Visitors to Venice can't help swooning over its romantic palazzi, bridge-crossed canals, and who-cares-if-you-lose-your-way streets. But many end up swooning for different reasons when faced with the city's touristy restaurants, kitschy souvenirs, and fancy hotels. Fortunately, there are ways to see La Serenissima without draining your bank account. Learn to live like a Venetian, and you'll find that the city's greatest pleasures—from shopping at the Rialto market to catching a ferry across the water—are simple, effortlessly stylish, and inexpensive.
LUXE LODGING ON THE CHEAP
Smart travelers come in the low season (mid-November through March; exact dates vary by hotel), when lodging discounts can reach 50 percent. • The Ca' Pisani Hotel (Rio Terà Foscarini, Dorsoduro 979A; 39-041/240-1411, fax 39-041/277-1061; doubles from $227) has vintage 1930's beds and chic bathrooms in eggplant and silver tones. You can even risk opening the mini-bar: the first bottle of water is free. • Each of the 13 rooms at the Locanda San Barnaba (Calle del Traghetto, Dorsoduro 2785—6; 39-041/241-1233, fax 39-041/241-3812; low-season doubles from $125) has one-of-a-kind details, from an 18th-century fresco to a sloping, wood-beamed ceiling. • Venetian Apartments (44-208/878-1130, fax 44-208/878-0982; www.venice-rentals.com) has more than 80 chic properties for rent, such as Sant' Antonin, a studio in the San Marco district with leather sofas and a funky mirrored wardrobe (from $1,150 per week), and Orio Santa Croce, a two-bedroom apartment with three terraces in the oldest part of Venice (from $1,550 per week).
Skip the tourist traps in Piazza San Marco and enjoy real Venetian hangouts around Campo Santa Margherita. Young scene-makers swarm Margaret Duchamp (Dorsoduro 3019; 39-041/528-6255), while the intellectual set prefers the artsy atmosphere at Il Caffè (Dorsoduro 2963; 39-041/528-7998). The e-generation makes for the nearby Café Noir (Campo di San Pantalon, Dorsoduro 3805; 39-041/710-925), where a cappuccino and 30 minutes of Web-surfing can be had for about $4.
MANGIA: VENICE RESTAURANTS
It's not hard to find plenty of reasonably priced places offering the city's distinctive cuisine. At lunchtime and in the early evening, satisfy your hunger pangs with cicchetti, the Venetian version of tapas, perhaps grilled squid or marinated sardines, paired with an ombra (glass of wine). • Bancogiro Osteria da Andrea (Campo San Giacometto, San Polo 122; 39-041/523-2061; dinner for two $50) serves cicchetti, fish, and vegetable platters in a candlelit, vaulted interior. Peek at the Grand Canal out the back windows. • Osteria Ai 4 Feri (Calle Lunga San Barnaba, Dorsoduro 2754A; 39-041/520-6978; dinner for two $50) is always, always packed, with crowds clamoring for the spaghetti in cuttlefish ink. • Craving something other than Italian?Head to Frary's (Fondamenta dei Frari, San Polo 2559; 39-041/720-050; dinner for two $35) for Greek and Arabic dishes cooked up by a Kurdish, Iraqi, and Jordanian kitchen crew.
The Agnelli and Benetton families are fans of Diego Rosettin (Calle del Cappeler, Dorsoduro 3220; 39-041/522-4195), a century-old metal workshop where the young owner crafts jewelry and housewares. Great buys: metal fringe necklaces (from $9) and swirled-glass drawer knobs made in Murano (from $13). • Designer Laura Biagiotti leads the charge to Gianni Dittura (Calle San Vio, Dorsoduro 871; 39-041/523-1163), one of the last remaining vendors of genuine friulane (velvet slippers with pointed toes, made by hand in the Friuli region). Examine the soles—the highest-quality ones are fashioned from bicycle tires (from $12). • Among the haute wares at the new design store Madera (Campo San Barnaba, Dorsoduro 2762; 39-041/522-4181) are streamlined, blown-glass bottles with hand-carved padauk-wood corks by designer and owner Francesca Meratti.
CHIC, CHEAP SOUVENIRS
Il Sapone di Venezia, a handmade soap based on a 16th-century formula, sells for $3 at La Speziarìa de Venezia workshop (Campo dei Tolentini, Santa Croce 200A; 39-041/522-6412; www.speziariadevenezia.com). • Each page of Venice and Food, Sally Spector's hand-written and -illustrated book, is a work of art (Arsenale Editrice, $22; at most bookstores).
With gondola fares fixed at $55 for 50 minutes, it's no surprise that most Venetians use them only for special occasions. An affordable, if less romantic, alternative is to take a traghetto (ferry) across the Grand Canal from one of eight crossing points; try the Santa Sofia ferry at the Rialto market (39-041/522-2844). The packed trip may last only a couple of minutes, but who's counting when you've paid just 40 cents?For a more scenic ride, grab a front seat in the Number 1 or Number 82 vaporetto as it wends its way down the Grand Canal ($2, one way). Savvy visitors book a Venice Card from Biglietteria Vela (Piazzale Roma, Santa Croce 518A; 39-041/271-4747; www.venicecard.it; $23 for one day, $52 for a week; must be purchased 48 hours in advance). With it, you won't have to spend another cent on public water transport.
Even church visits aren't affordable here. But a Chorus Pass from the Foundation for the Churches of Venice (Calle della Passion, San Polo 2986; 39-041/275-0462) allows you to see 15 sites for just $7. And to find out what's going on around town, pick up a free copy of Un Ospite di Venezia, a bilingual events magazine distributed at hotels and tourist offices. Or fork over $2 at a newsstand for Venezia News, which has listings with bizarrely funny English translations.