Of all the cities in the world, only Paris comes remotely close to matching Venice in terms of sheer beauty and romance. You’ve seen it in photos and films, but there’s no substitute for the reality — the shimmering Grand Canal, the gondolas slipping down watery alleyways, the elegant palazzos emerging straight from the sea.
Venice once ruled the Mediterranean as a shipping power, amassing vast wealth and producing some of Europe’s greatest artistic and cultural treasures. But over the centuries Venice has declined a bit and now has less than half the population it had at its peak. (It’s also literally declining: the watery city is sinking up to two millimeters per year.) What remains of its former grandeur — the crumbling palaces, the sumptuous art in its museums and churches, the fantastic rituals of Carnevale — makes Venice a living tribute to the past.
Aside from a number of charming squares, such as the famous Piazza San Marco, Venice mostly comprises a warren of narrow canals and streets spread over more than 100 islands. These tangled passageways are an attraction among themselves. There are few better cities to simply get lost in, particularly if you want to escape the tourist hordes that clog the main arteries around San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.
So once you’ve seen the major sights, fold up your map and set off on foot. You’ll discover pretty, residential neighborhoods with colorful flowerboxes in the windows and clean laundry billowing in the breeze. You’ll discover tiny trattorias where the locals enjoy the catch of the day. And, away from the vaporetti (water taxis) and motorboat traffic on the Grand Canal, you’ll discover one more pleasure of this place, aptly dubbed La Serenissima — the unexpected quiet of a city without cars.
Piazza San Marco: According to Napoleon, this gracious plaza was Europe’s first drawing room. It’s a huge piazza surrounded by the Basilica di San Marco, the Torre dell’Orologio clock tower and the arcade of Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove. The basilica is the primary tourist attraction; plan to wait in line during high season. It dates back to 1094 and represents a range of architectural styles, such as Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance. (Note: You will be denied entry to this and many other Italian churches if your attire is deemed inappropriate — be sure your knees and shoulders are covered. Also, backpacks are not permitted; they will be checked and stored in a separate area before you enter the church.)
Also check out the Bell Tower, a 324-foot structure originally built in the 10th century. It had to be rebuilt early in the 20th century when it completely collapsed. Climb to the top for a great city view. Almost as much of a Piazza tradition is a visit to one of the square’s two famous cafes — Caffe Florian (the oldest in Venice) and Ristorante Gran Caffe Quadri. Their outside tables offer fabulous people-watching; just be prepared for the lofty prices.
Incidentally, San Marco is as big an attraction for pigeons as it is for people — you may want to wear a hat.
Art galleries abound in Venice. The best-known include Gallerie dell’Accademia, featuring Venetian art from the 14th to 18th centuries, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for contemporary masterpieces and sculpture. Guggenheim was an American who resided in the Palazzo; she and her dogs are buried out back in the sculpture garden. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco features the work of Venetian artist Tintoretto (and also requires backpacks to be checked and stored in a separate area upon arrival).
The Venetian equivalent of a superhighway, the S-shaped Grand Canal runs through the heart of the city. It offers fabulous views of palazzos that date back to the 12th century and line the waterway. The best way to traverse the Grand Canal is via vaporetto, line #1. The Grand Canal also divides the city, in a way; the east side contains most of the best-known tourist attractions (San Marco Square, et al.), while the western part is generally more residential, boasting wonderful trattorias and local shops. Pedestrians can cross over the canal in just three places: Rialto Bridge, Accademia Bridge and Scalzi Bridge.
Venice’s lovely cathedrals and churches are too numerous to count; among the highlights (besides the basilica) are Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (Campo dei Frari, San Polo), a huge 14th/15th-century Gothic church, and the 17th-century Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (Punta della Dogana, Dorsoduro).
Yes, it’s the ultimate touristy thing to do, but a gondola ride is also incredibly romantic (particularly at sunset). And it offers a different perspective of Venice — from the water, along tiny canals, where vaporetti cannot go. Gondolas typically take anywhere from two to six people, and you pay per trip, not per person. The ride lasts anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes. Negotiate the rate before you get in, and plan to shell out 80 – 100 euros, depending on the time of day (it’s typically most expensive after 7 p.m). If you’re willing to splurge, request an accordion player and/or singer to join you on the ride.
First-timers who are interested in glass-making should trek to the island of Murano. (Boats run on a regular schedule from Piazza San Marco.) You can see the process and technique of glass-making, and there’s a gift shop. Although you don’t have to go to Murano to buy glass made there (numerous shops and galleries sell it, but beware of knock-off suppliers), for the best selection — from traditional to quite contemporary pieces — you really should venture to the island.
A bit farther afield is the charming island village of Burano, known for its brightly colored houses and its exquisite handmade lace. (Note: These days, not all lace for sale there is made locally; be sure to ask before buying.) A Lace Museum (Museo del Merletto) is there if you want to learn a bit more about the art and history of lace-making. And don’t worry if your Italy trip doesn’t include a stop in Pisa — Burano’s campanile, or bell tower, has its own distinct tilt.
Giudecca, an island facing Venice (so you get gorgeous views), is where wealthy Venetians built their residences and where many locals have settled, as Venice itself has become tourist-clogged and expensive. Check out Chiesa del Redentore, built in the 16th century.
