The Veneto cities of Treviso, Vicenza and Padova each offer their own ‘Venice without the crowds’ experience. Rich in history and culture, with fantastic food and wine, these laidback, lesser-visited cities are wonderful alternatives to Venice, especially if you unknowingly arrive during Venice’s acqua alta.
When travellers to Italy think of the Veneto region, they immediately think of Venice, a city that dazzles as much as it can disappoint – mainly during the crowded summer period when it’s heaving with tourists. Yet close to Venice are a handful of cities that see far fewer tourists and yet are some of Northern Italy’s most delightful. They make for a great tour if you unknowingly arrive in Venice during the acqua alta (high water) season.
Venice and the Veneto region have been in the news recently after being struck by severe storms and, for Venice, some of the worst flooding in years. The Venetians are used to the acqua alta, which lasts from November to January. As the high tide climbs and water starts to flow into Piazza San Marco, the locals slip on their rain-boots, get out the sandbags, and pull out the planks to create temporary boardwalks.
Even when the waters rose as high as they did recently, which was an exceptional level that’s rarely experienced, many businesses continued to operate – such as the much-covered pizzeria that continued to serve customers, ankle-deep in water – and after the water subsided, they cleaned up and everything was back to normal after a couple of days.
If you arrive in Venice between now and January to find your stay has coincided with an acqua alta and don’t fancy wading through flooded waters, take a detour for a few days instead to explore the Veneto cities of Treviso, Vicenza and Padova (also called Padua) for a taste of Venice without the crowds.
The Veneto Cities of Treviso, Vicenza and Padova – Venice Without the Crowds
Before we moved to Southeast Asia, our work as writers and Terence a photographer was largely focused on Europe and the Middle East. We spent 7.5 years bouncing around the two continents, living out of our suitcases, and during that time authored and photographed scores of travel guidebooks, including guides to Italy.
But well before we became professional travellers, when we took holidays just like you, we frequently travelled to Italy, and often Northern Italy. We made a beeline for Venice on our very first Italy adventure, and returned again to do a winter trip, exploring the Veneto cities of Treviso, Vicenza and Padova before driving up to Cortina d’Ampezzo and across the Italian Alps.
It was on that winter trip that we developed a fondness for the Veneto cities of Treviso, Vicenza and Padova, which, with few foreign tourists, felt more like everyday living-breathing cities after Venice. Even when we returned years later, during the busy summer, to do guidebook research, there were still none of the crowds of Venice.
Yet the Veneto cities of Treviso, Vicenza and Padova offer a quintessentially Northern Italian experience, along with a taste of Venice, in their canals and bridges, cobblestone streets, breezy colonnades, stately palaces, churches filled with art, and facades covered in frescoes.
And then there’s the food of the Veneto: mouth-watering charcuterie and cheeses, tasty bar snacks called cicchetti, warming risottos… and of course, it’s all washed down with local Veneto wines made at vineyards just down the road. The Veneto region has a rich food and wine culture, producing the most wine of any grape-growing area in Italy, with Soave, Bardolino and Valpolicella the most notable, but the Veneto’s sparking wine, Prosecco, the most popular.
Soave, a dry white made from Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave, is one of Italy’s most quaffed whites. Bardolino, made from a combination of Corvina, Rondinella Molinara and Negrara grapes, is dry and drank young. Valpolicella is an easy early drinking red, but Amarone della Valpolicella, made with air-dried grapes, is more interesting.
Located in Italy’s northeast, at the top of boot, the Veneto borders the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige to the north and north-west, Lombardy to the west, Emilia-Romagna to the south, Austria in the north east, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia to the east, which in turn borders Slovenia and Austria, while its southern shore is lapped by the Adriatic Sea.
While the Veneto region might be small, it boast some of Northern Italy’s most spectacular and varied landscapes. There’s the Po Valley’s sprawling pancake-flat plains and lush marshes rich with wildlife, Lake Garda’s alluring eastern shores and the Adriatic Sea’s pine-backed beaches, and the dramatic mountains, pretty valleys and striking rock formations of the Alps and Dolomites, shared with the region of Trentino-Alto Adige.
The Veneto region and neighbouring Friuli-Venezia Giulia region are two of Italy’s most intriguing, with long fascinating histories. Settled since the 2nd millennium BC by the Euganei and then the Veneti from Asia Minor, their inhabitants developed trade with the Etruscans and Greeks and by the 4th century BC their society was prosperous with a sophisticated culture and language called Venetic.
