Our top ten tips for a family trip: where to go, what to do and best buys on a city break to Venice with teenagers
- A magical city on the water
- Canals, gondolas, waterbuses
- Art, architecture, history, culture
- Lots of shopping for all ages
- Pros and cons of Venice in autumn
Who went: Nancy with sons, Nicholas 16 and Ed 14
When: October, 2013
Why Venice: Venice is a magical city! Despite the masses of tourists it hasn’t become a theme park, real life is going on all around, its just that everyone uses boats. We went in October – it was comfortably busy round the main sites and quiet off the beaten track. The weather was misty, sometimes overcast but on the plus side much cooler than in summer.
How did you get there? We flew Easyjet from London Gatwick to Venice Marco Polo.
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Where did you stay? I looked online for an inexpensive hotel in the San Marco/ Castello area because it’s very central. I made the booking with bookings.com. Our hotel was just a few minutes walk from the vaporetto (water-bus) stop. This is very handy when you have luggage to carry and worth checking when you make a booking. It was no-frills (except of the Murano glass, swirly wallpaper variety). But we knew we’d be spending the minimum amount of time there and it seemed a good trade off to have the Piazza San Marco on our doorstep. We had a family room, clean but small with a tiny bathroom.
The first night, when we inadvertently left the window open, we were woken by the tolling of a bell at midnight. We counted 12 boings – and then on and on until over 100. It was a beautiful sounding bell, but we weren’t over-thrilled when it did the same thing again at 7 am. I forgot to ask the whereabouts of the bell in the morning – but we were to come across it later anyway …….
Our top 10 things to do in Venice
We began each day with a rough itinerary including pit-stops. At every break we revised the route according to how we all felt. We covered a lot of ground and everyone stayed happy.
1. The Grand Canal
A bonus of staying near the Piazza San Marco is that the journeys by vaporetto from the railway station take in the full length of the Grand Canal.
It’s an awe-inspiring introduction to the watery world of Venice and we bought passes for unlimited boat travel. You can often get around quicker by foot but all Venetian day-to-day life is lived on the water and the vaporetto gives you a grandstand view. We spotted ambulance and police launches, children on the school run in a motor boat even UPS deliveries.
At the same time the whole history of Venice unfolds before your eyes. The Grand Canal is flanked by flaking palaces, ancient grain stores and world famous galleries. We were there during Biennale so modern sculptures and installations were planted amongst the traditional scenery too. Incidentally, a night-time trip down the Grand Canal is quite magical for all ages.
2. Piazza San Marco
Saint Mark’s Square makes an impact however many times you’ve seen it. Our paths crossed the piazza several times each day. We weren’t seduced by the traditional – and super pricey – cafes Florian or Quadri with the little bands outside but we did enjoy strolling across the marble paving in the evening. By day we explored the exteriors of the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. We spotted the two granite columns in the Piazzetta once the gateway to Venice from the sea and we made a point of checking out the quintessential rooftop views from…..
3. The viewing platform of the Campanile
The bell tower in Piazza San Marco has a small lift that takes you up the 99m to the bird’s-eye viewing platform beneath the five bells. If there is a warning that the bells ring on the hour we missed it…..
The view is still recognisable from the landscapes that Canaletto painted for wealthy tourists back in the 1730s.
But the enormous cruise ship we spotted was a bit unexpected.
4. Great art at the Accademia and Guggenheim
There’s astonishing art at every turn in Venice, but the biggest collection of Venetian works can be found at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. We popped in for a look…
…and spent an hour wandering from room to room, century to century, Titians to Tintorettos. The sheer size and magnificence of the canvases, and the gruesomeness of some of the subject matter, is striking as are the faces that gaze out at you across the centuries. Once we’d spotted the lookalike for a famous Italian football manager in a portrait of Renaissance dignitaries it was time to go and find a cafe.
We decided that we’d do one more gallery and chose a complete contrast to the Accademia. The Peggy Guggenheim museum is in a glamorous low built villa overlooking the Grand Canal. Once the home of the eponymous American heiress it now displays her glittering collection of 20th century art. It definitely caused us to stand and stare: face to frame with Picasso, Dali, Warhol and Pollock.
