Venice is fickle. One moment “La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia” — the Most Serene Republic of Venice — enchants with her mysterious beauty and dreamy charm. In the next, she infuriates with unladylike stenches, wicked weather, throngs of tourists and insane prices. Here’s how to remain cool and calm in the midst of this magnificent madness.
Be Sweet to Your Feet: Don’t leave home without your most comfortable shoes. You may envision yourself floating blithely around the city’s waterways, but Venice is best seen by walking, and those picturesque cobblestone streets are rough on the feet.
Fast and Loose: If you’re tempted to purchase any of the “designer” goods — handbags, wallets, jewelry, CDs, and perfume — sold off of the blankets near every bridge, don’t. Under Venice’s “Bad Bag” initiative you can be charged a high fine if you’re caught buying counterfeit merchandise.
Getting There: Most visitors to Venice come by train or plane—take the train for a scenic trip, the plane to get there ASAP. The easiest way to get to your hotel from Marco Polo Airport is to take Alilaguna’s private water bus service. Buy tickets at the Alilaguna counter in the airport, then take the free shuttle bus to the dock. A ticket is €10 (just under $13), and it will take 60 to 90 minutes to reach your hotel. The water buses make stops at various points in Venice. A water taxi will get you there in about a half hour, but will cost around $100. Venice’s train station is S.Lucia (Santa Lucia). Do not disembark in Venezia Mestre—that’s the last stop on the mainland. S.Lucia is located in the Cannaregio district. You can take a vaporetto (public water bus) into the city from the docks directly outside the station.
Go Gondola: There are, in theory, official set prices for a gondola ride — € 73 for the standard 50-minute ride (maximum 6 persons) between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., €91 between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. (yes, gondolas in Venice run around the clock, depending on the season). But many gondoliers regard the official rates as an interesting starting point only. Don’t be afraid to ask up front “what it will cost.” In general, the gondoliers in the quiet Dorsoduro district offer the best prices for wonderfully scenic rides. But remember that gondolas are Venice’s version of the horse-drawn carriage rides so popular in other cities—it’s a great experience but not always speedy or reliable conveyance.
For getting around Venice quickly, take water taxis (motoscafo — they’re expensive: fares start at around $60) or water buses (also known as vaporettos — you can buy a three-day pass for the water bus system for under $30).
Go With the Flow: Venice is a maze of serpentine paths and alleyways with 150 watery streets spanned by 400 bridges, so don’t expect direct routes to the places you want to go. The big tourist spots are easy to find — just follow the signs and the pigeon-feeding masses. For lesser-known destinations use the major attractions as landmarks, and once you’re in the general area of where you want to be, ask locals for directions. That said, do make sure to spend some time wandering around sans a map and a plan, as there are many wonderful little restaurants, boutiques, peaceful canals, cathedrals, and beautiful plazas tucked away far off the beaten path.
How to Beat the Heat: Visiting La Serenissima in summer can be maddening. The city is hot and humid, and plazas and streets are packed with cranky crowds. To avoid the worst of the heat, tour early in the day and late at night, breaking for a long nap in the afternoon. Or devote the afternoon to air-conditioned museums and other cultural institutions. When the masses become overwhelming, escape to one of the nearby lagoon islands — Murano, Burano, or Torcello. Murano is the place to go for blown-glass art objects, and Burano is a beautiful miniature Venice famous for its lace manufacturers. Torcello is a quiet, green island that is almost uninhabited — the perfect escape from Venice’s hordes. No need to sign on for a tour, you can get to any of the islands easily via vaporetto. Check Venice’s public transportation page for routes and schedules.
Mamma Mia!: To avoid surprises when the restaurant bill comes, be aware that a service charge (servizio) of 12% and a charge for bread and cutlery (coperto) of 1 or 2 euros are typically figured into your total. Also note that the cheapest places may charge ridiculous amounts for soft drinks. Furthermore, at all restaurants the posted price for seafood may be calculated by weight. Look for the word “l’etto” on the menu, which means the price is per one hundred grams/3-1/2 ounces, not per portion (which will likely be at least 300 grams, so the dish costs at least three times the price.) There’s no real way around this, fresh fish is expensive in Venice. At least if you know the price is by weight you won’t be surprised when the waiter presents the check. To avoid sticker shock, stick to the wonderful Venetian risotto and polenta (seafood isn’t priced by weight when it’s used as an ingredient in a dish) or the somewhat less wonderful pasta dishes.
You Snooze, You Lose: There are few sights as magical as the early morning mists swirling over the Grand Canal, or a deserted Piazza San Marco. But how often is Venice deserted? The answer is never, unless you arrive at your favorite sights at 6 a.m. You might not like getting up that early, but did you really travel this far just to sleep in?
Water, Water Everywhere: It used to be that Aqua Alta — tidal flooding — happened only in October, November, and December. These days you may hear bells ringing followed by sirens—an indication that inundation is imminent — throughout the year. Don’t fuss, you won’t get swept away. Elevated wooden walkways are quickly put in place, boots are for sale everywhere, and maps showing routes that bypass the worst of the water are publicly posted. Do remember, though, to wash off any body parts exposed to the flood water, as the water may be polluted. For Aqua Alta information, call 041/2411996.
Photo Credits: (1) courtesy Sebastien Bertrand; (2) courtesy M. Merideth; (3) courtesy Nick Scott-Smith