Destinology Travel Writer and Venice lover, Sue, gives her top tips and shares experiences that could change the way you visit and experience, probably the most glorious city in the world - certainly her favourite.
My daughter is an Instagram fan. She has travelled to Australia, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and through parts of Europe; the rest of the world she has travelled by vlog and boomerang. I have waited, waited and waited to take her to Venice, my favourite city in the world - I wanted it to be truly special, I wanted her to WOW, as I did when I first saw the spires, domes and towers of the Italian beauty, steeped in history and who, despite her turbulent past, still floats majestically on her lagoon (can you tell I am in love?) I felt her 14th birthday was the time, but was it still possible to ‘wow’ a teenager in this world where life passes on the small screen?
This is our story of how and wow?
We flew into Marco Polo airport across the lagoon from Venice. If you are lucky you might glimpse the city from the clouds, we did not, we were on the left side of the plane and Venice was to the right! We arrived early evening and by the time we walked to the Darsena/harbour the sky was glorious and the sun was beginning to set.
Water Taxi, Alliaguna or bus?
I have done all three and recommend a Water Taxi, pre-arranged and waiting as we stepped from the final escalator. Daughter briefly impressed as our speedboat skidded over the lagoon, through the carefully marked waterways, towards our precious destination. Orange skies heralded our arrival and with eyes peeled we searched the horizon, like sailors past, for Venice. The towers, domes and spires appeared, as if by magic, through the dusk and a knot rose to my throat; I waited with anticipation, but ‘wow’ from daughter was not forthcoming; instead, the camera/video was raised and first impressions captured through a lens. This ‘wow’ was going to be harder than I thought.
Top Tip: Water Taxi, always a pre-booked water taxi. The drivers take you to your hotel door, there is no walking the narrow streets disorientated with suitcase in hand, which is the way of many arriving visitors. For us, a quick check-in meant a relaxed dinner overlooking the canals just over an hour after we landed – daughter appreciative of gluten-free pizza.
Where to Stay?
Stay in Venice. Yes, it is more expensive than staying on the mainland, but it is worth every single Euro. Stepping from your hotel into the cobbled streets, into the romance, into the bustle is delightful. Previously I have stayed just off St Mark’s Square in San Marco where life seems never to stop and tourists pave the way, and near the Rialto Bridge in the Cannaregio where dining options are in abundance and the night life buzzing. This time we went for the Dorsodouro where many locals live and University students hang out; life seems that little bit more cool and laidback or ‘lit’ and ‘dank’ in teen slang - perfect for teenager, I thought.
Top Tip: Do your research on areas. If you are food lovers San Polo is teaming with restaurants and is home to the market, if you love the bustle of being a tourist San Marco will be perfect. Each ‘Sestieri,’ neighbourhood has its own very unique character – find the one that suits you.
Murano – Glass Blowing
Another speedboat journey weaved us through the canals and across the lagoon to the island of Murano famed for its glass making skills to a private jetty where we were met by the granddaughter of the founder of Ars Cenedese. We were invited into the workshop where we witnessed four men, in excessive temperatures, wrestling with the most enormous piece of glass: experts firing, shaping, moulding the most glorious and delicate lampshade. Daughter wide-eyed and watchful, she loved it - it was enlightening, excuse the pun! The craftsmanship, the physicality, the science – it is an experience that will leave you with an overwhelming respect for the creation of glass. Ars Cenedese has the most wonderful collection of glass, created on the premises and dating from its beginning in 1947 to the present day - it is outstanding.
Top Tip: Book a tour to a specialist glass blowing furnace not a factory. Factory does not describe what we witnessed at Ars Cenedese – they do not mass manufacture pieces of glass; here they work on elegant, often commissioned pieces that showcase the skill of the glass master - it is simply art in progress.
San Polo – Mask Making Workshop
Situated on a narrow street in San Polo Sestiere is Cà Marega an authentic Venetian, family-run mask workshop. Warmly welcomed, here we shared the passion of the proprietor and discovered the history of Carnivalé, the importance of the mask, the relevance of design and the process of mask creation. We witnessed an artist at work as he painstakingly created a mask from his hand-crafted mould and through a here’s one I made earlier process, how the decoration and colour is applied, how the crackle and other effects are created and the elaborate, personalised adornments are achieved - before our eyes a unique, one off, mask came to life. The history of Venetian oppression and the birth of Carnivalé and the mask is fascinating even daughter was enthralled - especially by the hospitality shown by a wonderful Venetian family. The workshop owners throw a ball during Carnivalé and costumes and masks are available to try on for Instagram boomerangs and other social media pics – laughter and fun ensued = happy teenager.
Top Tip: Venice is flooded with foreign imported masks. Take time to go off the beaten track to an authentic mask shop where the quality and craftsmanship shine through. You will find hospitality, knowledge and something really special.
We also went to:
Tessiture Bevilacqua where we witnessed 18th century looms at work – again the atmosphere and craftsmanship were palpable. Here we saw fabrics that had been commissioned for the Obama’s and the White House, royal palaces and Christian Dior. The last one bought a satisfied 'oh' and a lingering touch from daughter whose camera lens was again raised for Instamoments.
Squero, S. Giorgio Maggiore Island, a gondola boatyard to you and I. Gondolas are fascinating! I don’t want to spoil the history or the craftsmanship, but you will never think a Gondola ride is expensive ever again. Gondolas are the Maserati or Lamborghini of the waves. Still no ‘wow’ though!
