Trip dates: 2017 Feb. 4 to 9
All of the best travel blogs list “get lost” as something one must do when visiting Venice.
So … we did. Fresh off the boat. In a driving rainstorm. With no umbrellas.
GPS was chasing us throughout the city, usually telling us we were in places we weren’t. It even sent us through a three-foot-high tunnel under a building that deposited us in a four-walled courtyard with nowhere to go but back.
Most streets were pocked with deep puddles and so narrow that two people holding open umbrellas couldn’t pass each other.
The upshot of it all is that we got a bigger tour of the city than we’d planned for the first day. We saw shops, public squares and grand old buildings leaning toward each other over narrow, winding canals. We found a delicious hole-in-the-wall pasta restaurant and a fairly well-stocked grocery store that, despite that we crossed two canals to get there (thanks for nothing, Google), was literally half a block from our hotel.
And anyway, the rain is a small price to pay for visiting Venice in the off-season. During peak tourist time, more than 60,000 people per day ― half of them coming from cruise ships ― pack the city’s many alleys. That’s 5,000 more than the people who actually live here.
And walking … well, in our experience, that’s the top thing to do in Venice. When you’re visiting a new city, the best thing to do is to explore what makes it special. And what makes Venice truly unique is that it comprises 117 islands linked by 400 bridges over myriad canals.
Things to do with kids in Venice
One morning on which we had nothing time-sensitive planned, we taught the kids the Italian words for “left” and “right” ― “sinistra” for left, and “destra” for right ― and let them lead the way. Whenever we reached an intersection at which the boys wanted to turn, they shouted “destra” or “sinistra,” and we turned. Often it was into an alley barely wide enough for one person or into a tunnel under a house that led to the edge of the canal and no farther. The boys enjoyed being in charge for once, and, frankly, we enjoyed not having to navigate. One thing we noted, though, was that it was surprisingly hard to explore new territory. After a dozen turns that took us over half a dozen canals, we’d somehow end up back where we’d started. Every time. It was only easy to get lost, in fact, when we were trying to get somewhere specific. GPS hates Venice.
Venice is a walkable city, though. We walked much more in Venice than we did during recent trips to Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona. On our four full days in Venice, we averaged 11,554 steps, despite the rain and the one day during which we basically didn’t go anywhere. Our older boys, both of them about 5 1/4 years old, walked every step of the way ― that’s gotta be upwards of 20,000 kid-sized steps, hops and skips! And we walk fast. If you’ve been conditioning your kids to walk like we have, they need’t slow you down at all. The other tourists were a far larger impediment.
Watch garbage boats after 8 a.m.
On a Tuesday morning, just after 8 a.m., we walked from our rental apartment in Castello down toward San Marco. Every day but Sunday is garbage day, apparently, and we saw a number of small barges powering through the canals picking up rifiuto. The boys LOVE garbage trucks, and Brittany figured they’d want a video or two to watch later to remember their time in Venice. Workers were pushing carts through the alleys collecting trash, and we followed a few to their trash barges to watch the dumping process. The garbage collection and disposal process is just about like we were used to, but, of course, with boats instead of trucks. Check out the video below.
This is one of the things that makes Venice unique, of course. Instead of roads, it has canals, so most things that are vehicles elsewhere are boats in Venice. We saw garbage boats, police boats, ambulance boats, delivery boats and even a red double-decker tour boat. There are no buses, trams or subways here, so all public transport is done via boat. Ferries carry passengers up and down the Grand Canal, and gondolas even ferry passengers across the canal for 2€ each (for adults; kids are free). Prepare to pay in coins, but if you only have bills, the gondoliers can probably make change. They might not be happy about it, though.
Visit the gondola shipyard at Squero di San Trovaso
Visiting this small shipyard is as much about having a destination as it is to see what’s here. The shipyard was a lovely 30-minute walk from our apartment, through the San Marco district and into Dorsoduro. The walk afforded us beautiful scenes of the city we wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. The shipyard itself was a small garage viewable from across the canal. When we arrived, at around 5 p.m., four or five gondolas in various states of repair lay strewn about the yard, with another visible through the open bay door. A couple of workers sat at the edge of the canal smoking a cigarette, but that was all the action there was. If you’ve ever seen the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, this is the spot where a gondola gets sliced in two by a motorboat in the Venice chase scene.
