Here in no particular order, are my suggestions for the top ten things to do in Venice.
1. Buy A Vaporetto Pass
Buy a vaporetto pass for the number of days you will be in Venice. A single ticket for the vaporetto costs 7.50 euros, which is enough to make you think twice about hopping on one of the lumbering great vaporetti that ply the Grand Canal. But walking all the time in Venice defeats the purpose of being in Venice. The narrow streets and quiet side canals are undeniably charming and walking should play a huge role in your daily Venice activities. However, walking should be balanced by plenty of time on the water—particularly the Grand Canal. Here you cannot help but be endlessly fascinated by the comings and goings of so many different kinds of crafts and here you realize that Venice truly is a city built on water. Everything must be transported into Venice by water—from crates of wine to bathroom fixtures to pianos. With a vaporetto pass, you can hop on and off the vaporetto on a whim. If you see something that interests you at a stop, get off and walk into the labyrinth of Venice. Use the pass to take you to as many of Venice’s main neighborhoods (sestiers) as possible. I love being able to take the vaporetto just one stop from one side of the Grand Canal to the other to avoid walking to one of only four bridges. You particularly want to avoid walking over the Rialto Bridge (well, maybe once to say you did) because it is a packed swarm of people, cameras bumping, backpacks swaying.
Here are the prices for the travel cards sold by ACTV:
20,00 € – 1 DAY TRAVELCARD
30,00 € – 2 DAYS TRAVELCARD
40,00 € – 3 DAYS TRAVELCARD
60,00 € – 7 DAYS TRAVELCARD
We were in Venice for ten days and so purchased a 7-day travel card for 60 euros. We definitely got our money’s worth during the seven days. On some days, I hopped on and off the vaporetto five or six times—a cost of almost 40 euros if I had bought single tickets.
You can purchase your pass from the ACTV web site before you arrive in Venice: http://www.actv.it/en Once you arrive, go to a ticket booth (the one at either Piazzale Roma or Ferrovia is probably your best bet since it’s likely the first one you will encounter), give the attendant the confirmation number, and pick up your pass. Before you get on a vaporetto, swipe the pass across the card reader on the dock. Most vaporetto stops do not include ticket booths so really, having a pass is the most convenient way to get around Venice with the least possible hassle. You don’t want to be scrabbling for 7.50 euros every time you want to take a ride on the Grand Canal.
2. Visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Take the vaporetto (Academia stop) or walk to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum located in the Dosodoro sestier a few minutes walk from the Accademia bridge. I am biased towards modern art, but I am not the only person who would rate the Guggenheim as Venice’s best museum. The light and airy palazzo—one of the very few (if not only) modern palazzo on the Grand Canal—is full of fantastic paintings from most of the biggies of the first half of the twentieth century (give or take a decade or two). You’ll see works by Max Ernst, Picasso, Magritte, Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, deChirico, Tanguy, etc., etc. Every room you walk into holds yet another masterpiece that you will probably recognize from your university art history class (if you took one).
Following your stroll past great works of art, you can wander outside to the front of the palazzo to enjoy the pageant of water craft churning the waters of St. Mark’s Basin. Just across the water glows the pale pink, geometrically Oriental facade of the Doge’s Palace. Next to it rises the distinctive Campanile (the bell tower) that completes half the postcards of Venice. After drinking in your fill of modern art and views of the Grand Canal, walk along a few narrow streets to the large plaza in front of the Basilica de Santa Maria della Salute and just sit on the steps for a spell to admire the view. On a sunny day with the wind whipping in from the Adriatic, life doesn’t get much better.
3. Go to the Glass Island of Murano
Spend at least a morning on the Island of Murano where the glass factories are located. I was surprised to find Murano a sleepy, pretty place that manages to absorb the tourists with lots of quiet side streets to spare. The two main canals are lined either side with glass shops that have much more variety than the generic glass shops in Venice. If you want to buy glass (and I did), then check out the Murano shops. The big problem is deciding what to buy. I parked Gregg at a canal side cafe while I cruised up and down the two sides of the canal in search of the perfect gifts for the several wonderful women in my life. I could have spent much longer and I’m sure I missed a few great shops, but I did manage to purchase something for almost everyone (including me). Murano is kind of Venice light—all of the charm with half the crowds. Getting there is part of the fun. The trip across the lagoon is bright and breezy and provides a different perspective on Venice. Your vaporetto pass gets you there in about twenty minutes, depending on where you start from. You can also check out a glass blowing demonstration at one of the factories. I don’t think the one we attended was one of the better ones, but it was entertaining enough to watch one of the craftsmen create a glass horse and then several kids from the audience blow glass bubbles until they burst.
