Sei Bellissima, Venezia!
“A realist, in Venice, would become a romantic by mere faithfulness to what he saw before him.” —Arthur Symons
This quote perfectly describes just how enchanting Venice is. It’s not overselling it to say that Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Ever since traveling there for the first time when I was a teenager, Venice has always been one of my favorite places. Breathtaking streetscapes, gorgeous architecture and fascinating culture – Venice has all the ingredients for the making of an unforgettable vacation.
Its beauty and mystique is unbeatable in so many ways. It is a place like nowhere else in the world, where untouched history meets the present day. The winding, narrow alleyways offer a mysterious adventure, never quite knowing exactly where your next turn takes you. The beautiful canals and charming gondola rides promise to take you to a whole different world – one of romance and fantasy. During the winters, the fog emanating off of the water creates an ominous, yet surprisingly romantic atmosphere. It is for so many reasons that Venice will forever hold a special place in my heart.
My love for Venice began almost two decades ago. I first traveled to Venice at the age of 16 when I studied abroad in Italy and was living with a host family. I’d travel there with friends on the weekends. We’d saunter around the streets, marvel at the shops, and flirt with the younger gondoliers. We’d order gelato and gasp at the sight of the price of a Coca Cola sold in Piazza San Marco. Though I’m clearly not the same as that 16-year-old girl that first fell in love with Venice, my adoration for this beautiful city has not changed. And I’ve been lucky to be able to go back about a half a dozen times since then, so I’ve grown quite familiar with Venice over the years.
One great thing about Venice is that you can pretty much see everything in just a few days. You can walk almost the entirety of the main island in a day, and then have time to spend hopping to some of the other islands on the other days. Plus, the public transportation is incredibly cheap and efficient, which gives you no excuse not to hop on the vaporetto and head off to see some of the other islands.
What to Know Before Going
Beware of Acqua Alta
Acqua Alta (or Italian for “high water”), is the term Italians use to explain the exceptional tide swings that occur periodically in Venice. A combination of high tide and low atmospheric pressure (beware of those full moons!) force water into the Venetian Lagoon, making it difficult to navigate Venice on foot. If you’re traveling to Venice in the fall, winter or spring—most often occurring in the months of October, November and December, but generally occurring between the months of September and April—be sure to bring your wellies. I do not say this to deter you from going during this time (see below), but only so that you come prepared. Often times you can check the tide swing online on weather sites about a week or so ahead of time, so you can decide whether or not you will need to bring appropriate waterproof footwear.
Time of Year is Key
If you read the paragraph above, you’re probably thinking “Great, then summertime is the best time to visit!” Nope. Think again. Summer brings such horrible swarms of tourists that summertime is almost not worth visiting Venice at all. Imagine ships nearly three times the size of Venice’s tallest buildings, carrying 6,000 people, dumping off all those people into a city that is as wide as Central Park is long, adding to the existing population and non-cruise ship tourists. It’s overwhelming, to say the least.
After being on the receiving end of a lot of angry Italians, the Italian government finally banned cruise ships of a certain size from entering the city back in 2017. However, that doesn’t stop cruise-goers from stopping there: the ships simply must let them off in a different place. So even though cruise ships can no longer technically sail through the canal (well, I think this actually is going to keep happening until about 2022, but the government is lessening it until then), this does not mean there will be less tourists in the tiny city. And “cruise season” definitely is a thing—most cruise lines only operate in this area during the summer months. So if you want to avoid the swarms of people and actually enjoy your time in Venice, don’t—I repeat: DON’T—travel to Venice in the summer.
My favorite time of year to visit Venice is the winter. Yes, the winter. It’s cold—really cold—but trust me, you’ll survive. And it will be worth it. Despite the freezing temperatures, Venice in the summer is simply magical. There is a smell that can only be experienced in the winter—and it’s a fresh, crisp air smell and not the stinky sewer smell you might experience in the hotter months. On really cold days, you can see steam dancing off the water’s edge, creating a calming, soothing effect. The tourists are gone, the passageways are empty, and all you hear are the sound of pigeons wings and your own footsteps. You won’t have to fight through crowds at Piazza San Marco, you can actually get into decent restaurants without a reservation, and—most importantly—you won’t have to deal with the swarms of day-trippers and rude tourists that bring the city to its knees during the summer months.
