Venice Doesn't Have to Break the Bank

Breathtaking and romantic canal scenes everywhere you look in Venice, Italy. 
"White swan of cities slumbering in thy nest . . . White phantom city, whose untrodden streets Are rivers, and whose pavements are the shifting Shadows of the palaces and strips of sky." --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Venice"

My best friend and her husband are planning a trip to Italy this summer, and I told her that they should plan Venice into their itinerary. I did extensive research before our trip, so I am going to write this blog as a way of wrapping up all of my prior research and personal experience of "one of Europe's most romantic cities." - New York Times Online

Venice, Italy - so often the setting of romantic and mysterious films; a city where famous writers, painters, and musicians flourished and found inspiration. She is a unique tapestry made up of 117 little islands connected by 409 bridges; where winding alleys suddenly dead end into the canal and every bridge is overrun with tourists fighting for that perfect picture. Once you step foot in Venice, you cannot help but try to capture every little detail in the lens of your own camera.

Every time we passed this canal, a new artist was capturing its beauty. 
What to expect in each Venetian season:

High season in Venice is spring and late summer, and Easter weekend is no exception as tourists flood the city to take in the holiday celebrations. Carnival takes place in late February or early March, and that is an exciting and busy season! We spent April 8th - 10th, 2012 in Venice, and the weather was absolutely perfect - neither cold nor hot! We packed jeans, comfy shoes, umbrellas (just in case), and light jackets. If you're planning a trip during high season, plan ahead to get a good deal on a hotel and perhaps pre-book your excursions and museum visits to avoid huge lines.

It is very hot in July and August, so if you plan on visiting then, pack accordingly. Of course there will still be a lot of tourism during these months, but not the same influx experienced during high season. The summer festival Festa Del Redentore occurs on the the third weekend in July so expect the city to be a little more booked on that weekend.

In late November through February the city occasionally floods (check out these pictures!), so pack your own waders if you plan on visiting during these months. I read that when the city floods, shop owners are notorious for selling waders and rain boots for upwards of 100 Euros to desperate tourists.

A gondola driver soaking up the afternoon rays - Venice 
Is this gondola-follow-the-leader-business romantic? 

To Gondola or Not to Gondola?

I have to say, there is something romantic and elitist about gliding down the waterways of Venice. If what they say is true, Venice may not exist in the future, and if it does indeed sink, how cool to be one of the people who actually paid the high price to enjoy the gondola experience. 

I love haggling, so I was certain that I could get a good rate on a gondola ride if I really wanted to - that is, until I started researching. I found that prices for gondola rides are standard and set officially. The city states that each 40-minute gondola ride must start at 80 Euros ($100ish), but of course each gondola operator can raise that base price as much as he likes. You can ride with up to six people and split the price evenly if you are a budget traveler with your heart set on a gondola ride.

Once we walked through the canal lined city and realized that none of the gondola operators actually sang and that all of the gondolas sort of just followed each other in a line, we decided it was not all that romantic. It seemed like more of a unique tourist trap that surely traps a lot of people. Another factor was that I was traveling with two guys, and that would just be more funny and awkward than romantic. 

Since gondolas are so very "Venice," I looked into a company that teaches you to be the gondola operator. Unfortunately Row Venice was completely booked on the weekend we visited, but it looks like an adventurous alternative to sitting in an expensive black boat for 40 minutes. 

If you want to get the Venice experience without the huge gondola price, consider taking a Traghetto across the Grand Canal for less than 3 Euros.

It's difficult not to snap a photo of every little canal!

Since there are 409 bridges in Venice, it is easy to get lost and turned around. A lot of the little streets dead end into water, but that is part of the charm of the city. We had an ipad and iphone with GPS capability, but we still got lost. Cruise ships daily dump thousands of tourists into the city and it is easy to spot them because they are frantically running around trying to see as much as possible in the allotted time. Spend a couple days in Venice so that getting lost seems more like an adventure than a point of stress. 

 Getting lost in Venice is part of Her charm. 
A great little hole-in-the-wall pizza place - Antico Forno. 
Eating in Venice

Food is very expensive in Venice, but if you plan and research, you don't have to break the bank on a $50 pizza for one. Of course the restaurant with the best view will cost you the most. Read every menu (especially the back page) before you sit down and commit your time and money. Avoid places where employees beg you to come in and enjoy "the only Italian food in Venice." If a place is really good, they won't have to employ someone to incentivize you to dine there. Most places in Venice do charge a 1-2 Euro service charge, and that's just hard to get around, but you can avoid such things as napkin charges, glassware charges, or double charge for sitting outside by thoroughly reading menus, asking lots of questions and researching. 

Note that it is normal to pay 6-12 Euros to sit outside and enjoy a cappuccino in St. Mark's Square. You will pay less if you take your coffee to go rather than SIT to enjoy it. If you want to watch the crazy tourists feeding flocks of dirty pigeons, then perhaps 12 Euros is worth it for an Italian coffee. Check out Trip Advisor reviews before choosing a fancy restaurant simply for the view. 