Tour of the Basilica with a personal tour guide. The queues for the Basilica appear always to be immense with a personal guide they flash a badge and you skip the queue. The story of St Mark and how his body is supposed to have returned to Venice is a gory one which is depicted in the mosaic ceilings at the entrance – without a guide, you would miss them. I know you are thinking ‘poor daughter’ don’t be, it was quick and informative, she was fascinated and there were no queues - perfect.
Top Tip: These activities will need to be booked in advance due to their exclusivity so speak to your Destinology Travel Expert who will make all the arrangements for you.
Venice Must Do's
You will have read or heard Venetian visitors tell you to wear flat comfortable shoes – let me reiterate this. You must walk through Venice’s cobbled streets, get lost and hit dead ends that lead to the canal and nowhere else – it is fun, charming and confusing; it is Venice exploration (even Google maps couldn't help us). On this visit I was convinced I knew my way around, recognised churches, shops and restaurants I was wrong! It was like my first visit all over again and I loved it. Daughter also charmed! She got to use the sat nav on her trusty phone – turned out, even that would have put us in the canal! From the Dorsoduro we made our way to the Accademia bridge, my favourite view of Venice, where we stood and stood and watched the Grand Canal transport people and produce in Gondolas, Vaporettos and barges. The pink hue of buildings contrasts with the multitude of blues and greens that emit from the canal, lagoon and sky, I digress. With daughter leading the way we wandered through narrow streets, over bridges, to ice-cream shop counters, into churches (my daughter loves a good church) and browsed through shops, especially the ones selling chocolate and finally down Merceria Orologio into the back of St Mark’s Square. And there it came. As the square opened up towards the domes of the Basilica San Marco and the tower of the Campanile, the moment I had been waiting for ‘Wow’ she whispered. She had seen pictures of St Mark’s Square before, but they had not done it justice – a picture on a screen never will! For just long enough she was awed and then Insta opportunities were grasped and picture, after picture taken – I can only hope when she looks at them she remembers the feeling – I know I will.
Top Tip: Don’t have a plan and let your feet lead the way. Venice is full of surprises at every turn. Also book a Vaporetto for the return journey as you will be tired and so will your feet at the end of the day.
When in Venice! We ummed and ammmed about this. On the surface it seems pricey and don’t be fooled the reputable Gondoliers have a price and they stick to it there is no room for negotiation. Following the tour of the Squero our savvy pockets were opened! Our Gondola ride took us through San Marco onto the Grand Canal, under the Rialto Bridge and through the narrow canals past the a reputed, regular haunt of Casanova, but he was everywhere apparently. Our Gondola was called Aurora, named after the Gondolier’s daughter and between his guided tour, he sang Italian Opera to us. I was tearful, Mr appreciative and daughter, I hear you ask? - 'Wow, wow, wow!' Despite seeming uninterested at the Squero she was really showing what she knew about the gondola, taking pictures of the curve and shape, the oarlock design and the ferro, all of which make Aurora unique - our Gondolier was impressed. I believe, at this point I was watching daughter fall in love with Venice.
Top Tip: Some areas in Venice are ‘super’ popular with tourists for Gondola rides and we witnessed many Gondola jams and queues (especially by the Bridge of Sighs) – not the romance you expect. Go a little off the beaten track and you will still see some famous sights, but you will also see Venetian life - we witnessed the police pull someone over who was travelling the wrong way, up a one-way canal!
Venice should be viewed from a high spot. The queue for the St Mark’s Campanile can be long and time consuming, so take the Vaporetto from St Marks S. Zaccaria to San Giorgio Maggiore. The Chiesa di San Giorgio has a tower with a lift. From there the views over Venice, the islands and the lagoon are stunning you can even see The Lido. By this time ‘wows’ were coming thick and fast and so were the pictures and poses. The church is run by monks and I hear the gardens at the Monastery are incredible – I know someone who might be able to get you in! Both Church and tower are an escape from the city and I recommend a little sit down on the steps and a ‘watch the world go by’ moment - also your feet may need a rest.
Top Tip: Sshhhh this one is a secret. If you don’t fancy the Vaporetto to the island and want to stay in Venice then book to see the terrace at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi by DFS (a department store like Selfridges). The terrace overlooks the Rialto Bridge and Grand Canal – it must be pre-booked, but is free, and you are allocated a 15minute time slot (note it is only open weather permitting). You will not be disappointed by the view or the social media photo opportunities.
Drinks and Dining
People say Venice is expensive, but I disagree. Eat off the beaten track or in traditional osterias and dinner is no more expensive than here in the UK. Daughter is coeliac, so we did have to do some research but there were lots of options that suited her and Mr and I. For her birthday we found Pizza Oke which overlooked the lagoon towards Giudecca; the pizzas were fantastic gluten free and regular gluten full, with a topping to suit everyone. Just off the Rialto we found Ostaria Antico Dolo, a tiny door leads into a small restaurant which was soon teaming with locals. Here they make their own gluten free bread, so more ‘wows’ were delivered for a simple ‘panino’ bread roll and the homemade pasta was demolished without a speck of sauce left to be seen in the bowl. It would be a miss not to tell you how amazing the owner’s wine recommendation was, it was delicious and matched my gnocchi perfectly, it was less than 4 euros. We intended to go to Floriano’s on St Marks Square, a birthday treat, but time and weather evaded us – I think you should go though, and we will be next time, it is a Venetian institution.
Top Tip: Follow the locals, eat away from the main tourist areas and explore restaurants that may be located in side-streets behind tiny doors. We found a glass of Prosecco before dinner to be the perfect aperitif and as it is Italian, is very reasonably priced.
The world is for experiencing, not viewing on a screen.
Destinology can help you make ‘wow’ moments in cities across Italy and the wider world – ask about the unique experiences we have to offer when we tailor make your holiday.