Venice - The City of Water, Bridges and So Much More!
Venice is unique for so many reasons, not the least of which is the most obvious...it’s all on water. As such, tourists from around the world flock to the floating city by the millions annually (approx 20 million per year actually) meaning that, though absolutely stunning and truly a wonderful place to visit, everything in Venice has become very touristy and very crowded!
I first visited Venice when I was 11 years old and over the last 16 years, it has been amazing to see how much it has drastically changed. Though already commercialised to the point that my grandpa was commenting on the tourism and globalisation back then, at least many of the shops were still filled with Italian designers or boutique stores by product makers from somewhere in Italy. Those stores that differed from this model were generally high end designer stores or cheap imports, but by and large, Venice still felt ‘Italian.’ Don’t get the wrong idea here, despite the comments above, I actually happen to love Venice. I think it has a really cool vibe to it and there is something exciting about the rabbit warren of streets - anything could be around any corner and the more you walk around, the more hidden treasures of ‘the real Venice’ you find. I’ve been back many times since that first visit when I was 11 - often as day trips from other cities, sometimes to stay for a few days, and the same excitement to explore always gets me. Perhaps most unique to Venice is the spectacular view - If you’ve read more around this website you’ll know that I’m a big fan of all things to do with the water so it’s no surprise really that with each look out through Venice, another beautiful water-filled vista makes me really excited. This blog is an amalgamation of all my previous trips to Venice* and will feature things to do that, though I may not have now done them for some years, I would absolutely still recommend to anyone visiting Venice for their first time. I was most recently in Venice only last year and found that there was still so much more that I had to explore. As such, here are my tips to Venice pre 2020 and whenever I next have the opportunity to go back, expect to hear more!
*Note: All photos are my own and have been collated from my trips to Venice from 2012-2019.
Places I’ve Stayed
Most recently I stayed at the Hilton Molino Stucky Venice. Though a little more isolated from the main piazzas and tourist hubs, I loved that this hotel gave us ample opportunity to explore Venice but also to get away from the crowds. I also loved the amenities - the rooftop pool overlooking the canals and beautiful buildings of Venice, and the spa particularly - and the dining options onsite. We ended up eating both breakfast and dinner at the hotel. Breakfast was a buffet, included with our room, and quite extensive in its offerings. The hotel has a few options for dinner which we found really convenient as we didn’t want to get back on a boat to go to and from dinner when the food was so great downstairs. Had we had longer in Venice we would have travelled over for sure as it is definitely easy enough and the hotel does offer both a shuttle boat and a water taxi stand.
On the total opposite end of the pricing spectrum, when I was 18 and travelling with a friend we stayed at the Hotel Orion. Though a 2 star hotel, you could not get a better location for a hotel if you tried - we were literally a 1 minute walk to San Marco Square which was beyond insane - we walked out the front of the hotel and were in the midst of it all!
The hotel, like most hotels in Venice, was old and traditionally fitted in regards to decor. That said, we got pretty lucky and our room (the cheapest one that they were offering) was actually out the back of the main building (not as dodgy as it sounds) and ended up being very large - it was definitely an additional room that I have not since found pictured on the website but we were very lucky to have it because the rooms in our price category should have been very small. Again, you’re paying here for the location and you’re getting it in spades.
I wish I could tell you much about the breakfast though if I’m honest I really don’t remember much of it except that it was in a cute small dining room and we ate whilst speaking to some lovely older couples and made lovely friends with them. I imagine it would have been a rather traditional Italian breakfast of small goods and pastry.
Things To Do
Venice is full of things to do and is a city where there is something for everyone. Here are just a few of the things that I would say are must-do’s. Other things that I would encourage you to look up if they interest you are luxury hotels with amazing restaurants (for example, the Cipriani with Michelin-starred Oro restaurant or the restaurant at the Gritti Palace with the most spectacular view!) or more of the art galleries which I have not put on this list but of which there are many! These are things, and many others, I will definitely be doing on my next trip back to Venice.
I’m going to start with my absolute favourite thing I’ve ever done in Venice...a day trip to Burano.
