“Stop trying to find your happy ending. The magic is in the story”
Everything you’ve heard about Venice is probably true. It is overly crowded and busy, it’s hot, there are heaps of mosquitoes, and it’s a bit grimy. However, the charm of a city built completely on water starts to grow on you. Just as you begin to feel overwhelmed with the crowds, you turn down an unassuming alleyway and come out on the other side of a beautiful small piazza with nobody in sight. You feel as though you are in your own fairytale maze and have just discovered the one slice of the island that nobody knows about. You continue on, not knowing what to expect upon the next turned corner. At this point you give up on attempting to follow GoogleMaps and finally succumb to the fact that you are lost, and it feels divine. You can’t help but feel charmed as singing operatic voices of gondoliers pass under romantic bridges during sunset as they leave the sound of lapping water quietly behind them, the only trace that they were even there and not just a dream.
I was surprised to hear from Sasha that this was his favorite city out of the 20+ cities we have visited over the last four months of our travel adventure. He loves the walkable aspect of Venice and the fact that there are no cars allowed on the island. Venice sees over 35 million tourists each year, many of which come from the cruise ships, which, as we learned from our walking tour, are actually destroying the landscape of the island. Unfortunately nothing is being done about this because tourists bring money and money keeps the economy stable. It made me sad to hear that tourism is quite literally killing Venice and keeping them afloat (pun intended) simultaneously. The city is sinking between 2 – 4 millimeters a year, much to do with how many tourists are on the island at one point in time, literally weighing down the island (this is one of the reasons that on the Hawaiian Islands, you are charged so much for car registration as it goes by weight.) Venice’s local population has shrunk significantly over the past few decades as tourism soars and takes over the island, leaving little peace of this once quiet island for the locals.
Where to Stay in Venice
We spent a total of three full days in the city in early August and stayed in an Airbnb in Padua (also spelled Padova), a 35-minute train ride from the island, which is shaped like a fish. Our nightly accommodation was $27 USD for a shared room in a flat. Our host worked with the Biennale, so she was a great source of information for our stay! Unless you want to pay an eye from your face (Spain’s way of saying “an arm and a leg”), you’ll want to stay outside of Venice, and Padua is the closest town. There are two trains: high speed and normal, both of which are very convenient, air-conditioned, punctual and comfortable.
Train fare: €4,15 per person, each way. Don’t forget to stamp your ticket prior to boarding the train. There are green stamp machines both on the platform and in the train station.
We took a look at Airbnb options on the island and found that the cheapest accommodation available was over $100 USD per night. Keep in mind, this was August and peak tourist season, and we booked two days before we arrived, so that likely played a factor. Book your accommodation early and be open to staying off the island if you want to save money.
If you are visiting between May – November, you’re in luck! The Biennale (biannual) is one of the largest modern art festivals in the world, and the original started right here in Venice, Italy. We were so lucky to be visiting while it was still going on! It occurs every other year between May – November with May being the most popular month for the grand openings and gala events. We spent only one day exploring all the different country pavilions, but you could easily spend five days covering everything! There are a few outdoor pop-up installations around the city and some pavilions are free to enter.
Biennale ticket cost: €25 per person, good for one day, all exhibits. If you want to visit over several days, there is a different ticket option at a higher cost. Art installations and pavilions are both indoor and outdoor, and it’s a really fun experience following the path to see it all because it feels like a treasure hunt!
The photo below is an art installation of hundreds of spools of colored thread. This particular installation included the artist herself (or her assistant) during open hours, available at this table to mend any article of clothing that needed fixing. The person who brings in the article of clothing to be fixed, is meant to talk to the artist and strike up a conversation. The fixed article of clothing is then threaded into the exhibition which is all connected to the wall that you see in the prior picture. I love this interaction!
Sometimes I like to practice the ancient Italian art of levitation. 😉
(Above): This exhibit was interactive and gave you instructions on what to do at each station. This particular one instructed you to bend over and put your head on the sideways table. Super random but fun! Sasha gladly obliged!
(Above): 70’s magazine cover for yoga and weird retro furniture?
(Above): This was one of our favorites because it was so eclectic and sci-fi (my Dad would love it!) The installation consisted of wood-polished paint carvings titled, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” where this artist pokes fun at what will become of our society when aliens take over the Earth.
LEFT: “Grey alien semen-milking captured pacifists”
RIGHT: “Reptilians heal sterilized mermaids from depression on the Sinai Peninsula”
An overarching theme of the Biennale tends to be centered around justice, politics and the future, such as gay rights, climate change, and fear mongering. I absolutely loved this quote:
I have lived this first-hand. I have always been afraid of and paranoid about everything in life, crippling myself with worries that are only in my head. The first time I truly conquered my fears was when I left Hawaii to move to Seattle to start a new life by myself. The second time I faced my fears was leaving a stable career in Seattle with Sasha to travel the world for six months, not knowing what lies on the other side once we return (by the way, we are more than halfway through our travels and we still don’t know, and that is exciting!) Both of these events have led me to the life I am living right now, and I would not be writing this blog from Italy had I not relinquished my fears. Your life will be so much more fulfilling, genuine and rich once you give up your fears and start living.
