Panorama of Piazza San Marco and the heart of Venice. Photo by Wolfgang Moroder.
Rialto Bridge gondoliers, Venice, Italy. Photo Saffron Blaze.
This iconic bridge is called Ponte di Rialto in Italian and wooden versions of it have collapsed at various times in the past but this stone update has lasted since 1591. With the numbers of tourists trekking over to San Polo canal to perch on the bridge and watch the vaporetti, gondolas and other water craft pass below, inevitably shops, cafés, restaurants and even a market have flourished in the Rialto surrounds, with endless souvenir shops selling at a slightly better price than in Piazza San Marco.
Main attractions in Venice
Tourists in Venice need to visit the elegant but busy Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, the Accademia Bridge and the Academy Gallery (one of Europe’s best art galleries, focusing on the glory of Venice since the 13thC). The nearby traditional gondola boatyard Squero di San Trovaso is interesting too.
Finally when you’re ready for a sit down take a vaporetto along the Grand Canal (see boats below) or a gondola if you are very plush of pocket. Interestingly the gondola – basic Venetian transport for several centuries – is a unique craft in so far as it is asymmetrical, with the left side longer than the right in order to keep the boat going straight even though the oar is situated on only one side (the right?).
After that it’s time to stumble around the back streets and find your own exquisite little sights.
For example, head north to Cannaregio’s untouristy 14thC Jewish Quarter or west to Dorsoduro and its triangular Dogana da Mar customs house, offering excellent views and off the normal package trail.
Venice Tourism now offers a leaflet of great, little-known walks called ‘Venezia Beyond San Marco’, available from near the old San Marco vaporetto stop.
• With 55, 000 residents but 19 million tourists a year don’t expect to mix casually with locals.
• There is a serious tourist overload, especially when cruise ships dock. Along with the crowds it’s not surprising that locals are unpleasant and mercenary.
• This poorly managed city is infamous for its ‘rip-off’ attitude to visitors, both official and individual, so beware double-charging tourists for water bus (vaporetti) tickets and overcharging foreigners just about anywhere, from bars and restaurants to hairdressers, though bars, restaurants and taxis are legally obliged to display tariffs (somewhere! ) so ALWAYS check before you order!
n.b. Some fish dishes are charged by the 100g. If you don’t notice and think the price is OK, you may be surprised to find you’ve been served with a 400g portion and a quadruple bill to match!
• Gondolas and food are expensive (unless you stick with pizzas and cicheti, see below for low-cost eating hints).
• Venice goes to bed early.
Venice Main Attractions
King Louis IV of France with his latest mistress in Caffé Florian. The Sun King, for it is he, can just about afford a macchiato and brandy there.
Venice is a great walking city, especially after a couple of overpriced expressos with brandy.
The city centre is easy to navigate to and from, so tourists could start with a coffee at Café Florian in Piazza San Marco if you’re feeling flush (or stand at a bar if not), check out free-to-enter Basilica San Marco and its mosaics and ceiling, see more visiting tips below; the pink and white gothic Doge’s Palace, aka Palazzo Ducale (take a tour or audio-guide, the place is loaded with fascinating trivia) and the adjacent Bridge of Sighs.
One tip: if you are wandering randomly lonely as a clod and decide you need to find your way back somewhere, check out street signs that say ‘Per Something’, e.g. Per S Marco. Per means ‘To’. Otherwise it’s all down to a Smart Phone or orienteering.
San Marco – St Mark’s Basilica
San Marco’s ceiling. Photo by Gary Ullah
St Mark’s Basilica interior:
The highlight of the gorgeous cathedral of San Marco in the centre of Venice is the incredible mosaic work, 8000 sq. m of ancient gold, bronze and semi-precious stones. However, this is only lit up at 11. 30 am during the week and 2 pm on Sundays. Inevitably every tourist in-the-know wants to see this display so large queues form beforehand. . .
Skip the Queues:
The highlight of this gorgeous cathedral in the centre of Venice is the incredible mosaic work, 8000 sq. m of ancient gold, bronze and semi-precious stones. However, this is only lit up at 11. 30 am during the week and 2 pm on Sundays. Inevitably every tourist in-the-know wants to see this display so large queues form beforehand.
The Basilica is open during the week from 9. 45 am – 5 pm and and from 2pm on Sundays. Tourists are not supposed to hang about, 10 minutes is suggested.
The best way to beat the queues and suck up some interesting, free information is to join an official tour, 11 am daily except Sundays, April thru October. Tours meet in St Mark’s atrium next to the centre doorway, on the right and we believe that prior booking is not required for individuals. However if you want to be sure (or if you represent a group) then book at San Marco online from April to October; booking costs €1, the tour is free.
n. b. Suitable clothes only (no tank tops! ); no suitcases, backpacks or large bags allowed; no photos or video can be taken; the visit lasts for 10 minutes; and lastly, silence!
Transport here is legs, water bus (vaporetto), very pricey but evocative gondolas (that can get down the tiny back routes) or take a traghetto – a gondola ferry – from various places for a short trip across the Grand Canal; traditionally you stand during the crossing which makes it all the more interesting.
Vaporetti will take you all over the lagoon for a fraction of the cost of a private boat or gondola. Line 2 is especially suitable for tourists as it swishes along the Grand Canal with fewer stops than Line 1 and returns via Giudecca for a few euros. Get it from Vallaresso stop near St Mark’s Square.
Another option is to buy a 3 day travel card permitting ferry travel around all of the islands.
Vaporetti also run tourists from Marco Polo airport to St Mark’s Square for a few euros.
Very useful tourist passes can be bought at Marco Polo airport on arrival for buses from the airport to the city centre and unlimited use of water buses.
Self-drive boats are available in Cannaregio.
The Bridge of Sighs, near to Piazza San Marco, is a popular posing place during the Carnival.
February-April, Venice Carnival, do it once at least, it’s cramped but magic!
May, Vogalonga, boat race.
July, Festa del Redentore, a huge flotilla of decorated boats floti around the canals entertained by a regatta and fireworks.
November, La Salute (religious) festival at the beautiful Basilica Santa Maria della Salute.
For some precise dates or more information see: European Festivals
Museums and Galleries:
• The Doge’s Palace, Piazza San Marco. This museum is mostly about the magnificent rooms and artefacts belonging to the varied Doges of Venice, supreme authorities in the state living here since 1178, including the Doge’s apartments, the courtyard and Opera zone (now museum). The guided tour called Secret Itinerary is highly recommended. Tickets for the Doge’s Palace include Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.
• the number one gallery is the Accademia, aka Galleria dell’ Accademia di Venezia. Venice’s best but also highly ranked throughout Italy.
• Then there’s (Collezione) Peggy Guggenheim museum (modern art).
• Ca’ Pesaro, a palace housing modern Italian art and the Marco Polo Museum.
• Correr Museum, a collection of globes from the 16th century onwards, a museum of Roman antiquities and a picture gallery. Admission also includes Doge’s Palace.
• Ca’d’ Oro-Galleria Franchetti; or possibly Museo Navale & Arsenale, for naval artefacts and kid-friendly ship models. Note that opening times change frequently so check on status when you arrive.
Classical Music: Goldoni, Palazzo Prigione Vecchie, Scuola Grande di San Giovanni evangelista, Pietà church for Vivaldi.
Dance/Opera: Fenice Opera, Palafenice.
Theatre: Teatro Malibran.
Live Music: Paradiso Perduto, Da Codroma. Check ‘Un Ospite di Venezia’ for event info/listings.
John Cabot’s house in Venice surrounded by some fine streets away from Venice’s lagoon. The ones near the lagoon tend to be narrow, or even very, very narrow. Photo Wolfgang Moroder.
Cabot was born in Italy, probably Venice, around 1450 but moved to Bristol, England later in life before heading off on a grand voyage of exploration in 1497. Cabot was trying to get to Asia but bumped into Canada instead and claimed it on behalf of King Henry VII of England.
A conveniently located hotel on the Grand Canal. Photo by Wolfgang Moroder.
November to March is low season for Venice travel, apart from Christmas or Carnival time, and Venice is probably more gorgeous, mistily mysterious AND a lot less pricey then, so make it a winter trip outside Xmas/Carnival. You don’t need sunshine to enjoy Venice! And arrive there in mid-week for even better prices.
Hotels at the heart of this watery wonderland are notoriously expensive but thanks to austerity measures and depressed incomes B&Bs and holiday apartment rentals have sprung up on the city’s main island and are the best value accommodation option with major sights in stumbling distance.
If you are a backpacker budget traveller then there’s cheapo accommodation on the mainland in the Mestre district or camp sites and small hotels near the airport.
Traditional tourist merchandise in Venice is mainly about glass or masks.
The highest quality and prices are found on the route from Piazza San Marco to the Ponte Rialto and on to the rail station, or better on a small cluster of islands a mile north of Venice at Murano’s glass factories. The merchandise, however, is all overpriced and clichéd. For more interesting, cheaper glass work try Ivano Soffiato in Dorsoduro and watch him at work.
Getting to Venice
The closest airport to Venice’s old town (centro storico) is Marco Polo Airport. Note that there is a mainland Venice too but tourists will doubtless be looking for the Centro Storico.
Marco Polo Airport is located near Mestre Railway Station from where arrivals head off by train to other parts of Italy or catch a shuttle bus (ACTV or ATVO) to Piazzale Roma in order to reach Venice.
From Piazzale Roma take a water bus (vaporetti are frequent but not cheap!) or water taxi. Economise by buying a one to seven day Venice Travel Card or a Venezia Unica pass for long-term visitors before getting on the vaporetto if you’ll be in Venice for longer than 7 days.
If you arrive by car there is long term parking at Piazzale Roma or Tronchetto which is incredibly expensive, or park near Mestre Rail Station and take a train to Venezia St. Lucia station. Free parking is rare but will be marked with a sign saying Gratuito.
Trips out of Venice centre
The Lido’s beach and casino, or the massive Tuesday morning market.
Murano island to see the fascinating and ancient art of glass blowing and the equally ancient art of selling/buying the stuff.
Longer Trips out
Italian railways are cheap, reasonably reliable and an easy way to explore Venice’s backside, the Veneto region.
– 30 minutes away medieval Padua not only offers a lively street scene but also incredible Giotto frescoes lavished over the Capella degli Scrovegni in 1306, though tourists must book ahead
– 45 minutes out is Vicenza, packed with fine examples of Palladio’s fine architecture.
– 1. 5 hours away, Verona sports ancient buildings, a Roman amphitheatre and superb riverside ambience.