I just landed and am now on a vaporetto, a water bus, headed toward Venice—dazed from a trip that began in Los Angeles at some ungodly hour. Now a cool, salty breeze washes over me. Seagulls circle my boat and gondolas cruise by. Up ahead, the bell tower of San Marco rises from the mist in the lagoon. This is the best ride from an airport on earth.
Venice, nicknamed La Serenissima (the most serene), is the ideal place to begin an Italian holiday. Since there are no cars, there’s no rush. All I can do is walk or boat around to the rhythm of church bells and water lapping along the canals. It’s so easy to immediately click into a dreamy Italian mood.
Yet “Venice is too crowded and too expensive!” is the same ol’ broken record I hear from travelers—even those who have never been here. So let’s set the record straight: Yes, Venice will be “too crowded and too expensive” if you are “San Marco-centric”—meaning if you dash into the Piazza San Marco at noon when the day trippers pour in, eat at a touristy restaurant there, and check into a five-star hotel right in the Piazza.
Stay away from that situation and Venice can be experienced as she was meant to be—as La Serenissima. Not only serene for your mind and spirit, but also on your wallet.
Venice Budget Basics
To enjoy one of Venice’s most beautiful free pleasures—Piazza San Marco and the adjoining Basilica—visit early in the morning or evening. Spend your days wandering anywhere but San Marco—over bridges, along the canals, in the markets near the Rialto Bridge and Campo Santa Margherita. Every turn can lead to a magical encounter—a shop window displaying Carnevale masks, a balcony overflowing with blooming geraniums, a curvy Baroque church.
Don’t miss Venice Connected, where you can pre-buy discount passes for museums and the vaporetto. This not only saves money, but also saves waiting-in-line time. Don’t miss the bargain opportunity (five euros) to take a vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal; sunset or late at night is ideal.
Sleeping Cheap in Venice
Venice hotel rates fluctuate with the seasons. About six months of the year is considered high season (highest prices): April to June, September and October, Christmas week, and Carnevale (usually mid-February). The cheapest time to come is December and January (except for Christmas week). But all year round you can find reasonably priced accommodations, especially if you look around my favorite neighborhoods: the Dorsoduro, San Polo, and Cannaregio. That’s where to go to feel authentic Venetian life. There’s no shortage of impressive masterpieces, enchanting churches, delicious bakeries, and gelato shops.
For a traditional hotel, starting at 160 euros for a double, there’s the beloved Pensione Accademia in the Dorsoduro, where Katherine Hepburn stayed in the 1955 movie, Summertime. It’s a converted 17th century villa surrounded by gardens, and so popular you need to book it far in advance. Other slightly cheaper gems in the area are La Calcina and Locanda San Barnaba.
For as low as fifty-five euros a night, you can score a bed and breakfast. I recommend two relatively new ones: In San Polo there’s Al Campaniel, a simply styled place run by super-gracious hosts, Gloria and Marco. For a truly magical experience, stay at Domus Orsoni in Cannaregio. This five room B&B is part of the 19th century villa of the Orsoni mosaic foundry. The rooms are exquisitely designed, each featuring the work of Italian mosaic artisans.
As you may know from reading my letters, I’m a big fan of apartment rentals. There are loads of choices in Venice, many starting at around one hundred euros a night. On my last visit, I booked a place in the Dorsoduro from Venice to Stay. It sleeps six, costs 650 euros a week, and features two floors, two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a big living room (with sofa bed), rooftop terrace, fully equipped kitchen, washing machine, and excellent heat.
The best way to experience the culinary treasures of Venice inexpensively is to settle into a restaurant for lunch (which also keeps you clear of the day-trippers) and then hop around the bacari (wine bars) for evening snacks. The seafood here is delizioso, particularly the shellfish. You’ll find it served al crudo (Italian-style sushi), in stews, and flavoring risotto and pasta dishes.
A great bargain lunch spot hidden behind the fish stalls of the Rialto market is Muro (Campo Bella Vienna, closed Sunday). In Cannaregio, it’s easy to find lunchtime deals at places where you’ll be rubbing elbows with the natives. One of the most popular is Trattoria Alle Due Gondolette (Fondamenta delle Cappuccine, 3016, closed Saturday and Sunday), where for twelve euros you can get a fixed price menu of pasta, second course, wine, and coffee.
Bacari styles range from the folksy traditional to the chic. One of the oldest is Cantina Do Mori (San Polo), where you perch on a wine barrel and have 600 wines to choose from along with snacks like braised baby artichokes. East of the Rialto Bridge is a converted medieval bank, Bancogiro, where you can get a Grand Canal view and enjoy innovative goodies like carpaccio di branzino (raw sea bass).
Venetian crafts—hand-blown glass and hand-stitched lace—are extraordinary, but far from bargain-priced. There is also Venetian paper, which makes a fab, easy-to-pack, more affordable souvenir. On my last visit, I discovered a new shop, Carteria ai Frari (Calle Larga 2948, San Polo), run by the artisan, Elisabetta Casaburi Barina, stocked with fanciful, neon-colored journals. For kitschy trinkets like plastic gondolas or t-shirts, head to the stalls of the Rialto Bridge—if you’re buying in bulk, go ahead and bargain.
The best souvenirs from Venice are memories of La Serenissima experiences. For some of these, you have to bend your “I’m on a budget” thoughts. In the moment, it may seem off the charts to pay fifteen euros for a glass of prosecco at San Marco’s Caffe Florian. Or you may balk at spending one hundred euros for a forty-minute gondola ride. But in the big picture, go ahead. This is the stuff of lifelong memories. Believe me, you won’t regret it. Buon divertimento!