The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy
Stop number six on our nine week summer vacation across Europe brings us to Venice, Italy! After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice’s main train station around noon. Quick trip recap leading up to Venice: we flew to Milan from Seville, Spain on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. Earlier in our trip, we visited Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.
Venice is one of those cities that everyone has heard about. Mostly good stuff. Some not so great stuff. It routinely appears in articles like “Top 5 European Destinations Everyone Must Visit”, so it’s a must see if you find yourself in Europe with time to spare, right? I’ve also seen Venice on several “Most Overrated Destinations in the World” lists. How does one reconcile these two starkly contrasting ideas? Could Venice appropriately fit on both kinds of lists? I wanted to judge for myself so I made sure to book a couple nights in Venice so I could experience all the good and the bad that this canal-filled enclave has to offer.
Two nights seemed like a good bet. I figured if I love Venice, I can always visit for a longer period on subsequent trips to Europe. If I hate it, I’ll be moving on to the next city in under 48 hours so the downside is limited.
You’ll have to read on to get a full report of my feelings on the city, but in summary I have concluded Venice fits best on the “must see” list due to the unique presence of canals and architecture that we didn’t see elsewhere in Europe.
Getting Around Town
Venice has to be one of the most pedestrian friendly cities in the world. There are no cars in the city because there are no roads! While there are tons of canals, the boat traffic on the water is physically separated from the pedestrian thoroughfares.
As a result, getting around town is a simple affair if you have two feet and the ability to walk a mile or two at a time. From the train station, the Piazza San Marco and surrounding tourist attractions are only about a 30 minute walk (that will take you an hour or two because of all the cool buildings and canals you’ll have to admire along the way!). Another 30 minutes and you’ll be at the far opposite side of Venice.
Given the winding ways of the sometimes-dead end streets and the narrowness of some alleyways, you’ll get lost along the way. Which is half the fun of exploring Venice. And you’ll undoubtedly struggle to find a way to cross the canals that frequently appear in your path. Google Maps Walk Mode with GPS enabled is your friend in Venice. And gelato. If you get tired, stop for some gelato and life gets better.
We chose to walk everywhere since we had a decently located Airbnb not too far from the main attractions of the Grand Canal, Rialto Bridge, and Piazza San Marco. Dining was a breeze since there was a good takeout pizza place exactly 34 seconds walking distance from our Airbnb (I decided to time the walk after making several trips to this particular restaurant and thinking how short it was). Kids love pizza; dad is therefore awesome.
For those not up for walking, there are a few other ways to get around. The water taxis will take you wherever you want to go but they are super expensive compared to land based taxis. For a short trip you’ll pay USD$30-40 and there are upcharges for extra passengers, luggage, and waiting. Slightly cheaper than water taxis but still expensive are the vaporettos, or water buses. A single fare is USD$9 while a day pass with unlimited rides is slightly more affordable at USD$24. If you’re staying for extended periods, multi-day passes work out to be almost reasonably priced on a per day or per trip basis.
Gondolas are another option to tour around the city but aren’t explicitly designed to transport you from point A to point B. Fares vary but expect to pay USD$80-100+ for your group for 30-45 minutes. This was a tempting use of $100 until Mrs. Root of Good reminded me about her and the kids’ severe motion sickness. Boats and calm stomachs do not play well together in our family (and motion sickness meds lead to drowsiness).
Lodging for two nights with Airbnb
Lodging in Venice isn’t cheap. Hotels for two or three people were $125-200+ per night and we would need two rooms for the five of us. And those aren’t the really nice hotels nor are they conveniently located.
We managed to find a small one bedroom apartment with good reviews for USD$166 per night through Airbnb. The living room came with a sleeper sofa (where we slept) while the bedroom offered a large king size bed for the kids. The bathroom was nice and spacious. I don’t know if it was the fault of the owners, but we noticed a lingering sewage smell during our time in the apartment. It could be the city’s public works or it could be the apartment’s plumbing issues.
Although the apartment came with a full kitchen, we didn’t cook while there. Instead, we relied on easy to prepare foods from the nearby grocery store (yogurt, fruit, pastries, cheeses, meats, and bread) plus ample takeout from the nearby restaurants.
Overall the apartment was a decent place to stay for a couple of nights, and proved to be a good value versus hotels (but very expensive when measured against the other places we rented in Europe). If you want to give Airbnb a shot, click here to take $40 off your stay through this link.
