Ahh, Venice. Merely the name conjures up feelings of wanderlust and the sound of accordions and operatic gondoliers. Venice is pure romanticism. Or at least that’s what everyone thinks before they visit, anyway. My Fiance and I visited Venice this past August of 2017 and it was just as beautiful as all the photos. However, during the daytime it was a total people zoo. Granted, we visited during peak summer season, so not only was it nearly 100 degrees F., the crowds were massive, and itchy, biting mosquitoes were everywhere. Just as we began to feel overwhelmed with the crowds, we would turn down an unassuming alleyway and come out on the other side of a beautiful small piazza with nobody in sight. We felt as though we were in our own fairytale maze and had just discovered the one slice of the island that nobody knew about. We would continue on, not knowing what to expect upon the next turned corner. At some point we gave up on attempting to follow GoogleMaps and finally succumbed to the fact that we were lost, and it felt divine.
Where to Stay in Venice
We spent a total of three full days in the city in early August and stayed in an Airbnb in Padua (also spelled Padova), a 35-minute train ride from the island, which is shaped like a fish. Our nightly accommodation was $27 USD for a shared room in a flat. Our host worked with the Biennale, so she was a great source of information for our stay! Unless you want to pay an eye from your face (Spain’s way of saying “an arm and a leg”), you’ll want to stay outside of Venice, and Padua is the closest town. There are two trains: high speed and normal, both of which are very convenient, air-conditioned, punctual and comfortable.
Train fare: €4,15 per person, each way. Don’t forget to stamp your ticket prior to boarding the train. There are green stamp machines both on the platform and in the train station.
We took a look at Airbnb options on the island and found that the cheapest accommodation available at the time, was over $100 USD per night. Keep in mind that we visited in August, which is peak tourist season, and we booked only two days before we arrived, so that likely played a factor. No matter which season you visit, be sure to book your accommodation early (at least a few weeks to a few months in advance) and be open to staying off the island to save money. I imagine that staying on the island is a bit cheaper during off-peak times such as February or October.
If you are visiting between May – November, you’re in luck! The Biennale (biannual) is one of the largest modern art festivals in the world, and the original started in Venice! We were so lucky to be visiting while it was still going on! It occurs every two years between May – November with May being the most popular month for the grand openings and gala events. We spent only one day exploring all the different country pavilions, but you could easily spend five days covering everything! There are a few outdoor pop-up installations around the city and some pavilions are free to enter.
Biennale ticket cost: €25 per person, good for one day, all exhibits. If you want to visit over several days, there is a different ticket option at a higher cost. Art installations and pavilions are both indoor and outdoor, and it’s a really fun experience following the path to see it all because it feels like a treasure hunt!
If you’re not visiting during the Biennale, don’t fret, there are still heaps of things to do and explore! Below is a detailed list of the top things to do in Venice:
Things to do in Venice
- Get Lost
Really, just do it. It’s the advice that every website and blog tells you to do in Venice, because it is so much fun! The great thing is, you don’t have to worry about getting mowed down by a vehicle because there are none! However, you do need to be aware of vendors trying to get through the tiny alleyways and up and over the stair cased bridges with their supplies. When you stop on the bridge and get in their way, they aren’t happy about it. Every single alley and side street, though counterintuitive, actually does lead somewhere amazing, so don’t be afraid of hitting a dead end, because usually it brings you to someplace delightful with far fewer tourists!Fun Fact: There are 150 canals with more than 400 bridges that connect Venice’s 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Most of Venice is a UNESCO site.
- Take a Gondola Ride
Gondola rides are €80 (€100 after 7:00 PM) per boat, per half hour. There are only 125 certified gondoliers who are all part of a trade union. Their required uniform is black pants and a black and white striped shirt. There are no Uber boats in Venice, as taxis would just sink the boat as punishment if this ever occurred, says the locals. The price is for a half-hour ride, and it is per boat, not per person. Gondolas can accommodate up to six people, so if you have a party of six, it’s worth it. If it’s only you or a couple, try to ask around to see if people want to go in on a ride with you! Otherwise, save your money and spend it on gelato…like 30 of them.
- Take the Free City Walking TourThis was our 9th free city walking tour over the four months of travel we had completed by that point, and it was one of our favorites! The company is called Bussola and they had excellent knowledgeable and fun guides who provided interesting information that gave the city far more character. So what’s the story behind all these masquerade masks?Carnival occurs between February and March two weeks before Ash Wednesday, so heaps of tourists come during that time, expecting to see everyone donned in lavish costumes and masks roaming the street. To their disappointment, this event is actually indoors, so they only see a few people on the streets dressed up asking for money when they take a photo with them.
The significance of the long pointy-nosed mask: during the Black Plague, a mask with a long, pointed nose was essentially used as a HAZMAT suit worn by doctors. The nose indicated a safe distance between the doctor and the dead or infected body so that they did not catch the extremely contagious disease. 80% of the masks sold today in Venice are fake and made in China. The good ones should be made right in the store and sell between €25 –€40 euro for a simple one, and the really lavish high quality ones can run over €100.
