Venice

Piazzo San Marco

Introduction

One of the most iconic and unique places to visit in the world. This floating city continues to stay afloat despite the rising waters and ever increasing number of tourists pounding it down…

Venice must be visited. It is an amazing and incredible place that time seems to have forgotten. Ignore the tourists and just have a wander.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A lot of people have some opinions about Venice based on what they have heard or what they have themselves experienced:

  • Venice is crowded with tourists - It certainly is…around the tourist sites. Try getting away from San Marco and the Rialto into the outlying areas where you can still perhaps have the tiniest glimpse of what life must have been like before £50 round-trip flights to the city.
  • Venice is expensive - No doubt about it but I would suggest that if you avoid the tourist areas and the obvious tourist traps you can do reasonably well. Everything you buy here has likely been transported in by barge so it is bound to be more expensive so it is best to accept that you won't be saving any money and enjoy the experience! Having said, that do avoid the areas around San Marco and Rialto for eating if you can as the food is often not that great and the prices have been jacked up (personally I prefer the small local places in the out of the way back alleys where you can find “bargains”).
  • Venice floods - On occasion the “acqua alta” does flood the main parts of Venice with about six inches of water but (a) this is not all the time (b) it does not last for long © it only occurs in the winter months and © the city put up walkways so you can get around anyway.

I guess what I am saying is that your visit is what you make of it. If you chose to get annoyed with the crowds around San Marco without trying to get away from them then you will likely stay annoyed; If you pay the extortion charged by some restaurants, I guess you will complain about the costs. If, however, you seek what you will enjoy you will be happy. Venice is a magical place so try not to let the “bad” bits get in the way of enjoying a wonderful city.

Getting Your Bearings

Grand Canal at Night

The famous “Grand Canal” extends from the train station (Ferrovia) on the north-west (the “Cannaregio” area on the north side, “Santa Croce” on the south), under the Rialto bridge in the middle of the city (“San Polo” on the west side, just south of “Santa Croce” and “Castello” to the east), then down to Piazzo San Marco in the south (“San Marco”) with the often overlooked “Dorsoduro” area on the other side of the canal on the west, accessed via the famous Accademia bridge.

Often tourists will mistake the large body of water outside of San Marco as the Grand Canal but it is not, it is rather the main transport artery for cruise ships and other commercial traffic in and out of the city as it makes it's way around the island (the main shipping port is on the north west). The beach resorts are located on “Lido”, a large, long, skinny island to the west of the city that is easily accessed by boat.

Rio di San Barnaba

Weather

Typical for Italy, the weather in Venice is quite temperate. The summers are warm and the winters are cool but not cold.

There are the occasional “acqua alta” which floods the streets of the city. During these times the city has elevated platforms that you can use to get between major sites (there are platform maps available). The water is often not deep - perhaps less than a foot but it is definitely an inconvenience. These are often only temporary, lasting only a day or so and typically occur between late September and April only.

I am told that in the summer the canals can often smell but this is only to be expected - This is the ocean after all and the water is not moving all that fast…To be sure, the canals are kept incredibly clean, as is the city itself.

Getting There

Most people arrive by plane at Marco Polo airport which is located on the mainland to the north of the city. From here you there are a few options into the city, from cheapest to most expensive:

  1. Bus - From the airport forecourt you can catch a bus straight to Piazzale Roma (near to the train station) where you can then catch a local vaporetto.
  2. Vaporetto - The public water buses are more expensive when you go to/from the airport but are really the best and most impressive way into the city. The vaporetto terminal at the airport is quite large but a short distance from the main terminal so you follow a series of moving sidewalks to get there. Note that as everyone has luggage it can be crowded but these boats are very similar to a large water taxi in terms of comfort…quite nice and no need to stand for the fairly long trip to/from the city.
  3. Water Taxi - Flush with cash, hum? Yeah, this is an option for the wealthy.

