Venice is like no other city in the world and all the more fascinating for that. While there are other cities built on extensive canal networks, only in Venice do the canals represent the actual transportation routes. With the rest of the city being completely pedestrian, you are immersed in something exciting and unfamiliar like nowhere else.
People who have only been to Venice passingly do not realize that the city is not mostly water. Instead, the central part of Venice is actually mostly short and narrow streets that challenge your sense of direction, occasionally become bridges that cross canals, occasionally run into a canal without any means to cross it on the spot, and sometimes lead you to a square from which several other such streets run in different directions. As you walk around the city, this sensation of walking along corridors that connect lovely rooms is very strange, and also very romantic.
In addition to the summary below, you can also check out my Shoulda, Coulda, Wouldn’t essay on Venice.
Hardly any person visiting Venice for the first time does not start with Piazza San Marco ♥♥♥. The only square in the city center designated as piazza (all others are called either campo, “field”, or its diminutive, campiello), it is a most remarkable public space. Considerable segments of it used to be owned by hordes of pigeons, but neither that nor the ever-present hordes of tourists diminish the impression (and the pigeons are seemingly much reduced in numbers these days).
The piazza is fronted by Basilica di San Marco ♥♥♥, a cathedral that is a splendid amalgamation of several architectural styles of West and East. The domes, the arches, the towers, the mosaics, the Horses of St Mark above the main doors – it all combines into one resplendent architectural spectacle. The interior splendor is almost blinding, with over 43,000 sq ft of golden mosaics. The treasury contains a number of magnificent artifacts collected by the Venetian Republic over the centuries. The gold-and-gemstones altarpiece, Pala d’Oro, is certainly worth the extra fee to view. And the extra fee for the Museum allows access to the terrace running along the façade.
Another major attraction located right on the square is the Campanile ♥♥♥, which is actually the exact copy of the original tower that stood on this spot since the middle ages but collapsed at the beginning of the 20th century. Unlike many other bell towers in Italy, this one is ascended solely via an elevator, which could mean a longer waiting time to get in (that was actually not the case at all on my last visit in late June). The view from the top over the city and the entire lagoon is through the wire mesh, but is nonetheless breathtaking; beware – it might be very windy.
You can also view Torre dell’Orologio on the piazza, with its elaborate clock and two moors that hit the bell with their hammers when the time strikes. It is possible to arrange for a tour to see the inner workings of the clock. The rest of the buildings that surround the square on three sides are mostly of administrative nature and house expensive cafés and smart shops. The leading civic museum, Museo Correr ♥, is entered directly opposite the Basilica on the western edge of the square; it offers a reasonable collection of art, leaning towards religious paintings, set in palatial surroundings. Collections of the Archaeological Museum and a couple of rooms of Biblioteca Marciana are accessed as part of the Museo Correr visit.
Through the evenings, there are live chamber orchestras playing at three of the cafés around the piazza. If you decide to sit down to take in a performance, expect the bill to be outrageous. Nonetheless, the experience deserves at least ♥. If you don’t want to incur the expense and don’t mind standing right beyond the last row of tables, you can listen to a pretty good selection for free (still worth ♥) and even move from one café to another when the music sets alternate. Those less bashful might even dance.
Next to the cathedral, on what is an appendix to the piazza called Piazzetta San Marco stands Palazzo Ducale ♥♥♥. It is a dazzling example of Venetian Gothic architecture. There is no furniture in the palace and many works of art are recent additions to the ensemble, but the luxurious nature of this center of power of Venezia La Serenissima is visible everywhere. The excellent audio-guide narration explores in detail the history of the Republic and its administrative structure and functions. You will also walk over the Bridge of Sighs ♥ while on a tour of the palace.
Piazzetta San Marco opens onto a vast expanse of water, from where the Grand Canal ♥♥♥ starts. You cannot walk along the canal in most instances, but you can ride its entire length on route #1 of the vaporetto. If you luck into getting on a boat with seats on the bow (this, unfortunately, is rare these days), especially in the early morning, I highly recommend such an excursion. I don’t possess enough superlatives to describe the views.
You can also get an appreciation for the Grand Canal by crossing it via one of the bridges. The most recently built one, Constitution Bridge, connects the vehicular limit of the city, Piazzale Roma, with the main train station area; it is not too special in any sense. Ponte degli Scalzi is also close to the station – the Grand Canal here is only mildly picturesque. Rialto Bridge ♥♥♥, the most central crossing, is one of the city’s symbols. It is a prime spot for observing the hustle and bustle of the canal traffic from above; it is always full of people, with the added attraction of housing jewelry and souvenir shops on its span. The Accademia Bridge ♥♥♥, the southernmost crossing, is less attractive in itself, but for my money, the canal views here are the most breathtaking.
