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Schloss Schwetzingen

Schloss Schwetzingen

The summer palace of the Prince Elector Palatinate in Schwetzingen is beautiful, standing at the end of a tree-lined avenue in the small town of the same name. The buildings are only a gateway, though, to the truly magical gardens that lie beyond the gates. Impressively, the palace has retained its extensive gardens, lawns, and various outbuildings including a mosque. 

Water features at Schlossgarten Schwetzingen

History

The Prince Electors in Germany were powerful men who, as a group, chose the Holy Roman Emperor, and ruled over parts of the Empire themselves. When the Prince Elector Charles III Philip moved the court from Heidelberg to Mannheim around 1700, he started building work on a summer residence in Schwetzingen, as well as the main palace in Mannheim. He was particularly fond of music, and assembled an unusually large and skilled court orchestra. Mozart visited several times to perform at the summer palace, and definitely walked in the gardens.

The gardens are particularly interesting as they span two distinct styles prevalent in the 18th century. The highly structured and manicured French style dominates the initial views from the palace, but as you move further away from the central allé, you are presented with winding paths, woods, and streams. The gentler, more natural English style was taking over around the middle of the century, but instead of making over the entire garden, the court architect Nicolas de Pigage just combined the two. 

Beautiful tree tunnel in Schlossgarten Schwetzingen
Beautiful tree tunnel in Schlossgarten Schwetzingen

When to visit Schloss Schwetzingen

The summer is obviously a beautiful time to stroll in the gardens – everything is in bloom, and on a Saturday you will see many brides and wedding parties of all types having their photos taken. On hot days, escape the central area into the trees and many curling paths. There are endless pieces of statuary among the hedges and fountains. However, there are a few other times of year that are worth a visit as well. 

In the autumn, the changing leaves are spectacular all over the garden, but particularly beyond the Turkish garden, where the paths and a little river curls around a large garden folly that resembles a very small castle ruin. 

In the winter, after a snow fall, the gardens turn into Narnia. Many of the larger plants are tied up artfully with burlap and after a dusting of snow everything is transformed into some kind of sculptural snow topiary. 

Pink cherry blossoms at Schlossgarten Schwetzingen
Pink cherry blossoms at Schlossgarten Schwetzingen

Finally, possibly my favourite time to visit is in spring when the cherry blossoms come out. Just before you reach the Turkish garden is a large walled garden filled with cherry trees, and planted with bulbs. In spring the watery sunlight is trapped in this space, and it’s almost like a taste of summer. The cherry blossoms are a joy to witness, and we try to bring a picnic to enjoy on the grass. You can check their website for details on the progress of the cherry blossoms, they usually have a Blossom Barometer! The last half of March or early April is a good bet, however. 

Can you imagine trimming these hedges?

What to do at Schloss Schwetzingen

It is possible to see a few of the rooms inside the palace building, however like most German castles, you can only visit with a guided tour. English tours happen at the weekends at 2:15pm, though you can join the German tours that happen most days and read from a translated sheet. The tour lasts about an hour, and it’s interesting, but I would say you could skip it without missing too much. The real draw of this site is the gardens. I have yet to do a garden tour, but they do offer them once a week, in German. 

Tour options at a glance:

English tour of the palace rooms (1 hour): Saturday and Sundays at 2:15pm

German tour of the palace rooms (1 hour): Spring (March 25th – May 2nd) Monday – Friday, hourly from 11am – 4pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, hourly from 10:30am – 5pm

Summer (May 3rd – September 27th) Monday – Friday, hourly from 11am – 4pm, except Thursdays when tours run hourly until 7pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, hourly from 10:30am – 5pm

Autumn (September 28th – October 27th) Monday – Friday, hourly from 11am – 4pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, hourly from 10:30am – 5pm

Winter (October 28th – March 23rd) Fridays at 2pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays 11am, 1:30pm & 3pm

German tour of the palace and garden: Spring, Summer & Autumn, Monday – Friday, 2pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, 12 noon, 2pm & 4pm

German tour of the garden: Spring, Summer & Autumn, Saturday, 3pm

The entrance price varies accordingly to which tour you’d like to take. I know, it gets a bit confusing. Just entrance to the garden, with no tour, is 6€ for adults and 3€ for children, with a family price of 15€ (applies to two related adults and children). The standard English tour included with your entry price will make it 10€ for adults and 5€ for children, with a family price of 25€. If you are planning to visit Heidelberg as well, do think about getting the Baden-Württemberg Schlosscard, as you will save if you visit more than one site. 

It’s worth noting that if you have a particularly wiggly child, the tour might be a challenge. I saw plenty of children on the tours however, so they are not discouraged by any means. As usual, you know your child best. However, there really isn’t much in the way of interesting things – no armour or weapons, no clothing displays or toys. 

