Venice Travel Notes
Venice, or Venezia in Italian, is one of the top three tourist destination cities in Italy, with some publications and websites even ranking the canals of Venice as Italy’s top attraction. Long before Italy became a country, the city state Republic of Venice rose in prominence between the 9th and 12th century and flourished as a center for trading between Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire as well as the Islamic world. Wars, plagues, and the significantly diminished trade dominance due to new discoveries of passageways into the New World and the east by Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Dutch Republic augured Venice’s economic decline and diminished prominence. A conquest by Napoleon and subsequent transfer to Austria, with a brief reestablishment of the Venetian Republic in the mid-1800s, followed by the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866, ended Venice’s existence as a city state.
My wife and I have been to Venice 3 or 4 times in the past year… and that’s not even counting the numerous times we’ve visited The Venetian in Las Vegas. We always loved our visits, but don’t necessarily like fighting through the crowds of people, especially during summers, weekends, and when there are cruise ships unleashing their throngs of passengers to explore La Serenissima. We’ve had visits lasting a few hours to an overnight visit with a side trip to Murano.
Most of the visitors to Venice make a beeline for Saint Mark’s Basilica and Saint Mark’s Square upon exiting the bus, the train station (or the vaporetto), or disembarking from their cruise ship…so the routes towards Venice’s main attraction(s) are well trodden and densely populated. I suppose this makes getting there fairly easy as you just follow the crowd. There really is no “direct” way on foot to get from the Piazzale Roma or the train station to Saint Mark’s Square, as the route snakes its way through sometimes unmarked alleys. It probably takes between 45 to 60 minutes on foot to get from Piazzale Roma to Saint Mark’s Square, depending on how fast of a walker you are. Saint Mark’s
Square (or Piazza San Marco) is Venice’s main square and is always packed with crowds. At the eastern end of Saint Mark’s Square is Saint Mark’s Basilica, with its mixture of Byzantine, Western Europe and Islamic architecture owing to its rich history as a trading center. Completed and consecrated in the late 11th century, Saint Mark’s Basilica is the reputed resting place for Mark the Evangelist, also known as the apostle Saint Mark, the traditional author of the Bible’s Book of Mark. Entrance into Saint Mark’s Basilica is free (although a fee is charged for Sunday afternoon and holiday visits and to view the museum, Pala d’Oro, the Treasury, as well as the Bell Tower or St. Mark’s Campanile) and there is normally a very long line to get in and pictures are not allowed inside. You are allowed roughly 10 minutes to visit the basilica and, as with most religious sites, proper etiquette and conservative attire are required. If you are staying overnight or can stay later than most of the tourists, I highly recommend entering the basilica as late as possible to avoid the crowds.
Right next to St. Mark’s Basilica is the Doge’s Palace, the former residence of the Doge of Venice. The doge is the chief magistrate of the city state Republic of Venice and was elected for life. One of the more popular tourist activity involves the Bridge of Sighs, the bridge connecting the Doge’s Palace with the New Prison. Given the nickname by Lord Byron in the 19th century (presumably as convicts sigh at their last view of Venice from this bridge on their way to imprisonment), its popularity comes from a legend which proposes that lovers will have eternal love if they kiss while on a gondola under this bridge at sunset while the bells of the Campanile toll. As you can imagine, there’s a traffic jam of gondolas with lovers at sunset headed under this bridge.
When you ask someone about what Venice is all about, you would more than likely get an answer involving gondolas along the Grand Canal. The Grand Canal is the major waterway snaking in an S-shape through Venice, with the Venice Lagoon on one end and Saint Mark’s Basin on another. This is the busiest water-traffic corridor in the city and a visit to Venice would not be complete without a ride on a water bus (or a gondola or water taxi if you are so inclined) to fully experience life in this city. Only four bridges span the Grand Canal and locals, as well as a few tourists, take full advantage of relatively inexpensive traghettos that ferry passengers from one bank of the Grand Canal to the other.
Rialto Bridge is the first bridge built to span the Grand Canal. Originally a wooden bridge built in the mid-13th century, the current stone bridge was completed at the end of the 16th century, and was constructed to bridge the gap between the markets that developed on both banks of the Grand Canal. Through the years, Rialto developed a reputation as the financial and commercial center of Venice. Today, Rialto has thriving markets, boasting fresh and local produce and seafood…maintaining its reputation built over 700 years of practice.
