Venice is a marvel. It holds the heavy weight of an empire, full of marble and fine art, on pillars imposed on a lagoon long ago in the time of Barbarians. The whole city seems to be floating, and in many ways, it is.
Water is essential and yet a dilemma for the city. Water allowed a faux-city of fishermen to evolve into an empire that connected East and West. Yet, the city floods annually, creating an on-going challenge to protect the impressive infrastructure from damage and decay. It is difficult to imagine how marble was shifted into place from neighbouring islands, piles and boats to act as waterproofing of palaces. It’s a wonder to see and even more fun to navigate. No cars or even bicycles can cross the city, so you have to enjoy on foot, which allows you to take in impressive architecture, explore quiet canals and bump into locals in tiny passageways.
After four beautiful days in the Most Serene Republic, I came away with a feeling of awe. I encourage you to visit as it’s a top destination for good reason. As climate change causes sea level rise, Venice’s floating illusion may not last. Get there soon, and try a few tips and lessons from my trip.
Traveling Simply: For the Budget
Venice is known to be an expensive city. At first, I thought it was tourist-trap inflation, but after arriving, I realized the challenges and costs of living in a place that floods nearly a third of the year and where everything has to be carried by hand or trolley. With this in mind, the prices are fairer, but they are still high. I discovered that, with a little planning, you can still enjoy the city on a budget.
Steves. Rick Steves.
In the age of the internet, I knew there would be some great, free resources for exploring Venice. As I noted previously, I’m the kind of person who loves reading the plaque. I want to know about the history of a place, the influences, the architecture. When the what is so impressive, I need to know more about the why. Venice has such a significant east-meets-west history, I wanted to find a good travel guide to explain it. I found one for 600 Forint at a used bookstore, but it’s dated information (ca. 1994) was unhelpful for both current stats and broad historical overview. Thankfully, Rick Steves came to the rescue. He has a series called Rick Steves Italy Audio tours, including four Venice tours (with downloadable maps!) available for free. Free!
Basking in the impressive San Marco square was even more enjoyable with Rick’s narration and history tidbits. I sought out the round stones that show the first signs of acqua alta (the seasonal tidal flooding) and the scandalous chapter of a story revealed on a column top on the Doge’s Palace.
I also recommend listening to the Grand Canal podcast with vaporetto line #1 (and especially doing so by arriving at the station just as one boat leaves to ensure you’re first-in-line to the front seats).
Sip and snack on the canal at Bacareto da Lele.
This spot seems no longer a secret, but it’s a still a local’s haunt. After exploring one of the few parks in Venice, Derek and I meandered to find this bustling corner. A simple counter offered wee glasses of wine for under 1€ and a tagliere, a defined plate of meat and cheese, for under 2. I tried my first glass of Raboso and it was adorable, yet deep and delicious. The tagliere was generous and properly Italian in its quality. We enjoyed our finds on the steps of the canal in front of the dominating view of the square’s church and the flow of Italian after-work conversations.
Having enjoyed it so much, we returned on our last morning to grab a coffee before the train. No luck though, as there was no espresso machine, only locals enjoying a noon mini-sandwich (tramezzino) and mini-glasses of wine. The Venetians do lunch right.
Try Another Island
When I searched on Google to find our hotel, having forgotten the name, I typed in ‘cheapest hotel in Venice’. Sure enough, our accommodation came up. It was a simple and clean double room at Hotel Reiter, perfectly located on the main promenade on the beachy island of Lido. Staying outside of Venice-proper provided a nice respite from the bustling tourist crowds, saved money and offered the bonus of traveling home each day on a vaporetto. The vaporetto ride was only 15 minutes to San Marco square and ran all night long. I was worried it would be inconvenient, but with a little planning and some snacks it was only a bonus, especially considering we would return home to recharge around sunset.
Obvious, but important. On our first morning, we stopped at the Rialto market and picked up a few fresh treats (fruits and vegetables become treats when they are that tasty). For a few Euros, the ruccola and cherry tomatoes gave our traveled kifli and cheese a fresh zing. For a cheap supper, we bought a margharita pizza and topped it with ruccola and it went from simple to savoury. When in Italy, eat fresh. It’s fun to shop at a local market and you get local flavour without the price of a sit-down dinner.
Traveling Simply: For the Spirit
Traveling is wonderful, and partly so because it’s personally challenging. It’s also incredibly educational. As I try to travel simply, I am working on being gentler on myself, and pulling lessons from the people I meet and places I visit. Venice, of course, was another astute teacher.
Getting Lost is a Good Thing
Really. Do it, and let go of your pre-fixed plans. I was given this helpful piece of advice before leaving for Italy. Save for the yellow signs pointing towards the four bridges crossing the Grande Canal, Venice is a puzzle to negotiate. Streets meander towards bridges or to canal dead-ends or to courtyards with three different passages. Our evening plans generally consisted of traveling to Venice to ‘get lost somewhere beautiful and have a drink.’
Getting lost purposefully is fun, however, getting lost unintentionally can be more of a test of patience. For example, we wanted to travel into Venice to get lost from our beach-island stay on Lido. I guided us onto a vaporetto where the staff person did a quick verification of destination, which I didn’t catch. It turned out that we were heading not into Venice (that boat arriving 2 minutes later) but directly away from the city towards the final stop on the mainland, 20 minutes away. Thankfully, it wasn’t the last trip of the night, but it meant that 40 minutes later, we were back where we started and 15 minutes from then we would arrive at San Marco square, our actual destination. I was seething with frustration at my silly error that cost us an hour of our Venetian evening. With some kind coaching from my patient travel partner and a travel glass of wine we were carrying along with us, I slowly came around and accepted the wasted time not as wasted, but as a travel learning (When a transportation staff person confirms a destination in a foreign country, listen up!) and as a life learning (Getting lost is part of travel, both good and bad). Be patient with your itinerary and with yourself.
Serenissima in Venice
Venetians are surprisingly friendly. I say it’s surprising because I doubt I would feel so welcoming if I had to make my way through thousands of awe-struck visitors each day on my way to work. Not to mention that every visitor is nearly continuously lost in the maze of canals and islands. However, locals continually offered directional guidance, a helping hand onto a vaporetto station, or to carry luggage. One young boy paused from his soccer game to politely point out directions to a lost tourist.
With throngs of tourists, annual flooding, and transportation only by foot, stroller or boat, Venice is not an easy city to live in, and Venetian kindness is a testament to good temperament. It’s no wonder that the state was known for centuries as La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, or the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Perhaps the historical calm came from its sea-faring wealth or its democratically-elected Doge, but in modern times, it’s a welcome lesson in urban generosity and serene living.
Venezia is a beautiful, lively relic of an empire. There is plenty to see and to learn from here and I hope to go back again one day. Have you been to Venezia? Any tips? Or are you planning to go? What are you most excited for?