It's Saturday afternoon and I am about to "cross the bridge to yesteryear." On the other side of the Intracoastal Waterway lies historic Venice, Florida, and its charming MainStreet.
Venice is not so much about traveling back in time, however, as it is about traveling to a place that might never have existed, a dreamy hometown deep in the American imagination. Designed by the renowned city planner John Nolen in the 1920s, Venice became known for its northern Italian renaissance architecture and beautifully landscaped open spaces before Nolen's dream of a thriving, sophisticated small town came to an end with the Great Depression. Today, revitalization efforts have brought the dream back to life, with small, locally-owned businesses booming up and down the avenues, warm and welcoming service in the shops and restaurants and a genuine community feel. Art festivals, parades, sidewalk sales and an annual Easter egg hunt add to the feeling of being "at home" here.
Venice Avenue, in the heart of Venice, is a broad boulevard lined with palm trees, shops and boutiques, restaurants and small sidewalk cafes. Children gather around outdoor tables and umbrellas while couples stroll by. The air is warm, the sky is clear and nothing is hurried. Just another afternoon in Venice.
After stopping for an ice cream at The Soda Fountain, "a small taste of the past" at the western area of Venice Avenue, browse through everything from jewelry to chic home accessories in the shops lining the avenue. Wander into Sea Pleasures and Treasures and fill a basket full of dyed starfish, king helmuts, golden whelk and the hand-painted shells of Venice.
After meandering down Venice Avenue, explore Miami Avenue, just one block south. This street is as gorgeous as the one before it, with sleepy, flower-ringed courtyards opening on to intimate outdoor eateries and a quaint antique district. From vintage kitchenware to the Bakelite and antique furniture, Miami Avenue is a haven for all things vintage and retro.
In the Venice, Florida version of MainStreet U.S.A., art plays a prominent role, whether it is the history of antiques, the clean design of retro pieces or the bold, sweeping canvases in Collectors' Gallery on nearby Nokomis Avenue.
After a long day of exploring, cool off at Venice Wine & Coffee Company, where you'll step right into the pleasant aroma of fresh coffee beans. The ceilings are high and raftered and wine bottles line the walls, grouped into small clusters with recommended bottles tagged and reviewed by the owners.
If you decide to stay for dinner, head back up to Venice Avenue for a casual yet intimate meal at Cafe Venice Restaurant & Wine Bar. There you'll find fare from Continental to Polynesian. If you're in the mood for Italian, Cassariano Italian Eatery is just a bit further up Venice Ave.
If you go:
Parking is easy – just past the first block of shops and restaurants, soft stretches of grass surround neat rows of free five-hour parking. Centennial Park also has clean, well-marked public restrooms; a gazebo for outdoor performances and meetings; and an information kiosk with events listings, posters for upcoming performances at the award- winning Venice Theatre and a public art map.
Venice MainStreet, 941-484-6722, www.venicemainstreet.com
Venice Area Chamber of Commerce, 941-488-2236, www.venicechamber.com
Venice Art Center, 941-485-7136, www.veniceartcenter.com
Venice Theatre, 941-488-1115, www.venicestage.com