After fighting alongside the Romans against Hannibal and the Carthaginians, the Veneti became Roman citizens in 49 BC, until the Roman Civil War, when, along with Friuli, they became part of the larger empire of Italia. Padova, meanwhile, adopted Latin and became a Pax Romana city, along with Tarvisium (now called Treviso) and Vicetia (Vicenza).
Invasions by Barbarians in the Middle Ages saw a decline in civilisation, with the Veneti hiding on islands in the coastal lagoons of what would become Venice. In the sixth century, Justinian conquered Venetia for the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire, followed by the Lombards whose division of the territory created the Veneto and Friuli regions. All of which makes not only for a fascinating history but for wonderful architecture and art. Here’s where you need to go, what you need to see, and where you should stay and eat in a nutshell.
Treviso is the closest of the three Veneto cities to Venice. The most sophisticated, it’s often likened to a ‘Little Venice’ due to its beautifully frescoed buildings, medieval arcades, and pretty stone bridges that cross tranquil canals. Don’t miss Ponte di Pria (Stone Bridge) at the confluence of the city’s Canal Grande and Buranelli canal.
Treviso’s affluence is evident in the elegant city streets, well-dressed locals and excellent shopping. It’s a fabulous town for strolling, whiling away a couple of hours in a stylish little bar or café, or taking in the atmosphere of the lovely squares, such as Piazza Rinaldi (with three elegant palaces built by the Rinaldi family, between the 12th and and 18th centuries) and Piazza dei Signori (with its handsome Palazzo di Podesta and lofty tower).
Churches worth gawking at include the majestic Duomo with seven domes and splendid art by Titian (the original building dated to Late Roman times) and the Late Romanesque-Early Gothic Chiesa di San Francesco, built by the Franciscan monks between 1231 and 1270, which has fine frescoes in its peaceful chapels and the tomb of Pietro Alighieri, son of poet Dante.
There are also frescoes by Tommaso da Modena in the 13th century Venetian-Romanesque and French-Gothic Chiesa di San Nicolò. As with many of the Veneto region’s cities and towns, Treviso also has a lovely loggia, the Loggia dei Cavalieri, but unlike the others, typically in the Venetian-Gothic styles, this one is Romanesque with Byzantine influences.
Where to Stay in Treviso
Ai Bastioni Boutique Hotel
Located in Treviso by a pretty bridge over a canal, the minimalist décor of this contemporary boutique hotel combines modernist furniture, vintage pieces and retro touches. There’s a garden, terrace and balconies, and it’s a 5-minute walk to the heart of the city.
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The gilded bar is the highlight of this old-fashioned hotel that has certainly seen better days, but guests love its location, right opposite the railway and bus stations, with frequent, cheap connections to Treviso Canova Airport, and the bike rental and off-site parking. The Trecento Palace is 600 m away.
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Hotel Villa Condulmer
This grand hotel in Mogliano Veneto, a 30-minute drive south of Treviso and a 20-minute train ride to Venice, is set in a sprawling 18th-century mansion with sumptuous rooms, Murano chandeliers, a swimming pool in the manicured parkland, and parking. The elegant restaurant serves Venetian specialities and local wines.
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Where to Eat in Treviso
Renovated in recent years, Le Beccherie is worth booking for the modern Italian cuisine, however, it’s also home to tiramisu. The restaurant claims to have invented the most famous of Italian desserts, created by pasty chef Roberto Linguanotto. Piazza Ancilotto 9.
Hosteria Dai Naneti
A very traditional osteria, Hosteria dai Naneti oozes history and charm. Order a board of charcuterie and cheese, much of it locally made, and ask for a recommendation for some local wine of the hundreds on offer, and settle in for a while. Vicolo Broli 2.
Osteria dalla Gigia
This quirky local bar is another fun spot for a quaffing local wine with a bite to eat on the way out. Locals recommend the sandwich with lardo and rucola, while travellers love the fried mozzarella. Via Barberia 20.
Small but elegant, Vicenza has historic ties to Venice – indeed it was known as the ‘Mainland Venice’ and its canals were once linked to those of the Venetian island-city. Like many of Northern Italy’s cities and towns, Vicenza boasts beautiful churches, many of them filled with art.
Start with the 11th century Duomo, restored in the 16th and 19th centuries, then the Chiesa di Ara Coeli, dating to 1244, which features works by Tiepolo. The Pinacoteca Civica (Municipality Art Gallery) also has an abundance of fine paintings by great artists.
But what Vicenza is most notable for is its classical architecture by Palladio, which has earned the city and surrounding region a place on the UNESCO Heritage Site listing as ‘City of Palladio and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto’.
The city is home to twenty-three graceful buildings by Palladio, including the Teatro Olimpico, Basilica Palladiana, Palazzo Chiericati (Vicenza’s city museum), Palazzo Barbaran Da Porto, Palazzo Thiene, and Villa Capra, known as ‘La Rotonda’.
