Welcome to Venice (Venezia), a city of over 100 islands located off of Italy’s northeast coast. You would already know that this city is like no other only minutes after landing at Marco Polo airport. First of all, there are no cars or motor vehicles in the ancient city. Aside from the rail station and the small public transport area near the airport, you will tour Venice completely on foot, bicycle, or water taxi. Unlike the big cities in the United States, time moves slower here. There is no rush. You’ve got all the time in the world to enjoy the beautiful city of Venezia at your own pace. Andiamo! (Let’s go)
1. See the Grand Canal (Canale Grande) by water taxi
The main streets of Venice are the waterways, and yes they actually do have names just like any other city street. You’ll notice that the largest and main canal is called “Canale Grande”. You will often see and use this term on maps and signs to navigate. You can walk along the canals on sidewalks, especially Canale Grande, but there are many parts of the city that you can only get to and see exclusively by boat. The smaller canals have houses which are partially submerged underwater, due to the city’s sinking and the sea level rising. Residents that live there must park their boat outside or in a dock inside their home. Basically, owning a boat in Venice is a lot like owning a car if you live away from the Canale Grande. You should definitely make a point to see the city via the Grand Canal and to explore the smaller ancient waterways by gondola.
2. Stop for refreshments at a local bar
A bar in Italy is slightly different from a bar in the United States. You can still find alcohol, but much more as well. You will find that an Italian bar is a great place to grab a quick snack, pastry, gelato, coffee, or sandwich. If you order one of the sandwiches, make sure you identify it as “un panino”. “Panini” is plural in Italia, meaning “sandwiches”. You can take your food to go or sit at a table.
Table service has a service fee. This fee, or “servizio” commonly found in the touristy areas, is the equivalent of tipping. It will be included in your total and covers your table service, so there is no need to tip. After all, you may be paying double the price of your meal with the servizio included. You’ll have to look at the signage around the bar/restaurants or on the menu to find that location’s servizio policy.
Side note on the drinking age: Fermented alcohols (wine and beer) can be brought if you are over 16, but you must be 18 for distilled alcohol.
3. Piazza di San Marco and San Marco’s Basilica Saint Mark’s Square, or Piazza di San Marco, is often simply called “la Piazza” by locals. This is the main square and attraction center of Venice. Take a small walk through San Marco’s Basilica and experience some ancient artwork and architecture. The main Basilica is free unless you wish to take extra tours through the smaller rooms.
La Piazza should also be visited at night when it is much more lit up, quiet, and empty. It can be filled with many tourists during the day, as well as the pigeons that crowd the square. The birds are an amusing attraction for tourists, but they tend to swarm and steal food if you bring it into the square. Overall, you will never be without a place to eat, drink, relax, or shop in Piazza di San Marco.
4. Take a gondola trip through the ancient city
How could one visit Venice without riding a gondola? You’ve already seen the main attractions along the Canale Grand, but seeing the ancient city is an absolute must. You may find gondola docks along the edges of the Canale Grande. The gondoliers will typically be found wearing a straw hat. The cost of your tour changes depending on the amount of people and time of day. Your standard 20-minute tour during the day should come out to around $50 total, which can almost double at night for 40-minute tours. The rates are absolutely affordable, which is lucky considering that gondola excursions are one of the cornerstones of visiting Venice.
5. See the city by foot
With narrow streets and beautiful bridges, Venice is a city that was made for walking through. Just like the Venetians, you will see the city by foot. After all, isn’t that the best way to explore? Though tiring, you’ll always find a place to stop and snap a picture, appreciate the artwork, shop around, or grab an espresso or gelato.
6. Get a bird’s eye view of Venice from the top of The Campanile
While you’re in La Piazza di San Marco, take a trip up San Marco’s Campanile. Campanile (kham-pa-nee-leh) is the Italian word for “bell tower”. Taking a trip to the top offers a 360-degree view of Venice and the Dolomites in the background. The cost is 8 Euro, roughly $9. There may be a line if you are visiting during peak tourism season. However, it will be well worth the wait and the cost.
As a reminder, the bell tolls on the hour, and quite loudly as well. Be prepared for that if you find yourself at the top of The Campanile on the hour.
7. Appreciate Venice’s unique artwork
Italia is known for its Renaissance art, found all throughout the country. Doges Palace in La Piazza di San Marco is one of the finest attractions to experience Venetian architecture, murals, and sculpture. Works from the greatest artists of Venice ranging from the 13th to 18th centuries can be found in the Venice Academy Gallery Museum of Art. You’ll find this gallery by taking the water taxi to the Accademia stop. If you were planning to stop by the Church of Santa Maria, you’ll be right next to Punta Della Dogana Museum of Modern Art. The church and museum can be found on the triangular island separating the Grand Canal and Giudecca Canal.
8. Take a side trip to the island of Murano
Murano is known as “the island of glass”, as glassblowing has been the popular form of art on this island since the 13th century. In Murano, you will be able to witness the mystifying process of glassblowing, and you may even wish to buy a piece as a souvenir. This area can seem a bit like a tourist trap, but it is well worth the experience. If you do decide to purchase an item, you’ll find that it is much more personal and valuable than a mass-produced work of glass sold in your average gift shop.
9. View the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge
Only four bridges in Venice cross the Grand Canal, and the Rialto Bridge is one of them. Its beautiful stone architecture and prominence makes it one of Venice’s most popular attractions. From the Rialto (Ponte di Rialto), you will get a fantastic view of one of the Grand Canal’s most scenic spots. It has been rebuilt several times, though the current structure is still over 400 years old. Whether you are at the train station, La Piazza di San Marco, or Piazzale Roma, there are plenty of signs around to help you find your way. You can’t miss it. The bridge has many steps which may be less accessible for travelers with strollers or wheelchairs.
10. End with an authentic Venetian dinner
Italian cuisine is some of the most admired food in the world. While pizza and pasta are delicious staples of Italian cooking, your best experience will come from straying away from the touristy spots. When in Italia, you must be open to embrace the culture using all senses. Eating is a social activity to the Italians. Find a nice restaurant that isn’t too crowded, eat, drink, and remember to ask the wait staff for your check at the end of your meal. Presenting a check to guests is seen as an invitation to leave. You are more than welcome to socialize and enjoy the food as much as you’d like.
After all of this walking and boating around, you’ll need to take some time to sit down and watch the city move around you. Watch the locals stroll home after work and meet up with friends on the way, the tourists trying to find their way back to the hotel, listen to the water roll against the sidewalk as the little cargo ships fly by. Taste the finest wine, freshest food, and make the absolute most of your time in Italia.