How I managed to live on this planet for multiple decades, including a fair few of them in the U.K., and avoid visiting Venice until now, is beyond me. But finally, I have rectified that. As we flew in over the northern Italian city one cloudy Friday in June, it dawned on me that I really didn’t know much about the place at all, except for what I’d seen in the movies.
The approach to Venice is entirely magical. From the airport you catch a (slow) ferry – the Alilaguna. (Unless you’re flush with cash, in which case you might have ordered a gleaming wooden speedboat or water taxi, reminiscent of the 1950s jet-set lifestyle.) As the voyage progresses, slowly the famous skyline comes into focus and becomes recognizable. And it’s breathtaking.
There’s a handful of buildings that date back to the 13th century and earlier. Venice didn’t just pop up during the Renaissance although it certainly exploded then. If you’re me, you immediately think: “How on earth did they build this city over the water, hundreds of years ago?”
I spent the first 24 hours with my mind well and truly blown. This isn’t an island with a city on it. This is a city built on swampy marshland atop deep wooden piles, with the footings of every building under water. And it was all built by hand, with none of the industrial equipment that we know today. Think about that for a second.
Having settled into our AirBnB in a very quiet residential area of the city, we immediately headed out to explore. Venice is much as you imagine, except sadly over-run by droves of tourists, many of them disgorged from ridiculously ginormous cruise ships for a few hours to trample through the alleys.
Here are a few tips on how to survive Venice, and how to avoid getting taken for a ride, although sadly it’s inevitable.
1. Getting Around Venice
There is not a single car, scooter, bicycle, golf cart or other type of vehicle on Venice. There are only two modes of transport: Shank’s Pony (your feet) or a boat. We averaged seven miles of walking a day according to my phone, but that probably skipped a few steps here and there.
There are gondolas everywhere, but they cost 80 Euros for 35 minutes and are only for tourists. Actually, there’s one exception. You can get a gondola outside the Rialto market to the other side of the canal for 2 Euros. The journey is probably 2 minutes, but if you are dying to try a gondola and you don’t want to spend 80 Euros, this is the answer.
The Locals and visitors alike, get around on the ACTV vaporettis, or water buses, which stop all along the Grand Canal, around the edges of the city and take you out to the islands, including Lido and Giudecca. Buy a pass for the number of days you’re visiting, or a 1-hour long ticket will cost you 7 Euros which is expensive.
We did have to disembark one of our water taxis along with everyone else, because it appeared to be about to blow up! And it’s a little scary to watch how little attention the drivers pay to other boats on the water, but mostly the system is efficient and very frequent.
2. Eating Out in Venice
We found eating in Venice to be a problem. There are restaurants everywhere, but they are 95% geared for tourists, who probably don’t care too much about what they are eating, so you end up paying a lot for poor quality. Even the locals have a hard time finding good places to eat, according to a Venetian we cooked with one day (more on that here). She did steer us towards a couple of great places frequented by locals. But be warned, make a reservation or else you’ll arrive at a half-empty eatery and be told they have no space for you (this happened to us).
The other thing I want to warn against is unscrupulous restauranteurs who take your credit card and threaten to charge you up to 30 Euros per head if you don’t show up. We had a nasty experience with a place called CoVino which I had booked in advance. The site mentions a fee for a ‘no show’ but doesn’t state that the only way to eat there is a fixed price 3-course menu for 80 Euros, with no deviations. We booked to see a show and realized that it was going to be too tight for a full dinner, so I figured we would have time for a drink and appetizer. No problem, right? Wrong.
When we arrived the host/proprietor quickly became abusive when I explained we could only have one or two dishes. He claimed that was against the terms I had signed up for and I was free to leave, but would be charged 60 Euros. Within five minutes, he not only insulted me as a parent, but told me I had to leave, then said I should stay and eat, then said I wouldn’t be charged the penalty as he didn’t’ need my money, but wouldn’t put it in writing. Wowza.
We left and went to the famous Harry’s Bar, which was extortionate but worth every Euro. Note the dress code for Harry’s: no shorts for men. Monkey fell foul of that the first time we tried to visit.
3. Visiting museums and the sights
I’m a big fan of getting out and about early in big cities, it’s a great way to avoid the inevitable long lines at well-known spots. That being said, I was thrilled to find that the Doge’s Palace stays open until 11pm (last entry at 10pm) on Fridays and Saturdays. We went after dinner and it felt like we had our very own private tour. We probably saw about 12 other people during our wanderings and there was not one single person in line for tickets. (Although with our VeneziaUnica City Pass, our tickets were already included.)
I bought our tickets for the Peggy Guggenheim Museum online in advance and we were there early enough to beat the crowds. I highly recommend visiting. The exhibition of modern art is based in her old “palace” on the Grand Canal and the location alone is worth seeing. I want to come back as Peggy Guggenheim, no question.
There are so many museums and exhibitions it’s overwhelming and FOMO sets in almost immediately. Resign yourself to the fact you will only see about 5% of what’s on offer. We enjoyed using our pass and ducking in and out of places without feeling that we had to explore every inch of what was on display. Many places are surprisingly quiet.
4. Shoes and Suitcases
Now you know that you’re going to be walking everywhere, pack your best flat walking shoes. Don’t be tempted to think that your wedges will be just fine. The streets are often cobbled and you’ll be hopping on and off rocky boats.
Same with suitcases – only bring one with wheels, preferably four of them. It’s inevitable that you are going to have to walk some distance with your luggage to get to the water bus (even the airport has a fairly long walk to the ferry).
5. Avoid “Made in China”
You will see signs for Murano glass and leather everywhere, but it turns out that most of it is made in China and not authentic. Also, if you want to bring home foodie gifts, don’t buy the pasta and other goods from the tourist shops. Head instead to the Rialto food market and shop where the locals shop. Better yet, have a Venetian take you on a tour and point you to the best vendors with the freshest, best produce.
6. Where to Stay in Venice
Where you stay, really depends on your budget and your appetite for crowds. While a canal-side hotel in the heart of the city near S. Marco may sound appealing, in reality you will probably spend hundreds of dollars a night for a small room in a noisy spot. I’m sure the Cipriani, Hotel Monaco and others are an exception, but we opted to stay in an Airbnb in a quiet area near the S. Elena water bus stop, which was so quiet it was almost a little spooky. We were there over a weekend, so likely all the locals had headed out of town – many to Lido – so it felt like we had the place to ourselves. The best part? We only paid $392 for 3 nights in Venice.
Of all the places I’ve visited, Venice is such a unique city, and there’s so much on offer in such a small space, that it’s well worth doing some research ahead to make the most of your time there.