Venice is Italy at its core: winding alleys, rich history and picturesque piazzas. Now, some may say that Venice can't be done in a day; there's too many sights and they must be savoured. Probably true. However, armed with expert and friend, Ju, we proved that it can be done.
Ju and I started our journey with the 9:45am Frecciarossa fast train from Centrale station in Milan. Ju's a Milan local and has been to Venice so many times that restaurant staff and gondoleiros recognise her on sight. The perfect companion!
Our total journey was 2 hours, 25 min and very smooth. Having taken the regional train on the way back, I highly recommend you go with the fast train both ways; it's cleaner, quicker and more enjoyable. Be sure to book in advance as these tickets sell out quickly.
We arrived just before noon with the goal to catch the second-to-last regional train back to Milan (7pm.) Ju had a rough route planned based on her many visits. As a compromise on time, we had to leave out going inside such historic places as San Marco. This is why I preface this guide by saying that if you aren't concerned about time, it is worth staying the night in order to follow a more leisurely pace. If you want to jetset like us, well se prepara because we moved fast!
What follows is a guide of must-dos and tips to help you experience the spirit of Venice in a more authentic and active way...in one day.
If you're doing a day trip to Venice, be prepared to pack it in with lots of walking. On the upside, there's no need to schedule a workout what with all the windy paths, bridges and steps you'll be climbing. On the downside, it's going to be exahausting. Fuel up before you start with a fresh juice at Frulala. For 5 euros, you can get your fruit fix. Try the Solare (lime, pineapple, mango and mint.) They have cocktails if you fancy something stronger on your way back to the station. Those are also made with fresh fruit!
Venice is a gorgeous city BUT it is overcrowded to an uncomfortable max with tourists. Expect to walk slowly and to continually bump into hoards of people. I say this, not to discourage you, but rather to set your expectations in advance. However, the benefit of Venice is that the entire city is your destination, not just one small part of it; why not go in the opposite direction of the crowd? Explore a side alley or two. Try walking in the direction of the famous Piazza San Marco. Once you've seen the Piazza and taken the obligatory photos, allow yourself to get lost while moving in the general direction of Ponte di Rialto.
The best advice Ju gave me on this trip is, "find your own corner; get a secret space, sit down and relax." In fact, one of our top Venice moments was when we found a hidden spot along the canal, sat down and got some amazing pics with just us and the view.
All gondola rides are not made equal but most people will jump on the first one available assuming that they are the same. Usually, they hop on a boat along Canal Grande (the larger canal.) If you follow suit, expect most of your 25 - 35 minute trip to be wasted dodging other gondolas and larger boats. Instead, try to hitch a ride along the more narrow canals and ask your gondoleiro to stay on them; the less time you spend on the larger canal, the more of a daydreamy experience you'll have. You pay the same steep price (€80 for 25 - 35 minutes) so you might as well make it worth it.
"Gondola Square" is right next to Hotel Cavaletto & Dodge Oreseolo, in front of Calle Salvadago. Ju nicknamed it this because it's where tons of gondoleiros come to pick up passengers. Now, that might seem an unlikely place to grab a drink and relax but if you time it just right - you can get yourself a front row seat on the steps without too many people and find endless entertainment from the gondoleiros as they float around waiting for the next customer rush.
Pick up a Peroni beer, water or drink as you like from the bar/snack bar across from Hotel Cavaletto. You'll spend less than you would at a restaurant for a better view (and avoid the 25% service charge!)
Venice is filled with cute cafes where you can sip your cuppa but the most enjoyable one for me was on the train coming into Venice. If you wait until the last 30 or 40 minutes of your trip, you'll have the dining car practically to yourself plus an unobstructed view of the moving countryside. Stay longer, and you'll also catch the enchanting entrance into Venice.
Dress for the season and don't forget your umbrella! The weather can change quickly. We had locals telling us it was about to rain in an hour when the sun was still shining bright and guess what? It poured.
As this was a day trip, I didn't stay in the city. If you do decide to stay the night, Ju recommends booking outside of the city in Venice Mestre for better value. It's about a 10 minute train ride with trains that run continuously.
Expect all the Italian classics but try dining outside of the main piazzas and canalside establishments. You'll find better value as well as a more intimate setting. If you don't want to waste any time, eat at the "banco" (stools/standing tables) at any of the snack bars. The benefits of the banco: cheaper, faster and first-served.