This post was updated in August 2019
Seeing the “real” Venice
If you ask some people, they will tell you Venice is St Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs. They will inform you that the price of things in Venice are high. They will tell you they hated it, or that it smelt, or it was crowded and awful.
Or they will see something magical and fall in love.
And believe me, Venice is magical in a way I have never known another city to be. With fascinating beginnings clawed from a swampy lagoon and waging an ongoing battle against the elements and time for its survival, this is a city that continues to stand.
Its social structure may be changing, but the essence of Venice remains, you just need to look a little harder.
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In my mind, there are two Venice’s.
The first one is the one I dislike. It is busy and crowded (and I hate crowds).
Groups of humanity so thick you need to push and elbow your way through to get to the other side, but there is no end because the mass seems ever-expanding.
It is noisy. The crowds of people have you clutching your bag with the fear of it being snatched at any second. And it is this mass of humanity that attracts the undesirables, the opportunists that can and will take from you what they can in a moment.
You shuffle along feeling like you are caught in a machine. I even had the experience of one man stepping on me. Twice! He was moving along with his group, paying no attention to where he was going.
His head swivelled to see the Bridge of Sighs and quite literally stepped on me twice as I tried to move out of his path, and still, he didn’t break his gaze. He didn’t even realise.
You can hear every language from around the world except the one you should hear, Italian. You could be trapped in that mass of humanity and still never interact with another human being. There is a sea of selfie sticks and tour groups.
This is the Venice I hate, with a passion. And this is the one I immediately encountered upon my return. I could not believe that I had left this place wanting to return.
I kept wondering what had been different before; maybe it was magical only the first time. Maybe that feeling could not be recaptured.
The Venice I Remembered
And then I found the Venice I love, thank goodness.
The one I found on early morning walks, off the well-worn path and even into the tourist places, I discovered that magical Venice once again.
The stillness, the soft light extending its fingers to touch the tops of buildings and squeeze its way through crevices, to slowly light a new day, moving from cobblestone to cobblestone as the sun rises a bit, by bit, by bit.
The light was playing across the lagoon, the colours of the early morning making it so achingly beautiful.
Early morning walks including a stop at the café bar to order our espresso. To stand at the bar with the locals, to hear greetings and chatter as we add sugar, stir and gulp it down a delicious, robust and perfect elixir.
Groups of men and boys were teasing each other, laughing, seemingly happy in that early part of the day.
Away from the Crowds
Visit the Rialto Markets
One morning we explored the Rialto markets and bought some fresh fruit. I dreamed of the day I could return to Venice, rent an apartment and come to the markets to buy fresh produce to cook.
If you like seafood this is the place. These markets have been a mainstay in Venice for 700 years and the food sold here is seasonal. There are a lot of seafood stalls. A lot!
If you love food, this is a must. Head over the Rialto Bridge and into the San Polo district. Go early, and avoid the crowd.
Explore the Jewish Ghetto
I loved our time here. We walked around and visited the Jewish Museum. It was nice to get away from the crowds
Established in the 1500s, the Jewish Ghetto is a neighbourhood where Jews were forced to live. At night they were locked and only allowed out during the day for work.
It is quieter here away from the tourist masses. The neighbourhood is home to beautiful art stores and cafes. Instead of the stone bridges, you will find wooden ones. It is an interesting place to visit and one I highly recommend.
Next time I would like to join a walking tour of the area and learn more about the history.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
An interesting collection of 20th Century art housed in the stunning Palazzo Venier dei Leoni situated on the Grand Canal, once the home of an American heiress, Peggy Guggenheim.
The Collection boasts work from Italian and American artists and was the private collection of Peggy Guggenheim and after her death in 1979 it was given to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
Even if art, or if modern art is not your style you would still enjoy exploring the grounds and palace.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is located in the Dorsoduro district.
In the high tourist season, I would suggest pre-booking your tickets or arrive at opening time.
