I've just returned from five days staying in the two star Hotel Tivoli in the San Polo part of Venice and here are my top tips for July 2013 for this amazing city!
As background, I went to Venice knowing its history, its problems with tourists and how busy it is at this time of year. Knowing tips for Venice is I think more important than for anywhere else in Europe mainly because of the logistical challenges inherent in a place that is still essentially a 15th century city with no roads!
1 If you get a Vaporetto water-bus pass, absolutely, definitely get the 10 Euro Vaporetto Dell'Arte extension. This will be the best ten Euros you will spend in Venice, even if it is just for a day trip.
This will allow you to use the special Vaporetto Dell’Arte boats, which were absolutely wonderful. The normal Vaporettos were old boats full of heaving, hot, stressed-out sweaty, smelly bodies. I would compare them to using a diesel fume filled public bus in Calcutta, some seemed dangerously overcrowded. In some places there is nothing to hang onto so you end up falling into someone if the boat hits the docking pontoon too fast.
The Vaporetto Dell'Arte boats in comparison were new, only ever about 10% full, have comfortable seats, seat back displays showing you buildings along the route, free earphones for the running recorded commentary and paper guides. One of them I went on even had air-conditioning. You can hop on and hop off the Vaporetto Dell'Arte as a normal Vaporetto, in fact I did this a number of times, timing my arrival at a Vaporetto stop so I could catch the Vaporetto Dell'Arte rather than the normal Vaporetto. When you get on the Vaporetto Dell'Arte they make you scan your ticket at a scanning point on the boat to make sure you have the E10 extension on the ticket, if you do not have this extension you will be asked to get off the boat. One thing to bear in mind is that the Vaporetto Dell'Arte has more limited hours of operation (from 10am to 7pm) and has more limited stops than the normal Vaporetto, mainly along the Grand Canal, St Mark’s Square, the island of San Giorgio and as far east as Giardini. Try to coincide your need to use river transport with the arrival of the Vaporetto Dell'Arte boats, in the summer the normal Vaporetto boats can be hellish and so full that you cannot get through the throng on board to get to the exit in time, thus missing your stop.
With the normal Vaporettos, the way of stopping is for them to reverse the engine and to throw a looped rope onto to a stanchion at the jetty as the boat comes in, and the one rope help stops a boat that must weigh a hundred tons. Once the rope snapped directly in front of the squashed horde on board and I’m surprised the recoil didn’t have someone’s eye out. The Vaporetto Dell'Arte isn’t crowded and are operated more gently so this danger is not likely to happen on them.
2. Don't waste your money on drinking or eating in St Mark’s Square.
Apart from the Campanile and St Marks Basilica the square itself is pretty un-pretty and uninspiring; you can't even see the Grand Canal from it. You do have a view of lots of pigeons though. I sat at one of the tables, was charged E8.50 for a nasty small glass of red wine with a E6.00 music surcharge, because a small cafe orchestra was playing nearby. There are a few of these and they seem to take it in turn when they play to reduce the din, so 'your' orchestra may only play for a short period whilst you sit there. I thought I would get half an hour sitting there for my money. Because it isn't covered, it started raining and the waiters started moving the tables to the arcades, I got up expecting them to do this for me but immediately a waiter says to me "that's E14.50 please", I think he thought I was trying to do a runner. So after about ten minutes I swigged the nasty wine and left! If you want to listen to the music have a cheaper drink elsewhere and then stand in the square, it will be completely free.
3. Forget using any kind of hand-held Sat Nav or GPS device.
I wasted time during the first two days in Venice trying to navigate the alleyways using the GPS on my phone; I ended up getting lost a lot because the phone could rarely get a satellite fix. The issue is that the houses are tall and the alleyways narrow so your GPS devices can never seem to see enough satellites to get a lock. Once you get to an open area you can stand there in the sun for a few minutes whilst the device gets a lock but the device will lose it again once you start walking down the alleyways. Instead get a very good ‘proper’ map with all of the ‘calle’ (lanes or alleyways) , don’t rely on one printed from the internet as it won’t have enough detail. Also the map on your phone or tablet will be hard to read in the bright sunlight and likely won’t have all of the calle names on them, Google maps and the Tripadvisor app for Venice let me down in this way.
4. Learn the history of Venice before you go and learn exactly *what* Venice is.
Sitting at tables in Venice I overheard many conversations where people were discussing what Venice was and no-one seemed to really know. In a nutshell Venice was constructed from nothing in the mud in the middle of a shallow lagoon over centuries by millions of wooden piles being driven into the mud to provide solid foundations for the buildings. Originally it was created by locals as a refuge from the waves of Germanic and Hun invasions. However, listening to people talking about what Venice is I heard a number of fascinating theories, including:
a. Venice was once a normal city with roads but sank beneath the sea like Atlantis.
b. Venice was once a normal city with canals hand dug out by man but was then flooded on purpose so that it would “look good”.
c. Venice is floating on the surface like a big boat.
You cannot wander around Venice and enjoy it and its public buildings properly if you do not understand how & why it was built, who the Doge was or how influential and important the Venetian Republic once was. I heartily recommend the BBC’s four part series entitled ‘Francesco’s Venice’, which clearly explains the phases of Venice’s life – it origins in the Dark Ages, its rise to power and the dominance of the Venetian Empire, its decline and reinventing itself as a decadent ‘party town’ in the 18th century and then the fall of the republic and becoming the crowded tourist trap that it now is.
5. Don’t chance it with restaurants, but if you happen to come across an enchanting quiet canal side place away from the hordes stop there.
