After 30 years, I returned to Venice. This time without a stroller, and instead of me chasing pigeons, I was able to watch my kids run after them in San Marco Square.
Venice, Venezia in Italian, is a remarkably charming city. There is something about the canals, the very old buildings, and the narrow "streets" that really makes you love this city. I have heard during certain seasons there is a lot of flooding, so I am glad we were there in the summer and were able to enjoy a very dry and warm Venice.
Where to Park & How to get to Venice
Getting to Venice can be a bit tricky. Thankfully we had done our homework and were more or less prepared. We knew we had to park in a garage outside of Venice and then take a water taxi. Everyone in Venice, including the locals, must use water taxis to get around. There are no cars anywhere.
We ended up parking at the Tronchetto Parking Garage. This is a huge garage with about 4000 spaces available. The rate is fairly reasonable, 21 Euros for 24 hours. It is also very conveniently located near the water bus station (Actv) as well as the "People Mover" station, which is a monorail that goes from Tronchetto to Piazzale Roma.
The ticket for the water bus for adults costs 7 euros, this is strangely regardless of the distance you are traveling. Children under 6 ride Free.
Travel Tip: The Tronchetto parking garage has vending machines that dispense maps of the city for 2 Euros. More likely than not, your hotel will gladly offer you a map for free along with suggestions of where to go and what to see.
We were guided by the person at the water bus ticket booth to take it to the Rialto Bridge stop, which was very close to our hotel.
The water buses do get very crowded, at this time of year anyways, but we were mesmerized by the views of the city as the water bus travelled towards the Rialto bridge, so we did not mind.
Thanks to the offline Google Map of Venice on the iPhone, we were able to make our way from Rialto to our hotel, Hotel Alla Fava, without any problems. The staff at this hotel are remarkable, and once we dropped everything off in our room, they gave us a map with a few suggestions.
Piazza San Marco
First up on our list was Piazza San Marco. I was actually quite surprised at how walkable Venice is. You don't HAVE to use the water buses if you have the time and energy to walk through the meandering streets, and not be discouraged when you miss a bridge connection by one street :)
The Piazza is dominated at its eastern end by the great Church of St Mark and the Campanile, or the bell tower.
"The tower is 98.6 meters (323 ft) tall, and stands alone in a corner of St Mark's Square, near the front of the basilica. It has a simple form, the bulk of which is a fluted brick square shaft, 12 metres (39 ft) wide on each side and 50 metres (160 ft) tall, above which is a loggia, housing five bells. The campanile reached its present form in 1514. The current tower was reconstructed in its present form in 1912 after the collapse of 1902."
Did you know that "each of the five bells of the campanile had a special purpose. The Renghiera (or the Maleficio) announced executions; the Mezza Terza proclaimed a session of the Senate; the Nona sounded midday; the Trottiera called the members of the Maggior Consiglio to council meetings and the Marangona, the biggest, rang to mark the beginning and ending of working day. They are tuned in the scale of A."
The architecture of St. Mark's Basilica and the Doges Palace adjacent to it are also quite remarkable. We walked around the Piazza and past lots of shops and restaurants. There area is very crowded with tourists, but that and the children (not just ours) running after pigeons just adds to the lively atmosphere.
One of the things I liked about Venice was that you can't get lost for too long, as there are always signs (sometimes even written in spray paint on the side of a building) that guide you towards Rialto or San Marco. You can just chase your wanderlust without worry.
A Masked City
Possibly because of my love for the Phantom of the Opera movie / broadway show, I have always really liked masquerade masks. Well, what better city to obsess over this interest than Venice? Apparently, "Masks have always been a main feature of the Venetian carnival. Traditionally people were allowed to wear them between the festival of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen's Day, December 26) and the start of the carnival season at midnight of Shrove Tuesday (the day preceding Ash Wednesday in February or March). As masks were also allowed on Ascension and from October 5 to Christmas, people could spend a large portion of the year in disguise."
That sounds a bit too intense, doesn't it? And maybe a little stifling... Especially in a full face mask! How did people trust the others in disguise? I wonder how safe the city was at the time. The world has certainly changed a lot. You can read more about the history of masks in venice here.
