More than a century ago, it was the great American novelist cum travel writer Henry James who decided that there was “nothing left to discover or describe” about Venice, and that “originality of attitude is completely impossible.”
But, he said, “it would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten the reader; I pretend only to give fillip to his memory; and I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme.”
And so I am.
Released from the burden of originality and the guilt of self-indulgence, here is my own To Do List for first-time visitors to Venice.
An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:
Ride a vaporetto down the Grand Canal
Whether you arrive in Venice at Santa Lucia railway station, at the bus depot in Piazzale Roma, or at the small airport across the lagoon, the glorious Grand Canal will be among the first sites you see, and invariably, it will look exactly as you imagined. It will feel at once foreign and familiar, as if you’ve stepped into an 18th century painting by Canaletto, only to find that the world around you has changed little in its substance.
To extend the illusion a little longer, board a public water bus—known as a vaporetto—and ride it the length of the canal, under the Rialto Bridge, by the colorful and crumbling façades of grand palazzos like the Ca’ d’Oro and the Ca’ Rezzonico, all the way down past the dome of Santa Maria della Salute, before disembarking at St. Mark’s Square.
If the Grand Canal seems heavy with traffic today, bustling with motor boats, water buses, and gondolas, remind yourself that it was even more crowded in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the golden age of the Venetian Republic, when it was a major thoroughfare for merchants who traded goods across Europe and the Far East.
BUYING TICKETS: ACTV tickets can be bought: 1) Online; 2) On site from the Hellovenezia ticket office at the railway station; or 3) From the automatic ticket machines on some landing docks.
COST: A single ticket on the vaporetto costs €7, so buying a tourist travel card is a wise decision. Cards allow unlimited access for a period of either 12, 24, 36, 48, or 72 hours, or for 7 days from the time it is initially activated. Prices vary accordingly, from €18 to €50. For further details, see one of the websites below.
NOTE: For the purposes of sightseeing, board a vaporetto on Line 1 (map), or pay slightly more to board the special Vaporetto dell’Arte, which includes a multilingual audio and video system. Remember, you will need to swipe your travel card on the iMob validating machines located at the entrance to the ACTV loading docks before you board, or face a hefty fine.
Soak in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s Basilica
At the eastern end of St. Mark’s Square lies the basilica that was built to house the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, plundered from Alexandria, Egypt in 828 A.D. Legend has it that the Venetians hid the relics in a barrel under layers of pork to slip them past Muslim guards, a scheme they later depicted in a mosaic above the portal that is farthest left of the front entrance.
While Venice is replete with Baroque churches, St. Mark’s Basilica is an exotic outlier, with its massive marble columns, graceful arches, and onion domes clad in lead. Look carefully about and you’ll also see a hodgepodge of ornaments that were brought back piecemeal over the centuries by Venetian merchants who had sailed to the Orient and back.
To see the interior—a “glittering robber’s den” encrusted with gold mosaic tiles, set unevenly to better refract the light—you will have to survive the basilica’s infamous queue, as well as its strict rules for entry, but both are a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing one of Europe’s finest churches.
GETTING THERE: For directions to Piazza San Marco from various locations, including the train station and Piazzale Roma, click here.
HOURS: Summer hours for the basilica are from 9:45 AM – 5:00 PM weekdays and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 2:00 PM – 5:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.
NOTE: Modest dress is required (cover those knees and shoulders!) and photography is not allowed, nor are large bags and purses. To avoid the maddening queue to get in, consider making a reservation online.
COST: Admission to the basilica itself is free, but small and very worthwhile charges apply to enter the chancel, treasury and loggia, areas which include the Pala d’Oro, a gold altarpiece constructed of enamel icons and encrusted with gemstones; an odd and extensive collection of chalices and reliquaries containing the blood and bones of saints; and the original gilded horses of St. Mark, the prize of so many lootings over the centuries.
WEBSITE: Basilica di San Marco
Visit the Doge’s Palace to walk across the Bridge of Sighs and see the prison cell from which Casanova famously escaped
The Palazzo Ducale, which adjoins St. Mark’s Basilica, was once the residence of the Doge of Venice. To make the most your experience here, book a “Secret Itineraries” tour with a well-trained guide, who will explain the civic and political history of the city and its “Council of Ten.”
You will see where the most delicate administrative tasks were performed, in an attic space far removed from prying eyes, then you’ll continue through the Chancellery, where walls of cabinets once contained secret documents, before arriving in the torture chamber in which prisoners were hung by their arms from ropes. You’ll even get to cross the infamous Bridge of Sighs and enter the prison itself to see the cell once occupied by Casanova, and from which he made his daring escape.
