Getting Busy in Venice
My husband, upon his first and, in my opinion, long overdue visit to Venice, turned to me whilst I was pulling him off in the direction of our kayaking tour and said, ‘there are some cities where you go on holiday and just relax. Venice is not one of them, eh?’
Whilst there are plenty opportunities to sit and relax with a spritz and watch the world go by, my man friend is, to a point, right. Venice is a city of doing and seeing, of being on your feet and exploring. There are plenty of guidebooks to describe the myriad things to see – museums, churches, historical sites – so I won’t mention them here. There are however some amazingly fun activities to do in Venice, activities that aren’t always well advertised when typing ‘things to see and do’ into a search engine. I’ve listed below some of the activities I’ve done and some others that I’ve come across but haven’t yet done. Let me know if you’ve tried any of them – or can recommend others – I’m always on the look-out for new experiences!
Take a Cichetti tour – Cichetti are Venice’s version of Spanish tapas. Cheap, cheerful and very yummy. There are various holiday operators that offer tours of the best Cichetti bars with wine tastings thrown in, one of them being Viator Tours. But do a bit of research and you can do your very own tour. I spent an afternoon doing just that and I was stuffed, happy, and still in pocket by the end of the day.
Take a Walk – Acquaint yourself with the residential areas of Venice with a free – yes free! – walking tour with the aptly named company Venice Free Walking Tour. Local guides take you around areas such as Cannaregio, explaining the history, legends, and secrets of the city. The company has recently started food and drink tours too!
Learn Italian – the city’s language school, Istituto Venezia, is one of the best ways to learn the language, take in the city, and sample life as a local. From complete beginners to advanced level, the school offers courses for all competencies, from one week up to six months (or really as long as you’re motivated!). Classes are held Monday to Friday, 9am – 1pm, leaving you the afternoons to explore or, if you’re really keen, take extra Italian lessons. The school provides very cheap accommodation as well as afternoon activities out and about in Venice. Very highly recommended.
Kayak around the City – An activity not for the faint hearted, a number of companies run kayaking trips around the city. I took a four hour trip with Venice Kayak. The tour guide take you all around Venice, and I mean all around Venice! Be prepared to navigate rush-hour traffic on the Grand Canal and steer your way around cruise liners in the basin of San Marco. Slightly terrifying but an incredible experience.
Learn the Art of Murano Glass – Okay, so I said I wouldn’t mention museums, but this is one that has to get a mention. Take a trip to the Museo del Vetro – Museum of Glass – and learn the history of this ancient tradition of glass making and see it in action whilst getting a peek into a historical palazzo.
Visit the Veneto Region – Explore the gorgeous environs of Venice with a day trip to the Dolomite mountains or a day out sampling (read=drinking copiously) the local prosecco and grappa in the wine region. Viator Tours have a range of trips in and out of Venice and the majority are well worth it. Some local trips can be done a little cheaper yourself, for example, trips to Murano, Burano and Torcello, but the trips to the Veneto regions are, in my opinion, great value.
Go into Quarantine – Visit the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, where sailors to medieval Venice would spend forty (quaranta) days to ensure they weren’t carrying any diseases before entering the city – hence the English word ‘quarantine’. The island is now a combination of ancient Roman and Venetian ruins, set idyllically in the middle of the scenic lagoon. It’s probably not a tour to take if it’s your first visit to Venice but certainly one worth doing in future visits. Tours are given in Italian every Saturday and Sunday at 9.45am and 4.30pm between April and October. Take the #13 vaporetto from Fondamenta Nove. Make sure to tell the on-board staff where you’re going – the island is a request only stop.
Learn to row a gondola – Learn the traditional style of Venetian rowing by taking a two hour gondola class. It’s superb, if not fairly physical, fun traversing the quiet canals of Venice and having tourists snap pictures of you. I took my class with Row Venice. The company is run by an American expat and lessons can be taken in English or Italian.
Take a boat tour – local company, Il Bragozzo, offers small groups the opportunity to enjoy the city from a different, watery, perspective. You’ll have the chance to try the Venetian art of the la voga rowing, or simply sit back and enjoy the ride.
Climb the Torre dell’Orologio – Everyone sees the majestic clock tower of San Marco, but many people don’t realise you can actually get inside it. Tours run daily up into the Torre dell’Orologio – or Clock Tower. The tours lead you up the winding staircase into the tower’s old living quarters of its caretakers and offers in-depth views of the mechanisms of the grand clock. A slightly precarious staircase takes you out on to the very top of the tower, giving you amazing views of San Marco and the whole of Venice. It’s a really interesting tour with the tour leader providing great anecdotes and historical titbits. Word of warning though, it’s a physical journey to the top of the Clock Tower, so if you’re limited in mobility then this might be one to avoid.
