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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