Venice

The Bridge of Sighs

How Did We Get To Venice?

We flew to Venice from Zürich, as part of a 30-day holiday.  The night before departure we stayed at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Zürich Airport.  This meant that the next morning was not too hectic as no travel was needed.  Check in at the Swissair desk was easy, but the line was very long.  It took us nearly an hour to get to the head of the line.  Breakfast during the flight consisted of a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar (Swiss chocolate of course).

Pisa Time
Pisa Time

After landing at Venice Marco Polo Airport, one of us was not feeling too well (might have been the chocolate for breakfast).  We located a pharmacy and bought something to feel better.  The pharmacist also gave us directions to the water bus terminal, and suggested not following the signs, which send you outside.  Instead she said to stay inside in the air conditioning, until you reach the far end of the concourse and then taking the lifts down to ground level.

Tickets for the water bus can be purchased at the kiosks located near the water.  If you are not sure what you need, or where to get off, ask the friendly staff.

The trip took us about 40 minutes to the San Marco ferry wharf.  The trip was great for a first-time visitor.  You get to see a lot of other boat traffic as well as Venice from the water as you approach.

View From the Water Bus as You Approach Venice
View From the Water Bus as You Approach Venice
View From the Water Bus as You Approach Venice
View From the Water Bus as You Approach Venice

Where did we stay?

There is a huge choice of hotels, of all qualities.  Our choice was the Hotel Donà Palace.  It was very nicely located near Piazza San Marco.  The walk from the wharf with backpacks was easy and the desk clerk stored our luggage as we arrived before check-in time.

We found the room comfortable, clean and quiet and were very happy with our choice.

Getting Around

Remember there are no cars in Venice.  Apart from transport from the airport, to the train station and to Murano Island, we walked.  Everywhere is quite close, but there is always the water bus, if you are going to the outer islands or want to cruise down the Grand Canal.

We were told that one of the things you need to do in Venice is get lost.  Well, we did that a few times without intending to and it was fun, as you run across places and sites you did not intend.  Due to the narrow streets, our phones lost GPS a few times, but there are signs that point to the main attractions.  So, if you know the general direction you want to go, it is easy to find your way back.

What did we do?

Walking

Well, this is pretty much what we did to get everywhere.  It did lead us to some great unexpected spots, some good restaurants and nice quiet places away from Piazza San Marco.  Several times when we were not in a hurry, we just randomly walked to see what we could find.

One of the unusual places we found was the Assassin’s Cafe, on Assassin Street!

The Assassin's Cafe in Venice
The Assassin’s Cafe in Venice
Assassin's Street
Assassin’s Street

One of the first Attractions we found was the Rialto Bridge, which spans the Grand Canal.  During the day, it is extremely crowded.  On the morning of our departure, at 6AM, though it was deserted and we were able to get a better look at it.

Rialto Bridge
Rialto Bridge

Gondola Ride

We had always intended taking a gondola ride at some time, and on one of our walks, we found one with no queue, so jumped straight in.  There is a flat fare now, so no haggling over the price, despite what you read on some sites.  When we were there, the price was 80 Euros. 

It was early morning, so the canals were still empty (so the gondolier told us).  Moving around the canals was very quiet, away from the crowds, especially in the little canals.  We had a few waits at intersections, for other gondolas, and the water taxis had to stop for us (gondolas get right of way).

On another walk later in the day, some of the canals were jammed with gondolas, with what looked like a real traffic jam.  This would not have been as pleasant a ride as we had.

The only problem was that at times the water was a little smelly.

Back Street Gondola Ride
Back Street Gondola Ride

Piazza San Marco

This is one of the major attractions in Venice and is bordered by the Doge’s Palace and Basilica.  This combination makes it very busy. In the mornings and evenings when the cruise ship passengers were not there, it was far less crowded and a more pleasant place to be.

