Updated August 2016
Getting Away from the Crowds
When we booked a Disney cruise departing in July from Venice, my immediate thought turned to how to give my young kids (4, 6 and 8) a great introduction to the city. The conventional wisdom is that July is a bad time to visit because of the crowds, but we had no choice as to dates. Then we did it again in July 2016, when the kids were two years older.
How to make the best of Venice? This is what we did to maximize our time in the city on both trips so that the kids saw the magical Venice, and not the crowded Venice.
1) The Perfect Hotel
My wife and I stayed at the Hotel Al Ponte Antico seven years ago and loved the hotel. The staff was amazing and the location near the Rialto Bridge was perfect. Given its high TripAdvisor ratings, I knew that the hotel would fill up quickly. So four both of our trips I booked two rooms a full 16 months in advance. I’ve previously written about what makes a hotel kid-friendly – there are a lot of little things that resort hotels can do to make a trip better for families. In the case of a 9-room boutique hotel in a 500-year-old palace on the Grand Canal, most of that isn’t applicable. All that matters is that the staff is kid-friendly, that we feel comfortable with the kids making a little bit of (standard kid) noise, and that the kids feel comfortable. All three were unequivocally the case.
2) A local guide
After booking the hotel, I headed to TripAdvisor to find a guide. We’ve always had excellent trips to Florence last year due in part to our guide there, and have seen first-hand the difference between navigating a city by yourself and hiring an expert. Based on TripAdvisor reviews I wrote to Nadia Danesin and booked her for two days. The only guidance I gave her is that we wanted to get away from the crowds and wanted some kid-friendly activities planned. She delivered.
First, she started with a 15-minute history of the city directed to our kids but very interesting to us as well, including how the buildings were constructed. Then we headed out walking. On the narrow thoroughfare near the bridge and our hotel there were thousands of fast-moving tourists. Within one minute we were off that path and we encountered very few other tourists for the next two hours. She pointed out major historical sites and showed the kids unique architectural details as well as elements of the city that are left over from hundreds of years ago that we would have otherwise overlooked, like the corner shelves in narrow passageways that prevented thieves from hiding there. Despite being slightly jet-lagged, the kids loved it. One highlight was a visit to the aptly-named Acqua Alta (high water) bookstore, that let the kids see first-hand how Venetians cope with regular flooding. We then got into a waiting water taxi and explored the canals for an hour, where Nadia pointed out the elements of the city better seen from the water. It was a great tour and lessened the need to take the kids on a gondola ride.
The next day Nadia picked us up in a water taxi at our hotel (how often can you say that?) and we headed to Murano and Burano for four hours. On Murano Nadia arranged for a glass-blowing demonstration that impressed all of us. The expert glass-blower crafted a horse and a cat for the kids in under five minutes. On Burano, we saw a lace-making demonstration and strolled the colorful canals and hidden courtyards. Nadia also took us to her choice for the best gelato, Dai Fradei, which was excellent. Coming back to the city, we pulled up to the Palazzetto Pisani on the Grand Canal near the Academia bridge where she had Prosecco waiting for us. No matter where we went, from Venice to Murano to Burano, we were off the beaten path, and we were always moving at the pace of the kids. Everything was interesting to both adults and kids.
Nadia arranged a mask painting class for the kids at Il Canovaccio. They loved it. Each of the kids picked out a plain mask and then, with assistance from their mask expert, painted them. They added silver and gold leaf as well, which was a very nice touch, and then Il Canovaccio lacquered the finished masks which we picked up the next day. It was great to be able to do a very local craft, and give the kids a personal connection to the city and the masks that they see in many, many shop windows.
Another highlight, and the only one where we encountered (predictable) crowds, was feeding the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. We had actually contemplated not going through the square, since our goal was to avoid crowds, but given its fame and the fact that the kids hadn’t been to Venice before, we reconsidered. And I’m glad we did. In the late afternoon the square wasn’t very busy, and the kids absolutely loved being swarmed by birds. The birds landed on their arms and heads and even our youngest daughter, who normally shies away from any animal/insect encounters, thought that it was great.
Our second trip we booked a chocolate-making class through VizioVirtù. The class wasn’t as hands-on as our class at Amedei near Pisa a few summers ago, but the instructor was good with the kids and it’s a great chocolate shop. If you haven’t done a chocolate class before, it’s a good introduction.
4) Water Taxis
We loved taking the water taxis everywhere, especially out to the islands. They were more expensive than the ferries but infinitely more convenient, and they allowed us to spend a lot more time on the islands and seeing the real Venice instead of walking long distances (with short legs) to the ferry stops and queuing to get onto the crowded, slower ferries. And this led to a definite highlight for my six-year-old son. On the way from Murano to Burano, Nadia had booked a very kid-friendly water taxi driver who let my son drive the boat most of the way. How many six-year-olds get to drive a water taxi in Venice?
5) A Cooking Class
I’m separating this from the Activities section simply because it was such a great experience. We do cooking classes everywhere we go and this was one of the best – a great setting, an excellent instructor, very kid-friendly and amazing food. We took the public water bus from Rialto to Lido, walked roughly 10 minutes, and arrived at the Acquolina cooking school. With Marika we made basil pasta, mozzarella and porcini ravioli, pesto gnocchi, strawberry ice cream and panna cotta. If you enjoy cooking, I highly recommend this class.
6) A Photo Session
I had seen people posting Flytographer photos from their travels before, and I liked the idea of actually being in some of our family photos for a change. So we booked a 90-minute session with Flytographer and met their photographer Marta at Punta della Dorgana, roughly a half-hour walk from our hotel. It was a perfect meeting place since there was barely anyone else around. Marta was great at making our kids feel comfortable, and I love the final images. Of course you can book Flytographer anywhere in the world, but Venice is a pretty photogenic backdrop!
Have you taken your kids to Venice? What were your highlights? How did you get away from the crowds?
Note: Flytographer provided our photo session at no charge, but I would have happily paid for it. All opinions are mine.