Top tips for enjoying Venice, city of culture and romance

by Harry B

Once you have visited Venice’s most famous sights, there is still so much to see in this delightful city and the islands of the Venetian lagoon

It’s a truism confirmed by the personal experience of every visitor: no other city in the world is remotely like Venice. While many travellers will visit Venice only once, to tick off the renowned sights, there are thousands more who are drawn back by her enthralling charisma. The constraints of Venice’s location, built on timber piles sunk into the compacted clay of a swampy lagoon, give her a unique place in world geography and endow her with the magic that has endeared this city to millions over the years. So you can always return to Venice, safe in the knowledge that that she will not have been changed by the building of skyscraper office blocks or dual carriageways.

Here then are some suggestions for added enjoyment of this delightful city, whether you are a Venice devotee or novice.

One: For the most spectacular and romantic arrival, take a water taxi from the airport. It’s expensive, at around €100, but if you are with friends or agree to share with fellow-travellers, €25 or less per head is a bargain for a sensational trip across the lagoon to make your entrance into the Grand Canal. As a bonus, you’ll be dropped off at the nearest landing-stage to your hotel.

Two: If you’re staying for three days or more, invest €33 in a 72-hour ACTV (Azienda del Consorzio Trasporti Veneziano) smart card. Unless you intend to sit in your hotel all day (why would you go to Venice to do that?) you will certainly save money over buying tickets singly (a single journey costs €6.50). And it’s far more convenient – you simply validate your ticket (like a London Oyster card) by passing it over the reader as you enter each landing-stage. Travel cards are also available for 7 days and for 12, 24, 36 or 48 hours.

Three: Don’t invest in the most expensive hotels, unless you intend to spend most of your time there (see two above). There are cheaper hotels which serve as perfectly good bases for exploring Venice. The nine-room Novecento Boutique Hotel, Calle del Dose, Campo San Maurizio, is excellent – and only 10 minutes’ walk from St Mark’s Square. The same family runs Hotel Flora, nearer to St Mark’s and a bit larger with 44 rooms. Neither hotel has a restaurant, but that’s not a drawback, as Venice offers so much choice of decent eating places within easy walking distance of all central hotels. One of my favourites is A Beccafico (www.abeccafico.com) in Campo Santo Stefano, a pleasant square two minutes from the Accademia bridge, on the San Marco side. On the opposite side of the square, Gelato Paolin serves excellent ice-cream.

Four: There is no shortage of gondoliers touting for your custom and, for a special occasion with a special friend, a gondola ride down the Grand Canal is unforgettable. But if you want the experience without the expense you can cross the canal by traghetti – gondola ferries – for just 50 cents. They are located at seven points along the Grand Canal between Ferrovia (the railway station) and San Marco.

Five: Explore on foot. Don’t be alarmed when you become lost, which you frequently will – it’s not a problem: quite the opposite in fact, because there are delights to be found in countless chance discoveries on the way to getting back on track. Yellow street signs on buildings indicate the way to San Marco, Rialto, Accademia or the nearest vaporetto. Just slip away from the crowds, down alleys and across bridges, and you will soon lose yourself in Venice’s literal backwaters. Go to Castello, Cannaregio or Dorsoduro, sestieri (districts) which all yield serendipitous finds for pedestrian explorers.

Six: The best times to see St Mark’s Square are early morning, before the day-trippers arrive, or at night, when they have left. A misty dawn over the lagoon is a magical sight. After dark, the lights and the music add a new dimension to this enchanting place.

Seven: By all means take the lift up the campanile in St Mark’s Square for the superb views, but be prepared to queue. You will find a much quicker alternative on the tiny island of San Giorgio Maggiore, a short Line 2 vaporetto ride from San Zaccaria. The splendid church and monastery were the work of the great architect Andrea Palladio in the 16th century. You’ll pay around €3 for the lift to the top of the tower, from where the 360º panorama includes, of course, St Mark’s campanile!

Eight: Fast food aside, if you are on a budget, don’t eat within stone-throwing distance of the popular tourist venues. Instead, seek out places where the locals eat, and be prepared to experiment, unless your Italian is very good. Try Signora Annalisa’s authentic Venetian fare at Da Mario – from the main drag between the Accademia bridge and St Mark’s Square, turn left alongside Rio di San Maurizio.

Nine: The Line 1 vaporetto runs from Piazzale Roma via San Marco to the Lido. Taking the stretch along the Grand Canal can sometimes be a bit like travelling the Piccadilly Line in rush hour, in terms of passenger numbers. But that’s where the similarity starts and ends. Instead of watching black tunnel walls flash by, you gaze out at a serene vista of magnificent waterside palaces and a panoply of canal traffic: gondolas, vaporetti, water taxis, police launches – even adventurous tourists in kayaks.

Ten: Pay a visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (www.guggenheim-venice.it). Even if modern art doesn’t float your gondola, there is a charming sculpture garden behind the house and a terrace in front, where you can sit and watch the endlessly varying vista on the Grand Canal.

Eleven: Murano and Burano are the most popular of the lagoon islands – but don’t miss out a visit to Torcello on the grounds that it’s the farthest away. The 50-minute vaporetto ride from Fondamento Nuove (Line LN to Burano, then walk 50 metres to the stop for Line T to Torcello) takes you to a place so far removed from St Mark’s Square it might be a different country. While thousands throng the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica San Marco, only a few score visitors stroll from the Torcello vaporetto stop to a basilica that houses two of the most stunning works of art in Europe, let alone Venice. The huge mosaic of the Last Judgment covers the entire west wall; at the opposite end of the church is the Apse Mosaic, with an amazing 13th century Madonna as its centrepiece. If it’s time for food when you emerge, the Locanda Cipriani is from the same stable as Hotel Cipriani and Harry’s Bar. A less pricey alternative is Osteria Al Ponte del Diavolo, which has tables in a charming garden for fine-weather dining.

Twelve: If your overloaded senses need a break, take a water bus across the lagoon to the Lido, where the atmosphere is quite different from Venice itself. It’s narrow, flat, 12 kilometres long, and the only lagoon island with roads, so exploring by bicycle is a good idea. Cycles can be hired opposite the vaporetto stop. If this sounds too energetic, there are ACTV bus services, for which your travel card is valid.

If you take up no more than one or two of my suggestions, you will make your own discoveries on the way – and leave Venice (reluctantly) with more ideas for your next return visit.