Venice, Italy, I’m convinced, is not a real place. It’s just too unique, too beautiful, too interesting to be a real place. Yet here we were, watching the gondolas slowly glide by, munching on giant slices of pizza we got for a mere 2 euros from a man who’s shop was literally in a hole in a wall. What even is this place?!
We had been staying in dreamy Trieste, Italy, and took a day trip over to Venice. The second you arrive in Venice you know it’s different. First there’s the smell, which some have described as less than pleasant, but personally I felt it just smells like ocean. After all, it’s literally on the ocean. Second of all is the layout, which appears to have no rhyme or reason (keep in mind my navigation skills in a city are non-existant, I’ve lived in Billings about 15 years and I still get lost here). And then there’s the randomness. The giant flea market held in an open square deep in the heart of the city, and the underground library with the curled up black cat resting on top of the books. All that novelty never really wears off. Between the bridges, the boats and an intricate network of narrow alleys (and dare I say, secret passageways!), the entire city feels somewhat like an adult playground. Give me a cape and a couple walkie -talkies and I could entertain myself for hours!
We arrived in Venice early in the morning after a quick train ride from Trieste. Already, a couple things hit me: 1.) It was hot, I forget to bring a hat, and I desperately needed to pick one up if I was going to survive the rest of the day, and 2.) It was crowded. So crowded. ‘Standing room only’ kind of crowded. Instantly, we were hot and overwhelmed.
I stopped by the first hat stand I saw and purchased the first hat that fit my head (this is more of a feat than it sounds, my head is tiny). I found a white one that looked like the ultimate tourist buy, but whatever, I thought it was cute and bonus: it was wide in the front and narrow in the back, which meant I could wear it when I carried Leila on my shoulders. I’m also sure I overpaid, but I make it a point never to haggle when I travel. I don’t expect people to haggle for my goods or services, so I don’t haggle for theirs.
Once I had a hat, our next mission was to ditch this crowd. We crossed the nearest bridge and darted into an alley, not knowing where we’d end up. We popped out somewhere on the other side and were pleasantly surprised. The people were gone. Wherever we were was completely empty, save for a couple birds. It was actually a bit eerie. We went from ‘standing room only’ to ‘alone with a couple birds’ so quickly I maybe have mentioned something to Rachel about being inside the Matrix…because we definitely were.
This secret alley navigation turned out to be the best way to explore all of Venice. We saw the sights we had on our list (like the Rialto Bridge), but whenever the crowds became too much we just slipped into an alley and continued on our way in the same direction. We learned quickly that most people, like to stick by the water. This is a mistake! The alleys were uncrowded, fascinating and led us to some of Venice’s best kept secrets. Plus, there are signs everywhere, you can explore off the beaten path and still easily find your way back to the main attractions!
One of our favorite stops was the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, a prestigious spiral staircase built in the late 15th century. It was meant to be a showstopper, bringing prestige to the Contarini family, and combines Renaissance, Gothic and Venetian architecture. You do have to pay to climb the stairs, but it’s only 7 euros for an adult and children under 12 years old get in for free. I’d say the price is far worth it; once you get to the top you can see almost all of Venice!
Another obvious tourist spot: St. Mark’s Square. But we were here for really only one reason: my daughter is obsessed with birds, and this place is legendary for the pigeons that crowd the square. We spent a good hour in the square. There were plenty of people, but that’s okay. It’s a social area!
Rumor has it feeding the birds was made illegal years ago, but we didn’t know this until we returned home and a friend mentioned it. At the time, we didn’t see any signs, and literally everyone was feeding them, so maybe things have changed? We weren’t prepared with bird food, but we did find a couple saltine crackers in the bag, so we crushed them up and let Leila feed them a bit. She about lost her damn mind when one landed on her arm. She could’ve stayed here forever!
Another true gem was the Libreria Acqua Alta, an underground library that has just reserved itself to constant flooding, keeping most of it’s books in bathtubs and waterproof containers. It used to be free, but now they do charge a fee and have quite a few rules that come with it. This seems to only hold true for the front entrance though, as the back entrance was open and free of charge! Not sure if this is the norm, but it was the case when we were there. If you have the chance to visit the library I’d highly recommend it, it’s a fascinating place! Though I will warn you, the black cat who lives there is only somewhat friendly. You can pet him but not too much. He likes his privacy!
Venice is a city perfect for exploring. No matter which direction you go, you’re bound to find something interesting! I uploaded all of our favorite spots on my Venice Walking Map just for you here!
Of course we went out of our way to find Ponte di Chiodo, one of two of the only bridges in Venice with no ‘parapet’ (hand railing). It leads literally to someone’s front door, and it’s pretty uneventful otherwise, but it’s still exciting to know there’s nothing there between you and the water! Leila was a little too excited about this one (she loves water and bridges and the railings on them drive her crazy), so I had to be extra careful. I’m glad we found it!
We also stopped by a few other favorites, like the Bridge of Sighs, and basically every other one we found, because they are all gorgeous.
Even in the spring, Venice proved to be hot and crowded, so I’d recommend visiting even earlier during the year to avoid both, but the truth is no amount of people or heat could dissuade me from visiting again. Venice was such a unique experience! As far as places I can’t wait to drag my friends and family to, this is high on the list. There’s just nothing close to Venice.
Tips for visiting Venice, Italy:
Get the cheap pizza. If it’s 2 euros, buy it. It’s cheap, it’s sketchy, the whole transaction feels weird, but trust me, it’s delicious. The pizza that costs five times as much is also delicious, but you aren’t missing anything you aren’t getting with the cheap stuff. It’s all gold!
Consider a carrier. If your kids are young enough that you can strap them on your back and carry them, do it. If your kids are old enough to walk throughout the entire day, make them walk. There are hundreds of bridges in Venice, and all of them have steps. It’s tough to make an arguement for the convenience of a stroller when you are constantly lugging it up and down steps. Although I will say carrying a 30lb toddler when she was too sleepy to walk was actual torture, and I was missing the crap out of my stroller. If you can leave it behind, do it. If you can’t, be ready for the stairs.
Use the alleys to get around. Most people walk alongside the canals, which is great for most of the city, but in the crowded parts it can be near impossible to get anywhere. Sneak into an alley and then follow the same path parallel to the water but more secluded. You’ll avoid the crowds and also come across more interesting shops and eateries that the locals use!
Get the gelato. Gelato is everywhere in italy, and it’s only 1 euro in most places. It’s too good to pass up, and you’re on vacation anyway. Just get the damn gelato.
Check out my Venice Walking Guide! I’ve created a map of my favorite stops in Venice, Italy!