If someone had told me 20 years ago that I would someday marry a man from Italy and that we would spend much of our time traveling with two kids between New York and Padua, I'd have thought that person was crazy (although I would have been very intrigued). I grew up in the Southwest in a classic American household big on camping trips, touch football, and backyard barbecues. My husband, Stefano, an illustrator, is from an old northern Italian family based in Padua, a city 20 minutes west of Venice. Our children, Gianmarco, eight, and Anna, four, feel at home in both countries, and after so many Italian excursions, I've adopted the Veneto as my second home.
During most visits we stay with family and take day trips to Venice, but in April we decided to spend spring break there and have family come to us. Renting an apartment seemed the best option. We set our limit at $1,500 for the week, and I contacted rental companies to see what that would get us. Flipping through the brochures and catalogues that arrived by express mail, I quickly learned how difficult my task was—difficult because of all the options. Did we want the third-floor loft, a little beyond our price range but with an amazing view of San Giorgio Maggiore? Or the terraced apartment, triple our budget, right on the Grand Canal? Or the antiques-filled five-bedroom in the old Jewish ghetto? Or the ground floor of a 17th-century palazzo near the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari church (the one with Titian's Assumption of the Virgin)? While I was trying to make up my mind, others acted and our choices dwindled. We snapped up the spot near the Frari.
Of all the places we've been, Venice is one of the most magical, especially for children. Where else can you cross 20 bridges in a day? Ride a water-bus? Catch a taxi that's a speedboat? It's a city filled with so much history and culture, yet it's so peaceful—there are no cars! When you travel on foot you notice things you'd miss otherwise. Look through windows and you see people working with their hands: painting masks, blowing glass, refinishing antiques, mending fishing nets, building boats, crocheting lace, molding porcelain dolls, binding books. It's as if you've stepped back in time.
Our apartment, as it turned out, was perfect for us. Not far from the train station, it had a 10-foot-tall window overlooking the church square, a great place for the kids to play. Two dozen Piranesi prints surrounded the window, and 60 (yes, we counted) 18th-century natural history animal prints lined the hall leading to the main bedroom. Anna's favorite (and the one Gianmarco hated) showed a tiger with blood on his paws, gnawing on a bone. Next to the living room sofa was a five-by-seven-foot 1729 map of Venice, which Stefano couldn't take his eyes off. The bathroom walls were entirely découpaged: Canaletto-like views of Venice ran along the bottom, and from them huge nests exploded into a skyscape of birds. Sounds gaudy, I know, and at first I didn't know what to think, but the more I looked at it, the more I wondered how I could do the same thing back home.
We reached our bedroom by climbing a flight of small wooden stairs. Stefano wasn't pleased when he got up there and his head touched the ceiling. The kids slept in a loft off the living room, which to them was the ultimate. Gianmarco mentioned at least 10 times how happy he was. (This was the same kid who, two days earlier, had said he wanted to stay home with his friends and that there was no way we could make him go to Italy.) The kitchen, I was glad to see, was too small for serious cooking but ideal for making breakfast, sandwiches, afternoon snacks.
It rained most of the week, but we didn't let the weather stop us. Our program each day was decided at breakfast: if it was wet out, we'd head to a museum or church; if it was dry, we'd opt for a boat ride or a walk through the winding streets. Getting lost is an inevitable, but delightful, part of the Venice experience. Many times we'd drift, only to find ourselves in a lovely square—the kids chasing each other, Stefano checking out the latest soccer scores at a newsstand, and me window-shopping.
Would I have taken my kids to Venice if I weren't married to Stefano?Honestly, I don't think so—but knowing what I do now, I can say it would have been a pity not to.
By Gondola Locals tend to use gondolas only on special occasions, such as weddings and funerals. As a result, after 10 years of visiting Venice, I'd never taken one—my husband was always too embarrassed. What a mistake. At our son's insistence, we climbed into a gondola near Piazza San Marco and agreed to the suggested "special tour," for which we paid an astronomical 200,000 lire ($114; I've since learned that the average price for a 50-minute ride is $68). It was worth it. Our boatman—a fourth-generation gondolier—was charming, spoke perfect English, and pointed out all the important landmarks with great pride: Marco Polo's house, the Palladian church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Palazzo Molin (where Goethe stayed), palaces of Venetian nobles, the unfortunate Teatro La Fenice, the opera house destroyed two years ago by fire and awaiting restoration. The kids loved the "ohaaay" sound the gondoliers make to warn each other that they're about to round a corner. "See, Mom?" Gianmarco said. "I told you it was going to be cool."
By Vaporetto The water-bus is the way most of Venice gets around. It makes frequent stops along the Grand Canal. Tickets cost approximately $3.50 and are sold at stops and in bars, shops, and tobacco stores displaying a sign reading ACTV. Don't be shy about asking for guidance; vaporetto drivers are used to offering directions.
By Traghetto Only three bridges cross the Grand Canal; if you don't want to walk a mile to get to one of them, catch a traghetto, one of hundreds of gondola ferries (they're actually retired gondolas) that traverse the canal at key points. The price of a ride is 40 cents. Most Venetians stand up, but feel free to sit—it's a lot better than falling into the canal and taking the rest of the boat with you.