The restaurants at the Piazza are expensive and some of the staff tout for business trying to get you into their premises.  Equally good food at a far more reasonable price is available just a few streets back.  If you really want to sit and eat there though, expect a coffee to cost ten to fifteen Euros.

Bell Tower in Piazza San Marco
Bell Tower in Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco

Caffe Florian

The is the oldest coffee shop in the world and has been in continuous use since 1720.  You can sit at the tables for a very expensive coffee or stand at the bar and have an espresso for 1.50 Euro.  It is located just off Piazza San Marco.

Caffe Florian
Caffe Florian

Doges’ Palace

The Doge’s Palace is where the rulers of Venice used to reside.  To really appreciate it, we took a guided tour with an expert guide.  The grandeur of the place can only be experienced with an extensive tour.  From the gold on the ceilings, the paintings and the architecture, the building was designed to impress visiting dignitaries.  It still does this today

The Ceiling in the Doge's Palace
The Ceiling in the Doge’s Palace
The Ceiling in the Doge's Palace
The Ceiling in the Doge’s Palace

One of the highlights of the tour is seeing the prison that adjoins the palace.  To access it, you go through the Bridge of Sighs, so you get a chance to look out of it at all the other tourists taking pictures from the outside.

Looking out From the Bridge of Sighs
Looking out From the Bridge of Sighs

Basilica San Marco

As part of the Doge’s Palace tour, we took up the option to see the Basilica after hours.  The same guide showed us around and her passion for the history of Venice made for a great evening.  The atmosphere inside, after everyone else has left is amazing and is highly recommended.

The sheer quantity of gold leaf used to decorate the interior is unbelievable.  It was also interesting to learn that most of the material for the Basilica was taken from places conquered by the Venetians.  As a result, nearly all the pillars are of different designs and stone.  We didn’t realize this until it was pointed out and then it became obvious.

The Ceiling of the Basilica San Marco
The Ceiling of the Basilica San Marco

Walking Tour

So that we could experience the back streets of Venice and see some of the more unusual sights, we booked a half day walking tour.  We had a great time, going to places we did not know of and learning about the city from the perspective of a local.  We crossed the Grand Canal in a traghetto, a type of stand-up gondola, went to the fruit and vegetable markets, saw many, many churches (each campo – square – has its own church) and ended on top of the old Hanseatic Warehouse which has now been transformed into a high-end retail store.  The views of the grand canal and over the city were amazing.

View of the Grand Canal from the Hanseatic Warehouse
View of the Grand Canal from the Hanseatic Warehouse
View of the Grand Canal from the Hanseatic Warehouse
View of the Grand Canal from the Hanseatic Warehouse

A great way to spend a morning, talk to a local and experience the back streets of Venice.

Opera House

One of the most famous buildings in Venice is the Opera House.  If you can’t afford the price of an opera ticket, for about 15 Euros, you can get a self guided tour of the interior.

We spent a while walking around.  As a bonus, you get to sit in the seats and pretend you are at the opera.

Venice Opera House
Venice Opera House
Venice Opera House
Venice Opera House

Murano Island

We took a water bus across to Murano to see the famous glass making up close.  We had a front row seat to watch the master glass blower at work.  Amazing how, on a hot day they work so near to a hot furnace.  The skill displayed to make amazing pieces of art was fantastic.

Murano Island
Murano Island
Glass Blowing on Murano - Making the Scream
Glass Blowing on Murano – Making the Scream

Afterwards, we walked around a display room, and selected several pieces as souvenirs.  Don’t be afraid to haggle.  We were offered a discount for cash.  When I showed we were a few Euros short of the final agreed price, it was dropped further.

The water bus stops at San Michele, which is the cemetery for Venice.  We didn’t get off to look, but several others did.  If you want to go on to Burano to see the lace making, the water bus goes there as well.

The Victor Emmanuel II Monument

This statue of the first king of Italy is located on the water front where the large cruise hips come in.  Worth looking at for its historical importance.