I stuck to Trip advisor recommendations and on the whole it is worth doing this. However, navigating around Venice is difficult and don’t go to a restaurant if it means you going to the other side of the city and it takes you an hour getting lost getting there. The stress of getting to a good restaurant is can be far worse than eating a middling pizza. Seriously, at the height of tourist season it can take an hour to go 200 yards. This happened to me a couple of times.
Also, don’t obsess with eating at a restaurant on the Grand Canal, there are not many of these, they are mainly by the Rialto Bridge, are not well rated and you will have to put up with all those diesel fumes from the dozens of boats chugging past. Instead there are dozens of restaurants along the smaller canals and far more romantic and tranquil. A couple I recommend that are in quiet, enchanting canal side locations are Il Refolo at Santa Croce 1459 and Osteria del Cason, San Polo 2925 (a very short walk from the San Tomo Vaporetto stop and it had just has two or three outside tables for two) and looks lovely at night with the candles put along the canal side. There is another restaurant along from Osteria del Cason which I didn’t try but had more tables and in the same nice location.
6 Check your bill.
I don’t know if it was a coincidence but I was overcharged a few times in Venice, only by a few Euros each time but it made me wonder. An extra drink added here, more charged for a main course there, it seemed to happen more frequently than most places I have visited, perhaps I was unlucky but I did feel I was being fleeced a bit! I am a big tipper but when I feel than I am being ripped off they only get 10%!
7 Expect to take at least twice as long to get anywhere as any other European city.
If you want to get from one side of the Grand Canal to the other it can take 20-60 minutes to go 30 yards in some places, because you either have to (a) wait for a Vaporetto to take you to the other side as they operate in a zigzag up and down the canal (if you are luckily near a Vaporetto stop) or (b) walk there using one of the only three bridges along the 3 kilometre length. There are little cross-canal shuttle Gondolas that only cost a Euro or so at some points but I saw none of them operating. Remember that Venice does not have a canal-front promenade that you can easily walk along, instead you have to walk & get lost in the labyrinthine alleyways behind the Grand Canal. These are part of the charm of Venice but hinder easily getting from A to B!
8 At St Marks Basilica don’t join the long queue if you have a backpack.
You may have waited in line for 30 minutes but they won’t let you in if you have a backpack. Instead they will send you round the corner to the left-luggage room and you will likely have to re-join the end of the queue again. Put the backpack in the luggage room and then join the line.
9 Know the starting point for the Secret Itineraries Tour at the Doge’s Palace.
I was booked on this tour, was told by the ticket desk to wait by the columns by the entrance. This I did, along with about ten other people on the same tour who independently did the same thing. We all missed the tour as we were waiting by the ‘wrong columns’ and the tour guide didn’t come looking for us on this pre-booked tour. The starting point is at the south-eastern corner of the courtyard near the toilets.
10 Don’t go in July or August if you can help it!
Near the main attractions think 4th of July at Walt Disney World for the levels of sweat, hordes and stress involved. I know its quieter further out but that’s not were the main ‘attractions’ are. I would suggest April or May or perhaps October would be a lovely time to visit.
11 Linger in San Polo, Dorsoduro and Santa Croce.
In my opinion, these were the areas with the most charming locations. Plus they were cheaper and quieter than San Marco. When you look at a map you may think that these are off the beaten track and that the San Marco area is where you should concentrate. I only went to San Marco if I absolutely had to as it was so busy, although the area around the Accademia Bridge was lovely and quieter. I think you see the real Venice in these western areas, it is not unusual to see washing hanging from lines around here which is something I don’t think you would encounter much in San Marco. Every bridge you cross is a photo opportunity, possibly no-where in the world is more photogenic than Venice.
12 Don’t worry if you arrive in Venice late and think the place is dead.
Where I stayed in San Polo I had to walk along alleyways at 8.30pm and a lot of the shops seem to be closed. However, during the day the place comes to life but unlike in most of Italy the shops and restaurant shut early. Also aim to finish lunch by 2.30 pm.
13 The Alilaguna airport boat may offer you no view of the city when you arrive.
I travelled into the city by the Alilaguna airport boat on the orange route, which travels down the Grand Canal. I had this vision of standing outside with a wonderful view of the grandest vista in Europe being one of my first experiences of the city. This was not to be. Upon boarding I was told to ‘go down below’ and frustratingly you are made to sit inside a boat with small windows and no visibility of very much unless you get on you knees on the seat to peer outside. I asked to stand at the back they there is another passenger compartment with a push back roof where you could stand but was denied this. It was utterly frustrating knowing you are travelling down the Grand Canal but are not allowed to see it! On the return journey I was again denied a better view, it seems to be run for the convenience of the employees with no understanding of pleasing the customer. I think the on some lines they may have bigger boats with outside areas but avoid the orange line if you want to see much of Venice when you arrive. In my opinion pay for a private water taxi, they are faster and I am sure you would be allowed to look outside! I would certainly do this the next time, there is a new service where you can share them and cut down on costs.
14 At Venice airport the one ATM may not give you any money.
Despite my best efforts the ATM at the airport would not give me any cash, despite me successfully using other ATMs in Venice. It asked me for a 6 digit pin but I only have four digits. So I entered 4 digits, it didn’t like it; put two zeroes at the front it didn’t like it. Fortunately all of the outlets accepted cards though. However…
15 Always carry cash as a back-up to cards
Some restaurants only accept chip and pin debit/credit cards so if you are from North America your card may not be accepted in some places but this is not possible to know until you pay (although I suppose you could ask before you order). Plus even if you do have a chip and pin card the terminal may still decline the transaction. This happened to me once in a restaurant but I had enough cash to cover the bill. Otherwise I guess they would make you do the washing up!
I hope this list may be helpful, I really liked Venice and is based purely on my own experiences during my trip. It meant isn't to criticise Venice, just to help other travellers.