There aren’t too many places on this earth that when you see them for the first time they give you that, “Oh My God, Wow”, feeling. For me, Venice, Italy was one of those places. The first time I stepped out of the train station onto the plaza I felt like I had been transported into some kind of time warp and deposited into a whole new world. It had that kind of effect on me. I’m not sure that everyone who steps from that train station into the world of Venice will have that same feeling that I did, but I can assure you of one thing, you have entered into a place that you will not soon forget.
Before I turn Venice into something that it’s not let’s get one thing perfectly clear, Venice is crowded with tourists. Twenty million every year to be exact. It would appear that if there were an off-season in Venice then it is a very short one that occurs during the colder, wetter winter months. And one other thing about Venice, it is also slowly decaying and slowly sinking. In what other cities in the world could one say that this is all part of the charm and wonder of the city?
Having made two visits to Venice over the last four years I would like to offer up a list of things that can be seen on a three to four-day visit to Venice. Some of them will be obvious, and some of them will be not so obvious. No matter how you decide to spend your time in Venice I am certain that it will be a memorable experience.
1. Visit Piazza San Marco during the day and night
St. Marks Square is the hub of activity in Venice. During the day it seems that everyone in Venice is in the square at the same time. And for good reason. From St. Marks Square it is possible to visit the Basilica, Doges Palace, and climb the Bell tower. While the days of tourists feeding the pigeons are gone, it is not allowed anymore due to the potential human health hazards; the piazza still has just as many pigeons as visitors.
What can be better than visiting Piazza San Marco during the day? Visiting at night. After the sun goes down the piazza is transformed into a serenade of music as the various cafes alternate playing music to entertain their guests. Should you want to sit and enjoy the evening be prepared to pay a hefty price for that drink. What most visitors tend to do is to leisurely stroll the square following the sound of the music. With the piazza all lit up at night it makes for a beautiful setting.
2. St. Mark’s Basilica
Walking into St. Marks Basilica is another one of those wow moments that you’ll not soon forget. Consecrated in 1094 the structure has undergone many alterations over the centuries. The Cathedral sits at the eastern end of Piazza San Macro and is connected to the Doge’s Palace. Once inside the Cathedral you will immediately be drawn to the beautiful gilded Byzantine mosaics, which cover over 8000 square meters with gold, bronze and various types of stone.
The line to enter the Cathedral forms early so either plan on visiting late in the afternoon or you can purchase a skip the line pass for 3 euro which allows you to enter without waiting in line. You can do this online at the official web-site of the Basilica. Simply print out your receipt voucher and be sure to bring it with you.
3. Tour Doges Palace
Built as the residence of the Doge of Venice (Supreme authority of the republic of Venice) the palace makes for a fascinating visit. The Secret Itineraries Tour is worth the few extra euros as it takes you into areas of the palace not accessible to the general public. The tour takes you into secret passageways, the prison, the interrogation room, the armament room and on to the Bridge of Sighs which connects the palace to the prisons that were built on the other side of the canal.
After the tour, take your time and stroll the many beautiful rooms in the palace including The Sala del Maggior Consiglio or Great Hall. This huge hall is where up to 2000 members of the Great Council would convene. The impressive hall is amazing with its gilded ceiling and walls covered in 76 frescoes of past Doges. The painting titled “Paradise” by Venetian painter Tintoretto adorns one wall of the hall and is reputed to be the largest oil painting in the world measuring 74 feet by 30 feet.
4. Take the Water Bus down the entire length of the Grand Canal
Grab a good seat on the water bus and take a ride down the entire length of the Grand Canal. What better way to experience Venice than to ride down the heart of the Grand Canal while taking in all that Venice has to offer.
Watch the Gondola’s as they glide their way in and around the water buses. Observe the delivery boats as they deliver everything that Venice needs to keep it up and running. Notice the finely polished wooden taxi boats as they deliver their passengers to their destination. This is what Venice is all about, enjoy the ride.
5. Visit the Market early one morning
The market in Venice is one of the most organized and cleanest open markets that I have seen. If you are looking for fresh fruits, vegetables, meats or fish then this is the place to come. Even if you are not looking to purchase anything it is a wonderful place to walk and take photos.
The fresh fruits and vegetables make for a colorful display that will have you wanting to sample the amazing array of locally grown produce and fruit. The market is located not far from the Rialto Bridge just off of the Grand Canal.
6. Murano Island
Murano Island is where the world-famous Murano glass is from and makes for an interesting visit. While Murano’s reputation suggests that it is a tourist trap designed to lure visitors into their showrooms it is certainly worth a visit.
If you’ve never seen delicate glassware being made it is a fascinating art to watch. It is simply amazing what these craftsmen are able to do. If you are looking to purchase Murano glass while on the island be certain that you are getting what you pay for. Not all of the shops are selling glass from the island so buyer beware.
7. Burano Island
Burano is probably the one-stop that many visitors overlook and skip when visiting Venice. Everyone wants to see the glass making on Murano, and Burano is much farther out (40 minutes) in the lagoon so it’s a good ride. Not only is Burano worth a visit, but I much preferred the laid back, colourful, and easy-going style of Burano. Famous for its lacework, the island is dotted with brightly coloured homes that make for some wonderful photo opportunities. Also worth seeing is the Church of San Martino with its leaning Bell Tower.
8. Take a Cicchetti Tour of Venice
I had not heard of the Cicchetti (chi-KET-tee) Tour until one of my travelling companions brought it up as something that we might consider doing that was a little different. After checking it out we decided to give it a go and I have to admit that it was a wonderful experience. Cicchetti are the small local appetizers that can typically be found in the local bars all over Venice. They can include a multitude of delicious snacks including various bruschetta, tiny sandwiches, seafood, cheeses, and various vegetables to name just a few.
And to top off the scrumptious snacks you get to wash it all down with a little glass of some local wine. On the Cicchetta Tour that we did, we visited five local pubs trying a great assortment of local snacks and some very interesting local wines. Give it a try; I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It is also a great way to mingle with the locals and discover some of the off the beaten path cafes and pubs.
9. Rialto Bridge
This is probably the most crowded area in all of Venice. It seems that everyone wants to have his or her picture taken on this most famous bridge in Venice. Between the shops, the crowds, and the tourists getting on and off the nearby Rialto Water Bus stop, this area is a symphony of non-stop motion and activity.
It is also a great spot to watch the comings and goings on the Grand Canal if you can snag a spot. If you want to avoid some of the crowds then visit early or late. In the morning you can watch as Venice comes alive with the Grand Canal full of boats making their morning deliveries. At night this is one of the most beautiful spots in Venice with the lights reflecting off of the canal in a kaleidoscope of colour.
10. Get lost for a few hours – maps not allowed
There is nothing like wandering the back streets of Venice with no particular agenda and no map to guide you. It is here that you will discover the real Venice, the Venice where the locals live, and shop, and play, and go about their daily lives. If the crowds have started to get to you then this is the perfect remedy.
Grab your camera, leave the map behind and wander aimlessly around Venice for a truly wonderful experience. When you want to find your way back simply start following the signs leading you to the Rialto Bridge or San Macro Square and soon enough you’ll have your bearings.
If you are staying in Venice for more than a day consider buying a multi-day Vaporetto pass. This will save you some money.