By Motoscafo Water taxis can be hailed all over Venice, and will deliver you as close as possible to where you need to go. But they're expensive—a trip for four from the airport to Piazza San Marco costs $80. A good thing to ask when renting an apartment: Will a motoscafo be able to deliver us right to it?
OUR FAVORITE SQUARES
Campo San Polo Once used for bullfights, masked balls, and mass sermons, Campo San Polo is one of the largest squares after San Marco. It's a good place to sit on a bench, rest your feet, and take in the crowd: mothers with babies, older people enjoying the sun, kids playing soccer, teenagers hanging out. If your crew is hungry, head to La Patatina (San Polo 2741), "the French Fry," which also has panini and fried vegetables; or Osteria Enoteca Vivaldi (San Polo 1457) for spaghetti with clams.
Campo Santa Margherita A spot we always gravitate toward, lured by its enchanted setting and pizza restaurants. Try Al Sole di Napoli Pizzeria (Dorsoduro 3023) or Trattoria Antico Capon (Dorsoduro 3004A). We love the outdoor cafés here too, among them Il Caffè (Dorsoduro 2963), and Caffè Causin (Dorsoduro 2996), celebrated for its gelato. In the mornings, there's a market selling fish, fruit, and vegetables. At night, send your teenagers for a slice at Pizza al Volo (Dorsoduro 2944), then to Dolcevita (Dorsoduro 2894A), a club frequented by young Italians.
Campo Santo Stefano This is the perfect place for a sightseeing break, since it's between the Accademia and Piazza San Marco. There are cafés on both sides of the square, and, for the price of an espresso or limonata—expect to pay a premium—you can watch Venice pass by as your kids play around the statue of 19th-century writer Niccolò Tommaseo. Paolin (San Marco 2962), on the northwest side, is considered by many to have the best gelato in the city: try the bacio (chocolate with hazelnuts) or stracciatella (chocolate chip) or pistachio. Hostaria ai Morozi (San Marco 2801) makes delicious curried scampi, as well as good salads and panini.
SIGHTS NOT TO MISS
Piazza San Marco I can't tell you how many bags of corn I've bought for Gianmarco and Anna to feed the healthiest pigeons I've ever seen. As they do this, live music drifts out of cafés, and it's nearly impossible not to take hundreds of pictures. For an overview, climb (or take the elevator) up the Campanile, the 16th-century lookout tower.
Basilica di San Marco Piazza San Marco's other highlight can be exhausting for children. Don't try to tour all of this incredible cathedral. Instead, walk through and point out the gold mosaics. Then go to the top floor to visit the four bronze horses of St. Mark.
Palazzo Ducale (San Marco 1; 39-041/522-4951) This extraordinary Gothic structure has housed Venetian offices of state for more than 1,000 years. Your kids may be inclined to move through quickly, but they'll stop when they get to the Sala del Maggior Consiglio with Tintoretto's Paradiso, one of the largest paintings in the world. They'll also love the armory room and crossing the Bridge of Sighs to the 17th-century prisons.
Outdoor Markets (Rialto Bridge and vicinity; mornings, Tuesday-Saturday) The streets leading to the Rialto Bridge are lined with vendors selling wooden toys, shoes, bags, and hats—a lot of it junk, but worth taking in for the exciting bustle. Just beyond the bridge is the Pescheria, the fish market.
Museo Storico Navale (Castello 2148; 39-041/520-0276) After seeing Venice by gondola, learn about its seafaring history—and check out the Doge's gilded barge.
Scuola Grande di San Rocco (Campo San Rocco 30125; 523-4864) Home to more than 50 works by Tintoretto. Fun factor: Use the museum-issued mirrors to look at ceiling details.
Gallerie Dell'Accademia (Campo della Carità; 39-041/522-2247) After you've taken in the amazing view from the Accademia Bridge, explore this art school, famous for its collection of Renaissance paintings. Kids love the dramatic scenes: People ascending to the heavens! Grinning camels! Executions!
TWO GREAT DAY TRIPS
Murano—a 10-minute boat ride from Venice—has been Italy's main glass-making center since 1291. That was the year all the furnaces were restricted to this island to prevent Venice from going up in a blaze. It's an ideal place to spend a day on foot, touring glass factories. A few worth checking out: Domus Vetri d'Arte (82 Fondamenta dei Vetrai; 39-041/739-215), Sent Guglielmo (8A Fondamenta dei Vetrai; 39-041/739-100), Carlo Moretti (3 Fondamenta D. Manin; 39-041/739-217), and Barovier e Toso (28 Fondamenta dei Vetrai; 39-041/527-4385).
To get to Murano, catch the vaporetto that departs from Venice's Fondamenta Nuove, quays on the north side of Cannaregio, every 10 minutes. For lunch, try Busa alla Torre (3 Campo San Stefano; 39-041/739-662; lunch for four $60), Murano's best seafood restaurant. Order the fritto misto of calamari, shrimp, soft-shell crabs, and turbot.