Several folks have emailed me in recent weeks asking for Venice advice, and since summer travel season is upon us, let’s detour to this famous Italian town for a moment, shall we? As intriguing and romantic as it is, it also has all the makings of a potentially stressful trip. Here are a few tips & tricks I picked up during my recent visit.
Venice is more than meets the eye, in every possible way.
It’s not just the floating city of Venice that we all know from stories and postcards and movies – it’s a group of 118 islands separated by canals and linked by 400 bridges in the marshy lagoon. But what makes Venice deserve its UNESCO World Heritage listing?
The Republic of Venice played a huge role during the Middle Ages, the Crusades and the Renaissance, and was a major maritime power and a crucial trading stop for spices and silks along the commerce route. Art and architecture buffs will adore the museums and arches that seem suspended somewhere between the east and west.
The Bridge of Sighs
Wandering Venice’s streets, there are plenty of visual treats
Get lost. It doesn’t take much to become hopelessly and desperately lost — you really don’t need my help with this one! I usually have an excellent sense of direction, but Venice beat me at my own game.
Fortunately, there’s treasure to be found in Venice for those willing to look.
With canals serving as the main thoroughfares and an address numbering system that makes absolutely no sense to the foreign visitor, wandering around on foot consists of dead ends in traditional Venetian courtyards, lots of backtracking and inexpensive gelato sustenance. You must pack comfortable walking shoes and lots of patience, because you will get lost.
The good news is – you’re on an island, so you can only get so lost… eventually you’ll find a landmark and sort yourself out. All you have to do to find a way out of the labyrinth is ask anyone to point you toward Rialto Bridge or St. Mark’s Square, or just look up. There are signs all over town indicating how to get to both of these locations. Once you’ve oriented yourself with these two main landmarks, you should be able to find your way back to your hotel from there.
Is it any wonder so many explorers hail from Venice? It’s the perfect place to practice navigating, just like Marco Polo!
Where to Stay in Venice
Between the 13th and 14th centuries, it’s said that famous explorer and merchant Marco Polo lived and owned property here. Centuries later, Count Francesco Amadi moved in, and that’s how the place got the name it retains today… though gondoliers who pass by on the canal always call it the Marco Polo House.
Ca’ Amadi’s peaceful courtyard. Not a tourist in sight.
I’m almost sure Ca’ Amadi is the oldest building I’ve ever slept in, and while it has all the necessary modern improvements and comforts you can see the traces of its rich history all in decorated wood ceilings, frescoes and a beautifully ornate balcony overlooking the canal.
Proximity to the main sites, WiFi, simple breakfast and a second-to-none concierge service made Ca’ Amadi a pleasant stay, but it was the layers upon layers of history in the house that bowled me over. You can almost feel it.
Ca’ Amadi as seen from the canal
Despite an ideal central location, Ca’ Amadi is tucked away in a quiet courtyard. The canal is busy, of course, but somehow the guest house manages to be a nice oasis from the insanity of central Venice.
The breakfast room overlooking the canal
From my clean, cozy bedroom on the canal, I woke every morning to the hustle & bustle just outside my window. Flinging the curtains open, I’d brush my teeth while watching the goings-on, smiling through toothpaste at gondoliers and tourists as they passed by at eye level.
It felt very much like being welcomed into someone’s private home, and I had no trouble pretending to be a guest of fellow explorer Marco Polo. Just a few centuries prior and hey – it could have happened!
Things To Do in Venice
It wasn’t the high price – 80 euros or more for 40 minutes – that kept me away. Usually I’m willing to splurge for the singular experience, you know? Honestly, I just didn’t think that my first gondola ride in Venice should be a solo venture, and my days in Venice were very, very solo.
I sat in my window at canal level at my hotel, Ca’ Amadi, and watched the gondoliers pass by with their happy passengers from all over the world, and that was enough for my first visit.
And I’ll have something to look forward to when I return.
Venice Day Tours. One rainy day on a whim I went to the top of the Campanile in St. Mark’s Square, a historic bell tower with arguable the best views in town. Fortunately, it has an elevator, otherwise I probably would’ve been a lazy bum and never made it to the top!
Normally, getting a bird’s eye view of a city is a great way to get oriented with the layout – but it wasn’t so in Venice. The canals and streets are so narrow that I almost couldn’t make anything out. I couldn’t even pinpoint my hotel, what with the layers and layers of homes, bridges and canals.
Still, the Campanile is a lovely spot for photos and well worth a trip up to escape the crowds below.
Food. Believe it or not, it’s really easy to eat bad food in Venice. Just about any restaurant along the well-traveled path between the main sites – St. Mark’s Square, Rialto Bridge and St. Lucia train station, will cater to tourists and thus be overpriced and possibly inauthentic.
Fortunately I stayed at Ca’ Amadi and Valentina, the lovely owner, was more than willing to tell me all the best places for locals to eat. She and her boyfriend Nicola took me to a fabulous place one night for course after course of amazing food – some of the tastiest I had during my stay in Venice.
As a general rule – if a place is chock-full of tourists, don’t eat there. If it’s within site of a major tourist attraction, don’t eat there. If there’s a staff member outside trying to convince you to come in, don’t eat there. If the menu is translated into many languages… well, you get the drift.
Get up early or stay out late. To avoid the day-tripping masses, it helps to get up before they arrive and head to the most popular sites first. Take a walking tour if you like, but plan on seeing the streets without 10,000 people if you can. It’s well worth the early wake-up call. Then spend the day far away from St. Mark’s Square in an offbeat museum or reading Casanova’s tawdry tales or Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at a cafe. At night, the same phenomenon repeats as the cruisers embark for their next port, and all that remains is local folks going about their business and a much more peaceful atmosphere.
How to Get to Venice
Cruise ship. Many, ohsomany, folks visit Venice on day tours from cruise ship, crowding the streets from dawn to dusk before scurrying back to the ship for dinner. While I’m the first to applaud European cruises as a convenient way to see a whole lot in a short time, you can’t really digest a living, breathing, pulsing place like Venice in just eight hours. If you can at all avoid a first visit to Venice via cruise ship, do so. If not, just know you’re only scratching the surface.
Train. Using one leg of my global Eurail pass, I arrived in Venice via overnight train from Vienna, waking just in time to cross the canal out to St. Lucia station. The train station is super convenient to the top attractions in Venice, and is just a few steps from a vaporetti, or water bus, stop.
Venice flights. Marco Polo International Airport, or Aeroporto di Venezia Marco Polo, is Venice’s main air hub. It’s away from the coast on the mainland, and offers easy access to the Floating City via public transportation, either buses or the railway.
Venice is every bit as beautiful and distinctively Venetian as you’d expect. Though it was much bigger and more crowded than I ever could have imagined (and the canals do not glow from below like they do at the Venetian Las Vegas), I very much enjoyed the city and think you will, too, if you know what you’re getting into!
Thanks to Valentina, Niccola & Ca’ Amadi for the beautiful stay! All opinions on Angie Away, as always, are my own.