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A view of San Marco from San Giorgio Venice Trip Planning

Visiting Venice for the first time? Here are a few general Venice travel tips for the first-timer. Not what to see (I’ll leave that to other posts) as some things to consider when you’re planning your trip to Venice for the first time.

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T his place is weird,” my daughter said as we sped into Venice from the airport on our water taxi. It was a hair-raising ride for me as the driver had propped my bag of camera equipment at the very top of a Seussian stack of luggage at the front of the boat. My younger daughter had not been enthusiastic about this trip, but in a feeble attempt to invoke some excitement, I talked it up as being like the city in “Pokémon Heroes.” We do what we have to.

Yes, Venice is “weird,” I suppose. I prefer the word “unique.” Venice sometimes seemed a melancholy mixture of decay and beauty and (eventual) loss. Even in the heat of August, water bubbles up in the street, reminding you that the city is sinking. I imagine that I’m standing in a future Atlantis and envision a scene of future archaeologists examining some of the remaining artifacts — cheap parasols and selfie sticks.

48.3 million visitors visited Venice in 2017, which is why there were protests by locals that same summer and why Venice ended up in CNN Travel’s 12 Destinations Travelers Might Want to avoid. But Venice remains a “bucket list” destination for many travelers. So, if you decide not to heed their advice and visit anyway, here are some Venice travel tips you might want to think about during your trip planning.

Venice Travel Tips: Time of Year

In August, Venice’s heat and humidity are intense, and most everything has crowds — streets, shops, and boats alike (though there were some areas, like the Ghetto that were, blissfully, less occupied.) We asked our gondolier what his advice was for the best time to visit. His reply?

“April maybe…it gets busy around Easter weekend but the weather is more mild, or October. Don’t come in February. In February, there is Carnival, and the tourists come, and they get drunk, and it is no good.”

Update: I’d be careful anytime in Winter considering the flooding in 2019, which is likely to recur considering climate change.

Venice Travel Tips: Location of Your Lodging

If trudging through the narrow streets of Venice with your luggage in tow isn’t your idea of fun (and pack light, because you’ll likely trudge a bit unless you hire a water taxi to take you directly to your hotel or AirBNB,) look at your map in advance and do some planning? What might getting to that hotel in the center of Venice actually look like when you arrive?

“Oh, our hotel is right here. This is where we always stay,” the smiling Australian couple told us as we descended from our shared water taxi at Rialto. Meanwhile, we searched the map to plan the walk to our hotel, which, fortunately, was only a few streets away. Travel envy is a real thing. I wanted a hotel right thereI wanted to be able to smile and say, “Oh, this is where we always stay…”

We saw plenty of other bewildered-looking tourists toting around luggage farther than we did. If you don’t want to count yourself among them, do some planning (unless your sense of adventure includes just showing up and figuring it out when you get there, which is fun sometimes.)

And, when you’re planning your lodging, research the area you’re staying. We stayed close enough to San Marco that it started to seem like a crowded maze of shops from which there was no escape. But it had its advantages – many of the things we most wanted to do in Venice were a short walk away, and my Vaporetto-avoidant spouse could avoid them to his heart’s content. Pick a less central area, and you’re less likely to be dealing with crowds.

Venice Travel Tips: Accessibility

I’m an Occupational Therapist by background. The layout of Venice re-activated my therapist brain.  How might I navigate this city of stairs, bridges, and canals if I had mobility limitations?

Bridge in Venice Venice Travel Tips

I’m an Occupational Therapist by background. The layout of Venice re-activated my therapist brain. How might I navigate this city of stairs, bridges, and canals if I had mobility limitations?

I watched the delivery men run through the streets in the morning transporting hand carts full of items for the restaurants up and down small flights of stairs and over bridges and wondered how someone in a wheelchair might navigate this city. A ramp was available here and there: near the canal, at the train station, at the Vaporetto stop.

I suspected that, for someone with mobility limitations, staying by the canal or visiting by cruise ship might be options, but that only covers a small portion of the city. However, this website claims that 70% of Venice is accessible for people with mobility limitations.

Water taxis may also be difficult to ascend and descend, even for those of us who are in relatively good shape. As the water level changes, the level (and the gap) between boat and dock can vary considerably. I took a flying leap off the boat, though the driver extended his arm in support. It would have been challenging to get off even with his help if I had even an arthritic knee (though I’m on my way there).

As usual, there are are many online resources related explicitly to navigating Venice for people with disabilities:

Venice for Disabled People
Accessible Venice
Venice for the Disabled
Venice Disabled Access Review
Italy: How to See Venice in a Wheelchair

Venice Travel Tips: Transportation

Once you’re in Venice, your transport choices are twofold: foot or boat. Take care of those feet! If you wear an activity tracker, you’ll likely be going far beyond your step goal (unless you ride a boat all day).
Your boat options are several. Note that I don’t mention the gondola here — it’s nice to see the canal by gondola slowly, but the era of the gondola as transportation has long passed us by; There are more efficient ways of getting around Venice.

 

Vaporetto:

The Vaporetto is Venice’s public transportation system and your least expensive option for getting around Venice by boat. But, especially during peak times, these boats can be packed — which may be an issue for the more “crowd sensitive.”

During the days that I lusted after travel without actually traveling, one of my favorite forms of travel porn was watching Rick Steves on public television. “Oh Rick!” my daughter faked a swoon as I explained that Rick had said that the Vaporetto was one of the best ways to see the whole of the Grand Canal over other options.

