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The team has been to Venice a few times the last three years and the best time to go is during the off-peak and shoulder seasons. Venice can be overrun by tourists and gets very crowded, especially when the cruise ships come in. Whenever you do choose to go, you can find some peace very early in the morning when tourists are still asleep.
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We recently spent a week in Venice with another couple (who will appear with us in a photo below) we met 2 years ago on a cruise of Christmas markets along the Danube River. Traveling with friends adds both a layer of complexity (more preferences to balance) and enjoyment (familiar sites seen through others’ eyes become new again). Venice was high on our bucket list because everyone with whom we spoke who had been there raved about their visit and longed to return. Venice lived up to its billing, but it also can be a bit “quirky” – e.g., there is absolutely no wheeled transportation beyond the train station and walkways rarely take a straight path from point A to point B. But this is what gives Venice its unique charm and, as Rick Steves is fond of reminding those who travel here, part of the fun is getting lost!
Getting into Venice from the airport
Where else can you walk out of an airport Arrivals Hall and hop into a boat that travels the length of one of the most iconic waterways in the world? Only in Venice! Since our lodging was a relatively short walk from the Rialto Bridge, we made reservations for the Alilaguna boat. You can save a Euro (for a one-way fare) or two (on a roundtrip ticket) by purchasing online (your ticket includes 1 suitcase and 1 piece of hand luggage – which was fine for us – additional luggage costs 3 Euros/bag), but you can also purchase tickets at the public transportation counter in the Arrivals hall or right at the airport pier. To find the Alilaguna boat pier at the airport, turn left as you exit the Arrivals hall, go up one level and follow the signs to the (new in 2017) moving walkway. Tips: The Alilaguna boats operate on a fixed schedule but are much less expensive (about 1/7 of the price!) than the more romantic water taxis that leave from adjoining piers. Also, three Alilaguna routes depart the airport: red, blue and orange; choose carefully when buying tickets. Since we were meeting the host for our lodging near the Rialto Bridge, we took the orange line (linea orancio), which dropped us at the pier marked in the picture below after just four stops.
Where we stayed
The Doge’s House…and a visit from emergency services
When staying more than a few days, we try to “live like a local” by renting an apartment. Since we were traveling with another couple and were going to be in Venice for more than a week, we wanted something with 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a full kitchen, laundry and Wi-Fi. The “Doge’s House,” listed on VRBO and hosted by Ilia Atzeni and her gondolier husband Silvio filled the bill for only $110 per night per couple – an absolute steal in Venice! On a side street between the Rialto bridge and St. Mark’s Square, the “Doge’s House” made an ideal home base – and it gave us an unexpected travel memory. On our last full day in Venice, the pocket door to our bathroom came off its track, trapping me inside. Ilia ended up calling emergency services, who had to pull the door casing off the wall to extract me. To make up for the disruption this caused in our travel plans, Silvio gave us a complimentary gondola ride! When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!
The Best Western Titian Inn
Because our departing flight left at 7:40am, we moved to the Best Western Titian Inn, which offers a complimentary airport shuttle for our last night in Venice. Several restaurants are within easy walking distance; I can recommend Al Quadrante (closed Mondays).
Venice has no shortage of excellent dining options. The following 3 were highlights of our trip; I’ll list some others in the “So much more” section of this destination report.
Venice has its own version of tapas called cicchetti (derived from the Latin for “very small). Crossing into the San Polo sestiere (subdivision), we made an evening of visiting the following bacari (bars serving wine and cicchetti): All’ Arco (nearest the Rialto bridge), Cantina Do Mori (frequented, according to legend, by Casanova), Cantina Do Spade (cicchetti menu here), Ostaria Dai Zemei (which turned out to be our favorite) and Vineria All’ Amarone (extensive wine list). Tip: Using the Rialto bridge as your starting and ending point and visiting the above bacari in the order listed, you can make a circuit covering a total walking distance of about 2/3 mile.
Overlooking the Venice Lagoon just beyond St. Mark’s Square (exit St. Mark’s Square toward the lagoon, turn left and cross the small canal with a view of the Bridge of Sighs), Principessa takes an approach to dining I appreciate – it offers a limited menu but the few items on it are executed extremely well. Tip: Booking your reservation through “The Fork” will score you a 20% discount!
If you’re in Venice for more than a day or two, you really should visit the outer lagoon islands of Murano (famous for glass blowing) and Burano (famous for Venetian lace). This canal-side restaurant on Burano was visited by Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel’s show, “Bizarre Foods.” Trattoria al Gatto Nero is best known for one of the starters on its menu – “risotto Burano style,” made with a broth flavored with a tiny cuttlefish harvested from the muddy lagoon bottom.
