When I think of Venice in spring time, I picture gondolas cruising the canals, people strolling in the piazzas, and colorful flowers overflowing from every window box. However, this perfect image was shattered five minutes before we pulled into the Venice train station. I happened to look up from the guide book I was reading and saw the one and only thing that could ruin the beauty of Venice: SNOW. When you live in Chicago and travel for spring break, the last thing you want to see are those little white flakes. They are great if you are skiing, not so great if you’re in Italy, on spring break, and you have not a single stitch of winter clothing packed in your bags. It gets better though, so keep reading…
Arriving in Venice by train
I am embarrassed to admit this, but the first time I went to Venice fifteen years ago, I thought I would get off the train, walk a few steps, and fall in a canal. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Shockingly, they have these amazing things called sidewalks! The train station is known as Santa Lucia. It is not very big, which makes is easy to navigate. As you walk out the front doors, you are looking right at the Grand Canal. Walk towards the water, and you will see the vaporetto docks. A vaporetto is essentially a Venetian water taxi. You can buy tickets at the dock for the vaporetto line heading towards your hotel. Tickets can also be purchased at tobacco shops and newspaper stalls. You must time stamp you ticket in the yellow box before you board the boat. Your hotel should provide you with directions telling you which vaporetto to ride, where to get off, and how far you will have to wheel your luggage over the cobblestones in order to reach your final destination.
Where we stayed
Al Teatro Bed and Breakfast, San Marco 2554
I had a few requirements when I was booking a room in Venice. It had to be centrally located, affordable (a tall order in Venice), and have a view of a canal. Luckily, I found all three at Al Teatro. We booked adjoining rooms for our family of five and before our arrival, our hostess, Eleanora, was extremely helpful in answering all of my questions. We were pleasantly surprised with the large, clean rooms, both with views over the canals. My sons thoroughly enjoyed listening to the gondoliers singing throughout the day and waving to the tourists and they passed below. The breakfast Eleanora prepared was spectacular, she gave us wonderful directions to all the sights, and we were located less than ten minutes walking from St. Mark’s Square. The bed and breakfast was Eleanora’s family home, and we felt like we experienced true Venetian hospitality while staying there.
Acqua alta does occur frequently
I may have not packed any snow gear for our trip to Venice, but I was prepared for the acqua alta (high tide). Acqua alta occurs when water from the Venetian Lagoon flows into the square surrounding Saint Mark’s Basilica and other low lying areas in Venice. To cope with this, the Venetians have temporary elevated sidewalks they can erect for people to stay out of the water. The catch is, the walkways are not built to go everywhere. Go figure. I was feeling pretty proud of myself sporting my wellies and carrying my three kiddos through the water, while hubby had to slosh through it in his tennis shoes. Supposedly, it only happens in the autumn and winter, but I was there in the spring, and it happened to me. Do what you will with this tidbit of information.
Keep your children from getting lost (and falling in canals)
Probably the best money I ever spent was buying identification necklaces for my kids prior to this trip. I bought the kind that have the clear see through pocket for inserting business cards or picture IDs. I made sure they had them on every morning before we left the hotel. Each lanyard had a photo ID from school with our cell phone information written on the reverse. It also included the business card of the hotel where we were staying. Let’s just say, while searching for a place to eat one day, we turned into a small alleyway, and everyone made the turn but our six year old. It was a good two minutes before we realized he was not with us. I had thirty seconds of panic before I spotted his bright green raincoat on a bridge up ahead. I have never felt such relief in my life! To this day, we always have a system in place for lost kids, whether it be a cell phone number or a meeting place. You never know when one might get distracted and wander away from the group.
The canals can be tempting for children of all ages. We explained the dangers of the canals ahead of time to our kids and kept a close eye on them at all times. (Except when one got away).