Along the way, be sure to keep your eye out for centuries old graffiti scratched into the window panes by bored clerks.
GETTING THERE: If arriving by vaporetto, chose either the Vallaresso or San Zaccaria stop. For more information, click here.
HOURS: From April to October, the Doge’s Palace is open daily from 8:30 AM – 7:00 PM, and from April-March, daily from 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM. “Secret Itineraries” tours in English run at 9:55 AM and 11.35 AM and should be reserved in advance.
COST: A full-price ticket valid for the Doge’s Palace as well as the Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana costs €16. The “Secret Itineraries” tour is €20. For those tourists who intend to visit many of the city’s churches and museums, purchasing the Venice Card (€39.90 for adults) may be a worthwhile option.
MORE: In addition to the Doge’s Palace,Venice offers an array of enticing museums. If time permits, or foul weather forces you indoors, consider visiting the following: Gallerie dell’Accademia (pre-19th century Venetian art); Peggy Guggenheim Collection (contemporary art); Museo Correr (collections focus on the art and history of Venice); or Ca’ Rezzonico (a museum of 18th century art).
WEBSITE: Palazzo Ducale
Gaze out across the rooftops of Venice from the top of the campanile in St. Mark’s Square
While most ancient bell towers in Italy require a sturdy pair of legs, the campanile in St. Mark’s Square has a large and speedy elevator. Ride it to the top for the sheer pleasure of the view. From a height of 324 feet, you can easily see the entire city, with a rim of coastline in every direction. Look for the iconic church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal. If you scan the red tiled roofs carefully with a camera lens or a telescope, you might also spy the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo.
Rest assured, while the original 15th century campanile collapsed into rubble quite suddenly in 1902, the reconstructed tower won’t fall again because Venice recently completed a multi-year engineering project to shore up its foundation.
LOCATION: Piazza San Marco
HOURS: Summer hours for the campanile are from 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.
COST: A ticket to ride the elevator to the top of the campanile costs €8.
MORE: For another extraordinary view of the city of Venice, take a vaporetto out to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and take the elevator to the top of the bell tower there.
WEBSITE: Basilica di San Marco
Visit the Rialto Market to experience the vivid sights, sounds, and smells of Venetian life
In the morning, the open-air Rialto Market is a feast for the senses, as local farmers and fisherman unload trays of fresh squid, cuttlefish, crabs and clams, as well as baskets of whatever produce is in season, from cherries and grapes to peas and asparagus.
If the old adage about eating with your eyes first is true—mangiare con gli occhi, as the Italians would say—you will stroll about and leave feeling very full and very happy.
LOCATION: San Polo, Campo de la Pescheria (fruits and vegetables) and Campo de le Becarie, Loggia Grande and Loggia Piccola (fish)
HOURS: The markets open around 7:00 AM. Note, the produce market is closed on Sundays and the fish market is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
WEBSITE: Mercato di Rialto
Go shopping anywhere and everywhere for Murano glass
While the fame of Venetian glass extends back to the Roman Empire, all of the furnaces and foundries were moved to the island of Murano in 1291 out of fear that a fire would consume the city’s wooden buildings. Today, the art, craft, and tradition of Murano glass continues and local boutiques sell a dizzying array of whimsical sculptures and ornate chandeliers.
On one of my visits to Venice, the shop window at Pauly & Co. in St. Mark’s Square displayed a series of balloon animals that would surely pass for the real thing, in addition to a green fedora for €7,500, and a folded shirt, complete with buttons, for €8,100. A craftsman even made what would appear to be Cinderella’s glass slipper, although at nearly €11,000 most women would need to marry Prince Charming to be able to afford it.
For a far less expensive option and one that’s easy to slide into a suitcase already bulging with Italian souvenirs, shop for jewelry instead.
NOTE: If you spend enough and you’re a non-EU citizen, consider applying for a VAT refund.
Escape the crowds for a day and go island hopping
Eventually, even the most ardent admirer of Venice will want to escape for the day to the nearby islands of Murano, Burano, or Torcello. The first is best known for glassmaking, the second for lace, and the third—I suspect—for being seldom visited by tourists.
Start with a short boat ride to Murano, where you can any number of glass factorys for a free tour. In the heat of the furnace, the craftsmen work quickly and deftly with molten glass that is roughly the texture of salt water taffy, just be wary of the salesmen who will follow you afterwards into the showroom. They can turn the subtle art of browsing into an uncomfortable, high stakes game of cat-and-mouse.
