Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Venice adventures!
Venice, La Serenissima, city of more than 150 canals, narrow streets, and wrought-iron bridges connecting over 117 islands. City of masks and gondolas, beauty and romance, wonderful artwork, elegant mansions, exquisite glassware and lace. Maritime capital of the medieval world, home to famous merchants and clandestine meetings in alleyways. This crumbling city on water is like nowhere else on earth, and is one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations. It has to be seen to be truly appreciated, so here are some tips for making the most out of your trip to enchanting Venice.
Things to See and Do
The Grand Canal, the sweeping S-shaped waterway that snakes its way through the city’s six sestieri, or neighborhoods, is the first thing most visitors see as they make their way to their hotels by water bus. The boat ride from the bus or railway station to the San Marco sestiere takes about 40 minutes on vaporetto 1 or 2 and is one of the loveliest boat rides you can take, especially if you snag a seat outside at the front – get your camera ready. The canal is lined with palazzi, former merchants’ houses, and you will pass iconic sights such as the Rialto Bridge. A single ticket costs €6.50, but if you plan to use the vaporetti several times during your trip then purchase a Tourist Travel Card ( €16 for 12 hours up to €50 for 7 days). This ride is wonderful day or night, with the illuminated Rialto Bridge in the evening being particularly pretty. Check out this post to learn how to travel by Vaporetti.
Around San Marco
San Marco is the most expensive sestiere in Venice; most of the famous sights can be found here. St Mark’s Square is the landmark of the city, a stately square surrounded by shops and cafes housed in a 16th century arcade, with St Mark’s Basilica dominating one side. It’s a meeting place for tourists, locals, souvenir sellers, and pigeons (that you are not allowed to feed). The best time to visit ‘the drawing room of Europe is early morning when the city is just starting to stir. Enjoy the peace and quiet and the morning mist whilst the cleaners sweep up. Alternatively, enjoy a coffee outside elegant Caffè Florian or Quadri – just be aware that this can set you back a small fortune, especially if musicians are playing.Piazza San Marco is the lowest point in Venice and is subject to aqua alta, or high water, which floods the square and surrounding streets in the winter. Raised wooden platforms are assembled to create boardwalks enabling you to walk above the water. Sirens sound when the water is coming!
St Mark’s Basilica is the city’s symbol of power and wealth, with its ornate Byzantine-Venetian design, bronze horse sculptures, massive domes and gilded mosaics. It was constructed to house the relics of St Mark that Venetian merchants stole from Alexandria in 828. Inside the dimly-lit basilica you’ll notice how incredibly golden it is; the walls and ceilings are covered in gold mosaics and the altarpiece is a gemstone-covered gold panel. It’s free to enter, and you’ll join a long queue and be shuttled in and out – but take your time: slip away, sit on a pew, and take it all in. Visit the small museum upstairs (€4) which houses the original horse sculptures from Constantinople (the ones on the balcony are replicas). There are some rules in the basilica – no photos, dress appropriately, and no luggage – the last thing you want after all that queuing is to be turned away. Free guided tours are offered in the summer, or avoid the crowds and book a private tour.
The Campanile, or Bell Tower, stands opposite the basilica. This 98-metre high tower may look ancient, but it was actually constructed in 1912 to replace an identical one that collapsed in 1902. There’s a lift that takes you to the top (good news for visitors) where you can enjoy sweeping city views. It costs €8 to visit, and be aware that the queues will be long, but it’s worth it. Aim to get there at 9 a.m. when it opens.
The grand Doge’s Palace stands next to the basilica and dominates the waterfront at St Mark’s Basin, the gateway to Venice, with its pink stone lace exterior and Gothic-Venetian archways. This was home to the Doge, the ruler of the Republic, and it was the seat of government and a palace of justice. It’s now a museum with lavish halls and artwork. The famous Bridge of Sighs links the palace to the grim prison from where Casanova escaped; the bridge was given this name as prisoners sighed as they crossed it and caught their final glimpse of Venice. There are so many rooms to admire in the palace, but don’t miss the Sala del Maggior Consiglio where the Great Council met, and the Sala del Collegio, where the cabinet gathered – both feature frescoes by Tintoretto and elaborate ceiling paintings that you may just have to lay on your back to admire. You need to purchase a combined ticket to visit the palace – see Best Insider Tips below.
