Honeymoon trips are usually meant to be lengthy affairs, and keeping up with the tradition in what emphatically turned out to be a “dream holiday” for us, we decided to cover Greece and Italy on an 18 days itinerary. After a whirlwind visit to Rome and Florence, we ended up at Venice on the last leg of our trip and were pleasantly surprised to find the city exactly as we had dreamt it to be – quaint & moony – like the stuff cotton candies are made up of. More importantly, we also found out that the so-called “cliche and over-expensive” city can be easily covered on a strict budget. Here is my short guide to Venice for the first timers.
While it is often claimed that the merchant city of Venice has turned into a complete tourist trap, down the centuries it has nevertheless managed to top the bucket lists of travellers and tourists alike. Let’s face it, with its countless maze of bridges and canals and gondolas and cobbled streets, Venice is a fairy tale waiting to be relived again and again.
There is something really surreal about this canal city that has inspired artists and writers of every age. And though it might be considered to be expensive by some, there are certain tips and tricks which, if followed, will reduce your travel expenses considerably.
I never thought I would write such cheesy stuff, but in all my travels, I have yet to come across a city that’s so hopelessly romantic! Mind you, this is coming from someone who doesn’t believe in fairy tales. The city itself has an ethereal character that’s so hard to pin down – you need to visit Venice to know what I am talking about.
For First Timers – What you need to know:
- Visit the city during the off season to avoid large crowds and peak season surcharges on hotels & restaurants. The best time to visit Venice is from September to November – when airfares, hotels and restaurants get way cheaper.
- Here is a good thumb rule to follow when you are in Venice – Get Lost. It’s said, and quite truly that if you don’t get lost in Venice, you are not doing it right. Put away your GPS and guide maps and put on those trainers – trust me, you will need them. Venice is primarily a pedestrian city, so be prepared to walk around – a lot. Forget those fancy stilettos – they are definitely a killer when it comes to cobbled streets.
- Mestre is mainland Venice – connected to the island by regional trains and road. It is also possible to take a water taxi from the mainland, but beware, ’cause they can be expensive. Mestre is also cheaper than the island, especially if you are looking for budget stays.
- Do remember, the island itself is quite pedestrian friendly, so you hardly have to take commute in order to explore it. However, if you are staying in the mainland, keep in mind that you would have to depend on the Vaporetto or the regional trains, which would take a good half an hour for you to reach the island.
- The rates of the Gondola rides are fixed; currently, it’s 80€ for a 30-minute ride. Yes it’s expensive and over rated and yes it’s a cliche, but if you don’t plan to revisit the city anytime soon, this is one thing you will regret not doing for the rest of your life.
- Avoid Rialto Bridge – of course, you can’t avoid it altogether but Rialto is definitely over rated, not to say over crowded, and there’s a lot more to explore in the city.
Where to stay:
Hotels in Venice are usually too costly for couples looking to accommodate their stay on a budget. But if you are in a mood to splurge, make sure to book a room with a view because ultimately that is what you will be paying for. Venice is definitely a tourist trap for unsuspecting newlyweds, so there is really no harm in doing a bit of research before booking your stay at an over-expensive boudoir.
There are no hostels or cheap dorms inside the island so if you are looking for budget stays, opt for Airbnb rooms. We stayed at Jacopo’s house near San Marco, a charming little place with beautiful interiors, right next to the Casinò Municipale di Venezia – you can find the link here: Appartmento De Lo Strologo
The apartment came furnished with a well-equipped kitchen, dining and heated rooms. The host was communicative and helpful, providing us with maps, guides and a few lists of To-Do’s in Venice.
If in case you fail to find an accommodation that suits your taste and your pockets, turn your search towards the mainland – Venetian Mestre for budget hotels, hostels and dorms.
Food & Drinks:
- Step away from major tourist spots – especially the Rialto & San Marco area – and look for trattorias (local diners) tucked away in hidden corners by the canals. Local cuisines are, not surprisingly, rich in seafood, but stay away if you have a weak stomach. For vegetarians, there are a lot of options to choose from.
- Try the Gnocchi (similar to pasta but shell-shaped), Risi e Bisi (rice with peas) and Tiramisu for dessert. Also, don’t forget to enjoy your morning espresso with Fritelle (local doughnuts) in one of the cafes; there’s something about fresh coffee in Italy – it blends right in.
- The local drink Grappa is a favourite among many travellers, and quite similar in taste to the Greek Ouzo, although I didn’t find it quite to my liking mainly ’cause of the lingering aftertaste of what felt like fennel seeds or anise. That’s right, if you are a fan of Jagerbombs, you will find a cheaper alternative in this so called fire-water.
