Is Venice an island?
The Oxford English dictionary defines an island as ‘A piece of land surrounded by water.’ In that case Venice definitely qualifies as an island, in spite of the fact that it is joined to the mainland by a man-made bridge, the ‘Ponte della Liberta’.
According to various sources, Venice is actually a city spread over approximately 120 islands (the precise number seems to vary from 117 to 124!). So, in theory, I could actually wander around for a few days and easily cover all 50 of my remaining islands. But where’s the fun in that?
To make it fair and fun, and so that I have an excuse to come back later in the year, I have chosen to include just 3 here – firstly, the main collection of islands known as the Centro Storico (the historical centre) which we shall call Venexia, the Venetian word for Venice. Secondly, Isola San Giorgio Maggiore – the island you can see from the Riva degli Schiavoni – where land meets lagoon at the edge of St Mark’s Square and lastly (for now) the island of Murano.
There are lots of others I would like to see but the weather wasn’t very nice when I was there this week and so I decided to spend more time on the main part of Venice and come back later to visit the more exposed islands later on.
Never been to Venice?
If you have never been to Venice, my only question to you would be ‘Why not?’. To me it is the most awe-inspiring, magical place that never ceases to surprise and delight me. It is – without doubt – my favourite city in the world! This was my 7th or 8th visit and I have no doubt that I will be back many more times. Venice is a breathtakingly beautiful city – every building, every canal and every corner you turn provides a stunning photo opportunity. You could fill days visiting galleries, churches and museums or ignore them completely and just wander around aimlessly getting lost and admiring your surroundings.
The thing I personally find most fascinating is watching how people go about their daily lives in a water-based city full of tourists – getting to work; delivering food and drink and furniture; collecting the laundry and the rubbish; the elaborate and efficient network of water buses, the ambulance that is a boat; the hearse that is a boat; the police vehicle that is a boat.
When to go?
Although Venice is beautiful in all weathers and seasons, I would avoid high season – July and August – if you can. It’s hot and very, very crowded and you will spend a lot of time shuffling along in a crowd of lost tourists (not my idea of fun). A winter visit can be delightful, if a little chilly, because there is hardly anyone here and you can wander the streets unimpeded by crowds but take warm clothes and your wellies. The ideal is probably somewhere in the middle – April, May, June or September and October when the sun is still shining but the crowds are not so overpowering. If you do find yourself there in summer, choose to explore parts of town that are off the main drag between Piazzale Roma – Rialto – San Marco.
Acqua Alta – High tide!
It’s worth checking the tides too. When the tide is high and the moon cycles and the wind combine in a certain way, you can find yourself ankle or knee deep in lagoon water. This year I missed it by 2 days! If you google Acqua Alta Venice you will find plenty of sites that will explain it and provide you with a forecast.
There are 4 ways to get around Venice – in your own private boat, by private water taxi or gondola, by water bus or on foot. The first one is not an option and the second one is very expensive so best to stick to the last two. The network of vaporetti, or water buses, is very efficient, punctual and – if you buy a travelcard – inexpensive. I paid €30 for a 48 hour ticket which, much like the tube in London, is a massive saving if you use it more than twice each day. A single journey costs €7.50. The travelcard takes you everywhere on the ACTV Venice network so you can also visit outlying islands with it. Most vaporetti stops have signs announcing the times of the next few vaporetti so you always know how long you have to wait.
Take Route #1 from Piazzale Roma and stay on it to St Mark’s Square for a fantastic and very cheap trip down the Grand Canal. Then get off and get on one going back the other way – make sure you sit on the other side this time. Or take Route #2 to Isola San Giorgio, Giudecca, Zattere and back to Piazzale Roma around the outside via Tronchetto – Venice’s car park. Whichever route you take, it is a wonderful way to travel.
One thing is certain in Venice – you will get lost! – always and without doubt and usually many times. But that is part of the fun! Make sure you have either EU data roaming at a reasonable cost (so you can use google maps) or a very good map of Venice. Even with both, you will still get lost!