Right by the Rialto is the department store of Fondaco Tedeschi. Its top terrace ♥♥ is another great vantage point for the Grand Canal and generally for Venice rooftop views. Entry is free, but you need to reserve a time slot in advance.
Another elevated viewpoint of note is Scala Contarini del Bovolo ♥♥♥. An exquisite architectural masterpiece in itself, it offers great views of major central landmarks from its top level. And if you take a vaporetto to San Giorgio and ascend the Campanile di San Giorgio Maggiore ♥♥♥ (elevator-enabled), you are in for the best views of the mouth of the Grand Canal. Another viewpoint that I have not had an opportunity to ascend to is the gallery at the top of the dome of Santa Maria della Salute.
There are over a hundred of churches in Venice, and practically every single one offers important works of art or eye-catching exterior and interior details. Some are free to enter, while others require a small fee to see the interior. If you are walking by and see the doors open, I highly recommend you step in to take a look. Beyond Basilica di San Marco, the grandest is probably Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari ♥♥♥ and Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo ♥♥. Santa Maria della Salute ♥♥ is both soaring and somewhat ascetic. Among my other favorites: San Pietro di Castello ♥♥ with its altar and dome decorations; San Sebastiano ♥♥ with its rich interior and gorgeous ceiling; San Zaccaria ♥♥ which is a bit dark but impressively covered with grand paintings; simply gorgeous Santa Maria Assunta I Gesuiti ♥♥♥; Santa Maria dei Miracoli ♥♥♥ with its unusual marble interior and the raised altar; beautifully Baroque Santa Maria del Rosario ♥♥ and Santa Maria di Nazareth ♥♥; bare at the upper levels but boasting impressive series of chapels Santa Maria Formosa ♥♥; Sant’Alvise ♥♥ whose ceiling frescoes are unparalleled this side of the Sistine Chapel; impressively ornamented Santo Stefano ♥♥. I could go on and on – I stepped into over 30 churches on my visits to Venice.
The term “ghetto” originated in Venice, and the area of Jewish Ghetto ♥ is an important site, if not dramatically distinguishable from other parts of central Venice nowadays. On its main square, Campo Ghetto Nuovo, there are a couple of poignant memorials and the little Museo Ebraica, where you can join a guided tour of adjoining synagogues ♥.
Turning our attention to the museums, Gallerie dell’Accademia ♥♥ is likely the most comprehensive art display covering the spectrum of the Venetian school. The collection is dominated by religious and ceremonial works, but a lot of local grands are represented, and the room of massive Carpaccios is certain to impress anyone. Both Ca’ Rezzonico ♥♥ and Ca’ d’Oro ♥♥ blend Venetian Gothic architecture with rich palace interiors with nice collections of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and other artifacts. At Ca’ d’Oro, you have a bonus of two terraces opening onto the Grand Canal.
Some of the best Venetian art can be seen in the magnificent settings of scuole grandi, former charitable religious confraternities. Scuola Grande di San Rocco ♥♥♥ is nothing short of jaw-dropping, while Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista ♥♥ is also well worth visiting. Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni and Scuola Grande di San Marco (housing the Museum of Medicine) are other prominent ones.
For modern art, nothing beats Peggy Guggenheim Collection ♥♥ with its impressive display of post-impressionist and surrealist works, with an extra bonus of an open view of the Grand Canal. There is also Ca’ Pesaro ♥, whose collection is centered on lesser-known Italian artists, and supplemented by a floor of Oriental Art (the latter, unfortunately, not too well air-conditioned).
Somewhat less-visited museums include Fondazione Querini Stampalia ♥, whose art collection is not bad without being exceptional; Museo di Palazzo Grimani ♥♥, which is mostly about the interior spaces with gorgeous ceilings culminating in the incredible Domus chock-full of ancient statuary; Palazzo Cini – a small and well-presented art collection supplemented by a room of tableware; an unexpectedly delightful Palazzo Fortuny ♥♥, whose main floor is an awfully atmospheric smorgasbord of paintings, furniture, and artifacts; Mocenigo Palace-Museum, dedicated to exhibitions of textiles and perfumes in a rich palace setting.
A number of other museums so far did not make the cut in my plans. That includes Biennale, which undoubtedly requires a larger allocation of time to properly appreciate than I can usually accommodate, and Fondazione Giorgio Cini, which offers multi-part guided tours of the attractions on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Other special-interest museums include Museo Leonardo da Vinci (two of them, actually); Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s House; Museo Storico Navale; Natural History Museum; Music Museum.