You can find more information here – Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Explore the Dorsoduro District
A lively area filled with students. It is home to Gallerie dell’Accademia and lovely shops including Murano glass, artist supplies, clothes, art and more.
We had a warm interaction with a lovely man who sold us our Murano Glass jewellery. Yes, he was gorgeous on the outside as well!
He shared his story of being the single father of two teenage daughters. We exchanged our trials and tribulations of raising teenage children. He told us about Mondays he did not work so that he can cook for the week and clean the villa.
Ladies, by this time I tell you we were swooning a little.
Sorry, I lost focus for a second, back to the blog.
Visit Burano and/or Murano
I haven’t been to Murano so I cannot comment. If Murano glass is what you are looking for then it would be the place to visit. I was warned about the expensive showrooms and hard sell of glass products, but it might be your thing. It’s not really mine.
As a group, we visited Burano. We decided the day before to visit and didn’t really plan it out. Knowing now how terribly busy Burano gets, I would recommend heading out as early as possible before the crowds arrive.
It is a cute, colourful place and known for lace. I think it would be beautiful to see in the morning light.
It is approximately an hour by ferry to Burano.
If you want to experience the beach, head to Lido.
Lido is an island located between the main island of Venice and the sea.
I would like to say that I have experienced the beach, and Lido itself, but in the afternoon we visited a storm hit Venice. We ended up in a bar and enjoyed a drink while trying to dry out and then found a restaurant. After dinner, we headed back to Venice.
The ferry ride was interesting in the terrible weather and we all shivered away, drenched from our dash back to the ferry terminal in the torrential rain.
What I did notice about Lido was the vibe is totally different. For one thing, there are cars on this island. I can imagine in summer there would be more of a holiday, beach vibe here. Not so much in a storm.
However, if you are staying in Venice for a while, Lido would be a great place to spend a day, relaxing and enjoying an actual beach. Or you could stay on Lido and use the ferry to go into Venice and explore. Accommodation in Venice is extremely expensive, so Lido may offer some cheaper alternatives.
The ferry from the main island of Venice to Lido is around 30 minutes.
Are Gondolas Worth it?
Is it worth paying for a Gondola ride in Venice? I think so, but it is far better value if you have a group of you and split the cost.
Fees are set are will cost you €80. Don’t worry about being ripped off as the city sets the price.
There is no need to pre-book before you arrive. And please do not get one in the busy tourist areas. It is busy and not necessary.
As you walk around Venice you will see gondolas everywhere. Simply choose a spot you like and you will be on your way. You might think the sites will be better near the Grand Canal and the Rialto bridge but in all honesty, I have done both the quieter canals and the Grand Canal and preferred the quieter canals. It is a lovely way to see Venice, and it really is up to you whether you think it is worth it or not.
If you asked me would you be missing out on an essential part of Venice if you didn’t go, I would say no. It is nice to experience, but certainly not essential.
What NOT to do in Venice
Don’t eat in the San Marco area.
One traveller I met complained that everything in Venice was expensive. And it is. But not as bad as what you might think. She told us her coffee at one of the cafes in Saint Mark’s Square cost €12!!
We stopped for a coffee, which we drank at the bar with the locals, in one of the cafes we found walking around, cost €2.
So, in Venice, don’t eat or drink in the main tourist areas. Ask for local recommendations, but at the very least get away from the tourist areas and you will find a significant difference in cost.
Late One Night
One night, after dinner we went and sat in St Mark’s Square, listening to the soft music playing and watching the pools of water rising providing perfect reflections of the basilica.
Some people thrive on crowds and excitement and energy. I thrive on quiet reflection.
Eyeing the rustic textures of an ancient building with a crumbling facade, watching the shadows play on walls of colour, reflected on the rippling water of canals intertwining through this stunningly beautiful city.