Where to Stay in Vicenza
Due Mori Hotel
Vicenza’s oldest hotel, dating to 1854 and designed by architect Antonio Caregaro Negrin, has modernised in all the right places, retaining its wooden beams and period pieces from later renovations. The 30 rooms are furnished in styles from the late 19th-century to the Liberty period. The location is excellent, just minutes from the main sites.
Antico Hotel Vicenza
In an early 20th-century building on a pedestrian street in Vicenza’s heart, near Piazza dei Signori, the Antico has spruced-up its 23 rooms without losing its old-fashioned charm. Expect Art Deco furniture, plush carpets, velvet drapes, terrazzo floors, and wood panels. Duomo views from the rooftop terrace and a short walk from the Palladian Basilica.
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Palazzo Valmarana Braga
Also in Vicenza’s centre, these seven spacious apartments in a 16th-century palace designed by Andrea Palladio, the Veneto’s greatest architect, have exposed wooden beams and are decorated with frescoes and Murano chandeliers, and furnished with antiques and original art. There’s a lovely central courtyard and the location is unbeatable.
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Where to Eat in Vicenza
Gastronomia Il Ceppo
Pick up picnic supplies at Vicenza’s finest deli, Gastronomia Il Ceppo, which specialises in regional cheeses and charcuterie and take-away salads, olives and the like, or head downstairs to the cellar to Sòtobotega (lunch only) for local specialties such as Bacalà alla Vicentina, the city’s signature codfish dish, a choice of hundreds of Italian wines.
Fiaschetteria da Renzo
This traditional tavern with wooden tables and chairs and counter of cicchetti, from old-fashioned treats such as boiled eggs with mayonnaise and caviar to stuffed peppers and charcuterie. Don’t even think of ordering anything but a Prosecco or a spritz. Contrà Frasche del Gambero 36, Vicenza.
Expect creative reinterpretations of traditional specialties of the region by chef Lorenzo Cogo and gobsmacking views over Piazza dei Signori at Michelin one-star restaurant, Le Coq. Don’t even think about ordering anything but the inventive tasting menu and allow plenty of time.
Of these three Veneto cities, Padova might be my favourite, and yet apart from its basilica and churches, palazzi and villas, Padova (Padua in English) holds few attractions for tourists, yet that’s just what we love about it. It’s a vibrant little city with a historic town that is a lovely, low-key place to spend a few days relaxing.
Start with the must-see sights including the vast 13th-century Basilica of St Anthony, which has enormous Byzantine-style domes and notable artworks, and also contains its namesake saint’s tomb, along with Padova’s number one attraction, the Cappella degli Scrovegni. The chapel is a touchstone for Rinascimento (Renaissance) art in Northern Italy.
The break away from the Byzantine style to the Proto-Renaissance period (1290–1400) is commonly attributed to the paintings of Giotto di Bondone (c1267–1337) and the Cappella contains the best known of his works and the frescos, focussing on the Virgin Mary’s life, and completed around 1305. The artwork is breathtaking and particularly impressive due to the emotion depicted in the subjects’ faces and the three-dimensionality of the work. Due to deterioration, the Cappella was sealed off and now has its own ‘microclimate’. As only 25 people are allowed per visit, booking ahead is essential.
After, discover this lively university town, which was home to Dante, Petrarch and Galileo, on foot or bike. The grounds of the University of Padova, established in 1222, are wonderful to explore, or simply wander Padova’s old town, strolling its arcaded streets, gawking at its fine palaces and villas, or sipping vino in its stylish cafes frequented by students.
Where to Stay in Padova
Hotel Belludi 37
In the heart of Padova’s historic town, the location of Hotel Belludi 37 is superb, just steps from Prato delle Valle the main square – Italy’s largest – and just around the corner from the Basilica of Saint Antonio. Super comfy rooms are painted in warm hues with plush rugs, cosy blankets, and a combination of modernist and contemporary furniture and fittings. The hotel rents bikes, which are a really enjoyable way to get around Padova.
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Also located in the old town, this comfy little hotel is only150 metres from the Basilica, and handy to cafés and shops. The renovated rooms are minimalist in style, and some have a balcony with views. Guests love the buffet breakfast and friendly, helpful service and local tips.
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Where to Eat in Padova
This elegant café in a stately building dating to 1831 can count literary greats Ernest Hemingway, Lord Byron and Stendhal as its customers. They roast their own outstanding coffee on site and it’s also a popular spot for aperitivo. There are sandwiches and pastries but it’s the coffee and history that you’re here for.
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