Burano An island of Venice, Burano is known for its lace but to instagrammers, you probably know it best for the picturesque colourful houses that line the canals of this unique, totally magical little island.
Getting to Burano from Venice is not hard but it does take about 30-60 minutes depending on the mode of transport that you choose. We chose to take a water taxi directly from the Hilton to the island (which we organised at the hotel the night before) and then took a ferry back to Venice’s San Marco Square at the end of our time there before taking the Hilton’s boat back over to the hotel. It will come as no surprise that a water taxi is both a lot faster and pricier but we had a really nice time on the water and really wanted to get there in the morning before the mad crowds arrived so we absolutely were happy with our choices.
Be careful about arriving only around lunch time - this seems to be when the largest amount of tour groups arrive for lunch and then the afternoon on the island. My guess is that many of these tours probably offer a combined day of Murano and Burano excursions and this is when they arrive, meaning that the island does get busy when the big groups arrive. You could choose to stay on the island and to be honest, I did look into this option. I was happy we ended up choosing to stay at the Hilton closer to Venice’s main attractions in the end as I’m not sure that there would be THAT much to do on Burano, though I think if you were really interested in photography or looking for a slower and more relaxing stay, Burano could be a stunning option! I would imagine that at night and early in the morning you would have the island mostly to yourself (with the locals) as it is not so touristy to stay there. We spent our time there walking around the island, enjoying the spectacular views of coloured house after coloured house - it was so unusual to see but so beautiful. I really appreciated how well kept the houses were - the paint is obviously mandated so that the brightness is regulated and the town’s image remains beautiful. And yet, even with this impetus on image, I loved the authenticity of the washing lines hanging outside, the mismatching flower pots in the windows and the front doors to so many of the homes being left open (to cool from the heat I would imagine), allowing us to all hear the family screaming inside or cooking or TV’s blasting. It was so real and so honest - I really loved Burano.
Unfortunately, the planner in me let us down and I must admit, I didn’t really plan much for Burano, assuming that the coloured houses were the stars of the show and I missed an opportunity to book lunch at either of the island’s Michelin rated restaurants - Al Gatto Nero da-Ruggero or Venissa. Based on the lines and the hustle and bustle at these two restaurants as we walked past, I will definitely be booking them next time - lesson learnt!
I have to tell you about this beautiful interaction that I had with a local just before I move onto the next ‘things to do’ item in Venice. Although Murano is known for glass and Burano for lace, Burano has caught onto the fact that more tourists these days are buying glass than lace and they sell Murano glass items by the shop load. We walked past one store that had the most gorgeous little Christmas ornaments outside and I was definitely enticed so in I went to buy the ornaments, only to find an older gentleman sitting by a glass blower in the corner making the pieces by hand. This is not unusual in this region of course, and I cannot even begin to count how many of these glass blowing demonstrations I have been to whilst in the North of Italy, but still, I find the art incredible and he had a lot of pieces in his shop that were so unique that I had to ask if he had made them. With my VERY broken Italian and his even more broken English, we managed to communicate and he told me the story of some of the pieces I was curious about, how his father had taught him this art and his grandfather before that. He had been blowing glass for over 55 years and now his niece ran his shop for him whilst he continued to create the art because he loved it so much. He noticed how much I loved all the fish and made me a little one on the spot as a gift, telling me to video him doing it to show my friends.
I know that this experience is probably one many travellers have had in stores all over Italy but it doesn’t take away from my love of this moment at all. I’m an artist too and so I could totally appreciate the sentiment of just wanting to share that art. I hope that I love my craft with such tenacity and passion just like that after 55 years too. My fish sits on my shelf right opposite my bed - to me, it’s a reminder to always love your work! There are some amazing jewellery shops in Burano, and some clothes stores as well so you may want to factor a bit of shopping time into your time on the island.
And now, some photos because every corner in Burano looked like a postcard so I have about 2 million pictures to share:
Murano is another of the Venetian islands, however this island is best known for its glass and, in particular, for the handblowing of the glass. I haven’t been to Murano as recently as Burano but Murano is definitely easier to reach and therefore, is generally the stop that many like to include during their time in Venice. By vaporetto you can get to Murano from Venice in about 12 minutes as it is only 2km away. Single trips on the vaporetto are 7.50 euro (irrespective of distance) so getting to Murano is definitely easy enough to do.
