Gondolas, Markets, Campi and More
Venice is magic. Really. Where else exists a timeless floating city? For more than a millennia and a half, La Serenissima had rode the waves of modernity while resisting the undertow of any about-face change.
To explore Venice is to be caught up in its beautiful but rebellious landscape of countless canals, narrow calle (streets), romantic palaces and wide-open campi (squares) where nothing is ever what it first appears It’s a mind-bending, misleading labyrinth that always brings you to exactly where you didn’t know you wanted to be. Here is a top 10 list of things to do and see in Venice.
1. Visit Piazza San Marco and Climb the Campanile
You are going to take that iconic photo in Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), the city’s enormous piazza of 15th-century palaces and the beautiful Italo-Byzantine basilica. Look up standing off of the square (southeastern corner) is the Campanile,the 320-foot free-standing bell tower. As any Venetian knows, viewing the city is really all about perspective. It’s not about how you stand, but where you stand.
The campanile is the city’s best perch for a bird’s-eye view of the square and surrounding islands. Climb the Campanile, but here’s a tip: Avoid on-the-hour visits or those bell tolls will drive you out of your mind.For a little less effort, head to the Basilica’s balcony for a center stage view into the piazza.
2. Go Behind the Scene and Screams of the Doge’s Palace
Just off of St. Mark’s Square and facing the water is the Palazzo Ducale, residence of the Doge, the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice. For four centuries, this is is where it all happened – government, commerce and secrets.
The palace’s Gothic exterior may seem a bit ornate but is far less elaborate and ornament than its resplendent chambers – a labyrinth of rooms from residence halls and courts. Oh, did I mention prisons and torture chambers? Not quite as charming, no wonder Casanova escaped. Skip the queue and sign up for a private tour of the Secrets of the Doge’s Palace.
3. Visit the Libreria Acqua Alta
The Libreria Acqua Alta is considered one of the prettiest bookstores in the world, and one of the hardest to find. Hint- it’s ucked away in a back alley of Castello (read my article on the neighborhoods of Venice). The whimsical secondhand bookshop is a sanctum santorum for booklovers.
Books spill over bathtubs, bins and gondolas, and the charm is peek.Libreria Acqua Alta’s two main rooms are stacked wall to wall with books, magazines, maps and other ephemera which make up great gifts. If you have patience, you can walk through the sestiere to arrive on foot or, more interestingly, take a water taxi.
4. Break Away to Burano
The Venetian archipelago includes 118 small islands, each with its own distinct personality. Everybody loves Murano for its glass blowing, but I prefer Burano, whose patchwork of vibrantlly colored houses brightens up any day. And I love its history of lace. Make like a local and ask for bussolà, a donut-shaped cookie, at any Burano bakery.
I love all the Venetian islands, so if you are looking to explore, here is my (basic) guide to the islands of Venice.
5. Scale the Spiral Scala Contarini del Bovolo
Venice is charming and it’s weird, at least architecturally. Palazzo Contarini, near Campo Manin, is one of the more interesting palaces on the island. A mix of Renaissance, Gothic and Byzantine styles, Palazzon Contarini has a lot of charm, but everyone will say that the magic is its external tower.
Elaborately arcaded, the tower is actually an open-air spiral staircase, or bovolo (Venetian dialect for “snail”). Bring a camera and walk up the 80 steps to a domed lookout, you’ll have a private view of the rooftops of Venice. Or else enjoy the spiral at night.
6. Binge at a Bacaro
The Venetian bacaro is always in my top five of places to eat and drink in La Serenissima. A rustic wine bar, the Venetian bacaro is where you go for a glass of wine and a snack. Consider it stand up wine tasting where, for a few euros and a few minutes, you can enjoy a glass of local wine with a taste of the owner’s cicchetti. Cicchetti are homemade small bites usually served on a crostino (small piece of bread).
There are bacari all over the sestieri. My favorite is Cantinone Gìa Schiavi, an 80-year-old outpost in the university-area Dorsoduro noted for incredibly creative crostini and cicchetti. Here’s more on Venice’s very best cicchetti and bacari.
7. Catch up with Contemporary Art
Since 1895, Venice has been host to the La Biennale di Venezia, a six-month-long art fair. Taking place every two years (most recently was 2022) in the historic Biennale Gardens and Arsenale shipyard, the Biennale is a fully immersive art experience. In other words, a lot of art and a lot of walking. Bring a great pair of walking shoes.
The Biennale di Arte (Venice Biennale) is kind of my thing and over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of writing and reporting it. Here are some of ideas of what it’s like to visit Venice during the first week of the Biennale.
8. Gondola Ride at Night
Gondolas and Venice are synonymous, and there is nothing quite like exploring the floating city by water. I prefer to avoid daytime traffic and explore by gondola in the evening. Venice’s gondoliers are everywhere, standing at canals and bridges in their striped blue (or red) shirts, black pants and white sneakers, looking for their next fare.
Are gondola rides expensive? Can I haggle for the price? Gondola have prix fixe daytime and evening rate, so you cannot haggle. Rates are detailed on Gondola Venezia. Gondolas can accommodate up to six people.
9. Market Morning Shopping at Rialto
The Rialto Market in San Polo sestiere is one of Italy’s most historic and unforgettable fish markets. Built in 1907, the neo-Gothic loggia has been shacked up with vendors selling their wares for more than a century.
Of course, time doesn’t stand still, and though Rialto remains a vibrant fish market scene, bars, restaurants and boutiques have taken residence. When you’re done, take a seat at the market’s canal-facing bars and enjoy an afternoon spritz at Banco Giro.
10. School Yourself on Tintoretto
There is nothing like a Tintoretto sky. Visit the Scuola Grande di San Rocco where La Serenissima’s favorite painter, Tintoretto, painted masterpiece of Old Testament and New Testament scenes.
When you’re done taking in his skies, take a walk to the Accademia art museum where you’ll find more Tintoretto paintings along with the full line up of Venetian masters.