Of course, if you are a larger group, you can arrange a tour yourself, in whichever language you prefer. I have arranged one before, and the staff are very helpful and quick to respond. 

The best approach is to wander where your heart takes you really. The gardens are designed to give you the sense they go on forever, and I love just wandering and taking in all the little scenes as they appear. It is endlessly beautiful to photograph in any season, so make sure all your batteries are charged. Wear comfortable shoes, because you will be walking and walking. My favourite places are the main allé and the Turkish garden, but ask me after my next visit and I will have changed my mind!

Garden restaurant at Schloss Schwetzingen

Where to eat near Schloss Schwetzingen

The gardens have a small restaurant at the end of the wind to your right as you enter the gardens, but I have never visited. The tables outside look lovely, but I always seem to come upon it as I am leaving. There is also a very small cafe directly across from the ticket office before you enter the gardens properly. However, for a better deal, you will want to eat before you enter. All along the avenue approaching the palace are restaurants that put out their tables, there is always room and it’s a beautiful spot to sit. On a warm summer’s day, visitors often remark that it feels more like Italy than Germany. If you’re looking for a sweet treat and a coffee, try Bäckerei Utz just past the bank on Carl-Theodor-Straße (that main road running up to the palace). If you’re lucky, you can buy some chocolate shaped like asparagus. 

Schwetzingen is the centre of Spargel (white asparagus) growing in this region, and you’ll see many references to it around the town. If you happen to visit in late spring or early summer, you will see Spargel on every menu, or even catch the Spargelfest. We witnessed the historic annual foot race involving wheelbarrows, aprons, gloves, hay bales, and shots of Schnapps. 

Endless beautiful views, really.

How to get to Schloss Schwetzingen

It’s very easy to reach Schwetzingen from Frankfurt, it’s one train to Mannheim and then a half hour bus to Schwetzingen that drops you straight in front of the palace. You can book your ticket right here, in English. 




If you’re travelling within Baden-Württemberg, like from Heidelberg, or going on to Stuttgart, you can buy a Baden-Württemberg ticket at the train station that will also get you a 10% discount on your entrance ticket to the Schloss Schwetzingen. If you’re travelling in a group, these tickets are often much cheaper. You can buy one right here: 




PS – Need help with packing for Germany? I’ve got you covered for packing for your Germany trip in spring or summer.

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Getting from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

Getting from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

Heidelberg is a lovely day trip from Frankfurt. In one day you can easily visit the Heidelberg castle, have a leisurely lunch on the pedestrianized main street, visit the excellent museum, and maybe even have a quick trip on the river Neckar before heading back to Frankfurt. I’m biased because I live here, but I would definitely suggest staying over for the night and exploring our little city a bit more – but it’s definitely possible to do Heidelberg in a day trip from Frankfurt. 

You have four options:

Tours from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

If you’d rather not plan all the nitty gritty yourself, there are several options for coach tours leaving from Frankfurt (check availbility here). The benefits of taking one of these:

  • Air-conditioned coach (this is important in the summer when the temperatures here hit a humid 30º+ (86ºF)
  • Tours will take you straight up to the castle
  • Guided walk through the Heidelberg Old Town
  • You don’t have to research or plan
  • It’s an easy way to slot in a trip to Heidelberg on your holiday

The downsides are they can be more expensive than doing a trip yourself, and if you want to see something else, you’re stuck with your group. However, I completely understand getting a bit overwhelmed with vacation planning details! These tours are generally adult-orientated, but older kids should be fine. If you’re travelling with younger school-age kids or toddlers, it’s best to stick to train or car travel.

Candy stalls are a regular feature at German Christmas Markets
Visiting the Heidelberg Christmas Market

Train from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

This trip is very easy, as there’s a direct train that runs from the main train station in Frankfurt to the main station in Heidelberg. It takes just under an hour, and the trains are pleasant and clean. It’s about 80€ return for two adults and two children for this trip. You can book it right here in English:


A cheaper way to book this trip is to buy a Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket, this is a special saver price for regional trains only (IC and ICE trains are not included) – for two adults it is 52€, with all children travelling for free. However, this route will take an extra half an hour, and you will have to change trains midway. I suggest buying this ticket online, and then confirming your route with the information desk at the Frankfurt main station. 

Upon arriving in Heidelberg, don’t panic! The main Heidelberg train station is a bit grim, as are the surrounding streets. Head out of the station with the herd of people from your train to the tram and bus stops. There you will need to buy another ticket for local Heidelberg travel from a machine at the stop, or you can buy a ticket from the bus driver. You are going to take a number 32 bus to Universitätplatz. On this journey, the bus pulls into a big plaza called Bismarckplatz in front of the Galeria Kaufhof department store, where lots of people get off and on, but you will be staying on. The bus then drives along the river Neckar for awhile, and then turns into some very narrow streets. The buildings start getting older and then you get off at the last stop, Universitätplatz. You are now in Heidelberg’s Old Town! When facing the river, you want to walk left to reach the main Marktplatz and the castle.