When in Murano, the main thing to do is to experience a glassblowing demonstration. If you are interested in shopping for particular glassware or products, my recommendation would be to do your research ahead of time because there is an ENORMOUS price difference on identical products between the touristy glass factories and the warehouses that are predominately for production. If you are looking to pick up a souvenir figurine or memento from your trip, I personally wouldn’t bother trekking too far out of the way for the few euro saved on a single item but for bulk buys (eg. a whole set of glasses, etc), and especially things that you plan to ship home, I would definitely say do some research and head to the right place. I haven’t personally bought Murano in bulk to be able to make recommendations here for you I’m sorry but I can tell you that a quick look around will reveal that much like the difference between the menu of a restaurant in a main piazza or in a little street, the prices are clearly different for the same thing.
Doing a tour of the Doge’s Palace should definitely be on your Venice list for a piece of Venice’s history. Built in the Venetian Gothic style, this Palace is one of the main attractions or landmarks of Venice and arguably of the north of Italy. Backing onto the famous San Marco Square, you won’t miss this massive site. The first time I did this tour I did it with a guide and tour group. To be honest, that was a long time ago and when I went more recently I did an audio tour. I can’t remember if that was our choice or if that was the only choice but I know for sure that there are audio tours in multiple languages and you’ll need to just check to see whether there are still guided tours led by people if that is your preference.
** Quick tip: If you’re going to be taking a lot of guided tours on your coming trips, my advice would be to take your own headphones that you can plug in - it is SO much more comfortable when they are headphones that you are already happy wearing regularly as sometimes the ones that they give you can be really uncomfortable! Also, not all of them are disposable and in this Covid through to post-Covid travel landscape, it seems like a really simple thing to avoid - just throw a pair of headphones with a regular connection port in your bag and it will fit 90%+ of audio guides.
Back to the palace. This palace used to be where the Doge of Venice resided and within the Palace, as well as the residences, you can also see where the institutional offices and judicial chambers were. Everything is extremely grand - regal even - and particularly lavish. If you’re a fan of art, this is where you’ll want to go to see the biggest names of Venetian art history. This grand building was practically a Palace and Parliament House in one, or in American terms, the White House, Capitol Hill and Supreme Court put together. Seems pretty efficient really =). The Senate deliberated over financial affairs, sentences were handed out by the criminal courts and if found guilty, there was even a dungeon on site that prisoners would be sent across the Bridge of Sighs and into, awaiting their end.
The Chamber of the Great Council is a particularly amazing room. The first time I went there I was 11 and I remember it feeling enormous. I must admit, returning as an adult, the room still feels so supreme. Within it is the world’s longest canvas painting - 22x7 metres - ‘Il Paradiso’ and portraits of the first 76 Doges...so you can imagine how big this room is to have this kind of wall space! The Doge’s Palace is proof of the Venetian commitment to maintaining status and elitism at a time when Venice could truly be considered a ruling power. An example of this is in the Scrigno Room where a silver book registered all the family members of the noble caste to ensure that nobles and commoners did not marry - this was a law that was formalized in the 16th century. Can you imagine how they would look at the English Royal Family now! (Anyone else love Kate!! I do!)
You can walk over the Bridge of Sighs now too to get a feeling for a) what it may have felt like to know that that was your last glimpse at the world but b) to see what an amazing view that last glimpse was! It’s the best view in Venice!
