The entire family will enjoy a few days exploring the treasures of this Venice, Italy's unique city on water.
Everything is different about Venice, Italy, perhaps the most unusual city in the world. Leave your maps at home because there’s little doubt you’ll get lost in the endless maze of back streets and sometimes deserted squares. Leave your car behind as well. The only way to get around is by foot and water.
Venice is a city of canals, bridges and alleys –177 canals, 455 bridges and 2,000 alleys to be exact. You’ll see police cars, except they are floating; traffic lights, except that they are hanging over water; docking piers that are bus stops; and “driveways” in front of houses that are staked out with poles sticking out of the water.
Even its history is different. You might call it intrepid. It was first settled during the barbarian invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries when people of the Veneto mainland were regularly sacked. By the time Attila the Hun came through, city residents had enough. They built their famous watery villages on rafts of wooden posts driven into the soil, laying the foundations of today’s floating palaces.
Venice was once one of the most powerful cities in the world. In 1300, it was the leading maritime city in Europe, but the Black Plague killed half its citizens and by 1800, Venice’s place in the world started to transform into a tourist attraction. It was here that the celebration of Mardi Gras began and is still celebrated. Today, the city has about 65,000 residents who, mainly because of cost and general difficulties of life in a high-priced city, are dwindling still further. To make it worse, the city is sinking at a rate of perhaps a foot a year.
Love It or Hate It
Many of my well-traveled friends hate this city. It’s hot during the summer and no surprise that it stinks because of the water. You have to share the sidewalks with hordes of people because it’s often very crowded. Do you like pigeons? You’ll find more of this generally nasty bird here than perhaps anywhere else in the world. And the cost of living is generally twice what you would pay anywhere else in Italy.
If that’s not enough to discourage intrepid travelers, consider this: Venice has long been known for its striped shirt-clad gondoliers warbling “O Solo Mio,” but these guys today are more likely to be very high-priced, glum gondoliers talking on the cell phones glued to their ears.
But many visitors remain entranced by this amazing city. My own family came here by train from Rome. We exited the grime-crusted railroad station and walked down huge stone steps to see a startling sight: water is everywhere, boats are everywhere. It was like seeing a medieval European city that had been transplanted onto a huge lake. Giant stone palaces seemed to float on water. Where were the roads? Where were the cars?
It’s easy to envision this city as a romantic getaway, but far harder to imagine it as an attractive place for families. Venice is known for ancient buildings and attractive art, of course. But for families who have only a passing interest in either of those pursuits, the city has other attractions. Sure, families can feed the pigeons at the famous Piazza San Marco, but, note that boats can be rented to take visitors to vast oases of fauna, archeological ruins and even hidden islands.
So What Do Families Do Here?
Personally, when my family visited here, we did what so many others families do. We got lost. We never found our hotel but finally checked into another. Not that I was pleased at the time, but thinking back, so what? If you remember you’re on an island, you can never be too far afield.
In reality, this is not the kind of place where you take a family for a week of fun, but for a day or two, it exposes children to a truly beautiful place. Why go? Because it’s beautiful. And it’s there.
One of the most popular places is the Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace, a grand mansion filled with art and history. Boring perhaps to children, but they might be interested in the stone prison cells at the Bridge of Sighs, which connects the palace to the prison complex. A so-called Doge could sentence, torture and jail just about anyone. Prisoner carvings decorate the jail walls.
Granted, it’s educational, but don’t tell the kids that. Also, take them to the neighborhood that gave the world the word ghetto. Venetians confined the Jews to this area in 1516 where they were allowed only to lend money at low interest, operate pawnshops controlled by the government, trade in textiles or practice medicine. Though ostracized, they were safe in Venice. Today, the ghetto is a quiet neighborhood of backstreets that is still home to Jewish institutions, a kosher restaurant and five synagogues.
There are various passes on the vaparetti (bus/boats) for island-hopping and I’d recommend looking up Lido, which is Venice’s beachfront. Rent bicycles here to explore the beach.
When it comes to food, you can easily spend a lot. The San Marco area, for example, has fine but expensive restaurants. But for families on a budget, the area known as Campo Santa Margarita has Irish pubs and restaurants and is near the university and the ghetto. That should give anyone a clue it is cheap, or relatively so in this expensive city.
There is a huge variety of food here but if you stick with fish, you’ll be safe. Don’t expect great pasta. Instead of sit-down meals, however, I’d recommend cicchetti, which are small portions of food served in bars all over the city. Here, children will enjoy eating meatballs and fried vegetables standing up. Among the least expensive but good restaurants are Anice Stellato, a family-run trattoria where specialties include raw tuna, swordfish and salmon dressed with olive oil; Ai 4 Feri where the food is served on paper tablecloths is a small restaurant with a laid-back atmosphere with a menu that varies daily; Al Marco, popular with young locals because of its low-priced sandwiches; and ristorante/pizzeria Academic Foscarini, overlooking a canal and offering decent and inexpensive pizza. There’s also Gelateria Millevoglie for inexpensive pizza and ever-popular gelato, Italy’s delicious version of ice cream.
Perhaps the best known hotel in the city is the San Clemente Palace, a five-star place with impeccable service housed in a 17th century monastery, but most families will wince at the price, upwards of $350/N or so. A somewhat less expensive but very comfortable hotel is the Best Western Montecarlo, just a few steps from the San Marco Square. With an old-fashioned touch, oversize keys are turned in at the desk and kept in mail slots when hotel-goers leave their rooms. It’s comfortable, but rates are upwards of $200/N.
There are some hotels for $150 or perhaps even less, including the Albergo Doni, which has 13 somewhat dim but adequate rooms with ceiling fans, the Casa Cosmo, a small five-room place centrally located offering minimal service but with air conditioning, Hotel Galleria, with nine rooms with views of the Grand Canal, Domus Cavanis, a hostel with 30 simple and quiet rooms; La Fontana, a small, family run hotel that serves a continental breakfast and is located very near the Piazza San Marco (N.B. there is no elevator); and Don Orinoe Religious Guest House, a 50-room former monastery.
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