Venice is a city like no other. Located in Northeast Italy, the area is a collection of 118 islands. There are no roads, but people get around through a network of bridges and boats. If you arrive to Venice via train, you should take a Vaporetto (water taxi boat) through the famed Grand Canal to a stop near your hotel. You could walk over bridges to your hotel, but why miss out on a chance to see beautiful buildings as old as the 1200s from the Grand Canal? If arriving at the airport, take the airport water shuttle called the Alilaguna.
Beware that from mid-October through January, Venice has an above average chance of flooding. The city is used to this occurrence and you’ll notice signs of this inevitability all over - none more fun than the bookstore Libreria Acqua Alta which keeps its books in bathtubs and a gondola to deal with rising water.
Venice is very walkable and part of the fun is getting lost and discovering great hidden wonders. Wander the alleyways and prepare to backtrack when you don’t find a bridge to cross over one of the many small canals. In fact, it’s a city where you don’t need to pack your daily itinerary because you’ll just end up walking an area and seeing all kinds of interesting things. Vaporettos are the best way to get up and down the Grand Canal quickly and visit neighboring islands. You can purchase tickets for an entire day if you think you’ll be using the boat a lot. For lodging, I recommend Hotel Ala. It is an elegant and historical hotel with exceptional service and a great location in the San Marco district. It’s just a short walk to Vaporetto stops and many top sights.
The first thing to see in Venice is St. Mark’s Square. This lively and large square holds the highly-ornate St. Mark’s Basilica, completed in 1092 as a prime example of Byzantine architecture by way of Italian workers. Advanced tickets will help you avoid a line. Head inside to appreciate the massive size, numerous columns, treasures from crusades, and stunning amount of lavish gold mosaics. The Pala d’Oro altar screen showcases a staggering number of jewels. A treasury houses reliquaries.
The bell tower offers the best panoramic view of the city. An elevator takes you up this 1902 reconstruction (the prior tower fell), where you can get up close and personal with the bells and take aerial photos of all the things you’ll see later in the trip. When you’re back down to sea level, stop and listen to one of the bands by the outdoor cafes and admire the St. Mark’s Clock Tower. For a quick, tasty, and inexpensive lunch, you need to move out of the square. I recommend Tuttinpiedi. Popular with locals, it’s just north of the square and offers wonderful pasta and cicchetti, which is the Venetian version of tapas.
After lunch, head back to St. Mark’s Square to visit Doge’s Palace, or Palazzo Ducale, which features dozens of pretty arches on the facade. This was where the Doge of Venice, the supreme Venetian authority, would live. While the interior is filled with beautiful rooms and furniture, I think you’ll get the most out of the Secret Itineraries Tour. Information about the historical Venetian government is presented in an easy and humorous fashion. Among the highlights I thought the guided tour brought magically to life were the impressive courtyard, the secret archive, the Chamber of the Secret Chancellery, a secret passageway, the Torture Chamber, the low level prisons (or pozzi), and Casanova’s prison room. You also get to walk back and forth through the famous Bridge of Sighs.
Next, stroll east to visit San Zaccaria, one of a countless number of churches in Venice. Although this church has been rebuilt several times, the crypt dates from the 9th century. The interior is like a mini art gallery. If you head toward the Rialto Bridge, you’ll pass a much small church named San Salvador. The highlight here is the beautiful floor, although the church houses many other splendors worth exploring. For happy hour, you’ll find the iconic Rialto Bridge just steps away. Cafes offer canal views and good drinks. Then, walk across the bridge to do some shopping and picture taking. You can grab some gelato or a slice of pizza here, but I do not recommend eating dinner here. It is super touristy and the restaurants serve up some of the worst food I’ve encountered. Instead, head back to the San Marco region for dinner. Enjoy the popular Ai Mercanti or the more rustic Ristorante Rosa Rossa.
Today, explore the Dorsoduro area. Begin by taking the beautiful Ponte dell’Accademia south over the canal. This section is wonderful to walk. Start at the point to the east by Dogana da Mar and the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Plague survivors built this Baroque church in 1687. Enjoy the stunning views across the water toward San Marco and St. Mark’s. There are plenty of churches, small palaces, and museums around this area, so stop into any that interest you. Of note is the famed Gallerie dell-Accademia, which displays Virtruvian Man by Da Vinci and an important collection of Venetian art.