My husband did not agree with Travel St. Rick on this one. While I loved it, it took coaxing to get him back on the boat after that first crowded trip. If you go earlier in the day and start at a less full stop, you may be one of the fortunate ones who get a seat right up at the front of the boat (which is what, blessedly, happened to us later.) So the Vaporetto did turn out to be an excellent way to see the canal if you have the patience to wait while the boat makes its frequent passenger stops.

You can purchase Vaporetto passes at any ACTV stop. Or to forego the queue, you can buy a tourist pass online from a range of 1-7 days, ranging from 20 – 60 Euro at the time of this writing.

Water Taxi:

You can book a group water taxi ride, or you can hire a private water taxi — but that can be prohibitively expensive. A short trip from our hotel to the train station cost us about 65 €. Longer trips will cost even more.

Navigating Venice

“Prepare to get lost.” If you watch any travel show or YouTuber, they always say the same thing, because it’s true. GPS technology, however, has changed navigating around Venice as much as it has everywhere else. As our gondolier put it, “There is Google Maps. Everyone uses Google Maps.”

Unless, of course, you are one of the (perhaps sensible) few who have not come into the modern age and don’t carry a device every second of the day. “Well-marked” isn’t a term you could use to describe the streets of Venice. I found myself navigating toward significant landmarks like Rialto or San Marco and then navigating from there or navigating by that piece of art or this building. Philosophies differ as to whether getting lost is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing. Getting lost is often wonderful; dump the itinerary, and you may find the unexpected. Put away the iPhone or even the map for a little while, and wander.

My daughter and I wandered across the city and found ourselves…in the hospital. But not because we fell off a bridge! “This is like no hospital I’ve ever seen,” she remarked. It was like being in an old monument or temple instead of the aseptic institutional facilities of home. Signs indicated that there were, in fact, actual hospital departments off to the side of the main corridor, hinting that there might actually be patients. But the columned, marble halls were silent and peaceful instead of teeming with activity.

Hospital in Venice Venice Travel Tips

We also found ourselves at the Libreria Acqua Alta, browsing gondolas full of old books, and checking out a boutique with goods made by women from a local prison.

Meanwhile, my husband, having destroyed his iPhone, became lost in the mid-afternoon heat of Venice for two hours, an experience he later described it as the “worst experience of my life.” Really? The worst? He finally found his way back after working through the language barrier to ask a local man for directions. But do you know what he has in exchange for his suffering? Stories.

Venice Travel Tips: What to Wear When Visiting Churches

The dress code when visiting churches in Italy is “keep your knees and shoulder covered.” However, my real-life experience, once there, was that many churches didn’t enforce this dress code as strictly as I expected. I saw some women walking into some of the smaller churches to look around for quick visits sporting tank tops and shorts.

Don’t do this — follow the dress code out of respect for customs and not just because you might get turned away at the door if you don’t. But if you are wearing that tank dress because of the daytime heat and forget your cover-up, don’t panic. I noticed they were selling inexpensive scarves at St. Mark’s.

Getting that Gondola

Yes, it’s touristy. And, yes, it’s still a must-do, at least on your first visit to Venice. Know that you don’t need to pre-book your Gondola ride (unless you want a gondola serenade…then you might want to prearrange). Gondolas are generally always available — you’ll see plenty of Gondoliers standing around by the canal. Some will have prices pre-posted (and gondola rides can be pricey), but most are open to negotiation.

We did a daytime group ride with our children, but then at night, we spontaneously hired a private gondola.

Our gondolier on that trip spoke English well and was significantly more chatty than our daytime gondolier, giving us the chance to ply him with questions like mad kindergartners. Why does the gondola track straight so well with one paddle? How does a gondolier tolerate operating a boat all day in the heat and humidity? Answer: go slow and drink a tremendous amount of water]. Had Venice changed significantly since he was a child there? Answer: Yes! Can a person operate a private boat anywhere in Venice? Answer: Yes, you can! Even if I could somehow magically transport my kayak to Venice, I don’t think I would venture out into the crowded canals. 

Our gondolier seemed to be a movie buff as well as a travel guide, giving us unsolicited restaurant advice I wish I’d received right when I got there (where Clooney eats!), and talking up various filming locations.

We also found that he lives on one of the outlying islands. His perspective? “It’s nice because the tourists come during the day, but go home around 5 or 6, and then it’s quiet, and you can have a beer.”

And a couple of other (and obvious) Venice travel tips:

Be Respectful

It should always go without saying wherever you go, but if you decide to visit Venice, be respectful.

Things I saw in Venice: tourists feeding (and handling) pigeons despite the signs everywhere asking them not to, graffiti, litter, and this guy who (accidentally) dropped a beer bottle at the feet of a living statue. Oh, wait! That was a mistake, and I was with that guy, though I pretended not to be. Our travel-avoidant daughter noted: “Now THAT was magical!”) We don’t talk about this. We just post it on YouTube.

Living Statue Venice Travel Tips

Don’t do this!

 

And as always: Take your time

Venice will be a “go back again sometime” destination for me because I made the typical tourist mistake of not scheduling enough time there. I would recommend at least a week, more if you have it.

Taking more time will give you the chance to relax, explore Venice and the surrounding islands as they should be. Our friends lived in Italy for two years. They returned to the US, noting that their young son was “walking like an old Italian man”: slow-paced, head slightly bowed, hands behind back. I think that this is the same pace you want to take when you visit Venice. (And early morning is a great time to slowly stroll around the streets of Venice, as I noted in this post.)

To conclude, here’s a medley of some singing gondoliers I saw when I was wandering around.

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