Airport vaporetto terminal

Tickets for any of these are available in the arrivals hall (don't worry about the electronic machines if you can't figure them out - talk to a human instead). They will also sell vaporetto daily passes, should you require them, though note that if you wish to travel to/from the airport you will need to pay an additional cost for those tickets to be added to your pass (easiest thing is to go over the options with a person and have them advise).

Getting Around

Gondolas near Piazzo San Marco

This is half the fun of visiting Venice. There are no cars so you either walk (highly recommended) or take a boat…but which boat?

All kinds of boats...

Walking

Signs

The city is not very large so walking is a very viable option though you will find that due to the large number of meandering alleys it may take you longer than you think to get to where you want to go. If you are visiting one of the major sights (Rialto or Piazzo San Marco) there are signposts everywhere otherwise check a map to see roughly where you are going and generally there will be more frequent signs to major sights as you get closer. We just enjoyed wandering around the streets and went wherever our feet took us…

Vaporetto (Water Bus)

This is the way the locals get around. It is the easiest and cheapest option with the option to buy single trip or daily passes which are available at larger vaporetto stops, tourism offices and some shops. Each boat you take costs a fixed amount and is paid for using a card that you top-up and touch on a pad before getting on the boat (it is important you do this as the fines for not touching in are quite high). If you need to take several boats to get where you want to go note that you will need to pay for each boat you catch as you touch in…

There are a series of numbered routes that run along the main canals. The only trick is finding which route you need to catch and how/where to transfer between boats. I found the vaporetto maps with the routes shown as different coloured lines were the most helpful (there are others with just numbers at the various stops but this is confusing as some routes go in one direction only or the stop is not always used).

Vaporetto Water Bus Shelter

Vaporetto stops are easy to spot - Large bus-shelter-like white structures floating on the canal with orange bands around the top containing the name of the stop. Each shelter has a map of the routes that it serves and the boat itself will have the route number on it (not on the bow of the boat but rather as a small rectangular route map strapped to the railing or the side of the boat).

Water Taxi

Water Taxi at Night

This is a much more expensive way to get around but, obviously, this is point to point. They are quite comfortable inside (though often not heated in cool weather) and very quick. Agree on a price before heading out. The price is fixed regardless of the number of people in the taxi so take advantage of this and share if you can!

Inside a Water Taxi

Generally the water taxis are all wonderful looking things - A classic wooden boat with a large cabin at the back with the driver standing at the front.

Gondola

Gondolier

The ultimate thing to do as a tourist, these are everywhere. The jet-black, opulent gondolas are iconic of the city itself. There is a fixed rate (set by regulators) for gondolas with a minimum trip of 30 minutes. Do not expect your gondolier to sing as this is not part of the service - If you want a musical trip they can be arranged from your hotel…for a price. Interestingly we learned that the gondolas are slightly asymmetric to allow for the gondolier pushing along on the one side - It allows them to go in a straight line even while being pushed along on the one side.

Gondola Depot

Where to Eat

I have reviewed a few of the places I ate at (here) but there are many places to chose from. See Europe for Visitors - Venice - Food and Drink for some good advice on eating in Venice and 10 Essential Food and Drinks to Try in Venice.

The biggest concern most visitors have is being ripped off which is a fair concern as many restaurants certainly are squarely aimed at tourists serving stereotypical Italian (but not Venetian) food such as spaghetti and pizza. Often these places are often not cheap particularly if they are on a canal or are close to Piazza San Marco. Many times there is also a “coperto” (cover charge) that is automatically added which is often difficult to determine before the bill arrives at your table. You can try to save money with a “turistico” or “tourist menu” (fixed price meal) but often the food is not that great.

Generally I would advice eating away from Piazza San Marco and where at least some of the locals eat - If that is a hole in the wall selling baked goods or a small restaurant tucked away in an alley somewhere that you have stumbled across. We really enjoyed some great fresh seafood while we are there so you might want to find out what is in season and try whatever they have prepared using it…

For a quick bite, there are small bars around which are often quite inexpensive - They are tiny though so they may be difficult to spot!

