Venice seduced me several years ago when we visited it for the first time, and upon our second visit, that hasn’t changed – not my love for it or the lovely alleys and canals, elegant gondolas, aged architecture, and stunning art. The Floating City is still delightful and full of surprises wherever you go.
Built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, Venice is a kind of a small and compact archipelago linked by pedestrian-friendly bridges over iconic canals. Yet, it is easier to think of Venice as one single island divided into six neighborhoods, aka sestieri by the Venetians.
Although we visited well known sites, one of our favorite things to do in the Floating City was to stroll along the colorful alleyways at the risk of encountering frequent dead ends and unexpected detours. Getting lost in Venice was part of the fun. Gradually, we recognized pathways based on a recognizable store, church, or restaurant. Along the way, we stopped for food and wine, browsed in the shops, found hidden gems, sat by a quiet canal with a gelato in hand, and took tons of pictures.
Here you will find everything you will need to know when planning your trip to Venice for the first time. It includes best time to visit, where to stay, how to get around, our favorite sites, and more.
Best time to visit Venice
Venice is beautiful all year round, but you should choose a particular time of the year to visit according to weather conditions and affordability. Late spring and early summer (May through June) have Venice’s most beautiful weather. Summertime (July and August) is peak season, but it also means high hotel rates, high temperatures, and plenty of crowds. Although the fall is a lovely time to visit (temperatures are pleasant, and crowds are gone), you may have to deal with the acqua alta phenomenon (high tides that flood parts of the city.) It normally lasts throughout winter, mainly October through February. It won’t ruin your trip, but it will be helpful to know in advance to pack appropriate shoes. The winter brings not only low prices but also low temperatures.
Arriving in Venice
Venice is a unique place, where sea and land come together like no other place on earth. Connected to the Italian mainland by Ponte della Libertà (a 2.40-mile long bridge built alongside the Venice Railroad Bridge), Venice is accessible by car and bus, or by train to Stazione di Santa Lucia by the Grand Canal. Depending on your hotel location (and your strength for going up and down the bridges carrying luggage) you can certainly walk from the train station. It is about a 20-minute-walk from the Rialto Bridge or 30 minutes from St Mark’s Square. Marco Polo Airport, on the other hand, is located on the mainland. Regardless of how you arrive, it is more likely that you will use the waterway to reach your final destination.
Trying to figure out which service or route to use to reach our hotel was intimidating and confusing, but it doesn’t have to happen to you. Sit back and relax. I’ve got you covered. Let the vacation begin, because when traveling through the Venetian waters you will have a superb perspective of the city.
Although there are other options, here are the easiest and more pleasant ways to travel from the airport or train station to the city center:
1. Water taxi (from Marco Polo Airport or Stazione di Santa Lucia)
Water taxis (speedboats) navigate in the narrow canals of Venice. They will take you as close to your hotel as they can get, using small docks around the city. Because it is a private ride, there are no stops for other passengers. It is a great option if you have luggage as you won’t have to drag bags up and down when crossing over the bridges. However, they are significantly more expensive, and prices will vary depending on the time of your arrival and the water taxi company you use. I recommend booking in advance.
2. Alilaguna powerboat (from Marco Polo Airport)
A one-way ticket from Marco Polo Airport to Venice on Alilaguna water bus costs €14 and includes one suitcase and one hand luggage. Depending on which line (red, orange or blue) you take, it will stop either at San Marco or Rialto Bridge in the historic center. Traveling time from the airport to the city center is around 70 minutes.
3. Vaporetto (from Stazione di Santa Lucia)
Most visitors arriving at Stazione di Santa Lucia, us included, take the Vaporetto, the water bus that travels along the Grand Canal towards San Marco Square. The Ferrovia stop is right outside the train station. After buying our ticket from one of the multilingual self-service ticket machines near the vaporetto stop, we validated it before going on board on the scanner located by the vaporetto entrance. Validation was done by holding the ticket against the screen. A beep first, then a green light indicated that we were good to hop on board.
Lines 1 and 2 serve the Grand Canal connecting the train and bus stations with stops at each sestiere. Line 1 takes about 45 minutes to reach St Mark’s Square because it stops at every vaporetto station along the way. Line 2 does the same journey but makes only five stops, including Rialto Bridge. A 75-minute ticket costs €7.50 and entitles you to unlimited travel during that period, which starts at the time of validation.
Which sestiere you should stay in while in Venice
At first glance Venice can seem chaotic and confusing, but once you’ve spent a little time here, you’ll find it surprisingly compact. The city is divided into six sestieri and The Grand Canal divides these in half. Each neighborhood has its own appeal. Around the historic center lie other islands such as Murano, Burano, and Lido. Take a look at this map below, and the short description about each district. Hopefully, it will help you to choose which area will best suit your travel style.
Where you will find Saint Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace, and the Rialto Bridge. While beautiful and well located, it is the most crowded, touristy, and expensive neighborhood in which to stay. Here you will also find high-end stores, historic buildings, and expensive cafes.
