Independent Families: 'What can we do in a day in Venice?'

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The Independent Travel

Q. We will shortly be visiting Italy's Comacchio region. While we're there, my daughter will celebrate her 11th birthday, and she has asked if we can go on a day trip to Venice and take a gondola ride. Could you give us any advice about booking a safe and reasonable trip, and where to go to make the most of the sights?

Peter Henderson, via e-mail

A. Congratulations on having a daughter with such excellent taste - an 11th birthday spent exploring one of the world's most bewitching cities is bound to be memorable.

Venice is an hour's drive north of Comacchio. Parking during peak season is extremely difficult, but there should be room in the outdoor San Giuliano car park at Mestre, from where you can pick up a No 5 ACTV bus (00 39 041 24 24; www.actv.it) for the short hop into Venice. A one-way ticket costs €2 (£1.40) per person, but you may prefer - for reasons that will become clear - to buy a 24-hour pass for €24 (£17) each. To go by public transport, the tourist office at Comacchio (00 39 05 33 314154; www.comune.comacchio.fe.it) has timetables for local FER trains and buses. These run from either Codigoro or Voltano to Ferrara, where you can catch a Trenitalia national service (00 39 89 20 21; www.trenitalia.com) - the 8.29am train from Ferrara will get you to Venice Mestre by 10am, and cost €18 (£12.90) return each.

Venice is rich in organised tours, many of which feature a gondola ride. Not all are of the same quality, however, and most stick to the Grand Canal. Unfortunately, during peak tourist season, this can resemble a choppy, smelly maritime motorway. A typical itinerary is offered by Venice Tourism (00 39 041 529 8711; www.turismovenezia.it): daily two-hour walking tours of the main sights, plus a gondola crossing of the Grand Canal for €40 (£29) per person.

Walks Inside Venice (00 39 041 524 1706; www.walksinsidevenice.com) comprises three licensed, English-speaking guides who offer private tours for families with children. One such tour features an hour in your own water-taxi, exploring how the city was built on water, and why, followed by a history-rich walk through the back streets of the Castello area. This costs €310 (£221) for around three hours.

Cheaper by far is the ACTV day-pass mentioned earlier, which gets you unlimited rides on both the vaporettos - water-buses - that circle the city, and the traghettos, which are traditional wooden gondolas used to ferry locals across the Grand Canal from 14 rickety wooden piers along its length (look for yellow signs pointing to the nearest stop). Traghettos shuttle back and forth all day until around 8pm, so you won't have long to wait; once on board, remember to stand, as the Venetians do.

Gondolas can be hired for €100 (£70) per hour. But be sure to book one at an official gondolieri stand - there are several in St Mark's Square, plus others at major tourist hangouts - so as not to be ripped off by unscrupulous touts. Stick to the quieter, back-street canals to avoid the high-season, prow-to-stern log jams of the main routes.

In a single day, you can clearly only dip a metaphorical toe in Venice's waters, but here are a few suggestions that your children might particularly enjoy. Book 48 hours in advance for the exciting and very popular " Secret Itinerary" children's tour at the Doge's Palace (00 39 041 52 09070; www.museiciviciveneziani.it; mornings only) in St Mark's Square. This costs €16 (£11) for adults €12 (£8) for children, and takes you round the Palace's atmospheric back corridors, torture chambers and prison, from where Casanova is reputed to have escaped in 1756. From here you could walk to the Rialto Bridge, and past the medieval Corte del Milion, home to Marco Polo on his return from "discovering" China. Over the bridge are the Rialto fish, fruit and vegetable markets - noisy, colourful places and great fun for putting together your own picnic.

Or you could walk east from the palace to the beautiful Palazzo Grassi. Here, the San Samuele traghetto will drop you off at Ca' Rezzonico, a highly decorative museum of 18th-century Venice. Behind the museum, at Dorsoduro 3172, is Ca' Macana (00 39 041 277 6142; www.camacana.com), a treasure trove of Venetian carnival masks that would enthral most 11-year-old girls. Book in advance for a two-and-a-half-hour workshop decorating your own mask (prices vary; call, or e-mail info@camacana.com, for details).

You will, of course, be in need of some birthday cake. To the north of the city is the quiet, pretty Cannaregio area. Pasticceria Cazzetta (Cannaregio 1979; 00 39 041 720405) is a neighbourhood bakery selling splendid Venetian cakes, baci and tiramisu. And, for a suitably aquatic celebratory meal, the seafood restaurant Il Nuovo Galeon, 15 minutes' walk east from St Mark's at Castello 1308 (00 39 041 520 4656), is decorated just like the inside of a 16th-century ship. This will entertain the children, while the food is good enough for even an adult anniversary.

Send your family travel queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, 'The Independent', 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or e-mail crusoe@independent.co.uk

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