We see Venice in the news for its Carnival, for its romanticised atmosphere of historical buildings, for its glorious network of canals, for its connection to Marco Polo and less glamorously for the flooding of its central areas on a now frequent basis.
Well if you do see any of this and are thinking of going there, then do it as soon as you can. This glorious city, set in the middle of a vast lagoon and transversed by a myriad of wide and narrow canals, is one of the most wondrous places to explore.
So, what is there to see in Venice?
The list of places to see in Venice is long but up there at the top must be St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s Basilica, the Campanile, Rialto bridge, the Bridge of Sighs and the Grand Canal.
Then just throw in a plethora of baroque churches, highly decorated 15-18th Century palaces, Museums of all types (from glass to paintings), gondola rides, island visiting and of course – ice cream! Now you have an exhaustive list of places that will keep you walking – Venice is completely pedestrianised – for hours or even days if you want to see it all.
Whenever I speak of Venice, I usually get envious looks from those who have not been here yet. They have an image, rightly or wrongly, of a glamourous city, full of charm and history. I strangely don’t get the same reaction if I mention many other places in Europe that are my personal favourites. There are other world cities that have extensive canal systems. I have written about them on my website so check there for further info – St Petersburg in Russia and Amsterdam in the Netherlands for example – but Venice seems to be top of the list for “canal cities”.
Clearly everyone has their own vision of Venice and the only way to get a reality check on what it’s truly like is to actually go there yourself and experience it.
Flying into Venice? Then check which airport is best for Venice
Venice has two airports – Marco Polo and Mestre (Canova). Both are connected to the island of Venice by transport links but Marco Polo is by far the best with a bus, express coach and water boat both link directly to the centre or berths on the island. Marco Polo Airport is 13 miles and 25 mins away from Venice by direct bus on Line 5 or 35 from outside the airport terminal. It also has a water boat station for links to the island too.
Treviso/Canova airport is 27 miles away and used mainly by budget airlines. Whilst it has bus/train links to Venice they are not so convenient and take more time. There is also a direct bus service to Venice but even this takes just over an hour.
Check out the prices to both airports and choose which is best for you.
Where to stay in Venice?
Get to know your geography of Venice before booking accommodation. Outlying areas like Lido, Mestre and Burano are actually far away and not so well connected to the island of Venice. They will involve public transport (think cost and time!) and are awkward to get from early morning or late eve. They are also not as pretty as Venice island itself.
The outlying areas have the advantage of being much cheaper, and more modern. That can be a big draw for many – it was for me – and if you can live with the travel to and from Venice, then that is a great choice.
I have a great value for money recommendation to look.
Central Venice hotels are much more expensive as they carry the prestige of actually being on the island and often a short walk away from the attractions. They are often in older buildings, have more charm and sometimes offer a special view. If you need luxury then The Gritti Palace or Danieli are your choices for ultra-luxury at a high price tag.
Remember, however, Central Venice hotels are often very old and thus may be dated, garishly ornate (a typical Venetian design!) and smaller. You may want the charm of a 17th century feel with a canal-side view but this too can have its pros, as well as cons as the noise from nearby restaurants and bars, can be intrusive.
Also, remember that Venice island is uniquely pedestrianised – and it is a big island! You won’t be able to hail a cab or catch a bus on the island for that walk home so check if there is a water bus stop nearby. Don’t get caught with a great hotel but exhaustive walking to get to the sights each day!
Find a list of competitive accommodation options at the best prices
St Mark’s Square and Basilica, Venice
This is a huge square – actually it is L shaped just to be precise and cannot fail to impress.
Its symmetry was unexpected and the long covered walkways an unexpected surprise. Lots of restaurants and bars, some usual tourist shops and a few average shops are here. In Summer the restaurants spill out onto the Square itself which somewhat intrude into the public space. People watching is clearly a favourite pastime here and who doesn’t want a selfie with the Basilica behind them while clutching an Aperol aperitif at the restaurant table!
