In our adventures all over Europe and Asia, we’ve been to a number of places that made us nervous about traveling with a child. No amount of reading ever makes a parent’s concerns go away, but an honest look at what it’s like on the ground can help. We spent a whole month living in Venice, Italy with a toddler, and we found that some of our fears were realistic and others were overblown. We also found a number of ways to cope with the challenges of touring Venice with kids.
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Pros and Cons of Visiting Venice, Italy with Children
Venice was far from the hardest place we’ve explored with our daughter, Lisa (that prize goes to camping in Scotland). She was one year old at the time, and travel in general had its pros and cons. But here we’ve outlined a number of upsides and downsides of Venice, Italy as a destination for families. We’ve also provided some tips for making the experience as good as it can be.
The Canals of Venice, Italy
Let’s face it, the canals are what make Venice stand out as a destination. They’re pretty much why you are considering it in the first place. Gondola rides, stone bridges and colorful houses create a romantic image that’s hard to resist. Venice looks just like the pictures. It’s not like one of those cities where one or two iconic locations make up 90% of the travel photos. The whole city is a maze of waterways and bridges.
Pros of Venice Canals:
Canals Make Venice New and Exciting – For some reason, “boat” was one of Lisa’s first words, and she got to use it a lot while we were in Venice. She loved watching the busy waterways, and we loved walking up and down the sidewalks holding her hand. For kids, seeing that not every city is the same – that streets can be replaced by water and cars replaced by boats – can help open their minds and get them thinking about how people adapt to their environment and solve problems. Plus, the canals are really, really beautiful. Some people say it smells bad, but honestly, we never noticed. Maybe it was just the season we visited in (May).
Cons of Venice Canals:
The Venice Canals Present a Hazard – Kids are hard to control and they have terrible judgement – especially toddlers. Half the time, when we put Lisa on the ground she started waddling straight for the water and sent us scrambling. The fact that the canals are so interesting makes kids want to be near them, and there are so many distractions that you never know if they are paying attention and being careful. There are no guard rails anywhere except on the bridges.
The Canals Make Venice Less Stroller Friendly – If you thought high curbsides by crosswalks made for a challenging walk with a stroller, just try going over a bridge with no ramp. The stone streets actually aren’t too bad; they are a little bumpy, but for the most part the cracks are small enough for a suitcase to roll over, so stroller wheels can handle it. It’s just those bridges. There are a lot of them. Some have ramps, or an extra set of little tiny stairs to make things easier, but a lot of them don’t.
Also, the waterways that divide the city mean that there are no direct routes between any two locations. Expect every walk to be twice as long as it looks on a map. (But overall, the city is still fairly walkable).
Tips for Dealing with Venice Canals with Kids:
Keep an Eye on the Kids – Does this even need saying? Sometimes when we travel we see little children wandering around in crowded places almost unsupervised (especially in Asia), and it always makes us cringe. We want Lisa to explore the world and feel independent, but we still watch her like a hawk. This is especially true when we are near water.
Help Kids Learn About the Venice Canals – Because the canals are such a dominant feature of the city, they are a great way to learn about Venice, travel, and even science. Make sure children notice how goods are moved around the city by boat. Take note of the water level and see how it changes hour to hour and day by day with the tides. If you happen to be there during Acqua Alta (a lunar event that floods some streets and squares with water), that’s an astronomy bonus too!
Take a Family Gondola Ride – We were a little nervous about taking a gondola ride with Lisa. 1) She gets carsick, 2) she has trouble sitting still, and 3) oh my god, what if the boat tips over? It turned out that the motion of the boat didn’t upset her stomach, the water was pretty calm and it felt very safe, and she didn’t start getting fidgety until the 40 minute ride was almost over. We only wish she’d been a little older so that she could have listened to the gondolier’s stories and songs. Check out our other posts: Why You Should Ride a Gondola in Venice, Italy, and Photography Tips for Gondola Rides.
