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Reflections of Venice, Italy: 48 Hours in the City of Water

I've lived in Flagstaff, AZ, since 2003, where I'm an active member of the Coconino County Sheriff's Search & Rescue team and an avid hiker.

venice-italy-city-of-water

My Advice: Let Yourself Get Lost

That was the best advice we got before our visit to Venice. And now I'm passing that tip on, along with some other suggestions for making the most of your time in this fascinating city at the center of a lagoon.

Our stay in Venice, though it was only two days of our two-week trip to Italy, was filled with exploring the maze of alleyways and canals, morning till night. By the time we left, dragging our suitcases over cobblestones and up and down steps back to the bus station, we felt like we'd been there for much longer. And as many people would probably say after their first time visiting a place, if we were to go back to Venice again someday, we'd do a few things differently.

So, here, I'll talk about some of the ups and ... well, not downs, but let's say less favorable parts of our visit ... and give you my recommendations for how to have the best experience you can in this city of water. Of course, everyone's experience, likes and dislikes, tolerances for certain situations, and budgets are different, but it never hurts to hear from fellow travelers and add their suggestions to your grab-bag of options as you embark on your own adventure.

So, join me for some reflections on our trip and some tips for yours.....

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About Getting Lost in Venice

It's really more like purposeful wandering

And that purpose is the fun of exploration and discovery. Sure, it's fine to have a plan or destination now and then, but what we enjoyed most about Venice was the "choose your own adventure" aspect of spontaneously turning down an alley, emerging along a canal -- there are more than 177 of them dividing Venice into 117 islands -- then wandering down another narrow alley only to come to a dead end and have to try a different route to ... wherever.

As you're probably well aware, there are no vehicles on the streets of historic Venice. Many aren't wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side let alone for a car to go through. Even the trash is collected by men and women pushing carts rather than driving trucks. And these alleys -- they really aren't streets after all -- which are formed by tall buildings on either side as most alleys are, don't allow you to see anything more than straight ahead or behind. It can feel like you're in a constant state of disorientation. And that makes it even more fun to discover where you'll pop out on the other end ... if that other end isn't another wall. If it's not, it's either usually another canal or another alley that you'll see.

Like slot canyons in the city

Like slot canyons in the city

Like slot canyons in the city

You're Never Alone for Long in Venice

Sometimes -- make that often, especially during the summer -- those narrow alleys can get very crowded. There were times we'd turn down what we thought must be a rarely traveled urban slot canyon, only to find ourselves boxed in, moving with the masses with little chance of stopping without getting rear-ended by another body.

Literally, it was often that congested. After all, we were there in June, during part of the busiest season, with bridges filled with tourists from end to end, church and market squares with little more than a small square of space available for each person, and restaurants, shops, and piers packed with people.

So, if crowds aren't your pleasure, think about visiting at a different time of year. To weigh your options in that regard, I suggest reading Best Times to Visit Venice for some pros and cons of the seasons.

Or, if you do happen to go during the more populous times -- which are also the hottest -- I suggest getting up very early and exploring before the masses are finished with breakfast. Then find yourself a cozy spot for a midday siesta -- relaxing at your hotel, which perhaps has a great view of a canal, or people-watching from somewhere comfortable off to the side, in the shade -- and then resume your purposeful wandering in the evening.

And if your budget allows for a gondola ride now and then rather than a crammed water taxi or water bus, you can certainly get some elbow room that way and have a signature Venice experience at the same time.

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Many of the city's 409 bridges look like this during the busy tourist season.

Many of the city's 409 bridges look like this during the busy tourist season.

Many of the city's 409 bridges look like this during the busy tourist season.

All Aboard for a Gondola Tour

This is something we didn't do while we were in Venice, but we enjoyed watching from alongside the canals and bridges, as some of the gondoliers sang to their passengers or gave them a little history lesson or story time. Others rowed quietly along.

Learn more about gondola rides in Venice from someone who changed her mind and decided to spend the money for what she figured might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If we ever go back again ourselves, I do want to go for a gondola ride.

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venice-italy-city-of-water
venice-italy-city-of-water

The Real "Streets" of Venice

A system of canals

If there are 409 canals and 177 bridges, it's a given there isn't always a bridge available to cross when you might want or expect one to be there. The other side -- that shop you want to check out, that restaurant you might want to try, or whatever it is you want to touch or get to (like your hotel maybe) -- is so close but can be oh-so-far away when you have to go hunting for a way to get over there. And then you'll need to figure out how to get back to what it was you'd seen on that side.

