After kicking off our honeymoon in the relaxing Cinque Terre, we boarded a train for Venice. We added the city of canals to our itinerary mostly because we wanted to check it off before it succumbs to rising sea levels or overtourism. Instead, Venice completely charmed us with its winding alleys, plentiful bridges and gorgeous architecture. Read on for my guide to Venice!
If you’re willing to wake up early and stay out late, the main sights of Venice can be seen in a day and a half. We checked in to our Airbnb, then immediately set out in search of cicchetti—finger foods served in the plentiful bacari (bars) along the canal. With a stomach full of sparkling wine, cheese and black polenta topped with chopped salt cod we set out in search of a gondolier. At €80 for 30 minutes, a private gondola ride can seem like a rip-off, but it’s one of the best ways to get your bearings and see Venice, especially at sunset. (€80 is the total regardless of the number of passengers, so splitting it between up to six people is more wallet-friendly!)
It’s impressive how the gondoliers can navigate not only the traffic jam of the Grand Canal, but also the tiny, serpentine alley canals.
My biggest tip for Venice: get lost. Be willing to wander, run into dead ends, double back and get happily and hopelessly lost. Zach and I budgeted extra time to get everywhere, and were never stressed or panicked about being late and off track … it’s part of Venice’s charm. For the major sights, look on the top corners of buildings for signs that say “Per Rialto” or “Per San Marco” as these will eventually lead you to where you need to be.
Venice is the place to get your souvenirs from Italy—with fewer than 55,000 residents most of Venice’s shops cater to tourists. But if you’re looking for something less souvenir-y, there are quite a few local stores worth a look. My absolute favorite is Il Mercante di Sabbia. I (surprisingly) did not find this listed in Rick Steves, but instead stumbled upon it thanks to its location just steps from our Airbnb. We were constantly passing the shop on our way to the Rialto district, and I spotted a white net bag with leather straps in the window that I couldn’t stop thinking about. When I returned on our last day in Venice to finally purchase it, they didn’t open for another two hours, but I knocked on the door and offered to pay cash (they let me in!).
A must-see for book lovers, Acqua Alta is named after the high water that plague Venice during flood season. The quirky bookstore is run by Luigi, who protects his books from high water by storing them in assorted waterproof vessels—a gondola, bathtub, sailboat, you name it. Pop your head out to the the back garden, where you will find stairs made out of waterlogged books. Climb for a view of the canals!
Thanks to Venice’s colorful Carnevale history, mask shops are plentiful. They’re gorgeous, but I have to admit plague doctor masks give me the creeps.
There’s a lot to see in Venice, so parse out your time wisely. (For example, unless you are a true art lover, if you’re going to the Vatican or Uffizi Gallery, you can give Venice’s Accademia a skip.) The top must-see is St. Mark’s Basilica. Make sure you buy tickets in advance—do this everywhere in Italy to avoid lines longer than Disney World—and dress modestly. That means knees and shoulders covered for both men and women, and this is strictly enforced. I brought a wrap if needed, and even safety-pinned a slit in the skirt below to ensure I was following the rules. It isn’t just respectful, it also prevents you getting kicked out in front of everyone (we witnessed a guard sternly declaring “Non rispetto!” while gesturing to the exit in the direction of an American tourist in cargo shorts and a tank top).
St. Mark’s Square is really the epicenter of tourist sights in Venice, so expect crowds. The Correr Museum, Campanile, Doge’s Palace and of course, St. Mark’s Basilica, are all located on the Square.
The Doge’s Palace (below) is definitely worth it. We didn’t know what to expect but were so happy we went. It’s indoors so it helps you escape the heat, and the Hall of the Grand Council (a 175 by 80 foot, 2,600 capacity room) is seriously imposing … plus it features the largest oil painting in the world, Tintoretto’s Paradise.
Teeming with tourists, pigeons, aggressive selfie stick salesmen (and wielders), St. Mark’s Square is also home to cafés … including arguably the most famous Venetian café of them all, Caffè Florian. Its fame comes from the fact that it was one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee, and famous past patrons include Casanova, Charles Dickens, Lord Byron and more. However, (as Rick notes) the cheapest option is €12,50: €6,50 for coffee and a €6 cover charge while the orchestra is paying. In a town where espressos usually run you €1-2, save your money and have a seat on the steps away from the Florian’s tables—you can still hear the orchestra!
Venice is a city meant to be seen by water, so make sure to take the vaporetto (water taxis) as often as you can. A particularly beautiful route is embarking at Zattere (nearby to the Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection). Taking the 2 from this location puts you out into the Giudecca Canal and stops at St. Mark’s Square (below). There’s less traffic on the Giudecca than the Grand Canal and it’s much wider, which is an incredible experience.
Rick Steves has a great Grand Canal Cruise that is much cheaper than a gondola or water taxi—a single ticket is €7,50 (Venice also has a multitude of unlimited rides, just like NYC metrocards). Line 1 is the local, and as long as you’re going the right direction hopping on will let you see major Venetian sights (like the Rialto Bridge below) with less crowds and a fresh breeze.
Our first night in Venice we did a giro d’ombra (aka a pub crawl) of cicchetti bars. But thanks to a recommendation from The New York Times’ 36 Hours in Venice we discovered CoVino … and it was truly an experience unlike any other. Located in the non-touristy Castello district, CoVino only has 16 seats and limited seatings each night. A reservation is required, and to enter the restaurant, you ring the doorbell and give the hostess your name before you are allowed entry.