Venice doesn't need to be a money drain. Putting in the prep and following a few simple rules will make for a more relaxed holiday - and help you focus on the charm and atmosphere of the lagoon city
Venice is one of the world’s most romantic cities – but unless you go prepared, it can also feel like you’ve sprung a money leak. Six euros fifty to go two stops down the Grand Canal on a waterbus? Thirty for two cappuccinos at a café table in St Mark’s Square? Such things can sour a holiday, forcing even the most laid-back visitor to worry about getting ripped off. What's more, it can engender just a little hostility towards those rascally, profit-minded locals – who, deep down, are no more money-grasping than anyone trying to make a living in a crowded market.
Being fleeced is never a pleasant sensation – and it does not favour the unworldly state of mind you need to enjoy a place like Venice. True, this has long been a mercantile city, and its artistic glories were built on solid financial foundations. Whatever the origins of a building like the Basilica di San Marco, though, the final result is something ethereal, spiritual and really rather moving.
The better you prepare a trip to the lagoon city, and the more inside knowledge you have when you get there, the easier it will be to focus on the things that make this unique waterbound city really special. Here are 10 tips from an old Venice hand that should make for a smoother, cheaper and more hassle-free holiday:
1) Timing your visit
Venice can be a magical place in the late autumn and winter. As long as you avoid Carnevale – a rather forced revival of the city’s 18th-century party scene, which usually pans out between late February and early March – you will see Venice at its atmospheric, uncrowded best at this time of year. You will also enjoy lower prices just about everywhere, especially for your accommodation.
2) Special offers
Scour hotel websites for these. Even if they would normally be out of your budget, it’s worth checking some of the luxury hotels that have plenty of rooms to fill – particualrly if you’re travelling off-season. Venetian five-stars with susbtantial last-minute and package discounts include the 380-room Hilton Molino Stucky, the 200-room San Clemente Palace and the 97-room Papadopoli Venezia.
3) Planning ahead
Book transport passes and museum tickets in advance. In 2008, to help regulate and monitor tourist flows, the city council launched Venice Connected (venezia unica) so visitors could pre-book services that are cheaper outside peak periods. For example, an off-peak 72-hour ticket valid on all waterbus and road bus network costs €24.75 instead of €33; and a museum pass covering all civic museums costs €16 instead of €18. Note that these discounts are only available on the website – and only for those who book at least a week before arrival.
If you are over 65, make sure you carry your passport or a valid driving licence to qualify for reduced entry to museums and so on. The same goes for children: in most situations, those aged five and under go free, while six- to 14-year-olds pay the reduced rate; and while most ticket-office staff and waterbus conductors will accept your declaration of the child’s age, you do meet the occasional rulebook-bound bureaucrat. Full-time students should make sure they always have student ID on them.
Never go into any restaurant that employs people to stand outside and lure punters inside with a smooth spiel in six languages. The food will usually be uninspiring at best, and you will invariably pay a lot more than they deserve.
These are expensive – but those rates are not negotiable, whatever gondoliers may tell you. An official association, the Ente Gondola, fixes the prices: €80 for a 40-minute glide by day, or €100 after 7pm. If you want the gondola experience on the cheap, take a traghetto – one of the large ferry-gondolas, with oarsmen at the front and back, that cross the Grand Canal at certain strategic points – for example, between Santa Maria del Giglio (by the Hotel Gritti) and the Salute, or between Santa Sofia (near Ca’ d’Oro) and the Pescheria (the Rialto fish market). You board, pay your 50 eurocents and – if you really want to go native – do the crossing standing up.
Make lunch, not dinner, the big meal of the day. At lunchtime, restaurants, bars and bacaros (traditional wine bars offering snacks and a few basic hot meals) serve a large population of working Venetians, many of whom live over on the mainland – and most of whom are looking to spend no more than €20 a head, if that. As long as you avoid the swanky restaurants, you will always eat more cheaply at this time of day. Remember also that Venetian mealtimes are early by Italian standards: lunch servings generally start at noon and end around 2pm.
Reliable lunchtime pit-stops include:
Alla Palanca (+39 041 528 7719), Giudecca 448, Fondamenta Ponte Piccolo. This great traditional bar-trattoria by the Palanca waterbus stop has a few tables outside on the Giudecca quay. Closed Sundays.
Algiubagiò (+39 041 523 6084), Cannaregio 5039, Fondamenta Nuove. This multi-tasking bar, trattoria and restaurant is right by the busy Fondamenta Nuove waterbus stop – so handy if you’re in transit to or from Murano, Burano and Torcello. It does everything from quick snacks to full meals; good lunchtime options, especially in summer, are their tasty insalatone (mega-salads). Closed Tuesdays.
La Bottega ai Promessi Sposi (+39 041 241 2747), Cannaregio 4367, Calle dell’Oca. You may push the €20-a-head barrier in this new-style bacaro near Santi Apostoli, but you won’t stretch it by much. It will be worth it to sample their creative take on local seafood dishes, with a few Sicilian influences leavening the trad Venetian approach. Closed Wednesdays.
Shop at the Rialto market and its surrounding delis and wine shops in the morning, and have a gourmet picnic spread in your hotel room. Alternatively, graze on cicheti (bar snacks) in one of the city’s many bacaros – but do it standing up at the bar, since the same snacklets served at a table carry quite a different price tag. Another money-saving tip is to opt for pizza. Reliable pizzerias, where you are unlikely to pay more than €20 a head for a starter (eg bruschetta), pizza and glass of beer, include:
Birraria La Corte (+39 041 275 0570) in Campo San Polo – San Polo 2168. Open daily.
Al Nono Risorto (+39 041 524 1169) near the church of San Cassiano – Santa Croce 2338, Sottoportego di Siora Bettina. Closed Thursday lunchtimes.
9) Service charges
Remember: in bars and cafés, table service can carry as much as a 400 per cent mark-up – especially if you’re in Piazza San Marco and a string quartet is playing. You’ll pay a lot less away from the main tourist routes. There is one way, though, to sit down at the historic Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco without paying the extra: head for the counter at the back, where you will be charged bar prices rather than table prices. If you’re lucky, you will get to perch on one of the four bar stools usually occupied by in-the-know locals. You may not have the view of the square – but you do get to watch the barmen preparing Bellinis, which is just as mesmeric.
Discover the classic Venetian aperitivo, spritz (not to be confused with spritzer). This potent beverage contains white wine, soda water, a twist of lemon and, according to taste, one of three spirits: Campari (this is called a spritz al bitter); Aperol (spritz all’Aperol) or Select (spritz al Select), on a sliding scale from medicinal-bitter to sweet. Venetians generally drink these standing up at bars on their way home from work; if you do the same, you will pay no more than €2 a shot. One of my favourite spritz locations is Da Bonifacio (+39 041 522 7507), a tiny, historic bar-pasticceria in a narrow calle right around the back of the Doge’s palace – Castello 4237, Calle degli Albanesi. Closed Thursdays.