Europe/ Italy/ Travel tips

Venice travel guide – why to visit before it sinks

Venice Piazza San Marco

I would have loved to write this Venice travel guide with my late mother, because she is the only reason I added a visit to La Serenissima to my itinerary.

She loved and collected Venetian glass since before I was born, and during my childhood I could never quite understand what it was about these beautiful hand crafted colored glass objects that she found so fascinating.

Dark clouds heavy with rain loomed over the horizon as the train crossed over the causeway from terra firma towards the islands that made up the lagoon city of Venice.

My friend had warned me beforehand to choose somewhere close to the station or run the risk of having to take a water taxi or use a porter to get my luggage across the many bridges, as they had done on a trip the previous summer. With inclement weather I was grateful that I followed her advice.

This Venice travel guide will help you navigate both the city and it’s customs and recently implemented laws.

GETTING THERE

  • There are two airports serving Venice. One is Marco Polo Airport in the landside suburb of Mestre. Public busses and taxis from the airport go to Piazzale Roma and the Alilaguna Traghetto ferry goes from the airport to San Marco. The second airport at Treviso is an hour away from Venice and popular with low cost airlines. Travellers to Treviso have an hour long bus ride to the lagoon city.
  • High speed trains from throughout Italy disembark in Venice at Stazione Santa Lucia, the only train station on the lagoon islands. I travelled from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Station to Santa Lucia Station on the Frecciarossa high speed train of the Trenitalia line.
  • There is a cruise terminal at Stazione Marittima where cruise ships depart for Mediterranean and Adriatic cruises.
Steps of Santa Lucia Station Venice

Steps of Santa Lucia Station

ACCOMMODATION

Although one of the most beautiful cities in the world, there are less than 60,000 permanent inhabitants in Venice. Over the past twenty years Venice has become the cruise ship capital of the Adriatic and most of the visitors are day trippers who rarely spend even a single night in a hotel.

Accommodation in Venice is notoriously expensive and I would recommend that you book in advance from a reputable website with verified reviews. The proliferation of AirBnB’s has made long term permanent accommodation prohibitively expensive for locals who have been forced to live on the outer islands or on the mainland.

It has also resulted in the shrinking of industries and artisan jobs typically found in residential enclaves in urban areas. However, there are still many fresh fruit and vegetable markets dotted around piazzas if you are in an apartment and cooking own meals some of the time.

A cautionary tale: A year after their marriage, my brother and sister in law had travelled to Venice for a belated honeymoon. When they arrived at the hotel they found that the suite advertised on the website was not the one assigned to guests. In fact, they were given a damp smelly single room which they found quite disgusting. They arrived in the evening and checked out the next day to find something more habitable.

I booked through booking.com and selected Hotel Abbazia as it was located in a former monastery and had a beautiful garden. It fulfilled my criteria that were as follows:

  • Close proximity to the train station.
  • Within walking distance to some of the major attractions, or close to public transport.
  • Ground floor accommodation or a building with an elevator that worked.
  • Similar price range to a 5 star UAE hotel.

When I checked in, the guest service agent was quite surprised that I was travelling solo because apparently the room I had reserved was for three people. I had requested one on the ground floor as there was no elevator, and it was quite spacious with a queen sized bed plus a day bed, and had a view over the gardens. The only downside was that it was opposite the kitchen and every morning I was woken by the aroma of freshly baked croissants, filled with the most amazingly fragrant orange marmalade 🙂

Hotel Abbazia Venice Hotel Abbazia Venice

The hotel was formerly a monastery and although it has been tastefully decorated there are still some vestiges remaining. The bed was huge and looked a bit dated. Upon closer inspection however, I noticed that the bedcover was a fine exquisite fabric and the mattress firm and relatively unused. I had a peaceful night’s sleep every night.

The breakfast room is very grand and is set in what was formerly the prayer hall. Unfortunately it was raining most days and I did not have the opportunity to enjoy the garden very much.

TOP EXPERIENCES

After hearing from two of the couples on the trip how they had been ripped off after paying for very expensive gondola rides I decided to forgo that dubious pleasure during my stay. I did enjoy the public water taxis though and would recommend that as a secondary form of transport! The best way to see the city is on foot, and it is free.

Food

I booked a food tour for my second day in Venice and you can read about my experience on the Sweets of Venice tour soon. Although I saw one halaal restaurant mentioned on a muslim travel website and recognized the café a few buildings down from my hotel, I chose not to eat from there. They did not appear to have any muslim staff or halaal certification and the food was displayed adjacent to pork items.

If you don’t try anything else in Venice, you must try the Cicchetti, small snacks or side dishes typically considered bar food. On my first night the concierge at my hotel recommended Trattoria Povoledo, about a two minute walk from my hotel. I ended up eating there every day after enjoying the first Cichetti platter and subsequently hearing such good reviews from other diners. I loved the Cichetti platter since it had only seafood items and I had that for dinner on two occasions.

I also met American tourists who had come for the day trip and were embarking on a Mediterranean cruise the following day and a couple on their honeymoon. The honeymoon husband exclaimed that this restaurant served the best budget friendly hearty meals in all of Venice.