The big St Mark’s Basilica, stands at the corner of the square, in all its glory, with its many domes and intricate statued roofline. It usually sports a huge long queue snaking from its entrance across one part of the square. To get in, there is no other way than to join it and spend the usual 30 mins wait in Summer. Let me warn you now that apparently there is always a long, long queue.
Top Tip: One smart way to avoid losing precious tourist time is to purchase a Skip the line entrance pass before visiting.
Really old interior with lots of iconography and paintings are actually smaller than expected for such a famous venue. Frustratingly, photography and talking are not allowed inside. The guards will regularly bark “no photos” and often Shush people who are talking. Weird but true! However – I snuck a few pics like everyone else when the attendants were out of sight. There is a set route around the interior which is crowded, full of line jumpers and frustratingly slow and unnatural. Bear with it as this is the only way to see the interior – treat it as a challenge!
Freedom comes when you reach the upper area where there are no attendants and you can move naturally. The best part, however, is going to the roof to look over the square and witnessing the massive horse statues and domes above you. Here you can get great shots of the Renaissance era clock tower to the right and in front of you is the imposing Campanile with its unusual red brick facades.
On one side are the views down the face of the square towards the water edge and the view of the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, overlooking the entrance/landing quay of St Mark’s Square. You get a full-length shot of the side of the Doge’s Palace with its intersecting arches and the National Library opposite.
Doge’s Palace, Venice.
This is possibly the highlight of a trip to Venice. It may take 40 mins to queue to get in but, in my view, the wait is definitely worth it.
Personally, if you are in Venice for a couple of days then I again strongly suggest you pre-purchase the skip the line pass. Better still if you know you are going to visit both here and St Mark’s Basilica purchase the combo pass and skip both lines. You will have then saved 2 plus hours of just waiting in line.
The Doge’s Palace dates from the 10th century and is an eclectic mix of architectural styles side by side. The Palace was constantly added to and amended with the latest building fashion. In the big marbled entrance courtyard, the buildings can be anything from the 10 to 18th century.
The interiors are richly lavish with painted walls and ceiling that are over-the-top ornate. The feeling can be somewhat religious in some rooms due to the church inspired decorations and was clearly meant to impress.
The wooden wall panels are an artwork in themselves. Intricately painted with figures, scenes and semi-religious works. Gold is a dominant colour and biblical and battle scenes dominate but there is a real lack of furniture or accessories to the rooms. They can thus often feel huge and imposing and even overwhelming.
Room after room of intricate and ornate designs are on the walkway through the Palace but one place everyone wants to get to is the Bridge of Sighs. You get to actually walk over the bridge that everyone photographs from the outside and take a peek through the small windows at everyone gawping up at you!.
Why is it called the Bridge of “sighs”?
Why is it called “sighs”? – well, legend has it, apparently because of the sighs let out by prisoners when walking over it, knowing they were heading to incarceration on the other side! You even get to go inside a prison cell and experience the darkness yourself.
This ends the tour through the Palace but once outside head for the quayside nearby. Whilst the architecture of the square itself is imposing don’t forget to take in the view across the waterway moorings of the gondolier station towards the Island and Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. These are beautiful and picturesque while also showing you another view of a skyline like no other in the world. You are now looking across the Grand Canal – it looks like a small estuary with its waves lapping the quayside and the flurry of gondolier activity. The opposite side of the Grand Canal houses the Basilica di Santa Maria Della Salute, another majestic building worthy of a visit. I did not get there on this trip, so again it’s on the list for the next one.
Booking a gondolier ride in advance saves a lot of time when seeing Venice in a short period.
Bridge of Sighs, Venice.
So you want a photo of the Bridge of Sighs from the outside by the Doge’s Palace, Venice? Well, like thousands of other tourists you will have to fight to get to the front of the area that faces it. I joined what felt like a crowd from a football match in its size. Step by step you slowly make your way to the viewing bridge over the canal opposite the bridge.
You gradually move towards the front and then have a brief moment to capture a picture before the sheer weight of the crowd moves you on. The crowds were overwhelming – I hate huge throngs of people – but you just have to grit your teeth and join in the melee if you want that photo.
