Aside from traveling by boat, the only way to explore Venice is by walking—and by getting lost repeatedly. You’ll navigate many twisting streets whose names change constantly and don’t appear on any map, and streets that may very well end in a blind alley or spill abruptly into a canal. You’ll also cross dozens of footbridges. Treat getting bewilderingly lost in Venice as part of the fun, and budget more time than you’d think necessary to get wherever you’re going.
Street Maps & Signage -- The map sold by the tourist office (5€) and free maps provided by most hotels don’t always show—much less name or index—all the calli (streets) and pathways of Venice. For that, pick up a more detailed map (ask for a pianta della città at news kiosks—especially those at the train station and around San Marco or most bookstores). The best (and most expensive) is the highly detailed Touring Club Italiano map, available in a variety of forms (folding or spiral-bound). Almost as good, and easier to carry, is the simple and cheap 1:6,500 folding map put out by Storti Edizioni. If using your phone, note that GPS directions are often unreliable in Venice, though Google Maps has definitely improved in recent years (and has added its “streetview” option to the city).
Still, Venice’s confusing layout confounds even the best maps and navigators. You’re often better off just stopping and asking a local to point you in the right direction (always know the name of the campo/square or major sight closest to the address you’re looking for, and ask for that).
As you wander, look for the ubiquitous yellow signs (well, usually yellow) whose destinations and arrows direct you toward five major landmarks: Ferrovia (the train station), Piazzale Roma (the parking garage), Rialto (one of the four bridges over the Grand Canal), San Marco (the city’s main square), and the Accademia (the southernmost Grand Canal bridge).
By Vaporetto -- The various sestieri are linked by a comprehensive vaporetto (water bus/ferry) system of about a dozen lines operated by the Azienda del Consorzio Trasporti Veneziano (ACTV; actv.avmspa.it; tel. 041/5287886). Transit maps are available at the tourist office and most ACTV ticket offices. It’s easier to get around the center on foot, as the vaporetti principally serve the Grand Canal, the outskirts, and the outer islands. The crisscross network of small canals is the province of delivery vessels, gondolas, and private boats.
A vaporetto ticket (good for 75 minutes after validation) is a steep 7.50€, while the 24-hour ACTV travel card is 20€—it only takes three rides to begin saving money with the card. (For even more savings, there are also ACTV travel cards for 48 hours [30€] and 72 hours [40€]). Most lines run every 10 to 15 minutes from 7am to midnight, and then hourly until morning. Most vaporetto docks have timetables posted. You can buy tickets at Venezia Unica offices, authorized retailers displaying the ACTV/Venezia Unica sticker, and usually at the dock itself, though not all have machines or kiosks that sell tickets. If you haven’t bought a pass or tickets beforehand, you can pay the conductor onboard (find immediately him upon boarding—he won’t come looking for you) or risk a stiff fine of at least 60€ plus ticket price and admin fees, no excuses accepted. You must validate (stamp) all tickets in the yellow machines at the docks before getting aboard. Tip: If you’re staying in Venice for a week and intend to use the vaporetto service a lot, it makes sense to get a Venezia Unica city pass, which lets you buy vaporetto tickets for 1.50€.
By Traghetto -- Just four bridges span the Grand Canal, and to fill in the gaps, traghetti skiffs (oversize gondolas rowed by two standing gondolieri) cross the Grand Canal at several intermediate points (during daylight hours only). You’ll find a station at the end of any street named Calle del Traghetto on your map (though not all of them have active ferries today; ask a local before walking to the canal), indicated by a yellow sign with the black gondola symbol. These days only a handful operate regularly, primarily at San Tomà, Santa Maria del Giglio and Santa Sofia (check with a local if in doubt). The fare is 2€ for non-residents (locals pay 0.50€), which you hand to the gondolier when boarding. Most Venetians cross standing up. For the experience, try the Santa Sofia crossing (daily: 7:30am–6:30pm Oct–Mar, 7:30am–7pm Apr–Sep) that connects the Ca’ d’Oro and the Pescheria fish market, opposite each other on the Grand Canal just north of the Rialto Bridge—the gondoliers expertly dodge water traffic at this point of the canal, where it’s the busiest and most heart-stopping.