Bring the Right Gear – The best way to keep kids safe is to have total control over their movements. Even though I said earlier that it’s not particularly stroller friendly, you should consider bringing one anyway. When we knew we were going to be out all day and not returning to our Airbnb (keep scrolling) for a nap we always brought our stroller so Lisa could sleep while we moved. Carrying a stroller over a few bridges isn’t nearly as bad as dealing with a fussy, tired toddler. But if you do bring a stroller, make it a compact one. At the time, we were using a ZOE travel stroller, which was affordable and worked great, but the one we are using now, a BabyZen Yoyo, would have worked even better (read our review of the Yoyo).
We also made extensive use of our baby carrier. It’s not exactly mountain climbing, so if you already have a comfortable baby carrier, it will probably do the trick. If not, we can tell you that our Ergobaby Omni 360 works really well (read our review of the Ergobaby). You can find additional products that are useful for traveling with kids on our shop page.
Find a Playground – There aren’t a lot of playgrounds in Venice, but when you stumble upon one it is a great place to let the kids run around safely without worrying about them falling into the water. Here are a few playgrounds that we discovered during our stay:
- Parco Savorgnan (Google Maps) – Was very close to our residence and we went there frequently. It had a jungle gym, swings and picnic tables. There was also some lovely architecture nearby so we could admire the scenery while Lisa played.
- Campo di Ghetto Nuovo (Google Maps) – This isn’t technically a playground, but a public square in the Jewish Ghetto district of Venice where we stayed. Every evening, the local children would gather here to play, and we’d let Lisa stay up past her bedtime to join them. It was nice and warm in May, and she loved playing with the water spigot and running around with other children. Because she couldn’t speak yet, it didn’t even matter that they spoke Italian to her. We also have an article about the difficulties of socializing small children while traveling full time.
- Gardini della Biennale (Google Maps) – Just outside the Gardini della Biennaale, home to one of the most famous art festivals in the world, there is a beautiful park with a little playground. It’s not huge, but it’s a good place to get some shade if you’ve been walking down the busy water front near Piazza San Marco.
- Piazza San Marco (Google Maps) – This also is not technically a playground, but if your kids like pigeons, it is a relatively safe place for them to play around. It does get, um, a little crowded if you go at the wrong time of day.
- Gardini Reali (Google Maps) – Another garden near San Marco. No play equipment, but it is hard to spot so it’s usually not crowded and it has a little shade, which you will need if you are in the area.
Transportation in Venice, Italy
Venice isn’t a very big city. Walking across town is very doable, though it does become more of a hassle when one or more members of your party have little legs. There are a number of transportation options available, but you are still going to spend most of your time on foot.
Note: Even though we do recommend riding a gondola while you are in Venice, they are not a viable form of transportation. Gondolas are strictly for touring, and they always go in loops, returning you to your original destination.
Pros of Venice Transportation:
Safe for Pedestrians – There are no cars, buses, motorcycles or scooters in Venice. The entire city is pedestrian only. After having spent a month in Rome, the thought of a traffic free walk with our daughter had Dannie and me drooling. As we expected, letting Lisa walk around without fear of vehicles was very, very refreshing. We still kept an eye on her to make sure she stayed high and dry and didn’t get lost in the crowds.
Unique Travel Experiences – Whether you travel on foot, by water taxi, or water bus, just getting from point A to point B in Venice is a new experience that children will look forward to and remember. If you have ever taken a car or bus around a city, you know that it’s easy to miss things as they zoom by the window. You see a lot more when you slow down. Strolling through the streets you get a chance to peer into every store front and down every alleyway.
Not only do kids get a kick out of boat travel if it’s not something they are used to, it also gives you a cool new perspective. There are even some islands in the Venice Lagoon that are too distant to build bridges to, but are inhabited by locals. Each of these islands (the most popular are Burano, Murano and Torcello) has their own specialty and feel, and each is worth a visit if you have the time. Our favorite with a toddler was Torcello because it is so peaceful, but we thought older children might enjoy Murano or Burano more because there is more for them to engage with.