Things to do in Venice
1) Get Lost
Seriously, just do it. It’s the advice that every website and blog tells you to do in Venice, because it is so much fun! The great thing is, you don’t have to worry about getting mowed down by a vehicle because there are none! However, you do need to be aware of vendors trying to get through the tiny alleyways and up and over the stair cased bridges with their supplies. When you stop on the bridge and get in their way, they aren’t happy about it. Every single alley and side street, though counterintuitive, actually does lead somewhere amazing, so don’t be afraid of hitting a dead end, because usually it brings you to someplace delightful with far fewer tourists! So unless you want to be caught in this mess:
Then turn down an alleyway that looks like this:
And end up with unspoiled views like this:
Oh wait, oops, that was meant to be part of the Azerbaijan art in the Biennale section. 😉
Here are the views you were meant to see:
There are 150 canals with more than 400 bridges that connect Venice’s 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Most of Venice is a UNESCO site.
2) Take a Gondola Ride
Or save the €80 (€100 after 7:00 PM) and have a good meal instead. There are only 125 certified gondoliers who are all part of a trade union. Their required uniform is black pants and a black and white striped shirt. There are no Uber boats in Venice, as taxis would just sink the boat as punishment if this ever occurred, says the locals. The price is for a half-hour ride, and it is per boat, not per person. Gondolas can accommodate up to six people, so if you have a party of six, it’s worth it. If it’s only you or a couple, try to ask around to see if people want to go in on a ride with you! Otherwise, save your money and spend it on gelato…like 30 of them.
3) Take the Free City Walking Tour
This was our 9th free city walking tour over the past four months of travel and was one of our favorites! The company is called Bussola and they had excellent knowledgeable and fun guides who provided interesting information that gave the city far more character. So what’s the story behind all these masquerade masks?
Carnival occurs between February and March two weeks before Ash Wednesday, so heaps of tourists come during that time, expecting to see everyone donned in lavish costumes and masks roaming the street. To their disappointment, this event is actually indoors, so they only see a few people on the streets dressed up asking for money when they take a photo with them.
The significance of the long pointy-nosed mask: during the Black Plague, a mask with a long, pointed nose was essentially used as a HAZMAT suit worn by doctors. The nose indicated a safe distance between the doctor and the dead or infected body so that they did not catch the extremely contagious disease. 80% of the masks sold today in Venice are fake and made in China. The good ones should be made right in the store and sell between €25 –€40 euro for a simple one, and the really lavish high quality ones can run over €100.
3) Kiss your Lover on the Rialto Bridge and Walk through the Main Street at Least Once
It’s relatively unavoidable to go through the main touristy section to get where you want to go, so just go and go quickly. As much as I can’t stand tourists and cheesy gimmicks along the street, I just had to take a photo of this one (children, cover your eyes):
4) Visit San Marco
Fun Fact: San Marco square actually floods during a full moon because the high tide makes the water level come above the square.
5) Stay Through the Evening
Dusk in Venice is one of the most romantic experiences. However, if you’re going to stick around for the evening, make sure you wear long pants or bring mosquito repellant as those pesky mother duckers are ubiquitous. I barely made it out alive, with 25 bites all over my body and a very itchy few following days. Also, have some calendula on hand, a natural plant-based anti-itch ointment that can be found in any farmacia (pharmacy) around the area.
6) Visit the Neighboring Islands on a Public Transport Boat
We purchased the 24-hour unlimited boat pass for €20 per person, which was a great value for us as we took the boat on two separate days to several locations.
The feeling of warm wind on your face and salt water lapping up against the side of the boats is so refreshing! Also, make sure you take at least one ride through the Grand Canal. It’s fun and gives you a different perspective of the city from the center of it!
Cimitero di San Michele is the closest island to Venice and only takes around 7 minutes to get to. During the time of the Black Plague, dead bodies were carried on a special funeral gondola. It is still a working cemetery, and some famous people are buried here including Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
In 1291 all the glass makers in Venice were forced to move to Murano because of the risk of fires. To this day, Murano is still known for its blown glass, and one of the places that formed renowned glass artist, Dale Chihuly’s unique style. Because I worked for Chihuly Garden and Glass for 2.5 years while living in Seattle, I’d like to include a little bit on Mr. Chihuly. After graduating from the Rhode Island Institute of Art, Dale Chihuly traveled to Venice to explore different glassmaking techniques. During this trip, he worked for the renowned Murano glass company Venini, in their world-renown Venetian factory. After his time in Venice, he began experimenting with his own styles and techniques, which continue to stun and awe visitors who come to museums displaying his work. Chihuly has his glass art in over 400 museums worldwide (the most recent one we saw at the entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London). The only museum dedicated solely to the work of Dale Chihuly is located in Seattle Center below the Space Needle and is called Chihuly Garden and Glass. I used to work for this company as the Tourism Development Sales Manager.
