Venice is one of my happy places. I know it sounds like a cliché, and truth be told I sometimes wish I had a different answer when people ask about my favorite cities in Italy, but Venice has been on that list since my very first trip. I understand that it has a reputation as a city that’s difficult to love, particularly if you’re averse to crowds or high prices, and I’ve often likened Venice to that pretty girl in school who knows just how pretty she is and flaunts it at everyone… Or the bad boy you can’t help but fall in love with, no matter how much your logical side might tell you he’ll never treat you right…
Plenty of Italian cities can be thoroughly enjoyed without much pre-trip research, but you stand a better chance of enjoying Venice if you’ve done your homework. That’s where I come in. There’s nothing quite like seeing a place through the eyes of someone passionate about that place, so bring me along on your trip to Venice. (Well, bring my advice, anyway.) I can’t promise that everyone who sets foot in the canal city will fall in love with it like I did, but I can certainly help you avoid the pitfalls that would all but guarantee a terrible trip.
Venice takes some effort to love, I’ll grant you that. The rewards when you do make the effort, however, are so great that I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t at least try.
Venice’s Marco Polo Airport (VCE) is on the mainland part of Venice, a short five miles from the islands of Venice. It’s a much smaller airport than Italy’s biggest and busiest – those in Rome and Milan – but it’s still an international airport with service not only from the rest of Europe but also from North America. If Venice is on your itinerary, I recommend Venice’s airport as an excellent alternative to Milan or Rome, partly because its smaller size makes entry into the country much quicker. Plus, you can’t beat a boat trip from the airport to your hotel while staring at Venice on the horizon.
You have a few options for getting into Venice after you’ve landed at Marco Polo Airport:
Absolutely the best thing you can do in Venice, bar none, is get lost. Repeatedly and often. You’re on an island, after all, so you can’t get so hopelessly lost that you’ll never find your way back – which makes this city the perfect place to embrace your inner wanderer. Put the map away and turn down whatever streets look interesting. When you’re ready to get back to your hotel, simply walk around and look up until you see one of the many directional signs in the city pointing you toward “S. Marco” or “Rialto.”
In between all of your aimless walks, there are sights to see in Venice, too. The good news is that Venice’s must-see sights can be covered in the better part of a non-hurried day. That’s why this city makes such a popular day trip destination (although I’ll tell you to spend the night). If you’re lucky enough to fall under Venice’s spell, any return trips you make won’t be because you didn’t get through your to-do list for the city – it’ll be because you just can’t get enough of simply being there.
Some of Venice’s attractions should be on your itinerary, however, unless you’ve seen them all before. Here are some of Venice’s most popular sights:
Yes, most of that can be covered in a day. But Venice’s popularity as a day trip destination means that it’s at its most quiet, its most perfect, early in the morning and late in the evening. In other words, spend at least one night on the islands of Venice to fully appreciate the romance and mystery of this surreal place. You’ll have the added benefit of taking an even more leisurely pace through your must-see list, and have a greater chance of being one of the lucky visitors who truly adores the canal city.
Venice is expensive – there’s no denying this – and that applies to hotel prices, too. Many budget travelers are lured by cheaper rooms to mainland Venice, the Mestre. While I totally understand the desire to save euros whenever you can, I’ll strongly suggest you spend at least one night on the islands themselves. As I said before, Venice is a popular day trip destination. That means the crowds descend from cruise ships and trains in the morning and then walk herd-like from one attraction to the next before bee-lining back to the boat or train in the late afternoon or early evening. Those people may check the city off their itinerary, but they haven’t really experienced Venice at its best – and neither will you if you stay on the mainland.
If budget is a major factor in your travels, try to spend one night on the islands and the rest of your Venice visit (if it’s more than one night) on the mainland to save money. There is one HI hostel in Venice, too, on the Giudecca island in an enormous former granary, as well as several less-official “hostels,” room rentals, and B&Bs throughout the city. Also keep in mind that the star rating system for hotels in Italy is based in part on the size of the rooms – and in historic buildings, the rooms may be quite small although the hotel is very nice. Don’t dismiss a two-star hotel without checking its website or reviews, since it may be perfectly lovely (albeit somewhat cramped) and still save you some money.
As for where in the city you should stay, there really isn’t a good or bad part to choose. Venice is so small that it almost doesn’t matter where you lay your head – you’re only a short walk from everything else. Hotels near St. Mark’s Square or the Rialto Bridge tend to be more expensive since they’re close to the city’s two major landmarks, as do hotels with rooms overlooking the Grand Canal. Those locations also tend to be a bit busier, so if you’re hoping for a quiet escape choose a location that’s far from the main sights, the cruise port, and the train station.