Spinning the stem of my glass of Campari spritz between my fingers, I narrowed my eyes and held it up to the sunset. By some witchcraft the peach and pink bleeding across the sky and painting the spires across the lagoon rose colored (without the glasses) blended seamlessly into the pink aperitif in my crystal glass.
From the rooftop terrace of Paradiso an afternoon stretches languorously into evening as the passenger ferries come and go, like water bugs, from the Giardini Biennale dock. Local boats of every size and shape, from row boats to giant cruise ships make their passages, as they have for centuries.
There is magic here, and I’m not alone in finding it. Ghosts of Venice’s past rub shoulders with travelers, awestruck by the architecture and history, and aproned housewives just trying to make it home with overstuffed shopping bags. Perhaps it is in the garlic scented, “come hither” whispered on the evening air from the mouth of every cafe and restaurant in the warren of narrow streets. Maybe it’s the lack of wheeled vehicles and the romance of the gliding gondolas idly watched from the tops of bridges by those of us who still wonder at such things.
For me the magic is in the intoxicating experience of getting entirely lost, and then finding home in the violin music that drifts down from the open window of a practice room as the shadows begin to stretch long and the city turns to gold. I find magic hanging between the laundry pinned to high lines across the cobbled streets, and in the shops crowded with glass spun by masters, alongside masks hiding secrets as old as the stones in Saint Mark’s Square.
Venice oozes romance.
Getting to Venice
If you fly in, you’ll need to find your way from the airport to Venice proper. The least expensive option is the vaparetto, which is walking distance from the exit of the airport and well signed (just walk underneath the white canopy, which is out the door and to your left). The cost is 15 EU one way or 27 EU if you buy a round trip ticket. The vaparettos are clean and efficient and provide a lovely water approach view of Venice.
Private water taxis are also readily available. Expect to spend more like 95 EU for private, to your hotel door, service. This can be a good option if you have mobility issues or luggage that is going to be difficult to maneuver on the cobbled streets and over the bridges of this medieval town.
Where to Stay in Venice
Options abound when it comes to lodging in Venice, unless of course you’re looking for budget accommodations. To find anything truly hostel cheap you’re probably going to have to stay outside of the island city proper, in Mestre, perhaps. Camping Jolly is an option that is far more than just camping and is right on the bus route into Venice, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Staying right in the heart of San Marco, or San Polo, expect to pay more for the central location and the walking convenience. For a quieter, more “local” experience, consider Canareggio, or Dorsoduro. Avoid the area of Canareggio and Santa Croce nearest to the train and bus stations as well as the big water taxi stations. There are some cheaper accommodations here, but the location is pretty terrible, and the traffic, pedestrian, and vehicular, is a madhouse. This is where the buses come from the mainland and the parking garages for auto traffic are located.
My personal favourite in Venice is the Castello neighborhood. Yes, it’s a bit of a walk from San Marco but it’s a very local section of town, with floating barge markets, inexpensive little restaurants that spill out of darkened doorways into a few tables in the street, where children play and families walk together at dusk. The Biennale de Venezia Giardini is the biggest and best green space in the city and provides a welcome respite from the sometimes oppressive closeness of the crowds. Out of San Marcos square, facing the lagoon, turn left and walk all the way to the end. You’ll know the park when you see it.
An Airbnb, or some alternative type of private rental is the best way to live local in Venice, in Castello or any other neighborhood. I highly recommend this over the hotel experience.
Venice Travel Tips
I dare you to avoid this. Getting lost is a pleasure and an art form in this town. If you’re worried about finding your way home, take the card from your hotel, or write down your address before you take off walking. Don’t expect your GPS to be particularly helpful. The tall narrow spaces between buildings along the streets make it hard to get a bead on your satellite and it’s quite normal for the usually reliable blue dot of Google Maps to leap around erratically. If you’re seriously lost, your best bet is to find some open sky in a square, or on a bridge, to try to get your bearings.
When you find somewhere that you love that you want to return to, like that wonderful basement wine shop where local favorites are siphoned off into your water bottle for less than 2 EU a liter, or that one particular seafood restaurant that wasn’t quite open for the evening when you walked by, drop a pin in your map program. Trust me. I spent two hours trying to get back to that fish house. I found it. Finally. By process of elimination. I walked 16 miles that day.
Pasta. Seafood. Pastries. Gelato. For heaven’s sake don’t miss the gelato. Drink the wine. Sip the various spritzes. Venice is foodie paradise.
If you’re looking for the view that melts drink and sunset together into one pink haze, it’s the rooftop terrace of Paradiso, which is in the park in the Castello neighborhood, right across from the vaparetto stop. You can’t miss it. Check out the art on the first and second floors. Hold out for one of the pillowed couches where you can sit long and savor the sunset. The food is not the best in town, but the ambiance is unmatched.
Everyone has their favorite hole in the wall place. Yelp it if you must, but I encourage you to eat by braille in Venice. Follow your nose and follow the locals. A restaurant packed to overflowing, where everyone is speaking Italian, is worth waiting for a table at. Trust me.
Hit the Museums
The Basilica of St. Mark
Yes, the line will be long. Go early in the morning to mitigate that. Be sure that your shorts or skirt cover your knees and that your shoulders are covered too. The rules apply to both men and women. Scarves can be purchased from hawkers in the square if you forgot. The baggage room where you can leave your luggage is across the square and just down the street that runs directly parallel to the basilica’s front. The attendants will help you find it. Bags can be left for free for one hour.
I didn’t visit this one during my first trip to Venice. That was a mistake. The most moving part of the place is the Bridge of Sighs. Crossing the stone bridge the cool breeze brushed my face while I took a photograph through the stone lattice and I became keenly aware that this was the last fresh breeze countless prisoners felt as they were taken to the prison within the palace and left to languish, and eventually die. “I wonder if this place is haunted,” a man near me mused. I did not wonder. The ghosts were still there, reaching out through stone holes with withered arms, hoary, haggard heads with sunken pleading eyes.
Inside the museums I do not see the other gawkers. Instead, within these walls I see Princess Sissi, the same one who’s childhood palace I toured in Vienna, once upon the time. I hear the cadence of Franz Joseph’s footsteps echoing between worlds. In the background the stern voices of the council of ten, gathered in their chambers over a hearing, and the low murmur of women bent over tapestry hoops whisper through the ante chambers. This is the museum to visit if you want a window into the politics and imperial life in Venice during the reign of Franz Joseph.
Naval Historical Museum
Venice has never existed without boats as a primary means of transportation. That’s one of the few constants in Venetian history. The Naval Historical Museum is an unassuming building on one of the side streets up from the lagoon at the edge of the Castello neighborhood. For five euro you can spend a pleasant half an hour getting up close and personal with the boats of Venice’s past. This little hole in the wall is well worth a visit and often you’ll have the space to yourself.
Most of Italy’s churches are open to visitors, free of charge. Hop in and out of the churches that dot the squares of Venice for a fascinating adventure in art and architecture.
Remember that these are active houses of worship, not museums, so dress and act accordingly.
Explore the Artistry
Visit San Trovaso, and discover the workshops where the famous gondolas are made. Take a day trip out to Murano and watch the world famous master glass artists at work. Hop a ferry out to the island of Burano where lace craft has been a major industry since the middle ages. Add the Burano Lace Museum to your list of museum stops.
Venice is full of amazing art, from the painters you’ll find dotting the squares, to the sculptors and architects responsible for the fantastic buildings, inside and out. Mask artisans, leather workers, wood carvers, seamstresses, musicians and more still ply their crafts in Venice. Dig a little deeper while you’re there.
What to Wear in Venice (& How to Pack!)
Venice is the one city in Europe where I would absolutely refuse to travel with a roller bag.
In fact, a number of years ago the city debated whether or not to ban them entirely because of the racket the wheels make on the stone streets and the clogging inconvenience of travelers hauling them up and down, up and down, across the steps of the bridges. Traveling with anything other than a carry on sized backpack is folly in this city. You’ll hate your luggage before you ever get to your hotel. The Outbreaker travel backpack organized neatly with packing cubes was my go-to bag for Venice. The wet/dry bag will take care of any damp clothing or dirty laundry from splashes on the vaparetto or gelato spilled down the front of your shirt.
If you must travel with suitcases or bigger bags, then by all means splurge for the private water taxi directly from the airport to your hotel. It’s worth the money.
Wondering what to wear in Venice? In the winter, Venice can be cool, pack layers. In the summer, you’ll find it warm and sometimes a little sweltering. You’ll still want a jacket or wrap for the chill of evenings. Unless you’re planning to go to a play or an orchestra performance (or Carnival!) you’ll find casual clothes adequate. Pack one nicer outfit for evenings out.
- 2 Pair of pants, shorts, or skirts
- 4 Tops three short sleeve, one long sleeve
- 5 Pair underwear
- 1 Light jacket or wrap
- 1 Pair solid walking shoes
- 1 Nicer dress or dress shirt
- 3 Pair of socks
- Small daypack that comfortable to carry
- Water bottle
- Anti-Nausea meds (if you’re prone to motion sickness, you’ll be on and off of boats daily)
Venice Daypack Packing List
Once you’ve got your larger luggage safely stowed at your hotel or Airbnb, you’ll want to get out and explore. A well designed daypack with decent shoulder strap padding is what you need for long days spent getting lost in the labyrinthine streets of Venice. What should you put in it?
- Reusable water bottle, don’t add plastic trash to the garbage problem in Venice
- Camera (trust me, you’re going to want to take pictures)
- A street map of Venice, yes really, Google’s little blue dot on the map leaps around like a frog and is hopelessly lost much of the time
- A scarf or shawl
Remember to plan for something that covers shoulders and knees for visiting churches.
Venice is the one city in Europe that is an absolute must for carry on only packing. Expect to carry your bag everywhere. Roller bags are ill suited to the cobbled streets and bridges with many steps up and down.
Spend enough time to explore the city, visit the museums, and eat all of the best things. Make time to sip a Campari Spritz on the rooftop of Paradiso with me. Take some day trips to the surrounding islands and marvel at the centuries old artistry still handed down, generation to generation.
Pack in layers, and pack light! Your luggage is your biggest liability in Venice.
Image Credit: Victor Hanacek, Picjumbo