The best time to be in Venice (especially during high season) is late in the afternoon or early evening, after hordes of day-trippers have left the city. Early morning, before new busloads of tourists arrive, is also a great time to enjoy Venice. During sunset and before sunrise along Saint Mark’s Basin and the Grand Canal, as well as Saint Mark’s Square, when there is a nary a tourist around, are the best times to snap unforgettable landscape photos of Venice.
The Venice Biennale is a major art exhibit, to include the Venice Film Festival, occurring every two years on odd numbered years. The Venice Film Festival, now occurring every year in late August or early September, is considered the oldest international film festival in the world, founded in 1932.
Another famous event in Venice is the Carnival. Held every year, starting 40 days before Easter on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday), this is when Venice comes alive in the middle of winter with locals and tourists alike donning colorful masks and costumes. Saint Mark’s Square is where you would normally see the most extraordinary costumes but masked and costumed individuals can be seen all throughout Venice during Carnival. To maximize your Venice experience during Carnival, make sure to purchase and don your own mask, preferably one made by a local traditional mascarei. There is no shortage of masks in Venice as its been written that mask shops outnumber butchers and greengrocers in Venice. I am partial to the “Guy Fawkes” mask worn in the movie “V for Vendetta”.
Held every first Sunday in September, the Historical Regatta, or Regata Storica, pits teams of gondoliers against other teams, some in costumes, in a race along the Grand Canal. Incidentally, on one of our visits, we saw a novice being taught how to steer and maneuver a gondola and it became apparent that it wasn’t so easy. After witnessing that, we gained a better appreciation for the skill and experience required to handle a gondola in Venice waters, especially when navigating in narrow canals teeming with other gondolas and motor boats. The rowing season is actually between April through September, and it is not uncommon to witness spontaneous regattas in Venice during this timeframe.
How to get there
You can get to Venice via planes, trains, automobiles…and via ship or boat. I have only taken public transportation (bus from the airport and train from another city) to Venice and have heard of people driving but parking in Mestre and taking the train or a bus from Mestre to Venice. There is a large parking structure by Piazzale Roma in Venice but have seen rates as much as €26 per 24-hour period! The nearest airport is Venice Marco Polo (VCE) and there is an ATVO express bus (or ACTV No. 5 Aerobus) that takes you from Marco Polo airport to Venice’s Piazzale Roma. One-way bus tickets cost €6 with discounts for round trip tickets and tickets for 2 or more passengers. You can order them online via ATVO‘s website or purchase tickets at a counter in the airport. There are also ticket dispensers located right outside the arrival area as well as the baggage claim area. The express bus takes between 15 to 20 minutes from the airport to Venice’s Piazzale Roma. ACTV also offers a Tourist Travel Card that allows unlimited travel on ACTV’s buses and vaporettis (or water buses). There is a boat that takes you from Marco Polo airport to Venice, but read that this costs more than the ACTV or ATVO bus to Venice. There is no rail connection between Marco Polo airport and Venice.
If you fly into Venice Treviso airport (i.e. flying in via RyanAir), there is an ATVO bus (as well as Barzi bus) providing service between Treviso airport (TSF) and Venice’s Piazzale Roma. There is also a third party bus company contracted by RyanAir providing service between Treviso Airport and Venice.
Venice’s train station is Venezia Santa Lucia…and you know you are there since it is the last stop. You can look at schedules and order tickets online via TrenItalia’s website. Make sure to enter Venezia instead of Venice in the destination field as you would not find Venice on the drop down menu…much like you wouldn’t find Florence (Firenze) nor Rome (Roma).
How to get around in Venice
When you arrive in Venice, you can walk and see the attractions or make use of vaporettos (or vaporetti) if you have limited time to spend or if you or someone you are with have limited mobility. It is important to consider that if you decide to walk and you are with someone on a wheeled chair or you are pushing a toddler on a stroller, there are A LOT of bridges and steps spanning the various canals. Additionally, the narrow alleys coupled with crowds make maneuvering with a stroller or a wheeled chair a bit of a challenge.