Some “must see” attractions
There’s no shortage of things to see and do but I highly recommend considering Venice proper as a base from which to launch excursions to neighboring islands and towns.
Because Venice is such a warren of maze-like pedestrian streets on more than 100 islands connected by more than 400 bridges, a good map is indispensable. With this tour company, one gets what we found to be the best map available (it even includes a directory of Wi-Fi hotspots!) along with a valuable orientation to Venice. They offer both morning and afternoon tours, which depart from several locations (so one is almost always fairly near your lodging). The tours last about 3 hours and, ideally, should be done as early as possible during your stay.
St. Mark’s Square
While one certainly shouldn’t miss the sites clustered around St. Mark’s Square – especially on a first visit – this is also where the crowds congregate with their selfie sticks. Wander just a few blocks away from the square in any direction and the congestion thins dramatically. If you stand in the Square with the Basilica at your back, the tower nearest you is the Campanile (bell tower). The Doge’s Palace (see below), archaeological museum and library are to your left with the lagoon beyond. The Museo Correr (included in the price of admission to the Doge’s Palace), which focuses on the art and history of Venice, is ahead of you at the opposite end of the Square. Finally, in addition to featuring the first “digital” timepiece, the clock tower to your right is also the gateway to the Merceria, one of Venice’s main shopping streets that leads (albeit not in a straight line) to the Rialto bridge. Tips: After getting your bearings, I recommend downloading Rick Steves’ free app and following his narrated St. Mark’s Square audio guide. Also, bands play throughout the day at cafes along either long side of the Square, which happily sell rather pricey cups of espresso at their outside tables. But you can stand in the square and enjoy the same music (without the pricey cup of coffee) for free.
St. Mark’s Basilica
The most prominent building on the square is the ornate St. Mark’s Basilica. If its façade (pictured here) looks familiar, it may be because it was featured prominently in two James Bond films (Casino Royale and Moonraker) and more recently in Inferno, the movie adaptation of Dan Brown’s sequel to The Da Vinci Code. Tips: Visit the Basilica either first thing in the morning or during the last hour of entry (hours of admission vary with the season). Reservations aren’t needed to enter the Basilica but will allow you to skip the often lengthy queue during peak travel season and visiting hours. Free guided tours are offered and greatly enhance one’s visit.
The Doge’s Palace
The pink-hued Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) adjacent to the Basilica and connected to the prison by the oh-so-photogenic “Bridge of Sighs” was home to the Doges (elected leaders of the city-state of Venice) and the seat of Venetian government. Tip: Although you can visit the Doge’s Palace on your own, I highly recommend one of the “official” guided tours, which must be booked in advance. The “Secret Itineraries” tour includes the interrogation room, detention cells and torture chambers. The “Hidden Treasures” tour focuses on the recent renovation of the Doge’s private rooms in the wing adjacent to the Basilica.
So much more to see, do and eat in Venice:
- Budget Grand Canal cruise: Board a Line #1 vaporetto at Piazzale Roma and listen to Rick Steves’ “Grand Canal” audioguide as you cruise the length of the Grand Canal for just 7,50 Euros.
- Additional restaurant suggestions: Algiubagio (waterfront), Birreria Forst (near the Bridge of Sighs), Conca D’Oro (on the way to St. Mark’s Square from The Doge’s House apartment).
- Day trips by train: Padova/Padua (Scrovegni Chapel – amazing!), Verona (Roman arena, Juliet’s balcony), Ravenna (incredible mosaics).
- The commissions charged to change money on St. Mark’s Square are excessive; walk just a few yards down the Merceria to withdraw up to 500 Euros/transaction from an ATM; use a debit card that reimburses ATM fees (Charles Schwab or Chase Private Client) or make as few withdrawals as possible. Also, don’t use any ATM if anything appears loose or damaged; this could indicate a device has been attached to “skim” your account information.
- Finally, although we did not encounter any of the following scams, we were warned to be alert to them in Venice – as you now are: (a) “the imposter” where a would-be thief poses as authority — ask to call their supervisor, (b) “the cleanup” where the scammer innocuously squirts you with a thick white substance and then offers to help clean up the “bird droppings” in order to lift your valuables and (c) “the ticket helper” where the thief offers to “help” at an automated ticket machine and causes confusion in order to make off with some of your cash.
About the Author:
I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.
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