Venice – a patchwork of islands floating off north Italy – is one dreamy spot, but can be confusing to navigate. Resident Gillian Price helps you get the most out of this magical city
A meandering gondola along canals that seem to go on forever… Ornate Renaissance palaces that are works of art in themselves... Wandering lost through squeezy narrow alleyways, emerging in a sun-bright square for a café aperitif... The waterlogged city of Venice is all the hype and more.
Indeed, beyond the (excellent) ice-cream and romance is one of Europe’s most unique destinations, a 1,500-year-old former trading port built across an archipelago of 118 mudflat islands, sitting off the northern crook of the Adriatic Sea.
Locals here can be a bit standoffish, but they appreciate visitors who make an attempt to speak Italian. It’s de rigueur to greet on entering a shop/restaurant (Buon giorno or Buona sera) as well as leaving (Arrivederci). The reply to grazie (thank you) is prego (you’re welcome). Venetians always look smart and well groomed, even if they’re only popping out to buy groceries. That said, dressing up for the opera is not as formal as in London.
Venice is all but crime-less though the usual common sense rules apply. Leave valuables in the hotel safe and carry cash, cards and mobile sensibly on your person. Before you set off, do some background reading. Try the Donna Leon detective stories starring Venetian detective Guido Brunetti.
Planes usually approach from the south-west and fly over the margin of the vast lagoon where Venice is located. Sit on the right side of the plane to enjoy the view.
The main airport, Marco Polo (www.veniceairport.it), is at Tessera, 8km north of the city. The marvellous light-filled terminal is usually stress-free and quick to get through. Most low-cost flights (Ryanair et al) land at Treviso airport, 30km north-east of Venice (www.trevisoairport.it).
ACTV Bus 5 costs €5 and runs from Marco Polo to Piazzale Roma terminal daily until 1am, taking 20 mins. Buy tickets from the machine near the bus stop. ATVO runs a more direct service; buy tickets (€5) on board. Traveller’s landing in Treviso can either get the ATVO bus (€6) direct to Venice or take a local bus to Treviso Centrale train station and go to Venezia Santa Lucia from there (€3).
Scheduled ferries by Alilaguna depart from the south edge of the airport – the line you take depends on where your hotel is. Tickets (€13) are sold at the landing stages. Both water and normal taxis are faster, with fares around €120 depending on distance and time of day. If you land late, you may be at the mercy of unlicensed taxis; agree the fare before you get in.
Once there, it’ll often be quicker – and cheaper – on foot than a taxi.
By ship is the finest way to arrive. Many cruises visit Venice, as do ferries from Croatia and Greece. The railway station, Santa Lucia, is the terminus for long-haul trains from surrounding countries; see www.trenitalia.com.
Where to stay, what to see and the most romantic trip to take after dark
Buy a boat pass and embark on a vaporetto (water bus). Boat line 1 runs down the Grand Canal, with many stops en route. First is the massive Ponte della Costituzione, then the railway station. Get on anywhere and cruise past a string of magical palaces.
After the central Rialto market area, the canal curves past Accademia and to San Marco’s piazza. Queue for the lift up the Campanile (bell tower), a good place to get your bearings (take a city map to identify landmarks). Next, head off for a wander. Context Tours can arrange private walking tours led by experts on themes such as wine and ecology.
One of Venice’s most romantic experiences is a ride on vaporetto 2 after dark. Alight at the San Zaccaria landing stage and sit either front or back, al fresco. The boat enters the broad Giudecca Canal, then the Grand Canal, its dark surface alive with gentle ripples.
With the exception of the area by the railway station, all of Venice is a desirable hotel zone. The six districts are northern Cannaregio, eastern Castello, San Polo, Santa Croce and Dorsoduro (in the centre), then San Marco in the south-east.
Top end: Palazzo Barbarigo has lush intimate luxury in a gorgeous palazzo on the Grand Canal. Arrive by water taxi. Doubles from €240 (£194).
Mid-range: Oltre il Giardino is a roomy and peaceful boutique hotel in a pretty flowered garden. A 10-minute walk from the bus station. Doubles from €150 (£120).
Budget: Locanda Leon Bianco is a friendly, rambling place with spacious rooms overlooking the Grand Canal, a short walk from Rialto vaporetto stop. Doubles from €70 (£56).
A stay in Venice is never, ever long enough; when you leave you’ll be pledging to return. This is definitely a city in which to linger and savour the atmosphere.
There’s plenty to see: the Punta della Dogana, the old customs warehouse, now a contemporary art gallery; the Frari, a vast Gothic church, home to Titian’s Assumption; the pretty-in-pink Palazzo Ducale; the Accademia, an incredible repository of Venetian art; and the Grand Canal-side Ca’Rezzonico palace.
Away from the main hub of Venice, explore the isles of Murano (famed for its glass-blowing), Burano (a rainbow-coloured artistic hub) and largely untouched Giudecca. A little further afield, canal-riddled Treviso (30km), the venerable university town of Padua (37km) and Verona (51km), ‘home’ of Romeo and Juliet, make fine excursions.
Timezone: GMT+1 (Apr-Oct GMT+2)
International dialling code: +39 (area code for Venice: 41)
Visas: Not required by UK nationals
Currency: Euro (€)
Highest viewpoint: The 99m Campanile (belltower) in Piazza San Marco.
Health issues: The city hospital (Ospedale Civile) is free and well run; ensure you have your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) on you. Tap water is safe. Crowded areas provide easy wins for the local pickpockets.
Recommended guidebooks: Luxe Venice City Guide (2011); Dorling Kindersley Top 10
Web resources: www.veniceexplorer.net; www.venezianews.it; www.turismovenezia.it; Luxe guides mobile app (www.luxecityguides.com).
Climate: Jan-Mar is dry, chilly and often sunny; Apr-May is breezy and rainy. Heat and humidity (and annoying insects) build from Jun and continue to Sept. Oct-Dec is atmospheric and foggy. During the winter period you should be aware that flooding is very possible; it’s called acqua alta (the ‘high water’). You’ll know the water is on its way thanks to the 16 sirens. You can simply invest in a pair of gumboots or wellies and carry on your way. The busier sightseeing spots will have raised walkways (parssarellle) set up. If the water reaches 1.2m though, it’s time to stop gawping and look for higher ground.
If you’re lured onto the free boats to see Murano’s fabled glass blowers, expect a brief, dazzling experience of true artistry… and a lot of hard sell afterwards for stuff you can buy much cheaper elsewhere. And then, that ‘free’ boat ticket is only one way…