In fact, the Grand Canal has just four bridges connecting the land (or the buildings and walkways on pilings in most cases) on either side. So, you might have to walk the better part of a mile to get to what's actually just a few hundred yards, or maybe even a dozen feet, away as the crow flies.

Either that or get on a boat to take you where you want to go.

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

Searching for a bridge to get across, we spot one up ahead after coming to several dead ends first.

Searching for a bridge to get across, we spot one up ahead after coming to several dead ends first.

Searching for a bridge to get across, we spot one up ahead after coming to several dead ends first.

Stroll Along the Zattere - A break from the maze

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If you're feeling a little claustrophobic in Venice, head south to the Zattere, a comparatively long and wide promenade along the Giudecca Canal, with the island of Giudecca across the water. This is where the cruise ships and other large boats come in, but you'll also see plenty of gondolas out here too.

There are also many beautiful buildings along the promenade and a number of waterside restaurants and open-air bars where you can sit and relax. And though the Zattere does get somewhat crowded at times, especially where it narrows at several bridges, it was much more open and less congested than the rest of the city. As you can see in the picture above, we once had it almost had it to ourselves on an early-morning stroll.

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Stay Right in Venice Rather than the Mainland

We were glad we chose a hotel in the heart of the historic city

This is just a suggestion of course based on our experience, but if we were to go back to Venice we still wouldn't try to save money on a hotel by staying on the mainland. Might as well spend the money and stay right in the middle of it all. That way, you can walk out the door and start exploring, especially if you're in Venice for just a short time. For us, two full days was plenty ... maybe a couple more if we wanted to see any of the other islands (ie. Murano) and visit some galleries, see a show, and tour some buildings.

Of course, there are many hotels and B&Bs to choose from in Venice. We read loads of reviews on TripAdvisor, and many were very good to excellent. In the end, we chose Hotel Dalla Mora, which is located right on a canal -- not uncommon in Venice of course -- and included a basic breakfast and clean, comfortable rooms (ours with a private bathroom) at a reasonable price (relatively speaking). We paid 110 Euros per night, which was about 30% more in U.S. dollars.

Hotel Dalla Mora is about a 15-minute walk from the train or bus stations (although, when you're lugging your own luggage, the steps up and over the bridges are a bit challenging), and one of the best features it has is a nice plant-filled patio overlooking a canal.

We made good use of that patio a couple of times, picking up dinner from a nearby to-go shop and dessert from a wonderful bakery that's even closer to the hotel, saving some money on those meals and enjoying a quieter, more private setting where we could eat and relax away from crowds.

So, it's just one of many, many choices in lodging, but we give our thumbs up to Hotel Dalla Mora. Visit their website for more information.

Our room with a view at Hotel Dalla Mora

Our room with a view at Hotel Dalla Mora

Our room with a view at Hotel Dalla Mora

Look for the Cozy and Canal-Side Restaurants ... and maybe even wait for the table you really want

Venice is expensive. That's a fact. And restaurants are certainly no exception. Rarely did we see a restaurant -- other than a to-go kebab/falafel/pizza stand -- that was any "cheaper" than the rest, whether it was along an alley or the water. Not to mention that most of the menus were very similar, at least among the dozens of eateries we checked out in our struggle to decide which to choose.

So, I say go for the coolest-looking restaurants you see, especially those right along the water where you can sit to your heart's content and watch the boats pass by and the seaweed wiggle in their wakes. Now, Venetian waiters did seem a bit more eager for us to move along than anywhere else we ate in Italy -- usually, it was a challenge just to get the waiter to bring the bill -- but, anxious to make way for the next tourist dollars or not, they never asked us to leave.

So, hold out for that table you want and make the most of it.

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A canal-side restaurant where we had a long, leisurely dinner

A canal-side restaurant where we had a long, leisurely dinner

A canal-side restaurant where we had a long, leisurely dinner

Don't Try to Pack it All In

I'll leave the lists and reviews of things to see and do in Venice to sites like Trip Advisor and others listed below. But if you have just a short time in the city -- a day or two maybe -- my suggestion would be to NOT try to see it all. And there really is no way you'd be able to.

Venice may not be all that large in area, but there are so many nooks and crannies, galleries and exhibits, churches and piazzas, tours and entertainment, and shops and markets to peruse, you'd exhaust yourself and probably not really enjoy any of to its fullest if you try to stuff so much into a short amount of time.