By Water Taxi -- Taxi acquei (water taxis) charge high prices and aren’t for visitors watching their euros. Trips in town are likely to cost at least 40€ to 70€, depending on distance, time of day, and whether you’ve booked in advance or just hired on the spot. Each trip includes allowance for up to four to five pieces of luggage—beyond that there’s a surcharge of 3€ to 5€ per piece (rates differ slightly according to company and how you reserve a trip). Plus there’s a 20€ supplement for service from 10pm to 7am, and a 5€ charge for taxis on-call. Those rates cover up to four people; if any more squeeze in, it’s another 5€ to 10€ per extra passenger (maximum 10 people). Taking a taxi from the train station to Piazza San Marco or any of the hotels in the area will put you back about 80€ (the Lido is 90€), while fixed fees to the airport range 107–120€ (for up to four people). Taxis to Burano or Torcello will be at least 120€. Note that only taxi boats with a yellow strip are the official operators sanctioned by the city. You can book trips with Consorzio Moscafi Venezia online at www.motoscafivenezia.it or call tel. 041/5222303. Six water-taxi stations serve key points in the city: the Ferrovia, Piazzale Roma, the Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco, the Lido, and Marco Polo Airport.
By Gondola -- If you've come all this way and don’t indulge in a gondola ride, you might be kicking yourself long after you have returned home. Yes, it’s touristy, and, yes, it’s expensive, but only those with a heart of stone will be unmoved by the quintessential Venetian experience. Don’t initiate your trip, however, until you have agreed on a price and synchronized watches. Oh, and don’t ask them to sing.
Place Names in Venetian Dialect
Even Italians (non-Venetian ones) look befuddled when trying to decipher street names and signs in Venice (given that you can ever find any), thanks to the peculiarities of the local Venetian dialect. Here are a few basics to help you navigate the town.
ca' -- The abbreviated use of the word casa is used for the noble palazzi, once private residences and now museums, lining the Grand Canal: Ca' d'Oro, Ca' Pesaro, and Ca' Rezzonico. There is only one palazzo, the Palazzo Ducale, the former doge's residence. However, as time went on, some great houses gradually began to be called "palazzi," so today you'll also encounter the Palazzo Grassi or the Palazzo Labia.
calle -- Taken from the Spanish (though pronounced as if Italian, ca-lay), this is the most commonplace word for "street," known as via or strada elsewhere in Italy. There are numerous variations. Ruga, from the French word rue, once meant a calle flanked with stores, a designation no longer valid. A ramo (literally "branch") is the offshoot of a street and is often used interchangeably with calle. Salizzada once meant a paved street, implying that all other, less important calles were once just dirt-packed alleyways. A stretto is a narrow passageway.
campo -- Elsewhere in Italy it's piazza. In Venice, the only piazza is the Piazza San Marco (and its two bordering piazzette); all other squares are campi or the diminutive, campielli. Translated as "field" or "meadow," these were once small, unpaved grazing spots for the odd chicken or cow. Almost every one of Venice's campi carries the name of the church that dominates it (or once did), and most have wells, no longer used, in the center.
canale -- There are three wide, principal canals: the Canal Grande (affectionately called "il Canalazzo," the Canal), the Canale della Giudecca, and the Canale di Cannaregio. Each of the other 160-odd smaller canals is called a rio. A rio terrà is a filled-in canal -- wide and straight -- now used as a street. A piscina is a filled-in basin, now acting as a campo or piazza.
fondamenta -- Referring to the foundations of the houses lining a canal, this is a walkway along the side of a rio (small canal). Promenades along the Grand Canal near the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto are called riva, as in the Riva del Vin or Riva del Carbon, where cargo such as wine and coal were once unloaded.
ramo -- Literally "branch," a small side street.
sottoportego -- An alley that ducks under a building.