Although a small island, Venice is very well connected to the rest of the world. The most convenient way to travel to Venice from the U.S. is, of course, by plane as many airlines fly directly to the Marco Polo International Airport, located 8 miles from the city center. Getting from the airport into the main part of the city though—that part isn’t so easy and can feel like a daunting task for some travelers.
There are four main options to get from Marco Polo into the center: private boats, public boats, taxis or buses. Though expensive, my recommendation is to splurge and hire a private boat to and from the airport. Using one of these sleek private boats is not only a more luxurious way to arrive, but it’s typically the fastest. A private boat transfer can get you into the center of Venice in just 25 minutes. Though this is spendy option (usually about 100 euro), hiring a private boat to take you from the airport to the center is worth every penny.
If you’re trying to save on costs, the Alilaguna public boat (or “vaporetto”) costs only 15 euros per person one way. The boats run often so you shouldn’t have to wait too long to get into the city. However, they make a lot of stops typically so it can take up to an hour to get to your final destination. Though taxis and buses are available as well, they’re actually more expensive than the vaporettos. But if you’re short on time and can’t afford a private transfer, the bus or a taxi might be your best bet.
Once in Venice, getting around is pretty easy. Walking along the canals and through the beautiful city is one way to explore Venice. Of course, there’s a faster (and less tiring) alternative – the water taxis or water buses that I mentioned above. But my favorite way to appreciate the charm and uniqueness of this wonderful city built on water is by the Gondola (more on that below).
Where to Stay
Venice is one of the most coveted tourist destinations in the world. This Italian jewel is visited each year by approximately 20 million tourists and that number only seems to increase as each year passes. So, if you’re hoping you’d find a ‘budget’ hotel in Venice, you're in for some disappointment. Although a little on the expensive side, the hotels in Venice are simply marvelous. These hotels conjure up images of romance and intrigue – like Venice itself!
Most hotels in Venice are housed in old palazzos and offer their guests a truly authentic Venetian experience. Yes, these hotels have all the comforts of a modern, luxurious hotel, but they have retained the old carvings, quaint balconies, and grand staircases so that you can soak in all the great heritage of Venice. The following are some of my favorite Venetian hotels:
Located in the quieter end of Venice, the Boscolo Venezia is my go-to option for all my trips to Venice. The location for me is actually a positive. It’s on the north end of the city, and about a 20 minute walk to Piazza San Marco. So as long as you don’t mind the walk, I prefer this location because you avoid all the tourists. The further you get away from the piazza and the closer you get to the hotel, the less people you see and the quieter your walk becomes.
The price is incredibly reasonable—not “give you heart palpitations when you get the bill” spendy like the Danieli—yet still offers the feeling of a luxury hotel and all the comforts of home. Plus, the Boscolo Venezia is an Autograph Collection Hotel, which means it’s in the Marriott/Starwood property chain and you can rack up those points if you’re a Marriott Bonvoy rewards member.
One of Venice’s newest hotel properties, the JW Marriott offers a modern hotel option while still giving you those little hints of Venetian charm. It’s located on its own little island just south of Venice, so you won’t be able to just walk to the square or the shops, but don’t let that steer you away—the property is its own little slice of heaven. The fact that it’s set away from the center and only accessible to hotel guests means you get a much more relaxing, quiet experience than staying near the center of town. As an added bonus, it’s also a Marriott property (duh), so if you’re a rewards member you can use points to stay here.
If you are looking to be right in the middle of all the action, the Danieli is your hotel. It’s got that old world feel and is definitely Italian. From the tapestries to the chandeliers, the Danieli exudes Italian luxury. The rooms are large, the restaurants are delicious, and the amenities are aplenty. However, you definitely pay the price. Rooms at the Danieli can range between 500 and 1,000 euro depending on the season.
Where to Eat
The foodie in me loves Venice because the food there is simply MOUTHWATERING. And there’s a lot more to Italian food than pasta and Parmesan. If you’re hungering for traditional Venetian cuisine, Antiche Carampane, La Caravella and Antico Giardinetto are some good restaurant options for you. And if you like a nice bit of fish, then you'll be in nirvana along the canals of Venice. Although you’ll find many restaurants that serve delicious seafood, Do Farai is one of my favorite seafood restaurants in Venice. Their fresh razor shell-fish and Pasta will surely make your day!
My suggestion for finding your own restaurants in Venice though hinges upon the location. If you are ever in one of the super touristy areas (such as Piazza San Marco or Palazzo Ducale), do not—I repeat: DO NOT—sit down to eat at any of the restaurants there. Not only will you get gouged on the price but the food is typically horrific. Walk 5-10 minutes away from the busy areas, turn down a narrow passageway, and then find a place to eat. I promise you, this is typically where you will find the best Italian restaurants.
