Want to know how I landed on Venice? I literally googled “best places to travel in February.” It came upon multiple lists, and it had the cheapest plane fares out of everywhere else that came up on multiple lists. Great. Done. Sold. I’d set a loose intention to take one trip a month this year, time and funds permitting, and now seemed as good a time as any to take Best Life Tour 2018 international. I bought my ticket, booked my Airbnb…and did virtually no other research.
You have to understand that I’m not really an “itinerary” traveler. I’ll put a few of the tourist-y spots on my list, and maybe choose a neighborhood to explore each day. But I don’t like to be on a schedule, and I don’t really care all that much about physically seeing things I can google. I’m much more interested in getting the feel of a place by wandering the streets for hours, taking photos and talking to strangers and eating seven meals a day because vacation.
Which brings me to Venice. “Venice is like Disney,” one shopkeeper told me, and I agree: enchanting, fantastical, evoking nostalgia and engaging the senses…and also, full of tourists and best experienced with a partner for, like, three days max.
That’s not to say it’s not worth a visit. Venice is a charming city full of history and, under the right circumstances, probably really fun. But it was not a great choice for a first-time solo traveler, and a week was (way) more than enough. I’mma tell you why…as well as what you should do when you visit, hopefully with slightly more planning than I did.
Passports, Flights, and Dolla Dolla Bills
Before I get into Venice, I want to do a quick brain dump on things I learned about international travel.
First of all, the reason I haven’t made it out of the U.S. sooner (save for a few family vacations as a teenager) is because my passport was expired. As a chronic procrastinator, the thought of getting new photos taken, applying by mail, paying a fee and then waiting months for the payoff was never something my reward-driven Taurus brain prioritized (yes, I can and will blame all of my flaws on astrology). Then I’d see a great last-minute travel deal and curse myself for not being able to grab it, unless I wanted to pay a private agency hundreds of dollars to expedite renewal.
Then I learned about the New York Passport Agency, a government office that will renew your passport in 24 hours for just $60 extra. The catch? You must be able to show proof of travel within two weeks to be eligible. So I booked my flight to Venice with an expired passport and, 14 days out, booked it to Hudson Street with new photos and all required documents. It was basically like a trip to the DMV, which I guess isn’t the highest compliment, but the staff was efficient and I had no issues with the renewal. I was in and out in 90 minutes, and my passport was ready for pickup the next day. These offices are everywhere, so that’s a little life hack if you need your passport renewed quickly and affordably.
I flew Turkish Airlines, with layovers in Istanbul both ways. No complaints there. Each transatlantic flight had two meals, plus one on my two-hour connecting flight to Venice. For airplane food, it was actually quite tasty: traditional Turkish entrees with mezze, dessert, and free alcoholic beverages. I will say that all of my flights left late but arrived on time, so I’m not sure what kind of midair voodoo is happening there, but I don’t care.
Let’s talk money! Italy uses Euro. Many places take credit cards, and you can find ATMs or change stations in all major shopping districts, so don’t stress about getting more money out if you need it. But there’s often a minimum €50 withdrawal, plus fees, so it’s better to exchange a bunch of cash before you go and carry only what you want to spend each day. I also find that this helps me stick to a budget while traveling, with any “plastic” purchases being extras I stop to consider as I would any purchase at home. Common-sense advice, but not all of us have common sense, SO. We’re just sharing and learning here, sharing and learning.
And while we’re stating the obvious: Call your bank before you go, buy an international power adapter, and make sure your cell is enabled for roaming (AT&T charges $10/day for texts and data, which is worth it to me for a short trip). Beyond that, there’s not a whole lot you need to do to prepare, save for whatever research you want to do on your destination.
I’ve traveled solo quite a bit in the U.S., and I’ve never had any issues with finding company when I wanted it. But I have to say, I underestimated how much being in a foreign country with a language barrier would complicate that.
To clarify, most people, especially those who work in service, speak some English. I could always get directions or find out the price of my cappuccino (€1.30, or you’re getting the inflated tourist rate). When my laptop died two days in (v stressful, as I was working remotely and charging my phone via USB) and I stormed the streets in a panic to find an open store that could sell me a European iPhone charger on a Sunday, I had multiple people offer to let me borrow theirs once they’d deciphered my frantic mime. People are fundamentally good basically everywhere. I could always get what I needed.
It was really hard to engage beyond that, to the point of forming meaningful connections or even just sharing a laugh. There isn’t much of a traveler culture in Venice, and because the city runs on tourism and a good chunk of the population is transient, most locals seemed pretty indifferent. I understand, but it was at odds with the (perhaps overly romanticized) image I had in my head of the warm, welcoming, passionate Italy from which I would emerge with a million crazy stories and Eat, Pray, Love-style epiphanies. There were days where the only words out of my mouth were “ciao” and “grazie,” which was frankly a little crazy-making. I wasn’t just alone — I was lonely.
