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Venice to London with Tulips in Between

I’m sharing my April trip with three of my best traveling friends in hopes someone with trip plans might find something helpful. Venice and London are two of my favorite cities, and since we were traveling during peak tulip season in the Netherlands, we had to fit in a quick stopover. We flew out of ATL Easter night, with a connection in Rome on Alitalia to Venice to get the best deal using Delta miles. Booking the flight was actually the most hair-raising experience of the trip! I was booking my flight with miles and one friend’s flight with her credit card by phone with a Delta agent; my other two friends were booking online simultaneously. I got my flight with no problems, but it was apparently the only seat left for 60K miles. The fun began as I tried to buy my friend’s ticket. Prices were going up and seats were disappearing as we spoke. NEXT time, I may get all the players in one room with their credit cards and try to buy all the tickets from one agent, to avoid all the calls that were flying back and forth among us to figure out why all our ticket prices were suddenly escalating, and IF we were all still getting on the same flight.

I think a vaporetto pass to cover all the days I’m in Venice is well worth the money. I’m always puzzled to hear someone say they walk everywhere, because I don’t think I could see nearly as much without the freedom to hop on and off boats whenever I want. After you leave the luggage carousels, you’ll pass several machines where you can buy a pass for 1,2,3, or 7 days, and the time starts the first time you swipe your card on a boat ramp. The third machine finally liked our credit cards.

If I have three friends to split the cost of a water taxi, it is absolutely the most fun and convenient way to get from the airport to Venice, and it may drop you right at your doorstep with no steps to bump over. Finding the moving sidewalk from the airport to the taxi boat ramp is the tricky part. It’s generally out the front door of the airport and up the elevator on the left. If you are on the outside sidewalk by the taxis on wheels, you missed the turn.

If the water taxi is too extravagant, the land bus to Piazzale Roma works well and is cheap (just not as much fun.) My least favorite option is the Alliguna boat where you sit cramped downstairs looking through dirty windows, land somewhere confusing, and pay almost as much as four people sharing a water taxi. If you go with the taxi, your hotel or apartment can probably tell you how to reserve ahead, or you can book one at the counter in the airport when you arrive. My Venetian friend tells me, however you book it, don’t tip the taxi boat driver. “They make plenty!”

For a first trip or a quick trip to Venice, there’s value to having a front desk helping you with directions and making reservations, but I enjoy the space of an apartment when I’m with friends. This one is my favorite: https://www.homeaway.co.uk/p1111068. Love the location near the San Toma vaporetto stop, the view facing the Frari church, and Giulia the lovely owner who has a retired chef friend who will meet you at the Rialto Marcato to shop for seafood, then come back late afternoon to cook a meal for you. There’s a gondolier (who sings American blues!) parked below the window and a great morning coffee shop on the campo. It’s a quick walk over the Pantalon bridge to lively Campo Margherita, where you can get a good take-away slice from Volo or choose an outdoor table at one of the bars or restaurants for drinks and people watching. Over one more bridge and you’re on Campo Barnabas where there’s Grom gelato. If you keep walking (you’re now in the Dorsodura, the university neighborhood) you’ll probably wind up either on the Zattere watching the sunset over Giudica Island or on the Accademia bridge watching the boats on the Grand Canal.

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I like Venice a week at a time, but we got five nights this trip, enough for a day trip to Padua one day and to Burano on another. From the Ferrovia vaporetto stop the train runs often to Padua. It’s easy enough to buy your tickets from one of the machines, then time stamp it on the platform before you get on the train. In the Padua station there’s a helpful tourist info point and you can buy a day pass for the tram. All the main sights are a short walk from one of the tram stops. On our day trip we started at the morning outdoor market, had great pizzas in a beautiful courtyard at Marechiaro, then queued up early at the Scrovegni Chapel for our 3PM reservations. I made a grande mistake on the tickets, and hope this may save you some grief. Although I had a printout from Vivaticket for 4 tickets at 3PM for 52 Euro, what I did NOT have was a reservation number. Apparently my payment never went through, so my reservations went kaput. Annoyed, disappointed, smarter now, but we didn’t get our 15 minutes in the blue chapel. Next trip. On to St. Anthony’s then back to the market square for drinks in the late afternoon sun with the university crowd. I liked Padua but found it a little more commercial and less old-world than it appears on the RS video. Glad to do it as a day trip rather than taking a night away from Venice. No comparison.

