Ahh…Venice. It’s just magical. Venice was unlike any other city I’ve visited. After all, the public transportation is not by bus or tram…but by boat. Like a glittering ballgown cut into pieces, the city is sliced in all directions by a series of canals and stitched haphazardly in places by bridges, each each of them unique.
The architecture, a confluence of Gothic, Byzantine and Islamic styles, is stunning and a bit mysterious. This, together with the abundance of tiny hidden streets, the sounds of moving water and the ever-present gondolas, makes the atmosphere in Venice inescapably romantic.
I had heard that Venice was expensive, but I was determined to see and enjoy the city without spending too much. Surprisingly, that goal wasn’t too difficult to achieve. Here are my recommendations for enjoying Venice on a budget.
- Visit during the off-season.
Skip the crowds during the summer months and visit Venice in the fall or early winter. (I was there in early December.) Yes, the air was a bit chilly, but the atmosphere was subdued and instead of walking shoulder-to-shoulder in a mass of tourists, I could explore the tiny stone streets freely. Even better, accommodation rates are less expensive and you’ll have more options when fewer people are clamoring for rooms. I stayed at Generator Venice, a beautiful new hostel, for $14 a night. I learned later that this wasn’t the best deal (see #2 below), but there were lots of other places available to choose from during my stay.
2. Find a place to stay on the main island.
To save the most money in Venice, it’s important to plan your transportation wisely and know exactly where your lodging is located. I chose to stay at Generator Venice hostel because it was the cheapest hostel available and had great reviews on Hostelbookers.com, the site I usually use to book hostels. It was clean and comfortable, and the common area/restaurant/bar felt more like a hip boutique hotel than a cheap hostel. It was also located right across the canal from the beautiful Piazza San Marco, which is a main hub of activity in Venice.
What I didn’t realize when booking was that the hostel is located on the island of Guidecca and the only way to reach Piazza San Marco is by vaporetto (public transport boat). The fare isn’t cheap for short-term visitors. It takes less than five minutes to cross the canal, but the options are to pay 7.50 Euros per trip (the ticket is technically good for 60 minutes) or buy a pass that is valid from 1-7 days. I needed a three-day pass, which costs 40 Euros (about $43). Learn more about the transportation pass by visiting the official city pass site.
I could have saved that 40 Euros by staying on the main island. After taking that charge into account, I realized that it would have been cheaper (and more convenient) to stay at a hostel on the main island.
3. Skip the gondola and take the public transportation.
I just finished talking about how pricey the public transportation can be, right? That’s true, but if you’d like to see the Grand Canal without investing in a short gondola ride, the vaporetto is the way to go. The city of Venice’s current standardized price for a gondola ride is 80 Euros for 40 minutes. I’ve heard varying accounts on the quality of the gondola rides, so I decided to save my money and put my vaporetto pass to good use.
Vaporetto Line 1 will take you all the way around the scenic Grand Canal. Sit in the front of the boat if there’s a seat available and get your camera ready. The ride starts at Piazzale Roma and you can do the entire 40-minute ride to the San Zaccaria stop at the end of the Grand Canal with one 7.50 Euro ticket. Alternatively, if you choose to buy a 20 Euro one-day ticket in order to visit some of the other islands, you can take Line 1 that day at no additional cost.
The ride is most magical and atmospheric in the evening, but I did the route in the early morning, as well, to get some daylight shots.
4. Wander around the city.
Did I mention that Venice is magical? Just wandering around this gorgeous city feels like an event. And wandering is absolutely free! Take your camera and get lost among the narrow streets. Admittedly, this activity probably isn’t quite as pleasant in the heat of summer and tourist season (see tip #1!), but I imagine that Venice is gorgeous at any time of year.
Even if you decide not to take a gondola ride, you’ll enjoy standing on the bridges and watching the boats navigate through the narrow canals. You’ll also find hundreds of little restaurants and cubby-hole shops selling Italian writing papers and journals, glass in every imaginable shape, and masks…lots of masks.
Masks have been a symbol of Venice for centuries. They’re now worn most widely during the the annual Carnival celebration, which takes place in January or February, but they served many different purposes in the past. The “plague doctor” mask (above) was developed by a doctor who wanted to keep his distance and protect himself while treating plague victims.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see Piazza San Marco at night. You can wander around the enormous courtyard and glimpse the famous (and famously pricey) Cafe Florian all lit up before joining the other visitors on the promenade along the canal.