Trattoria Povoledo - Raviolini gorgonzola

Raviolini gorgonzola

Fresh produce

There seemed to be a fresh produce market in every neighbourhood. Fish, fruit and vegetables were bountiful and in demand by locals as well as travelers living in apartments nearby. These markets are open from early morning until around 1-2pm daily.

Pasticceria

Venetians, like the rest of Italy, have a quick breakfast consisting of a sweet pastry and a coffee, usually taken standing up at their favorite coffee bar or pasticcerria.

One of my favorites was Dal Mas Pasticceria that was located very close to my hotel. I would seriously go back to Venice only to eat more of their baked goods. You can see more of their delicious creations in the Sweet Treats of Venice food tour.

Dal Mas Pasticceria

I passed Pasticceria Giovanni Pitteri – Strada Nova 3843A and took photos of their fabulous desserts.

Caffé Florian – Piazza San Marco, 57

I visited Piazza San Marco (St. Marks Square) on the afternoon of my food walk. It had started to rain and map in hand, I navigated from the Rialto bridge through narrow alleys and crowded passage ways, passing numerous cafes filled with tourists, all with very similar menus. I would have been able to find my way to Piazza San Marco even without a map because there were adequate signs on the all the alleys and passageways between the Rialto and the square. Although I had my umbrella, I wanted to get out of the rain and have something hot to drink.

I recognised Caffé Florian from my research and decided to go there despite having read that it was expensive, and was seated immediately by the Maitre ‘D. Caffé Florian originally opened in 1720 as “Alla Venezia Trionfante” (Triumphant Venice) but was later renamed by patrons in honour of it’s owner, Floriano Francesconi. It is considered the oldest café in all of Europe and was the only place where women were allowed at that time.

The interiors are a little shabby, but it exudes an old worlde charm where white jacketed waiters seemed attuned to every need of every guest. Although they were busy on the day of my visit, the staff paid the same attention to solo diners as they did to groups of two or more.

I enjoyed an open sandwich featuring baccalà mantecato, a traditional Venetian dish of whipped salted cod fish. It was served on a flavorful black bread and topped with tomato and caper berries.

Caffe Florian - Baccalà mantecato

Pizza

On my visit to Burano I tasted the best pizza ever from a small pizza shop that sold only takeaways and had a few high tables to eat at outside. We had about 20 minutes at leisure before we had to meet up again with the tour leader and it was the only place where I could grab lunch and be at the meeting point in time.

I must confess that looking at the place and the lacklustre staff I did not have any expectations of the pizza, so I did not even bother to take a photo. Was I wrong! The base was thin and crispy and the margerita topping was perfect. The tomato sauce had the perfect balance of sweet and savory without being sour, and the mozzarella was gooey.

ART AND ARCHITECTURE

Venice is an open air museum of beautiful, crumbling villas and palazzos. This is a city where every church, public building or those of historical significance seems to be a masterpiece. Many buildings have fallen into disrepair, especially the ones with flooded first floors due to rising sea levels on the Adriatic.

Restoring or refurbishing any historical or heritage building is a bureaucratic nightmare and I was told that only the very wealthy are able to restore their properties to their full glory.

Architecture in Venice spans so many different styles from Byzantine, to Gothic to Islamic influences, and is a testament to both the influence of Venice and it’s outward looking attitude over the centuries.

Procuratie Vecchie, a 16th century building on the North side of Piazza San Marco is undergoing restoration and refurbishment to turn it into a public exhibition space.

At the end of my Sweets of Venice food tour, the guide Simona told me that she had a little surprise for me. It was a visit to Libreria Acqua Alta – 5173 Calle Lunga, 5176/B, a Venice bookstore that keeps its books in bathtubs and gondolas. It was an absolute delight.

There were books stacked from floor to ceiling and apparently on every available surface, and they really were in bathtubs and gondolas. The manager said that they were always prepared in the event of rising waters and the books would be saved. When we stepped outside we could see the water lapping over the edge of the landing.

DAY TRIPS

I booked a tour on Viator called Excursion to Murano and Burano Including a Glass Factory and a Lace Laboratory  and was the best half day spent.

Murano

We boarded a very elegant looking motorboat and cruised through the canals before crossing the Venice lagoon to Murano.

The first stop on the island was the 12th century Church of San Donato that still has the original mozaics in the floor.

Thereafter we visited the Colleoni Vetreria Artistica (artisan glass factory) to watch a glassblowing demonstration by Master craftsman and his apprentice. We learned how the glass has to be cooled down over a long period to prevent it shattering. After the demonstration we had a few minutes to view the items in the showroom but were forbidden from taking any photos.

I finally understood my mother’s fascination with Venetian glass. The skill and patience required to craft every single item boggles the mind.

Murano glass masterpiece

Town monument

Burano

After leaving the Venetian glass factory we made our way to the vaporetto stop where we boarded a water taxi to Burano which lies further away in the lagoon. At Burano we were served refreshments at one of the cafes and then took a walk around the island to see the pretty canals and their colorful houses.

After walking around the town we visited a lace workshop where the original Venetian lace is still made by hand but is a dying art. We also visited a pastry shop and tasted the speciality, dry cookies.