The waterside terrace is a great bonus for views, sunsets and photo opps…
Centre stage on the terrace is the famous bronze, Angelo della Citta, a priapic rider on a horse. Which led to some regrettable selfies.
5. The Rialto market
Nowadays the first thing you see when you enter the Rialto market is rows of tourist stalls selling leather bags and souvenirs. Press on through all that – the heart of the market starts beating early in the morning when fishmongers spread the latest catch on the big stone slabs. It’s definitely worth a visit.
For souvenirs of a less perishable kind shops nearby can provide the traditional gondoliers’ uniform of matelot jumpers or jewel coloured velvet slippers. (Yes, all the gondoliers we saw were wearing trainers – but perhaps it’s a summer thing).
Traditional rubber-soled slippers are now produced in silks and velvets that make original souvenirs piedaterre, S.Polo 60 – Rialto
The gondola is a flat-bottomed, narrow wooden boat rowed with one oar. Nowadays they are used almost entirely for the amusement of tourists. You see them at every turn. We were pleased to spot a singer on a gondola giving his all to a popular number as if on stage at La Fenice. He and his crew passed under a small bridge as we were crossing and everyone around stopped in their tracks to listen and applaud. For a quick, cheap and authentically Venetian experience you can hop on a traghetto to cross the Grand Canal. Look out for one of the seven traghetti (ferry) points and travel standing up in the gondola like a real resident.
7. Venetian masks
Venice is famous for the February Carnevale – an excuse to dress up in extravagant masks and costumes and pose enigmatically in the little squares. One morning we headed into Castello and found an Aladdin’s cave of a mask shop called Ca’ del Sol. Castello 4964
The masks that absolutely captivated me were the animal heads. I still think wistfully of the elegant long-eared hares.
8. Calli, campi, ponti – aka getting lost
Venice is variously described as maze-like and dream-like. Its mysterious network of streets and alleys wind alongside and cross the innumerable canals. Canals by the way, apart from a handful of the largest, are actually known as rios.
On our first night we went off piste and immediately got lost in a tangle of alleyways, courtyards and dead ends. There wasn’t enough light to read our map and anyway many of the smaller passageways weren’t marked. In the end we fired up the (expensive) data roaming on a phone and resorted to the maps app. Cheating really though as getting lost is part and parcel of the Venice experience. Often the journey is as entertaining as the destination – if you don’t mind unscheduled diversions.
Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo for instance with a spiralling stairway tower that is named after a snail shell.
9. The Food
Many tourist eateries are expensive or have photos on the menu – and we know what that can mean. Decent food with a canal-side view seems particularly hard to locate. Venice is famous for its lunchtime bar snacks called chicceti, but the boys were hungrier than that. For a winning combination of quantity, quality and affordability we liked:
Antico Forno – this is a stand-up-at-the-counter shop that operates on the main drag between the Rialto bridge and Campo San Polo. Basic but stylish in its own way. Pizza comes in thick crust or thin – sotille – with a variety of toppings. There are cold drinks, including bottled Bellinis if you so wish, and free Wi-Fi. San Polo 973
Alla Rivetta – you don’t have to mind sitting elbow to elbow with strangers but the starched tablecloths are changed after each customer and the food is proper. We ate here twice and enjoyed tender fried squid, an unctuous spaghetti alla vongole, grilled sea bass, spaghetti with ragu and very chocolate’y profiteroles. I remember this from my first visit to Venice more than twenty years ago and it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s tucked beside a little bridge and an easy walk from Piazza San Marco. Castello 4625
Venice was the centre of Mediterranean trade for centuries and its small and ancient shopfronts are still seductive. Traditional glassware from the island of Murano, richly decorative fabrics and swirling marbled papers aren’t very interesting for children but….
Tiny glass figures might be. There were whole orchestras, even football teams, to choose from in this window display. We discovered these in Castello, where a glassmaker from Murano crafts lovely pastel’y bowls and squadrons of glass figures at the back of his shop.