The Victor Emmanuel II Monument
The Victor Emmanuel II Monument

Water Front at San Marco Wharf

If you arrive by cruise ship, there is where you will most likely disembark.  The area is full of souvenir stalls and people selling all sorts of things.  We walked through this to see some of the buildings further down.

San Marco Wharf
San Marco Wharf

If you go to the Ponte della Paglia there is a great view of the Bridge of Sighs.  A little further down is the Victor Emmanuel II Monument.

The Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs

Access to Piazza San Marco is easy, directly through the Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro.  Just look for St Mark’s Campanile; the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica.

Daniele Manin Statue

Our tour guide on the morning walking tour took us to this statue of the Italian patriot and champion of Italian unification.

Daniele Manin Statue
Daniele Manin Statue

Food Markets

This was another area our guide took us to.  There is an amazing variety of fresh fruit and vegetables available here.  A great place to buy something healthy, or just take in the sights and smells.

Food Markets
Food Markets
Food Markets
Food Markets

Spiral Tower

This tower wasn’t open to the public when we were in Venice, but there were plans to do so. 

Spiral Tower
Spiral Tower

What Did We Think?

We loved Venice.  It was one of the highlights of our 30-day trip.  The hotel was excellent and well located.  The tour guides we used were fantastic, enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  Not to mention the city itself, which is really something special and unique. And of course, the food was magnificent.

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Amsterdam

I Amsterdam Sign

How Did We Get There?

We travelled to Amsterdam from Brussels as part of our 30 day European tour.  As they are so close, we found it easiest to catch a train.  Even easier when we had a centrally located hotel in Amsterdam, so we could walk there from the train station.  The train departed Brussels Central and took just over two hours to get to Amsterdam.  Our trip was  direct, but had a stop in Antwerp.

Amsterdam Time
Amsterdam Time

We booked through SNBC before leaving home at a cost of 45 Euros each.  There is no seating allocation, but as we had an early train (5:45AM) there were plenty of seats available.  Travel time was around three hours, so we arrived just after 9:00AM.  This gave us time to drop our bags at our hotel before setting out to explore.

Where did we stay?

As most of Amsterdam’s attractions are located around the old city, we chose a hotel in the centre.  The NH Collection Amsterdam Doelen looked like a good choice, being an up-market property within walking distance of everything we planned to visit.  From arrival to departure, the staff were some of the best we have met.  They were attentive to our needs without smothering you.  The check-in procedure is at a desk, where the guests can sit down, while the paperwork is carried out.  Fantastic, as you really don’t feel like standing after your trip to get there.

The rooms were very nicely appointed.  Unfortunately, street noise from parties at nearby pubs kept us awake, so sleeping was not great, even though the bed was fantastic!

Breakfast was fantastic.  Great wait staff and a good selection off the menu or buffet.

Getting Around

We found the easiest way to get around central Amsterdam was to walk.  When you first look at the map it looks a bit daunting, because of the canals and bridges.  However, we used Google Maps and found it quite easy.  When you walk you also get a better sense of the city and experience it better.  Remember that bikes get right of way!  If you don’t pay attention, it’s easy to get in their way.

Amsterdam Canal
Amsterdam Canal

To visit attractions further afield like Zaanse Schans, we used public transport.  This was very easy to use, with the buses leaving from Central Station.

Amsterdam Walk
Amsterdam Walk

What did we do?

Dam Square

This is a large public area next to the Royal Palace and the National Monument.  There are a lot of cafes around it and we grabbed a snack and a drink and watched the people walking by.

Royal Palace

As with most attractions we visited, where possible we bought a skip the line ticket.  This wasn’t really needed here as there was no huge queue out the front, but as the cost was the same, it just meant we could walk straight in. 

There is a cloak room for backpacks and coats and a desk where you can get a map and an audio guide.  The guides are great and give detail of each stop on the map, along with some optional extra stops if you are interested.