If you are traveling onwards to other cities you may want to read about my experiences in Florence and Rome or Top Travel Tips for any traveller.

VERDICT

Despite my reservations about willingly subjecting myself to a tourist nightmare, I loved my time in Venice and hope to visit again soon. September was the perfect time to visit because the summer hordes had mostly departed. The city has much to offer and I feel like I barely scratched the surface.

Venice tourism authorities have implemented new regulations to keep the city clean. This includes prohibitions on eating or picnicking on the bridges, loitering without purpose on bridges and causing traffic obstructions and littering.

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Ut Minh
    December 11, 2017 at 8:28 pm

    I have never been to Venice. Being seen as an enjoyable experience. I will save it to the list and share it with my husband. I would love to go there one day. Thanks!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      December 11, 2017 at 11:06 pm

      You are most welcome. Venice is probably as romantic a place for lovers as Paris, so have a wonderful time when you do go.

  • Reply
    Sheri
    December 11, 2017 at 11:21 am

    We visited Venice about 10 years ago, then went back about three years ago. I really enjoyed it and would visit again for sure. We are close by so easy to make it happen.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      December 11, 2017 at 11:06 pm

      I’m sure that as much as things may have changed in 10 yrs, they also stayed exactly the same. Except perhaps more tourists during peak season.

  • Reply
    Rachel
    December 10, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    Wow, Venice looks gorgeous, I loved Italy when I visited I cant wait to go back sometime! Is it true that Venice can be a bit smelly?

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      December 10, 2017 at 9:20 pm

      I didn’t smell any foul smells from the sea, the people or generally in the air. I smelled a lot of coffee and pastries and suspect the smelly bit happens during the heat of summer, when there are too many sweaty bodies around generating too much garbage that cannot be removed fast enough.

  • Reply
    Julianna
    December 10, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    Sounds like such an interesting experience. I’ve never been but (like everyone) it’s on my list!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      December 10, 2017 at 9:17 pm

      Hope you visit some day and enjoy the city as much as I did.

  • Reply
    Natasha Amar
    December 10, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    This is such an extensive guide that would be so valuable to anyone visiting. I have been to Italy twice but still have not made it to Venice. I definitely want to visit though I have heard it is touristy, but there must be good reason for all that attention.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      December 10, 2017 at 9:16 pm

      I would recommend going before or after peak season… so up to mid-May and from early September to get ok weather and fewer tourists. I often think I would love to go during Carnivale in February but think it will be much too cold.

      I think it’s the canals and traveling on water taxis and the occasional gondola past grand buildings that gives the city a permanent air of romance. Many of the buildings are in a sad state of repair but hopefully that will improve as Venice is undergoing the same type of restoration happening in other cities, where major work is sponsored by the global fashion houses.

  • Reply
    Ali Rost
    December 9, 2017 at 8:49 am

    I had no idea the permanent population of Vence is only 60,000! Also that most of the people who come into the city are truly there for less than a day. I’m a foodie and couldn’t help but smile the aromas of croissants as your alarm clock and seeing photos of all of the incredible food. Our neighbors went to Venice last year and like you, said they’ve never had better pizza in all of their life. x

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      December 10, 2017 at 9:10 pm

      Those croissants were something else! The hotels inside Venice are quite expensive, even the 2 and 3 star ones, and even more so if it has a view of the Grand Canal. Many tourists live in Venice Mestre, one train stop away on the mainland or take a bus over the causeway from any of the smaller villages.

      Unfortunately, the locals don’t earn high enough salaries to pay for a flat in the lagoon city. An affordable monthly rental would be equivalent to what the landlord can get renting the same apartment for a couple of weeks as an airbnb.

  • Reply
    Katie
    December 9, 2017 at 4:54 am

    It sounds like it got the approval of a reluctant visitor! It seems to have a few things going for it and good to hear they are taking measures to clean up their act too.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      December 10, 2017 at 9:04 pm

      As reluctant as I was at first, the city bowled me over with it’s delicious cuisine and beautiful though crumbling architecture.

  • Reply
    Sabrina
    December 8, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    Wow! very wonderful photos! the big structures are so amazing, foods seems so delicious… I wish I could visit this place one day. Thanks for sharing this beautiful post!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      December 9, 2017 at 1:10 am

      I had a great time in Venice and after all my reservations I was happy that I made the trip. I hope you get to see it and enjoy the great food too.

  • Reply
    chagazoulou chagazetvous
    December 8, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    oh Venice !!!
    I went with my husband (fiance at the time) and I loved this city!
    We were lucky to have a good time, which allowed us to eat on the terrace … we then made an excursion to Florence. I highly recommend this city (they have the best ice cream I have tasted in my life!).
    Thank you very much for this very complete article, which brought me back in 2010 during my own trip … I still have some smell and taste of these meals so good that I tasted!

    http://www.chagazetvous.com
    French Girl 😉

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      December 8, 2017 at 9:29 pm

      Venice gets a lot of bad press nowadays but I agree, it is a must see on any trip to Europe. Somehow I never tried the gelato in Venice, not even once, but maybe because it was raining often and I loved the pastries 🙂

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