Additionally, I didn’t realize how reliant I am on the concept of sitting in bars and cafes to meet people. Neither is really a thing in Venice. You can stand at a counter for a quick snack (cicchetti), or you can pay a cover charge to sit alone at a table. But there’s not really a happy medium that’s designed to foster connection if you didn’t come with a group, and it’s weirdly much harder to strike up a conversation with someone you’re standing next to than someone you’re anchored to by way of a seat. My favorite nights were the ones where I showed up to a full restaurant that offered to squeeze me in with another party. I wish I’d known how to create more of those moments for myself.
Anyway. I’m sure it was partly me, and I’m sure it gets easier with practice. But I’m all about keeping it real, and so I do want to say that I don’t think this is the easiest place to have a super-social solo travel experience, even if you’re pretty outgoing. I’d love to know if this is consistent with your experience in other parts of Italy and, if you travel solo, your favorite ways to meet people outside of bars.
Living + Moving
Venice is divided into six sestieri, or neighborhoods: Cannaregio, Castello, San Marco, San Polo, Santa Croce, and Dorsoduro. You can walk everywhere, though not always directly — bridges connect bordering sestiere at one or two points, and that’s where the maze of canals begins. Embrace the maze. Get lost in it! One does not come to Venice to be efficient.
For longer hauls, public transportation is the ferry, or vaporetto. There are no roads and no cars anywhere except parts of Santa Croce, which connects the island of Venice to the mainland. It’s trippy and adds to to the charming, old-world feel of the city. A single ferry ride is relatively steep at €7,50 — you can buy multi-day passes at a discount if you plan on moving around a lot. There are also water taxis or, of course, gondolas, which I passed on because I’ve already done the “It’s a Small World” ride at actual Disney. #sass
I booked a studio apartment in Cannaregio, which wound up being a wonderful home base for the week. It’s a historic district that’s largely residential, meaning it has all of the architectural charm with less of the crowds and craziness. I loved getting to see how the locals live, making daily trips to the lush street market and restaurants that didn’t seem straight out of Little Italy. And I was only about a 20-minute walk from Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Basilica.
Cannaregio has its own attractions. The Jewish Ghetto, where the Jewish community was banished in the 1500s and maintains a cultural center today, has a history museum and a cluster of Jewish-run businesses. (Fun fact: The word “ghetto” originated here. It comes from the Italian word “geti,” referring to these segregated, often low-income communities.)
The Fondamenta della Misericordia is a stunning canalside walk by day and a place to see and be seen after dark (more on two of my favorite restaurants, Al Timon and Paradiso Perduto, in the next section).
Ca’ d’Oro, an intricate marble palace that’s now a contemporary art gallery, is breathtaking to see up close. So is the Casino di Venezia, the oldest casino in the word, dating back to 1638. (No need to go inside, though. Slot machines look the same on every continent.)
And if you’re Catholic (or just a fan of cool architecture), you should definitely put Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Madonna dell’Orto, and I Gesuiti on your Best Church Tour 2018 list.
Food + Drink
What can I say? Italy lived up to its reputation as carb heaven. I didn’t have a bad meal here. For brevity’s sake (can I say that 2000 words in?), I’m going to combine my pizza and pasta highlights into one.
Pizza is my Achilles heel and all-time favorite food, so my standards are extremely high. The regional specialty is deep-dish “focaccia-style” squares, but there are plenty of traditional Neapolitan pies to be found, which tends to be my preference. The slices pictured above, from Antico Forno, made an easy lunch just blocks from Rialto Bridge. I also had takeaway pizza from Pizza 2000 in San Polo and Arte Della Pizza in Cannareggio. Like I said, no bad meals, but no gushing 5-star reviews either. I found all of them undercooked and a bit bland. What can I say, this all-American hack loves a greasy pepperoni slice from her favorite delivery joint in Brooklyn.
Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog! No, really, if there’s lasagna on the menu, I WILL order it, as I did at Al Bacco and Da Luca e Fred. The latter gets my vote, especially at lunch time, when the shouty local businessmen descend en masse for the daily special (which is actually based on day’s market finds, not the kitchen’s odds and ends). It was quite a sight to behold. I also enjoyed the spaghetti bolognese at Ristorante La Cantina Venezia, where warm service, excellent Malbec, and the company of a kind French family made an already satisfying meal a memorable one.
A few other spots that stood out:
Paradiso Perduto. This restaurant was recommended by my Airbnb host as the spot to mingle and people-watch. I showed up alone at prime time one night and immediately could tell that it was special — warm, lively, with music and laughter rising like the aromas of fried fish and fresh pasta. I eat out quite a bit, and it’s rare to find a place with capital-V Vibes like that. I made my way to the hostess.
“Ciao! Can you do one for dinner?” I asked.
“No. We’re full for the night.” she replied. It was 8pm.
“I don’t mind waiting, if you can squeeze me in later,” I said. “I’m visiting from the U.S. and I really wanted to come here.”
I was crushed. But I showed up again the next night…to find the same woman doing the seating.
“I remember your face,” she said. “OK. You will wait, one hour minimum.”