Rialto Bridge, Venice,
What I encountered was a crowded bridge with people almost queueing to get onto the bridge. Just not what I was expecting. It is much more solid in look and feel than the elegant, elaborate bridge that I was expecting. For some reason, I was expecting something more historical and open to the water on both sides but the unexpected plethora of shops actually on the bridge caught me off guard.
I walked along part of the bridge, but yet again got caught up in a slow-moving mass of people that took the edge off the visit. So I decided, therefore, to admire it from afar and went down to the quayside nearby and got the view that I was expecting and my long-anticipated photos.
It is an imposing-looking bridge that is quite different from the surrounding buildings. It did look a little out of place…. but then this is Venice so be prepared for many, many different styles of architecture. The crowds spoilt it for me as at one point I could not move either way and it became claustrophobic. You just have to soldier on and do what must be done to see this world-famous structure, however.
Check out some tour options that head to the most famous areas of Venice.
Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice,
This is a square often missed out by tourists as it is not on the beaten track. It is a square that in any other city would be a major attraction in itself …. but in Venice, it has to compete with so much that it kinda gets overlooked. The Campo San Giovanni e Paolo is majestic and decorative with striking buildings that were resplendent in different architectural styles. Here is housed the intricately carved Scuola Grande di San Marco and next door the huge Gothic-styled Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The past Doges, all 25 of them, are buried here – a rather less grand affair than the palace they all lived in!
The square has a huge statue in the middle and lots of open-air restaurants and cafes around it. On my visit, the eateries were packed (it was lunchtime) so get here early if you want to get a seat and soak up the ancient atmosphere of this resplendent square. It is also a Gondolier embarkation point – clearly attracted by the diners wanting a lift home!
Remember to try and book in advance if possible a gondolier ride.
Walking through Venice
As I said, you will have to walk a lot in Venice’s pedestrianised streets and alleyways. Crossing the small bridges and looking down the narrow waterways evoke views of history from the hundreds of years old crumbling walls of buildings knarled from the waters. I came to realise that this decaying state was normal and just gave a hint to how difficult it is to upkeep buildings that are actually built into the water. The decay, however, gave an atmosphere of history and mystery.
I walked through several small, what can only be called alleyways but are actually important thoroughfares. I went past old shops selling artisan masks and costumes and was lead along passageways and small quaysides more reminiscent of small villages and forgotten docklands.
Gondolas will come into view every now and a while, silently slipping through the waters. If you get one passing with an architecturally interesting building in the backdrop you have a ready-made photo opportunity. I took many atmospherical photos of the decaying old buildings, silent canal water and a solitary peaceful boat meandering past.
Decrepit or atmospheric – view on the buildings of Venice.
It was at first shocking to see the decrepit state of some of the houses on the canals and the worn, cracking and roughed up brickwork and stucco, but after a while, it becomes the norm.
If you are planning a walking trip around Venice you will enjoy the views and sights on the way, as without car traffic, there is only the people traffic. You will simply wander down many stone-flagged walkways, passing lots of tourist bars, restaurants, gift shops, ice cream parlours and small grocery shops, up and over canal bridges and occasionally stop to admire a view down the length of a waterway. The crowds can be very heavy and at times you have to go at the pace of the multitude. Overtaking or speeding up is impossible with these numbers.
Take into consideration when moving around that your pace is slow because of the crowds ahead of you. Venice is considering limiting the numbers of people who can visit per day (and I totally understand why) and introducing an entrance fee. This is definitely one location of over-tourism in the world.
Gondola Station, Bacino Orseolo
So, you wonder where all the gondoliers are based? A bit like every city has a central bus station, Venice has its central Gondolier station. Visitors queue at the quayside and like a shuttle system, gondolas arrive, pick up/drop off passengers. The basin can be noisy with the gondoliers shouting at each other in their efforts to avoid collisions and move the masses on. It contained the biggest numbers of gondolier boats I had ever seen. It was indeed a hub with many people waiting to get on/off and the boats circling in a big circular canal basin as they entered then left.
