This article was published in the Greensboro News and Record on May 24, 2014.
Italians often refer to Venice as “the most beautiful” or “the most romantic” city in Italy, maybe in the world. Those descriptors certainly fit the experiences my wife and I had there this spring.
April is an especially good time to go to Venice, with October, November, May, and September also desirable, more or less in that order. Summer, however, is the most popular. I would go anytime I could, but summer is hot and crowded. Venice draws a huge amount of tourist traffic, with good reason. (photo: Rialto Bridge, with caption- We went in off season, when the city is not crowded) This city is unique.
Before you go abroad, anywhere. Check your passport expiration date. For travel to most European Union countries, your passport must be valid three months beyond the return date on your ticket, or you won’t be allowed to board the plane to leave the US. (Some countries require six months.) Find out which credit cards do not charge a foreign transaction fee. Also ask your card issuer about functionality in Italy. We found that debit cards worked in ATMs, where we also got the best exchange rate, but some credit cards were not accepted in automated charge machines in transportation facilities (bus, metro/subway). Our charge cards were accepted in all restaurants.
If you plan any significant amount of air travel, whether international or domestic, consider signing up for the TSA Precheck/Trusted Traveller/Global Entry program (https://goes-app.cbp.dhs.gov/main/goes, or just Google GOES). Bypassing over a thousand people waiting in line to clear customs is enough to justify the cost and the moderate inconvenience involved in the registration process! The program even makes domestic travel from GSO, RDU, or CLT much easier.
Getting there. Flights from gateway cities in the US are available on almost all US international airlines, without European connections.
Arrival. I checked several travel guides to determine how to get from the Venice airport into the city. Since Venice is a cluster of islands, intersected by canals, water travel is essential. Water taxis are very expensive (about $100). I opted for advance reservations on the shuttle service, which carries more passengers and stops at several hotels, but costs much less (about $27 per person). Upon arrival, however, there was no shuttle. Several very helpful people assured me it would arrive, but no one knew when. After standing around for almost an hour, a water taxi driver who already had another reserved fare agreed to take me to the hotel for the face value of the shuttle reservation- double the per person cost, but still about half the regular water taxi fare. You can check all water services at www.venicelink.com.
A bit of wandering and asking advice at the hotel revealed what none of the guidebooks had said: the fastest and cheapest way into the city is the land bus (about $8, ticket office to the left as you exit airport baggage claim) to the bus station, then take the water bus (about $7, ticket office across the street from the bus station) into Venice. Total travel time- about 30-40 minutes from airport to hotel, vs. at least that much time by water taxi or more than double that time by boat bus, at a lower price.
Accommodations. All the major travel websites cover hotels in Venice. If you want Italian ambience, consider opting for a locally owned property. Be cautious, however- the European star rating system might lead you to believe that you are getting a much nicer room than you will find when you get there. At 1 star, you will probably be sharing a bathroom with multiple other guests; at 2 stars, you are at a level well below Courtyard or Hampton Inn in the US, which are generally nicer than most 3 star hotels in Europe that I’ve seen.
We stayed at the Hilton Molino Stucky (www.molinostuckyhilton.com/). This is one of the best hotels I’ve ever experienced. Located in a renovated flour mill constructed over 100 years ago on Giudecca Island, it has earned numerous awards. From the rooftop bar, you can see a wide range of Venice at night, and food in the restaurants was quite good and reasonably priced. A complimentary boat shuttle takes guests to/from the main island on convenient, posted schedules.
What to see and do. Guidebooks advised, and I agree, that an excellent way to get acquainted with the city is to buy a ticket on the water bus (about $7) and just ride the entire Grand Canal (photos: view along Grand Canal 1-2). Venice was the premier city in Europe during the Renaissance, a city-state, an independent republic, dominating trade between Europe and Asia. Art and architecture, as well as canal travel, are the main attractions, reflecting the massive wealth that was concentrated in the city. The buildings that line the canal were private homes, and in some cases, still are, even though many were constructed over 500 years ago.
