Our recent trip to Venice consisted of lodging at a local Air Force Base and driving to/from Venice twice. There is also the train option which some people opt for. I will provide you with information on our experience and hopefully some of you who have traveled and stayed in actual Venice can provide your own experience for those who have no interest in driving/taking the train back and forth.
Arriving in Italy
There is no fanfare arriving in Italy by car. Although there are police at the border crossing, they wave you through. There is no toll sticker in Italy. There is a Telepass available which is like the EZ pass back home (transponder needed) which is unnecessary unless you live there. Tolls are collected at unmanned toll booths. After you enter Italy, you will eventually come upon a toll booth that will give you a ticket (biglietto). You then continue driving until you either exit or arrive at the next toll booth. At the next toll booth, you insert your ticket and the computer screen generates your toll based on where you entered/exited the highway. You then can pay with bills and coins or you can pay with a credit card (chip and pin only). We used cash and it was very easy. The toll booth computers have an option for English.
Mountain View Lodge at Aviano
Aviano is located in the province of Pordenone about 43 miles from mainland Venice and about 5 hours from Vienna. It is accesible to members of the military and those in the USG on official travel orders. The Mountain View Lodge is one of the nicest base lodgings we have ever stayed in with very well maintained two bed room apartments with full kitchen and a decent sized playground for the kids in the courtyard.
We stayed in the apartment, but they also have hotel rooms. There is a large commissary as well as an Exchange store (like Target/Walmart) where you can get anything from high end to low end merchandise. There is a food court serving up American junk food (Popeye’s Chicken, Anthony’s Pizza, Burger King, and Cinnabon) and even a barber shop.
Aviano is a good “home” base for exploring Northern Italy via day trips. You can go to Venice, Verona, Padua, Bolzano, and Milan in 1-3 hours. It is also a bargain at about 50-60 USD per night with a pet fee of 10 USD compared to other cramped European lodging within Venice and other cities. But, it is an hour away from Venice which means that you must drive to Venice every day to and from. However, after experiencing what the transition from mainland Venice to the Venetian lagoon islands is like, I am rather glad we stayed at Aviano versus Venice.
Staying in Venice has its merits, obviously, but getting there and back to the mainland is a hassle with luggage and even more so with children.
Arriving in Venice
We opted to drive to Venice. As you get on off the highway and drive along the long bridge to Piazzale di Roma, you will note that this image of Venice does not reconcile with the one in your mind. It is not pretty. It is, after all, a major port, and therefore, it has an industrial rather than paradise like feel. Piazzale di Roma is your destination here. It is basically the bus depot. This is where you will find two of main parking garages where you will pay to house your vehicle while you go off to the lagoon at a cost of 25-30 Euro for 24 hours regardless of whether you stayed for 6, 12 or 24 hours. There is a cheaper garage located at Tronchetto (at the Santa Lucia Train Station), but it is a bit further out hence why it is cheap. You can view garage information here.
You can opt to take the train into Venice-Santa Lucia Station as well. The cost for two adults and two children in 2nd class (no reserved seat) 19.70 Euro each way for a total of 39.40 Euro. First class travel with a reserved seat is 29.70 or about 60 Euro round trip. Driving is slightly cheaper, but not by much when you add tolls and gas consumption to the total.
Piazzale di Roma
My perception of Piazzale di Roma: it is a menagerie of exhausted, disoriented traveler’s wheeling or carrying their luggage trying to figure out how to get to the Venice of their dreams. This is why I was rather glad that we opted for the spacious, cheaper alternative of Aviano. If you have children who cannot completely hold their own (luggage wise), do not bother staying in Venice until they are tweens or teenagers or unless you are willing to carry their luggage yourself. Because whether you arrive by car or train, if you stay in Venice, you will be towing your luggage via the vaporetto or paying a steep sum for someone to do it for you.
A vaporetto is the fancy Italian term for water bus. This differs from water taxis. To get to San Marco, you must purchase a ticket via the ACTV for the vaporetto at about 7 Euro per ride. If you have luggage, you get charged for any luggage after 1 bag. You can opt for a water taxi that will take you to your hotel for 50 – 80 Euro per ride.
The ACTV has a booth that sells day passes as well as single ride tickets. There is also a self-service booth. If you plan to island hop on any particular day (there are 118 islands, but only a handful that most are interested in), a day pass will pay for itself after 3 rides. A 12 hour pass cost 18 Euro vs. 3 individual rides at 7.00 Euro per ride. If you plan to stay at Piazza San Marco the entire day, a one way ticket will suffice.
There are two lines that tourists will utilize the most. The #1 line is the slow boat. It makes several stops along the Grand Canal and takes about 45 minutes to an hour to reach San Marco. Line #2 is the express vaporetto to San Marco and it takes about 25-30 minutes. The N line is the night line.
The vaporetti navigate between water taxis and gondoliers that you just have to wonder how many accidents happen on the Grand Canal every year. They are also quite rough with their buses, frequently slamming onto the side of docks. The boats are crammed full of passengers except for early morning or evenings. Kind of like the DC Metro on 4th of July. But, it is the cheapest way to get around Venice.
Cruising the Grand Canal
The large waterways are called “canals” while the side “streets” are called “rios”. The largest canal is the Grand Canal which transports you from the parking garage areas to San Marco. Along the way, you will come upon the Rialto Bridge which at one time was the only bridge available for persons to cross.
Rialto is home to a fish market as well as a produce market. Today the canal is lined with museums, churches, restaurants, shops, and gondoliers vying for your tourist dollars. The buildings are colorful and the only way to describe it is as elegant decay.
Piazza San Marco
You will know you have arrived by the swarms of tourists you encounter. The moment you get off the vaporetto, you see tourist trap after tourist trap as you walk towards the Palazzo Ducale.
