Venice, the enchanting city in the water, has captivated many artists and pulls in tourists from around the globe by the boatload. The city is a fragile work of art made up of bridges and canals, palaces with crumbling plaster and churches with golden mosaics – but can a student ever afford to travel there? Is the real Venetian experience really available on a miniscule budget? We found that it definitely was, as long as you’re willing to walk the streets in the rain, aren’t obsessed with a ‘genuine’ gondola tour of the city with a single red rose and an opera-singing gondolier.
The first important step towards an economic trip is to go, not in summer, but in late autumn – the time of year when all lucky arts students get the treat of reading week. By going in autumn you get to avoid the crowds, and the city looks so much more beautiful when you can move without being in someone’s holiday snap. In early November the student traveler will be able to get cheaper flights and much cheaper accommodation, and for very little sacrifice with some days of clear blue skies and enough sun for the pale traveler to get burnt. By reading week Venice is still warm enough to enjoy but without the onslaught of stifling heat waves, which make constantly climbing up and over bridges just a little bit less inspiring, not to mention more sweaty.
The second important step is to find good, yet reasonably priced accommodation. We found guidebooks to be almost completely no help with this matter and instead turned to the internet for cheap and cheerful hostels. We found The Albergo san Samuele and would highly recommend this hostel to anyone; the price for a double room for three nights was approximately £150. Our window looked onto small streets and offered a close-up view of Venetian architecture. It was on the western side of the main island, San Marco, where the most famous tourist magnets are located. The Albergo san Samuele is staffed largely by students, who were fantastic resources for finding out everything from where to get a cheap breakfast to where to experience real (and reasonably priced) Venetian café culture.
The best thing for saving money is obviously to find out what you can get for free and there is a surprisingly large amount in Venice that can be done for nothing. To go into and to look round St. Mark’s Basilica is free, and if you invest in a decent guidebook, you won’t need to buy an over priced leaflet or flog around on a guided tour. The Baedeker guide to Venice, which includes a map, was really useful, and has a reasonably extensive guide to certain attractions meaning that you can give yourself a guided tour minus the mega phone and the photo-hungry tourists. Other churches are also free to look around, and you are only asked to make a donation on leaving.
When walking around there are free exhibitions usually located inside beautiful buildings. For example we bumped into exhibitions on the evolution of stringed instruments since the medieval period and one on Da Vinci. Even if the content of the exhibitions doesn’t directly interest you, poking around some of Venice’s most dazzling interiors makes them well working popping into. One of the best free activities in Venice is wandering around, gawking at a city which is and has been a melting pot for cultural activity since it was precariously built on quagmires. Taking photographs in Venice, as you wander the streets at your own pace, is very rewarding and pretty cheap. Dedicating a morning, preferably when the sun is out, to happy snapping and trying desperately to capture the immensity of the city, is advisable; although try to limit looking at Venice through a lens to one day only, it kills the romance.
Don’t miss the Gallerie dell’Accademia, which contains an impressive array of Venetian art from ornate medieval polytychs, to paintings by Titan. It covers the gothic period to Rococo and offers a fantastic over view of Venetian art in the last 500 years, and all for just three Euros each if you take both a passport and student ID. Going out in the evenings needn’t cost a bomb and last minute tickets are available for ballets and operas showing at the Gran Teatro la Fenice for just ten Euros per person. For this price we were sat within a hair’s breadth of the ceiling, but it was an impressively ornate ceiling to be so intimate with. Also, sitting so high up and to the side does have the advantage of being able to nosily peer into the orchestra pit, just to see how hard they are working and noticing that the harp player has gone to the bar in her 60 bars of rest.
As for food and drink, in order to live on more on than just overpriced coffee for four days, we strayed onto the island of Dorsoduro, which was within 15 minutes walking distance of our hostel. We headed for the Camp San Margherita, a large square containing everything we needed. Here, you can sit in the 11 o’clock sun with a martini and lemonade and a juicy Venetian sandwich while you decide which church or art gallery to visit next. If you’ve had enough of being cultured for a while, you could just sit back and watch the fishmongers and students go about their business In the evenings we often came here, ravenous after a day of art and religion, to satisfy our appetites with a tremendous fresh pizza from the small pizza-shop. For 8 Euros you can buy pizza laden with ham and artichokes, large enough to feed a small family.
When it comes to water tours of the city (the only other alternative to walking) gondolas are to be avoided. The cost of a 20 minute tour would have cost us the same as a night’s stay at the hostel, and frankly isn’t worth it. The cheapest way to feel like you’ve seen the city is to get on the vaporetto (ferry) which goes all the way to the bottom of the Canal Grande and then all the way to the top. If you get the vaporetto in the early morning or at dusk, you will experience the beauty of Venice from the water, for just five Euros, but just be on a much less idyllic type of boat. To experience a gondola ride ‘on the cheap’ you can get a commuter gondola, which literally takes you from one side of the Canal Grande to the other in about four minutes – it will cost you 50 cents each. Be warned though, you will be required to stand and you will nearly fall in, but it’s a fun way to get to breakfast.
Venice can be experienced on a small budget. It all just depends on your mindset. If you want front row seats and king sized beds, then obviously not, but if you are prepared to walk in the rain, eat a lot of pizza and just make the best of practically sitting on the ceiling at the theatre, then you will have the amazing Venetian experience you first hoped for.