In this Italian city, vaporetti (public boats) replace taxis and buses, and walking over a bridge is more common than crossing the street. Of course its magic isn’t exactly lost on the rest of the world, which is why you should hit Piazza San Marco before 9 a.m. Follow this insider’s (who is also a mom!) guide for the must-see museums and public squares to avoid the crowds, how to make the most of the weak dollar by heading to artisanal shops filled with handmade gifts, and which restaurants don’t have picture menus in five languages. Reward yourself at the end of the day with a bellini at Harry’s Bar, where the cocktail was invented.
Neighborhoods of San Polo, Santa Croce, and Dorsoduro
With its tangled, narrow streets, busy San Polo surrounds the ancient commercial district of Rialto (Venice’s first harbor), home to the daily morning fish and vegetable markets. Wander west into peaceful Santa Croce, where in the afternoons you’ll find crowds of young children making chalk drawings, jumping rope, and chasing pigeons at the leafy Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. Cruise down the Grand Canal on a vaporetto to Dorsoduro to get a lesson in 18th-century history at palace-turned-museum Ca’ Rezzonico. Then experience the cheerful bustle of college students at residential Campo Santa Margherita before hitting the boutiques around nearby Campo San Barnaba.
La Zucca: Try the flan di zucca (pumpkin) with smoked ricotta at this welcoming, informal eatery with plenty of vegetarian options.
Al Bancogiro: The tables outside have a view of the Grand Canal; among the light offerings are shrimp mousse with avocado sauce and cured meats and cheeses.
Al Nono Risorto: Local students love this place for the spacious, wisteria-roofed garden and vaguely raffish air. Come for tasty pizzas, affordable Venetian specialties (cuttlefish and polenta), and lots of dreadlocks.
Gelateria Alaska: The homemade gelato—flavors include hazelnut, pear, and artichoke—draws a big crowd to this tiny storefront.
Campo San Giacomo Dell’Orio: This tree-shaded square with plenty of benches is a mecca for local families with toddlers.
Museo Di Storia Naturale: Housed in one of Venice’s oldest buildings, this museum includes an aquarium of lagoon life and a one-room dino exhibit with a full-size T. rex.
Ca’ Rezzonico: Admire the ceiling frescoes inside, and don’t miss the fish-stocked fountain and bouncy rides behind the museum.
Mondonovo: Kids will be awestruck while walking through the rows of Guerrino Lovato’s elaborate handmade masks.
Signor Blum: Come for hand-cut puzzles and take-apart models of famous Venetian monuments.
Gilberto Penzo Veniceboats: The single greatest authority on Venetian vessels, Gilberto Penzo creates and sells model boats and kits, from the classic gondola to the workhorse vaporetti that plow the city’s waters.
Vanni Morandin: Morandin makes winsome paper mobiles (many with Venetian themes) as well as touchable folding tree sculptures, wooden animal puzzles, and more.
Oltre il Giardino: Once the Venetian home of Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Oltre il Giardino, this boutique hotel offers six stylish rooms which open to an enchanting walled garden. Four of the rooms can accommodate up to four people, and two junior suites are particularly spacious, with both king- and queen-size beds.
Ca’Angeli: With a bank of windows on the Grand Canal, Ca’ Angeli offers lovely views from its sitting and breakfast areas. The spacious rooms include three triples, three quads, and a mini apartment that can sleep a family of five. The buffet breakfast, included in the room price, stresses organic local products.
La Villeggiatura: This silk-sheet-and-fresh-flowers oasis is tucked into a quiet corner behind the bustling Rialto markets. Any of the spacious double bedrooms can accommodate a child’s cot, and the largest suite holds a king-size bed and double sofa bed. Furnishings are tastefully luxurious, from the monogrammed bedspreads to the complimentary kimonos.
Neighborhood of Castello
Traditionally (and still) working class, Castello is the city’s largest, most populous neighborhood. Its spacious public gardens—great for picnics—and wide waterside walkways offer an escape from the maze of narrow streets found in most of Venice. Hop on the vaporetto to the Arsenale stop to explore Via Garibaldi and see how Venetians really live day-to-day. Then walk along the open embankment (referred to as the Riva) for a superb view of St. Mark’s Basin and the Lido, the barrier beaches that protect Laguna Veneta (often called simply “the lagoon”) from the Adriatic Sea. Get back on the vaporetto, then off at the Fondamente Nuove stop to admire the huge equestrian sculpture and monuments in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, one of the city’s most beautiful art-filled squares.
Trattoria Bandierette: Settle into a comfy booth and savor a plate of baked capesante (local giant scallops) while the kids eat fresh pasta.
Antico Caffé Rosa Salva: In the indoor tearoom, you can sit and enjoy a hot chocolate and a brioche without paying the typical cover charge of a few euros per person.
Pasticceria Didovich: Stop for exquisite pastries and some of the city’s best salatini (two-bite savory tarts).
Museo Storico Navale: See hundreds of model ships inside and full-size vessels in the adjacent boat pavilion.
Giardini Pubblici: The popular public gardens house the city’s largest playground, with slides and swings that overlook the lagoon.
Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo: Admire Verrocchio’s massive equestrian statue, have a peek at the doges’ tombs in the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, or join one of the endless games of pick-up soccer that start around 4:30 when local kids get out of school.
