Venice is surreal

Venice is surreal — creative commons photo by #L98

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.

How to Get to Venice

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:

  • Vaporetto – The buses in Venice are primarily of the boat variety, and there’s a water bus (“vaporetto” in Italian) that runs to and from the airport. It’s operated by the same company that manages all the public water transportation in the city, and a one-way ticket will cost €15. There are a few vaporetto lines that serve the airport – Linea Blu (blue), Linea Rossa (red), and Linea Arancio (orange). All of the boats look about the same, though, with lots of bright yellow paint and plenty of space for passengers. The vaporetto stop at the airport is a short walk from the terminal. You’ll be approached by plenty of water taxi drivers along the way, urging you to go with them, but you’ll pay a much higher fare for their services (so be aware of that before you follow them). Because the vaporetto makes several stops along the way, you’ll need to know where you’re getting off (ask your hotel which stop is closest to their front door, if they don’t make it clear when booking). The duration of the trip varies depending on where you’re going, but for reference the trip from the airport to St. Mark’s Square on Linea Blu is about 1.5 hours, while the trip from the airport to Rialto on Linea Arancio is just under an hour.
  • Bus – Yes, there is actually a bus that connects the airport with Venice’s islands. There is one parking lot on the islands at Piazzale Roma, and that’s where the bus drops you off – it’s very close to the train station, cruise port, and Grand Canal. There are a couple of companies that operate buses between the airport and Venice, and the trip takes about 20-30 minutes. A one-way ticket will cost €6. There are self-service machines at the airport where you can buy your tickets.
  • Water Taxi – As mentioned, en route to the vaporetto you’ll get lots of attention from water taxi drivers hoping you’ll believe them when they tell you theirs is a water bus. Of course, being chauffeured into Venice in your own private water taxi is certainly glamorous, but it’s also the most expensive option. If you’ve got a small group who can split the cost, or if you’re planning to splurge on this trip, then by all means hop in a water taxi. Be prepared to pay €100-150 for a one-way trip, depending on where you’re going and if you’ve got lots of luggage. It’s best to negotiate the price before you get on the boat. Keep in mind that water taxis who speed through the smaller side canals do more damage to the already crumbling buildings, so you might consider going only as far as the train station and making your way on foot from there. If you’re someone who likes to go green as much as possible when you travel, the vaporetto is your best bet.

What to See & Do in Venice

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:

  • St. Mark’s Basilica
  • St. Mark’s Square
  • Campanile
  • Doge’s Palace
  • Bridge of Sighs
  • Rialto Bridge
  • Peggy Guggenheim Museum
  • San Zanipolo Basilica
  • Santa Maria della Salute Basilica
  • Il Redentore
  • The Lagoon Islands: Murano, Burano, Torcello

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.

Guided Tours in Venice

Where to Stay in Venice

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.

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