Though the tiny hole in the wall restaurants are typically your best bet, one particular restaurant that I always recommend to people is 6342 A Le Tole. It’s set pretty far off from the main touristy areas and is typically full of locals. The place cranks out fresh pastas daily (that’s how my husband and I first found the place—we saw all the beautiful handmade pastas hanging in the window) and the food is INSANE. They recently gave the restaurant a modern facelift, so it unfortunately lacks that old Italian charm that it used to have, but the food is still incredible. This place is a most-go in Venice no matter how much time you have there.
What to Do
There’s a lot to do and see in Venice… and I mean A LOT, despite the fact that the city is so small. On my list of ‘must sees’, there’s the iconic Saint Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco), a remarkable example of Gothic architecture: Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale) and the bell-tower of St.Mark (Campanile di San Marco). If you’re an art admirer like me, you can’t miss the chance to see the art galleries in Venice. The city is home to some of the most impressive art galleries in the world including Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Accademia Gallery, Ca' Pesaro, Ca' Rezzonico and San Giovanni e Paolo. There’s something for history buffs too: visiting museums such as the Marciano Museum, the Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico), Correr Museum and the Palazzo Fortuny Museum will surely feel like taking a step back in time.
Then there’s shopping! You can’t be in Venice and not shop. Armani, Gucci, Valentino, Krizia, Laura Biagiotti, Missoni, MaxMara, Prada, Trussardi, Louis Vuitton and Versace – it’s all here, my fellow shopaholics!
However, for a more authentic experience of the city, I clearly suggest you do more than just shop and visit the touristy sites. Below are my recommendations for what to do in Venice:
Like many places I talk about, I have found that the best way to see this incredible city is by walking everywhere. You end up unintentionally finding the coolest little places. Don’t worry about getting lost; in fact, please do! Venice is not all that large, so you can’t get all that far off track. If you do, use the damn GPS on your phone or simply ask a local and they will help you out.
Burano, one of the Venetian islands, is a cute little fishing town just northeast of Venice. It’s not super easy to get to (a vaporetto ride will take you 45 minutes), but the photo opportunities alone are completely worth it. Burano is composed of a slew of brightly colored houses whose colors reflect onto the water, creating a kaleidoscope-like pattern that is simply awe-inspiringly beautiful. Plus, it’s a lot quieter than Venice, so you can escape the crowds and enjoy the quaint little shops and eateries along the water.
Visit a Murano Glass-Making Factory
I’ve always found this to be a bit gimmicky for my taste, but I do think everyone should go at least once. Do it once so you can check it off the box. Seeing how they actually make all those glass figurines that you will inevitably see all over the island is actually pretty interesting. It’s a trade that the Venetians have mastered over hundreds of years, and the end product is not only unique but beautiful. Don’t buy anything on the island though—you’ll pay ten times more just to say you bought it on Murano. Find a place in town that sells the same thing you are looking for and you will pay a lot less.
Yes, you have to ride in a gondola.
I know, I know. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Do I really need to do that? Isn’t it super touristy and gimmicky?” Well, yes, it is. But taking a ride in a gondola is an absolute most-do in Venice. There is a reason everyone does it. Whether it’s to see incredible views of Venice—views you can’t see from the streets—or to drift along on a romantic boat ride with your sweetheart, a gondola ride is totally necessary.
Visit the Beach—yes, the Beach!
If you’ve completely ignored my advice above about not going to Venice during the summertime, if you find yourself there in the summer there is one place you need to go that I would otherwise tell you not to go to outside of summer: Lido. If you’re looking for some respite instead of rushing around with an open guidebook trying to see as much as possible, head out to the quiet far-flung canals. Catch a boat to other lagoon islands where you can relax on a sun-lounger on the historic beaches of the Lido and take cooling dips in the Adriatic.
Note, however, that if you visit Lido in the wintertime, it’s not worth going to. All of Lido closes during the wintertime and leaves only a few wary locals who’ve decided to brave the cold and don’t mind not having any shops or restaurants open. The place is like an abandoned town in Eastern Europe and feels a bit dark and seedy in the winter.
When you visit Venice, get ready for an experience like no other you've ever had. If there is any vacation you need to splurge on this has got to be it. So go ahead and give in to the seduction of the city.