Tip: my GPS-enabled audio tour begins at the Marktplatz. 

Take a side trip to see the Schwetzingen Palace gardens

Taking an airport shuttle from Frankfurt Airport (FRA) to Heidelberg

From Frankfurt Airport you can catch an airport shuttle straight to central Heidelberg, complete with car seats should you need it. It’s a large minibus with posh leather seats, seat belts, and air conditioning. You can book your Frankfurt to Heidelberg airport shuttle online here. The plus side of this service is there is no transferring (the train route requires a change at Mannheim), and if you’re traveling with kids, this is a bit easier. If you book it last minute it’s about the same price as the train, and if you book it 4-6 weeks in advance it’s much cheaper – starting from 12€ one way.

 

Renting a car and driving from Frankfurt to Heidelberg

This is an easy, if not terribly scenic, drive. I’d suggest going with Hertz to rent your car, if for no other reason than there are several places in both Frankfurt proper and the airport to return your car. 

I suggest you set your GPS for Sofienstraße 7, 69115 Heidelberg. This will bring you into the city, and you will see an entrance to the Darmstädter Hof Parkhaus on your left (an underground parking garage). The rates are fairly reasonable, and while there are parking options closer into the Old Town, the driving gets more intense as you navigate very narrow, aggressively cobbled streets. If you’re comfortable with this, feel free to follow the posted signs for the parking in the Altstadt. When you come out of the Darmstädter Hof parking, you will be at the beginning of the Hauptstraße, or main street, which is pedestrianized all the way up to the square below the castle. It’s a nice walk, with cafes and restaurants all the way along. The plus side of having a car, as it will allow you to take a detour to nearby towns like Schwetzingen to see the summer palace and gardens, or Speyer to see the cathedral that is the burial place of so many Holy Roman Emperors. 

Enjoy your trip to Heidelberg!

PS – Need help with packing for Germany? I’ve got you covered for packing for your Germany trip in spring or summer.

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Stay in a castle in the Netherlands? Yes please!

Stay in a castle in the Netherlands? Yes please!

There is something incredible about driving up to a castle, and knowing you will be staying there that night. For someone as castle-obsessed as I am, it gives me goosebumps. What if I told you that I found a castle you can stay in for 130€ a night for a family of four. Breakfast included. That’s the total, not per person. And it’s a 40-minute train journey from Amsterdam.

I know. I know!

You can get a good sense of the castle and grounds from this drone video my husband shot while we were there.

On our last visit to the Netherlands, we bounced around a lot, staying in a few hotels, and a couple nights in the StayOkay Heemskerk hostel – which is in the Assumburg Castle. There are pros and cons to staying in a hostel, and I’ll go through those too.

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

The impressive Assumburg Castle and moat in Heemskerk, the Netherlands.
The impressive Assumburg Castle and moat in Heemskerk, the Netherlands.

A bit of history

The Assumburg Castle was built in the 15th century as a showpiece for the van Velsen family. At this point, castles were not necessary for defensive purposes, so this one is more on the fanciful fairy tale end of the castle spectrum, compared to the squat protection-from-cannons kind of buildings. Like most castles, it has been through several families and, consequently, several rounds of renovations. 

One of the great things about its current function as a hostel, is none of the furnishings or decorations are too fragile. The tables in the pub and restaurant rooms are big functional wood ones, and there’s just enough suits of armour and decorative swords around to make you feel like you’re in a castle. Which you are, for real. 

The gorgeous interiors of the Heemskerk hostel in the Netherlands.
The gorgeous interiors of the Heemskerk hostel in the Netherlands.

What you should expect staying in a hostel

Now, a hostel is not a hotel, and there are important differences. The rooms are barebones, in a sleepaway camp for kids type of barebones. The beds are all single indestructible bunkbeds, and the bathroom is very no-nonsense. There are cubbyholes for your belongings. You pick up your sheets and towels from a giant wooden wardrobe when you check in, and dump them in a giant wooden chest when checking out. No one cleans your room when you’re out. To a certain extent, I don’t mind this for a short stay because while it’s not cushy, there is literally nothing for rambunctious children to break. All the corners have been rounded off already. 

Was it noisy?