Walking is Good Exercise – Italian food has a lot of carbs, but Venetians aren’t particularly rotund. That’s because they do a lot of walking. Eating healthy while traveling isn’t easy (though when you are slow traveling and do your own cooking, that makes it a little easier). I’m pretty sure we burned off most of the pasta and pizza we ate, but maybe not all of the gelato.
In a recent post we talked about building healthy blogging habits. In it Dannie mentioned that we try to write about topics that force us to move around when gathering information. Venice would have been almost as good as Dali, China for healthy living, but it sure would have been a lot more expensive. Check out this interview about healthy travel I did with Christina from Adventure Together.
Cons of Venice Transportation:
Boat Rides Are Pricey – The water buses are by far the cheapest way to get around the canals and lagoons, but they are still expensive enough that you’ll want to walk when possible.
Hawkers Get Annoying – If you are walking around, there will be people trying to sell you things. The streets are already crowded enough without people milling about trying to sell random knickknacks and souvenirs. I don’t know how much the inventory changes from year to year, but while we were there the most common items were these little-jelly-pig-ball-things that squish when you throw them on the ground. The vendors would always throw them in front of us when they saw we had a child with us. Credit to Venice, though, at least their pigs didn’t squeak loudly like the ones in Rome.
Venice, Italy Transportation Tips:
Wear Comfortable Shoes – Like I said, there’s a lot of walking to do. Dannie and I wore sandals, sneakers or boots the whole time. When Dannie wanted to wear heels for a photoshoot, she would just pack them in a bag and change when she got to our destination.
Use the Water Bus, Skip the Water Taxis – You can buy your tickets at most of the water bus stations, or you can buy them online. We checked the prices on the water taxis and never used them. For up to date timetables and fares, go to the official ACTV website.
Stroll Up Bridges Backwards – When in doubt, do as the locals do. We saw that all the workers who moved goods down the streets and the mothers with strollers were going up the stairs on the bridges backwards. It’s definitely a lot easier, if somewhat bumpy for the little ones.
Crowds in Venice, Italy
Pros of Crowds in Venice:
Navigation is Easy – If you get lost, there’s always someone around you can ask for directions. But most of the time you won’t need to. Though the street signs in Venice aren’t always totally clear, you can find your way to most of the popular attractions just by following the crowd. The path less traveled is definitely worth taking a lot of the time, but sometimes you just want to find that monument.
Cons of Crowds in Venice:
Venice Attractions are Congested – Sometimes the crowds get so thick that it’s hard to move. This is especially true at choke points like bridges passing over canals. The lines to get into the Basilica San Marco can wind right through the square, and the waterfront where the cruise ships come in is a mess. Many Venetians are fed up with all the tourists, and the city is taking measures to reduce the number of people in the city.
Tips for Dealing with Crowds and Children in Venice:
Mind Your Belongings and Your Kids in Venice – When traveling in Venice – or any other popular destination for that matter – it’s a good idea to keep track of your valuables. That includes wallets, passports and yes, your children. The most common places for pickpockets aren’t out in the open places like Piazza San Marco in the middle of the day, it’s in lines and museums where people are packed so tight that they are constantly bumping into one another. Avoid keeping valuables in your back pocket or backpack.
We have never had anything stolen from us since we started traveling.
Explore Early: If you are traveling with kids, then staying out until the crowds die down its out of the question, those tourists stay out late. But you can avoid crowds by exploring in the morning. Even if you are out before most of the shops are open, you can still enjoy the much more magical experience of walking the empty streets of an ancient city.
Book Far From San. Marco – We stayed all the way in the Venetian Ghetto district, which is quite nice now, but was once the world’s first jewish ghetto, after which all other ghettos were named. It was much quieter there than in San Marco, and it was about a 30-40 minute walk to all the popular attractions on the main island of Venice. Our airbnb was nice and big, and though it was still pricy, it was much better value than we would have gotten elsewhere. Our host, Jacopo was very helpful.
