiosk crammed with souvenirs, is Aciughetta (Castello 4357; 522-4292), a snack bar whose name-- "little anchovy"-- modestly underplays the fact that some fine servings of that savory fish can be found here.

Walking east out of the plaza, you'll pass the cramped Corte Nuova, delicately renamed from its more graphic original tag, Calle Vespasiani, or "street of pissoirs." Straight ahead, under a beautiful carved-stone Gothic archway, is the Church of San Zaccaria (Campo San Zaccaria). It was the first Renaissance-style sanctuary to be built in the city, begun in 1444 and completed in 1515. Its geometric marble cladding does not conceal the older Gothic apse, and the still earlier Romanesque floor plan remains obvious, making the church a veritable palimpsest of architectural styles.

In front of the church, turn right and head up Fondamenta dell'Osmarin, along Rio di San Provolo. Directly across the canal from number 4972 is the Palazzo Priuli, where Henry James set his evocative Venetian novella The Aspern Papers. Continue east until you reach Rio dei Greci; cross the bridge here and turn right. The Museo delle Icone (Fondamenta dei Greci, Castello 3412; 522-6581) is a trove of Byzantine icons housed in the Scuola di San NicolÚ dei Greci, designed by Baldassare Longhena, architect of the renowned Church of Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal.

Returning to the bridge, turn right onto Calle della Madonna. Down the street that angles off to the right, a simple, inexpensive pasta lunch can be had at Trattoria Da Remigio (Salizzada dei Greci, Castello 3416; 523-0089; lunch for two $60). After crossing over the next canal (Rio della PietÀ), turn left onto Fondamenta dei Furlani, then right onto Calle dei Furlani. Here is the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (Castello 3259A; 522-8828), with its justly celebrated murals by Vittore Carpaccio. Though hardly undiscovered, they are simply too wonderful to pass by.

Turn right outside the scuola, then right again at the end of the block, and you'll find Arcimboldo (Calle dei Furlani, Castello 3219; 528-6569; dinner for two $90), a stylish restaurant named for the 16th-century artist who painted surrealistic fantasies of fruits and vegetables in human forms.

Now proceed north up Ramo San Francesco, crossing the canal, until you reach Campo della Chiesa and the larger Campo della ConfraternitÀ beyond it. The pink-stucco structure crossing the square is a 19th-century passageway that allowed monks to move from one cloistered building to another without encountering worldly temptations.

Directly above the Campo della ConfraternitÀ, with an influential façade by Andrea Palladio, is the majestic yet seldom visited Church of San Francesco della Vigna. Pay special attention to the limpid marble bas-reliefs in the chapel, just to the left of the high altar; these are the work of the Lombardo family, the city's greatest Renaissance sculptors. And in a chapel through a doorway farther to the left is Giovanni Bellini's deeply moving painting Madonna and Child with Saints, a 1507 masterpiece equal to any of the Bellinis in the Accademia. The church's cloisters are among the quietest spots in Venice.


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