This article originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Dream of Italy. Find the details here. Updated 2018.
There are, in my experience, three kinds of trips.
There are the trips that seem hexed from the start. Planning is like pulling teeth, available flights all seem to leave at 4:30 a.m., hotel options are limited to the penthouse suite of the Ritz or the backpacker hostel 40 minutes outside of town, and the dog-sitter cancels the night before you leave.
There are, instead, the trips that just seem meant to be. Details fall magically into place, charming historic inns are discovered, unforgettable meals are savored, sunsets over shimmering water (wine glass in hand) are photographed, and travel bucket list items are effortly checked off in triumph.
Then there are the third, and best, kind of trips. These start in the painful first category, so much so that you find yourself wondering if you should just cancel the whole thing and catch up on Downton Abbey at home instead. Then, somehow — through luck, serendipity, and a bit of grit — they end up falling into the blessed second group, and often become the trip of a lifetime.
This is how my weekend getaway to Venice with my nine- and 12-year-old sons evolved. It began with the wheels of trip planning creaking so slowly around that I was sorely tempted to postpone. I chose to visit during the a long Italian holiday weekend (All Saints and All Souls days) at the beginning of November, so the Venice-bound trains were overflowing and tickets twice their normal price and every hotel within a 12-mile radius was fully booked.
“Ugh, Venice will be a nightmare this weekend” was the most common refrain when I would enthusiastically share my travel plans with friends.
I had already promised my sons this trip, and as any parent knows, there is no face more heartbreaking than the disappointed face. As our family lives in the central region of Umbria, we had often visited nearby Rome and Florence but my kids have never seen Venice. My older son, Nicolò, has begun to study Italian history in school, and was curious to see the maritime republic which dominated much of the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages.
Leonardo, his younger brother, still has a low museum threshold, so I knew that Venice — with its canals, gondolas, and twisting alleys dotted with miniature footbridges — would hold his attention longer than the Vatican or the Uffizi had.
So I doubled my determination, and found that suddenly things started coming together. Train seats miraculously appeared, and through a number of Venetian friends and acquaintances I was able to find the perfect accommodation, book some incredible tours, and plan a couple of Venetian activities. And what began as a planning nightmare turned out to be a dream trip.
Here are a number of tips and pointers to help you plan an unforgettable — and family-friendly — visit to Venice.
I made the big mistake of waiting until the last minute to start hammering out my travel logistics, which may work for a less popular destination or in low season, but for Venice in high season or during a holiday it just makes fitting the pieces together that much more complicated. Start planning early!
Venice can be mind-boggling for adults, let alone for children who may need some additional explaining to understand the historical context and amazing engineering behind this unique city. For help, I highly recommend Viva Venice: A Guide to Exploring, Learning, and Having Fun by Paola Zoffoli, which is both thorough and, with its beautiful illustrations, fun to read. Kids Go Europe: Treasure Hunt Venice by Ellen Mouchawar is another excellent guide to browse before your departure, but primarily to pack along.
Eating and Sleeping
There’s no getting around it: Venice is an expensive city. One excellent way to shave down the cost of accommodation and meals is to book a self-catering apartment.
Not only does an apartment give your family a roomier place to retreat for some downtime (especially if you still have napping toddlers), the flexibility of having your own kitchen to prepare meals can be a lifesaver. There are a number of grocery stores in Venice — and the famous outdoor Rialto market for fish and produce — where you and your kids can have the fun cultural experience of buying food elbow to elbow with Venetians.
Which brings me to the second advantage of booking an apartment: that heady sensation of “living like a local.” When staying in Venice (which I recommend doing for at least four days, but ideally for a week or more), it’s wonderful for kids to feel, even for a fleeting moment, like part of the city’s social fabric. On those trips when we book an apartment, my sons will often recall the visit in terms of, “Remember when we lived in…” though our stays almost never last more than a week or two.
We were lucky enough to fall into a lovely private suite through a recommendation by Row Venice’s Nan McElroy (see below). When Nan heard that I was getting desperate for lodgings, she made a few calls and came up with…well…heaven. Perfectly located just steps from the major sights, the perfect size for the three of us, with a convenient kitchenette and a spotless bathroom, I literally got tears in my eyes when we staggered off the train at 10 p.m. to find this gem waiting for us. The only thing better than the accommodation was the hostess, Venetian local Liviana, who treated us like family from the moment we arrived and did everything in her power to make our stay flawless.
Much is said about Venice’s cicchetti bars (a sort of Venetian tapas), which is, indeed, a lively and relatively inexpensive way to dine. That said, unless your kids are particularly adventurous eaters who jump at the chance to sample creamed cod on toast or marinated onions and sardines, you will probably have trouble navigating cicchetti with them.