Not as magnificent as some palaces we have seen, but a beautiful building none the less and worth taking the time to see and have a detailed look around.

Royal Palace
Royal Palace

Canal Cruise

This is one of the must do activities in Amsterdam.  As the city is designed around canals, the historical and modern city can be seen to advantage from them.  The cruise we took lasted an hour and navigated many, many canals.  We saw house boats, old warehouses, modern architecture and more.  Unfortunately, the boat had a closed roof which severely limited the views and photo opportunities.  We thought this was a major problem.  I can understand that in winter, an enclosed, heated boat would be required, but in summer, the lack of viewing areas is very disappointing. So, if you can, get an open-topped one.

Anne Frank’s House

Another of the must-see places in Amsterdam.  I don’t use the word attraction, as that is not really its intent.  There was a massive line up.  Groups go through every 15 minutes.  You are rushed through, no photos are to be taken, and you are going through so fast you don’t have time. However this was an amazing experience to see this.

 

Rijksmuseum

If you are an art connoisseur, then the Rijksmuseum is a must.  The collection of Dutch masters is fanatic and no to be missed. Rembrandt, Vermeer, and many more.  Even if you are not into art, a visit is worthwhile, even if just to say that you have seen masterpieces like The Night Watch and the Milkmaid.

To avoid the queues, buy you ticket online and skip straight to the entrance.

Van Gogh Museum

A fantastic museum containing most of the great artist’s best works.  Buy your ticket online, to avoid the huge queues that can form outside.  It can also be very crowded inside so don’t expect solitude to contemplate any of the art works.

No photographs allowed, although this didn’t stop a lot a people from taking them.  If you do take photos, expect a stern telling off by the guards.

I Amsterdam Sign

Located near the Rijksmuseum, this is one of the must do tourist places in Amsterdam.  Unless you get there very early, don’t expect to take a photo of just yourself, as the crowds can be quite large, with many people more interested in getting their own photo, than staying out of yours.

We saw the afternoon crowds, but came back at 6AM and had it all to ourselves.

I Amsterdam Sign
I Amsterdam Sign

Zaanse Schans

Zaanse Schans houses a collection of windmills, most of which still operate. If the wind is strong enough, they will be working as they were designed, producing the products they were designed for.  When we visited, the wind was too light, but were still able to go inside them and look around. 

Zaanse Schans
Zaanse Schans

Entry to each windmill and museum must be paid for, so when you walk around, you do not have to go to all of them, and only one you could walk up to the roof and take a good picture, all the rest you were not allowed to do this. You can buy a Zaanse Schans card which gives you:

  • Free admission to the Zaans Museum
  • Free admission to the Weaver’s House and Cooperage
  • Free admission to a windmill of your choice; extra windmills with a 50% discount. You can choose from: paint mill De Kat, sawmill Het Jonge Schaap, oil mill De Zoeker or oil mill De Bonte Hen.
  • Free access to the Zaan Time Museum (peak season + Sundays)
  • 30% discount on admission to the Honig Breethuis and the Windmill museum
  • 10% discount in souvenir shops and catering establishments (when you spend more than €10.00)
  • Parking Zaanse Schans daily rate for cars of €7.50 (instead of €10.00)

The card can be purchased for 15 Euros at the information centre.

Zaanse Schans Windmill
Zaanse Schans Windmill

We spent the morning looking around  tasting cheese, trying on clogs, (which you can buy) and then had a nice lunch at one of the restaurants on site. The site is massive, but well worth the walk.  You can also walk over the bridge at the other entrance to the museum area and see the amazing houses on the water front and have a nice look around.

Zaanse Schans
Zaanse Schans

We travelled there and back by bus.  A 50 minute trip, departing about very 15 minutes from Amsterdam Central.

What Did We Think?