A bar in Murano

I always enjoy visiting supermarkets (mostly “Spar” or “Coop”) and markets to see what is on offer and here you can pick up some great bargains never mind often very fresh products. The only real market (“mercato”) is just north of Rialto alongside the canal though you can find stalls in pretty much any of the larger squares.

Vegetable and Fruit Stall at the Rialto Market

Where to Stay

There are lots of places to stay in Venice and, as always, some are better than others. As with the rest of Venice the prices go up the closer you get to the tourist hot spot of Piazzo San Marco but since transport is so good there is no reason to be close to the square. We found a fairly nice place opposite the train station right on the Grand Canal which was not bad at all as far as location was concerned (though the included breakfast was not great).

If you are interested in a bit of a beach holiday (though quite expensive) then you can stay in Lido which has many larger resorts and as a plus they all have easy access to the city by vaporetto.

What to See

You can pretty much just wander around aimlessly and be pleasantly surprised but, of course, there are a few sites that are particularly special and I would recommend to visit.

Piazzo San Marco

Piazzo San Marco

Obviously. If you know one place in Venice it is probably Piazzo San Marco. It is where the tourists gather and where you can see the Doge's Palace, Basilica San Marco and the iconic tower of the square Campanile.

  • Doge's Palace - The large rectangular building near to the canal in San Marco, this is now a museum and is well worth a visit though probably deserves a good day to see it properly. There is an admission charge and the entrance is through the door on the canal side.

Doge's Palace from the Square

  • Basilica San Marco - This is the large ornate church on the east side of San Marco which is open to visitors free of charge though there is a cost to visit certain sections such as the treasury and the museum on the first floor which also gives access to the balcony along the front facade - Great views of the square. I would certainly recommend a visit to the museum and balcony - It is a bit expensive but worth it for the views not only the surrounding square but also of the inside of the basilica. Note that inside there is no photography allowed though many people ignore this. Additionally, they do not allow any bags such as rucksacks which must be checked at a smaller church a short walk away (that also gives you “priority” access to getting in so it is worth doing this). The church can be visited over the course of a few hours and is quite ornate inside and very interesting.

Basilica San Marco

  • Campanile - Offering the best views in Venice this tower is accessed via a door on the east side and has a small admission charge. On a good day you can see the Alps to the north. Can be very crowded but well worth a visit.

Entrance to Campanile

View from the Top of Campanile in Piazzo San Marco

Rialto Bridge

The Rialto Bridge from the Grand Canal

The Rialto is a gorgeous sight but also is the heart of a fashionable shopping area. The bridge itself has a number of boutique shops on it and is, typically, very busy with tourists. Around the bridge there are a number of expensive restaurants catering to tourists (accosting them as they walk by) that I would avoid as you most definitely pay a premium for the view.

Shopping on the Rialto Bridge

Murano

Murano Canals

Murano is a small island just north of the city and is home to the famous Venetian glass. As with Venice there are no cars and it is a good place not only to buy some glass but also to get away from the crowds in Venice.

Venetian Glass - B.F. Signoretti

Unexpectedly, there is a lot of glass on sale here but look beyond that and you find a number of smaller restaurants and interesting canals to walk along. Well worth a visit and easy to get to by vaporetto and, often, free shuttles are available from hotels or Piazzo San Marco.

La Fenice

The Exterior

If you are fan of opera as I am this will be high on your list. Sadly, when I visited there were no opera performances but you are able to take an audio guide tour of the building which has burned down as often as you might think with a name of “The Phoenix”. It's oppulant but small interior is amazing to see. It is a bit tricky to find but if you basically head due west from San Marco you will eventually come across it (before you reach the Grand Canal).

The Auditorium Ceiling

There is an admission charge and extra charge if you want to take pictures…but what pictures!

The Auditorium

Further Information

For further information, please see: