Our final stop on our Italian adventure, after Bologna and Florence, was the beautiful floating city of Venice. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the sensory overload of seeing Venice for the first time. For the first couple of hours of being in the city, we wandered around in a trance. I mean I know it’s famously one of the world’s most beautiful places and this is not new information, but Venice is sublime. The whole city sparkles and shimmers and glitters; the sunlight bouncing light from the water on to the bridges and grand, gothic palaces and rows of colourful houses with their crumbing elegant facades. There are some myths about Venice I feel I need to debunk. During our four days there I did not once smell the famed ‘stench’ of the canals. Nor did I pay ridiculous money for a drink and a sandwich, on the contrary, I found plenty of reasonably priced places to eat and drink and stay in but obviously these were not located near to tourist traps. Venice is crowded, but you can easily escape the crowds or time your visits to main tourist attractions to avoid them. If you spend your entire time in and around Piazza San Marco, you’ll soon fall out of love with Venice, so I would advise minimising your time around the busier areas and going off the beaten track, seeking out the quieter areas which are much more beautiful and enchanting.
Where to stay?
Having stayed in reasonably priced hotels in Florence and Bologna, we went for self-catering in Venice. Partly because hotels were so expensive but also because we find apartment style accommodation is just easier for families. Also with Venice having its own beach, a swimming pool wasn’t as important. We stayed in the Dorsuduro area, home to some of the most picturesque canals in Venice and winding walkways full of cool cafes, trendy bars and restaurants, and cute shops. This is definitely where families should stay if you want to stay in Venice itself. There are some great deals on Airbnb, HomeAway.com and booking.com. We stayed here which was a 5 minute walk from the cafes, restaurants and shops of Campo Santa Margherita.
Families should also consider the Lido, a separate island from Venice itself and an easy vaporetto ride from the historical centre of Venice. It is also a good place to stay with families as it has a beach and a nice high street with shops and restaurants. You can easily base yourselves there and get a vaporetto into the city of Venice for a morning sightseeing or an evening out. You could actually have a beach holiday in Venice if you wanted, the beach isn’t amazing but it’s perfectly fine (totally acceptable by British standards) and the sea is calm and warm. Contrary to lots of information out there, you can just walk on to the beach and put a towel down and get on with it. You don’t have to pay anything unless you choose to hire sunbeds. The whole stretch along the sea is free as far as we could work out. We spent a couple of afternoons at the Lido to cool down in the sea after a morning spent sightseeing.
What to do
The first thing you should do is spend a day getting lost in the back streets, wandering over the bridges and watching life on the water. A word about the water and kids though. There are so many bridges in Venice (with it being built on the sea and all) and if you have a pushchair you will be constantly lugging it over them so if you are taking a baby, take a sling. If you have a toddler or child that requires a pushchair, I think Venice would be a pain. If you’re going to do it, you have to accept you’ll be lifting the buggy constantly. Also, if your child is at the charging away from you stage or if you have a ‘runner’, you will find Venice stressful as many walkways along the canals are not walled so a smaller child could fall in the water quite easily. If you’ve got a sensible hand holder, it would be fine.
Venice is super fun for kids though and there is loads for them to see – it was definitely our children’s favourite place in Italy. For a start, kids will love all the boats – the water is used in the same way as you or I might use a road so there are – and forgive me for sounding like a 7 year old about it – police boats, bin boats, fruit and veg boats, ambulance boats, post boats, fire boats and even hearse boats. It was always exciting to spot a different type of boat. That’s a day’s activity right there.
There are no cars on Venice itself and it is really compact so getting around it on foot is really easy. If you want to get around by boat, you have quite a few choices. If you are rich and/or famous, and I suggest you try to become so in order to fully appreciate the glamour of this place, you can get a private water taxi. If you are a normal person, you have to cram onto a vaporetto, a water bus. The secret here is to get to the outdoor seats at the front or stand in the middle to the side and to try to maintain your position. It’s a challenge as new people get on and you can end up getting wedged in the middle, your nose crammed into the armpit of a fellow traveler. Unless you choose to visit one of the other Islands I wouldn’t recommend using them unless you have to. I have seen advice suggesting a ride down the Grand Canal on the vaporetto Number 1 is a must do, but I found them too crowded to enjoy (and I took the tube pretty much every day for ten years so I can cope with a crush). If you want the full water experience, don’t bother being mugged off by the vaporetto – shell out for a one off experience of a water taxi round the Grand Canal. Or a gondola. Or both.
Piazza San Marco is the central point of Venice and home to St Marks Cathedral, known as St Marks Basilica. It is crammed full of tourists taking selfies with pigeons on their heads, and lines of day trippers from the hated cruise ships, pockets stuffed with stolen croissants from the breakfast buffet, following flustered tour guides. I wasn’t a lover of it. The Cathedral though makes it worth the visit. It is free to enter but I recommend paying to jump the queue by buying tickets online for 2 euros each. There’s a momentarily confusing system of bag dropping, inexplicably 20 metres from the side entrance and as with most churches in Italy, women must cover shoulders and knees. Inside, the church is incredible; the entire ceiling and upper walls are covered with 400 square kilometers of gold mosaics that took over 600 years of labour. You can get the best view of the mosaics from the upstairs museum. You have to pay to visit this, but it’s worth it, not only for the bird’s eye view of the church and the mosaics, but you also get access to the balcony with views across Piazza San Marco and beyond. The museum contains four Roman Bronze statues of horses used to pull chariots, known as a Quadriga and created in 3 or 4AD. There are replicas on the balcony of St Marks but the real ones are inside and they are awesome.
From St Marks Basilica, you can walk along the Grand Canal and see the main place for Gondola rides. It’s here where a cup coffee costs about 500 euros. You can also see the Bridge of Sighs and the Doges Palace, although we didn’t go in the latter because there were SO many tourists and I have an allergy to entrance fees. It’s worth weaving your way round the backstreets and walking to the Rialto from Piazza San Marco where you can see visit the markets and see the Rialto bridge. If you’re into Shakespeare, this is where most of the action in The Merchant of Venice takes place. A pound of flesh anyone?
We were lucky enough to visit Venice during the Biennale, a modern art event with exhibits across the city. The photo below shows Lorenzo Quinn’s 30ft sculpture of giant hands reaching out of the canal. This was at the Rialto traghetti crossing point – a traghetti is a gondola style boat used to get across the canals at their widest point where there is no bridge, they are much cheaper than a gondola and the experience lasts for about 2 minutes. You can also get boats to the Islands of Murano and Burano from here.
As far as free art went, we also checked out some of Damien Hirst’s sculptures from his ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ exhibition situated outside the Palazzo Grassi.
The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is good to visit with children. Based in her actual house where she lived for 30 years and situated on the Grand Canal, the museum houses her private art collection featuring work from artists such as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Max Ernst. The museum has a beautiful sculpture garden and a terrace with amazing views of the Grand Canal. The restaurant is lovely for lunch and has a fantastic Bambino menu for 6 euros. Under 10s are free and there are kids workshops every Sunday from 3.00 -4.30pm.
We spent a lot of our time in and around Campo Santa Margerita in Dorsuduro, a spacious square surrounded by shops and cafes, a cool book shop and the best pizza place in town- Pizza Al Vono. From here you can cross the Fighting Bridge, a bridge where rival gangs used to hurl one another into the canal in the 1500s. There are footprints on the bridge to show where each opponent would stand before the fight took place.
Campo San Barnaba is another beautiful square with some lovely places to eat and drink. It is also the home of the church featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The bridge, Ponte dei Pugni is also featured in the film. There is a gondola stop here and a Grom for gelato.
From here you can walk past the mask shops and through to the Accademia Bridge where you will find some of the best views over the city.
Stunning in the day, Venice is really magical and mysterious at night, making a late evening stroll an essential Venice activity. At sunset, many local Venetians walk along the Zattere, the waterfront promenade facing Guideca Island. Here you can watch the boats and water twinkle as the sun sets, and there are plenty of bars and restaurants along the promenade to enjoy a drink with a view.
The city is completely safe and as you get closer into its centre, it is really cool to watch the night time gondola rides snaking under the bridges and through the dark canals of the hidden back streets.
Where to eat
Pizza al Volo sells delicious, reasonably priced pizza served by the slice or in really cool boxes. Take out only, you can eat on the benches in the square or at home. As we did. Several times to the point of it being embarrassing. It looks a bit rough, the words ‘Fuck the Police’ written in graffiti on its wall – it does do a great olive pizza though.
Osteria Al Squero is in the perfect location; a cicchetti bar situated across from the gondola repair yard. You can sit on the wall by the canal with a cool crowd and enjoy an aperol spritz and some venetian cicchetti as you watch the gondolas float by. It’s also great value.
Resturante Oniga, located on Campo San Barnaba, is a perfect spot to sit outside and eat by the canal. We had a drink in the cafe opposite and kids will love Grom, which is next door, for delicious gelato.
Locanda Montin is also in the Dorsuduro area. It has a beautiful outdoor space and David Bowie once ate there. So did Robert De Niro. Not sure if they were together. Again, recommended and in a beautiful, quiet area.
We had an amazing time in Italy. The most exciting moments were the elements that we couldn’t have planned for; turning a corner and seeing an amazing sculpture or an ancient church crammed full of incredible art treasures. Sitting on a wall watching boats in Venice, a live orchestra performance in the main square in Bologna, discovering passion fruit gelato in Florence.
And the heatwave, not since an ill advised trip to Palm Springs in August, have I experienced anything like it. And as we sat in Venice station, on our last day in Italy, waiting for the train. What do you know….