Venice must be seen with your feet. Apart from an occasional vaporetto, a water taxi, to a nearby island in the lagoon or a love-cruise on a gondola through the crumbling canals, one must tackle the ancient, enigmatic city on foot.
No cars. No mopeds. No metro.
Like most european cities, Venice was founded before the advent of automobiles but holds the rare honor of remaining without them. Labyrinthine streets and high-arched bridges are navigable by sure-footed humans only, sometimes just leaving room for single file through narrow alleyways. The water-filled canals, Venice's signature attraction, are used almost exclusively by gondoliers singing Volare for love-birds, never for transportation. As such, miles of tangled streets, paved with uneven cobble-stone, twist and turn seemingly at random but must be traversed in order to get anywhere. Streets seem to shift and change daily. You will never find the way to your hotel the same way twice. As you spend time in Venice, something iconic about the city will emerge:
You are always lost until you arrive at your destination. And somehow, you always make it there.
These days, Venice has very few native Venetians left and relies primarily on tourism to survive as the city literally sinks into the lagoon. And only a third of those tourists ever stay more than just for the day. Like the tide, they flow in come morning and flow out again at night. Expensive restaurants and carnivale mask shops are set up to trap tourists all along the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge during their quick day trip through Venice. After your first pass through this area: stay away. Dispose of your indecipherable map and see where the wind leads. The city is filled with secrets and more often than not your path will take you over a far-flung bridge to nowhere leaving you stranded and, legs heavy and brow damp with sweat, looking for relief.
There are three flavors to your salvation: caffeine (cappuccinos), alcohol (spritz, a bitter, local drink made with prosecco and campari) or food (cicchetti). You will come to know and love cicchetti if you spend time in Venice. It is Italy's version of Spanish tapas. For one euro each, you get a thick round of sliced bread topped with just about anything you'd see in a typical dish, but bite-sized, with a wooden toothpick poked through to hold your meal together.
Smoked salmon over soft ricotta. Broiled cod with fresh pesto. Salami on hard cheese. Roasted peppers and onions cook with herbs. Roast beef. Something delicious paired with something else delicious.
Two bites and you keep walking.
In a city where extensive foot travel is mandatory, finding the best cicchetti spots becomes paramount to one's survival. On just about every corner, you will find this street food sold in restaurants, bars, cafes, and even, it sometimes appears, out of the back of a Venetian's home. They are a perfect pick-me-up for the tired traveler, an appetizer before going out, or a simple compliment to a glass of wine. Cicchetti are a simple pleasure, but they will get you through the day (or night).
In one of the last truly mysterious cities of the modern age where a new adventure lies around every crooked corner, save your money on pricey museums and just explore. Pick a direction and wander with the assurance that you will stumble upon something far greater than what you might have been searching for.
And there will always be cicchetti.
This post was originally featured on the travel blog Explore There.