For whatever reason, I’m getting a lot of questions lately about Venice. I’m pleased by this, because I hold the city very close to my heart and am always eager to spread the Venice gospel to anyone who’ll listen, but I’m also concerned. Because it’s so very easy to have a bad time in Venice. The line between “magical” and “depressing” is so fine in this city that it doesn’t take much to come away with only bad feelings toward Venice. And this makes me sad.
So after typing out a mini-novella of an email to one such questioner earlier, I decided I’d put my thoughts down in a post so I could just refer people here in the future. And, I reasoned, if a few people have asked about Venice already, that probably means that exponentially more are thinking of the same questions.
Here, then, are what I’m calling my Venice survival tips.
When I wrote my Rome survival tips for the first-time visitor, they were more geared toward helping you not feel so completely overwhelmed by Rome (as I was on my first visit) and keep you from getting exhausted too quickly. For this list of suvival tips for Venice, the goal is going to be different. Mainly, they’re geared toward helping Venice survive your first impressions of her.
I know that some people out there really don’t care for Venice, and even I’ll admit that they’ve got valid reasons for that. It is often too crowded, there are too few Venetians who live there anymore, the food is actually quite bad in many of the touristy restaurants, the weather can suck, the cruise ship day-trippers can be annoying… But Venice is absolutely magical, if you give her half a chance.
To me, giving Venice a chance to show off for you means you must do the following things.
- You must stay the night – and you must stay in Venice proper.
That means no Mestre, no mainland, no Lido – and, if I’m being really picky, not even the Giudecca. I’m perfectly willing to say that after a first visit people can stay wherever the heck they like, but for a first trip to Venice you’ve got to give the city every chance to demonstrate why she’s worth the effort. And she can’t very well do that if you aren’t there at the right times and in the right places.
So stay overnight on the main islands, for at least one night and ideally for two. If your budget won’t allow staying there for the whole time you’re there, or you’re just interested in trying something different after a couple nights, then switch to a Mestre hotel or some place off the main islands. But only after 1-2 nights actually in Venice.
And if you need help with a place to stay, I’ve got some suggestions on finding a hotel in Venice – including some around the train station for getting in and out with ease, and some near St. Mark’s Square as well.
- You must get away from the tourist areas.
You’ll need to spend some time in tourist central (AKA St. Mark’s Square) because it is the sight in the city, but you’ll want to get more than a few blocks away from that and the other tourist magnets for most of your stay. Wander. Get lost. No, really – get absolutely and completely lost. What’s the worst that can happen? You are on islands, you cannot wander so far that you’ll never get back again, and you will stumble upon the most interesting parts of the city this way.
When you’re through wandering aimlessly, just ask someone how to get back to St. Mark’s, or the Rialto Bridge, or the train station, or whatever major landmark is close to your hotel and from which you can navigate back to familiar ground. Keep asking the same directions from people you pass until you get where you want to go. You’ll get lost again doing this, because there’s more than one way back to where you came from, but you’ll get there. Just be patient. Which brings me to…
- You must be patient.
Venice requires time. Don’t have a set agenda. In fact, you’ll need to have as much unstructured time as possible, because you’ll get lost even when you’re already lost. And getting frustrated that you’re getting lost doesn’t help you enjoy your vacation or think kindly of the city in which you’re fumbling. The key is to enjoy the getting lost part – which is infinitely easier to do if you aren’t trying to get somewhere or keep to a schedule.
It’s good to note the Venetian addresses are seriously unhelpful if you’re “not from around these parts” and don’t know the city like the back of your hand. They’re basically the name of the district (i.e. Canareggio) and the number on the building – but usually don’t include a street name of any kind. For hunting down exact locations, I’ve found this website to be extraordinarily helpful (it’s the same one used by the Venice tourism office!) – just mark the spot on a good map (I mean really good, very detailed – the tourism office sells excellent city maps for a euro or two) and you’re off.
If you’ve made dinner reservations in a spot that’s difficult to find, leave a little extra time when you set out to re-find it. If you’re trying to catch your train out of the city, take the easy route and hop on a vaporetto that’ll drop you off right in front of the station rather than trying to negotiate the winding back-alleys. And, above all, don’t blame Venice if you get lost. She’s been the same confusingly-laid-out city for centuries, she didn’t do this just to piss you off.
- You must see Venice at her best.
In addition to getting well away from the day-tripper hordes, this means that you’ve got to either get up early or stay out later in order to see the city when she is – in a sense – naked to the world. It’s at these times when Venice is peaceful, before the cruise ships have docked in the morning or after they’ve left for the day, when the crowds aren’t drowning out all the natural noises of the city.
I prefer the mornings, when the only people out are the workers who are sweeping away yesterday’s refuse or the vendors setting up their market stalls… But nights are nice in a different way – when the last pairs of lovers are making their way back from dinner to their hotel, a few gondolas are giving the last evening rides of the day, and the fog rolls in to shroud everything in a not-so-cozy (but oh-so-beautiful) blanket. If you can’t hear the sound of the quiet canals lapping at the walls of crumbling homes over the din of people, then you’re missing out.
- You must steer clear of awful food.
This is harder to do than the other points on this list, because how do you know if you haven’t tasted it yet? But there are things you can do to help minimize the chances of getting stuck with bad food in Venice.
- If the restaurant’s menu is translated into several languages, this is a yellow flag.
- If the restaurant is in a very touristy area, this is a yellow flag.
- If the place advertises quintessentially Italian (but decidedly not Venetian) dishes like pizza, this is a yellow flag.
- If the restaurant has a waiter out front luring in patrons, this is a yellow flag.
- If the only patrons are tourists, this is a very serious red flag.
Find places that are on weird back streets and which seem to be full of locals. Find places serving up local dishes (seafood, risotto, etc.). Carry a copy of “The Hungry Traveler: Italy” with you and learn what to look for on a Venetian menu. Will you be guaranteed a great meal? No. But you’ll stand a much better chance with these tips than without them.
Hopefully these tips will help you help Venice prove that your efforts are worth the trouble. And for a few more Venice tidbits, here are some other posts to read:
- Guide to Venice
- What I love about Venice
- Top 10 things to do in Venice (according to me!)
- What to do in Venice
- Venice transportation guide
- Venice discount cards
- Free things to do in Venice
- How to ride a gondola on the cheap
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