Short visits to Venice tend to revolve around the central San Marco and San Polo districts (sestieri), with only parts of Dorsoduro, Canareggio, or Castello visited; the sixth sestiere of Santa Croce would feature only as a path to Rialto from either the train station or Piazzale Roma. I cannot overemphasize that delightful discoveries exist in all of those parts of town. So, given time, definitely try to get lost ♥♥♥ in Venice. Forget about your map for a while; ignore the ubiquitous signs that indicate the way to major points of interest. Just walk in any direction, make turns as you wish, pick a random estuary alleyway from any given square, and see what you come across. I could do that for days.
Beyond the sestieri, several islands are easily reachable from the central parts of Venice. We have already mentioned San Giorgio Maggiore. The island of Giudecca across the wide stretch of water to the south of Dorsoduro is almost completely bypassed by tourists, so may serve as a temporary respite from crowds; its standout church Il Redentore ♥ is worth stepping in. The closest island to the north of central Venice, San Michele, is the Venetian cemetery; fans of Brodsky or Stravinsky may find it hard to skip, even though the burial places are actually fairly muted in appearance.
For beaches in summer, the island of Lido is the place to go – it is connected to the main area by the same route #1 vaporetto.
Parks and gardens are not Venice’s strong suit. Giardini Reali near San Marco, Giardini Papadopoli in Santa Croce across the canal from the train station, and a cluster of larger green spaces in Castello beyond Arsenale are the main green areas of note.
A gondola ride ♥♥♥ is a quintessential Venetian experience. I advise you not to look at it as a kitschy tourist trap. Gliding under arched bridges in a sleek vessel is a romantic experience, and it is also the only way to get close to the feeling of a waterway-enabled dwelling. I prefer the narrow side-canals portions of the ride to the Grand Canal portions, but the latter is still quite pleasing. This is not a cheap attraction, nowadays at €80 for a 30-minute ride (rising to €100 in the evening; you can also opt for a longer trip, which will be linearly more expensive).
Based on my interactions with people I know, the impression of your gondola ride will color your entire impression of Venice. Not all gondoliers are made equal, and while I mostly observed them going out of their way to put their customers in the mood and at ease (tips above the negotiated price are very much welcomed, obviously), some may not be as attentive. Plus, in high season at peak times, you run a strong risk of being surrounded by other gondolas following largely the same circuit as you are, which definitely drives any romantic feelings away. To prevent any of this from happening, consider erring on the side of planning versus spontaneity in hiring a gondola: Pick the time when few tourists are doing the gondolas (5-7 pm seems to be a nice slow period); look for places to hire a ride on the side canals instead of the main stations; chat up your prospective gondolier for a minute or two before getting into the boat and try to gauge his level of friendliness, command of English, etc. This will very simply maximize your chances of getting a truly romantic and memorable experience.
Related to gondolas, a little sight that may be interesting to some is one of the few remaining gondola repair shops, Squero San Trovaso in Dorsoduro.
For avid market-goers, Rialto market ♥, including its famous fish section, is a place to visit during morning hours.
Beyond the “near” islands mentioned above, three islands in the lagoon are widely considered among the top sights in Venice. It is well possible to see all three in one day, although you have to budget for at least two and a half hours of combined vaporetto travel between them and the city.
Murano is primarily famous for its glass-making, and the key attraction there is attending a glass-blowing workshop presentation ♥. There are several places that you can find in the southern part of the island; look for “fornace” signs. Beyond that, artisan glass shops are certainly more interesting and varied in Murano than in Venice proper, but you see a couple of them and they start to blur. There is a mildly interesting Museum of Glass and the attractive church of Santi Marie e Donato ♥, the architectural highlight of the island. The streets of Murano are not really exceptional.
Burano, by contrast, is wildly colorful and delightful just to walk through ♥♥♥. The houses around the main square and along every street and canal are painted in various bright hues, giving the little town an incredibly festive air. It is also the local capital of lace, and there is even the Museo dei Merletti, which could sustain a short visit if time permits.
Finally, Torcello is a sparsely inhabited island, which happens to be the earliest settlement in the lagoon. The main attraction here is Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta ♥♥, with brilliant mosaics in the apse and on the walls. The campanile ♥ can be ascended (mostly via inclined ramps, there are less than 100 steps in total at the ends of ramps) for nice views of the nearby Burano and the northern lagoon. The church of Santa Fosca, the outdoor collection of ancient artifacts, and Museo Provinciale di Torcello (this one never visited by me) are additional attractions. The walk from vaporetto stop to the “village” where all of the attractions are located is about 10 minutes long, but even accounting for that, you may be able to fit exploring Torcello into a single hour.
If you plan to spend several days in Venice and visit multiple attractions, you should take advantage of the following combo tickets. All information as of Summer 2022.