Hunt for parks
Venice is famous for things other than its playgrounds, believe it or not. There really aren’t many. We encountered two in our travels, and they weren’t anywhere near each other. But, for families with young children yearning to stretch their legs, playgrounds are destinations, and walking to far-flung locations is as good as a free city tour. Parco Savorgnan is at the north end of Venice, in the Cannaregio district. And in the southeastern quadrant of the city, in the Castello district, is the Parco delle Rimembranze, which honors those killed in World War II.
Enjoy free entry into the Venice state museums
The state museums in Venice offer free entry on the first Sunday of the month, and they’re absolutely worth a visit.
That’s what we’ve heard, anyway. We braved a driving rainstorm to Piazza San Marco, having first dutifully checked Google Maps to ensure that the the Museo Archeologico Nazionale was open. But when we arrived at exactly 15:00, we learned that Venice museums have different winter hours, and the museums in the square had just closed. Bummer. Instead, we took some time to walk around the Doge’s Palace, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (which was also closed, as it always is on Sundays) and check out the nearby Bridge of Sighs.
We did make it to one of the music museums, though. There are two, and entrance is always free. The main one is the Museo della Musica, in Campo San Maurizio in the heart of the San Marco district. We didn’t visit that one, but we did stop by the one housed in the Chiesa di San Giacomo di Rialto, which, according to tradition, is the oldest church in the city, having been built in 421. It had an interesting selection of old mandolins, violins and other instruments. Plus, the building’s architecture and history was worth the visit alone.
Stop by the Piazza San Marco
This piazza is almost certain to be thick with selfie sticks, but it’s nonetheless worth a visit. It’s dominated by the gorgeous Saint Mark’s Basilica, the present version of which was constructed beginning in 1063. An example of Italo-Byzantine architecture, it’s covered inside and out by incredibly gorgeous mosaic tile work. Next to the basilica is the Doge’s Palace, an ornate if much-less gaudy structure.
Several state museums also are nearby, and the grand Riva degli Schiavoni boardwalk begins here.
Take the bus or tram to Mestre
Mestre is a city on the mainland, just across the water from Venice. It’s accessible by tram or bus from the Piazzale Roma in Venice. If you’re itching to see a car or two or to walk around without having to navigate across canals, it’s worth the short journey. This being our first trip to Italy, we crossed over to Mestre just for a peek at a more average Italian city.
Family-friendly tips for visiting Venice
- You might be tempted to think that with all its waterways, Venice would be a dangerous place for young kids. The majority of walkways and bridges have railings, though, and with no motor vehicles or even bikes, it’s actually safer in some respects than other cities.
- Venice Marco Polo Airport is not actually in Venice. There are multiple options for the approximately hour-long journey from the airport to the city proper. We chose a ferry ride with Alilaguna, in part because kids 0-6 ride free, and it worked well.
- Forego rolling luggage and strollers if at all possible. A few bridges, most notably along Riva degli Schiavoni, have ramps, but most don’t.
- To save money and avoid the terrifying equation of kid + tablecloths + wine glasses, seek out takeout pasta joints. Ordering is simple ― pick your sauce, pick your noodle shape ― and service is quick. Large cups of pasta go for 5 to 8€ at places like Dal Moro’s and Bigoi.
- This is NOT a city that never sleeps. While the number of locals out and about explodes around 17:00, tourist-fed attractions like museums and shops die down abruptly. Plan any activities that depend on open hours for the first part of the day to be safe, and check schedules carefully for seasonal variations.
- If you or your kids have your heart set on a gondola ride, then by all means do it. Just be warned that it’ll cost you a pretty penny. Rates are set by the city and start at 80€. For a cheap taste of the gondola experience, catch a ride on a traghetto. These slightly less-shiny gondolas ferry passengers across the Grand Canal, which has only four bridges (the Ponte di Rialto being one of them). Rides cost 2€.
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