4. Get Off the Beaten Track
Spend as much time as possible away from the Rialto-St. Marco clutch of endless shops and surging hordes of tourists. If you judge Venice only from a quick visit to Piazza St. Marco and a short wander through the adjacent streets, then you are missing the city’s true charms. Walk or take the vaporetto to the Santa Croce, Carneggio or San Polo neighborhoods and then just wander. You’ll encounter tourists, of course, but much of the time, you’ll also encounter empty squares, silent canals, and dark passageways that look as if no one has walked down them in centuries.
If you stroll around these neighborhoods between around 5 and 7 pm, you might be lucky enough to wander into a piazza filled with locals relaxing after their days’ work. Children roar around on scooters or sit in groups playing dolls or kick soccer balls at makeshift goals. Adults stand in groups chatting while keeping an eye on their children. Strollers and babies abound—good news for the future of Venice. I’ve read that Venice is slowly losing its population and that people fear it will one day be no more than a Disneyland for adults. I hope that won’t be the case. At least in many of the piazzas we happened upon, the population appears to be growing and prospering. Let’s hope that the young mums and dads don’t get tired of lifting strollers up and down the steps over bridges and paying rents inflated by tourists and second home owners. Venice for the Venetians!
The key to wandering in Venice is to put away the map and allow yourself time to just walk, turning down any street that looks appealing, backtracking when it dead ends at a canal, pausing on bridges to enjoy the reflections. When you get tired of walking, just look for one of the yellow signs directing you to Piazza San Marco, Rialto, Accademia or Ferrovia (the railway station). By following the signs, you’ll eventually get back to an area you recognize (maybe!). If not, check the GPS on your phone and if that fails, just keep wandering. It’s an island. You can’t get off. Eventually, you’re bound to end up either at a landmark you recognize or at the Grand Canal where you can catch a vaporetto to wherever you need to go.
5. Eat a Great Meal
Find and have a meal in a restaurant away from the tourist beat that receives great reviews for cooking and value. I highly recommend La Zucca–a tiny, wood-paneled restaurant on a small canal in the Santa Croce neighborhood. Look it up on the Internet – http://www.lazucca.it/, phone for a reservation, and then go! The menu is all in Italian but the wait staff speak perfect English and are very friendly. We enjoyed a four-course meal (shared the first three courses, then each had our own desserts) that was out of this world—by far the best meal we had in Venice. We shared an appetizer of hummus with olives—the garlic and sesame blending perfectly into a smoothly robust taste treat. After that, Gregg had pasta with pistachios and gorgonzola (I relieved him of most of his pistachios) and I had beef cheeks with polenta. The beef was melt in your mouth fantastic–kind of like beef stew but with majorly tender attitude. The presentation and taste were fantastic as was the house red wine that accompanied it. Dessert was lemon mousse for me and chocolate mousse for Gregg—both perfect ends to a great meal. Our La Zucca meal was not to be topped until we went to Cum Quibus in San Gimignano—but more on that in a later post on Tuscany!
Unfortunately, it is quite easy to eat badly in Venice. Close to the major tourist areas (Rialto, San Marco), a plethora of outdoor cafes offer up plasticated menus in four languages with color pictures of pastas and pizzas. We ate at one or two of these places and were not impressed. You can also easily get rooked at restaurants that over-charge and under-feed. Our first meal in Venice cost well over 80 euros and, although fairly tasty, was certainly not gourmet. The portions were very small and quite a large chunk of the bill was for the service charge and cover charge. It’s a good idea to check out those costs before sitting down at a restaurant! Our fabulous meal at La Zucca was a good ten euros less and every bite was a symphony.
6. Stay in an Apartment
If you are visiting Venice for more than two nights (and please consider allocating much longer!), I recommend staying in place that has a kitchen so you can shop at the grocery stores. Shopping like a local makes you feel like a local. The grocery stores in Venice are very small but surprisingly well stocked. We very much enjoyed prowling around the narrow aisles to find the fixings for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and the occasional dinner. I made a risotto with mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and white wine that I have to say was amazing mostly because the ingredients were so good. Food prices are also quite reasonable, at least compared to what we pay back in Canada. Cheese and wine (the two basic food groups) are particularly good value.
