This time last year, the Enemy of Fun (as unlikely as this sounds) whisked me away for a (romantic – my words, not his) surprise weekend to a mystery location… VENICE! And although I already blogged about our trip here, I wanted to give you the quick’n’dirty Stilettos’ Guide to Venice – the top 20 things to see, do and eat when in Venice!
If you only have a very limited time in Venice, try this comprehensive tour to hit some of the highlights… if not, take your time and enjoy Venice at a more leisurely pace!
1. Get lost
This is the best part of Venice – exploring the little streets, walking across quaint bridges, finding dead-ends, discovering hidden passages and tunnels. Make sure you take time to explore rather than rushing from one sight to the next. Sit on a terrace, sip your Aperol spritz, take it all in. That’s the whole point of being in Italy – la dolce vita!
The Doge’s Palace is right on the water and is the epitome of Venetian architecture. It was originally the administrative seat and residence of the Doge (basically, the president of the former Republic of Venice) but is now a museum. The Doge’s residential wing, the old and new prisons and the institutional chambers are all available for viewing as part of the museum. Buy tickets for a guided tour through the museum here – it will save you hours of waiting in line!
3. Piazza San Marco
One of the most famous spots in Venice, with fancy restaurants surrounding the piazza, live music, views of the Campanile, St Mark’s Basilica, the Doges Palace, St Mark’s Campanile – the Piazza San Marco is where it is at. And by it, I mean tourists. Go, take your pictures, see the sights, have an iced coffee (bar service is cheaper than sitting at a table) and then wander down the side streets.
4. Bridge of Sighs
Also known as Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs is the last view of the outside world that convicts saw when walking from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the prisoners’ cells. It is a fully enclosed bridge made of white limestone. It is an easy stop when walking along the water to/from the Doge’s Palace and Piazza San Marco to/from the water bus stop.
Originally nicknamed the Church of Gold (Chiesa d’Oro), Saint Mark’s Basilica is one of the best examples of Italian-Byzantine architecture. The church speaks to the Venetian décor, wealth and opulence, with its gold mosaics, golden domes and golden details all over the inside and outside – gold on gold on gold. There are long lines, but it is worth the wait. If you are feeling cheeky, try sneaking in the out door – but shhh, if you are caught, just play dumb tourist. Also, as with most churches in Italy, no short shorts/skirts/dresses or tank tops. They will make you pay for and wear their papery wraps to cover your indecency (or mine). For a great Skip the Line tour, click here.
6. San Marco Campanile
St Mark’s Campanile was one of the highlights for me – even though we had to wait in line (about 30 minutes) but it was definitely worth it. The views from the top are extraordinary and if you time it correctly, which we obviously did, you can be in the bell tower for the ringing of the bells (check local times when you are there). The elevator going up only fits about 8 people and there is limited space at the top, so the line definitely makes sense. Still worth it though, you won’t be disappointed.
7. Grand Canal
If you go to Venice and miss the Grand Canal, you actually went to the wrong city… maybe Venice, Florida or Venice, California… or you are in Vegas at the Venetian. The Grand Canal is the main drag of Venice – you can’t miss it. If you take a gondola or waterbus, visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection or cross the Rialto Bridge, you have seen part of the Grand Canal. If you have the time, take a vaporetto along the Grand Canal and see the effects of global warming and rising sea levels – the lower levels of so many buildings along the water are no longer in use. You can see where the water has crept in and understand why the city is losing a significant part of its population every year as they escape the high prices, the high water and the high number of tourists!
8. Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
This was my favorite church in Venice – and we saw quite a few. What I loved about the Frari church was the individual design and unique structure of each of the tombs. Every tomb and monument was unlike the one next to it, and frankly very different from the types of tombs found in most European churches. It is an Italian Gothic basilica with 12 large stone pillars running down the center of the church. The sides are flanked with tombs and monuments. There are no audio tours available at this church, so I would definitely recommend downloading your own tour (as always, Rick Steves has one, complete with dad jokes – click here).
9. Peggy Guggenheim Collection
This is one of the things I wasn’t able to tick off my Venice list and I have serious regrets. Peggy Guggenheim bought a Venetian palace (Palazzo Venier dei Leoni) on the Grand Canal, where she lived for almost thirty years. Her personal collection is displayed in her Venice home now under the watchful care of the Guggenheim Foundation. The permanent collection includes everything from Picasso to Dali and Pollack to Miro. It is one of the best collections of modern art in Europe and should definitely not be missed. Entrance include the Venetian home of Peggy Guggenheim, as well as the more recent addition of a sculpture garden on the grounds. Entrance is EUR 15 per adult (discounts for children, seniors and students). The collection is open daily (except Tuesday). If you are in the mood to splurge, try an after-hours private tour here.
10. Santi Giovanni e Paolo
This is one of the largest churches in Venice. The basilica was completed in the early 15th century and since then all of the doges’ funerals took place in this church. It is also the burial ground of twenty five of those doges. The impressive exterior of this church is worth seeing, but if you only have time for one or two churches in Venice, prioritize Frari (#8) and St Mark’s (#5).