I have heard that it is difficult to get lost in Venice…you are on an island after all. It is quite “easy” to get disoriented, however, as it is hard to focus on a landmark when you are walking along narrow alleys flanked by buildings and canals. Some say “getting lost” is part of the allure of Venice. There are signs pointing you to major Venice tourist attractions as you trudge through those alleys and following those signs would more than likely get you to where you want to go…whether the route you take is the most straightforward is another issue. Some folks purchase or download Venice maps but I get along just fine using my iPhone’s GPS app.
Riding the vaporetto is your best option (your only option…except if renting an expensive water taxi or on a “pricey” gondola ride) if walking is not your cup of tea…you would have to pay for that “luxury” however. One-way boat tickets cost €7 and is good for 60 minutes after validation on all routes within the Venice transportation network. If you plan to extensively use vaporetti during your stay in Venice, it might be advisable to purchase cards good for multiple hours or days which vary in price ranging from €18 for a 12-hour card up to €50 for a 7-day card. For extended visits to Venice, another option would be the Venezia Unica, also known as the Venice City Pass, which combines access to public transportation with tickets to select Venice museums.
Traghettos are gondolas that ferry passengers across the Grand Canal. There are only 4 main bridges that span the Grand Canal and traghettos provide a quick and relatively cheap way to cross the Grand Canal, especially if you are not located near any of the main bridges. There are half a dozen traghetto routes that are normally marked on maps.
– Amid the beauty of Venice, there are a few things to be aware of. While I have not witnessed pickpocketing in Venice, I have read and heard that this can be an issue. One can see how pickpockets would love Venice as the crowds probably make for a target-rich environment. For men, I highly suggest avoiding wearing a wallet in your back pocket. I normally don’t take a wallet with me during our visits to Venice and just take my wallet insert out, where I keep cash and one or two credit cards, and place it in my front pocket. For women, suggest you wear your purse across your body and keep your purse closed at all times.
– If you have never heard of Acqua Alta (literally high water in Italian), then you might encounter this firsthand when you visit Venice between November and March as the water levels during those months can sometimes result in a flooded Venice. While acqua alta conditions can “only” last up to 3 to 4 hours, it might be enough to “dampen” your spirits if you have limited time to explore Venice.
– During your visit to Venice, you would undoubtedly see counterfeit handbags being hawked by Africans and Pakistanis or Bangladeshis close to the main tourist attractions. This is a source of mystery to me since they do this out in the open and the Italian government “supposedly” have strict counterfeit laws. Can’t confirm, but from what I was told the consumer/purchaser of a counterfeit item, when caught, is fined heavily…but I don’t know what happens to the vendor/seller.
– WCs (or bathrooms) can be a challenge to locate in Venice at times. My wife and I would normally take full advantage of bathrooms in restaurants where we dined, prior to resuming our explorations.
– If you are set on a “romantic” gondola ride, be prepared for some exorbitant fare.
Gondola rides can cost between €80 to €100 with early evening/late afternoon gondola rides in the upper range. If you expect your gondolier to sing during your ride, that would normally be extra. During our multiple visits to Venice, I have yet to see/hear a gondolier singing.
– Bellini is the cocktail drink of Prosecco and peach puree that originated in Venice. The owner of Harry’s Bar reportedly made this drink for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Orson Wells. If you insist on drinking a Bellini at Harry’s Bar, be prepared for a sticker shock. You are better off ordering a Bellini at other local bars (we liked El Rofolo) away from major tourist attractions.
– Dining in Venice can get quite expensive, especially if you dine in restaurants close to the main tourist attractions. Be aware that most, if not all, of the restaurants lining Saint Mark’s Square charge a coperto. When we dined at the famed Caffe Florian on Saint Mark’s Square, to experience this historic restaurant, savor the live music, and enjoy people watching at Saint Mark’s Square, the coperto was as much as €6 per person. There are other restaurants advertising no coperto, and one of the better meals we had was a lunch at Alfredo’s – Fresh Pasta To Go where pasta dishes are served to go in these boxes akin to what you would see for a Chinese take-out. Much like most touristy cities, the farther away you find yourself from the main tourist attractions, the more reasonable the prices are.
– If so inclined, one can take water buses from Venice to explore the islands of Murano, famous for glass works, and Burano, famous for lace. Note, however, that Murano glass can be purchased in Venice for the same price, if not cheaper, than those expensive glass factories in Murano, especially those who lure tourists with tours of their factories aboard private taxis. Just be careful to ensure you are purchasing a piece actually made in Murano and not one made in China as those items have infiltrated the marketplace.