Five alternatives to Venice for an Italian city break

Venice casts a captivating spell on travellers. But echoes of the floating city can be found elsewhere in Italy — destinations that could potentially offer relief to overcrowded Venice, too.

By Julia Buckley
Published 11 Jun 2022, 06:03 BST
Located at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon, Chioggia is getting more and more popular ...

Located at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon, Chioggia is getting more and more popular as an alternative to Venice.

Photograph by Getty Images

Venice is sinking. Not just literally, into the lagoon, but also proverbially, under the weight of overtourism. The latter to such an extent that next year, local authorities plan to introduce an entry fee for day-trippers in a bid to reduce visitor numbers. They have a way to go, though — high season can see over 150,000 visitors to the city a day, dwarfing Venice’s resident population of 50,000. 

To some, this state of play spells an end to the dream Venetian getaway — but it doesn’t need to. To many, it’s the ultimate romantic city. Threaded with canals and dotted with grand palazzos, it’s captured the hearts of visitors for centuries — but that’s not to say you can’t find echoes of it in other Italian cities. So, if you’ve been inspired by the ‘floating city’ and want to visit somewhere similar — only without the crowds — we’ve a few ideas for an Italian, waterside city break.

1. Chioggia

Located at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon, Chioggia is becoming more and more popular as an alternative to Venice. Be aware, though, that this isn’t quite the mini Venice you might think from photos. Rather, it’s something totally different — but equally fascinating. In fact, the only similarity Chioggia has with Venice is its canal network, rippling through the town, and crisscrossed by pretty bridges.

Instead, Chioggia is working fishing town. Forget the rarefied hush of Venice — this is a place where life is lived loudly. Cars, as well as foot passengers, cross the bridges, and chunky fishing boats are parked up in the canals, instead of gondolas. Don’t expect countless museums: Chioggia is a place to live the lagoon as locals do (in fact, the best way to get here is with the summer vaporetto from the Venice Lido, which cuts through waters that only fishermen usually ply).

Of course, there’s Venetian history — from the Lion of Saint Mark adorning the city gates to the Vittore Carpaccio painting in the Church of San Domenico. But really, Chioggia is all about lagoon life.

Where to stay: Palazzo Carlo Goldoni is a plush, three-room residence set in a 16th-century palazzo. Former illustrious Venetian guests include playwright Carlo Goldoni and Renaissance artist Rosalba Carriera. From £90, B&B.

There are more similarities between Venice and Genoa than first meet the eye — perhaps that’s the reason these two have been feuding for centuries.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Genoa

There are more similarities between Venice and Genoa than first meet the eye — perhaps that’s the reason these two have been feuding for centuries. In medieval times, the two cities battled to be the port of choice for pilgrims heading to Jerusalem; today, they’re still two of the biggest ports in Italy. But move inwards from Genoa’s bustling port and you’ll find a maze-like tangle of narrow, medieval alleyways, full of hidden artistic treasures that are best experienced when you stumble across them by chance. Sound familiar? That’s because, like Venice, Genoa still lives its history, instead of putting it into museums. Grand palazzos, built for Renaissance nobility, now house shops (like Via Garibaldi 12) and bars (try Les Rouges). Look up wherever you walk, and you’ll see grand balustrades, neoclassical columns and balconies built to overlook the water, glittering in the distance. For your own sea view, take the art nouveau public lift to the Castelletto neighbourhood, where you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the Med glinting like diamonds.

There’s art galore, too — from the Strada Nuova Museums (three neighbouring palazzos turned into fabulous galleries) to the Van Dycks and Tintorettos at Palazzo Spinola, and Palazzo Reale, the art- and hall of mirrors-filled Royal Palace Museum, which gives Venice’s Doge’s Palace a real run for its money. And if you like cicchetti, Venice’s bar snacks, you’ll love Genoa — it’s Italy’s street food capital.

Where to stay: Le Nuvole is a tiny hotel set in a Renaissance palazzo with a frescoed facade. From £98, B&B.

