We never really intended to visit Venice this February. We had been there 25 years ago as a stop during a 4 week Interrail trip through Europe. Been there, done that. We rarely revisit places we’ve been to as there’s so much world to explore and so little time. But then we saw an offer for a trip to the Venice carnival and we thought, hey, why not (but we arranged it ourselves for less money of course).
We couldn’t remember much of our first visit anyway. Our analog pictures from back then were bad and didn’t bring much memories back to us either. The only thing that we could piece together was that we’d walked around for one day and that there had been many other tourists. As we discovered during this trip a visit to Venice has two faces: one good, one bad.
Venice, the bad
Let’s start with the bad one first. Venice can be a veritable tourist hell: expensive and crowded, especially during a carnival weekend when hotels hike up their prices and the narrow streets and alleyways in the most touristic part of Venice – between de Rialto bridge and the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s square) – get very crowded.
We read somewhere that 3 million people visit Venice during carnival. That figure seems a bit high to us, but it was undeniably very busy with pedestrian traffic jams blocking progression on a regular basis. So maybe it’s true. The crushing mass of people got on our nerves sometimes and when it started drizzling all day on the third day of our visit, umbrellas were pushed into my face constantly (I’m 1.88 meters or 6ft2 tall) making it even worse.
Venice, the good
That being said: the good sides of Venice more than outweigh the bad ones. So let’s dwell on that a little bit longer and in the process give you some tips to keep the bad sides of Venice at bay as much as possible. To start with, and probably the most important: Venice is just breathtakingly beautiful, rain or shine.
We can judge because we had two days of glorious sunny winter weather, followed by a drizzly Sunday and a last grey – and a little misty – morning to say goodbye to the city. People who know us, know how much we hate grey and rainy days and how much we love sun, but secretly we liked the more gloomy days as well. They seemed to suit Venice better. Strange, isn’t it?
5 ways to get the most out of Venice
1 Go to Venice for carnival
Despite the crowds and higher prices, carnival is a great time to visit Venice. People dress up in elaborate costumes and parade the streets for everybody to been seen. We’ve written a separate post about the Venice carnival with lots of awesome pictures (in our humble opinion….).
2 Get off the tourist trail!
This one we can’t stress enough. Most people blindly follow the signs pointing you in the direction of the Rialto bridge, the Piazza San Marco or the train station and the bus station at Piazzale Roma. This is NOT the way to see the real Venice. You mostly see other tourists, tourist shops and – ok – some of the city’s highlights, like the Rialto bridge (which was up in scaffolding for restauration during our visit), Doge’s palace and the Basilica de San Marco.
Though they’re highlights for a reason, the more authentic Venice is found off the tourist trail. So if you have the time, lose the map and see where it gets you. It sometimes only takes a few streets (or canals of course) to find the more tranquil parts of Venice and get a glimpse of local life. We did it on several occasions and for us it was the best part of our stay (next to taking a ton of pictures of people all dressed up for carnival).
Neighborhoods like the Jewish Ghetto and Cannaregio to the north and Dorsoduro to the south only see a fraction of the visitors that head to San Marco, but are just as nice and feel more ‘real’. San Marco sometimes feels a bit like a tourist trap.
3 Visit Murano and Burano
In the lagoon north of Venice are the islands of Murano and Burano. As our first day in Venice promised to have the best weather we started with a visit to these two islands. The boat from Piazzale Roma to Murano takes about 20 minutes to the first stop on the island, which is famous for its glassblowing.
You can see glass artisans at work in one of the factories open to the public, but we didn’t visit as we had seen it before and it doesn’t really interest us very much. Murano, however, is nice to walk around for 1 to 1,5 hour, with considerable less tourists than in Venice itself and it has a picturesque church, the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donate.
From Murano it is a further half hour by boat into the lagoon to Burano. Burano is famous for its lace and colored houses. We don’t care much for lace, but loved the bright colors of the houses. Although the island is rather small we spent an enjoyable two hours here taking many pictures and getting our first taste of people dressing up for carnival.
4 Buy a 1 Day Travel Card
Unless you want to take vaporettos (the public waterbus lines) on a regular basis, you won’t be using public transport much in Venice. The city itself is easy to walk and buses to Venice-Mestre (if your hotel is there, we’ll get to that later) are cheap. If you want to visit the islands of Burano and Murano, however, buying a 1 Day Travel Card costing 20 euro can be an economical choice as each ride on a vaporetto costs 7 euro.