If the weather’s good and I have the time, I do like to take friends to colorful Burano. Had a good trip to Murano, once, in winter, but it’s way too commercial and touristy for me, and I don’t get the appeal of those garish glass clowns. Was disappointed by my one trip to St. Michele, the cemetery island, because I was expecting artistic, Victorian tombs, and that’s not at all what it is. This trip I signed on for a walking tour of Burano with Silvia Zanella, which was great. http://europeforvisitors.com/venice/articles/discover-burano.htm Her family’s lived on Burano for generations, and Silvia is young, friendly, and enthusiastic about her home island. We met at 11AM, and it was only the four of us. To get to Burano it’s easy to take the Linea 12 boat from Fondamente Nove, taking about 40 minutes and covered by your vaporetto pass. (To get to Fondamente Nove, we took the vaporetto to the Ca’ D’Oro stop, then walked through a wonderful non-touristy part of Cannaregio.) If you can arrive on Burano before 10 AM or even earlier, you can take pictures with no people intruding in them.

Silvia focused on getting us off the over-trod path and showed us quieter corners and explained some of the history. She also recommended a restaurant that was a highlight of our trip — Tratorria da Primo. It’s on the main street with a string of outdoor restaurants. She told us to order two of the fish antipasti platters for starters, then try the fish risotto or fresh grilled catch.
The huge antipasti platters required an extra table, and the house prosecco came in pottery pitchers. An amazing, beautiful meal. Not a cheap one, but a good value, and much less than the famous, expensive Al Gatto Nero on Burano.

After many trips to Venice, these are some of my favorite restaurants where the food was good and the service friendly: Do Spade, Mascaron, Tratorria San Trovaso, tiny Tratorria San Toma, and the cichetti at Cantinone gia Schiavi. Grom and Venchi for gelato. Best foodie app: Eat Venice (Elizabeth Minchilli) Best take out pizza slices are usually not on a busy tourist street, but on a side street a few blocks away, with many locals crowding the counter.

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Best experiences always include St. Mark’s during the hour of illumination at 11:30 AM and the view from the the bell tower of St. Giorgio’s. Don’t be discouraged by the loong line into St. Mark’s. Rick’s tip to walk one block away and check a backpack for skip the line tickets really works. (This trip we traded one small backpack purse for four tickets and walked straight in.) Pay the 5 euro and climb the steps to the museum at St. Mark’s to see the stunning bronze horses, the golden mosaics close up, and the view from the “front porch.” Most churches have something worth seeing, but the opening hours will make you crazy, i.e., long afternoon siestas. I carry a short list of opening hours of my wish list, so if I’m nearby and one’s actually open, I won’t miss it. The Frari is worth a special trip, and waiting for it to open!

I love art museums, but in Venice I would usually rather be outside. The Accademia is a well-organized look at Venetian art through the ages, has a good audio guide, isn’t too big, and probably won’t kill most of your lukewarm-about-art friends. The Peggy Guggenheim may finish them off….

If you like natural history museums, don’t miss Venice’s small, beautifully designed one near the San Stae vaporetto stop. It has artistic glass cabinets of specimens, not just one cabinet of curiosities, but an entire room, one dreadful room of wild game hunting photographs that I bolt through, and Venice’s dinosaur, surrounded by video and photographs of the dig site. If you just need to escape the crowds, this is the place.

I always feel safe in Venice, even late at night on dark streets with just another woman. I stay aware of my belongings in the crowded pickpocketty feeling areas, and all is good. Just remember to swipe your vaporetto ticket every time you board, and don’t even think of riding without one. The fines are egregious, and all those people who aren’t swiping a ticket have a locals’ pass in their pocket that you don’t! And get far away from St. Mark’s piazza. The nether regions of Castello, Cannaregio, and the Dorsoduro are some of the best. I don’t like unfolding a big paper map, but I plot out some plans while in my apartment, then take screen shots of GoogleMaps locations where I’m headed. And I don’t leave home without enough data on my international plan, so I don’t have to worry about turning on the roaming when I really need some immediate help finding my way.