We came across a shop that offered great deals on a group of masks. Granted these are likely not made in Venice and are of lower quality, but the price was right and we are not connoisseurs of fine masks. The kids were so excited about picking out their own, and wore their masks for the remainder of the day. With so many mask shops throughout the city, you find lots of little kids walking around with masks, so they fit right in and were totally adored by the warm Italians and the fun loving tourists :)
The shop that we went into really had the best deals that we saw the entire time we were there, all four masks were cheaper than a single mask of similar appearance and quality in some of the shops we saw.
Travel Tip: Even if you don't find a shop with awesome sale / discounted prices, make sure you haggle over the price with the shop / booth keeper. Let's be honest, there is plenty of competition over where to buy a mask in Venice, and the shop keepers obviously know this and want your business. Negotiate the price down and act uninterested, I assure you they will meet you half way or maybe even 3/4 of the way.
Unfortunately for us, the restaurant recommended by the reception desk at the hotel was very closed when we arrived at it (summer vacation maybe?). We walked and just picked a nearby restaurant called Trattoria Ai Botteri. We ordered the seafood risotto, which was not bad, but was a bit bland. What I really did not like about the restaurant was the service and their prices. The waiter was definitely not nice, and actually was a bit rude.
Also in Italy, there is this ridiculous concept of a per person "table cover" charge. I have no idea if it is meant to serve as the tip, or what the actual purpose of the this charge is. We encountered this in Venice and Milan, and quite honestly we didn't pay close attention to the bill in Florence (they write the item in Italian on the bill so it is hard to see it right away if you are not familiar).
Travel Tip: If you are just browsing for restaurants and have time, window shop a little bit and ask the restaurants what the table charge is before sitting down. Some of them are unreasonably high and they don't exclude kids.
Feeding the Pigeons
On our walk back to the hotel, we got two small (1 scoop) ice creams for the kids. Well, we thought we were getting them for the kids anyways. They ended up feeding almost their entire cone to the pigeons and had the greatest time.
I have to be honest here, I have always really disliked pigeons, especially the really dirty ones I encountered for 8 years on my walk to work in New York City. But for some reason, seeing them act so silly, and cracking my kids up, I warmed up to them a little bit in Venice.
Hannah did ask for a second dessert later at night and when we said no, she tried to justify the fact that she fed her whole dessert to the pigeons. The answer was still no.
Of course no trip to Venice is complete without a Gondola ride. I remember my parents had this old movie of me riding the Gondola. I do wonder what the cost was 30 years go.
Today a Gondola ride will set you back 80 Euros for 30 minutes, if you go before 7 PM. After 7 PM, the cost goes up to 100 Euros for still 30 minutes. Yikes! Is it worth it? Absolutely. It is one of those experiences you can't really get anywhere else.
During the Gondola ride, the gondolier (the person who stands on the back of the boat and rows), gives you a brief history of some buildings as you go through the canals.
At the repeated request of our kids, we put on our masks too and became a disguised family on the canals of Venice.
The 30 minutes flew by so quickly, but it was a wonderful, fun, and relaxing experience.
Travel Tip: Be careful when you step in and out of the Gondola. We actually saw a lady fall in the water and get completely soaked, but she was fine. Also, remember that the Gondolier will likely drop you off at a completely different location than you got on. Like I said before though, Venice is very walkable. You won't be too far from where you need to be. So, don't Panic.
Overall, we loved Venice. It has so much charm and character, and is a great place to visit as a family.
Although we did not leave Venice until the next day (August 21st), in the interest of keeping all the Venice information together, I just wanted to point out that we ended up leaving the city to go back to our car with the People Mover Monorail from Piazzale Roma. Instead of taking the water bus to Tronchetto, we gingerly walked through the streets to soak up the atmosphere one more time, to Piazzle Roma. I am thankful to the girl in the ticket booth that told us to save our money, and instead of the water bus just take the monorail.
Travel Tip: A water bus ticket costs 7 Euros per person (children under 6 excluded). The Monorail (People Mover), costs 1 Euro and 30 cents per person (children under 6 excluded). Once you are in Piazzle Roma, look for the brown sign that says "People Mover Tronchetto" with a picture of cruise ship. The monorail makes two stops: one at the port for the cruise ship travelers and one at the Tronchetto parking garage.