When you walk the streets of this tiny island, you will see blown glass sold in literally every other shop (the others are pizzerias and gelaterias.) 😉 You will also stumble across a glass piece that was not made by Dale Chihuly (in my wildly biased opinion, I think the island of Murano should have put one of his pieces there instead.) 🙂 The main draw is the live glass-blowing demonstrations (which you can see for free, so be sure to walk right past the ones that are charging and continue on to the next!)
Where to Eat in Venice
Because Venice is a city catered nearly 100% to tourists, the food is not only outrageously priced (especially near the main square of San Marco), good food is really hard to come by. I didn’t think I would ever have to say that I was disappointed in Italian food, but alas, the day has come. We went through some pretty mediocre places and weren’t at all impressed with anything in Venice. However, we did eat at a restaurant based on a friend’s recommendation one evening that served good food, though it was still pricey and service was poor. Also, be ready to do the “slap dance” all night as you keep one eye wide open and look like a crazy person trying to grab air and kill every flying black bug that comes at you like a possessed maniac. No? Just me? The restaurant is called El Vecio Marangon.
One thing you should know about the service of most places in Venice, is that many of the folks who work in the service industry are irritated by all the tourists so they are not particularly friendly. I don’t blame them for being angry at the fact that they were priced out of their own home. With all the tourist inflation, the prices are so high that locals can no longer afford to live on the island.
As per my usual advice on all of my blog posts on Italy, find a restaurant off the beaten tourist path that has the following:
- A menu only in Italian
- A hand-written paper menu (this is because the menu changes weekly based on what is fresh)
- The spritzer should be under €4,50
What is a spritzer? This is a spritzer!
There are two types of spritzers: Aperol (orange and sweet) and Campari (red and bitter). It is a refreshing drink with part sparkling wine and sparkling water using Campari to make it bitter. Served with an olive over ice.
Cicchetti is a savory snack or small side dish, typically served in a bar or informal restaurant. This form of “tapas” is common in Venice and is a much cheaper option than a sit-down meal, as they are eaten standing or on bar stool benches. We simply found an unassuming place and asked for the bartender’s recommendations! Here is what we got for €8. On the right are fried potatoes and aubergine (eggplant). Not the healthiest, as everything on the left side is served on a piece of sliced white bread, but at least bread in Italy is fresh, home made and without preservatives or additives.
Cafes & Gelaterias
Since we are working during this trip, we try to carve out a few hours a day to work in a cafe somewhere pleasant with fast Wi-Fi. We stumbled upon this lovely place called Ogio Bistrot.
The best gelato in Venice of course had a line out the door. We confirmed that it was, in fact, good, but be prepared to pay double the normal price! Everything is expensive in Venice! This place is called Suso and they had bio (organic/natural) options which we always enjoy.
Tipping in Italy
So, are you meant to tip the wait staff in Italy? There is something called coperto, which is a fee for tableware and is typically the “service fee”. This fee usually ranges from 1 to 3 euros depending on the restaurant, and is automatically added to the check and must be visible on the menu. It’s unclear if this service fee goes to the waiter, but tipping is not expected.
What to Know Before you Visit Venice:
There are a few helpful tips that we learned along the way and I will share with you so you don’t make any faux paus whilst visiting:
- Bare chests are illegal in Venice, as are feeding the pigeons, so just in case you were feeling hot and sexy and wanted to take off your shirt, save it for the beach.
- Don’t even think about wearing stilettos; the cobblestone streets of Venice and the endless walking will leave you barefoot in seconds. Wear comfortable open-toed flats during summer so that your feet can breathe.
- You are visiting a city built on water. There are rats. Giant ones. Be afraid…be very afraid.
- There are no free public toilets in Venice. Your best bet for relieving yourself is to go into any cafe and order at the bar (€1,50 for an espresso is average). Ask for a token and use the toilets. Public toilets cost €2,50 and are usually gross. If you ask me, I think it’s absolutely wrong and inhumane to capitalize on bottled water and toilets; two necessities in life. And speaking of water…
- COOP is the local supermarket. Go there to buy water. (We saw at least two COOPs in the immediate downtown area) You will pay €.40 for 1.5 liters (large) in a COOP. For a tiny bottle of water in any other store, you will pay up to €2,50. Italy really needs to employ the same law that Greece has against capitalizing on bottled water.
NEXT UP: LAKE GARDA & EMILIA-ROMAGNA, ITALY