On to the Netherlands! We lived in Bonn, Germany, for almost five years, and I was lucky to make day trips to see the tulips at the famous Keukenhof Gardens on four different years. I’ve been once a little early (in March) and once a little late in the season (May) but in late April you can usually count on seeing the flowers at their best. Because we were going from Venice to London, and it was late April, this stopover seemed a must-do. To get back to Marco Polo airport we took the vaporetto to the Piazzale Roma stop, then a comfortable bus to the airport, which arrived in less than 30 minutes. I booked direct flights from Venice to AMS on EasyJet for about $100. Baggage weight restrictions are explicit but not difficult to follow. I booked a driver through EasyJet to take us from AMS to our hotel in Haarlem, but he was very late, and in hindsight, just taking a taxi would probably have been about the same price.

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I chose to stay in Haarlem for three nights because it was closer to Keukenhof and AMS, an easy train trip into Amsterdam, and a nice hotel in Haarlem is a little less expensive and a lot more peaceful than in Amsterdam. We stayed at the Carlton Square and it was a gem. After a day with lots of moving parts, it was great to have dinner in their very good Zocher restaurant then walk half a block to the corner to watch the flower parade arrive in Haarlem — even if the halogen street lights turned the flowers some peculiar colors at night. The Carlton Square had great beds and endless hot water, an extensive breakfast, and a very helpful, friendly front desk. Definitely would return here.

With two full days in the NL, we reserved one for Keukenhof and one for a blitz of Amsterdam. After a 20-minute train ride to Amsterdam’s Central Station, we met Mark from That Dam Walking Tour at 10:30 AM. Mark was very helpful ahead of time helping me coordinate my different Amsterdam plans, and he was even nicer in person. There were only a dozen of us in the group, and this wasn’t a dry landmarks and dates kind of tour. Mark is thoughtful, well-educated, and loves his city. We learned some history and saw plenty of beautiful canals and bridges and landmarks, but Mark focused much of his commentary on today’s culture in Amsterdam. I really appreciated his insights on their falling crime rates and approach to drug and social issues. He also took us for a tea break at a high-end, creative design center, then ended out tour at his favorite frites shop. Thoughtfully, he left each of us with a marked map and lists of his favorites in Amsterdam so we could find them later on our own. I would recommend Mark highly! http://thatdamguide.com/amsterdam-walking-tours

Mark ended our walk at a tram stop where he could see us off to the Van Gogh Museum, one of Europe’s best. Early Sunday afternoon crowds were intense, but we had skip-the-line tickets which helped a little. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl The audio-guide is good, and there’s a pleasant tea room when your energy flags. The best experience here is probably soon after opening if you can schedule that, but any way you can see it is amazing for art lovers. Many familiar paintings and so much more brilliant in real life than on paper.

We ended our day with a late afternoon, small boat tour with https://www.thosedamboatguys.com, no relation to Mark’s company. Seeing Amsterdam from canal level offers a completely different perspective, and being on a small open boat with a dozen people, and whatever wine and food you’d like to bring, is much more pleasant that looking through the glass windows of the big, long enclosed boats with their piped narrations, but I could have done without the forced gaiety of the round the boat introductions. If they would drop that part, I would give them a very high rating for a pleasant 90 minute ride through some of the most picturesque canals where some of the big boats can’t fit.

Keukenhof! https://keukenhof.nl/en/ What can I say? It’s one of the most beautiful flower gardens I can imagine. I bought combo tickets online that included the bus from Haarlem that runs frequently. We thought we had to catch it at Haarlem’s central train station, but it also stopped a block from our hotel. The gardens open at 8 AM, and it’s worth the effort to get there early, when there’s no line to get in, and all your photos will be of flowers with no random people wandering in. (If you are mobility impaired, the public bus might not be best, as there’s a fairly long but flat walk from the bus stop to the front gate, and you may need to conserve your energy for the huge gardens themselves.) We stayed about six hours and saw all the gardens and the exhibition halls. Had ambitious plans for renting bikes and cruising through tulip fields afterward, but the day turned colder and wetter at the end. Next time.

