Try the life of a Venetian on for size.
Sometime around day three of an apartment stay in Venice, a transformation occurs. The welcoming 'buon giorno' you've been receiving at the neighborhood cheese shops, butchers, and bakeries grows more enthusiastic, with an obvious trace of recognition.
You find yourself in situations the weekend visitor never experiences--buying wine by the jug at a vineria, picking tomatoes out of crates from a greengrocer's boat moored in a canal. The evening routine you've established includes nibbling on cicchetti (appetizers) with uno spritz (Campari, soda, and white wine) at a cantina, before heading home to cook a delicious feast in your kitchen.
The fabled Italian lifestyle you've always envied is suddenly your own. You're even able to navigate the city without getting lost--though that won't stop you from wandering aimlessly every day, just because.
To try the life of a Venetian on for size, all you have to do is rent an apartment in the city. The problem is that the rental process isn't as simple as hailing a gondolier. Here are the pros and cons of the four basic approaches.
The main benefit of booking through one of the big international agencies is ease of use. Prices are often listed in U.S. dollars, and you can always pay by credit card, rather than having to arrange bank wire transfers. Most international agencies are based in the U.S. or have representatives there, which means they'll have proven track records and Better Business Bureau ratings, and you won't have to deal with long-distance calls or a language barrier.
The apartments that larger agencies work with are often magnificent: Using Villas International, for example, you can rent a two-bedroom unit in a 14th-century building that was once the vacation home of German writer Goethe. The apartment, known as Palazzo Grevira, is located just 325 yards from Piazza San Marco and was available this past October for $1,490 per week.
The big players handle all sorts of destinations: apartments in Bangkok, ski condos in Aspen, Caribbean villas, Orlando townhouses, London flats, and more. While each company represents thousands of properties around the world, only a handful will be in Venice. We surveyed dozens of agencies, and the two offering more than 20 options in Venice are listed below.
You'll generally find more choices--and often, superior knowledge of the city--at a local agency. Also on the downside: The international agencies tend to be rigid when it comes to bookings, rarely willing to adjust the minimum-stay or other requirements. And prices tend to be higher, on average, than at smaller agencies.
Dimora Veneziana, a Venice-based agency that represents two dozen units in the city, knows that guests arriving past a certain time are unlikely to find any markets or restaurants open in residential neighborhoods. To help late arrivals, the agency outfits apartments with a couple essentials to get them through the night: a bottle of wine and penetta alla siciliana (all you have to do is heat it up). The personal touch is just one reason to book through a local agency.
These agencies tend to work with lots of apartments--Rental in Italy books more than 70. Because of sheer numbers, these agencies are more likely to have units available for only a few nights, and they'll also offer rentals in less obvious locations, like Venice's peaceful outlying islands. Italian agencies also generally provide the most information on each property, including locator maps, lots of photographs, and, in the case of Dimora Veneziana, floor plans.
Apartments run the gamut, from basic to upscale, and many have that perfect mix of charm, location, and value. Magica Venezia, for example, has the three-bedroom Remer, in a palazzo with Gothic-arched windows looking over the Grand Canal. The apartment starts at $54 per person per night when split six ways.
Most local agencies accept credit cards, so the rental process is smooth and standardized, and it can be conducted via the Internet. At least someone in the office will speak English. Some of the best Italian agencies are listed below; for others, go to Venice's official tourist board website, turismovenezia.it. Click on "Accommodation" and then on "Estate agencies for rental apartments."
Direct from owner
In its "Accommodation" database mentioned above, the Venice Tourism website lists 488 holiday apartments in the center of town. While plenty of them are represented by agencies, many are individual apartments for rent directly from the owner.
Skipping the middleman is an age-old formula for finding deals. The problem is that renting direct can be tedious and difficult. Sifting through properties eats up time. Many owners haven't set up flashy websites, and you're left with little more than an address and a phone number. Even with the apartments sporting websites and e-mail addresses, the rental procedure is rarely easy. Few owners accept credit cards; you'll usually have to wire a deposit via bank transfer and pay the balance in cash on arrival (though PayPal is becoming popular). You might need to call Italy several times to confirm rental and payment details, and the language issue may get in the way.
All apartments on the Venice site have been registered and inspected by the tourism association, so there's no reason to be concerned about scams. But bypassing an agency leaves you little recourse in the rare case something goes wrong. An agency is better equipped than an ordinary owner to arrange for substitute lodging, if it comes to that.
The prizes that turn up in the tourist office's database can be fantastic, however. Casseleria, run by owner Francesco Bramante, offers four antique-furnished flats between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge starting at $165 per person per week, split among four guests. That's just $24 a night per person, about what local hostels charge for dorm beds. Venetian Atmosphere is the name of a trio of apartments in a palazzo a few yards from St. Mark's Square. Prices start at $58 per person per night. The Villa Santa Caterina, a rustic house on the tiny island of Mazzorbetto, starts at $236 per person per week--$79 per person for the weekend--and includes your own motorboat.
Many hotels rent apartments, sometimes in the same building, sometimes halfway across town. Booking one can be as easy as calling the hotel or going to its website and providing a credit card number. Hotels allow you to rent for shorter periods (usually a three-night minimum) and take advantage of typical hotel amenities, including toiletries, maid service daily or several times a week and, for a few additional euros, breakfast at the hotel.
On the downside, hotel apartment prices tend to be higher than on the open market. Also, some "apartments" are little more than hotel rooms with a kitchenette crammed into a closet.
Still, there are some true finds. Hotel Ai Due Fanali offers units overlooking the busy waters of the Bacino di San Marco, from $227 per night for two. Pensione Guerrato, next to the Rialto market, rents a three-bedroom apartment upstairs from the hotel, a one-bedroom with space for four near San Marco, and a fantastic three-story home just off the Mercerie shopping street that can sleep up to six, starting at $42 per person per night.