Travelers all seem to have very strong opinions of Venice — they either love it or hate it.
The haters, in my opinion, generally have not experienced the Venice that I know and love. More often than not, they arrived by cruise ship with only a few hours to visit the “must-sees” such as the Basilica, Doges Palace, and The Rialto Bridge, so they trudge from one sight to the next with about 50,000 other like-minded tourists.
Some others stay a night or two — thinking they can see it all in a day — likely bunking in hotels outside of Venice in order to save some cash. But, they end up spending money and time to get to and from the city — SO not worth the hassle.
I don’t like Venice either when I get swept into the river of a selfie-stick carrying mob, only to come to a halt on top of each bridge while they take their mandatory FaceBook pic.
What’s to love when you only see innumerable souvenir shops carrying cheap Chinese-made Venetian masks and Murano glass, and wait in line for two hours for a five minute walk-through of Basilica San Marco.
Who would enjoy handing over $100 for a sweltering midday gondola ride in the dog days of July? This is why many tourists check Venice off their travel “bucket-list”, and vow never to return.
But this less-than-pleasant Venice is far from the one I know and adore, returning each year to savor.
The Venice I love is still and serene at first light, when I can walk through the city undisturbed. I’ve leaned on the railing of the Rialto Bridge at sunrise, in complete silence, soaking up the beauty of the Grand Canal in solitude.
Walking through the city at night, I’m struck by the sound of my foot-steps exclusively, not a motor to disturb the tranquility other than the occasional boat motoring down a canal.
Even daylight walks can be peaceful if you veer from the well-worn path connecting the main sights.
The Venice I love includes campos such as San Giacomo dell’Orio, where young families gather in the early evening, watching their children ride bikes or play soccer with friends, while patrons of the surrounding bars and restaurants drink a spritz and nibble on cicchetti. Older habitants sit and chat on benches, or stand in groupings while their pint-sized dogs do the meet-n-sniff game, followed by a happy chase through the square.
My Venice requires one to slow down, explore the neighborhoods beyond the tourist attractions, and in all probability, get lost, which is not a bad place to be since this is, after all, Venice.
So, here are my suggestions to enjoy Venice to it’s fullest.
Arrive by water taxi from the airport. Yes, it is the priciest option, BUT, it is an event in and of itself. Sit back, relax, and pretend you are a jet-setter back in the heyday of Pan Am. Stand outside in the back and just take it all in…
Stay in one of the luxury hotels. If you can afford to. I’ve stayed at Hotel Europa & Regina several times using SPG award points — Not only is the interior of these hotels spectacular, but the old-school Italian service where you leave an actual key — a large brass key with a fancy red tassel! — with the front desk every time you leave the hotel is something to cherish in our disconnected modern world. Feel indulged as you admire the marble, murano chandeliers, Rococo-era antiques, and Fortuny fabrics prevalent in most of these classic inns.
If total luxury not an option, stay in a charming pensione like Katherine Hepburn in the film Summertime. Please, WATCH THIS before your trip!!! On my first visit, I stayed at La Calcina which is considered a large guest house. I had a room complete with beautiful simple antiques, soft white linens, and a view of a side canal. Each morning I enjoyed my cappuccino and complimentary breakfast at the inn’s outdoor restaurant on the Giudecca Canal, all for the bargain price of $100.
Rent an apartment for stays 5 days+ — especially for families. If you make Venice your home-base for a week, you can take a few day trips by train with ease: Verona is 20 minutes; Bologna about an hour; Florence possible in 2 hours; even an excursion to Lake Garda or a hike in the Dolomites is feasible. You can read about the agency I prefer –– Views on Venice — here.
Have a cocktail at one of the posh hotels. Especially if you are not staying in one! The bartenders are masters of their craft, and the impeccable service will pamper you. My favorite is the Hotel Danieli; Hotel Cipriani, The Gritti Palace, and Hotel Metropole are also gorgeous choices, and the Cipriani even includes a fancy boat ride to whisk you from San Marco over to the island of Giudecca where it is located.