Well… I will be totally honest with you here and say yes. But not with partying 22-year-olds getting drunk. We had the misfortune of staying in the room below two different groups of traveling schoolchildren, so we had rooms full of 12-year-old boys above us. Was it loud? Oh yes. It ended around midnight though, and because I’m also a parent of an eight year old it didn’t really wind me up all that much. I was prepared for noise. If you have very small children, or a baby, this may not be the place for you. School-aged children and older will be fine, and having the run of a castle at night makes up for a lot. 

We hung out here with our wine (and Fanta) by ourselves for an hour or so one evening. How cool is that?
We hung out here with our wine (and Fanta) by ourselves for an hour or so one evening. How cool is that?

Dungeon, winding staircases, and moats

With all that said, it was pretty incredible to wander around the castle. The breakfast room has windows that look out across the moat to the formal gardens. So many of the rooms are open to hang out in on the ground floor, it makes it easy to have a bit of an adventure on a rainy morning too. There’s a tiny winding stone staircase in the corner of the bar that is terrifying, but quite fun to explore. As we were standing outside filming the drone footage for this post, a man came over for a chat, and he told us to ask the staff about the dungeon! When we did, they laughed and said to check out the fourth floor above our room. After dinner we climbed the stone staircase and on the fourth floor, there it was… a room under the eaves with a peephole in the heavy wooden door. There was a skeleton chained up in there! Hilariously no one had mentioned this beforehand. 

The prison door!
The prison door!

View from the breakfast room at Heemskerk StayOkay
View from the breakfast room at Heemskerk StayOkay

Eating at the castle

Breakfast featured the usual European spread of several kinds of bread, buns, butter and jam, boiled eggs, sliced cured meats, fruit, muesli, and yoghurt. There were welcome Dutch additions of excellent chocolate sprinkles and the squigy Suikerbrood (sugar bread), which my son was thoroughly in love with (of course). Everything, including the coffee machine, was serve yourself, and you were expected to scrape your plates at the end and stack them in the trays in the kitchen hatch. We chose to eat dinner at the hostel one night for 20€ for the grown-ups and half that for our son, and it was fine–an Italian buffet including two kinds of pasta and two kinds of sauce, meatballs, several salads, bread, soup, and tiramisu for dessert. We ordered wine from the bar in the next room, and brought it in to have with our dinner. After dinner, we spent the evening giggling and exploring the castle after dark. There are vending machines on the main floor if you’re desperate for a late-night snack.

StayOkay Heemskerk in the early spring
StayOkay Heemskerk in the early spring

Heemskerk

The hostel is located in the small town of Heemskerk, which is nice enough but not particularly interesting itself. There are a few restaurants and some shops for stocking up on snacks. It’s worth noting you’re not supposed to keep food in your room in the hostel. The castle itself is surrounded by formal gardens, which are managed separately from the hostel, so if you want to explore them, keep in mind they are open from 10am to 6pm, and in the summer until 9pm on Fridays. 

My son looking out to sea at National Park Zuid-Kennemerland
My son looking out to sea at National Park Zuid-Kennemerland

The dunes and beaches

Heemskerk is not far from the Nordhollands Duinreservaat (North Holland Dune Reserve). It’s one of the largest nature reserves in the Netherlands, and besides protecting many different plant and animal species, it’s also where drinking water for many of the surrounding regions comes from. To access the area, you need to purchase a ‘Dune Card’ which helps to fund the non-profit that takes care of this natural resource. It only costs 1.50€ for the day, or 5.50€ for a week. You can buy it online here ahead of time, or from the green vending machines in the park. To get to the beach in the reserve, you can take a train to Castricum, and then a bus straight down to Castricum aan Zee, which is next to the beach, about 35 minutes one way. 

We were heading south after leaving Heemskerk, so we visited the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland. We had lunch at Parnassia aan Zee, though the kitchen seemed a bit overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people the sunny day brought in, and we had to wait awhile for our food. It’s nicer than your average beachside concession though, this is a proper restaurant with soups, salads, burgers, cake, and coffee. There’s a lovely Greek-inspired terrace, though most of us who tried it first came in after the wind picked up. Judging by the parking and road infrastructure into this area of the park, it looks like it gets very very busy in the summer months, so if you’re here during high season be prepared. To get to this park from Heemskerk, you take a train to Haarlem and then a bus, followed by a 25-minute walk. It’s probably best to approach it by car if possible. 

Front door of StayOkay Heemskerk. Don't you want to be staying here?!
Front door of StayOkay Heemskerk. Don’t you want to be staying here?!

Getting to the castle hostel in Heemskerk

The hostel is a 25-minute walk from the main train station, which I’m sure you’d rather not do with luggage. Unfortunately the local bus doesn’t come very close to the castle, so you’re best bet would be to take a taxi once you arrive in Heemskerk station. If you’re driving, the parking lot is a bit of a walk from the castle, as it is surrounded by public gardens –– you won’t be able to drive up to the front door, even to unload. 

Getting to Amsterdam from Heemskerk

After the 25-minute walk to the train station in Heemskerk, there is a direct train to Amsterdam Centraal that takes about 35 minutes. There’s no need to book these kinds of regional trains in advance, the machines at the stations can be switched to English easily.  

Final thoughts

The StayOkay Heemskerk is an incredible deal for the price, but there are reasons why it is this cheap. We agreed after leaving that it was worth staying there, but one night is probably enough. Make the most of your time there and stay in for dinner so you can explore the gardens in the afternoon and the castle itself in the evening. It was fun to stay in a castle and not feel like we had to be careful of everything, or keep the noise down. If you’re traveling with a large group, this could be a great way to have a night in a real castle without breaking your budget entirely. 

Tell me what your favourite castle hotels are! You know I’ll add it to my spreadsheet…!

StayOkay Heemskerk hostel
Tolweg 9, 1967 NG Heemskerk, Netherlands +31 251 232 288

Rates range from 130€ – 150€ a night for a private room that sleeps 4, breakfast included, during high season. Triple rooms are 110€-127€. The private rooms book up fast, so book as early as possible.

 

PS – We had a great day in Amsterdam, but there were a couple of things we could have skipped

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Camping near Venice: Union Lido Review

Camping near Venice: Union Lido Review

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

When you’re thinking about visiting Italy, camping is probably not the top of your accommodation wishlist. But this is not camping in the North American sense of the word. We spent a week camping near Venice, and had air conditioning, a kitchen, and real beds. For a fraction of what it would have cost to stay in the city itself and it doesn’t involve a tent. Welcome to the concept of European camping villages. 

The view from our little mobile home at Union Lido.
The view from our little mobile home at Union Lido.

How can I camp without a tent?

Throughout France, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Germany, there are these big camping resorts that offer various ways to ‘camp’ without the bare-ground sleeping, wet-tent-collapsing fun we associate with camping in North America. You can opt for a tent, but it will be a big safari-style tent with camp beds, and a camp stove. And everything is set up when you arrive. Including pillows and blankets!

That’s what makes this a viable option for families traveling from North America. And you really should consider it, because they are often much cheaper than staying in a hotel, or even an Airbnb, with the added bonus of amenities in the campgrounds themselves, and lots of space (and tolerance) for kids to play.

Waterslides at Union Lido
Waterslides at Union Lido

Union Lido is a five-star camping village in northern Italy, not far from Venice. We stayed in a three-bedroom mobile home, with air conditioning, a kitchen, dining table, two bathrooms, and a balcony built on the front with a drying rack and table and chairs. There was even a gas BBQ out front ready to use. I packed nothing that was camping specific. We went in the shoulder season of late April/early May, but paid 380€ for a five-night stay. This is not unusual if you know your dates and can book early. 

The interior of our Union Lido mobile home was very modern
The interior of our Union Lido mobile home was very modern

Union Lido itself

Union Lido is the camping resort, and you can either book through them directly, or through a tour operator like Eurocamp.

On site, there are two grocery stores, over ten restaurants, a pharmacy, and several clothing stores, a shoe store, a photo shop, and an everything-you-could-need-while-camping store. I assumed the prices on site would be 40% higher than everywhere else, but I was pleasantly surprised to find they weren’t. We did a food shopping trip both on site and at a grocery store in the next town over, and it was only about 10% less, if that. 

The main plaza at Union Lido camping village
The main plaza at Union Lido camping village

The pretty outdoor patio at one of the many restaurants.
The pretty outdoor patio at one of the many restaurants.

The real draw for families, though, are the kid-orientated activities. I thought my son’s mind was going to explode, there was so much to do. He was vibrating as we drove through the site when he saw the fenced park full of bouncy castles and a giant inflatable slide, and that was after we passed the adventure mini-golf, small-scale water flume ride, and the arcade. I’m not even mentioning the two waterparks, both with kid pools centred around a big playground structure in the water, and the collection of waterslides at the biggest one. There’s even a playground on the ocean beach that faces onto the Adriatic. There’s faced playground area as well, with more traditional playground structures, some outdoor pingpong tables, and a zipline. Like a cruise ship, there is a kids club, though we didn’t use it, so I can’t speak to how that works. 

My son scooting along the roads inside Union Lido camping village
My son scooting along the roads inside Union Lido camping village

Adventure mini golf at Union Lido
Adventure mini golf at Union Lido

Inside the camping village, it’s all very pedestrian friendly, and in fact cars are not allowed during quiet time in the afternoons. There’s even a system of minitrains that will take you from one end of the place to the other. You may laugh, but from our little mobile home to the main street of the village it was a 12-minute walk. After a long day of swimming, bouncing, and running, it’s a welcome break. 

As we went during the shoulder season, a few things were not open. There’s horseback riding and archery across the road in the nearby sports complex, a five-minute walk outside the camping village – but it wasn’t open yet. Half of the big pool complex was shut, and only three of the five waterslides were open. We barely noticed, as there was still so much to do.

Looking for another beach holiday idea? Check out Are We There Yet Kids

Lazy river at one of the pool complexes at Union Lido
Lazy river at one of the pool complexes at Union Lido

Adult sight-seeing one day, waterparks and arcades the next

This is what made what could have been a very overwhelming trip to Venice doable for us. Because we were staying in such a mellow, easy, kid-friendly place with lots of space, when we did go into busy Venice, we all had much more patience. We chose to spend two days in Venice doing walking tours and adult things, and alternated with days all about the waterparks and beach at Union Lido. It worked so well, we all came away feeling satisfied and happy. Not only that, we were able to spend more time there than we could have at a hotel. It helped that he began and ended most days playing football/soccer with the Polish kid next door in a kind of German/English hybrid. That kind of thing is priceless. 

Can you really do Eurocamp without a car?

Well, this depends massively on which site you choose. On the stuff you need front, yes definitely. The kitchen is fully stocked with utensils, plates, and cooking pots. You can request sheets and towels to be provided for a small charge, and most other bits you can pick up at the shop on site – but do check this is available where you’re staying. Each camping village will be different. However, for Union Lido, you definitely don’t need a car once you’re there. During the high season, they even run a bus service from the local airports. If you plan lots of excursions, then it might be worth it. For visiting Venice, or the islands of Burano and Murano, from Union Lido, it’s not necessary. 

My son relaxing on the boat ride back from Venice
My son relaxing on the boat ride back from Venice

Getting from Union Lido in Cavallino to Venice

The camping village itself is just outside the town of Cavallino, and you’re looking to take a waterbus from Punta Sabbioni. We chose to drive our car to Punta Sabbioni (about 12 minutes) and park there for the day, which costs about 5€ – 7€ depending on the season. We just went with a private lot along the main road, and it was fine. There is a public bus that goes straight there, with a stop directly outside the camping village.

From Punta Sabbioni, you can either take a public waterbus or a private one. The ride was 20-25 minutes for public transit ferry to St Mark’s Square, and a bit shorter for private ones, but private boats run less often. Public waterbus cost 20€ for a day ticket for adults (kids are half price) which allows you to grab the waterbus all over, including through the Grand Canal and over to Murano and Burano (which we did). You can get a 5€ return from one of the private companies, but you’re more limited on when you can come back (like that one only ran boats once an hour, and if a big tour group is boarding you might get bumped) and ends around 5pm or 6pm on some days. The public waterbuses run every 20 minutes pretty much 24 hours a day. I would say go for the public ones. 

 

We came back from our holiday satisfied and happy – my husband and I were thrilled we got to see Venice, and our son felt like he got a full-on holiday experience. This was such a hit, we’re planning to do the same thing in the Loire Valley next summer. 

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Things to do in Venice

Things to do in Venice

Like most people, Venice has always been on my must-see list. We drove down to Italy and went camping outside Venice, and chose to spend two days in Venice itself, as day trips. At the end of it, we felt like we covered a lot of what we wanted to see. You could definitely do a weekend in Venice and feel satisfied.

The canals in Venice, as lovely and dilapidated as you imagine.
The canals in Venice, as lovely and dilapidated as you imagine. And less stinky in May.

Venice in May

Venice gets very hot, and we wanted to avoid the famous stink from the canals. The weather was quite good while we were there, hovering around 24ºC, but I could tell the distinctive pong was rising. Then again, I’ve spent many years living in old damp buildings in Europe, so maybe I wasn’t even noticing it! The crowds were a bit intense around St Mark’s Square, but as soon as you get out of that district, things calm down quite a bit. If you or your kids find crowds stressful, just visit the square early in the morning, and then avoid it. A lot of the charm of Venice is just the city itself, so there’s no real reason to stay where all the people are. If you really want to avoid crowds, do not visit Venice in February or early March. Carnival is a huge spectacle in this city, and people have been traveling specifically to attend these special Venetian masked balls for hundreds of years. Our guides told us it is still the very busiest season.

The Doge's Palace is full of details. Those horses up top were stolen from Constantinople.
The Doge’s Palace is full of details. Those horses above the first arch were stolen from Constantinople.

A bit of history

It is an odd place, there’s no getting around it. In Professor Thomas F. Madden’s series of lectures A History of Venice: Queen of the Seas, he describes the city as an empty grand house, and you wander around it wondering what it was like when the people used to inhabit it. To be fair, it’s not a new phenomenon. Ever since the well-heeled did the Grand Tour (17th and 18th centuries), Venice has been mainly a tourist city. Their shipping trade never really covered from European nations figuring out how to get to India and North America on their own. 

It’s worth knowing that Venice was a republic, like a country unto itself, from 767 until Napoleon  took over in 1797. The leader of the Most Serene Republic of Venice was the Doge, sometimes translated as Duke though it was never a hereditary title, who was elected by the aristocracy of Venice. The powers of the Doge were carefully monitored and overseen by the other nobles, as each powerful family jockeyed for power with the others. The Doge’s Palace is an incredible building in Venice, and is full of secret passageways, double message slots, and creepy prison cells. Venice’s golden age was from about 1100-1600 or so, when they controlled the trade in luxury items like spices and silks coming from the East.  When Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch ships started making their own way over there, Venice quickly lost their monopoly, and their trade never quite recovered. 

Venice’s income now is entirely centred on tourism, and living in the city is incredibly expensive. If you don’t want to work in tourism, you leave, explained both of our local Venetian tour guides. 

Speaking of…

The spectacular Doge's Palace in Venice
The spectacular Doge’s Palace

Venice tours

While wandering the city is great, and well worth a couple of hours, it’s easy to miss things. I’m not normally one for tours, but in Venice it’s really worth the time and money. That being said, research your tour operator and read the reviews. I saw so many tour guides with huge groups of people, shouting at them, and getting in everyone’s way. We did two tours with The Roman Guy (which is a company, not a specific person!) and heartily recommend them. Both guides were locals, and showed a depth of love, pride, and respect for their city that I definitely did not see in other tour groups we passed (and we passed a lot of them). 

The fantastic Baroque interiors of the Doge's Palace.
The fantastic Baroque interiors of the Doge’s Palace.

Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries & Skip the Line Tour with The Roman Guy

Our guide Cristina took us back behind the scenes in the huge Doge’s Palace, where were alone with our small tour group of seven people and the official from the Palace that had to accompany us. We saw the old prison cells, offices, torture chamber, and even Casanova’s own cell… this story stuck with my son and I don’t think he will ever stop telling it with relish! We peered through secret doors, startling tourists in the other public galleries. I loved popping out of a cupboard as well, concealing the staircase we had just come down, making me look at every other large piece of furniture in a different light! A real highlight was seeing the fascinating support structure of the great hall from above. It was built like an upside ship, as that’s what most Venetian carpenters were familiar with. Long metal screws hold up

We also had the chance to cross the Bridge of Sighs ourselves, mimicking the journey from the Doge’s Palace courts to the new prison building across the canal. Having our guide there to explain the important pieces of art in the busy public galleries with a discrete earpiece was excellent value. There’s no way I would have gotten as much out of a visit there without her input. 

A view of the canal from inside the Bridge of Sighs.
A view of the canal from inside the Bridge of Sighs.

It’s worth noting that this tour would probably be too much for kids under 8. There are many stairs, and it’s not stroller friendly. If your child is easily frightened, or not into stories about prisons, then this is not a great choice. However, my son who has listened to the entire How to Train Your Dragon series on audiobook and all of the Percy Jackson books really enjoyed it, and said his favourite part was seeing the prison cells, and hearing about Casanova’s escape as well as seeing the very cells and staircases he escaped from. It is a two-and-a-half hour tour, so be prepared with sensible shoes. A huge benefit to this tour is skipping the monumental line to get into the Palace in the first place. 

How gorgeous is this first stop on our Venetian food and wine tour?
How gorgeous is this first stop on our Venetian food and wine tour?

Venice Food & Wine Tour with Gondola Ride with The Roman Guy

We had a second Venetian guide take us around the city itself for this excellent food and wine tour. We lucked out and had our guide to ourselves, which is obviously never guaranteed if you book a regular tour (though the Roman Guy does private tours as well). I must admit I was at a total loss when it came to choosing where to eat in Venice, everything is so geared towards tourists it was hard to know how to choose. Following in the wake of a local was just a terrific experience. Giuliano took us down a few little streets and then we ducked inside a small cicchetti place, and walked straight through to a beautiful little courtyard with an archway through to a canal. We were handed glasses of Prosecco, and a provided with a selection of small fried bites. Cicchetti are what you would call tapas in Spain, and there are a few different types. These little fritters featured various mashed potatoes and vegetables, as well as some pieces of ham, and were breaded and fried. With the tang of the Prosecco it was lovely. We walked for a short time, and our guide Giuliano explained how to walk down the narrow streets (single file always), and what the porters lugging deliveries around Venice shout when they want you to move (can’t remember the Venetian –– sorry! It involves ‘gamba’ and translates to something like ‘Watch your legs!’). He pointed out the toy shop near where he grew up which is now a tourist shop, though it still has a giant Daffy Duck made of LEGO in the first floor window. 

