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Episode #177: Budget friendly Venice

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Venice is a city full of beauty, history and mystery. Built on water, the city is well over 1000 years old and although there’s no denying that Venice is a magical place it is also one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit. We share some tips on free and low-cost things to do in the City of Water to help your vacation funds stretch further.

Show notes
In a city where a coffee sat in a cafe in Piazza San Marco can cost you upwards of €8 (though we would argue the unique setting and ambiance mean it can be worth it), it is in contrast to a €1.50 espresso coffee to be had in a neighborhood cafe, taken at the bar. Even if you have a decent budget, money can get sucked up easily here and so we look at ways you can stretch your trip budget, and perhaps make sure that you have plenty left over for an indulgent dinner or souvenir.

What you’ll learn in this episode

Sight-seeing

Exploring the sights of any city is, for the most part, a free activity, but in a city as busy as Venice, you need to go about it the right way in order for it to be the wonderful experience it should be. It’s best to go sight-seeing either early in the morning or later in the evening when it is not crammed with day trippers. There are around 19 million day trippers a year to Venice, which make up about 80 % of the visitors to the city. Most of these people come from nearby countries like Germany and Austria – non-English speaking travelers. There are also, of course, a lot of cruise passengers. Most of this mass of visitors wander around in a very tiny area of the city between Piazzas San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. So the time to visit these locations is definitely before they’ve arrived or after they’ve left. As an added bonus, the light at both those times is pretty magical.

Here are some ideas of what to see and how to go about it:

  • Stroll around Piazza San Marco. This is one of the most famous squares in the world, and it’s surrounded by beautiful architecture and historic cafes. While you can order a coffee or aperitivo here and enjoy the scenery, you can also simply wander around the square and enjoy gazing up at the Byzantine domes and glittering golden mosaics of San Marco and wait for the 500-year-old astronomical clock to toll each hour
  • Walk to the Grand Canal past San Marco Bell Tower and admire the Doge’s Palace, an incredible Gothic-style building of white and pink marble. Make sure you look up and pay respects to the winged lion that sits atop the pedestal, keeping watch over the city. The winged lion is a symbol of Venice representing its patron saint, San Marco and you’ll see it all over Venice as statues and on flags. If you’re traveling with kids, it’s a fun activity to get them to count how many they can spot  – that will keep them occupied during your trip as there are thousands of them
  • Before continuing on, head left as you face the lagoon and walk a short distance to reach the Ponte della Paglia bridge that spans the Rio del Palazzo. From here that you can admire the iconic Bridge of Sighs, with the perfect opportunity to get a photo of a gondola passing under this famous bridge
  • You can also enjoy wonderful views of the Grand Canal on a visit to the Rialto Bridge – one of the most iconic landmarks of Venice. It is made of white limestone and has its distinctive arches that we all associate with Venice. This is a great vantage point where you can gaze down the Grand Canal and get another hero Venice shot, complete with gondolas. If you go here in the morning, you can spend some time browsing the local market, which is full to the brim with seafood from the lagoon and fresh produce.
  • Another beautiful site is the wooden Academia Bridge, one of only four bridges that span the Grand Canal. It’s a great place for photos, especially at sunset – you can enjoy the views of the beautiful, domed Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in the distance – one of the iconic buildings of the Venetian skyline
  • On a tight budget, you may not want to enter the Doge’s Palace, but Katy does recommend popping into the golden masterpiece that is the Basilica San Marco. Basic skip-the-line tickets are €6 for an adult (at the time of recording), but Katy recommends paying the extra (around €15) to visit the museum there. Apart from the museum itself being amazing – showcasing the original bronze horses that adorned the roof of the basilica, you also have the opportunity to admire the mosaics and church from above. Step out onto the loggia for views of Piazza San Marco and beyond. It’s really worth the extra money because when you’re walking through San Marco on the basic ticket, you go in a circular circuit where there’s a lot of beautiful mosaics but you can get pushed through quite quickly and can be quite squooshed, but you get a totally different perspective if you go up to the museum and then step outside to get that amazing view down into the church itself