Okay, I hope that little bit of Venetian history has convinced you to take this tour - it won’t take up your day or anything like that and it is worth checking out these lavish rooms. San Marco Square When you finish at the Doge’s Palace, take some time to really enjoy San Marco Square because for my money, it is one of the most beautiful piazzas in all of Italy. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend having lunch here (touristy food but...I mean the view is worth it) but if you don’t mind the crazy price tag that comes with it, there is no more beautiful place to sit and have a cup of coffee or a Peach Bellini (invented in Venice at Harry’s Bar at the Cipriani) than at one of these cafes/restaurants. Alternatively, if you want to just enjoy the magical view and slew of pigeons and then walk a couple of streets back from the piazza, there are great cafes with less expensive Bellinis and coffees and still the same vibe, just not the view. Ps - if walking back here, keep an eye out for Arancini Balls and when you find really big ones, get one because they are particularly amazing from the counters behind San Marco Square...I just wish I could give you the name of the best one I tasted but alas, too many years have passed. I’ll go hunting for it next time I am there, promise!
Gondola or Vaporetto If you can spend the money, spend the money and get yourself a Gondola for that ultimate Venice experience. It really is as magical as you expect and when you pull through the little canals and then into the Grand Canal, it truly is thrilling. I have loved every minute I have spent in Gondolas. Worth it if it is an option for you for sure!
Another option is to take a Vaporetto which is the ferry service around Venice. My advice is even if you do take a Gondola, still leave time to also do a loop of Venice on a Vaporetto because it can go further, faster and spend more time on the Grand Canal than your Gondola will be able to. A 7.50 euro Vaporetto ticket will get you a single ride (75 mins validity) for any distance so you can do the whole loop. Worth it!
There are also water taxis available all over the city and many hotels and restaurants can call one for you as well.
Redentore Festival If you are in Venice in July you may be in town for the Redentore festival. This festival of fireworks is a great night of celebration in Venice and the fireworks do look really lovely over the canals. I took a day trip from Florence to Venice to go and see the fireworks one July and it was a great day because the atmosphere in the city all day felt like everyone was preparing for New Year’s Eve. Obviously, with that excitement come crowds so be weary of that but otherwise, it’s a great night!
(Quick digression: it was such a joy to find these photos! We were so young!! I was 19 in these photos - Hadn't seen them for a while...and now, here they are on my blog haha. Ok, back to it)
Jewish Quarter I must admit I haven’t yet properly toured this area of Venice but I did do something one year that was very unique and such a beautiful experience that I thought I would tell you about it in case anyone else reading this would be interested in doing something similar. I am not religious and would not ordinarily find myself spending a Friday night at synagogue but someone I know in Australia put me in touch with the community in Venice and the invitation to attend their Friday night service and a large community Friday night dinner right by a canal seemed like a really unique and special experience and I gratefully accepted the invitation. I am so glad that I did because the dinner was filled with people from all over the world and it was such a wonderful way to meet new people and spend the night talking to others, hearing their stories and where they had been travelling, etc. It was a beautiful night of community and an experience I’ll never forget. The synagogue was actually stunning and well worth seeing! I look forward to seeing more of this area of Venice on my next trip. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection The Guggenheim name screams quality Art and this beautiful gallery is a wonderful representation of that. The modern art museum contains so many stunning pieces and the building itself is just gorgeous - it is pretty awesome to go to an Art Gallery right on the water like that! I was rushed on my last visit to the museum and will absolutely be returning for a more detailed and insightful exploration of the Collection.
How Long to Spend in Venice
Before I wrap up with where I'll be heading to next time, I just wanted to reiterate that I think that Venice can be both a wonderful place to spend a few days or an equally fantastic day trip. I've done a number of day trips to Venice from Florence and found that to be a long but very doable trip. Personally, I wouldn't do it as a day trip from anywhere further south than Florence, but from anywhere in the North, it is definitely doable! I would say that if you were staying in Verona, Milan, Padua, etc, Venice would be a great place to spend a day!
Otherwise, if you have the time, staying there for a few days is a great experience - if you're not a HUGE gallery/museum buff then 3 days is plenty. If you are, you may need more time to see everything but otherwise, 2 nights could give you a good taste if you have a lot to fit into your itinerary.
When I Return to Venice...
On the top of my list when I return
- A Gondola Ride to find those Stunning Hands (instagrammers...you know what I’m talking about! I’ve seen them but too quickly!)
- A Peach Bellini at the Cipriani
- Lunch at l Gatto Nero da-Ruggero
Hmmm...I think it’s time for a return visit!