5. Shop for groceries and cook your own meals.
This is a general budget tip for travel in any city, but dining out in Venice can be particularly expensive. My hostel did not have a kitchen for cooking, but saved quite a bit by stocking up on fruit and veggies, bread, chestnut spread (which I had never seen before but tasted delicious), and cheese at one of the small supermarkets on the main island.
My breakfast and lunch were covered by my low-cost supermarket haul, and I had cheap dinners from the hostel restaurant or joined a new friend at a hidden and inexpensive local spot pointed out by a tour guide.
6. Stop into some churches.
While in Venice, I saw some of the most beautiful churches I’ve encountered in Europe. Don’t miss the stunning Basilica di San Marco, the centerpiece of Piazza San Marco. The church has several sections requiring paid admission, but the main sanctuary is free to visit.
Most other churches in Venice are free, while some charge admission until 5 p.m. If you slip in after 5, you can look around for free for about an hour.
7. Spend a day exploring Murano and Burano.
If you’re visiting Venice for more than a day or two, I really recommend taking the vaporetto to the islands Murano and Burano to see a different side of the city. You’ll want to get a 24-hour pass for 20 Euro instead of paying separately for each leg of your tour.
Murano Island is known for the production of the famous Murano glass. Glass was originally manufactured in Venice, but in the 11th Century, all of the glass factories were forced to moved to Murano to mitigate the risk of fires in Venice. Today, the island is home to about 20 glass factories and (roughly) a zillion glass shops. Most factories offer free glass-blowing demonstrations, which are neat to watch.
Through a Facebook connection, I learned that a gentleman with the same last name as mine owned a glass factory on Murano. I contacted Dino Bugno a few days ahead of my visit, and was treated to a glass-making demonstration and a personal tour of the amazing showroom at Vetreria Artistica Vivirini. I was in awe of the intricate glass chandeliers and the sheer variety of glass sculptures on display. The Venice Bugno family also gave me some great tips on what to see and do in the city.
I’m not aware of any of my ancestors hailing from Italy, but the Bugnos were very nice and I wouldn’t mind claiming some Italian heritage! We all agreed that we must be related somewhere along the line.
If Murano is known for its glass, Burano is known for its lace…and its multi-colored houses. I’m not all that interested in lace (and my backpack is pretty full already), so I skipped the shops and spent my visit taking photos. I couldn’t resist these cheerful rows of homes dressed up like boxes of crayons.
8. Take a free walking tour.
I often extol the virtues of free walking tours. I’ve enjoyed them in a number of cities, but the tour I took in Venice was one of the best and most fun I’ve experienced. I booked ahead through the Venice Free Walking Tour website, and I recommend that you do the same. The tour company is well-known and currently rated #1 on TripAdvisor, so tours do fill up. Those who show up without booking aren’t guaranteed a place on the tour.
Our tour guide shared all sorts of fun details about Venice, showed us “hidden” spots I wouldn’t have seen on my own, and provided some great budget tips on where to find the cheapest happy hour and the best local seafood spots at reasonable prices.
9. Take the elevator to the top of the Campanile di San Marco.
I didn’t pay for many attractions in Venice, but I did want to get a great view of the city from above. Unlike most towers I’ve visited, the Campanile di San Marco, located across from the Basilica, has an elevator to the top instead of a staircase. As such, it commands a higher entrance fee (8 Euros). I thought the price was worthwhile to see the gorgeous views from the top!
10. Visit Academia Bridge for the best views in town.
One of the fantastic tips I learned from my walking tour guide that the most beautiful photos of Venice are not shot from the famous Rialto Bridge, but from the less-crowded Academia Bridge at the end of the Grand Canal. She was right. The views are absolutely gorgeous, and you won’t get into an elbow-war with the tourists around you. You’ll find plenty of room to position your shot.
Though I didn’t spend much money in Venice, I don’t feel like I missed out on a thing. I was seduced by the city’s unique magic, and my visit to Venice stands out as one of the highlights of my travels in Europe. Don’t skip Venice because you’ve heard it’s expensive. Whatever your budget, the best advice I can offer is just to go.