Venice is one of those cities where plans should only be made very very loosely. The beauty is wandering around the back streets, stopping in beautiful campi for a coffee or glass of wine (or Aperol Spritz…) and absorbing yourself in this unique and beautiful city. However if you do want to follow a flexible itinerary, here are a few tips and suggestions:
Using the waterbus
Venice is generally a walkable city but when you want to take a canalside view of the buildings without paying a pretty penny for a gondola, a vaporetto (water bus) is a great way of getting around. The cost of a single ticket is obscenely high (7 euro per person) so I’d definitely invest in a multi-day pass if you’re planning on using the water bus half a dozen times or more – our three day pass was 40 euro per person, and we more than got our money’s worth. There are ticket offices (biglietteria) at most of the major vaporetto points, including outside the railway station, and also easy-to-use touch screen machines. They can also be bought on board from the attendant, but try and purchase before you board where possible. All tickets must be validated using the electronic readers at the entrance of each stop, even when a multi-day ticket is used.
There are maps and timetables at each stop; some have different stops for different directions; others use the same stop so make sure you take note of the destination board displayed on each boat and make sure you board the right one. Although going the wrong way can provide an interesting diversion (particularly if you have a multi-day pass and haven’t wasted 7 euro) – and if you get the No 2 in the wrong direction, it’s a circular route so you will arrive at your destination eventually!
You can download route maps and timetables in a PDF format from the ACTV website: http://actv.avmspa.it/en/content/water-bus-service-timetable-0
St Marks’ Square (Piazza San Marco)
Pigeons. Expensive cafes with orchestras. Sellers trying to scam tourists. A basilica, a bell tower and a palace. Lots and lots of tourists, but this is Venice’s most famous piazza, and thus must be on any tourist’s itinerary.
You can visit the 11th century St Mark’s Basilica, the 98.6 metre high campanile, and the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale). There are also a number of museums – Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. A combined ticket can be purchased for Doge’s Palace and the museums for 19 euros. There are also guided “Secret Itineraries” and “Hidden Doge’s Treasure” tours which can be pre-booked online. These usually run once or twice a day and have limited numbers so make sure you book well in advance if you specifically want to take one of these tours.
The basilica itself is free of charge, but there is a small charge for St Mark’s museum, Pala d’oro and the treasury within. The campanile is 8 euro. If you want to visit the basilica, expect long queues – best times to go are first thing in the morning, or at lunchtime. You can pre-book to avoid the queues (2 euro) but you will be tied into a particular timeslot.
San Giorgio Maggiore
With a waterbus in the right direction, it’s a short journey across from St Mark’s to Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore. You can take a lift to the top of the bell tower of la chiesa for a couple of euro for breathtaking panoramic views back across St Mark’s Square.
Rialto Bridge (ponte de Rialto)
The Rialto Bridge – when not half covered in scaffolding – is one of Venice’s most photographed structures, and also provides a handy crossing-point over the Grand Canal between the San Marco and San Polo sestieres. The bridge houses small shops on each side mainly selling jewellery and souvenirs. There are exterior steps though (again, when not blighted by restoration and construction work) which give fine views of the busy canal traffic passing beneath.
San Polo district
Crossing the Rialto leads to San Polo (St Pauls) district, the smallest of Venice’s six sestieri. It’s a maze of alleyways, lanes and campi, and home to the Rialto fruit, vegetable and fish markets. It’s also home to scores of backstreet bacari where you can mingle with locals drinking spritz and eating cichetti – a Venetian form of tapas.
Campo San Barnaba / Campo Santa Margherita
These squares can be found in the Dorsoduro district of Venice. The large and leafy Campo Santa Margherita is a hub of restaurants, bars and fresh produce stalls, and a popular meeting place for students from the local Universita Ca’Foscari. A five minute walk along Rio Terà Canal and across the canal brings you to the smaller but lively Campo San Barnaba. The square has appeared in a number of famous movies, most notably “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” where la chiesa doubled up as a library.
The Dorsoduro district also houses the impressive Basillica of Santa Maria della Salute, the Zattere quay and Gallerie dell’Accademia. The area is not far from the well-beaten tourist track, but is still a refuge from the crowds and the chance to sample a little local life.
Zattere is a wide waterfront promenade running the length of the south side of Dorsoduro, facing the island of Giudecca. It provides another break from the bustling crowds, although be aware that there is not much shade during the afternoon.
Take the vaparetto 2 or 4.1 over to the largely residential island of Giudecca, south of the central islands of Venice. Walk along the promenade, grab a waterside spritz and marvel at the Venice skyline from across the Canale della Giudecca. You’re still technically in Venice but it feels like a world apart. And you can see the Chiesa del Redentore up close that you no doubt admired during your earlier walk along Zattere.
Exploring further afield… the Venetian lagoon islands
Although you can book a guided tour to the lagoon islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello, it is really easy to do it alone – all you need is a waterbus ticket and you’re good to go! The 4.1 goes to Murano, and the no 12 visits all three islands. You can get no 12 from Fondamenta Nuove on the north of Venice.
Murano is the biggest of these three major islands of the Northern Lagoon. It still retains a sense of a small village where the main pastimes are fishing and glass-blowing. In fact you’ll almost certainly be shepherded into a glass factory/shop as soon as you get off the boat…it’s not mandatory and feel free to say no and escape (like we did!). But you’ll want to bring back some Murano glass trinket as a souvenir, and there are plenty of shops lining the canal. The no 12 waterbus from Faro will take you on your 30 minute journey to Burano.
Imagine that a rainbow exploded and shed its colours all over a cute town. That’s Burano. Burano is full of handmade lace shops, bridges and canals, but it’s the eye-poppingly coloured houses that are the main attraction, all with their brightly coloured shutters, fluttering curtains and beautiful window displays. Every alleyway and back street reveals another visual treat with tiny courtyard gardens and proof that the violently contrasting coloured frontages are not just on show for the tourists.
We didn’t get time to go to Torcello, but this island is mainly famed for its Byzantine mosaics in a cathedral surrounded by grass and marshland. There are less than 100 residents on Torcello, and it is largely abandoned, and thus less of a tourist draw than its thriving, brightly coloured neighbours.
St Mark’s Square by night
So by day its pigeons, lots of tourists standing around and sellers trying to scam tourists. At night some of those things still exist (the selfie stick/birdseed sellers now try and sell roses and little LED toys that you flick high up in the air for hours, minutes, seconds of fun) but its somehow transported into a magical fairy-tale place full of music and white-jacketed waiters delivering ridiculously priced drinks.
If you can get over the fact that it costs €6 just to sit down* at one of the St Mark’s Square famous cafes, and you won’t get any change from €30 for two drinks, then embrace the atmosphere and enjoy the dueling orchestras at Caffè Florian, Quadri or Lavena. Or hang out for free in the square or on the steps and get a free show from each of the orchestras in turn! Dancing is also free and heartily encouraged.
*If you are going to pay for a seat, choose your timing carefully. You don’t want to sit down only to find that the orchestra are going off on a half hour break… the orchestras tend to stagger their breaks so observe and choose your café of choice carefully. €6 is good value for top-class musicians, not so much for half an hour staring at an empty stage listening to distant muffled music from one of the neighbouring cafés…
So, this isn’t a fully exhaustive guide to Venice’s attractions by any means; this is based on what we got up to in two and a half days, where we were extremely lucky with the beautiful June weather meaning we could spend most of our time outside in the sunshine. We’re not particularly ones for visiting galleries and museums (although we made exceptions for Florence!) so this may not suit the culture vultures! If you’ve been to Venice, what have we missed off the must-see and do list?