Everyone knows of Venice whether they have visited or not. Everyone knows that it is a city built on water creating a labyrinth of canals, a city without roads or cars. A unique city, like no other in the world. For this reason, a city that attracts tourists from around the world all year round. Some people shy away from tourist attractions because they want to travel “off the beaten track”, they want to have a “local experience”. Well let me tell you, this should not apply to Venice!
Ok let’s be realistic, Venice is expensive but it is a city like no other that must be visited at least once in your life. Only a small fraction of the tourists that visit Venice stay more than 12 hours. This is not nearly enough time so we highly recommend you stay a night or two in this unique and fascinating city. Venice is amazing!
The number one rule is to walk, walk and walk some more. Leave the glamour shoes at home, I know it hurts me to say that, and wear comfortable shoes. We clocked up 12km in one day and could have easily done more if we were actually staying in Venice. Walking is traditionally the servants view and taking a gondola (more on this later) is the aristocrats view.
The second rule is to get lost while walking its small backstreets filled with fabulous restaurants, bars and interesting stories. Do not spend your time wandering the streets with your head in a map. You will miss the fabulous reflections in the canals, the crumbling, colourful ancient buildings and the weird and wonderful shopfronts.
Getting Off The Tourist Trail
Once you get away from the main thoroughfare it is very easy to get lost. We would highly recommend that you do a free walking tour as soon as you arrive in order to get your bearings, as well as getting some great recommendations. We did a tour with La Bussola and could not have been happier with the experience. Our guide was incredibly knowledgable, interesting and provided us with a plethora of insider tips of where to eat and how to avoid the tourist traps.
By doing a free walking tour you not only gain your bearings but you obtain the confidence to investigate Venice on your own and can decide where you want to go back and explore in more detail. You also receive fantastic curious facts such as why there are triangular concrete “seats” in the corners of buildings. Turns out that they are actually deterrents for males peeing (think splash back).
The first thing to know is that every square (campo) has a well and a church named after said church. This makes it very easy to get lost because every square starts looking the same and with over 400 bridges joining the little islands that make up Venice it is very easy to lose your orientation.
A fun fact about the bridges is that they were named after the activities that happened near or on them. For example, Ponte delle Tette (Titties bridge) was named because it was near a brothel and legend says that the ladies of the night lured the aristocrats in their gondolas by flashing them while standing on the bridge ;). So pay attention to the names of the bridges and perhaps have Google translate handy if your Italian is not perfect, you might learn a little about the local history.
What To See and Do in Venice
Right, lets get down to what to see and do while in Venice. The most visited site is San Marco square and needless to say, where you will find the most tourists. It is well worth setting the alarm clock for a little earlier than you may normally be willing to do so while on holiday. Get up and head to San Marco before the crowds just one of the days you are in Venice, it will be well worth the peace and quiet that you will enjoy, as well as being able to photograph this iconic square without hordes of tourists getting in the way.
The Rialto bridge will no doubt be crossed at least once during your stay in Venice. Along with San Marco this is probably the most visited tourist attraction. However, it is a great vantage point for iconic views of the grand canal. Whatever you do, do not buy anything in the shops on the bridge, you are guaranteed to get ripped off. It is well worth taking the time to walk a few streets back from the bridge in order to buy more authentic, local wares.
Speaking of shopping because it is one of my favourite past times especially when I travel. It is important to search out and shop at artisan shops, as opposed to the shops on the main drag filled with imitation products made in lands far away. Even in westernised countries it is crucial to support the ancient art forms such as glass blowing and mask making by buying directly from the artists. By supporting the local producers keeps the art forms alive.
All of that shopping and sight-seeing will require a little respite from the heat and crowds. The perfect solution is to people watch at a small cafe in a square off the beaten path while drinking an aperol spritz. For those of you who have unfortunately never had the pleasure of the tantalising taste of an aperol spritz let me explain my favourite cocktail. It is traditionally an aperitif cocktail but can pretty much be drunk at any time of the day, particularly in Italy.
Aperol is a bitter orange alcoholic liqueur that is then mixed with prosecco (the Italian version of champagne), soda water and garnished with a slice of orange with a few ice cubes thrown in to keep it cool. It is incredibly refreshing and dangerously easy to drink. People watching is a pastime in Italy and drinking an aperol is the ideal compliment. When standing at a bar you can expect to pay€2.50-3.50 for an aperol spritz.
You may also be a bit peckish by this point. Again, do not, I repeat, do not, eat at a tourist cafe or restaurant (see below to know how to identify these). Once again, make your way to a quieter back street and buy one of the many sumptuous sandwiches, such as proscuitto crudo, rucola, tomato and brie on a baguette, on offer in one of the many cafes. This will not only be delicious but much cheaper than the tourist traps.
Once you have had some sustenance you should take some time to visit the some of 130+ churches for some of the best Venetian art in the world. Some of the churches have some of the best preserved art in Venice and are often for free!
If you have time it is worth making a visit to Murano for traditional glass blowing and Burano for colourful, picturesque houses. Murano is filled with glass artisans that practice this traditional craft that has been taking place for hundreds of years. Burano is another island in the Venetian lagoon brimming with gorgeous cute candy coloured houses as well as producing a myriad of lace handiwork.