Next, make your way to Burano, a tiny fishing village where the streets are a riot of color, lined with houses that are painted in improbable shades of blue, orange, green, purple, and red. Flower pots rest on window ledges, laundry hangs to dry, and in the summer nearly every front door stands ajar, covered only with a striped curtain that catches the breeze, as a sail might on a boat.
If time remains, consider one last jump to Torcello. There is a brick walkway that leads away from the dock, but much of the island consists of open fields and undisturbed wetlands. Follow the path to a cluster of old buildings that includes two magnificent churches side-by-side—Santa Fosca, which is low and round, and the more conventional Santa Maria Assunta, with its solitary bell tower. Both are primitive, peaceful and calm, far removed from the opulence of Venice and its madding crowd.
GETTING THERE: The islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello are easy to reach using public transportation. Vaporetto line numbers 12, 13, 14, 4.1, and 4.2 make the journey to Murano from Fondamente Nove (on the north side of Castello), and line number 12 continues on to Burano and Torcello.
COST: Travel to the islands is included with a standard ACTV ticket
Be indulgent and hire a gondolier
Yes, it is cliché, and it is expensive, but you have traveled long and far to come to Venice, and you really should ride in a gondola.
Henry James once wrote that “little mental pictures rise before the collector of memories at the simple mention, written or spoken, of the places he has loved.” When he conjured an image of Venice, it was not Piazza San Marco that he thought about, nor was it the basilica, or the dome of the Salute church, or even the Grand Canal. Instead, in his mind’s eye he saw:
“…a narrow canal in the heart of the city—a patch of green water and a surface of pink wall. The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash of stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel’s back, [and] you see her against the sky as you float beneath… On the other side of this small waterway is a great shabby façade of Gothic windows and balconies… It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and the whole place is enchanting.”
I rest my case.
LOCATION: Gondolas depart from nearly every dock in Venice, so wander about and pick a neighborhood that appeals to you. Most itineraries will include at least a short piece of the Grand Canal, but it’s often a ride along the quiet side canals that is most enchanting.
COST: The rates for gondoliers are fixed by the city of Venice. During the day, expect to pay €80 for a 40-minute ride for a maximum of six people, and €40 for each additional increment of 20 minutes. In the evening, the rate increases to a base price of €100. If you would like to be serenaded by your gondolier, that fee is additional and must be negotiated.
Too expensive? Here are some affordable alternatives: 1) Share a gondola ride with others at Santa Maria del Giglio; or 2) Take a traghetto across the Grand Canal. For a list of crossing points, click here.
WEBSITE: Gondola Venezia
Spend a lazy evening under the stars listening to the orchestras play in Piazza San Marco
It’s said that when Casanova escaped from prison in 1756, he stopped off for a cup of coffee at Caffè Florian before fleeing to Paris. It’s easy to understand why when you see how lively and pleasant Piazza San Marco becomes at night, once the crowds have slipped away.
There are three restaurants in the square, each with neat rows of tables and chairs, and awnings under which an orchestra plays. Take a seat at Caffé Florian, Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri, or Caffé Lavena, order a cocktail, lean back and relax as you are serenaded with sentimental waltzes and lively folk dances.
No one will blame you if you get up and dance.
LOCATION: Piazza San Marco
- Caffé Florian is open daily from 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM in the summer, and closed Wednesdays in winter (menu)
- Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch from 12:30 PM – 2:30 PM, and for dinner from 7:30 PM – 10:30 PM
- Caffé Lavena is open daily from 9:30 AM – 11:00 PM
NOTE: To avoid an unhappy surprise when the bill arrives, please know that there is a supplemental charge per person whenever the orchestra is playing.
Put away the map and get lost
In a city built of islands, where there are 150 canals and 400 bridges, maps are of little use, and modern gadgets like cell phones with GPS, even less so. For that reason, it can be genuinely difficult to find things in Venice, so resolve to discover them instead. The lack of intention makes all the difference in the world. It allows frustration to give way to serendipity.
In exploring the city’s labyrinthine streets and canals, you may find comfort in periodic signs that read “Per Rialto and “Per San Marco,” but notice how they often they point in two directions at once, creating endless combinations.
Right, left, right.
Left, left, right.
Follow your fancy and see what pleasures await. On one of my tramps around Venice I was treated to shop windows that had exotic spices stacked into powdered pyramids, papier-mâché masks formed into the fanciful faces of cats, hedgehogs and owls, and tiny gold fish suspended in blown glass aquariums of every size and shape.
Walk on, and soon you’ll find yourself wondering what more there is to see just around the corner, and you’ll be tempted to devote the entire day to finding out.
It will be a day well spent.
LOCATION: It matters not.
Where to stay when in Venice
A Photo Gallery of Venice