The Civic Museums of Venice offer several options for combining multiple museum visits. The “visit-all” MUVE Museum Pass costs €35 and allows access to the Doge’s Palace, Museo Correr (along with Archaeological Museum and rooms of Biblioteca Marciana), Ca’ Rezzonico, Ca’ Pesaro, Palazzo Fortuny, Mocenigo Palace-Museum, Glass Museum Murano, Lace Museum Burano, Carlo Goldoni’s House, and the Natural History Museum. I did not fit only the latter two into a week-long itinerary in 2022. If you only go to the Doge’s Palace, Ca’ Rezzonico, and one other, you will break even.
A dozen and a half churches around town are linked in the Chorus circuit that costs €12. Each of them individually costs €3 to enter, so visit five from the list and you are ahead. Of course, this only makes sense if stepping into multiple churches is a priority, and you will come across many other churches that explicitly post a notice that they are not part of Chorus.
If you are planning to visit both Ca’ d’Oro and Palazzo Grimani, a combination ticket to both will save you €8 over the cost of individually buying tickets to each.
And once you visit one of the Dorsoduro Museum Mile galleries (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Palazzo Cini, Gallerie dell’Accademia, or Palazzo Grassi/Punta della Dogana), you can get a discounted ticket at each of the other ones by presenting your previous full-price ticket. In each case, the saving will be €3.
The vaporetto (water bus) network serves many points along the Grand Canal and around the perimeter of the city, and connects central areas with many islands in the lagoon. There is no form of public transport on any of the little canals, and while distances are always within walkable range, plenty of walking will be involved no matter what you plan to see that’s located “inland”.
Definitely consider buying a daily pass, and if you are spending several days in Venice, go for a 2-day, 3-day, or even 7-day pass. An individual vaporetto ride costs €7.50, while the multi-day passes are €21 for 1 day, €30 for 2 days, €40 for 3 days, and €60 for 7 days. A no-brainer if you take more than 2 rides a day on average. The passes allow traveling on all lines around the lagoon. The countdown starts from the moment you first validate it, not from when you buy it. Costs as of 2022.
Water taxis are quite expensive, but they could get you into some smaller canals. If you fly into Venice, hiring a water taxi to get to the center of the city from the airport is an option. The cost is around €120 (there may be surcharges for especially hard-to-get-in canals). This is non-trivially more than the Alilaguna airport water bus service (€15 per person one-way, not covered by any city waterbus passes), but the experience may be worth the expense, especially for a group or a family. There are even cheaper ways to get to central Venice than that (a shuttle bus to Piazzale Roma plus a regular vaporetto from there would cost around €50 in total for four people), but none as fun as the water taxi ride.
Crossing the Grand Canal away from the aforementioned few bridges is at places aided by traghetti, primarily standing-room gondola ferries. There are traghetto crossings at various points on the canal (but some do not operate continuously). I last rode on one in 2009 when the cost was €0.50 per person – it must be more expensive these days. If you cannot find an operating traghetto crossing and have a daily/multi-day vaporetto pass, you can always get on linea 1 and get off at the next stop; with one or two exceptions, the stops alternate between the sides of the Grand Canal, providing a substitute way of crossing.
Islands further afield are served by various vaporetto routes, but there are frequency considerations. Whereas most routes around central Venice run every 12 minutes, some of the island routes run only once half an hour (most notably, the main route connecting Burano with Fondamenta Nove in Venice). Make it a rule to check posted schedules whenever you know that you will be departing from the same vaporetto stop that you arrived at.
The main train station, Venezia Santa Lucia, is located directly on the Grand Canal, with a vaporetto stop in front of it. Transferring between a train and a water bus is a matter of minutes, regardless of whether you are arriving or departing.
Lodging and Dining
As in any tourist center, the options for a hotel or an apartment are nearly endless on major online platforms. Any location in San Marco or San Polo will put you within walking distance to most of the points of interest, but the other boroughs are not too much farther – and you can always take advantage of the vaporetto network.
As far as eating out is concerned, it is hard to have a bad dining experience in Venice. Obviously, not all restaurants are made equal, but the marginal difference in quality, price, and level of service does not correlate with any type of restaurant ratings you may swear by. I had randomly sat down in eateries that I later learned did not enjoy high ratings on TripAdvisor, and had no real complaints about my meal; conversely, there were places that did not leave a lasting impression that I later learned enjoyed high reputation. Your mileage may vary in terms of what you consider to be a perfect or even an acceptable meal, so certainly do your due diligence researching.
Of the dozen of meals I had in Venice over several visits, I will only mention here a couple in the form of recommendation; both are in Canareggio, Vini da Gigio on Fondamenta San Felice, and Osteria Anice Stellato on Fondamenta della Sensa. Gam-Gam on Fondamenta di Canareggio in the Jewish Ghetto is always a good choice as well.
Various destinations in Veneto, such as Verona, Vicenza, or Padua, can be fairly easily reached from Venice on day trips, and even Milan is technically within such reach. Not that you are likely to want to leave La Serenissima.