With the following itinerary we made the most use of the card’s 24 hour validity. We validated the travel card at 8.50 AM on entering the city bus near our hotel in Mestre to Venice. Once we arrived we took a boat to Murano first, then to Burano and back to Venice (Fondamenta Nuovo stop).
Late afternoon we took a vaporetto to San Giorgio for a sweeping city view (we forgot about climbing the campanile though as we were completely absorbed by photographing all the people posing in carnival dress-up with the Doge’s Palace and San Marco as a backdrop). In the evening we took the Line 1 Canal Grande vaporetto from San Marco back to the bus station and the bus to Mestre.
The next day we got up a little earlier to take the bus to Venice again and another ride on the Line 1 vaporetto the other way around to view the majestic palaces that line the Canal Grande by daylight. At the end of the ride our tickets got checked for the first time.
Because it was almost 9 AM we were taken apart by a bunch of ticket collectors as we had exceeded the validity of the ticket and couldn’t show a receipt for the purchase of the Travel Card (always save that!). Luckily for us they were lenient and let us get of the boat without a fine. This way we’d spent a lot of time on the water without shelling out for a touristy and very expensive gondola ride (80 euro for 40 minutes).
5 Plan your visit to the San Marco Basilica and Doge’s Palace
Like most people you will want to visit the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) and the San Marco Basilica. And rightly so. Because everybody wants to go there chances are that you’ll have to stand in line here for a long time to get in, especially on weekends and holidays. We saved the Doge’s palace and the Basilica for our rainy day, which in hindsight was a mistake.
Many other people did the same and as it was Sunday, the 11th century San Marco Basilica was only open for two hours in the afternoon, making for a long colorful umbrella waiting line on the Piazza San Marco. Entrance to the basilica is free but it’s worth to pay for the 5 euro entrance ticket that gains you access to the balcony for a view over the Piazza San Marco and a visit to a small museum about the mosaics and tapestries found in the church (which is rather dark on the inside on a grey and rainy day).
Entrance to the impressive Doge’s Palace is 19 euro and is valid for 4 museums, but the it is the Doge’s Palace itself that is of most interest. The palace structures date mostly from the 14th and 16th century and embody the power of Venice’s rulers (the doges) in those days. Grand halls, elaborate paintings by famous Venetian artists like Tintoretto and a weapons room greet you. You can also cross the Bridge of Sighs to the prison on the other side of the canal.
We visited in the middle of the day. For both the San Marco Basilica and the Doge’s Palace it is advised to visit at the beginning or the end of the day (although the light in the Basilica is supposed to be best around noon) for smaller crowds and quicker entry. Tip: if you buy your tickets online in advance you can skip the queues.
More travel tips Venice
Sleep – Yes, we know. For many people there is nothing more romantic than sleeping in Venice and of course it’s very convenient to stay in a hotel in close proximity to all that Venice has to offer. But all this comes at a cost. Mainland Venice-Mestre is only 10-15 minutes away by train or bus and hotel prices are considerably lower here than in Venice itself (and you don’t have to drag your luggage over all those bridges…).
We had booked 4 nights at the family-run Hotel Autoespresso which was conveniently located in Mestre, with a bus stop just around the corner. The room was very hot when we arrived and it took 2 days to cool it down to our desired temperature. Beds were a tad on the firm side, room size was good (but no fridge), bathroom spacious, but shower stall was tiny. There was a vast breakfast buffet, staff were very friendly and helpful and wifi was strong.
Eat – Eating out in Venice was much cheaper than we had expected. Because of much competition there is a surprisingly wide selection of affordable pizzerias in the San Marco area, where you can eat for 15-20 euro each. Even cheaper – and good value for lunch – are filling calzones and pizza slices you can buy on the go. Or maybe try a couple of frittella, the deep fried dough (with or without filling) typical of Venice. North of the train station in Mestre there are several cheap Chinese restaurants for those who want to dine out on a budget.
Transport – Marco Polo Airport is the closest airport to Venice (Treviso is also an option). We flew Easyjet that had cheap tickets from Amsterdam despite it being carnival. Buses to Mestre or Venice go every 20 minutes (travel time 20 minutes) and cost 8 euro one way. From Mestre there are regular buses and trains to Venice (10-15 minutes away) and tickets are cheap; bus tickets are 1,50 euro one way. As there are no cars possible in Venice you have to walk or take a vaporetto (waterbus). All info on fares and routes can be found here.