- Visit San Marco
Fun Fact: San Marco square actually floods during a full moon because the high tide makes the water level come above the square.
- Stay Through the Evening
Dusk in Venice is one of the most romantic experiences. However, if you’re going to stick around for the evening, make sure you wear long pants or bring mosquito repellant as those pesky bugs are ubiquitous during summer time. I barely made it out alive, with 25 bites all over my body and a very itchy few following days. Also, have some calendula on hand, a natural plant-based anti-itch ointment that can be found in any farmacia (pharmacy) around the area.
- Visit the Neighboring Islands on a Public Transport Boat
We purchased the 24-hour unlimited boat pass for €20 per person, which was a great value for us as we took the boat on two separate days to several locations. The feeling of warm wind on our faces and salt water lapping up against the side of the boats is so refreshing! Also, make sure you take at least one ride through the Grand Canal. It’s fun and gives you a different perspective of the city from the center of it!
Where to Eat in Venice
Because Venice is a city catered nearly 100% to tourists, the food is not only outrageously priced (especially near the main square of San Marco), good food is really hard to come by. I didn’t think I would ever have to say that I was disappointed in Italian food, but alas, the day was upon me. We went through some pretty mediocre places and weren’t at all impressed with anything. However, we did eat at a restaurant based on a friend’s recommendation one evening that served good food, though it was still pricey and service was poor. Also, be ready to do the “slap dance” all night as you keep one eye wide open and look like a crazy person trying to grab air and kill every flying black bug that comes at you like a possessed maniac. No? Just me?
One thing you should know about the service of most places in Venice, is that many of the folks who work in the service industry are irritated by all the tourists so they are not particularly friendly. I don’t blame them for being angry at the fact that they were priced out of their own homes. With all the tourist inflation, the prices are so high that locals can no longer afford to live on the island.
My advice is to find a restaurant off the beaten tourist path that has the following:
- A menu only in Italian
- A hand-written paper menu (this is because the menu changes weekly based on what is fresh) so a laminated menu can be a sign of utilizing ingredients that are not necessarily local or fresh
- The spritzer should be under €4,50
What is a spritzer, you ask? There are two types of spritzers: Aperol (orange and sweet) and Campari (red and bitter). It is a refreshing drink with part sparkling wine and sparkling water using Campari to make it bitter. Served with an olive over ice.
Cicchetti is a savory snack or small side dish, typically served in a bar or informal restaurant. This form of “tapas” is common in Venice and is a much cheaper option than a sit-down meal, as they are eaten standing or on bar stool benches. We simply found an unassuming place and asked for the bartender’s recommendations! Here is what we got for €8. On the right are fried potatoes and aubergine (eggplant). It isn’t the healthiest, as everything is served on a piece of sliced white bread, but at least bread in Italy is fresh, home made and without preservatives or additives.
Suso is located near St. Mark’s Cathedral and always has a long line (don’t worry, it goes quickly!) Long lines are typically a sign that a place is good, and this one hit the mark! Prices are higher than other areas of Italy, but they use biological (natural) ingredients.
Tipping in Italy
So, are you meant to tip the wait staff in Italy? There is something called coperto, which is a fee for tableware and is typically the “service fee”. This fee usually ranges from 1 to 3 euros depending on the restaurant, and is automatically added to the check and must be visible on the menu. It’s unclear if this service fee goes to the waiter, but tipping is not expected.
What to Know Before you Visit Venice:
There are a few helpful tips that we learned along the way and I will share with you so you don’t make any faux paus whilst visiting:
- Bare chests are illegal in Venice, as are feeding the pigeons, so just in case you were feeling hot and sexy and wanted to take off your shirt, save it for the beach.
- Don’t even think about wearing stilettos; the cobblestone streets of Venice and the endless walking will leave you barefoot in seconds. Wear comfortable open-toed flats during summer so that your feet can breathe.
- You are visiting a city built on water. There are rats. Giant ones. Be afraid…be very afraid.
- There are no free public toilets in Venice. Your best bet for relieving yourself is to go into any cafe and order at the bar (€1,50 for an espresso is average). Ask for a token and use the toilets. Public toilets cost €2,50 and are usually gross. If you ask me, I think it’s absolutely wrong and inhumane to capitalize on bottled water and toilets; two necessities in life. And speaking of water…
COOP is the local supermarket. Go there to buy water. (We saw at least two COOPs in the immediate downtown area) You will pay €.40 for 1.5 liters (large) in a COOP. For a tiny bottle of water in any other store, you will pay up to €2,50. Italy really needs to employ the same law that Greece has against capitalizing on bottled water.
How Much Money We Spent in Three Days:
Transportation (train to and from accommodation in Padua, plus 24-hour boat pass): $50
Eating Out: $300 (a good portion of this included gelato!)
Groceries (we cooked breakfast at home each day): $30
Entertainment/Leisure (2 admission tickets to the Biennale for a one-day pass): $50