My next door neighbor has long wanted to visit Venice, and got his chance when his company sent him to Padua (some 25 miles or 39 km west of Venice) for business. He flew into Venice for a four day weekend before heading to Padua. Before leaving, we sat down to plan an itinerary that would give him a real feel for the city in spite of going in the middle of the tourist season.
Of course, I suggested he stay in my beloved Dorsoduro, and so he booked a room at the three star Hotel Agli Alboretti. This is where I stayed in the early years of my travels to Venice, when it was a two star hotel. The Agli Alboretti is a family owned hotel, and provides quiet and clean, if small, rooms for a good price. The reception is generally friendly and hospitable, but when there are many guests waiting to check in, things can get quite hectic. Adjoining the hotel is the Ristorante Agli Alboretti, which the hotel used to own, but has since been sold. I ate at the ristorante often when it was part of the hotel, but not since it was sold. I am told that the ristorante now serves a more creative version of the local cuisine.
My neighbor walked everywhere, and that is what visitors tend to do and are encouraged to do. He took the vaporetto on a number of occasions during the day and evening to get a perspective of the city from the water. Needless to say, on foot and by boat, he was mesmerized by the utter beauty of the city.
The Dorsoduro is home to many museums, among them the Gallerie dell' Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The former houses pre-19th century art, especially of the Venetian masters, while the latter showcases 20th century European and American art. My friend is normally not a museum goer, but spent an entire afternoon at both museums out of curiosity and also, as he put it, out of duty as a visitor. He loved it.
He spent half a day exploring the Dorsoduro, which is the sestiere located in the southernmost part of Venice. The further south and west of the Dorsoduro he walked, the more he understood that there indeed is a Venice that visitors rarely see or are not inclined to explore. He found nooks and crannies that led him even deeper into the Dorsoduro; small bridges that led to "unknown" campi (squares) and calli (narrow streets); and wine bars frequented only by locals and the occasional intrepid visitor. My friend capped off his adventure in the Dorsoduro by having lunch at the Enoteca Ai Artisti, which, until recently, was my "secret" restaurant. Family owned, the Enoteca serves beautifully prepared Venetian classics that is matched, as the name of the restaurant suggests, by a serious list.
Nightlife in Venice centers largely on walking, taking in a concert at a local church, and going to a cichetti bar for wine, cichetti and lively conversation. I suggested my friend spend his evenings at a wine bar, and the only one I know well is the esteemed Cantinone Gia Schiavi, or Al Bottegon as it is also known. Of course it is located in the Dorsoduro, and of course my friend spent three evenings there eating, drinking and meeting the locals as well as visitors who venture or stay in the Dorsoduro. He told me he never had so much fun in a bar, and this being a cichetti bar, the final tariff did not come close to denting his wallet.
Before my friend left, he asked how he could truly experience Venice's legendary beauty. I advised him to go to the Piazza San Marco at noon, and to return at 5am. The Piazza San Marco at noon is the Venice that all visitors know well. It is elbow to elbow, loud, and where pickpockets ply their skills. The Piazza San Marco at 5am is the Venice of poetry, where one can hear the muse speaking softly and beckoning one to inhale the intoxicating beauty of a city that, ironically, is defined by decay. I advised him to stand at the Ponte dell Accademia on the way back to the hotel, and gaze out at the Grand Canal as the sun is rising. At the Piazza San Marco at 5am and on the Accademia Bridge at the break of dawn, my friend was utterly entranced. He heard the muse. When he came home, he told his wife that they will travel to Venice in the next year or so in late autumn or early winter, which is, in my opinion, the best time to go.