The Doge’s Palace (also known as the Palazzo Ducale) is a 14th century architectural masterpiece, located adjacent to St. Mark’s Basilica. The opulent palace, castle, and prison complex (the famous Bridge of Sighs is located here) is fascinating for adults and children alike. Everyone will tell you to book in advance for the “Secret Itineraries Tour”. This tour allows you to see the restricted areas of the palace not available on the regular ticket. It includes a tour guide, all for a whopping 4€ more than the standard entry fee. We foolishly thought we could book a couple of days in advance, and sadly found out that these tours sell out months in advance. Do yourself a favor, reserve your ticket at http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it before you leave. If by chance, you don’t heed my advice and decide to go it on your own, know that you will still enjoy the tour. Our kids enjoyed using the audio guide that provided detailed narratives in multiple languages of each room, artifact, and hallway, and the history of the lavish palace, courtyard, and prison. This easily took us two hours and was well worth the money we spent.
Saint Mark’s Basilica
St. Mark’s Basilica and the surrounding square are probably what most people think of when they think of Venice. Overlooking the Grand Canal, it is awe-inspiring, with its domes, columns, and statues, and that is only from the outside. We queued in line on the acqua alta platforms and waited for approximately 15 minutes for our opportunity to see the opulence inside the cathedral. The reason for the wait is the requirement that all bags be searched, but this seemed to go quite quickly. While they were waiting, our kids lamented about visiting yet another church, but once inside, that was all forgotten. The marble statues, colorful mosaics, and jeweled altarpieces will entertain any child (or adult) with a short attention span. If you want to see the treasury or museum, you can for a fee (we opted not to). Entrance to the main basilica is free.
Feeding the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square
You will see plenty of pigeons circling the square, looking for food, and the tourists willing to feed them. Be on the look-out for a group of men who appear to be working together trying to sell you food for the pigeons. Maybe they are honestly trying to make a living, but while I took photos of the kiddos, my husband’s job was to keep an eye on my bag and the guys offering up the pigeon food. You don’t need to buy food, my kids simply stood with their arms out, palms facing upward, and then the pigeons started coming. One after another, until it was like a bad scene out of the movie “The Birds”. Each kid had at least five birds atop their arms and head, which made for a memorable experience and incredible pictures.
Lunch on Calle Delle Rasse
Unfortunately, we did not find very many good restaurants in Venice, but we did spend quite a bit of money eating out. Restaurants in Venice charge a “coperto” or cover charge for the privilege of dining in their establishment. It’s not just a group charge either, sometimes it’s per person. So for a family of five, it could be upwards of 15€! We argued the charge at several places because it was not spelled out for us at the door or on the menu, so feel free to challenge it if you feel it is ridiculous (which it is). I truly think it is something they made up for tourists only. Maybe someone from Venice can confirm this. Anyhow, one restaurant we did enjoy was Birreria Forst, Calle delle Rasse 4540. Located a couple of blocks away from St. Mark’s square, this place is great to grab a reasonably priced sandwich and drinks for lunch. There are a bunch of sandwich shops lining this street, so it’s hard to choose just one, but we found this one to be quite popular with locals and tourists alike. When you enter, order your food at the counter (you select your panino or salad by pointing to it), then, if you are lucky enough to find a seat, grab it, otherwise you will be eating your lunch outside. The staff is prompt and efficient and they will bring your food to you as soon as it is ready. We found this place to be a great option for a quick, reasonably priced meal with some local flavor.
Rialto Bridge and Market
Once we purchased scarves, hats, and mittens for everyone, we were able to explore more than a ten minute radius from our hotel. The Rialto Bridge is probably the most famous bridge in the Venice with its sloped ramps that meet in the middle, spanning the width of the Grand Canal. At any time of day it was jam packed with tourists seeking the perfect photo of the bridge. There are shops lining both sides of the bridge and a bit further on you will come to the Rialto Market with its fish, fruit, and vegetables. If you are going for the market, be sure to go earlier in the day, as we went later in the afternoon and many vendors were already closing shop.