Getting Up High
One of the things that we would really recommend that you do while visiting Venice is to get a birds eye view of this amazing group of islands. You have a number of options to choose from. The first, and probably the most populated by tourists, is San Marco Campanile. Be warned, the line will be long and of course you won’t actually see the campanile, which is one of the iconic structures in the Venetian skyline.
Perhaps a better option is to go to the other side of the canal to San Giorgio Maggiore. You can take a boat, called a vaporeto, that only costs €7.50. You should be able to make it across, go up the tower and get back on another boat in the required 75 minutes. Make sure you validate the boat ticket just before you get on the vaporeto so that your 75 minutes starts from then, making it a cheap yet worthwhile experience.
Scala Contarini del Bovolo (snail) is the tallest external multi-arch spiral staircase in Venice. This grand staircase provides majestic views of Venice, allowing you to enjoy many of the hidden treasures of this one of a kind city. Even though plenty of tourists visit this unique tower there are not nearly as many as in San Marco square. An added bonus is that it only costs €7 for a 30 minute visit, however you should book ahead.
Another choice to gain a different perspective of the maze of streets that make up Venice is Fondaco dei Tedeschi. This historic building is situated near the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal. It has been used by German merchants, as a customs house under Napolean, and as a post office under Mussolini. One of the largest buildings in Venice has been photographed countless times but is not as popular with tourists as some of the above viewpoints.
Tips and Tricks to Avoid Tourist Traps
You will undoubtedly stop to quench your thirst at some point in a cafe. Take note and listen carefully. Whether you are having an alcoholic or non-alcoholic refreshment you should have it standing at the bar rather than sitting down. It will be so much cheaper than being served at a table. This also means that you are a customer and can therefore use the toilets. Having a coffee at the bar is cheaper than on the terrace and the farther in the terrace you are the more expensive it is.
Speaking of drinks, water fountains are continuously running and are completely safe to drink. It is fresh, clean water from the Dolomites. They were actually put in place to reduce the use of plastic water bottles so it is environmentally friendly as well.
Keeping along the food and drink line, let’s talk about where to eat. For a more local experience go to restaurants without encyclopedic menus in 10 different languages, that do not contain pictures. Choose places that have small menus and may even have items crossed out, don’t panic this is because they use local ingredients and make everything fresh. Lastly, you should definitely avoid restaurants where people are trying to lure you in. To be honest this advice should be adhered to no matter where you travel.
Tourists like to shop, come on, admit it, we’ve all done it. I confess, I’ve bought my fair share of souvenirs. In Venice, the streets with shops will be filled with tourists. So once again, take the small side streets instead, for a less stressful wander where you can gain a more authentic experience.
As previously mentioned, tourists love Venice but for a good reason. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have an enjoyable time. One of the places that you will likely want to visit is Basilica di San Marco. The line to enter this cathedral is typically longer than a football field, however we have some tips to help you out. You cannot enter Basilica di San Marco with a backpack so to avoid standing in a long line only to be told to stand in another long line to store your bag, go straight to the bag drop off which is at a nearby building (Ateneo San Basso). You can then skip the line with your newly acquired luggage ticket.
The other tip is to buy your ticket for the Basilica at Museo Correr. It will be a shorter line, plus you have to buy one ticket that covers all important buildings in San Marco piazza anyway, you cannot buy a ticket just for the Basilica.
Where to Eat and Drink
I’m sure you’ve all heard of Spanish tapas, well Venice has its own version. You must visit a cicchetteria for delicious and cheap bites to eat. Check out Venice Free Tour’s recommendations for great local places to try out. For an economical drink buy an ombra, which is cheap house wine that costs about €1. If you would prefer to eat at another type of restaurant you can expect to pay about €20 without alcohol.
I cannot end this post without mentioning I Tre Mercanti. It has 32 different tiramisu flavours! Yes you read correctly, 32 flavours! We tried pistachio and mint chocolate which were both mouth watering. They make everything on site, you can even watch it being made in the shop window.
Google Maps is not your ideal resource to help you get around as many of the narrow streets are either not registered or completely wrong. GPS reception is also not very reliable amongst the small thoroughfares that are lined with tall ancient buildings. We were given a tip to determine a good paper map from an average map. Check if the narrowest street in Venice, Calletta or Ramo Varisco, is shown, this way it will have sufficient detail to help you find your way around.
If the idea of taking a traditional gondola ride is not really your thing or perhaps you’re too tired to walk to the nearest bridge to cross to the other side of the Grand Canal, then a better option is to take a gondola across the canal as a cheaper option, it only costs €2! This will not only allow you to see San Marco from a different perspective and to gain some great views of Venice but you will also experience Venice from the water for a more local viewpoint. It is important to remember that everything really does happen on the water, it is the only way to transport people and goods.
If the idea of a “traditional” gondola appeals to you then be savvy about picking the right guy. I can’t criticise the idea of this tourist activity as I have never done it. I certainly can see the appeal as you get to see Venice from a very different perspective, riding among the timeworn canals. A ride should cost €80. Make sure you ask questions to the gondolero, for example, where they’ll take you, if they speak your language, if they will give explanations along the way, if they will take you to not so touristic areas and so on.
So there you go, Venice in a nutshell. We hope you have found it useful and get a chance to experience this original, one of a kind city that is like no other in the world.
Have you been to Venice? Do you have any other tips for Venice? Let us know in the comments below.
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