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Next stop London. My first idea was to get there by Eurostar, until I looked at a map and realized that involved backtracking to Brussels! A better idea: flying direct from AMS to Heathrow on British Air in less than two hours for about 85 Euro each. Every time I fly through Schiphol I’m surprised how spread out the gates are. Not the place for tight connections.

For our five nights in London we rented a beautiful three bedroom, 2 bath apartment from London Connections, an excellent company to work with. https://londonconnection.com/property/3-53-parliament-view/ If you remember the Family Vacation movie with “Look, kids…Big Ben, Parliament!” where they keep circling the roundabout, I think this one right below our windows was the one in the movie, and the view of the Thames was the selling point that convinced us to choose this particular property. About $350/night for three bedrooms, a living room with a view, a kitchen AND a washer and dryer is a convincing argument to me for an apartment in London rather than two hotel rooms. The Lambeth Palace bus stop was right in front of our apartment, and Waterloo tube station was only a few minutes by bus. Some days it took a village to get us off and on at the right stops, but London bus riders were unfailingly polite and helpful to us.

Looking for places for afternoon teas, I found this website http://www.afternoontea.co.uk and a special 25% off offer at the Portrait Restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery. I think this per person price of 20.65 BPS is good on Mondays through Thursdays until August 8. It was a lovely tea with friendly service and a great view over Trafalgar square rooftops. It’s probably more than you can eat, and they offer to box up what you can’t. If you’ve checked out London tea prices, this is almost a fire sale price. Must reserve ahead.

I’ve had great experiences in the past with the company Eating Rome, so when I saw they offer a walking food tour of the East End of London, an area I don’t know, I booked it. http://www.eatinglondontours.co.uk/east-end-food-tour/ It was a small group of about a dozen, a great guide named Bethany, four hours of walking the small streets of East London, and eight food tasting stops, lots of fun, and too much food! It began at Old Spitalfields Market, a great destination in itself. I understand they do an abbreviated version of this tour for the RS Best of London tour. At the end they give you a map and printout of all the places you visited. The price is not high for all it includes.

I’ve been a fan of London Walks for years and try to add a few new ones each trip. Working down into the more obscure ones now. http://www.walks.com Covent Garden Interiors took us into several places I’ve walked past and never noticed. The highlight was Rules, the elegant restaurant where Edith filmed her clandestine meeting scenes with her London lover in the last season of Downton Abbey. Kensington — Royal Village, on Saturday afternoon, had a huge group, bigger than I’ve ever experienced, but historian David with his booming midwestern voice was nonplussed, and showed us beautiful greens circled by historic town homes, an ancient church, and Europe’s biggest rooftop garden, complete with streams, trees, and flamingos. You can actually see this garden on your own at 99 Kensington High Street. It’s an ordinary office building entrance, but if you show your ID to the security guard, he’ll show you the elevator to ascend to the rooftop. You won’t believe you’re on a roof in the middle of London.

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London theatre is my favorite reason for going to London and my go-to site for buying tickets is http://www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk. I’ve had some success at TKTS, mostly when I needed only a single seat. But if there’s something my heart is set on seeing, I book it as soon as I have an airline ticket. The price isn’t going down, but the seat selection is. I’m also at the age and stage when life’s too short for bad theater seats. I’ll economize somewhere else if I have to, but I’m not sitting in the rafters needing a telescope to save 30 pounds, especially if I’ve come all the way to London to see it!
Evensong at Westminster Abbey has always been a special experience for me, but I must say that I have never before noticed so many who appear to have no interest in attending a worship service. I guess they were there for a free look at the interior. It bothered me that the vergers frequently needed to say “This is a worship service. Not a time to take pictures!”
The Churchill War Rooms have added an excellent new museum about Winston Churchill. It’s about midpoint through the war rooms. Stop and see it, because you won’t pass the entrance again if you walk completely
through the war rooms to the gift shop at the end. Many good exhibits and videos.
Another first on this trip was the big yellow Night Tour of London bus that leaves from the Ritz Hotel near the Green Park tube stop. It’s an open top double decker with an engaging live commentator. Several buses leave from 7:30 PM until about 9PM. During our 90 minute ride, we crossed the Thames several times and looped through the major tourist areas. London’s lights are fun to see, but the continuous loop through the city helped pull together the geography for me.