The Lido, serviced by the vaporetti and fronting both the Venice Lagoon and the Adriatic sea, is Venice’s beach island. It’s a great place to escape the summer heat between May and September. Several beaches charge fees for admittance and amenities, such as cabanas.
Want to pilot your own gondola? Take a lesson with Row Venice. A 90-minute lesson on rowing — Venetian-style — offers not just a great excuse to get out on the water but also an introduction into a distinctive local tradition. Learn more.
Between its proximity to the sea and its long history of fine cuisine, Venice is a great place to get an unforgettable meal, particularly a fresh seafood dinner. If you’re looking for quick, cheap eats, pizzerias abound; or you can seek out a Venetian specialty — tramezzini, crustless triangular sandwiches that you’ll find in just about any bar or cafe. For a more luxurious dinner out, you’ll find plenty of excellent seafood restaurants serving up the catch of the day.
Tip: For fish dishes, many menus list the price per 100 grams rather than the full price of the dish; ask your server to clarify what your meal will cost before ordering.
Considering its location just a five-minute walk from the famous Rialto fish market, it’s no surprise that seafood is a particular specialty at Osteria Antico Giardinetto — think pumpkin gnocchi with scampi and red chicory or cuttlefish in ink sauce with polenta. The atmosphere is warm and romantic too.
Traditional Venetian dishes are on the menu at La Caravella — like Venetian-style fish soup, oven-roasted turbot with potatoes and olives, and homemade pasta with duck ragout. The courtyard is a lovely spot for a meal when the weather is warm.
A favorite among locals rather than tourists, the cozy Ristoteca Oniga has a menu of seafood, meats and pastas that change daily and reflect the philosophy of the Slow Food movement, which is all about taking your time to savor each meal. Bring your phrasebook — the menu is all in Italian.
You’ll find delicious, affordable pizzas and pastas at Al Nono Risorto (Santa Croce 2337). If the weather is pleasant, sit outside in the attractive garden courtyard. Word of mouth for this restaurant is growing and it can be very busy on weekends and in the summer.
It’s worth the trip to Giudecca to enjoy a meal at the fabulous Belmond Hotel Cipriani. (The hotel offers a free water shuttle from Piazza San Marco.) At lunchtime, eat at the poolside restaurant. For dinner, try the Cip’s Club, an outdoor pizzeria-grill with tables that sit on a deck right on the lagoon. Tip: Reservations for the Cip’s Club absolutely need to be made in advance.
There’s also a branch of the famed Harry‘s (where the Bellini was invented) on Giudecca. While it’s breathtakingly expensive (think 25 euros for the iconic drink, and 34 euros for a pasta entree), the food is marvelous, the ambience is authentically Venetian and fellow diners are mostly locals.
Just outside of La Fenice Opera House, Antico Martini is perfect for a pre- or post-show meal. The fancy yet cozy restaurant serves delicious four-course meals (though you’ll pay a pretty penny to enjoy them). Try the gnochetti and reserve a table in the patio room.
Cross the Rialto Bridge to the Erberia (vegetable market) and Pescheria (fish market). Aside from a plethora of fresh food, you’ll find a few eateries in this area, including pop-up outdoor buffets (eat seafood and enjoy a glass of wine for just 10 euros) and Casa del Parmigiano (Palace of Parmesan), which offers a wide variety of cheeses (though the Parmesan truly is the best).
For a unique experience in Venice, plan a chichetti crawl. Similar to tapas, chichetti are small meals (think meats, cheeses and breads) enjoyed inside (or outside, if you prefer) at local bars. We recommend chichetti at Cantinone Gia’ Schiavi and All’Arco.
For a good happy hour and a perfect view of Rialto Bridge, Taverna del Campiello Remer offers an affordable buffet and drink special.
Shopping in Venice
Venice is best known for its Carnevale masks, Murano glass and Burano lace. Glass objects in particular make great souvenirs and range from inexpensive glass necklaces sold on the street to elaborate barware and chandeliers. If you’re a non-E.U. citizen, keep your receipts; Italy’s 20 percent value added tax (VAT) can be refunded at customs when you depart.
The main shopping district in Venice runs along the Mercerie between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. This is where you’ll find high-end designers like Gucci and Louis Vuitton — but if you’re on a bit more of a budget, check out the less expensive boutiques between San Polo and the Rialto Bridge. The shopping opportunities continue on nearby Frezzeria and Calle dei Fabbri.
Art lovers should visit the Galleria d’Arte l’Occhio, which showcases the work of young Italian and international artists. It’s located near the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
You can buy glass anywhere in Venice, but the best selection (and sometimes better prices) are to be found at the source on the island of Murano. More importantly, it’s here that you can visit the workshops where the glassware is made. The best known glassmaker in the city is Venini, which produces exquisite (and pricey) works of art.
Burano is the place to go for lace, but be warned — much of the less expensive lace sold here is not produced here at all, but rather in Asia (unfortunately, even in Burano, those who make lace by hand are a dying breed). One place to get the real deal is Dalla Lidia, which offers a variety of table linens, bed sheets and other items.
Even if you don’t buy anything, you won’t want to miss a morning trip to the Rialto fish market to watch the locals examining the day’s catch. The market is open every morning except Sundays and Mondays.
–written by Carolyn Spencer Brown and Sarah Schlichter; updated by Amanda Geronikos