Gondola Ride: From Santa Maria Formosa, 80 euros for 40 minutes Gondolas are all over the city, but the canals in this area aren’t so crowded with tourists.
Papier Maché: Children are not only tolerated but welcome to watch the artists make masks and ceramics.
Book Shop of the Palazzo Querini Stampalia: Find a choice selection of toys, jewelry, and housewares, as well as great design books.
Banco N. 10: Find bags handmade from remnants of prized brocades and damask fabrics from the renowned Venetian textile firm Rubelli.
Palazzo Schiavoni: An inviting, family-run establishment housed in a historic palazzo in a quiet area of Castello, the hotel offers handsomely furnished triple and quadruple rooms and mini apartments that can sleep up to six, with dining areas and fully equipped kitchens. The buffet breakfast of fresh breads and croissants, fruit, juices, cereals, cheeses, and cold meats is free. The attentive young owners will also book guided tours, arrange excursions, call water taxis, and secure babysitters.
Palazzo Soderini: This small hotel offers five simple, modernist rooms in a newly restored 18th-century palazzo. The décor is white-on-white minimalism (bordering on Spartan), rooms are impeccably clean, and the large, leafy private garden is a delight. Triples and quads are a bargain by Venetian standards, and include a buffet breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, local breads and pastries, granola, cheeses, coffee, and tea . (Just keep in mind that there is no 24-hour concierge.
Neighborhood of Cannaregio
Cannaregio has something of a divided personality. You’ll see swarms of tourists in the streets around the train station and along the shopping drag of Strada Nova, and then practically no one in the northwestern fondamente (streets that border a canal). Start at the Campo del Ghetto, once the first Jewish ghetto in Europe, and stroll down the Fondamenta della Misericordia, peering into the side courts at residences along the way. Have lunch at a canalside table, then walk to the eastern end and cut through to the Fondamente Nuove to watch a fleet of vaporetti departing for the northern-lagoon islands, including the farming island of Sant’Erasmo, where you can swim and rent bikes.
Taverna del Campiello Remer: The 20-euro lunch (enough food for one kid and one adult) includes a big bowl of pasta and a sampling of meats, cheeses, veggies, soup, and more.
Trattoria Da Bepi ‘Gia 54′: This centrally-located spot is easy-going and kid-friendly. The proprietor is a father himself, and he’s always ready to dish up a plate of gnocchi al ragù for young diners.
Anice Stellato: This small osteria offers local specialties like marinated sardines and seafood risotto—but is also happy to prepare simple pasta or a plain cut of meat for kids.
Sant’Alvise Pool: The large community and kiddie pool are in an 18th-century warehouse with a lagoon view.
Campo del Ghetto and Jewish Museum: Take a guided tour of the sfmall, richly decorated synagogues hidden away on the top floors of what were once private houses.
Ca’ D’Oro: Don’t miss the view of the Grand Canal from this Gothic palace, which also houses a museum of 15th- and 16th-century art.
Cenerentola: Find the best Italian children’s shoes from brands like Dolce & Gabbana Junior and Il Gufo.
Laboratorio Blu: This lively, well-stocked children’s bookstore has some English titles and a nice selection of books about Venice to take home as a souvenir.
Costantini: Artist Vittorio Costantini makes incredibly detailed glass miniatures of the local flora and fauna, from lotus flowers to jellyfish.
Residenza Cannaregio: This handsome 60-room hotel enjoyed previous lives as a monastery and a gondola workshop before it became a hotel in 2003. Furnishings are simple and modern, and many rooms have exposed beams, skylights, and a sleeping loft. Children under three are free, 12 and under get a 50 percent discount, and there are three suites that can sleep up to five. Restaurant and bar on the premises.
Bed and Breakfast Sandra: This charming B&B has only two rooms, but one is a large attic suite that can comfortably sleep a family of four. The rooftop terrace offers fabulous views (hang onto your toddlers), and the homemade breakfast (included in price) and afternoon tea are often cited by guests as the high point of their stay. Along with welcoming and well-informed hosts, there are two resident cats, Picci and Cabi.
Renting an apartment is often the most family- (and wallet-) friendly way to see Venice. You get triple the space for your money, can operate on your own timetable, and eat breakfast in your pajamas. In a country where restaurants often don’t begin serving until an hour when young children are falling asleep in the soup, you can also make kids an early dinner and get them off to bed. Most apartments require a week’s stay, but some will rent for as few as three nights. Prices begin at about 600 euro per week for a studio or one bedroom and can go as high as 3,500 euro or more for a lavish spread.
Venice Rentals has a Boston-based office and an English-speaking staff. E-mail them with your needs and preferences, and they’ll write back with a list of recommendations, saving you hours of work. The agency also offers more complete on-site services than most, including optional babysitting, maid service, assistance with food shopping, and more.
VeniceApartments.org is a well-designed European site with photo galleries of each apartment and a map that allows you to click and zero in on specific neighborhoods.
Both Vacation Rentals by Owner and Holiday Lettings are Internet-only agencies that put you directly in touch with apartment owners—there’s no middleman for them to pay, so rental rates are often lower. You’ll find great properties, but the onus is on you to sort through the listings, and ask the right questions. (Does this apartment have air conditioning? Where is the closest vaporetto stop?)
Photos: Annie Schlechter