The hypnotic dance of pale sunlight on the smooth columns of Ca D’Oro was enough to convince me that visiting Venice would be a lovely experience. I had questioned our timing, in the height of summer and tourist peak, and wondered if the small archipelago system might be spoilt by too many tour groups and marked up prices.
But once on board the waterbus that snakes along the opaque green Grand Canal, none of that practical business seemed to matter. Bring on the hoards, crank the sweltering Italian sun; the grace of Venetian architecture had transfixed me, the quiet watery surrounds had calmed me and my heart was lightened by the ageless magic of the canal as it reflected upon the elegant artisan city.
Although my visit to Venice was a mere 48 hours, I was (clearly) enchanted by its loveliness. Admittedly, as the hours passed, I did grow more weary from the crowds and heat, but I still recommend seeing the city in summer rather than not at all.
Here are eight tips to help you make the most of lovely Venice.
1. Explore Venice from the waterways
Boating really is the best way to see Venice as it was designed to be seen: from the glassy waterfront as you look upon Palatial columns, ornate balcony rails, pastel pink tones and green striped awnings.
You don’t have to splash out for an expensive gondola ride to experience the gentle joys of Venice by boat. While the gondolas and pretty timber water taxis can navigate into the smaller water systems, the public water buses still present front-row views of some of Venice’s most glorious structures.
For a wonderful first impression and orientation, take the water bus from the Grand Canal shore just outside Venice Santa Lucia train station. Buying tickets from the train station for the waterbus is a bit problematic with the crowds, so brace yourself. You can purchase a ticket from the waterbus office or from the ticket line at the ridiculously small tourism booth at the bottom of the station steps.
A waterbus ticket including luggage can be bought for €7. This ticket will last for 60 minutes and can take you as far as you can get in that time. Make sure you validate your ticket on the little machine with the green disc, which is located on the piers before your board the boat.
A 12 hour transport ticket costs €18 and allows you to carry a bag on board. This type of ticket can be used on all public boats in Venice – along the Grand Canal, the smaller canals and around the outside islands of Venice – as well as the bus and transport in Mestre on the mainland. You can also use this ticket to take the bus from Roma station (near S.L. Train Station) to get to Mestre, rather paying €3.50 for a single train trip.
2. Risk disorientation and wander off the tourist trail
I was surprised how easy it was to take a few turns into smaller streets and find a canal that was quiet, calm and pretty to watch for a hour or so. Once we made this discovery, we bought some beer and a bottle of Bellini to enjoy by the water without the crush of crowds and overpriced bars.
Local eateries can also be discovered away from the main thoroughfares. I particularly liked the strip of seafood restaurants and bars along Canale di Cannaregio, but almost any detour along a smaller canal, heading towards the outer shore should find you in an interesting spot.
3. Accept that you will lose yourself
Venice is a labyrinth city with seemingly nameless alleys, dead ends and indirect routes that make it easy to become spun around (especially if your internal compass is already a little wonky, like mine). Try not to navigate by the river as you can’t access many waterfronts, instead hop between squares (labelled as ‘Campo’) and monuments, as there are plenty of them around.
If all else fails, just wander until you find something lovely enough to distract you from being lost; Venice has the happy fortune of offering great conditions for serendipity.
4. Don’t try to do it all, there is just too much
After two days of determined walking and wandering, I barely unearthed the surface of Venice’s treasures… but I did gain a good feel for the city.
There are 15th Century architectural wonders, some of the best art in Italy, too many churches to count on your hands and a sea of cultural delights to encounter, so seeing it all is really not an option.
The most popular attractions certainly include Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square), San Marco Basilica and Palazzo Ducale (Palace of the Doges), which are all conveniently in the same area, meaning you can at least tick those off the list with limited navigating. Other sights are scattered quite frequently throughout the islands, meaning you can wander between highlights and still find monuments you weren’t looking for.
If you can handle the crowds and afford the expensive accommodation, perhaps book for a little longer. Otherwise, content yourself with the knowing what it feels like to sit by an evening-lit canal as a singing gondola man glides by.
5. Explore the city by night
One of my favourite things about Venice is the way the windows and candles seem to melt into the canal in the night. Nothing quite compares to the shadowy thrill of narrow Venice lanes as you navigate the labyrinth towards glimpses of the dark glimmering liquid. The simple happiness that comes with dangling your feet into the evening-black canal with a drink in hand is something to embrace, and for those of you who, like me, love to play with photography, Venice is the ultimate studio for creating shots with low light and romantic mystery.
6. Venice is ideal for an early morning jog
My time jogging along the coasts and canals, through narrow winding lanes and beside grand buildings in Venice goes into my ‘best jogs ever’ list. If you hit the streets before 9am, it is quiet, with only other joggers and dog-walkers to keep you company as you explore the outdoor museum.
Try running the length of Fondamenta Nuove or the wide sea-side stretch between Piazza San Marco and Giardini Pubblici. If you’re not that keen on the jogging part, the morning streets will still let you delight in their magnificence as the golden sun beams across their smooth stone pavers.
7. Visit the Rialto Market
As sunlight creeps across the sleepy streets of Venice and tourists snooze peacefully in their hotels, a marvellous market buzz has already begun in Venice’s Rialto Market. Located near the famous Grand Canal bridge by the same name, the Rialto Market is the source of flappingly-fresh seafood, exotic berries and juicy swollen tomatoes. It is where locals pick up produce before the rush of the day and where early birds grab breakfast before heading to work.
The market operates every day except Sunday and can be found by crossing the Rialto bridge from San Marco to San Polo and veering right, towards the market complex that edges onto the Grand Canal. The best time to go is in the morning – around 9.30am before the crowds start to swarm. You can also catch a ferry gondola for a couple of Euros between the market and the opposite side of the canal, or just sit on the waters edge and watch the locals go back and forth.
8. Hosteria Al Vecio Bragosso serves gluten free pasta
This was the source of my first meal and Venice and was one of the best places I found. Not only did it serve gluten free pasta (which surprisingly few others did, despite Italy’s generally excellent celiac catering record) but the service was wonderful, the prices weren’t unreasonable (again, hard to find in Venice) and the seafood was deliciously fresh. You can find the restaurant at Strada Nuova, S.S. Apostoli and more details are available on their website.