See the city on the water

  • Naturally, when people go to Venice, the main thing they are drawn to do is to ride a gondola. Katy can rarely resist it but at €80 for a 30 minute ride, it’s certainly not a budget option. There’s no denying that seeing Venice from the water is something that you need to do at least once in your life. A couple of alternatives:
    • wait around to find some people to join you –  because the price is the same whether you have 2 or 5 people
    • go on the local gondola traghetto/the ferry gondola that takes people across the Grand Canal at seven spots, including one near the Rialto Bridge. This ride will cost you €2 per trip. You may need to stand up and it’s not fancy, but you can still say that you had a Venice gondola ride
  • You’ll see lots of the romantic wooden Venetian speedboat taxis zipping around the canals. It’s a pretty special way to travel, but you can get an incredible experience riding on the Vaporetto water busses for a fraction of the cost. You just need to be a bit organized and know what to expect. Katy’s favorite trip is on Vaporetto number 1, which takes you right from Piazzale Roma and near the train station all the way down the Grand Canal to the Venice Lido (beach)
  • Once on the Vaporetto, you should make your way to the back where it’s not covered – it’s exposed to the elements, but you do have uninterrupted views from here and it’s quite spectacular. If you stay inside the covered, enclosed area of the Vaporetto, you’ll just see blurry palazzi through the grubby windows. Another option is to stand on the sides where it’s also open to the elements – but you will, of course, only get the views on one side
  • Ride that Vaporetto number 1 with a regular Vaporetto ticket that lasts for 75 minutes, and is €13.75. The Vaparettos are really not very cheap. If you’re wondering whether the Vaparetto passes are worth investing in, take a good look at your plan for the days that you’re in Venice and cost it out. At €33 for 1 day and €44 for 2, they are pretty pricey and it’s probably not worth it if you just plan to explore the main islands (where there’s plenty to do for at least a week). They’re really only worth it if you want to go to Burano, Murano and some of the other outer islands

Explore (without Google Maps)

There’s no better way to enjoy Venice than exploring the backstreets. Venice is full of narrow alleys and streets that are full of character. You can spend hours exploring and discovering hidden gems. This is Katy’s favorite thing to do in Venice, and of course, this is something that is totally free. Wander around the various neighborhoods and districts and you’ll find each has its own character and charm.

  • Katy encourages you to turn off your Google Maps at this point. When looking for things on Google Maps, you’ll find it pushes everyone down the same crowded path where you’ll pretty much miss everything because it’s so jam-packed with people crammed into the tiny laneways. If you’re like Katy, who does not like crowds, getting further out into the neighborhoods and you’ll find the number of people reduces on every block. Katy spent a great afternoon recently with her friend Monica, a Venice local, skipping through every backstreet and avoiding the throng
  • Pick an area and then just wander to your heart’s content. Stop for a gelato or a coffee. Spend time picking out the details of the buildings, admire the fountains and statues you come across, pop your head into churches to check out the art and generally soak everything up
  • Explore the Jewish Ghetto in Canareggio. This is one of the oldest ghettos in the world and is in fact where the word ghetto comes from.  You can explore the narrow streets and visit the synagogues. It’s got a quiet and gentile atmosphere compared to other neighborhoods. This beautiful area is not far from the Central Train Station, so you can just pop your head in there or do a guided tour
  • Dorsoduro is another favorite neighborhood.  Before heading into the neighborhood proper, with all its little back streets to explore – Katy likes to take a stroll along the waterfront in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. This is a beautiful domed church that was built in the 17th century, and it celebrates the end of the plague. You can visit the spectacular church for free, which even if you’ve got a bit of church fatigue which can be common on a trip to Italy – this one’s worth popping your head in
  • After you’ve had a look inside the church then follow the laneway called the Fondamenta Salute to the very tip of the island of the Dorsoduro district for incredible views across the Grand Canal to San Marco. Katy likes to then follow the path along the seafront, keeping the island of Guidecca on her left in the distance for a beautiful seaside stroll
  • Most people don’t think about Venice as a place for beautiful gardens. But the Biennale Gardens and the Park of Remembrance are two gorgeous green spaces to explore with great views across the lagoon. You get there by keeping the lagoon on your right if you’re walking away from San Marco, and you keep walking (for a while) until you can’t go any further. The gardens are beautiful and are a peaceful respite from the crowds
  • The Castello district is probably the most local of all the city’s districts. Here you’ll find the city’s Arsenale (historic shipbuilding yards), and interesting churches like San Francesco della Vigna. But Katy mostly likes it for watching the locals go about their business. Sometimes you’ll see a wedding or local celebration. You can respectfully duck into churches – just lurk quietly at the back and enjoy soaking up the culture