Like Venice, Palermo has culture oozing from every pore.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Palermo

For an absolute rush of coastal culture with as strong an identity as Venice’s, you need the Sicilian capital. Sometimes, Palermo feels as crowded as the lagoon city on its busiest days — but the good thing about that is it’s almost always locals piling into the streets. And just as laconic Venetians couldn’t come from anywhere else, neither could the Palermitani, as they chatter in rapid-fire dialect and chow down on arancine (ragu-filled rice balls: the equivalent of Venetian cicchetti) with the swagger that comes from knowing few cities compare to theirs.

Like Venice, Palermo has culture oozing from every pore. This is a place whose history is as stratified as that of Venetian palazzos, layered up from the lagoon bed. It’s still influenced by its former Arab and Norman rulers — the sweet and spicy food comes from the former, and much of the architecture from the latter. It’s a place of spectacular churches, just like Venice – Norman-built Monreale Cathedral, with its glittering Byzantine-style mosaics, is easily the equal of Saint Mark’s Basilica.

But most of all, Palermo — like Venice — is about atmosphere. Sure, it’s a totally different kind of atmosphere — chaotic, loud, ebullient and warm — but it’s unmistakeable. This is a great post-pandemic city break, as it’ll jolt you back into life.

Where to stay: Palazzo Planeta is the Palermo pied-à-terre of the Planetas, one of Sicily’s foremost winemaking families. From £132, B&B.

Winter is when Venice is at its most romantic, and the same goes for Parma.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Parma

Winter is when Venice is at its most romantic. The mist rolls in off the Adriatic and swirls around the city, enveloping you in a wild embrace. The same goes for Parma; the Po river — on whose banks the city is built — sends great waves of mist and fog across the Po plain, which wraps itself around the city in a postcard-perfect way. You like Venice for its history? You’re in luck — Parma has mind-blowing sites, like the 12th-century yet startlingly modern-looking, pink-hued Baptistery of Parma, inside which medieval sculptures representing the months and the seasons whirl you straight back to the past. Then there’s Parma Cathedral, dating from the same era, with two sculpted lions propping up the front door plus beautifully carved zodiac signs and a calendar of the months over the main entrance. A few minutes’ walk from here, you’ll find Palazzo della Pilotta, a wonderfully eerie castle-palace complex that was abandoned before its completion. Today, amid the half-built walls is a top-notch gallery sporting works by the likes of Canaletto and Leonardo da Vinci, plus the 16th-century Teatro Farnese, one of only three Renaissance theatres left in the world, built entirely from wood.

Of course, Parma’s best known for its prosciutto, and that winter mist helps curing it to perfection. Makers leave windows open in their larders to help the humidity speed up the process.

Where to stay: Overlooking the cathedral — so close, you’ll feel you can almost reach out and touch it — you’ll be cantilevered over its sculptures when you stay at La Terrazza sul Duomo, a gloriously chic B&B. From £245, B&B.

5. Trieste

At first glance, Trieste feels like a more modern Venice: a spectacular seafront square, a life lived on water, and even a grand canal, scything through the city centre. But stay a little longer, and you’ll realise that, actually, there’s an atmosphere here that hasn’t been felt in Venice for a while — that element of serenity that La Serenissima, as Venice is known, relinquished when she began to suffer from mass tourism.

Here in Trieste, though, there’s a stillness that’s existed since the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This had been its booming port — and when Trieste became Italian after the First World War, the city went into decline. As a traveller, though, that’s exactly what you want — a quiet city with frothy architecture, which makes it a mini Vienna, with none of the hustle of a European capital. There’s a little Roman amphitheatre, tucked just behind the main square, plus a medieval fortress overlooking the city and the water beyond it, which is stuffed full of ancient Roman remains.

But, like Venice, this is a city built on water. Although there’s just that one main canal, everything points to the sparkling, ever-still Gulf of Trieste — from the main square, Piazza Unità d’Italia, with its frothy, wedding-cake buildings, to Miramare Castle, hovering over a marine reserve five miles north of the city. Venice has its beaches on the Lido, but Trieste covers those five miles to Miramare with a waterfront walkway, where locals unroll their towels on the rocks and clamber down ladders into the crystalline water. There are private, pebbly beaches within the city centre, too.

Where to stay: Residenza le 6 A is a lovely, upmarket B&B whose rooms — all beginning with ‘a’ — are named after female protagonists of the novels of Trieste local Italo Svevo. From £64, B&B.

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