Discovering Venice with Kids
I’ve been to Venice several times, most recently with my husband just over a year ago for a romantic weekend for two. It’s a city that never disappoints. Magical, enchanting, entirely unique, nothing short of a living, breathing work of art. In case it’s not already clear, I love Venice! I fell for it the first time I visited at the age of 13, and I’ve loved it every time I’ve visited since.
So it was with slight trepidation that my husband and I planned a short break there with our two children, Jack and Tess, ages 11 and 9. What if they didn’t like it, what if they got bored, what if they didn’t marvel at its beauty like us? What if they took the shine off it and ruined the magic?
We arrived on a rainy afternoon in early March. The children’s faces as they caught their first glimpse of the city from the train put our minds at rest. Stepping out of the station and hearing them gasp at the view of the Grand Canal, we knew that everything was going to be alright. They’d fallen in love with Venice, just like us.
For the next 24 hours, we gorged ourselves on the delights of this incredible city. The sun was shining and we dashed from the Rialto bridge; our local market; a fabulous gondola ride narrated by Luciano, our charismatic gondolier; a boat ride to the neighbouring island of Murano to marvel at the famous Venetian glassware; and dinner in a hidden gem of a restaurant down the tiniest of lanes (tip: look for the ones filled with gondoliers in their stripy shirts for good quality food at reasonable prices).
In rare moments when we weren’t on the move, we were held spellbound by day-to-day life in a city where boats rule. Boats serve as buses, taxis, garbage removers, delivery makers, you name it. Our favourites, and the only ones allowed to break the city’s strict speed limit, are the emergency services: ambulances, police and fire boats. Not only is it great entertainment watching watercraft of every imaginable type going by as you sip your coffee or enjoy a gelato, but it’s quiet too. And after three years of living with the chaos and noise of Rome’s traffic, we delighted in the peace.
LivItaly‘s Family-Friendly Venice Treasure Hunt Tour
After our initial frenzy of canals, boats and Venetian delights, we were exhausted. Not only that, but the weather had changed. The sun was gone and stormy rainclouds were gathering ominously over the lagoon. Saturday was a clearly destined to be an indoor day i.e. museums, churches and palazzos. That was fine for my husband and I, but not something that our children ever look forward to. In their case, museums and galleries are always visited under sufferance and in exchange for the promise of toyshops or ice-creams to follow.
But there was no getting out of it. We’d booked a tour with LivItaly tours, a small company that specialises in private and small group tours in cities across Italy, and our guide was meeting us at 10am sharp for our Saint Mark’s and Doge’s Palace Treasure Hunt tour. So it was on with the waterproofs and off to our designated meeting point.
Our Fantastic Guide
Things picked up from the moment we met Matteo, our guide for the morning. He greeted us with a big smile and an instantly infectious enthusiasm for his carefully planned two-hour itinerary. He gave the children their treasure maps and quiz sheets to use throughout the tour and they were allowed to choose their favourite colour from his pack of markers to complete the questions. From that small gesture alone, I could tell right away that Matteo knew kids and the little things that matter when you’re 9 or 11 years old, such as whether you’re using a blue or a purple marker!
All equipped, we headed for the majestic entrance of the Basilica to begin our tour. Nothing can prepare you for your first view of the inside of the church. Dazzling gold and 4,000 square metres of stunning mosaics surround you in every direction and I remember it bringing tears to my eyes the first time I stepped inside. So I was watching Jack and Tess’ faces carefully as they entered and their reaction didn’t disappoint. Eyes wide and mouths agape, they quietly took in the glorious space around them.
After a respectful few seconds, Matteo drew our eyes away from the glittering domes above and down to floor level. He explained that the uneven surface is due to the fact that Venice is slowly sinking. Built on sand and surrounded by water in all directions, it’s a wonder that the Basilica has survived as long as it has since its first iteration in the year 829.
Using their treasure maps, the children spotted griffins and peacocks depicted in the multi-coloured mosaic floors, as well as an incredible variety of designs inspired by complex geometry, the sea surrounding Venice and Islamic art.
Back out in the piazza, Matteo painted us a picture of life at the peak of the Venetian republic, which began in the 7th Century and continued all the way through to the late 1700s. He skilfully zoomed in on details certain to fascinate children: the exact location and nature of public executions held in the square centuries ago; the long wars fought at sea for territories as far flung as Istanbul and Cyprus; and the eventual downfall of the Republic to Napoleon’s army.
Time for the Doge’s Palace, which began with a satisfying walk past the long queue of soggy tourists waiting in line. The pre-purchased tickets that came as part of our tour package allowed us to skip the queue and head straight for the entrance. Once in, Matteo walked us through the courtyard, up the glorious ‘Golden Staircase’ and through room after room of sumptuous grandeur.
Without Matteo there to guide us, we would have walked past countless hidden treasures: the mouth in the wall that served as a letterbox for whistle blowers with tales to tell of bribery or corruption in the system; the secret passageway leading from the council of justice to either the torture rooms above or the dungeons below; and the many images of Doges through the ages captured in paintings on the walls, including some by Titian and Tintoretto.
Every time the children’s attention showed signs of wandering, Matteo would bring their focus back with animated stories, or clues to spot and quiz questions to answer.
Bridge of Sighs
Walking across the famous Bridge of Sighs from the Palace to the prison, Matteo encouraged us to pause and consider how it must have felt for prisoners as they caught their last glimpse of sky and sea through the latticed windows and ‘sighed’ for the freedom they were leaving behind.
Down in the prison cells, Matteo’s tales became suitably grim. As he led us through a maze of dark, damp cells and corridors, he helped us to imagine the life of a prisoner of the Venetian Republic and pointed out early graffiti poignantly etched in the walls around us. We were spellbound.
A Parting Gift
The prisons marked the end of our tour, but Matteo left us with our tickets and a list of tips for other ‘must see’ parts of the Doge’s Palace. Our tickets also gained us access to the Museo Correr complex on the other side of Saint Mark’s Piazza and we briefly considered continuing our rainy day tour of Venetian history and art. Without Matteo though, we all agreed that it just wouldn’t be the same and it was toyshop time instead!
Just when we thought it was all over and were headed for the exit, Matteo reappeared and breathlessly explained that he’d forgotten to give the children their gifts. Inside two beautifully wrapped packages were Christmas tree ornaments made of Venetian glass. Jack and Tess were thrilled and I know that every year when we hang them on our Christmas tree we’ll remember our magical trip to Venice and the fascinating journey through the heyday of the Venetian Republic, courtesy of the fabulous Matteo and LivItaly Tours.
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Disclosure: Charlotte and her family were offered a complimentary Venice Treasure Hunt Tour from LivItaly Tours. However, her opinions are entirely independent and her own. LivItaly Tours offer a range of tours across Italy, many of them child- friendly such as this drawing class in Florence. For more details please see the LivItaly website.