Our apartment had a cute little courtyard, and it was right next to a lot of restaurants and gelato places that were busy during the day, but didn’t bother us at night.
Take a Trip Outside the City – During our month in Venice, we spent two nights at a glamping (glamorous camping) resort called Canonici di San Marco. It was a nice break from the crowds, and we found it very easy to unwind there. Most of the guests there probably stay in their tent at night and visit Venice by day, but we just wanted to hang out for a while in a very peaceful setting in the countryside.
Dining in Venice, Italy with Children
There are a lot of dining options in Venice, but honestly, we didn’t eat out a lot. The restaurants there don’t make it easy for vegetarians (you wouldn’t think it would be so hard to cook pasta without adding meat), and everything is very expensive. We just rented an Airbnb with a kitchen and shopped at the grocery store down the street. That’s one of the advantages of staying in destinations for a month at a time. Plus, most the restaurants had mediocre reviews anyway.
Pros of Dining with Kids in Venice:
There Are Plenty of Options Kids Love – Because of the heavy tourism in Venice, the restaurants cater to visitors, and visitors want junk food. If you are on vacation from your home and job, you might as well take a vacation from your diet too, right? Well, whatever your thoughts on nutrition, your kids will be begging you for food all the time, and there is plenty of pizza and gelato to make sure they won’t starve on their first trip abroad.
Cons of Dining with Kids in Venice:
It’s Hard to Enjoy a Romantic Dinner in Venice With Kids – There are a lot of well decorated restaurants that look very nice and present themselves as a good place for a romantic evening. If you don’t read the lousy Yelp reviews, you might regret that your kids are preventing you from enjoying a candlelit dinner together. Facts of life.
Tips for Dining With Kids in Venice:
Don’t Buy Food in the Tourist Hotspots – Everything along the primary streets and next to the big attractions is outrageously expensive and usually poor quality. If you have time to wander a block or two from the most crowded streets, you’ll find better prices and better food.
We did visit one very pretty restaurant right in Piazza San Marco, but we were willing to do so only because we wanted to take some photos there. Lisa had a really tough time sitting still, and the waiter even scolded us for letter her put her feet on the velvet upholstery. The food was tolerable and a single brunch platter cost us like $45, but the pictures came out nice.
The lighting in that restaurant was pretty tricky, but if you’re worried you’re camera can’t handle it, have no fear. You can handle it if you know how to use manual mode, which you will if you have a look at my e-book, Easy Manual Mode Photography, which is only one ninth the price of that brunch platter.
Exposure is the Best Way to Learn a New Language – You probably won’t be there long enough for the kids to become fluent, but I still think that language exposure is good for their brains. By the time we left Venice, “ciao” was one of only about seven words Lisa knew in any language!
Sometimes It’s Hard to Communicate – Getting directions can be difficult when other English speakers are as lost as you are, and people who know where they are going only speak Italian. Most shop owners knew enough English to sell stuff to Americans, but once we got off the beaten path, we had our phones out a lot.
Tips for Dealing with Language Barriers with Children:
Learn a Few Essential Italian Words (or Don’t) – “Please” and “thank you” are good ones. So are “toilet,” “excuse me,” and “help.” If you really don’t care to learn the local language when you travel (we sure didn’t), then you can make good use of Google Translate (Apple | Android), which works really well. It can translate text with its camera and real time and can take dictation and read out loud. It’s free. Make sure you download the dictionary so it can translate offline as well. I love living in the future!
If the kids are old enough, you should at least make an effort to teach them some of the pronunciations in Italian. They already know “pizza,” but did you know that the e in “grazie” is pronounced “uh?” Like “grazi-uh.”
Venice is a unique city with unique challenges, but there is absolutely nothing there that makes family travel impossible. Lisa had a blast there, and we saw many children of all age groups with smiles on their faces. We hope that you have found this article helpful, and if you did, then you might enjoy reading about some of the other cities we have been to. If you’d like to help us support his blog, consider visiting our resource or shop pages when you are planning your next big adventure. Happy travels!