- Bellinis are must-try items – just avoid going to Harry’s bar if your idea of an evening doesn’t entail standing at long queues for drinks. In wine, Prosecco is more famous around these parts, although if you are on a budget, go for the house wines which come at around 5€ a bottle.
Top 10 free things to do in Venice:
1. Basilica Di San Marco:
The St.Mark’s Basilica is still a major reference point in Venice and there’s much to see and do in the nearby areas. Doge’s Palace, Galleria Dell’ Accademia and Torre Dell’Orologio are all next to each other, and the church itself is a magnificent architectural testimony to mankind’s genius. However it can be rather crowded during the day, so try and explore it early in the morning.
2. Galleria Dell’Academia:
This museum contains mostly religious arts from the 14th to 18th century. If you are an art lover, spend a while perusing the works of Bellini, Hieronymus Bosch, Giorgione and other famous Venetian artists.
3. Doge’s Palace:
Situated right beside the bell tower and overlooking the lagoon, this palace was built in the Venetian Gothic style and contains the history of Venetian Dukes. Filled with artworks, this place will surely blow your mind with its stupendous splendour. Guided tour is not a necessity here, so feel free to roam the great hallways in your own time.
4. Torre Dell’Orologio:
Another famous landmark in Venice, which dates back to the renaissance age. Usually, people opt for guided tour inside the tower but you can easily go without.
5. Campanile Di San Marco:
Buy a ticket for the elevator ride to the top of the Campanile or the Bell Tower to enjoy an unparallel view of the piazza but remember to take note of the approaching hour, if you wish to escape the deafening sound of the bells.
6. San Giovanni E Paolo:
San Zanipolo, as the Venetians call it, is a vast, echoing barn of a church, built for the Dominicans starting in the mid 13th century, but not finished until 1430. It’s not the Gothic architecture that’s so remarkable as much as the contents. This is one Venetian church where it’s worth taking time over some of the exquisite sculpture, like the monument to Doge (Duke) Pietro Mocenigo on the entrance wall.
7. Jewish Ghetto:
In medieval times, around 16th century onwards these quarters were designated to the Jewish Merchants, doctors and other professionals, who would be locked up behind the gates of the Ghetto during the night and on Christian Holidays. A testimony to religious fascism, the Jewish Ghetto is a peaceful area today. Worth a visit, if only to understand the complex history of the city.
8. Pay a visit to Burano & Murano:
These two islands in Venice are famous for their glass sculptures and exquisite handmade lace. Take a Vaporetto to these islands and visit the glass factories to get a demonstration of glass being blown into sculptures.
9. Watch the Voga Longa:
We were right in time to see this marathon rowing event, which is generally held around 23rd May every year.
10. Get Lost:
Like I said before, Venice has a fairly easy terrain to follow. So ditch your maps and follow your heart. You just might be amazed at the places your feet leads you to.
What to Splurge on:
1. Invest in some Venetian Masks:
The Carnival city has a huge collection of Masques – from stalls selling Made-in-China products to handcrafted boutiques adorning unique one-of-kind pieces on their shelves. There are plenty to choose from, so look around carefully before investing your precious money into something so fragile. Your best bet is to explore the markets thoroughly once to get an idea of the kind of mask that appeals to you. Masks can be pretty expensive in Venice but since they are available in all kind of price range, be sure to find one that fits your face and your pockets.
2. Spend an evening in a Casino:
If you are anything like me, you won’t want to waste any time on casinos playing card games. We were staying right next to the Venetian Casino and yet decided to ditch it in favour of exploring other parts of the cities. But there are those for whom casinos are like bees to honey – for them, Venice has plenty of “Honey” to splurge on.
3. Go Souvenir Hunting:
Venice is teeming with touristy souvenir shops, especially around the Rialto area. Try to skip past the main commercial zone and hunt for the rickety little shops tucked in a quiet corner for curious mementoes in bargain price.
Night-Life in Venice:
Venice at night is like a reclusive, brooding lover waiting for the dawn to break before he can meet his lady love. There’s no tourist, no hawkers, no locals – a deafening silence pervades amidst the occasional splash of water. The city starts shutting down at 6 o’clock in the evening so plan your day according. You might still find a few restaurants and trattorias open for dinner but other than that your best bet for the evening would be to head to Venetian Mestre (the mainland) or to the Lido area for Jazz or Techno clubs.
Venice is like a fleeting dream that lingers on your mind long after the vacation is over – one that you don’t wish to wake up from. Expect to be amazed at unassuming alleys and old, distressed buildings that look like real life water colour paintings. The city is definitely charming and alluring – there’s no getting away from that.