Gondola Gliding: A First-Timer’s Guide to Venice, Italy

Venice, the City of Canals. Floating on the Adriatic Sea, Venice is a maze of waterways, historic bridges, and stunning architecture. But is it a good fit for families? Absolutely! While navigating narrow streets and avoiding crowds might seem daunting, Venice offers a unique and unforgettable family vacation experience.

On our recent trip to Italy we stayed most of the time in a friend’s apartment in Bologna. I really wanted to see the canals of Venice with my own eyes, and my partner really wanted to see the Adriatic Sea, so we also went to Ravenna

We woke up at 6:30am to catch the 7:20 bus, which was just a few blocks away from the apartment. We had purchased train tickets the night before. There are typically two trains to choose from to go from Bologna to Venice and elsewhere: a slower train that is cheaper (about $15) that takes 2 hours and 10 minutes, or a high speed train (about $20) that takes about an hour and a half). We chose the cheaper, slower regional train and enjoyed some of the stops in the countryside. We passed through Rovigo, Monselice, Terme Eugenee, Padova, Venzamestre, Porto Margherita, and a few others.

Venetian Cicchetti

Venice is known for cicchetti, which are small snacks or side dishes. These can be anything from a bite-sized piece of bread and cheese to a marinated mushroom, or octopus in tomato. There are all kinds of options. There is no way you will be hungry here. Food is everywhere. Bakeries serve pizza with all types of toppings, cakes, candy, and my favorite — the cannoli. 

An example of bite-size cicchetti.

The Venice Biennale 

We didn’t plan this, but we were there while the Venice Biennale was going on. We happened to stumble on a free display in the European Cultural Center that we were able to just walk in to. There are other shows that require admission tickets, but this was a great show that you could easily have spent the whole day in just walking around the building. 

It wasn’t on our radar, but the Venice Biennale (meaning it is an art show that takes place every two years) runs from April to November, so it will be going on most of the times that you might visit the island!

Exploring Venice

Yes, Venice is actually many islands linked together by bridges. Originally, there were few bridges and residents got around strictly by boat. Bridges were added later, which is why most of the bridges don’t actually line up with the few narrow walkways. 

When we first got off the train, we were immediately approached by agents requesting us to pay the daily tourist fee of about $5, which is mandatory for anyone who is not staying the night in Venice. There’s the Grand Canal when you first get off the train, and you’re led to walk across a large bridge. Then, on the other side, a large walkway is filled with tourists and souvenir shops. 

Avoid the crowds by going down the side streets.

We honestly felt like we were in Disneyland when we first got there, and were thinking that there wasn’t much to see that wasn’t overly touristed. But the best advice that we got from the Rick Steves shows we watched in preparation were to just wander, and get off the main pathways. Don’t worry about getting lost. It is ok to wander a little and go down the narrow pathways. 

We ate as much as we could of the delicious, and beautiful, food!

We took a walking tour and our guide took us to some unique spots we would not have found on our own, so while we recommend wandering, we also recommend taking a tour and getting an insider’s view. Our guide took us down little alleys, to a dock that is only used for deliveries in the morning, and to an outdoor spiral staircase in a palazzo. 

An outdoor spiral staircase in a palazzo.

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Embrace the Boat Life

Venice is a city built on water, so you must  explore it by water. It looks different from the perspective of a boat. A gondola ride is a quintessential Venetian experience. While a traditional serenaded gondola ride can be pricey, consider a shared gondola option for a more budget-friendly experience. If you want to get from one side of the island to another, public water buses, or vaporetti, are another fun and affordable way to get around. These are like taxis but are boats instead. 

Take the time to sit, get some food and drink, and enjoy the scenery.

Our gondola ride was nice but very basic. If you want the singing gondoliers, that costs more. Our gondolier didn’t speak (except for some banter with the other gondoliers!) but didn’t give us any information about what we were passing by or do any singing. So if that is what you are looking for, make sure your tour comes with those bonus features. 

Our favorite photo of the trip came from our gondola ride. We’ll frame this one.

Get Lost (Safely)

The Piazza San Marco is huge! And the Basilica de San Marco is an amazingly beautiful church. The Doge Palace has artwork by Titian, but we didn’t have tickets and there was a long line. (Save yourself this trouble by getting tickets ahead of time when you can.) Instead of worrying about waiting in lines, we walked around, ate at places that looked good, took a walking tour with a guide, and took a gondola ride (a must!). 

Venice is brimming with other hidden gems waiting to be explored. Seek out the Libreria Acqua Alta, a bookstore with gondolas overflowing with books. Visit the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, adorned with breathtaking Tintoretto paintings. 

Planning Your Venetian Adventure

Venice can be crowded, especially during peak season. Most of the tourists are there for just the day, so if you stay overnight, your nighttime experience in Venice will be very different than what you will see during the day. Remember when we said we felt like we were in Disneyland? It’s very touristy, so if you really want the Venetian experience, try to stay for more than just a few hours. 

Consider visiting during the shoulder seasons like we did in May or later in September for a more relaxed experience. Comfortable walking shoes are essential, as most of the city is explored on foot. While some hotels offer canal views, these will be much more expensive. Staying in a quieter neighborhood away from the main tourist areas can be a more budget-friendly option.

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