Do pub crawl. Read all about a traditional Venetian bar crawl here.
Go island hopping. Take a vaporetto to Burano in the morning — get off, walk around and admire the kaleidoscope of residences. Then, take the next boat to Torcello; walk through the beautiful cathedral which dates back to 639. Now, for the best part… lunch at Locanda Cipriani. Make a reservation for the garden in moderate seasons.
Skip the line, and book your visit to the Basilica online. Why wait in line with about 500 other tourists when it’s possible to book a timed visit online for a minimal fee of €2? You will feel so VIP as you pass them all by.
Get a pigeon-eye view of Venice from St. Mark’s Campanile — the bell tower. Arrive before it opens at 9. You can’t reserve a time here, BUT, every time I have arrived 15 minutes before opening, wait time is minimal. April to October it opens at 9 a.m., and November to March at 9:30 a.m. The views from here are spectacular.
Rent a cabana for the day at Hotel Excelsior on the Lido. It is very expensive, so only if you have the means, but I promise you a delightful beach day, Italian style! You will arrive and depart on their hotel boat — another charming perk! We stayed here once when my kids were young, and it was great to have access to a pool and the beach, FYI for those who might want to consider this as an option. If cost is an option, kids will still enjoy a visit to this sandy beach or a bike ride around the island.
Hire a gondola, BUT only at dusk or after dark. All the day-trippers take their mandatory ride during the day… avoid the masses and enjoy a more peaceful outing as the sun is setting, or even in the dark. Hearing only the lapping of the oars with occasional laughter or the clinking of glasses as you pass restaurants is priceless. BRING CHAMPAGNE WITH YOU! And give your amore a long kiss. TIP: if price is a factor, take a traghetto ride with locals across the Grand Canal where you can experience a 3 minute gondola ride for the bargain price of $2.
Visit the fish market in the morning, followed by an early lunch (late breakfast) at one of the bacaro surrounding the market.
Drink a spritz in the early evening, the traditional aperitif of Venice which includes wine (white wine or prosecco), bitter liquor (Campari, Aperol, or Select), and a splash of soda, served over ice and with an orange slice or olives. The very best place to do this is at Naranzaria — at one of the outside tables — located on the Grand Canal, not too far from the Rialto Bridge.
Enjoy at least one coffee or cocktail at either Quadri or Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco while the orchestras are playing. Savor the moment and soak in the entire experience — the location, the view, the music, the kids chasing pigeons… it is an event to relish.
Visit the tourist sights in the early morning. The light is wonderful for photography, and you will avoid the crowds.
Ride the vaporetto in the early morning. Sit in one of the seats outside in the back if weather permitting. Enjoy the peace AND the ability to take photos and videos unencumbered by the mobs encountered later in the day. There seems to be a running theme here regarding early morning activities. Consider rising early to avoid the crowds, eating a big midday meal followed by a siesta or an afternoon enjoying a book. Then heading back out again in the evening when the crowds dissipate.
Indulge in a long, leisurely lunch, followed by an afternoon siesta. Enough said. Live like an Italian at least for one day.
Use a map on your phone instead of a paper one. You are a tourist BUT there’s no need to look like one.
Explore the neighborhoods outside of the tourist zone. This is where the charm is. You’ll love all the little campos, shops, and wine bars you will encounter. Feel free to get lost for a bit… remember you have that map on your phone to get you back!
Eat one lunch or dinner at Harry’s Bar. Don’t come here for just a drink, despite it’s name — this is a place for dining. The history and food of this place are worth the expense. Be advised — no shorts allowed. The story behind the name and establishment is fascinating — check it out here!
Consider visiting off season. Some of my favorite visits to Venice have been in the winter months!
Well hello there… A fountain of wine is set up in Piazza San Marco during the winter Carnival season. It’s most likely colored water, but cool nonetheless.
The Christmas lights remain in place for much of January, much to my delight!