Things we could have bought:
Big slabs of choc
A gondolier’s shirt Yes, a fashion-forward souvenir. Those nautical stripes are bang on trend pretty much every summer. You can find traditional garb for sale in a shop beside the Rialto bridge, Emilio Ceccato, Orafechio 16, S. Polo.
Masks These were my biggest temptation, see above. The standard Carnevale masks in gift kiosks are mostly made in China. But it’s worth seeking out one of the few handmade mask emporiums. They are full of bewitching affairs to wear to a ball or hang on a wall.
One of those elastic helicopter things The last time we came to Venice the toy of choice on sale in the Piazza each night was a laser pointer. Thankfully they have been superseded by a winged plastic stalk with a blue light and an elastic band. Yours for 2 euros. If you’re a ‘helicopter’ salesman you can send one of these far up the side of the Campanile and then nonchalantly catch it as it pirouettes back to the ground. On our way back from a day trip to Verona our first glimpse of Venice was of the little blue lights soaring into the night sky. If you’re a local I imagine you dislike them but they can liven up an evening walk along the waterfront no end. (Ahem, actually we did buy one of these.)
Venice with teenagers: traveller’s tips
Sports Bar The boys love football so the neighbourhood Bar Verde with its two big screens showing Sky Sports was the obvious choice after supper. Cakes and pastries were big sellers and customers were just as likely to pop in for an espresso or a sandwich as a beer. At 10pm there was a male contingent around the screens, a cluster of women chatting at a corner table and a mother and small boy with hot chocolates who settled down to watch Milan v Barcelona. We did learn some new Italian phrases though when Messi scored. Corner of Calle de le Rasse, 4525
We wish we’d had time to…
– take a boat trip to the glass-making island of Murano or pretty Burano with its colourfully painted cottages and fish restaurants.
– cross to the Lido to hire bikes and cycle the length of the beaches.
A day trip to Verona
Instead, after two full days of walking and sight-seeing we woke to a rainy-looking Venice and decided to go out of town. So we caught a train to Verona and spent a blue-sky day in the sun just an hour away.
Getting around Venice
We arrived at Venice Marco Polo airport in the evening. A bus runs frequently from airport to railway station and takes around half an hour. From the modern station concourse we stepped straight out into the picturebook world of Venice and jumped aboard a vaporetto to San Marco. This journey took about 45 minutes and ran the length of the Grand Canal – a fabulous way to arrive.
The vaporetto cost 7 euros a trip so we bought a 3-day pass for 79 euros in total including a ‘Rolling Venice’ reduction for teenagers and young people.
On the way home we took the Alilaguna boat (specific tickets required – this is not covered by the regular boat pass) from San Marco Zaccharia to the airport. It took about an hour and ten minutes, stopping off at Cannaregio, the Lido and Murano on the way. It’s a slow but scenic route and we all preferred it to the bus.
What the weather was like: The UK forecasts for Venice in October were pessimistic so we packed waterproofs. In fact we were lucky and managed to avoid rain altogether. I took boots and Birkenstocks and was glad of both on different days. Our stay was generally warm, approx. 18 – 20 C, though overcast and misty. I was the only one of us to wear a coat and that was just on one evening on the Grand Canal.
The ‘What went wrong’ bit:
Our biggest mistake was leaving the bedroom window open. I heard the tell-tale whine of a mosquito in the night (in between the bell-ringing) but it was only in the morning that we realised Ed had been the main course.
Our second mistake was not packing either insect repellent or sting cream. Long sleeves and insect protection were essential in the evenings. But there was no problem finding medication in a neighbourhood pharmacy.
Finally, the weather. You can be lucky in the autumn and get a classic blue sky – we didn’t but nor did it pour with rain. Arguably the mistiness just added to the mysterious and haunting quality that makes Venice so magical. Certainly I think it’s an acceptable trade-off for the intense heat, the crowds and yes, the smell of Venice in high summer!
Venice with Teens
I arranged our hotel in Venice via Booking.com. They offer a ‘best price at time of booking’ guarantee, the option of free cancellation on most rooms and no booking fees.
All photos by Nancy and family. All rights reserved. Photos may not be reproduced without prior written consent.