We rented our apartment from Airbnb. You can check out the listing for Ca’Miro. It was fairly pricey but worth every penny. When choosing an apartment, spend a little extra money to get one that is bright and relatively spacious (for Venice) and has air conditioning if you are staying in Venice in the summer. Also choose a place that is close to a vaporetto stop (ours was literally steps from a stop on the Grand Canal) and in one of Venice’s quieter, less touristy neighborhoods. Avoid the area around St. Mark’s Square which teems with tacky souvenir shops, bad food, hordes of tourists, and a general air of inundation that holds none of the charm that oozes out of the rest of Venice. We stayed in the Santa Croce neighborhood which I think was just about perfect. We could walk to the railway station and Piazzale Roma (the parking garage and bus station) in about ten minutes to catch vaporetti that didn’t stop at our local stop. We also enjoyed a neighborhood filled with families and kids and real people outnumbering tourists in plenty of leafy, sunny piazzas.
7. Check out the Specialty Museums
Check out some of the smaller, specialty museums. We very much enjoyed both the Costume museum in the Palazzo Mocenigo and the Natural History Museum—both with wonderful collections and both almost empty of tourists. Both museums are also in the Santa Croce neighborhood, very close to where we stayed and a bit off the tourist track.
The costume museum is housed in a 17th Century Venetian palazzo decorated with frescoes, rococo furniture & an antique dress collection. A special exhibition of perfumes was accompanied by a film (in English) about the history of perfume in Venice. Apparently Venice and perfume have a long association. The Natural History Museum is really first rate–very high tech with interactive displays, great models, and lots of cool stuff to look at. Although all the explanations are in Italian, the displays are pretty much self-explanatory. What can you really say about a stuffed giraffe head?
8. Tour the Doge’s Palace
Yes, everyone goes to Piazza St. Marco, the center of Venice, and most visit the Doge’s Palace while they are there. It’s one of the biggie Venice sites, usually awarded three stars in all the guidebooks. We tried to avoid St. Mark’s as much as possible, but we are glad we took the time to wander through the Doge’s Palace.
To avoid line-ups, you can buy your ticket at the Correr Museum across the piazza, have a quick look at its rather lack lustre exhibits of Venetian history, then check out the Doge’s Palace. With its sumptuous public rooms, huge paintings by many of the Venetian greats, and three floors of dank prisons, the Doge’s Palace reminds us of Venice’s illustrious past.
9. Visit the Accademia Gallery
The Galleria dell’Accademia Gallery contains a wonderful collection of work by the great Venetian masters–Tiepelo, Veronese, Bellini, Tintoretto, Tiziano, etc. I’m not a huge fan of 17th Century art, but you have to admire these guys. They were definitely no slouches. My favorite part of the gallery was the first few rooms filled with paintings from the 14th and 15th Century. I have a soft spot for medieval and early Renaissance styles, and the Accademia had some lovely examples. The area around the Accademia in the Dosodoro sestier is a wonderful combination of packed and peaceful. One minute you’re jostling past a string of glass shops; the next minute you’re walking alongside a canal accompanied only by a few fat pigeons.
10. Splurge on a Gondola Ride or a Water Taxi Ride (or Both!)
Of course it’s touristy to take a gondola ride. It’s also expensive (80 euros for an hour during the day and 100 euros for an hour at night). But where else in the world can you settle back on worn cushions with tacky gold tassels and glide through water inches from your trailing fingertips in a craft designed hundreds of years ago and piloted by a hunky Italian guy in a striped shirt and bronzely muscled arms? That’s right – nowhere else except Venice. I never got tired of watching the gondoliers expertly guide the silent black prows under low bridges and out into the choppy waters of the Grand Canal.
At sunset, several gondolas packed with smiling, camera popping tourists often backed up along quiet side canals. Occasionally, one of the gondolas carried a singer and accordion player belting out Italian arias, deep voices and wheezing chords amplified by the narrowness of the canals.
On this trip, we did not splurge for a gondola ride (although we have in the past) and instead enjoyed a speedy water taxi ride to the Tronchetto parking garage on our last morning in Venice. Although minute for minute, the water taxi ride costs more than a gondola ride, it is arguably more exciting and much classier. The sleek wooden boats with their powerful growling engines are straight out of a 1950’s caper movie. I wanted to sheath my hair in a white scarf and don large sunglasses in imitation of Audrey Hepburn. We paid 60 euros for a ride that lasted about ten minutes but it was worth every cent.