These tourists are probably paying a pretty penny to sit by the Grand Canal - Venice
Where we ate in Venice:

(We found great and reasonably places around the San Polo Quarter and Dorsoduro district.) 

Antico Forno (Sestiere San Polo, 970, 30125) - Go here for the best reviewed pizza on Trip Advisor. This was the first place we stopped for food, and as you can see from the pictures, it is nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall with standing room only. The pizza-maker-man described the pizzas and we each ordered a thick slice for less than 3 Euros. When we were about done with our slices, the pizza-maker-man offered us four free slices of fresh peperoni pizza he had just pulled out of the oven. Needless to say, we had a great first impression of Venice. Don't expect anything fancy, but do expect a great slice of pizza and a warm Venetian welcome. 

Chris and Reece ready for a slice of pizza at Antico Forno - Venice
Lebanese food at Frary's - Venice
Charming local Da Mamo restaurant - Venice
Da Mamo (Calle dei Stagner 5251, 30124) - A great local restaurant in a central location but hidden along a mysterious alley. This place is always hopping and you absolutely need a reservation (info@damamo.it) to get in as there are only 10-12 tables. The seafood pizza is well priced and it is huge. I ordered the seafood pasta and it was fairly small, but it tasted wonderful. The house wine (pictured above) is very nice and at 16 Euros a bottle you can justify buying a few bottles for dinner. We did not notice any surprise charges on our bill at Da Mamo. I would suggest this place if you're a money conscious traveler or just hate the idea of paying 50 -100 Euro per person for an Italian meal. 

You have to fight the crowd to get a good view of the Grand Canal from Rialto Bridge. 
Looks like Reece is kicking Chris out of the picture! 
One day we will put all of our jumping shots in a memory album - Venice. 
Chris and Reece at the awesome wine "bar" called Bacareto De Lele in Venice
One of the highlights of our Venice trip was stumbling upon this small, local wine bar called Bacareto De Lele (Campo Dei Tolentini, Santa Croce 183). Bacareto De Lela is a fabulous bar that is unassuming enough to be in an amazing location but still retain its local flair. I put this small bar on my "must try" list, but we sort of just stumbled upon it while exploring the winding streets of Venice. From the outside, it looks like a "dive-bar" and maybe it is Venice's version of one, but you cannot deny that this is a local gathering spot. We heard nothing but Italian being spoken, so for a moment I forget that I was in one of the most touristy cities in Italy. 

Walk into this small bar, order shadows (small glasses) of wine and enjoy sipping by the quiet canal outside. The best part is that the wine is poured out of ancient glass bottles that suggest the wine is made close by, and each small glass costs half a Euro! 

On my way inside to order round two, I was approached by a 70+ year old Italian man. He waved his hands at me, smiled and loudly said something in Italian. Of course I had no idea what he tried to tell me, but a young girl translated: "he asked how old you are." "Well, I am 28," I awkwardly answered. She translated his answer to me, "Ohhh, he thought you looked about 17, and he wants to buy you a drink." I just had to laugh and accept his kind gesture. I look young, and I used to hate it when people pointed it out; now I am sort of proud of the fact. He handed me my .50 cent glass of wine, we clinked glasses, I said thank you and returned to the boys with four small glasses rather than three. 

There is so much to love about Italy and I was so happy to find this little place. I will absolutely go back next time I visit Venice!

Italy is known for wine, so when you're in Venice, stick to local wines. You won't be disappointed!

Famous carnival masks can be found just about everywhere in Venice. 
Santa Maria Della Salute - Venice
You cannot miss the lovely domed cathedral Santa Maria Della Salute. It is free to enter, but beware of the beggar woman who tries to demand money for entrance. We saw several tourists, who did not see the "free entrance" sign, blindly pay whatever the old woman demanded.

It is as good as it looks!
Lido Island about 15 minutes south of Venice. 
On Saturday afternoon, we took a 15 minute Vaporetto ride to the Island of Lido. This place gets supper busy in the hot months of July and August, but while we were there we felt strangely isolated on an island so close to Venice. It is a lot more reasonable to book a hotel on Lido and take a Vaporetto back and forth to Venice. We chose to stay in the middle of Venice, but Lido would be a quieter and cheaper way to see the city.

The view of Venice from the Island of Lido
I tried the famous Venetian spritzer drink, and I hated it. 
Venice at night - it will mystify and mesmerize you!
A great wine bar called Un Mondo Di Vino - Venice
Easter Mass at St. Mark's - go to Mass to avoid the miserably long lines of tourists - Venice
I hope you enjoyed our pictures and suggestions! Venice is so unique that no other city can compare to Her beauty and mystery. If you get a chance, you really should make a trip to see Venice!