Saint Mark’s Square is grand, flanked on one side by Saint Mark’s Basilica (www.basilicasanmarco.it/eng/index.bsm). Byzantine mosaics (photos: St. Mark’s 1-5) depict stories from the Bible as well as elements of Venice’s history. This piazza was one of the world’s most important sites for over a thousand years, not only as a center of worship, but also a seat of commercial power. Cafes on either side of the square- especially good for drinks, coffee, or desserts- host small orchestras (photo: Orchestra in St. Mark's Square). Boutique shops line the square- expensive and sophisticated, but window shopping is fun and free.
Two major museums house collections at opposite poles of the art spectrum. Works completed before the 19th century, including masterpieces by Titian, Tintoretto, and Bellini, are the focus of the Accademia Galleries (www.gallerieaccademia.org/the-museum/?lang=en). The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (www.guggenheim.org/venice) is devoted to modern art. Artists whose works appear include Picasso, Klee, Braque, Dalí, Magritte, Miró, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Giacometti, Ernst, Pollock, Rothko, and Calder. See www.venice-museum.com for advance reservations (strongly recommended), as well as information about other museums.
Although intersected by canals, the city is accessible on foot, crossing picturesque bridges (photo: bridges 1-3). Just wandering around will lead you to churches (www.churchesofvenice.co.uk/ and www.chorusvenezia.org), beautiful in a way that is a function of extended age nurtured by devoted care. Art by old masters as well as their students along with secondary level works often appear on their walls. Admission is usually free. We were especially enamored with the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (www.basilicadeifrari.it- Google will translate the page), home to paintings by Titian, Bellini, and Donatello. You do not have to be an art student to enjoy these works.
Venice is famous for gondola rides (photos: gondolas 1-4), of course. They are picturesque, but expensive, although short rides at affordable prices are available. We never heard any of the gondola drivers singing; maybe that age has passed, or maybe we were just observing the cheap (relatively) seats. The simple pleasures that grow out of walking along the canals (photos: canals 1-3) are just as enjoyable as the views that are considered important. Allow plenty of wandering around time and expect to get lost. Caution- if you start to look like you know where you are or where you are going, a bunch of Americans and Brits, and probably some Italians, will come up and ask for directions.
Where to eat. I used Michelin (www.viamichelin.com/) and Zagat (www.zagat.com/venice) to select restaurants. When professional critics as well as several thousand patrons agree on ratings, I consider the combined opinion a pretty good indication of what to expect. I found restaurant prices reasonable, considering the location. I checked restaurant websites in advance; most have menus in English and Italian as well as several other languages. Two standouts merit a personal recommendation.
Michelin considers Osteria Anice Stellate (www.osterianicestellato.com) one of the city’s best values, with additional praise for ambience. I was amazed at how Google Maps guided us turn by turn through Venice’s narrow streets and alleys, as we walked all the way across town- a projected 30 minute walk. But where she told me to turn right and indicated I was only one minute from the restaurant, I saw a blind alley with brick walls on three sides. So I called the restaurant for help. About another half hour and a wearied wife later, we arrived at a bridge that was supposed to be adjacent to the restaurant, but we still could not find the restaurant. I called again. “Look to your left,” advised the very pleasant hostess. “I see you.” From the bridge, I saw a woman waving from the window of what I now realized was a restaurant. The meal, primarily seafoods, was excellent, with easy guidance from a waitress who spoke excellent English.
We enjoyed Il Ridotto (www.ilridotto.com) enough to go twice, something we hardly ever do when travelling. This restaurant is very small, with an especially inviting level of intimacy. An original cuisine based on extended reductions of stocks and vegetables produces exquisite flavors to enhance eminently fresh ingredients. We asked waiters to select wines by the glass for us. Many very good Italian wines are not exported outside Italy, and most of the ones we were served had been produced nearby. All excellent, all reasonably priced, all well matched to the food. Dishes are delivered and explained in a synchronized style that belies the restaurant’s casual ambience. No wonder Michelin considers this the city’s most interesting restaurant.
More travel in Italy. We split this trip between Venice and Rome, taking the high speed train (www.raileurope.com) between cities. Finding schedules and prices was pretty easy. The day after I made reservations, I received an e-mail announcing that I had won the Italian lottery. I have not sent in my credit card number yet to reserve the private jet that will take me to the awards ceremony, but I am looking forward to a return to either city, however I arrange travel.