I found the best option was a compromise: restaurants with full menus which also served cicchetti as an appetizer. That way, I and my pluckier older son could taste some traditional Venetian dishes, while my more cautious younger son could dig in to a plate of spaghetti.
If you’re going to splurge on one thing during your trip to Venice, splurge on a kid-friendly guided tour of the city. This was, by far, the best money spent–in terms of fun and education. We took two fabulous general tours of Venice: the first with Nadia of Friend in Venice, who accompanied us through the main sights in and around Piazza San Marco.
She began by whisking my kids to the quiet rooftop terrace of a nearby hotel, where she sat down for a few minutes with some colorful children’s books about Venice to give them a general background explanation. From there, we began a two-hour walking tour, narrated with a mixture of history and culture peppered with fun anecdotes. Her warm, auntie-like charm completely won my kids over by the end of our visit.
We also booked the excellent Daily Life in Venice for Families itinerary, offered by Context Tours. Our guide, Monica, was an American who has lived in Venice for decades after first coming to do doctoral research.
A parent herself, Monica struck the perfect balance between highbrow cultural explanations and lowbrow crowd pleasers (for example, how until recently Venice had no sewer system…), and took us through some quieter residential neighborhoods to get a taste of a different side of bustling Venice. She had a sixth sense about my kids’ attention spans (and need for snack and bathroom breaks), and was able to keep them engaged and interested during our entire time together.
As we were visiting over Halloween weekend, I also arranged to meet with Monica Cesarato for her Venice Ghost Tour. What could be better for two boys than a walk through Venice’s two-millenia-long history served up in the guise of ghost stories? There were tales of murder, beheadings, drownings, plague, spirits, and ghouls, all woven with historic events and facts. My sons were, as you can imagine, mesmerized, and I was pleased to see that they were picking up some Venetian culture along the way.
When asked, Leonardo pronounced the tour “not that scary.” Then he woke me up at 2 a.m. to ask me if there was really a headless ghost wandering the alleys of Venice and, just to be on the safe side, if he could sleep with me. It goes without saying that this was his favorite tour.
We love planning organized activities during family trips. It lends a little structure to a visit, is much more hands-on for my travelling youngsters who are “churched-out,” and gives me a break while my kids are absorbed for an hour or two in a project.
One of our favorite activities during our stay was our voga rowing lesson with Row Venice. Under the guiding hand of veteran rower, Nan McElroy, my kids learned a bit about the traditional voga rowing style, the kinds of boats found along the Venetian canals, and were given a quick lesson in rowing. Then we were off, into the lagoon in our gorgeous wooden boat, being rowed in turns by my sons. They loved the lesson, and I loved relaxing in the stern for an hour while I gliding down Venice’s quieter canals.
It also gave us all much more appreciation for how difficult rowing a gondola is, despite the effortless air the city’s gondoliers exude. I assumed my older son would shine at rowing, but it was actually the nine-year-old who picked it up immediately and pronounced it his favorite activity of the weekend. He has already asked when we can go back to Venice so he can row again.
We also spent a wonderful day with Marika from Acquolina Cooking School, donning aprons and preparing a huge Venetian meal together with another family visiting Venice from the U.S. We began the day by meeting Marika at the Rialto market, where we purchased many of the ingredients we would be using later in the day.
After a short walk to a nearby bar for a snack, our group hopped a water taxi to the nearby island of Lido at Villa Ines, where Marika set us to task preparing gnocchi, tagliatelle, fried fish, vegetables and tiramisu. Afterwards, we lingered over our food and chatted away the afternoon. A fabulous experience, especially if your kids (like mine) love to cook.
Nicolò, my older son, is a budding foodie and this was his favorite activity. He especially appreciated the recipe packet we were given to take home, so he can try his hand at some of the dishes on his own. Which we will all happily sample!
Another excellent kid-friendly activity in Venice is mask-making. Venice, with its famous and sumptuous Carnival tradition, is saturated with masks. From the gaudiest of mass-produced souvenirs crowding the tourist shops, to the most breathtaking hand-painted examples which are treated as works of art, masks are everywhere in this city.
The artisan workshop Papier Mache in the Castello neighborhood offers mask-making workshops for kids (and adults). They will keep your creation for you until it dries, and then help you pack it up safely for home.
American expat Rebecca Winke is the proprietor of Brigolante in Umbria. She has been a frequent contributor to Dream of Italy and helped to edit our special reports on Italy’s best tour guides. Find out more at www.brigolante.com.
Get all of the details on what to see, where to stay and where to eat – with kids – in Venice.