By Jessica Spiegel—
While Venice is high on the list of most visitors to Italy, it’s also one of the more challenging places to be a Cheapo – no matter how you slice it, this is one expensive city. After spending the bulk of your travel budget on airfare to Italy, which is always more expensive than you think it should be (especially as compared with other popular countries in Western Europe), you might even be inclined to skip Venice to save money.
I’m here to encourage you not to skip this enchanting city, and to offer you five easy ways to save money in Venice as an incentive.
1. Book a visit to St. Mark’s Basilica in advance
After wandering aimlessly through the maze of Venice (which, incidentally, is totally free), the next thing on any must-do list should be St. Mark’s Basilica. This striking cathedral with its onion domes, brilliant golden mosaics, and undulating floor anchors its namesake piazza and, in some ways, the whole city. The basilica itself is free to enter, which makes it not only a general must-see but a delight for Cheapos.
During the high season, however, the basilica’s popularity is evident the second you walk into St. Mark’s Square – the lines can stretch nearly as far as the Grand Canal, especially once the cruise ships pull into port for the day. To avoid the long wait in line, you can certainly set your alarm and queue up early – but if you’d rather sleep in, you can book an entry to the basilica in advance online.
Now, the booking service charges €1, so you might be wondering why a free attraction is made cheaper by paying €1 for it – and that’s a fair question. What that €1 saves you is time, which is an incredibly precious commodity when you’re on vacation. If I can pay €1 to avoid waiting an hour in line, that gives me an extra hour to use elsewhere in Venice – and that’s a pretty big deal. If your time is worth less than €1/hour, then we need to talk.
(Note that the reservation service is only available April-October – the rest of the year, the lines aren’t usually long enough to justify booking ahead.)
2. Get a Venice Discount Card for transportation
Venice, like many popular tourist cities around the world, has a few discount cards available that offer cheaper or free entry to attractions. Those cards often feel like they’re not a deal because it’s a chunk of money up front, but in many cities they can save you a bundle. In Venice, it’s the transportation-only cards that are likely to be the best deal.
Because so many people only stay in the city for a couple of days and most don’t have many “sights” on their must-see list, it’s more likely that you’ll spend money on vaporetto tickets than you will on museum entry fees. Those vaporetto tickets are way more expensive than they should be, if you ask me – €6.50 for a ticket? That’s ridiculous, even if each ticket lasts an hour. Wander too long and you’re stuck buying another ticket.
Rather than forking over €6.50 per ticket, you can get a 12-hour transportation card for €16 or a 24-hour card for just €18. If you’ll be flying in or out of Venice, you can even get a card that includes a one-way transfer to/from the airport for an additional €3. These cards are good for the trips out to nearby Murano, Burano, and Torcello, too. You can browse these cards (the prices vary a bit by the season) and book directly from the Venice Connected site.
3. Grab a group for that gondola ride
Taking a gondola ride seems like the thing to do in Venice – the kind of thing that, if you skip it, makes you feel like you haven’t really been to the city. (I’m all for skipping it entirely, but I’m in the minority on that one.) If you’ve got your heart set on a gondola ride but don’t think you can afford it, I’ve got two options for you.
First, you can take a quick gondola ride across the Grand Canal for a whopping €1-2 by hopping in a traghetto. These are gondolas that ferry passengers back and forth across the canal at points where there’s no nearby footbridge, and Venetians ride them all the time. This is a short ride – in fact, they’re so short that the Venetians don’t even bother to sit down – so it’s not at all the romantic gondola ride you’re imagining, but it’s certainly cheapo and very local.
Second, you can go with a group. Gondola rides are priced by the ride itself, not by the number of passengers in the gondola, so if you’ve got a group who’s willing to split the cost then it’s immediately much more budget-friendly. You can ask at gondola stations about joining a group, or you can book a spot on a group ride ahead of time (the latter is more expensive at €40/person, but if you’re traveling solo it’s worth considering).
Remember also to be aware of the gondola rates before you go, too. The current gondola fares are €80 for a 40-minute ride before 7 pm., with each additional 20 minutes costing €40 – knowing the official rates will help you avoid gondoliers who are trying to gouge you.
4. Go church-hopping
St. Mark’s Basilica is gorgeous and rightfully the most famous church in Venice – but glance around the city skyline and you’ll see plenty of other towers with crosses on top. Some of those churches charge a small entry fee, but many are completely free to enter – and free is a very good price.
San Giorgio Maggiore is a Palladio-designed church on its own island off the Giudecca, which you can see from the square in front of the Doge’s Palace. The church dates from the mid-16th century and has two Tintoretto paintings. Santa Maria della Salute lies almost opposite the Doge’s Palace across the Grand Canal, an octagonal white church with a dominant dome. The Salute dates from the mid-17th century and houses works by both Titian and Tintoretto. San Zaccaria may not have as impressive a location, but the crypt here dates from the 9th century and is home to the graves of eight doges.
Each of these churches mentioned offers a combination of art and history, plus an excuse to step inside if the weather’s not great, and none of them will cost you a thing except a few minutes of your time.
5. Don’t sit down for a snack in St. Mark’s Square
Venice is notorious for its mediocre and overpriced food, and it’s a well-deserved reputation. You can find good food in Venice, but it’s often still on the expensive side. Nowhere is getting a bite to eat more unnecessarily costly, however, than in the bars around St. Mark’s Square.
I’m all for paying for ambiance in some places, and when the cafe bands are in “dueling” mode St. Mark’s Square is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes – but the prices on simple things like coffee or a hot chocolate, let alone a cocktail, are beyond outrageous. Rather than paying a premium for a seat at one of those costly cafes, wander into the square from a nearby gelateria and enjoy a leisurely stroll around the grand piazza. The only thing you’ll miss out on is a seat, but you’ll have enough money leftover for a second (and third) gelato – and that’s always a good thing.
Oh, and don’t try sitting down in the piazza anywhere but on an official seat, either, as that’s strictly forbidden. There are even “decorum police” who sometimes patrol the square and hand out fines. Yes, really.
About the author: Portland-based travel writer Jessica Spiegel is the resident Italophile at BootsnAll, the indie travel resource. Venice is one of her favorite places on earth, so don’t try to tell her it’s overrated. She also loves Naples and New Orleans, so clearly she’s got a thing for cities with PR issues. You’ll find her regularly on Twitter as @italylogue.