Travelers talk a lot of smack about Venice. It’s the side of the story you don’t get from Frommer’s or Fodor’s, but it’s everywhere. The Venice smack talk always seems to go like this: “Venice is absolutely beautiful, but x, y, z, alpha, beta, gamma…” all the way to zeta. There are a million problems with the logistics of Venice, it seems: the trains are uncomfortable, the hotels are overpriced, the bus system is incomprehensible, few people speak good English, they make you pay for the toilets! A few things anyone traveling to Venice should keep in mind:
1. Buy a map, and consult it frequently. All the streets in Venice look exactly the same. You think I’m kidding, but I’m dead serious. “We’re walking next to a bridge, some lovely multi-colored houses, and along a canal” describes the pedestrian experience on just about every street in Venice. Streets are connected to each other by tiny little alleys just wide enough to let one person scrape their way through. Buy a map, either before arriving, or when you get there. It doesn’t have to be pretty or expensive, and it certainly doesn’t have to come in a cute plastic case (that’ll set you back an extra ten Euros). Rather, get a cheap one- or two-Euro map, and USE IT. Identify important landmarks (ideally before you get there–see #8) and have a sense of the city. Always know where you’re headed. If you ask a local for directions to a touristy site, they’re likely to give you an impossible-to-remember set of “sinistras” and “destras” (“rights” and “lefts”) or a vague point over their shoulders in the general direction of the landmark. It’s not their fault: the streets of Venice are so small and short-running that even locations that are within a quarter kilometer of each other can take a dozen or more streets to get to. Rather, bring your map, and ask a shopkeeper “Dove siamo?” (“Where are we?”), preferably after buying their food. Shopkeepers always know where their shops are. Next, ask them to them to mark an X on wherever you want to get to. After that, it’s a simple matter of getting from A to B.
2. Buy a phrasebook, and use it. It’s best to know a bit of Italian before you hit the ground: for instance, when in Rome, I needed a lighter for our stove once. I didn’t know what the word for a lighter was, and was reduced to miming lighting up a candle after half an hour to the amusement of the majority of the supermarket’s employees until the manager came and informed me that they didn’t carry any, but that I could get them at any nearby Tabacchi. Moral: not everyone speaks English–stuff a phrasebook in your back pocket and use it whenever you can. No Italian ever looked down on an American tourist for using a phrasebook. On the contrary, I’ve been told on numerous occasions that it’s nice to see an American trying to speak Italian, no matter how terribly, rather than being so arrogant as to assume (as many do) that everyone speaks English.
3. Don’t take the buses inside of town. They’re overpriced, and Venice is small enough that you can walk to every landmark within the city in a day or two.
4. Share a Gondola, with four other people. Every Gondola–those iconic, historic Venetian canoes that are a must-do for the city–costs 80 Euros for the cheapest (35 minute) ride. However, that’s not per person–it’s per ride. There are always two large chairs, which often lead people to think only two are permitted to ride at once. But gondolas are designed with three extra bench-style seats. Don’t have five people in your group? Make new friends! The price of a gondola ride makes everyone cringe: you’ll have more fun, and reduce the price from 40 Euro if you’re traveling in a pair to just 16 if you’re in a group of five.
5. Stay out of town–and share rooms. The buses outside of town are dirt cheap, and the hotels are literally less than half the price of the hotels inside of town–and they’re generally newer, nicer, and more comfortable, too.
6. Don’t buy anything at Piazza San Marco. Do listen to the violin/piano/saxophone bands that play in the tents at night however. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes in Venice after the sun has set.
7. Eat what’s local: the seafood–the seafood pizza, especially is incredible.
8. Preparation, preparation, preparation! The key to getting the most out of any short trip is preparation. Think all the details through well ahead of time, and you’ll save not just money, but a great deal of hassle down the road. My recommendation is to get the hotel and train bookings squared away about a month in advance, to get the best deals. Once that’s been decided, start figuring *before you hit the ground*. It isn’t a bad idea to memorize emergency numbers, important directions to the supermarkets (for cheap breakfasts and lunches), and the bus routes between your hotel and the central train station. Getting the logistics out of the way beforehand frees up a surprising amount of time during the vacation itself.
Sound a bit crazy? Maybe it is. But the payoff is during the vacation: things go more smoothly, and you get to do more, enjoy them more, and pay a lot less!