Arriving in Venice in daylight makes finding your accommodation a whole lot easier but if you must arrive in the dark, make sure you have recorded your route from your arrival point. Last time I arrived at night, I printed off the google maps pedestrian route from Piazzale Roma – where the airport bus drops you – to our accommodation. Without it, we would never have found our hotel. Do not underestimate how tucked away places can be here. Many Venetians are familiar only with their part of Venice so cannot be counted on to give directions. A good thing to do as soon as you arrive is to find your way from your accommodation to, either the nearest vaporetto stop, or a well-known place in Venice – that way you will always find your way home (eventually at least)!
Google maps does work here but sometimes the thick walls and the close proximity of the buildings makes it difficult to get an accurate, up-to-date reading and you will get lost!!! A fun way to go for a walk is to set your google maps directions for a place on the other side of Venice and do your best to follow it – you will get lost anyway but it is a fun way to discover places you would not otherwise have seen and you will get there in the end. Trying to walk on your own will end up in many a dead end – usually with a canal at the end of it!
If you arrive at Venice’s Marco Polo airport (the best one – BA and Easyjet) and you do not have organised transfers, the cheapest way to get to Venice is to go straight to the ACTV office in the airport and buy 1) a return ticket to Venice on the ATVO airport shuttle bus (€8 single, €15 return) and 2) a travelcard for the duration of your stay. Staff speak good English.
Take the shuttle bus from bus stop #2 directly outside the airport to Piazzale Roma – about 15 minutes. From Piazzale Rome take the vaporetto along the Grand Canal to the nearest vaporetto stop and find your Venetian home.
If you fly into Treviso (Ryanair) buses leave from outside the airport and you can buy the ticket from the bus driver. (You can even buy the ticket on the plane but Ryanair add a little something for their trouble!) In that case, buy your travelcard from the ACTV office in Piazzale Roma.
Food and drink
Venice is not particularly famous in Italy for its food but you will find a huge variety of places to eat from the tiniest bar to the most lavish and expensive restaurant. If you are on a budget, there are lots of tiny bars selling cicchetti (pronounced chee-ketti), tramezzini and panini – Venetian tapas, sandwiches and rolls respectively – washing them down with an ‘ombra’ a tiny glass of wine or a Spritz con Aperol (local sparkling wine mixed with Aperol and orange-coloured, bitter tasting liquor). The house wine is often on tap and the local white, Frizzantino, is as the name suggests ‘frizzante’ – fizzy. Finish off with a delicious espresso. Drinking Cappuccino after 11 am will only confirm the Venetians’ conviction that tourists are complete fools. A glass of house wine is usually about €1, so is an espresso, a sandwich €2 or €3 in an average place. Prices vary considerably according to location! Beware!
If you want to find a good bar, follow a workman or someone else who looks local and see where they go and go there! Have what they’re having! Many bars do not have seating and you will see many Venetians eating and drinking standing up at the bar. Do the same for an authentic local experience. Always choose a bar with a loo! Many don’t have one and there are very few public conveniences in Venice. Use the loo whenever you have the chance! You have been warned!
Venetians’ attitude to tourists
No place in the world (that I have ever visited at least) has greater disdain for the tourist! Get used to the idea that you are an irritation, a necessary evil without which every Venetian would happily do without, were it economically possible! Very occasionally you will get a laugh out of a local but don’t bank on it, especially if you don’t speak Italian. The best you can hope for is efficient service, which you will get, but not necessarily with a smile!
Clothing and footwear
Dress for comfort! Layered clothing – it can be chilly, damp and windy; a good cross-body bag is safer in a crowd and less cumbersome than a rucksack and leaves your hands free to eat, drink and take photos; comfortable shoes are essential and – in times of acqua alta – wellies, a raincoat and an umbrella! If you intend visiting in the summer and you want to visit churches, dress modestly or bring a cover-up with you or you may be refused entry.
Don’t try to do it all at once!
See the main sights by all means but after that, pick a section of the City and get to know it. The Centro Storico (the historical centre) is conveniently divided up into 6 ‘sestrieri’ or sixths. Next time you come, choose another sestriere and get to know that. If you are staying longer than a week, you could spend a day in each of the sestrieri! You will no doubt have a favourite by the end – mine is Canareggio. Don’t forget to look up! The city is too big and too complicated to see all in one go. You will exhaust yourself trying and miss a lot – take your time!
Next: Let’s go an visit some islands! Firstly the main Venetian islands, Venexia.