Amsterdam is one of those places to visit, it has something for everyone, but there was more to see and do in other places that we visited. The old city and canals are very nice and we enjoyed the Van Gogh Museum.  However, we found the city was very noisy at night and sleeping was difficult.  Many of the tourists seem to be on bucks parties with many large groups of drunken young men staggering around.

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Chamonix

View From Aiguille du Midi

Why Did We Go?

A one-day break between arriving in Geneva and departing on a four-day bus trip around southern Switzerland gave us an opportunity to go somewhere outside the city.  We considered staying in Geneva and seeing the sights, but between the first afternoon, and the bus trip, these were mostly covered.  There are several trips available, but we chose Chamonix, as the town seemed to have the most to offer.  Fantastic mountain views, cable car rides, cog railway, glacier and ice cave grotto.  Of course, there was the town itself.

How Did We Get There?

We opted to take a bus, as other means of transport were not available to us.  If you wanted, car hire and drive would give you more flexibility, especially if you had more time and wanted to explore more.  We only had the one day between arriving and leaving on a four-day trip around Switzerland.

Chamonix Tour
Chamonix Tour

The Bus Trip

The 90-minute trip is quite scenic and passes through some lovely countryside.  Unfortunately, the trip does not have the time for photo stops.  If you want these, drive yourself.  The guide was quite entertaining and provided some useful advice, on both Chamonix and Geneva.  Apart from the journey there and back and the first cable car ride, we had very little interaction with the other passengers.  There was a lunch option available and if you chose that you would see other guests, but we decided to explore and find our own lunch.

Aiguille du Midi

The first activity when we arrived was the cable car to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi.  Tickets were organised by the guide.  All available room is used in the cable car.  If you like your personal space, there was none here.  If you wanted to take photos on the way up, only the lucky few next to the windows stood a chance.  But don’t worry, the views from the summit are better.

View From Aiguille du Midi
View From Aiguille du Midi
View From Aiguille du Midi
View From Aiguille du Midi

Once you leave the cable car, you get to experience the fantastic views and the cold.  We were please we brought winter jackets. Even though it was mid-summer, there was still snow on the ground up here.  There are protected walkways around the outside, which give some great views.  There are also some sections of exposed walkway, memorably the bridge over a chasm. Higher up, there are exposed platforms providing 360-degree views, if the weather is good.  On the day we visited, the weather closed in, so our views were mostly clouds.External Covered Walkways Aiguille du MidiExternal Covered Walkways Aiguille du Midi

Bridge at Aiguille du Midi
Bridge at Aiguille du Midi

Part of the experience is climbing several staircases.  This allows you to experience the lack of oxygen at this altitude.  There are some signs and displays explaining this.  It is surprising how light-headed you get after on a few flights of stairs.

Montenvers

To get to Montenvers, you board a cute little cog-train at the local station.  The trip up is very scenic and there are plenty of views for some photos.  At the top, there is a café and restaurant if you want a snack.

Montenvers Cog Railway
Montenvers Cog Railway

We walked a bit further along to get some views of the Mer De Glace and then took the 400-step pathway to the bottom.  This many steps sounds a lot, but there are many places to stop to catch your breath and unless you are super fit, everyone stopped regularly, particularly on the way back up.

At the bottom, is a carved ice grotto, which is amazing and make the whole  climb worth the effort.  Inside are many ice sculptures and the whole scene is  lit with blue light.  All very surreal.

Montenvers Ice Grotto
Montenvers Ice Grotto

Chamonix

Between our two activities, we had very little time to explore the village.  There were many places to eat, and we grabbed a snack at one, and some drinks at a pub before we departed.  But really, we were not there for the village, mainly to see mountains and a glacier.

What Did We Think?

Having our own transport might have enabled us to stop along the way and take in the scenery of the Arve Valley a little better, but the bus made everything convenient.  We were taken to our destination and dropped back to central Geneva, with no fuss.

The views ae spectacular and the Ice Grotto memorable.  Even with the super-squishy cable car, it was a fantastic day.

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