Venice: Italian Magic on the Adriatic

Bridges, canals and gondolas are icons in Venice, the city on the water, where travelers lose themselves in art, history and romantic streets and squares.


Even before you’ve crossed the lagoon and set foot on the uneven stones of Venice, you have seen its sights a dozen times. The Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica, the Campanile, the Bridge of Sighs, Rialto, curved prows of gondolas bobbing against candy-stick striped mooring posts—these sights have been so popularly painted, photographed and rhapsodized that they are already familiar. You could spend a whole day sightseeing without encountering something that seems new.

To escape this sense of déjà vu and discover your own personal Venice, head for the less trammeled streets of Dorsoduro, San Polo or Cannaregio. Instead of other tourists, you’ll meet craftsmen in their studios, Venetians shopping for their dinner, nannies and nonnas watching children play and couples drinking Prosecco in canal-side cafes.

Along with the obvious activities—St. Mark’s, a ride along the Grand Canal, a visit to the glass-blowers of Murano—explore the back corners to experience the real Venice that you won’t find in the designer shops and tourist crush between St. Mark’s and Rialto. Choose the indirect routes between the sights—getting lost several times a day is one of Venice’s must-do experiences.

Venice Is for Families

Kids love Venice immediately because it turns things topsy-turvy. Instead of gray and glass, the walls are pink, red and yellow. Boats replace buses, taxis, garbage trucks and even crosswalks. The city’s winding passageways form a living labyrinth to puzzle through, making it feel like a giant board game with surprises at every roll of the dice.

Challenge kids to keep a running count of bridges as you wander. How many of the 355 will they see? From the four across the Grand Canal to tiny arches and stairs leading to a single doorway, most have interesting stories to tell.

Bridges make a good vantage point for watching local life, too. Lean on a railing watching gondolas glide underneath; find one near a blind corner and see how gondoliers avoid collisions. Watch the wakes lap at the stucco walls and foundation stones to realize how fragile Venice’s footing is. With rising oceans, Venice becomes even more fragile and fleeting, heightening the sense that you’d better see it now, before it’s too late.

St. Mark’s—More is Better

Kids usually don’t do churches with great enthusiasm, but take them to St. Marks. There’s enough cool stuff inside to keep their attention. Walls, domes and columns are covered in mosaics—a big picture version of the Bible painted of tiny glass bits that reflect the light at different angles to bring the pictures to life. Beyond the columns in the wing nearest the Doge’s Palace, our kids found the picture story of St. Mark’s missing bones, hidden then lost for centuries. Tired of obscurity, the story goes, St. Mark thrust his arm through a wall to signal his hiding place—can your kids find the mosaic of the arm?

Don’t miss the altar behind the main one, all gold and encrusted with 3,000 precious stones, said to be the most valuable altar in the world.  Few visitors know that they can ask permission to descend into the impressive 11th-century crypt below the main altar.

Remember the horses that overlook Piazza San Marco from above the basilica’s doors? They are copies, but you can climb up to see the originals, then go outside onto the loggia to get a horse’s-eye view of the entire piazza and a straight-on look at the famous clock tower, where two Moors strike the bells.

Tip: Give St. Mark’s full attention, resisting the temptation to crowd it into a day with the Doge’s Palace, Campanile and half a dozen churches. Hit it fresh and savor it, then pick a sestiere (one of Venice’s six districts) and wander.

Seeing the Sights

Our favorite getaway is to cross Rialto Bridge to the San Polo neighborhood. In the morning you’ll walk right into the food market along the Grand Canal. Our kids love the funny-looking fish, displayed there along with octopi and other sea creatures. Although it’s a bit overwhelming for younger children, adults appreciate the magnificent paintings by Tintoretto that cover the ceilings and walls of Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Look for the hand mirrors that make it easier to see the ceilings.

San Polo leads on into Cannaregio and the Venetians’ favorite little church. Santa Maria dei Miracoli was built in 1481-89, with all the magnificence of a cathedral, but on a very intimate scale. This is one kids will like; its interior walls are geometric patterns of pink, green and white inlaid marble.

You may not want to tour all three of the grand palaces—Ca’ d’Oro, Ca’ Pesaro and Ca’ Rezzonico—but you should see at least one. We suggest the latter, for its view of 18th-century Venetian life. Inside are paintings by all the greats, a complete apothecary, rooms exploring women’s life in noble families and a ballroom that stretches from one side of the grand palazzo to the other.