My favorite thing to do in this area is walk the Zattere promenade. This stretch along the water is distinctly Venetian, lined with numerous camera-ready sights, boats, and shops. And, it’s relatively peaceful. Nearby, you can even peer into one of the last gondola workshops. You’re in a good district to satisfy your hunger with cicchetti. Try crostini topped with tuna, meatballs, or figs. Try crab-claws in a pastry dough. And wash it down with good yet inexpensive wine. Have cash handy for some of these establishments.
You could continue walking north along the canal, but I would take a Vaporetto to nearby San Giorgio Maggiore island. The San Giorgio Maggiore church has a bell tower (with elevator) that gives you a great view looking into the heart of Venice, including St. Mark’s. There are also several gardens to enjoy, including one with a labyrinth.
When back in San Marco, plan to take an evening gondola ride. Yes, it is pricy and touristy, but it really is something you must do. It can be very enjoyable for a family or romantic for a couple. Gondoliers work hard to earn one of the limited gondolier licenses and many build their own boat. Unlike the movies or Las Vegas, the gondoliers do not sing. If you want musicians and singing on your voyage, there are a few that offer the service and a much higher fee. Gondoliers have posts where they depart and return to, so if you find a particular part of Venice appealing, find a gondolier in that area. Then, discuss the route. They will tell you where they are going, how long the ride will be, and what the price will be. Please ensure you do this upfront to avoid any confusion. Also, make sure you like the gondolier’s personality. Even though they won’t talk much and probably just point out a few key areas of interest, it is important for you to feel comfortable. I suggest finding one around the Hotel Ala, because they will most likely take you through small canals without any traffic for half the journey and then head out into the Grand Canal for a bit to get nighttime views of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. If you take a gondola out in the middle of the canal by Rialto Bridge, you will be one of dozens of boats on the water. Also, the Grand Canal can get choppy at times whereas the lesser canals are quiet, shadowy, and romantic.
Today is for exploring the Cannaregio district. In the northern part is the Jewish Ghetto, where Jews were forced to live from the 1500-1700s. Highlights include the historic “high-rise” buildings, synagogues, and Jewish Museum. Nearby is the decorative Ponte delle Guglie. Then, grab some gelato and relax in Parco di Villa Groggia to the north.
Next, head to the southeastern part of the district for more sights. Check out the canal-side Ca d’Oro palace, a top example of Venetian Gothic architecture and home to a gallery. A little more southeast is Scuola Grande di San Marco. Scuole were confraternities with religious purpose. Scuola Grande is now a working hospital, but admission grants you access to a unique early medical instruments museum and an up-close look at the white marble and ornate pillars. Nearby is the small Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which houses a Madonna portrait that is believed to be miraculous. A 10-minute walk north is Santa Maria Assunta, known as I Gesuiti, which has a beautifully and uniquely ornate marble interior and powerful art pieces.
If you are making good time, consider visiting Murano for lunch and being immersed in the splendor of Venetian glass. You’re just steps away from the Vaporetto stop to Murano. It’s a pleasant 25-minute boat ride from this point. Once you disembark, you’ll see dozens of souvenir shops with tons of glass. You may have heard the pricing is better here than back in San Marco, but that is not always the case so be prepared to comparison shop when it comes to the lower-priced glass souvenirs.
First, lunch. Osteria al Duomo is a must. They have an outdoor courtyard, one of the most diverse menus you’ll find, and great pizza. Then, head to the nearby Murano Glass Museum for an education on the history of glass. Next, visit one of the glass-blowing shops to see a free demonstration. The catch here is they hope you’ll purchase something. Most glass shops have a special upstairs floor with amazingly beautiful and expensive glass. I think it is worth acting interested so they’ll show you around. The pieces really are one of kind. I never knew so much could be done with glass. Just know that they may try to strong-arm you into buying something, but you will eventually escape when they bring the next victim, I mean tourist, upstairs.
You can take a Vaporetto back where you came from or head to San Marco. Regardless, for dinner you should eat north of the Rialto Bridge on the west side of the canal in an old former bank building. Osteria Bancogiro has great outdoor seating, reasonable pricing for what you get, and a small but robust menu with excellent seafood options. Since you’re north of the bridge, you’ll be able to enjoy the canal more peacefully. After dinner, maybe grab a drink and listen to a musician by the canal, or ride the Vaporetto back to your hotel to see how beautiful the buildings look at night.