The waterfront promenade that runs in front of the palace to the Castello sestiere is Riva della Schiavoni – it’s lined with souvenir stalls and historic buildings, and from here you get a great view of the Bridge of Sighs and San Giorgio Maggiore island with its dazzling white Palladian church.
Around Rialto and San Polo
To reach Rialto Bridge from St Mark’s Square follow the narrow streets behind the Clock Tower called the Mercerie – shops here sell masks, leather shoes, glass and lace.
Standing on Rialto Bridge gives you a wonderful view of the Grand Canal – it’s hard to believe that the authorities were once considering filling in this waterway and turning it into a road. This intricately designed stone bridge, with shops housed in porticoes on each side, is the most beautiful of all four bridges that cross the Grand Canal. And it’s usually swamped with tourists.
Across the bridge is the San Polo sestiere and the Rialto Market, Venice’s main fish and produce market which has been around for almost 1000 years. A morning stroll around this colorful, chaotic open-air market is a great way to experience local life. San Polo is the oldest sestiere; wander into the heart of this neighborhood to escape the crowds and stumble upon crumbling churches and squares, including the large and dusty Campo San Polo. Visit Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, a church decorated with paintings by Titian and home to his tomb. Seek out Ponte delle Tette, the ancient red-light district in the 14th century where courtesans lived and practiced their trade, displaying their wares from nearby windows.
Cross wooden Accademia Bridge on the Grand Canal to reach the Dorsoduro sestiere, an artists’ quarter with good nightlife. Here you will find two wonderful galleries. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection displays works by 20th century artists such as Picasso and Dali, and there is a sculpture garden where the lady herself is buried. The Accademia Gallery is the greatest gallery in Venice, with works from Venetian masters between 13th and 18th century such as Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese. Look for the Carpaccio room to see his colorful ‘Legend of St Ursula’ around the walls. The ticket queue is incredibly slow as numbers are limited, so arrive very early or book in advance. The gallery is closed on Monday afternoons.
The Squero di San Trovaso is one of the last remaining gondola workshops in the city and the oldest. Watch the gondola builders at work by standing along the Rio di San Trovaso; they don’t mind, as long as you don’t try to go inside.
The Zattere is a great place for a sunset stroll, or passeggiata, with a gelato – this peaceful promenade at the southern edge of the sestiere offers fantastic views of Giudecca island with its Redentore church, as well as beautiful buildings like the Baroque church of Santa Maria del Rosario.
The large Cannaregio Canal feels as big as the Grand Canal (it was the main route into Venice before the railway) but there are noticeably less tourists. Cannaregio is a very residential and peaceful sestiere away from the main shopping streets. Visit the gorgeous 15th century Ca’ d’Oro which faces the Grand Canal – this well-preserved building was once covered in gold and houses an art gallery; stand in the courtyard with its mosaic floor and admire the canal from the loggia. There are shorter queues here than for the attractions around San Marco.
The Jewish Ghetto is tucked behind the Cannaregio Canal. All the Jews in the city were made to live here between the 16th and 18th centuries, and it’s still home to Venice’s small Jewish community; you can see where its entrance and exit gates once stood. Surrounding the main square you will see the Venice ‘skyscrapers’– there wasn’t much room in the ghetto so higgledy-piggledy buildings of up to 7 floors were constructed. It’s a pleasant area and home to the Jewish Museum.
If you get the chance take a trip out to the outlying islands. The Lido has a long beach and makes for a refreshing summer break from the city. Murano is ten minutes away, which is the largest island and famous for its glassware. Thirty five minutes from Murano is Burano, a sleepy fishing island famous for brightly painted houses and lace. And Torcello, five minutes from Burano, is marshy and half-deserted but has an amazing medieval church – this was the first island that was settled in the lagoon, so you can see what Venice would’ve once looked like. All islands can be accessed using the vaporetti – you will need a Tourist Travel Cards for unlimited rides.