Wander from San Polo to Campo San Barnaba. On the Ponte dei Pugni (“Bridge of Fists”) kids can see footprints in the white stone, reminders of fierce fistfights here in the 1600s. Disputes between neighborhoods were fought in a very organized way on the bridge, and the footprints mark the “ready, set, go” line for beginning the fight. Contemplate this custom from a table at nearby Pasticceria Colussi.

Just off the square is a barge stacked with fruit and vegetables—a little floating grocery store. How many other unusual boats can your kids find? Who can find the coolest one? Our youngest won when she spotted a brown UPS boat loading as our vaporetto passed the docks. When there is a funeral, the hearse that carries the casket to the cemetery island is a specially built gondola.

Whether or not you opt for a gondola ride, you’ll want to use the traghetti, stripped-down gondolas that form “crosswalks” over the Grand Canal between the four widely-spaced bridges. These can save a long walk to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a magnificent museum of modern art in Dorsoduro, another good neighborhood for getting lost.

San Polo and Dorsoduro also are where Venice’s master mask makers are found. [Read more in our Mask Makers of Venice article.]

Romantic Venice

Venice loves lovers. Few places are as perfect for strolling hand-in-hand, and a ride in a gondola is pure romance, especially in the evening when windows of the palazzi glow from the light of crystal chandeliers and the colors of their façades deepen in the fading light.

If you’re in Venice near a full moon, check the tide schedule and go to Piazza San Marco in the evening if the tide is high. Be prepared to take your shoes off and wade across, or just walk around the edges to see the basilica’s lighted façade reflected in the water. It’s dazzling, and the strains of violins from the two orchestras in the cafés waft through the air. It’s worth the high price to sit in one of them and savor an espresso or grappa.

The most romantic lodging in town is in the lusciously decorated rooms of Ca’ Maria Adele, across a tiny canal from Santa Maria Salute in Dorsoduro. Arrive by boat to its canal-side door or take the vaporetto to within a few steps. The charming palazzo has been beautifully adapted to an inn, with inviting rooms and lavish breakfasts.

Lodging and Dining

We enjoy staying in one of the city’s pleasant apartments available by the week. Not only is it more comfortable for children, but it provides the luxury of living in a neighborhood, shopping at local markets and interacting with locals.

Venice is not famous for fine dining, but you can eat well if you avoid the places with long printed menus in four languages. Look instead for a little neighborhood osteria, such as Osteria Vivaldi, on Calle della Madonnetta in San Polo (tel. +041 523 8185), with its daily changing menu of local seafood dishes.

For lunches, look for a bar, more like a café. Bar alla Toletta on Calle Toletta near the Accademia (tel. +041 520 0196) serves delicious sandwiches. For healthy fresh ingredients, look for bright cafeteria-style Brek, near the train station at Rio Terra lista di Spagna in Cannaregio. For contemporary Italian dining, reserve a table overlooking the Guidecca Canal at Lineadombra (tel. +041 241 1881), where fusion cuisine is based on local traditions and ingredients.

Getting There and Getting Around

Most flights from North America arrive in northern Italy at Milan’s Malpensa airport, from which there are frequent flights to Marco Polo Airport in Venice. A bus or the faster, pricier water taxi takes you across the lagoon to the city. From there the vaporetto and your own feet are the best transport. Vaporetto stops are marked on all city maps, making it easy to find your way. When in doubt, ask—many Venetians speak English.

A three-day vaporetto pass gives free access to all the boats, even to the islands. A Venice Pass, which includes museum admissions, is only a good buy if you visit multiple museums in one 24-hour period. Other passes to consider are the Museum Card, good any time for the Doge’s Palace and all city museums, and a Chorus Pass for unlimited entrance to 15 churches, along with audio guides.

Venice can wear you out quickly. Most families find, as we have, that a few days in the city is best followed by a day or two exploring the nearby region. Break up stays with day or overnight trips to other places—Verona, Padua, the Brenta Canal or Lake Garda. On your return you’ll be delighted by the warm sense of “coming home” to Venice.

Destinations: Venice, Italy

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Sightseeing

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