Our dining out arrangements were a little more haphazard this trip — probably because of trying to coordinate with theater times, food tours, afternoon tea, and street market food sampling. We made more Pret a Manger and Sainsbury stops and fewer dinner reservations, but did have good fish and chips at the Old Star Pub across from the St. James tube stop and great meat pies at the Albert, near Westminster Abbey. The Wagamama in the basement in Covent Garden has been replaced with a much bigger new one on Bedford, with windows all around, and leather booths replacing most of the long communal tables with wooden benches. Great noodle dishes, always.

Our trip ended with a few days in the Cotswolds, where we stayed at Rectory Farm in tiny Salford, Chipping Norton, a place I found on https:// www.sawdays.co.uk. A beautiful country house on 450 acres with trout ponds, sheep in the meadows, and spaniels in the kitchen. Elizabeth is a wonderful hostess, and she will help you map out your days to find the best of the Cotswold villages. You need a car for this area. I rented mine from Andy at www.gemut.com, my always reliable source for European rentals. Decided it would be much less stressful to take the train from Paddington station in London to Oxford city to pick up the car. To make life easier, I also rented an automatic with GPS. This was not an inexpensive option, but we had to have a car, and we were splitting the cost among four friends. (The hardest part was knowing I had signed a paper guaranteeing the value of a brand new Mercedes wagon with zero miles on it on my AMEX!)

Even though I’ve been the navigator many times in the U.K., I’ve never had nerve enough to drive. (But, I drive in Atlanta every day with some of the
craziest, rudest drivers in the U.S.!) I was surprised that it was much easier than I expected. I never had to parallel park, and I’m not ready for big city driving, but if you are a calm, careful, decisive driver, you can probably do it well on the wrong side of the road. I was glad we opted to return the car to Oxford rather than Heathrow. There’s an easy airport bus from Oxford, and the exits around Heathrow are confusing.

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I hope you’ve found some helpful ideas and some encouragement for traveling independently in all this. Once again, I’m grateful for friends who can pack light, march 20K steps a day, share bedrooms and hot water, live peaceably out of a kitty for two weeks, not shop til they drop, and wake up every day enthusiastic to take on whatever new challenge should come our way. (And if this matters to anybody, we’re all in our sixties.) Happy Trails!

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An excellent, informative, well written, interesting trip report! Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information! I very much enjoyed reading your trip and found it very helpful. I plan to save it as I am going to London later this year and hope to go back to Venice and Holland at some point. I love Venice and would love to spend a week there and your findings and information on Venice was wonderful.

Thank you! Safe and fun travels for the future.

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Ruth - this was a beautifully written trip report. So many details and good advice. I'm heading to London this fall so I was especially interested in that part. Thank you for sharing your trip with us.

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Ruth,
Wonderful report - thanks for sharing! I'm living vicariously through your fabulous trips. I'm happy to say I know you from our Atlanta Travel Group meetings!
See you on June 24 for our next exciting meeting.
Best,
Judy B

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I really enjoyed your report and have written down some of your suggestions on dining & tours.

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Ruth, Thank you for such a well written, well thought out, jam packed detailed trip report! Just fantastic. I'll be going back to it to re-read it before setting off on my trip to Venice! Thanks again, Katie

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Ruth, this is the most FABULOUS trip report, and chock full of "news you can use." You sound like the most ideal traveling companion -- open and interested and curious and focused on the good stuff. Thank you so much for taking the time to share all your experiences and information. I've definitely bookmarked for future use!

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This is a wonderful report - thanks for taking the time to write it!

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Adding my thanks, too. You combined two of my favorites, Venice and London, with a place on my must see list, Keukenhof. I was hoping to get to see tulips this past spring, but did not pull it off. Your report helps confirm ideas for me that I hope to use next year.

Thanks! Debbie

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Oh, Ruth! What a wonderful, fun trip report to read! It's just full of valuable information and ideas. I am adding my thank yous for sharing your adventures with us.