Children adore Venice: there’s so much to see, hear, do, touch, taste. But like their parents, they can easily suffer cultural burnout from too many church and gallery visits. A smart selection of activities, plus a little background to spark interest—a Venice-set children’s novel like Cornelia Funke’s mystery The Thief Lord, for example—will bring to vibrant life what can occasionally seem like a museum of a city.
It ceased operations by the 1800s, but this sprawling medieval shipyard produced a galleon a day during its 16th-century peak. It’s now open to the public twice a year: for historical reenactments, boat rides and displays of antique sailing vessels during May’s Mare Maggio festival (maremaggio.it), and in early fall during La Biennale (labiennale.org), when the quarter-mile-long corderie (rope factory) becomes a gallery. Models of historic craft built in the Arsenale can be viewed year-round at the Museo Storico Navale. Ages 5–18. At 2148 Castello, Riva S. Biasio Castello; 39-041/244-1399.
Gondolas can be admired in action on the water or under repair at the picturesque squero (boatyard) by the church of San Trovaso in Dorsoduro, but only Gilberto Penzo’s little San Polo shop sells elegant and accurate model kits (from $50).Ages 8–16. At 2681 San Polo, Calle Seconda dei Saoneri; 39-041 719-372; veniceboats.com.
A swoop across the lagoon in a helicopter puts the city’s geography in context and provides breathtaking views. Heliair does ten-minute Taste of Venice tours ($145 per person) and 20-minute Venice Laguna versions ($285). Ages 5–16. 39-041/526-0215; heliairvenice.com.
Carlo Pistacchi’s all-natural handmade ice cream at his hole-in-the-wall shop, Alaska, is arguably the city’s best. Along with all the regular flavors, Pistacchi offers unusual—and perhaps more adult—ones like celery, ginger and artichoke. Ages 0–90. At 1159 Santa Croce, Calle Larga dei Bari; 39-041/715-211.
Cristina Nogara’s minimalist store offers equally uncomplicated clothes for kids, from infants to teenagers, and some for Mamma, too. It’s a sort of junior-Armani-in-battle-fatigue style. Ages 0–16. At 1729 San Marco; 39-041/296-0619.
To help kids appreciate the sheer effort involved in creating mosaics—like the one-and-a-half-square-mile interior of the Basilica di San Marco—let them have a go of it themselves. Mosaici Donà Murano sells small rainbow-colored packets of the glass pieces called tesserae, complete with glue, as well as a wood-framed backing board for mounting mosaic artwork (each from $40). Ages 6–16. At 86 Fondamenta Manin, Murano; 39-041/527-4561; mosaicidonamurano.com.
Venice’s classic seaside resort, on a long, narrow sandbar just south of the city, is an oasis of Belle Epoque charm. Those who want to avoid the crowds hire bicycles from Bruno Lazzari (Gran Viale S.M. Elisabetta 21/B; 39-041/526-8019) or Giorgio Barbieri’s Venice Bike Rental (79/A Gran Viale S. Maria Elisabetta; 39-041/526-1490) and head south to Alberoni for the quieter beaches, while those looking for sand with style make the Aurora Beach Club (20 Lungomare d’Annunzio; facebook.com) their base.
It isn’t traditionally Venetian, but pizza is so ubiquitous that even the lagoon city has risen to the challenge. Smaller children will appreciate not only the very good pizza margherita at Al Nono Risorto but also its little garden, where they can run free after gobbling their slice. Ages 0–90. At 2338 Santa Croce, Sotoportego de Siora Bettina; 39-041/524-1169; nonorisortovenezia.com.
Gondoliers make it all look so easy—however, rowing standing up, facing forward and wiggling a single oar is anything but, as children will discover during a 90-minute private lesson at Row Venice. An instructor explains the basic stroke, then accompanies students to the lagoon and smaller canals to practice. Becoming a gondola master in one session is unlikely—simply keeping hold of the oar and not toppling into the water when a motorboat passes are big achievements. The classes are arranged by appointment only; book directly on the website. Ages 10 and up. 90-minute lesson, from $90 for 1-2 people; from $150 for a family of four; 39-345/241-5266; rowvenice.com.
Sophisticated, immaculate and adult-seeming as this temple to all things chocolate may be, children still clamor for the exquisite truffles, nut brittles, pralines and Nutella-like spreads offered. The luxuriously thick hot chocolate (with or without the addition of exotic spices) is a delight in the winter, the gelato excellent in summer. And the cocoa creations shaped like fettucine offer a completely different pasta experience. Ages 3–16. At 2898A San Polo, Campo San Tomà; 39-041/275-0149; viziovirtu.com.
Of all the shallow-drafted sailing craft that moved the merchandise of the Serene Venetian Republic across the lagoon and along the Adriatic, the trabacolo was one of the largest and most vital to its international trade. Il Nuovo Trionfo, a gloriously restored example, is generally moored on Lazzaretto Nuovo, where it can be viewed from the off-the-beaten-path island’s dock; the craft is also available for private hire for special events. Ages 5 and up. 39-335/623-3328; ilnuovotrionfo.org.
The soft-looking pull-on shoes worn by gondoliers are traditional Veneto footwear called scarpez or furlane. The genuine article has soles made using old bicycle tires (perfect nonslip material for balancing on a gondola) and robust stitching, without a lick of glue. Near the Rialto, Piedàterre offers classic scarpez in a rainbow range of colors. Ages 0–90. From $40. At 60 San Polo, Sotoportego di Rialto; 39-041/528-5513; piedaterre-venice.com.
The handmade puzzles, games, and mobiles at the toy store Signor Blum delight smaller children and send parents back to a time before extruded plastic. The three industrious Venetian ladies who run the shop and design and make all its wares will also craft custom items. Ages 3–10. At 2840 Dorsoduro, Campo San Barnaba; 39-041/522-6367; signorblum.com.