Venice, the city for couples, for romantic gondola rides, for proposals on bridges or weddings in piazzas. Why then would we choose to take our children on a city break there? Well, for a start they chose it, and who are we to dissuade them?
We asked our two boys where in Europe they would like to go for a city break. The eldest immediately piped up with, ‘Italy!’. No surprise there, pizza and pasta are the top of his food favourites. Then together, they both asked for, ‘the one with the water’. I think they’d recently seen a Go Jetters episode about Venice. For those not in the know Go Jetters is a cartoon shown on CBeebies in which special places around the world are saved from destruction, accompanied by an excellent funky 70s soundtrack. I also think their request came from leafing through the excellent book, Atlas of Adventures by Lucy Letherland. I’m not in the least surprised that Venice captured their imagination – a city built on water is a magical concept, and the idea of taking boats to go everywhere would definitely appeal to kids.
We booked some cheap flights and some AirBnB accommodation and had a fantastic long weekend this October half term. So here are my top tips on having a successful city break to Venice, with your kids.
1. Planning – as we had included the kids in our decision process of where to go, I also made sure to include their needs as I planned our sightseeing. I knew that they would tire quickly of just looking at buildings or walking around museums, so I chose just a few key places to visit and put some work into how to engage them, researching interesting stories for example (more on that later).
2. Accommodation – my top tip for a city break with children is to choose self-catering accommodation. This has so many advantages, from being able to have a leisurely breakfast in your own time, to giving the adults space to relax for a bit after the children have gone to bed. It also means that you have a great space of your own to go to for a break from all that sightseeing and crowded streets. City breaks are exhausting – so much walking, so much to take in. It’s really important to create some time in the day to just chill. If money were no object I might choose a hotel with a pool to give them space to let loose, but it is, so a self-catering apartment is our choice!
3. Location – both price and our needs led us to a great apartment in the Santa Croce district. It was a walk over the Rialto bridge (or the bridge with the shops as the kids insisted on calling it) from St Mark’s Square, but that meant that we were a little bit off the beaten track. We were a ten-minute or so walk from the Rialto and would quickly find ourselves in tourist territory, but a five-minute walk in the other direction led us to a square where local children gathered in the early evening, playing football or whizzing around on their rollerblades.
4. Travel – do get a travel card for the duration of your stay. Five and under travel free. We were able to get a half-price discount for our eight-year old (they were offering those for six to 29-year olds at the time of our visit). Half the thrill of being in Venice is going on the water buses and they’re expensive for a single journey. Having a travel card means that you can always say yes to going on one, and the kids are automatically engaged and happy. It covers trips out to Murano and Burano too.
5. Skip-the-queue – Venice is a hugely popular city. We went at the end of October and still found many of the key sights very crowded. The last thing you want to do with kids is queue up to go into historical sights, so it’s worth looking into the options. For both St Marks Basilica and the Campanile (bell tower) we chose to go online and buy skip-the-queue tickets. Entry into St Marks is actually free, but the skip-the-queue tickets were only €3 for the over 5’s. We didn’t spend too long in the cathedral (photo-taking and loitering are not encouraged) but it was great to get a look inside. Across the square is the bell tower which affords great views over the city. We paid to skip the queue here too and felt very smug as we strolled passed a long line of people waiting patiently in line. The views from the top were fab, and the boys loved spotting all the islands in the lagoon and the mountains in the distance on the mainland. Did you know you can’t spot any of the canals from the top of the Campanile?
6. Kids Tour – Consider booking a children’s or family tour. We chose to book a Sketch Hunt with Macacao Tours (thanks to Tin Box Traveller and Learning Escapes for the tip). Martina, our guide, was really engaging and full of stories, and the children loved following their map and looking for the picture clues. Spotting building structures and small embellishments on the buildings was a great way to lead into learning about Venice’s history.
7. Know your stuff – the kids will ask questions! I had Wikipedia in my pocket and a small guidebook, but it was really helpful to have read up on a couple of things before we got to key sites. Thanks again to Tin Box Traveller for the tip to spot lions. We had a daily tally of sightings totalling at around 50 lions per day! They were everywhere. But do you know why?
St Mark once took shelter in the Venetian lagoon as he was travelling back to Rome. That night an angel appeared to him and said “Pax tibi, Marce evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum” which means “Peace be with you Mark, my Evangelist. Here shall your body rest”. The Venetians took this as a prophesy and in 828 two merchants stole the body of St Mark from its tomb in Alexandria and brought it back to Venice. The winged lion, which can be seen all over Venice, but most prominently in St Mark’s square, was the symbol of St Mark, and has since been adopted as a symbol of Venice.
8. See some modern art – I’d been to Venice before and fell in love with the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. I wanted to take the boys there as I thought they would probably engage with the modern art more than the impressive Tintorettos that Venice is quite rightly famous for, and that they would enjoy the sculpture garden. They had notebooks and a pencil and spent two and half hours (yes, I know, extraordinary and we didn’t even go to the café!) in the various galleries being inspired to sketch by the Kandinskys, Mondriens and Picassos on the wall. They were particularly engaged with an exhibition of Osvaldo Licini who would hide letters within his paintings. We were very thankful that this was such a success as it was pouring with rain outside!
We loved our trip to Venice especially our gondola ride, the food and a trip out to see glass-blowing at Murano. I think my biggest take-away from this trip would be to know your limits and know what interests you and your family. I chose a Treasure Sketch Hunt tour over mask-making as a kid-focused activity for example. I would have loved to go to the Rialto Market but it didn’t work out for us mainly as the fish market was closed on the days we were free and I knew that while the kids love a good fish market, they can bore quickly walking around a normal market.
We broke up our days with coffee stops (the kids were big fans of Italian hot chocolate) and after a late-afternoon rest back at the apartment enjoyed pre-dinner drinks and snacks while the kids played on the cisterne (wells) in the piazzas. Most evenings we trusted in going for a wander to find good food, but we did book a table at one particularly popular restaurant.
Our favourite restaurant was a tiny little place tucked away in the San Polo district, the Osteria al Ponte Storto. The waiters were fantastic with the boys and served up delicious food.
We also found a favourite bar, Il Mercantile, which served up amazing cocktails inspired by Magellan’s attempt to circumnavigate the world. The kids enjoyed their non-alcohol cocktails and the little bruschetta on offer.
Much of what I’ve learnt from our trip to Venice can be replicated in other city breaks, and I can’t wait to start planning our next one (Lisbon, we’re coming for you!). Have you been to Venice with your kids? What cities are your favourites for taking your kids to?