There’s a good reason that Venice is considered by many to be the most beautiful and romantic city in the world. With its rich culture, stunning architecture, gondolas, 180 canals, 450 bridges, magnificent museums, and historical landmarks, it’s truly a sight to behold.
Venice also boasts beautiful town squares, winding little cobbled streets, fabulous shopping opps, mouth-watering food, and, unfortunately — the two downsides — hoards of tourists and a very high price point.
If you want to absorb all the marvels of Venice it’s impossible to avoid the crowds, and splash the cash, but it’s also possible to minimize both, and we’ll show you how with our Venice — Ultimate Guide to a wondrous week (or two, or three) in the City of Water.
Just like all of Italy, Venice is big on its coffee culture and there are literally thousands of cafés and bistros dotted all over the city, serving piping hot, thick, strong espressos, and fresh out of the oven zalettis, and pevarinis.
One of the best little coffee shops is the Pasticceria da Bonifacio, squirreled away behind the Doge’s Palace. Despite its proximity to the tourist hotspot, the beautiful and tiny little café, with its stunning and intricate crazy-paving mosaic flooring, is a locals’ hangout and thankfully relatively free of foreigners.
Gondoliers and Venetians flock to the cozy and quaint bakery to devour its buttery croissants, and pastas con le mandorle (almond slices), and sip on freshly brewed macchiatones — the very Venetian coffee that’s like a cappuccino, but stronger and with less milk. It’s the perfect way to kick off your day or end your night, as when evening falls Bonifacio morphs into a bar, serving Venice’s signature prosecco cocktail, spritz, and nibbles such as mammalucchi (deep-fried batter balls with candied fruit).
Oh, and the biggest plus? You’ll pay local prices, so it gives you real bang for your euro too. Ka-Ching!
Go with the mass flow
Like we said, sometimes you just have to take it on the tourist chin and brave the crowds, because some things in Venice just have to be seen. St. Mark’s Basilica and Palazzo Ducale are two of them, and unfortunately, they draw the largest throngs, for a reason.
Basilica di San Marco is the dramatic and breathtaking home of the mausoleum that holds the remains of Venice’s patron Saint, Mark. Consecrated in 832 and constructed in 829 — now THAT’S history folks — the city’s towering “mother church” is the first emblem of Venice’s Byzantine origin. There are ornate crosses, shrines, stained glass windows, and cupolas aplenty. The intricately mosaic-studded, gold-plated interior is absolutely stunning, placing even Donald Trump’s gaudy NYC penthouse firmly in the shade.
Although the Basilica doesn’t open to tourists until 9.45 am, all and sundry are welcome to attend the daily morning services, which run from 7 am till 9 am. If you want to really experience St. Mark’s in all its glory, attend the 9 am Sung Lauds mass on Sundays — which, to any heathens out there, means the prayers sung in Latin by the priest, choir, or schola, and lots of holy water is thrown around, allowing for the full old school Catholic experience.
While you’re there, be sure to stop by the fabulous Museum of St Mark’s, to soak up spectacular views of the piazza below.
Palazzo Ducale is quite possibly the most astounding of all secular Gothic buildings. The palace, which was built in 1340, used to be home to a succession of elites who held the title of Doge of Venice. The Doge was elected for life by Venice’s aristocracy and deemed to be the supreme authority of the former Republic.
The plus side of life as a Doge was, obviously, the pomp and luxury they dwelled in. The downside? They were forced by law to spend their entire life inside the Palace complex and Basilica. Palazzo Ducale was turned into a museum in 1923.
Go large or go home
Sadly, it means battling with the inevitable throngs of tourists again, but a visit to Piazza San Marco is another must-do. Luckily, if you’re visiting St. Mark’s then you can combine the two, as San Marco is home to the Basilica and Doges Palace, in addition to the National Archaeological Museum.
Piazza San Marco is Venice’s main public square, as well as the most famous. It’s always busy and buzzing, packed full of tourists and Venetians alike — so, it goes without saying, that as with all crowded tourist spots, keep a close eye on your belongings because it’s a haven for pickpockets.
The square, which is the largest in Venice at 590 ft long by 230 ft wide, was constructed in the ninth century and is considered to be the most exquisite in the world. Napoleon Bonaparte, who probably knew a thing or two about magnificence, being the French Emperor and all that, called Piazza San Marco “the world’s most beautiful drawing-room.”
Whether that was before or after Bonaparte threatened to declare war on Venice, then invaded it anyway with his troops who looted the city and either stole or sunk its entire Navy, leading to the eventual fall of the ancient Republic of Venice, is up for debate
OK, so you could argue that taking a gondolier ride along the Venice canals is akin to a horse and carriage ride around Central Park. However, unlike the latter, the former really is a must-do, seriously, it’s kind of an essential part of a first visit to the city.
A gondolier ride along the Canal Grande will allow you to take in the mother-load of Venice sight-seeing gems, all while kicking back and relaxing in the comfort of your man-powered vaporetto.
[Tourist tip: be sure to snag a seat at either the very front or back of the boat to ensure the best views possible of both banks of the canal.]
Just a few of the memorable and magnificent monuments you’ll get to gaze at as you meander along are: Scalzi Bridge, Fondaco dei Turchi, Ca’ Pésaro, Calatrava Bridge, Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi, Ca’ d’Oro, Palazzo Corner della Regin, Ca’ da Mosto, and Rialto Bridge.
Satiate your wanderlust
Venice is made to just wander around aimlessly and get gloriously lost. One of the best places to do so is the Dorsoduro district. Viewed as being one of the most “authentic” areas of the city, Dorsoduro is artsy, bohemian, and best of all, relatively tourist-free.
Packed full of trendy little bars, cafés, restaurants, art galleries, and quirky unique little shops, it offers a wondrous escape from the hordes and the perfect opportunity to satiate your wanderlust and while away the hours as you absorb Venetian life at its best.
If you’re hankering for a good-old-fashioned Venetian market experience, and to be surrounded by people who, for once, speak nothing but Italian, then make your way to the Rialto.
The sprawling market is one of the liveliest spots in Venice, teeming with locals and packed full of stalls selling fresher than fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish, making it the number one place for pristine produce.
However, if you prefer to buy while you bob, Venice also has two floating markets, in campo San Barnaba and at the far eastern end of via Garibaldi.
Far from the madding crowd
Another great tourist escape trip tip is a visit to the elegant and beautiful residential Sant’Elena district. The little island is way off of the usual sightseeing tour track, located to the extreme east of the city center, in the sestiere of Castello.
Packed full of medieval buildings, and boasting a huge park, lagoon, lido, car-free wide streets, and lush greenery, Sant’Elena allows for a completely different, relaxing, and chilled Venetian experience.
The island is also home to an imposing and amazing Gothic-style, Roman Catholic church, and a slew of cool little bars and restaurants, including the awesome Vincent Bar, the perfect place to experience the “real Venice” while sipping a spritz, people watching, and enjoying the boats slowly chugging across the lagoon.
Goditi la vita!