Venice is truly spectacular and unique. To make sure you have the best time possible, I've put together these tips gleaned from multiple trips. Specific highlights to visit were covered in my last post, A Guide to Visiting Venice (part one).
Pack only what you can comfortably carry. You will be hauling bags over bridges and steps, you will need to transfer between docks and vaporettos. Most bridges are steep and have steps. Do not expect help or even for people to wait for you to accomplish the task. Few buildings in this historic city have elevators and interior stairs are often very narrow.
There are porters with specialized carts that "climb" stairs. If you arrive with a LOT of baggage (as our performing groups did), you can also hire a boat with porters to carry the load.
Be prepared to pay for public toilets up to €1.50 -- if you can find one. They are generally fairly clean but can lack toilet paper. Tuck some in your day bag. City passes may include a toilet pass. For the price of a public toilet, you can find a coffee bar that allows customers to use their facilities and get a quick espresso too. Flooding happens on a fairly regular basis between October and February. Raised sidewalks are placed in the piazzas during those times and plastic shoe covers are widely available. Most flooding events cover small areas of the city and recedes in a matter of hours.
Moving around Venice is done on foot or by water. Wear comfortable shoes and, if travelling in the heat of summer, bring a hat. There is little shade outside of the calles.
Don't bother with mapping apps. Use a paper map. Embrace getting lost. Some of those calles are dead-ends. Enjoy the experience and chance to discover new areas.
When you get lost, look high on the wall of a building at an 'intersection' for the yellow direction signs. They point to major areas such as San Marco, Rialto, and Piazalle (train station).
You can use the vaporetto (water bus) to move all around the Lagoon and out to the nearby islands but this is best saved for longer journeys at €7.50 per 75 minute ticket. Tickets are sold at vending machines at the main stops, at the train station, and in tobacco shops and newspaper kiosks.
Learn the vaporetto routes and schedules. Memorize the name of the one closest to your lodgings. It will take you longer to get from place to place than you think.
Gondola Rides Take a gondola ride. Yes, it's cheesy and can be expensive but it is necessary to truly experience Venice from the canals. Many gondoliers include some narration as you float along the canals.
The standard rate for a thirty-minute gondola ride is €80 for a daytime ride and €100 for a sunset ride. Note that this is a cost per boat, not per person. Up to six people can ride in a standard gondola. Make some friends in the lineup and share the costs. Some companies will fill a boat with multiple parties.
For true budget travellers who want a gondola ride but just can't fit it into the budget, you can take a very basic 2-3 minute ride across the Grand Canal on the traghetto for only €2.
Catch the traghetto at the small wooden dock beside the Rialto fish market. Crossings are daily from 9 am to 7 pm.
Do NOT buy "designer" bags from street vendors who lay their wares on a sheet on the ground. It is actually a crime and you can be fined a significant amount. Italy is very serious about counterfeit goods. There are many wonderful original and legal leather artisans who sell in kiosks and shops. Learn what to look for to confirm it is Italian-made and genuine. There are massive numbers of souvenir hawkers, transient vendors and pickpockets in the busy gathering areas. Beware of your belongings. If pausing to watch street performers, stand back to avoid pressure to tip. On the other hand, if you stay for a while, throw a couple of euros in the hat.
The most popular souvenir is the gorgeous Venetian masks. Most that you will see are cheap, mass-produced tourist items. The truly authentic masks that won't fall apart while wearing are created in the back rooms of small artisan shops, many of which are located in the Dorsoduro neighbourhood. The tourist quality ones are only really good for display.
Another popular Venice souvenir is colourful Murano glass found in almost every souvenir shop and kiosk. Much of this is mass-produced glass produced in other places. For the real stuff, go to Murano. It's a great day trip reachable by vaporetto. Check out the post about Murano for more specific information.
Venice was the first European city to embrace coffee. To enjoy coffee Venetian style, you order a caffe (espresso) and drink it standing at the bar. It will cost you more to sit down. Most coffee bars require you to pay for your coffee and get a receipt before going to the bar and making your order. Do not toss the receipt! Words to order coffee at a North American coffee shop are often a very different product than the same order in Venice. The word latte means milk and that's exactly what you will get: a cup of milk. If you want a milky coffee, you want a latte macchiato. My favourite is a caffe macchiato, espresso with a wee bit of milk or foam. Italians would never order a cappuccino after noon.
An American style mug of filtered coffee is not generally a thing in Italy. To get a tall cup of coffee, you need to order an americano or caffe lungo. Since filter coffee is not available, this is made by adding hot water to espresso.
Food There are many places to eat in Venice but many are underwhelming, at best. To get better quality meals at lower prices you have to move away from the busiest tourist areas. The more authentic and worthwhile places are often tucked down a small quiet calle. Consider joining a Bacaro tour to have a local introduce you to worthwhile establishments.
Authentic Venetian restaurants are often seafood-based. Cicchetti is the Venetian version of tapas. A favourite evening is to find a table with a great view to enjoy a variety of tapas and a refreshing spritz.
I love gelato and can eat it several times a day while in Italy. I have learned to avoid the gelato shops with mountains of vividly coloured gelato. The bright colours are the clue that artificial flavours have been used. Instead find a vendor on a side street with more muted colours that come from natural flavours. You will get a better product and can usually save some money, too.
Similar to the entire country, the water in public fountains is potable. Bring a refillable bottle to fill up through the day. A request for water in a restaurant is an order for bottled water. You will be asked if you want naturale (flat) or frizzante (sparkling).
A couple of my favourites places to eat:
Bacareto da Lele
I noticed this little tapas restaurant only because of the number of people waiting in line. Prices are shockingly low for Venice. Bacareto da Lele is Venetian fast food. This little hole-in-the-wall is located in the Santa Croce neighbourhood. Order at the counter, pay, and maybe you'll be lucky enough to get a barrel top or table but more likely, you'll have to find a spot beside the canal to eat picnic-style.
During a free afternoon on one of the student trips I led, I was introduced to All'Arco by our coach driver. This is a tiny but traditional bar located on Calle Arco near Rialto serves amazing cicchetti, a type of Venetian tapas. There is only one table, so most of the customers stand outside. It has become a must-do on every trip and a great place to mingle with locals while enjoying some snacks with a glass of prosecco or a spritz.
Osteria al Squero
Osteria al Squero is directly across from the city's oldest gondola workshop. It's right on the canal with no tables. Patrons can enjoy drinks and remarkably tasty cicchetti in the tiny, standing-room only space with wine glasses dangling over a wood bar while watching the gondola builders across the way.
I hope you'll love Venice as much as I do. It is truly a special place that is suffering from the damaging effects of climate change, over-tourism, and other human activities. Visit it while you still can.
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