Quirks and curiosities

There are many quirks and curiosities around Venice and it is delightful to just stumble upon them. But here are some of Katy’s favorites that you might like to seek out:

  • Libreria Acqua Alta is a unique bookstore in Venice. With its name meaning the ‘bookshop of high water’,  you’ll find gondolas and bathtubs piled high with books and cats lounging in little nooks. It’s become a bit of an Instagram posing spot, but it’s still worth checking out for its charm
  • Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is a palace with an external spiral staircase. It’s a beautiful example of Venetian architecture that you’ll find that in the San Marco district. You don’t need to go inside – you can just admire it from outside from beneath.
  • The Ponte di Chiodo is only one of two bridges with no parapets (no handrails) in Venice. It is in the Cannareggio district, and it leads right into someone’s house. This house is likely an Airbnb these days, but we still need to make sure not to disturb them while visiting the bridge 
  • The squero of San Trovaso in Dorsoduro is where the gondolas are built and maintained. It’s a gondola workshop – like a garage for gondolas. You can watch the goings on from the other side of the canal where there’s a handy bar where you can get your spritz and some snacks to enjoy while you admire the view. These boats are so beautiful and ornate that they need a lot of maintenance
  • Katy really enjoys just observing the daily life of Venetians. Everything there is done on the water – ambulances, trash collection, cranes for building works. How do they do it and how does the city run so smoothly? They’ve been doing this for centuries, and it’s absolutely fascinating to watch and think about

General view on keeping costs low in Venice

  • If you want to visit Venice and you’re on a budget, the good news is that there are lots of fun things that are free
  • Somewhere prices are high is on accommodation. Make sure to choose accommodation far away from the Grand Canal in the San Marco district, as this is where the prices skyrocket and book as early as possible
  • The same goes for eating and drinking – the further you go from San Marco Square or any major tourist centers, the lower the prices
  • Use your feet for transport and avoid the Vaparetto water busses to save a lot
  • Avoid the busiest months of the year, which is now a long season – from the beginning of April to the end of October, and also in February during Carnevale

Places mentioned in the show

  • Piazza San Marco – main square of Venice home to ritzy cafes, the basilica and Palazzo Ducale
  • Doge’s Palace – formerly the Doge’s residence and the seat of the Venetian government
  • Ponte della Paglia – bridge in Venice which is the perfect spot to view the Bridge of Sighs.
  • Bridge of Sighs – enclosed bridge, made of white limestone that has windows with stone bars, over the Rio di Palazzo, and connects the New Prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace
  • Rialto Bridge – famous white bridge of Venice spanning the Grand Canal
  • Accademia bridge – wooden bridge, one of 4 spanning the Grand Canal
  • Santa Maria della Salute – known simply as the Salute, is a church and minor basilica in Dorsoduro
  • San Marco Basilica – otherwise known as St Mark’s Basilica, it is the cathedral of Venice
  • Sansovino Loggia – the balcony on St Mark’s Basilica, at the foot of the Campanile
  • Cannaregio – the northernmost of the six historic sestieri (districts) of Venice
  • Dorsoduro  – University district in Venice
  • Giudecca – Venetian island, immediately south of the central islands of Venice
  • Biennale gardens – site of the first La Biennale Art Exhibitions in 1895, the Giardini now hosts 29 pavilions of foreign countries
  • Parco delle Rimembranze – lovely green space named in memory of the soldiers who died in World War Two
  • Castello – a more residential district that is home to the Arsenale and public gardens. Hosts the Venice Biennale every 2 years
  • Arsenale – former shipyard and armories
  • San Francesco della Vigna – church in the Castello district of Venice
  • Libreria Acqua Alta – the ‘bookshop of high water’ where you’ll find books piled up in bathtubs and gondolas
  • Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo – a small palazzo known for its external multi-arch spiral staircase known as the Scala Contarini del Bovolo

Resources

  • vaporetto – Venice water bus
  • Traghetti – special gondolas that hold 10-12 people located between the Grand Canals 3 bridges to take you across quickly
  • fondamenta – meaning “foundation” in Italian, it describes the walking bank along a canal
  • squero – where the gondolas are built. There are only 4 active ones left – Tramontin and San Trovaso in Dorsoduro, Crea and Roberto Dei Rossi in Giudecca

Resources from Untold Italy

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