First time or fiftieth, the sight of this mesmerising city as you approach by water is enough to knock you unconscious. Venice is one of the most-visited destinations in Europe (not least because its days are likely numbered), so you’ll need to be a bit savvy if you don’t want to get swept along with the tourist crowd. Here are our do’s and don’ts…
Stay in a historic hotel
As if Venice wasn’t enough of a fairytale, it’s crammed full of gorgeous historic hotels. Rickety, grand, centuries-old hotels with original features, often hidden away along the winding maze of streets – some accessible only by water taxi. There’s a time and a place to stay in a new-build hotel and an impending trip to Venice ain’t that time and it ain’t that place. If you can’t bear to scrimp on style, Palazzina G is a fabulous five-star on the Grand Canal that conceals chic Philippe Starck-designed interiors behind a 16th century facade. Itching for antiques? Try the Al Ponte Antico Hotel, Hotel Palazzo Stern or Hotel Ai Reali (pictured below) for gilding, elaborate wall coverings and knock-out views.
See a concert
When visiting one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world, there are few things better than gussying up in your fanciest frock and taking in a classical concert before strolling back to your hotel under the glow of the moonlight. The settings and costumes are quite spectacular – Teatro La Fenice opera house is breathtaking and probably the most famous, but there are plenty of smaller and less expensive venues to choose from. Even if opera isn’t usually your ‘thing’, a concert in Venice is an unforgettable experience to tick off the old bucket list.
The water-lapped mansions of the Grand Canal are without a doubt the grandest buildings you’ll ever see on stilts, but nothing can prepare you for what’s inside them. The 18th century Ca’ Rezzonico, a palazzo once owned by the socially upward and financially buoyant Rezzonico family, is one of the most rewarding glimpses of noble Venetian life you’ll find. A substantial collection of paintings from the period are exhibited here, but the finest riches are the rooms themselves; adorned with Murano chandeliers, hand-crafted furniture and ornate frescoes. Stroll from (lightly swaying) room to room and relax in the lovely courtyard to the side of the building.
(Window)shop for Carnevale
Whether you’re in town for Carnevale or not (15 February – 4 March and a helluva spectacle if you can face the hordes and the inflated prices), mask-browsing is a must. There are a lot of mask shops in Venice, but only a handful of mask-makers, so do your research and suss out where the authentic craftsmanship is. Mondo Novo is the real deal.
Pack your paintbrushes
Venice is said to boast more artistic masterpieces per square mile than any other city in the world, so if you’re in the slightest bit creatively inclined, it doesn’t get more inspiring than this. There are countless galleries, the canal-side is the territory of art sellers and the entire place feels like a living oil painting. Bring a few materials with you and pitch up at a quiet viewing point with a coffee.
St Mark’s Square
Mention Venice and people will tell you about St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco). It’s about as famous as Murano glass and gondola rides (we’ll come to those later). Sure, swing by and have a look – it is lovely and world-famous, but do yourself a favour – don’t eat anything (unless it’s at Caffe Florian which is delightful and an exception) and keep a close eye on your belongings. This tourist trap is all about professional pickpockets and overpriced restaurants serving average food. Same rule applies to the area immediately around the Rialto Bridge. Look but don’t guzzle. Instead, sidle off to a nearby back street and eat some authentic Italian grub for a third of the price.
Fly to Venice Treviso
Ryanair currently operates budget flights to this small airport, which is really nowhere near the City of Water at all, at 5km southwest of Treviso and a 30km transfer through gridlocked traffic. Given the choice, you’d be better advised to fly to Marco Polo, which is a more manageable 12km from the centre.
Expect much in the way of nightlife
What Bob Marley is to Jamaica, Vivaldi is to Venice. But if you were hoping to switch the tempo after dark, you’ll have to search hard. Plan a few pit stops in advance to save aimlessly wandering (Harry’s Bar is famed for its Bellinis – they were invented there!) and dine late to make the most of the evening.
Leave the hotel without a map
A good portion of any trip to Venice should be dedicated to exploring on foot. Don’t linger in the main tourist spots for too long if you’re only staying for a few days; this labyrinthine city is at its most enchanting in the more clandestine backstreets. As liberating as it might seem to lose yourself amongst the palazzi with nothing but an SLR and a heart full of adventure, you will just get lost. Tuck a detailed map in your back pocket or it will quite possibly take you all 400 bridges to find your way back to your hotel.
Hire a gondola
It’s the quintessential Venetian pastime, for sure, and you’ll want to climb aboard one even more when you see them bobbing under inky blue covers. But the thing is, it’s just as peaceful and atmospheric to stop on a bridge for a little while and watch other people shell out for the experience. More so, in fact. It’s not as romantic as you think being quite that close to the murky green deep for 40-plus minutes, especially if you haven’t paid extra for some be-striped local brawn to steer for you. It’ll set you back a minimum of €80 to explore the canals this way; €100 after 7pm. Admiring the city from the water is a must, of course, but you can do it on the open-air deck of the brilliant vaporetto (the water bus) or private water taxi – a service offered by many of the best hotels.
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