When I mention Venice (Italy) to other travelers, I find they either love it or hate it. We are in the “love it” category and have been since our first visit 10 years ago. Venice was the first European city that really captured my heart, and during that visit in 2009, I knew the city was my spiritual home. We visited a second time in 2010 but for whatever reason, did not return until the Fall of 2019. We were spending two weeks in Croatia and couldn’t resist taking the ferry to Venice from Pula since we would be so close.
The ferry took about four hours (and another two to get through immigration – much worse than arriving at the airport). If you are flying in to Venice, be sure to investigate the best option to getting to your hotel from the airport. Water taxi is the fastest but is expensive; the Alilaguna water bus is a good option and takes about 90 minutes. We rented an apartment in Dorsoduro and we were quite grateful for the ramps that have been installed on some of the canal bridges as it made walking with our luggage considerably easier. We only noticed these on a few bridges, however. If you’re staying in Venice and you’re not on a canal, be prepared to take your luggage on an adventure.
When deciding where to stay, keep in mind there are no cars or motorized vehicles permitted in Venice (only boats in the canals), which means getting to your apartment or hotel will likely involve dragging your luggage across cobblestones and numerous bridges. You should just accept the fact that you will get lost, probably many times. And definitely while trying to find your accommodations. I suggest staying as close to a canal as possible for the ease of transporting your luggage (water taxis really come in handy here), and if possible, stay near a point of interest so you can follow the signs and easily find your way back to your hotel or apartment. On our first visit we stayed at the Hotel Antiche Figure which is directly across from the train station; following the signs to the Ferrovia made it a breeze to find our hotel!
Without cars, you’ll have two options for getting around: on foot or on the water. Venice is small and you can get from Cannaregio to Dorsoduro on foot in 30-minutes. But at some point, you will likely need to travel by water. You have three main options: Vaporetto (water bus), water taxi or gondola. The vaporetto is the most cost effective at €.75 per journey; if you’re there for more than a day it makes sense to get a pass. At the larger vaporetto stops you will find the ACTV booth where you can inquire about single tickets or multi-day passes. Be sure to tap in at the beginning of each journey! Water taxi is stylish and fast, but also pricey. Gondola rides will run approximately €90/hour. There is a gondola ferry called a traghetto, that crosses the grand canal at specific spots and costs about €2 so if you want to ride in a gondola without paying a small fortune, that might be an option. Just be prepared to share your vessel with others and possibly stand during your crossing.
Once we were settled in to our apartment, we could hardly wait to set out and reacquaint ourselves with our favorite place on earth. We struck out in no particular direction, and after a few turns we found ourselves at the Corner Pub, a gem of a bar and a favorite with the locals. Fortunately for us, it was our neighborhood spot, and we ended most evenings with a nightcap there. We continued wandering, trying to get lost, which is definitely the BEST way to explore Venice, but familiar campos were around every corner. We even spotted a familiar gondolier in the Campo Santo Stefano.
We spent five days weaving our way through our favorite neighborhoods, and somehow managed to discover a campo that we had overlooked on previous visits. Campo S.S. Giovanni e Paolo in Cannaregio has a low-key local vibe, with charming cafes sitting in the shadow of the Scuola Grande di San Marco. Go late in the day to watch the sunset while enjoying an Aperol spritz and some cicchetti. Campo Bandiera E. Moro is another quiet campo; not as pretty as Giovanni, but away from the crowds.
Although Venice has a reputation of being mobbed by tourists (especially daytrippers from the cruise ships), if you get away from Piazza San Marco, the basilica and the Rialto, you will be treated to small pockets of the city that the tourists don’t seem to find. Your best chance to mingle with Venetians will be in Cannaregio and Castello, which is also where you’ll find the best restaurants. Our favorites are Trattoria Pontini, Trattoria all Rivetta, A Le Tole and Rosa Rossa. For a fancy cocktail, head over to The Hotel Danieli and soak up the ambiance in the swanky lobby, or to the rooftop for a Prosecco with a view. If the beach is calling you, take the vaporetto to Lido and take a short ½ mile walk to the sand. It was too chilly to swim during our visit in September, so we took advantage of the empty streets to ride a four wheeled bike all around the island.
The absolute best way to visit Venice is to get lost in the many narrow alleys and discovering by accident the most beautiful canal or campo. First time visitors must of course visit the main tourist attractions; if you’re visiting via cruise ship, you will probably be stuck in all the tourist spots in the middle of the day with everyone else on the ship. But if you are lucky enough to spend a few nights in Venice (which I strongly recommend), save piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge for the evening when the cruise ship crowds are gone and you can enjoy these hotspots in some relative peace. There are even a few evening tours of the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica. Spend your days in the outer neighborhoods where there are fewer crowds. We like to pick one neighborhood each day and completely commit ourselves to exploring every crevice, finding our favorite outdoor café and of course, the best gelato.
Murano, Burano and Torcello are great day trips, and they can be seen over multiple days or one day if you’re crunched for time. The glass factories of Murano are interesting, and if you buy a souvenir there, you can be sure it’s genuine Murano glass. Torcello is practically deserted with the exception of a few eateries and the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, with its Venetian-Byzantine mosaics and the stone seat known as Trono di Attila. These islands are popular with tourists so check the cruise ship schedule to find out which days will have the fewest ships in port. If you have some extra days or need to escape the crowds, take the train to Verona to visit the Colosseum, or to Bologna for its amazing cuisine and renaissance squares.
If churches are your thing, you’re in luck: there are 139 churches in Venice, the most famous being the ancient Basilica (consecrated in 832 AD); you can barely move without bumping in to a church. While most of the churches are free to enter, some do charge admission so do your research before you go. If you decide to visit any church in Venice, dress appropriately (preferably no shorts or revealing clothing) and remember these are places of worship. Talking and noise in general should be minimal. Of all the churches in Venice, there are some standouts. The Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, also known simply as the “Frari” was founded in 1227 and is one of the most important churches in Venice. It is home to many works of Titian, Bellini and Donatello, and is the resting place of Titian. The Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, with its barrel shaped roof, was founded in 1487, and the oldest church in Venice is the Chiesa de S. Angelo Raffaele which was founded in 416AD. The imposing Santa Maria della Salute sits at the point of Dorsoduro and the Grand Canal.
Returning to Venice after being away for so many years was like being home again, and our love affair with this city on the lagoon was renewed. We vowed to never stay away so long again!