I thought the “one hour minimum” was just something they said to scare off casual drop-ins. But I waited two hours, nursing an aperol spritz and wondering if I was being set up for some sort of viral tourist prank. Finally, she led me to a table where some benevolent souls had agreed to let me join their party: one Italian and two fellow travelers in from Scotland and Texas.
I was so delirious by the time I got seated that I wound up ordering a massive appetizer platter of seafood and vegetables as my dinner, which, don’t get me wrong, was fresh and on-point. But my memories from Paradiso Perduto are really the joys of trusting a good vibe, saying yes to an out-of-the-box experience, and reveling in feeling like part of the crowd. We shared a lovely meal, and I was so glad I’d stayed. Even if I didn’t go viral.
Al Timon. “We are a steakhouse, but I can make you pasta if you want,” the owner said, leading me to a table. LOL, I thought. By that point, I’d eaten nothing but pasta for days on end and was feeling a bit anemic. Gimme dat meat.
I wound up ordering lamb shanks, which were tasty but also came with the best fries I have EVER. HAD. Seriously, I’ve never cared about French fries before King’s Highway in Palm Springs, and now I can’t get enough. Thick-cut, lightly browned, perfectly seasoned and salted. I know I’m a weirdo for gushing about fries in Italy, but they made an impression, OK? Anyway, this is another scene-y restaurant that’s ideal to visit with a group (or a great place to conjure the nerve to join one).
Al Pasticceria Dal Mas. Mamma mia. My mouth is watering just thinking about these absurdly expensive pastries (they’re priced by the kilo and come to about $10 apiece, but…worth it). I had a chocolate thing and an almond thing (technical terms), and they were both so good that I came back the next day and got them both again, plus a raisin thing. Go and eat all the things.
Osteria Bancogiro. I took myself out for a nice lunch here on Valentine’s Day. The brick-vaulted dining room was almost as posh as my meal, fish cooked in parchment, which came tied up in a bow like the best lil’ Valentine’s gift one can order at a restaurant. I also got tiramisu to impress my cute waiter with my cool-girl down-to-eat tendencies.
When he brought the check, he told me about his favorite spot to watch the sunset. I stupidly ASKED HIM TO WRITE DOWN THE NAME FOR ME instead of asking him to take me there and I have to stop talking about it now because the memory of my own lack of game makes me want to emotionally eat another tiramisu.
Dodo Caffe. I don’t know, do you see anything less than perfect about this?
The Irish Pub. Goes to Italy, eats French fries and visits an Irish pub. Don’t hate!!!!! This was the closest I found to a traditional dive bar. It scratched a rowdy itch.
Shopping + Sightseeing
You can find a million more comprehensive guides to Venice, so I’m not going to tell you to go to the Guggenheim. But here are a couple of things I can add to the conversation.
Carnival. So it turns out the reason Venice is one of the “best places to travel in February” is because of this festival, held annually in the weeks before Lent. There are masked balls, parades, and scads of people roaming the streets in costume. I caught the tail end, and I didn’t go to any events but loved seeing the intricate costumes out in the wild (oh hey, Sailor Moon).
Bisnonni. Another good thing to know about Venice is that business hours are just suggestions. Like…maybe we’ll be open, if we feel like it. The one thing I did research before my trip was where to find the best vintage, and this place came up time and time again. I tried to come twice before I finally found my way in (this is a theme, and yes, I am still a Taurus).
Once I got in the door, I got the royal treatment: the owner, Paolo, watched me try on a few things before pulling a heap of others that were right up my alley. This is also where I got the scoop on the “Disney-fication” of Venice. We commiserated about the made-in-China shops, and I found a dope suede coat and leather box bag that I successfully haggled down by 20%. Venice 2018: I’m willing to wait for it.
La Maison de La Sireneuse. The quirkiest vintage-meets-modern boutique I ever did see. It’s more accessories than clothes, with costume jewelry and novelty handbags made (or at least embellished) in-house. It’s a 10-minute walk from Bisnonni, so a nice little crawl of San Polo is worth doing on the off chance you find them both open. And even if not, this part of town is very photogenic.
Burano Island. This is your “new continent, who dis?” photo op.
Burano is a 45-minute ferry ride from the north side of Venice. It’s known for two things: its colorful buildings, which are plotted and protected by law, and its beautiful lacework. In the shops that line the main drag, you can watch artisans stitching household goods, clothing, jewelry, and pretty much anything you imagine could be made out of lace. Come with room for a bowl of risotto di go, made with fish stock. I enjoyed the version at Riva Rosa.
T Fondaco Dei Tedeschi. The draw of this otherwise ordinary shopping mall is the free rooftop terrace. If you don’t feel like battling your way the top of St. Mark’s, it’s a great place to get a bird’s eye view of the city. It’s also my cute waiter’s sunset hang. RIP, my love life.
And thus concludes this novel of a post. I hope I don’t sound overly down on the trip — I’m of the mind that some experiences are for fun and some are for learning, and this one happened to be more of the latter. But it didn’t scare me off of international travel or even international solo travel, as you’ll see in the next few months.