San Michele Island and Cemetery
The huge island cemetery of San Michele island is where the composer Igor Stravinsky is laid to rest and many come to the island for that reason only. There is not much more to see here, as it is a cemetery for the city in the middle of the lagoon, with a church and graveyards and some houses. Looking from the water, it has high brick walls and turrets and even looks fortified. I gave it a miss due to time constraints but it is on the list to see for my next visit.
Water ambulances and canal-side hospital!
Ok, something unique to Venice – ever seen a water ambulance? Me neither until Venice. Here I saw one, speeding along the canal, siren blasting and then whizzing into the entrance of the hospital via a side canal. The patient was then whisked out via a rampart and off it went again. Nearby was the ambulance park – full of speedboat like ambulances – amazing – but their roads are canals after all! …. only in Venice can you probably see this!
Murano Glass on Murano Island.
The world-famous Murano glass is made in various factories on the nearby island of Murano. A water boat ride to the island is easy and the island itself is pretty gorgeous. The island is a real alternative to the island of Venice. It has a Tuscany style piazza, complete with a small commemorative statued garden with an old church from the 14th Century opposite its campanile and a bridge over the canal.
Throughout the island are glass sculptures donated to the public areas by the glass companies and lend a real artistic and modern air to what is a very historical place. Get your tickets online for the glass factories where they show glass being made, styling, blowing and design. Of course, the opportunity to buy something of what you have just seen is also possible.
The brightly coloured houses in canal settings – often seen on postcards – are a feature of the island. There are cafes and eateries galore and some pretty seating areas with canal and moored boats that offer views overlooking old buildings. On a warm day this island is a real retreat from the hectic and cramped Venice island, so give it a try even if just for an hour or two.
Grab an organised tour and see the best parts of Murano Island in the least amount of time
So, Venice ticked off the list of places I have always wanted to visit!
Did I enjoy it! Yes and no.
What did I like – Absolutely loved the architecture, impressive buildings and the unique atmosphere that Venice (and for me Murano Island) create. Loved the water boats that people take just like we take buses, Loved the feeling that I was on an island in a lagoon and there was water all around me.
What didn’t I like – The massive, overwhelming crowds that at times become choking in their density. Also the crumbling state of many waterside buildings that seemed to be lacking in maintenance in a world-famous setting.
However don’t let anything detract you from getting here – it has to be seen to be appreciated. It might not be around forever with the rising water levels the world is now facing so now is the time to visit!
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Organise Your Trip: Travel Advice and Tricks I Personally Use
Book Your Flight
Heading to either Skyscanner or Momondo are my methods of choice for this. They are my favourite as they search for flights from different companies all over the world. You can filter the results to suit your needs and ensure you land the best price every-time.
Book Your Accommodation
This is an important part of any holiday you’re going on. Read all the reviews and get the right accommodation via TripAdvisor. They even show you the best prices available at the time for that room from suppliers like Booking.com.For booking a hostel your best bet is to start with HostelWorld or possible even use CouchSurfing if you’re on a real budget.
- Find the best hotels at the cheapest prices in Venice
- If you want a cheaper option I highly suggest staying here and commuting into Venice each morning
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel Insurance is a must these days so you have a piece of mind you’re covered for anything that could go wrong while on your trip. I now never go on a trip away without travel insurance. I’ve been using World Nomads for the past few years.
My favourite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (little more expensive but covers everything)
- SafetyWing (cheaper option to just cover you for health issues)
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
As I have been travelling frequently over the last few years I’ve learnt some great tools to use for saving money when travelling. I have a travel resource page that lists all the trusted companies I personally use and rely on. I think you will find them good as well.
- Find the latest prices on your flights to Venice
The Best Place To Book Your Tours
If you are someone you likes to have the best tours in one place and read reviews from other travellers about their personal experiences of each different tour then the best platform to use is GetYourGuide.
They offer the best tours, have money-back offers in case your trip is cancelled and ensure the price of each tour is the lowest possible.
- Find all your time saving skip the line tickets here. You will literally save hours and only spend a fraction more. What is your time worth on holidays?
- While visiting Venice is a must in itself there is an amazing day trip to the Dolomite Mountains that I can’t speak highly enough of. Well worth it if you have the time.
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