You can easily spend an entire day just here. There are two vaporetto stops here and either one works as far as accessing the Piazza.
Piazza San Marco is the size of two football fields with shops, restaurants and lots of pigeons. We chose to have a panini and pizza lunch on the Piazza for the experience. But, restaurants on the Piazza charge a cover for sitting there because they also provide musical entertainment. Lunch was a pricey 80 Euro for sandwiches, pizza, drinks and coffee. The kids will enjoy the Piazza with the obviously domesticated pigeons mucking about. While it is illegal to feed pigeons, many tourists were doing so. I don’t believe it is enforced. If you feed them, you will find that the pigeons are more than willing to hop on your shoulder or hands or swarm around you enclosing you among their midst. Great fun though you may get pigeon poop on you if you stay there too long.
The Basilica is one of the most magnificent basilicas I have ever had the pleasure of touring. The lines to get in are rather long, but they move about quickly. To bypass the line entirely, check you backpack and a nearby church of Ateneo San Basso located on a side street to the left of the basilica (facing the basilica). Backpacks only – over the shoulder bags cannot be checked in.
There is a cost to see the museum and other exhibits up close. It is worth going in to the exhibits as you can go to the terraces around the basilica for amazing views of the Piazza (see below). I downloaded Rick Steves Audio Guide and was pleased with the information it provided.
This is the bell tower located in front of the basilica. An elevator transports you to the tops for sweeping views all over San Marco. If you go up around noon, the bells will ring!
The actual palace is a treat for Italian renaissance art lovers. Amazing renaissance art by Tintoretto, Titian and other artists. Children will likely be bored here, but there is a silver lining for children if you get tickets to the palace.
At the very end, there is a prison that you can tour and go into various cells. My children enjoyed themselves in that area. Notable prisoners include the womanizing Casanova.
Before going to the prison, you go over the Bridge of Sighs where you can look out through small concrete patterned windows on a beautiful canal, gondoliers and the Venetian lagoon. It is named the Bridge of Sighs because it was the last sight of Venice prisoners saw before going to prison. Sigh…
These are the major sites on the piazza. Other things to do here is to get lost in the small “rios” and bridges throughout this island on foot or by hiring a gondolier. Gondola rides start at 80 Euros for 40 minutes and up to 6 people and 120 Euros for a full hour. Shops and restaurants are also plentiful here. And there are also several other museums. We had children so we kept the “musei” to a minimum.
There are 118 islands in the Venetian lagoon. The ones closest to San Marco and most popular with tourists are Murano, Burano, San Michele and Torcello.
San Michele is basically Venice’s cemetery island. Igor Stravinsky is buried here. There is nothing else to do there but see dead people (or at least their tombstones). Torcello is a quiet island frequented by those interested in the 7th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Dell’Assunta. Other than that there is no draw here. If you are looking for peace and quiet, these are the two islands to visit. If you are looking to shop and eat, Murano and Burano are the top picks.
Murano is the island of glass. It is worth a visit as the glass work is art in and of itself. We were on our way to explore San Marco when we were given a ticket for a free water taxi ride (not vaporetto) to Murano, home of glassblowers/makers. We hopped aboard and switched our plan for the day. The idea is that they funnel you to Murano for free and give you a tour of their factory in the hopes that you will spend money on their glass. You can also board a vaporetto (#12 or 13) to Murano at your own expense. But, if someone approaches you offering to take you to Murano for free, it is all legit.
Upon arriving in Murano, you will be escorted to the glass factory of whoever owns the boat that brought you there for a demonstration. We were able to see the production of glass into objects from start to finish. It was a big hit with the kids. After that they take you to their store where they have the most magnificent glass creations you will ever see. Even Prague’s Bohemian Crystal has nothing on Murano. We didn’t buy anything at this shop, but we went shop to shop looking at their designs and bought things here and there. Those magnificent creations can set you back several thousands, but there are stores selling simpler, affordable glass works and glass jewelry.
Along with the shops, there are several cafes/restaurants along the canals. Lunch was about 70 Euro and while it was good, when you think that you can get four pizza’s back home for 40 bucks, you begin to see why this is the most expensive city possibly after any of the Swiss cities.
There is a glass museum in Murano, but we did not go this time around since we spent most of our time shopping.
Burano is the island of lace where you will find everything made with lace or woven fabric. We headed to Burano after our visit to Murano. If you plan to do this, note that you need to take the vaporetto from the Faro stop which is a different stop than the one you arrived which is Colonna. Line 12 will take you on a 35 minute ride to Burano. The line was long when we were there because that vaporetto does not run as often as the others.
What stands out about Burano are the colorful facades on the homes here. It is very easy to get around on foot. Burano like Murano is mostly a lace shopping and dining destination. There is a museum of lace just like there is a museum of glass in Murano. A nice restaurant if you are there during lunch or dinner is the Tratorria al Gatto Nero which was featured on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows. If you explore, you will find evidence that this island has been sinking through the years. The church located in the open square has a steeple/tower that is tilting as a result.
On a side note, but relevant to those with children, do yourself a favor and locate the only bathroom on the island. It was raining a bit while we were there and this must have reminded my youngest that she needed to go. Trying to locate the bathroom in the rain was not fun. There are WC signs on the ground so remember to look down and follow the arrow.
Be sure to keep coins on you at all times – it costs 1.50 Euros to use the bathroom per person. So for our family of four that was 6 Euros to use the facilities! This applies to Venice as a whole.
That was all we had time for during this trip. We spent two whole days in Venice and half a day raiding the commissary at Aviano. My recommendation is to give Venice at least 3-4 days of your time so you can fully take it in. We know we will be back so we will do the rest at a later date. Stay tuned for Venetian Holiday Part Deux:-)