I can’t even begin to imagine what real life would be like here for the Venetians and I feel for them. I can’t begin to understand what it must be like for your home to have more tourists than residents. To be surrounded by those who come to view your home as a tourist attraction.
Arriving in Venice
Because you cannot drive in Venice, upon arrival you need to leave your car in a parking garage.
Be aware of the costs, at €32 per day, it might be wise to return your hire car upon arrival in Venice. The first time I visited Venice, we were travelling around Europe and stayed for two nights. Ouch!
The second time was much easier on the train.
You can find more information about parking here – Garage San Marco
The train is easy. Catch the train to Santa Lucia Station and as you leave the station you will find yourself on the Grand Canal.
Because we were a group of nine, I had organised a water taxi, however, in hindsight it would have been simple enough to take a waterbus to our stop.
It’s easy enough to arrive and depart from the Marco Polo Airport. Upon arrival make your way out to the water shuttles which will cost €15, or you can take a water taxi at a cost of €110.
Where to Stay
Next time, I will stay in the same area as the train station, Cannaregio, away from the crowds of San Marco district.
But because it is on the Grand Canal, a water bus pass (prebook if you are nervous about working out the public transport system there) would make it easy to access the rest of Venice without being in the thick of the tourist crush.
If you must see St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, and you should, then I would suggest pre-purchasing tickets to allow you to skip the line and streamline your time. The last time I was in Venice the lines were extremely long.
Traffic is forbidden in Venice. You’ll see workman in boats on the canals with tools and building materials. It’s a different way of life and one that makes Venice stand out. It is beautiful, mystical and unique.
So, how do you get around?
Water Buses (Vaporetti)
Venice’s answer to public transport. Run by ACTV the waterbuses are the perfect way to see Venice.
It is easy to get around Venice and outlying islands like Burano, Murano and Lido by water bus. Buy a pass to suit your stay at one of the many machines at the waterbus stops and around Venice. You can buy your water bus ticket at San Lucca Train station upon arrival and be good to go.
Find more information on the waterbuses, prices and timetable click here – ACTV
With a single one-way ticket costing a whopping €7.50 it is more cost-effective to purchase a pass with unlimited journeys:
24 hours – €20
48 hours – €30
72 hours – €40
7 days – €60
You need to validate your ticket prior to getting on board. If you don’t, or if you don’t have a ticket, you can be fined €50
If you want more personalised service, you can organise a water taxi pickup which is what I did when I arrived with my group.
However, be warned you still need to walk to your hotel or accommodation. I believe you can arrange porters to take your luggage, however, I think it’s just as easy if you pack light with a small suitcase that is easy to manage over the bridges and cobblestones.
Water taxis start at €15 then €2 per minute.
The cost for a water taxi to Marco Polo Airport averages €110 depending on your pick-up point. They can be cost-effective if you are travelling with a group like we were, otherwise, I recommend taking the dedicated airport water buses.
On that note, I recommend you walk as much as possible. You never know what magical scene you will find as you wind your way over bridges and canals and down laneways. I highly recommend heading out in the early morning. As mentioned previously in this post, it is a totally different Venice early in the morning.
If you don’t want to venture out on your own then join a walking tour led by a local. We did one with the group I was hosting, and it was fantastic.
Our guide Simona took us to areas we would not have found on our own and showed us interesting sights like the Hospital (you must go into the foyer to have a look!)
She pointed out interesting, quirky things like unique door handles and cement pillars in alleyway corners. She also pointed out the different architecture, water cisterns in squares and other funky facts.
Would I Return Venice?
I have been twice now and would love to go back and keep exploring. I am pleased to have found the Venice I love. It is one of my recommended European cities to see.
My advice if you are planning on visiting Venice is to get up early and go and get lost.
With no plan in mind, meander through laneways, over canals, through small piazzas and take in the “real” Venice. Don’t stay on the tourist paths. Take your time, jump on the water buses.
Explore and find the magic of Venice.
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