We took a public gondola across the Grand Canal to the Rialto Fish Market, which has been in the same place for 10 centuries (yes, you read that correctly), and then followed Giuliano through some twisty turns until we came to a small square. We joined a group of locals around a barrel with a tabletop, and tucked into little sandwiches made with some heavenly salami, and Venetian spritzes. Giuliano will have to bear some responsibility for my pestering of every shop here in Heidelberg for Select, the Venetian aperitivo liquor, because it is the perfect spritz in my opinion. I am completely with the Venetians on this one. It’s less sweet than Aperol, but not as dry as Campari. With the fatty salami it was just excellent. Next to us, a couple of older local men in impeccable casual suits were tucking into their own and I felt like I had properly experienced a little corner of the old Venice. Is it the best cicchetti in Venice? I’m not sure, but I’d make a beeline back to that one if we are in the city again. 

The spanking fresh seafood at the Rialto Fish Market.
The spanking fresh seafood at the Rialto Fish Market.

Sharing a small table with some locals, drinking Venetian Spritzes and eating small sandwiches full of heavenly meats.
Sharing a small table with some locals, drinking Venetian Spritzes and eating small sandwiches full of heavenly meats.

Finally, Giuliano took us to a little restaurant where he takes his own friends, and we had bruschetta (always bru-sketta, by the way) and plates of homey, wonderful carbonara, gnocchi, and pasta pomodoro, accompanied by a glass of local wine. We finished our tour at a family-run gelato stand – excellent as expected. It was such a fun way to experience several different kinds of foods, and ask a local all the questions you’ve got about why things are the way they are in Venice, and what it was like to grow up there. Anyone who has been a tour guide for 20 years will have good stories, and Giuliano said he pointed out Johnny Depp to a group of young girls when they were in a gondola… which ended with them all rushing to one side of the small boat and dumping them all in the water. My son thought this was hilarious and amazing and must have asked me about it about ten times in the following days! Again, I was impressed by the pride and respect for the city our guide showed, and I felt a little less uneasy about the toll our visit took on this beautiful yet fragile city. 

There is a lot of walking on this tour, but it’s broken up by stops to eat and drink, not all of it sitting however. Non-alcoholic drinks are no problem. I think children younger than 8 would find this tour a bit of a challenge, and very picky eaters probably won’t get much out of it, though none of the food is what I would call challenging by any means. If you’re looking for a proper gondola ride, this probably won’t satisfy you, as it’s merely a quick trip across in a public one, but it gives you a taste of it. Come hungry, you won’t be disappointed by the amount of food. Save space for the full-size plate of pasta at the end! 

Okay yes we did it, the expensive limousine gondola ride in Venice.
Okay yes we did it, the expensive limousine gondola ride in Venice.

>>Visiting Tuscany after heading to Venice? Life Unexpected has a great list of activities for you

How much is a gondola ride in Venice?

And should you fork out for it? I see this question a lot on travel forums, and the answer is… maybe. A 30-35 minute limousine gondola ride (in the fancy ones) is 80€, but they will start talking about ‘the complete tour’ once you’re in the boat which is an hour for 160€, but when we balked at that, they offered a 45-minute jaunt for 120€. But it was more like 35 minutes, so that was a bit frustrating. We decided to go for it in the end because I don’t think we’ll be back to Venice in the near future, they look so inviting, and my son really wanted to do it. Was it worth it? It’s so hard to say. It felt a bit magical to be doing it, but our gondolier was not a very good tour guide, and after having the two amazing guides in the past two days, it felt like a bit of a letdown in that department. They are very comfortable, and it’s hard not to start imagining you’re in the city during the Golden Age, heading out to some amazing costume ball… okay maybe that’s just me. If the cost is prohibitive, or would prevent you from doing a tour, I would do a tour instead for sure, and take a public traghetto (the unfancy gondolas) somewhere to get a sense of being on the boats. 

The incredible artwork by Lorenzo Quinn, titled Support.
The incredible artwork by Lorenzo Quinn, titled Support.

Do some reading beforehand

I know, it sounds like I’m assigning you course material, but with a city like Venice, you will get so much more out of it if you know a bit about the history. If history lectures like the ones I mentioned above aren’t your thing, read Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan, a story of a high-class courtesan that escapes the sack of Rome and moves to Venice in 1527. It’s a vivid portrait of the city during the Golden Age, and it will for sure fuel your gondola daydreams!

PS – Looking for a cheap place to stay near Venice? I really recommend camping – it’s super kid-friendly and will get you out of the bustle of Venice

Disclaimer: Both our tours were complimentary from The Roman Guy, but all opinions are my own. 

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