Eating and Drinking
Venice can be an incredibly expensive city to eat in, but if you veer off the main tourist thoroughfares you can find some great little places. Many Venetian specialties involve seafood such as spaghetti alle vongole, spaghetti with clams, risotto alle seppie, risotto stained with cuttlefish ink, and anguille in umido, stewed eels with tomato, garlic and wine. Other traditional dishes include fegato alla veneziana, calf’s liver with onion, and bigoli con l’anatra, thick spaghetti with duck. For a simple, inexpensive lunch, eat tramezzini; crustless sandwiches with tasty fillings. Venice also has its own tapas, or cichetti; you can move from bacaro to bacaro (bar) filling up on these small delicious morsels such as polenta topped with polpetta, small meatballs, or sardelle in soar, sardines, washed down with a glass of prosecco, Venetian sparkling wine, or spritz, a Venetian aperitif. Here are some suggestions about where to eat and drink.
Antico Forno: If you want lunch on the go in San Polo head to this hole in the wall for a big slice of tasty pizza at a great price (€4 for a large slice with a drink). It’s a few streets from Rialto Bridge and hard to find, but worth seeking out. There are no seats; stand at the counter with the locals.
Rosa Rossa: This modern, romantic restaurant offers good value dinner in the center of Venice, in San Marco on Calle della Mandola. The menu includes traditional fare as well as thin and crispy pizza for around €10. Dine in the cosy back room; there is a signed jacket there from Johnny Depp who visited the restaurant when filming The Tourist.
Cantina Do Mori: This dark bacaro behind the Rialto Market on Calle Do Mori is a traditional bar and a wonderful place for chichetti washed down with an ombra. This bar dates from 1492 and is usually filled with socializing Venetians. There is barely any seating, but if you don’t mind standing you’ll experience a piece of old Venice.
La Zucca: This small restaurant overlooks a canal on Calle del Tintor in Santa Croce and has a few outdoor tables –book ahead. This osteria offers inventive Venetian dishes, and there are plenty of choices to satisfy vegetarians such as tagliatelle Gorgonzola, pumpkin flan and lots of veggie side dishes. Pasta costs around €10, and meat dishes around €20.
Brek: For budget fast food try Brek, close to the railway station on Lista di Spagna. This self-service canteen style restaurant offers good quality hot food at reasonable prices. Pasta and a glass of wine will set you back around €6.
Pizzeria Ae Oche: This large pizzeria on the Zattere, Dorsoduro, offers over 90 different types of pizza – grab a waterfront table. It’s cheap and cheerful, with pizzas ranging from €5 to €9. There are two more branches in San Polo and Cannaregio.
Harrys Bar: This elegant bar on Calle Vallaresso, San Marco, has to be visited if only to sample its signature cocktail, the Bellini, prosecco with peach juice. OK, it costs a whopping €16 for the privilege, but when in Venice…
Best Insider Tips
Best tip for getting around: Take a good pair of shoes and be prepared to do a lot of walking. Part of the fun is getting lost amongst the winding streets, but you still might want a detailed map – Venice’s street system can be confusing, with the same names popping up in every sestiere. If you have a large distance to cover take a vaporetto – water taxis are expensive.
Best tip about gondolas: Riding a gondola is almost compulsory when in Venice – but they don’t come cheap. The ‘official’ tariff is €80 for 40 minutes for up to 6 people, and after 7pm it’s €100, with €40/€50 increments every 20 minutes thereafter (you’ll have to haggle to agree the time and rate). A poor man’s alternative is the traghetto. These large gondolas cross the Grand Canal at eight points where there are no bridges and cost €0.50 – the cheapest gondola ride you’ll ever take. Locals ride them standing, but it’s OK to sit – the waters are pretty choppy.
Best sightseeing tip: Buying combined museum tickets can save you cash – but just check that you actually want to visit the museums included. If you visit the Doge’s Palace you have no choice but to purchase a combined ticket – either the St Mark’s Square Museum Pass for €16.50, which includes 3 other nearby museums, or the Museum Pass for €20.50, which gives you free entry to 11 museums. These passes also allow you to skip the long queues – worth forking out for.
Best place for a Venetian mask: A Venetian mask makes a great souvenir, but the quality can vary. For hand-made high-quality masks visit Ca’ del Sol, on Fondamenta dell’ Osmarin, in Castello. You’ll witness craftsmen working, and see a fantastic collection of masks and carnival costumes. Masks vary between small ceramic ones to large ornate designs of jesters, animals and plague doctors decorated in silver and gold. It’s a magical place that will stay with you long after you leave La Serenissima.