Rent a bike – So you can’t ride a bike in Venice, though I’ve seen some try, but you can do on the Lido, the 7km long, 1km wide island just a vaporetto stop from the Venice mainland (not to be confused with the Lido di Jesolo, another island farther away). Bike hire is very cheap, less than 10 euro for a few hours hire, and you can explore the entire island at your leisure, admiring the amazing views of the lagoon and the island of Venice in the distance. Take a picnic to put in your bike’s basket, or stop at one of the many shops for a gelato.
To reach the Lido, take the #1 vaporetto from Venice. It will take approx 20-30 minutes to get there, depending where in Venice you take the vaperetto from. Once at the Lido, cross the street (carefully – there are cars on this island!) to the promenade, Santa Maria Elisabetta. At the far end of this street you’ll see the shop Venice Bike Rental. You can’t miss it – it’s the shop with all the bikes outside! Make sure and bring a passport or driving licence, this is used as a deposit by the shop.
Have a Flutter – Fancy the thrill of the roulette table? Check out the Venice Casino. Exclusively for visitors to Venice, there’s a small fee to join on entry, but you get some free chips to take a flutter with. There’s no dress code for women, but men have to wear a suit jacket in order to bet. If you don’t have one, not to worry – you can rent one from the Casino!
Learn to Cook – Instead of sampling the local cuisine, cook it! The language school, Istituto Venezia offers cooking classes every Thursday night, cooking – and then sampling! – local Venetian cuisine. You don’t have to be a student at the school to take part, but be warned that the class will be held in Italian. That being said the chefs are very aware of everyone’s different levels and will happily explain something in English if you’re not getting the gist. The course costs approx. 40 euro. Sign up via the website or visit the school when you’re in town.
Visit the ancient islands – Take a trip to the beautifully secluded island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni and explore the famous Armenian monastery favoured by Lord Byron during his Venetian transgressions. Follow your tour guide through the history of the monastery, its people, church, and gardens, and take a peek at their treasure trove of ancient artefacts and books in their museum. Only one tour a day is offered. Take the #20 vaporetto from the San Zaccaria stop at 3.10pm, which will take you straight to the monastery doors where your guide will meet you. Tours cost approx. 6 euro and are given in both English and Italian.
Take an Art Course – Channel your inner Michelangelo with an art course at the Istituto Venezia and learn about the Venetian masterpieces in painting, architecture and sculpture. Study for three hours in the morning or the afternoon. Prices start at 250 euro per week. Courses require a basic understanding of Italian.
Take in a Show – The world-famous La Fenice shows a range of classical and contemporary theatre productions throughout the year, from La Traviata to Madama Butterfly. Seats don’t come cheap and the dress code is debonair, but it’ll be quite an experience seeing a first-class production in such a building. If an opera is outside your budget but you want a peek inside La Fenice, the building is open during the day for visitors to explore, for a small entrance fee.
If opera’s not your bag, how about some light-hearted comedic sketches with a historical twist? Venezia: The Show, is a self-confessed ‘romp’ through the city’s lively 1500 years, combined with fantastic costumes, music, and theatrics. The show is performed daily at Teatro San Gallo. Tickets are 39 euro for adults, with concessions available for children, students, and seniors.
The Venice Jazz Club is another firm favourite amongst tourists. Entry is 20 euro and gets you a free drink, some anti-pasti, and an evening of live jazz music.. There’s a whole host of other theatre and musical shows throughout the city, throughout the year. For a full list, check out: www.musicinvenice.com or www.classictic.com
Make a Mask – Rather than buy an overpriced Venetian mask, why not make your own one! Local-run shop, Ca Macana, offers small group courses teaching the history, art, and techniques to make your own hand-made mask. Courses are 1 – 2 hours, and have to be booked online. It’s not the most economical of activities, but the bigger your group the cheaper the course will be.
Go for a Picnic – After you’ve exerted yourself doing all those activities, take it easy with a picnic in Venice’s only public gardens, Giardini. A lovely open and green space, filled with locals walking their dogs, gorgeous views out onto the lagoon, and some outdoor gym equipment if you get antsy. A lovely area to chill out in with a book or to people-watch.