11. Rialto Bridge
The Rialto Bridge is one of Venice’s iconic landmarks. Originally it was a floating pontoon bridge in the late 12th century, and it was followed by various attempts at solid structures. One was partially burnt during a revolt, one collapsed (under the weight of people watching a boat race) and finally the current structure was completed in 1591.
12. Try the local specialties
Sarde in saor (fried sardine fillets marinated in vinegar, onions, raisins and pine nuts) is a famous antipasti originating from Venice. Baccala mantecato (creamed dried cod prepared poaching and mixing the fish into a smooth mousse with olive oil, salt and pepper – sometimes with garlic and parsley) is served on grilled polenta or toast as a sort of salty, seafood tartine. When in doubt, there is no shortage of fresh pastas, pizzas and gelato. You’re in Italy, after all. Time to overdose on carbs.
13. Gondola Ride
This is a total tourist trap… paying about 100 Euros for a 25 minute gondola ride is a complete rip-off. But even the Enemy of Fun with all of his fiscal responsibility agreed that there is no point going all the way to Venice if you aren’t going to go on a gondola ride through the tiny canals of the sinking city. So, budget for it – suck it up – take lots of pictures and tick it off the bucket list. You will be glad you did it! Lucky for you, if you book here before you go, it is cheaper than anything you will find in Venice – by at least 60%. You are welcome!
14. Find an amazing Venetian mask
I am still kicking myself for not picking one of these up but heavens they are overpriced! Instead, wander around town trying to find the weirdest, coolest, most mysterious Venetian mask. Make sure you try it on and take a picture without the shop owner seeing – they will yell at you for taking pictures in their stores without buying anything. I speak from personal experience, obviously… still got my pics though. Alternatively, you can try this excursion – all about Carnival masks!
15. Ca’ d’oro
This is one of the oldest and most recognized palaces along the Grand Canal – it was originally built between 1428 and 1430 for a wealthy Venetian family. The Contarini family provided Venice with eight doges over the course of 600 years (1040 – 1676). It is one of a few Gothic-styled homes along the Grand Canal and like many of these homes, has an inner courtyard, stunning balconies and decorative windows. Keep an eye out for this famous home when you are taking the Grand Canal tour.
16. Take a Vaporetto (water bus)
The water buses around Venice are good for island hopping or further distances – I wouldn’t use them for short distances because of both the wait and the slug-like pace that these boats have. The Line 1 is the main line that goes down the Grand Canal – if you start towards the beginning of the line (Ferrovia or the main bus station) and take it all the way to Piazza San Marco, download the Rick Steves’ audio tour (the Grand Canal Cruise) here – and for the price of the waterbus ticket (EUR 7) you have a guided tour of the Grand Canal.
17. Rialto Market
The Rialto Market, as you would expect, is located near the Rialto Bridge. This has been the main food market in Venice since the late 11th century and it is still going strong, despite the dwindling local population. The daily market takes place from early morning through to about noon. The locals that are left can be found in the early hours, grabbing great deals on fresh produce and fish. This is a great place to go to stock up on local goods if you have a kitchen available to you – otherwise, just enjoy the atmosphere. The produce is brought from other islands or the mainland at dawn, but it is all locally sourced. Have your camera ready – you will want to snap pictures of this waterside market.
18. Ca’ Rezzonico
The Ca’ Rezzonico is a former residential palace located on the Grand Canal. Today, it is the Museum of 18th Century Venice – full of masterpieces collected from all over the city, housed in a reconstructed Venetian palace. Furniture and frescos decorate the palace in the rich decadence of 18th century Venice, allowing visitors to be completely transported back in time to the Venice of opulence and wealth. The museum is opened every day except Tuesdays – check the website here before going as the hours vary depending on the season.
19. Island hop
There are plenty of islands in the Venice lagoon to explore and by plenty I mean at least 70. If you are only in Venice for a couple days, seeing more than one or two may be difficult. The most popular islands are Murano, Burano and Mazzorbo. Murano is where the popular glass kilns are located – head to Murano to discover the glasswork (sculptures, glasses, beads, bowls, etc.) that made this island famous. Burano is known for the beautiful, brightly colored houses and its handmade lace shops. It is 40 minutes from Piazza San Marco by water bus. Mazzoboro is connected by bridge to Burano and is home to a stunning vineyard. If you want to combine Murano and Burano, try this organized tour.
20. Don’t fall in…
This may seem self-explanatory, but unfortunately it is not. If you step down onto the green, slimy step to sit by the water, you may slide in – hitting your butt, legs, hips, back, arms, any and all extremities on the way into the nasty Venetian waters. Good news! If you have any open wounds, you probably won’t contract any strange diseases (that I am aware of… and it’s been a year). I speak from experience… so please, heed my warning. Also, if anyone finds any videos on YouTube with a blonde American tourist falling into the canals, please let me know. Please and thank you.
Don’t forget to check out my recommendations for finding the cheapest flights to Venice and the greatest (and most fiscally responsible) places to stay while you are enjoying all of the amazing and fun things to do in the region! Happy travels!