For budget travelers, one alternative to staying on the island of Venice itself is staying on the mainland. Hotels and restaurants are much cheaper just across the bay on the mainland’s “Mestre” district. Trains run every few minutes from the mainland Venice Mestre train station to the Santa Lucia train station on the island and it’s only a 10 minute ride that costs less than USD$2. You can wake up in a nice modern (inexpensive) hotel on the mainland, eat breakfast at a reasonably priced restaurant, then hop on a train to the island for a day of sightseeing. Walk everywhere (or catch a water bus), see everything, relax, eat some gelato, and take the train back in the evening for a relaxing (and cheap) meal on the mainland away from crowds of tourists. Rinse and repeat if you want multiple days touring the canals of Venice. We opted to stay on the island itself for the experience, and I’m glad we did. But if you have a limited budget for a few nights in Venice you can really stretch your dollars by staying just across the bay on the mainland (where everything is half price).
Food in Venice
Though we stayed about 10 minutes away from the touristy parts of Venice, we were still within a few minutes of dozens of restaurants, bakeries and a small grocery store. What can I say? It’s a small island so everything is necessarily nearby.
The neighborhood Co-op grocery store was our go-to place for fresh fruits and yogurts for breakfast and a container of gelato for dessert back at the apartment. Prices were noticeably higher than everywhere else we visited in Europe but not out of line with the higher end grocery stores in the US.
The pizza place around the corner from our apartment was so inexpensive, convenient, and tasty that it quickly became our staple meal. I wouldn’t encourage eating pizza for most meals in general, but if you’re only in Venice for two nights and you love pizza, it’s a treat. Just pretend you’re back in college.
Mrs. Root of Good noted that we were near the water and therefore the seafood might be better than average in Venice. She was busy resting her feet (we walked everywhere, remember?). Out I went in search of a restaurant that would sell me a few take out trays of some marine-based life form fried, sauteed, and/or steamed to perfection. This is harder than it sounds as apparently “take out meals” aren’t a thing at the fancy little cafes and restaurants lining Venice’s canals. They have culinary standards and it would be insulting to stick their art-like dishes in a cardboard tray, or something. To further complicate matters, it was only 5 pm and many restaurants close during the slow stretch between lunch and dinner with dinner starting at 6 pm or later. Eventually I found a place that would stoop to my low cultural standards and slide their finest crustaceans into a to go tray in exchange for a few medium-sized euro notes (or a nice shiny credit card that offers reward points, in my case).
Thoughts on Venice
First off, the negatives. Venice suffers from its own success. It’s beautiful and everyone wants to visit which means you get to enjoy the company of tens of thousands of people, many of whom are just visiting for the day from one of the mega-sized cruise ships docked in the busy port. The impact of the crowds is highly variable. On our first evening in Venice the crowds weren’t bad at all because everyone leaves in the evenings. It was almost quiet in places. Even in the middle of the day, it was relatively quiet near our Airbnb since we weren’t in the middle of the main touristic areas and several minutes away from the Grand Canal that transects Venice. But the most often visited sections of Venice were swamped with hordes of humanity walking penguin-style in the narrow canyons between the elegantly decaying buildings.
The Rialto Bridge area and the Piazza San Marco were the most cramped areas during the middle of the day. We visited those places then moved on to quieter spots. Some visitors chose to dine right next to the Rialto Bridge at one of the many sidewalk cafes. I don’t know how they enjoyed their meal given the urgency of thousands of people pushing their way along the sidewalk right next to them while the mild sewage stink of the canal danced a duet with the lingering clouds of cigarette smoke from the crowds passing nearby.
The city is also slowly sinking into the bay (or is the sea level rising??) which makes the decay more evident. The ground level in many buildings is no longer habitable by humans (only by the canal water). We didn’t notice any flooding when we visited but I understand it’s a big problem when high tide coincides with other environmental conditions.
What I’m saying is that I found the architecture and canals of Venice worthy of visiting in spite of the crowds of my fellow tourists making the experience less enjoyable for us all. There’s nowhere else quite like Venice in all of Europe. Even the canals of Amsterdam (where we also visited) don’t compare to the sight of the tight-packed houses and shops lining the canals in Venice.
I’m 100% glad that we decided to spend a couple of days in Venice. It was one of those cities we considered cutting from our 14 city tour across Europe since it often made the “overrated tourist trap” lists. I still think it’s a tourist trap in a way, but with merit. It’s amazing. Around every mundane corner is a picturesque winding alleyway with a narrow bridge crossing a murky canal. It’s definitely worth a 2-3 day visit if you find yourself in this part of the world.
Will I be going back some day? Yes. Hopefully in the off season when it’s less crowded.
What is your preconception of Venice? If you visited, how did you like it?
Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:
- Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000
- Surprising Finds in Lisbon, Portugal
- From the Alcazaba to Sea in Malaga, Spain
- Exploring La Alhambra and the Narrow Alleyways of Granada, Spain
- Enjoying The Alcazar and Jamon Iberico in Seville, Spain
- Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy
- The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy