Ten tips for saving money (and your soul) in Venice

by Lee.Marshall

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.

4) Concessions

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.

5) Touts

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.

6) Gondolas

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.

7) Lunch

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.

8) Dinner

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.

10) Drinks

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.


I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (www.maxxi.beniculturali.it), due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?