You will have the best of the two worlds. First, it is close to renowned sites such as Saint Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace. Most likely, you will walk across Accademia Bridge (which will give a fabulous vantage point of Venice and the Grand Canal) to reach the core of the city. Second, Dorsoduro is less crowded than San Marco.
The smallest sestiere is San Polo. Located in central Venice, it is connected to San Marco by one of the most famous sites in the city, the Rialto Bridge. Due to this, plus a large number of shops, bars, and restaurants, San Polo is lively and cheerful. San Polo is home to a handful of churches including Basilica dei Frari, one of the most important churches for art lovers.
Situated on the northwest side of the Grand Canal, it is well-known for its beautiful churches, picturesque squares, and canals. Cannaregio is also home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish quarters. Many Venetians live in this neighborhood. Cannaregio is a great area to stay if you wish to be away from the city’s hustle and bustle.
We stayed at Hotel Canaletto, located on the western edge of the Castello neighborhood. Castello is the largest of the six sestieri and the only one not facing onto the Grand Canal. Not many tourist attractions are found there. The farther we walked from San Marco, the quieter it got. Locals cherish Giardini near the island’s tip, a green space with rare trees and grass, and Riva degli Schiavoni, a popular spot for Venetians to take a stroll and watch the sunset.
Santa Croce is Venice’s main transportation hub. This is where you will find Piazzale Roma (the bus station), and Stazione di Santa Lucia, with easy access to the vaporetto and water taxis. There are also giant parking garages, so if you arrive in Venice by car, this is where you will be parking during your stay. Hotel prices are cheaper in this area. It is the least visited area by tourists.
Check out the latest hotel prices and more details at Booking.com
Venice in two days
Even though an unforgettable trip to the Floating City can be defined by strolling on the narrow alleys, crossing the arched bridges, and sitting by the canals, Venice offers so much more. If you’re planning a trip to Venice, this itinerary will ensure that you will see and do some of Venice’s top highlights and experience this incredible city to the fullest.
1. Admire the architecture of Piazza San Marco
We often crossed Piazza San Marco, or Saint Mark’s Square, either when checking out nearby sites or when lost in the city. The alleys constantly led us back to it. Several times we entered the piazza from one direction and exited via another. Tourists gathered at expensive cafes and restaurants with open-air seating lining each side of the lower floor. Sometimes they were exceeded by the number of pigeons hanging out on the 19th-century stones covering the grounds.
As we strolled through the only piazza of Venice, (the other small squares are technically called campi) we took the opportunity to admire the square itself and the architecture of the surrounding pre-renaissance buildings that have so much significance in Venice’s history.
The St. Mark’s Campanile (the tallest structure in Venice) stands about 325 feet high in the square. It was a lighthouse in the 12th century. Throughout the years, fire, earthquakes, and even lightning damaged the tower. However, in the 16th century, it was rebuilt in its current form with the addition of a belfry. We didn’t climb the tower (not like us at all), but it is a popular stop for those who want to have a spectacular bird’s eye view of Venice, the Grand Canal, and the lagoon. Check here for times and cost to climb the tower.
2. Visit San Marco Basilica
St. Mark’s Basilica, the most visited building in Venice, is an extraordinary example of Venice’s memorable history. Visitors flock inside and out of the church to admire influences from Byzantine, Western European, and Islamic architecture, all related to Venice’s past as a major power in the medieval and early modern world. The building was originally the Doge’s private chapel and essentially a political building.
The basilica is stunning! When visiting, pay close attention to the Gothic facade and Byzantine mosaics that adorn the church’s main portal. Inside, be delighted by the gold powder mosaics, domes, richly decorated altars, columns, and Byzantine art treasures. Every detail is astounding.
Note: Lines to enter the Basilica can be long. Although it is free to enter (book your reserved access), I highly recommend a guided tour of the Basilica, both in order to skip the line and to better understand what you are seeing. The basilica charges entrance fees during holidays or for special sections of the basilica such as the Saint Mark’s museum, Pala d’Oro, the Bell Tower, and the Treasury. Please be aware that shorts are not allowed for either women or men. Shoulders must be covered too.
3. Tour Doge’s Palace and Bridge of Sighs
The combined tour of St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace helped us to truly capture a piece of history. Venice became well known throughout the world in the 12th and 13th centuries for its busy trade centers, which connected the Western world with the East. The palace was not only the residence of the Doge of Venice but also the heart of the government in Venice.
The palace’s elegant facade and its colossal size were the first things to thrill us. Inside, it was no less impressive. Every detail implied the powerful and wealthy past of the city. In the courtyard, we admired the mixing of Gothic and Renaissance touches on the ceremonial staircase used by privileged visitors invited beyond the walls. Two enormous statues of Mars and Neptune stand on the top of the steps, representing Venice’s power on land and sea. Upstairs, my jaw dropped. The grandeur of the staircases and the lavish decoration of the chambers, each one with original details and artwork, blew my mind. All the visual extravagance was paired with stories of scandals and politics from our guide.
Our visit also included the massive armory, cells, and the Bridge of Sighs.
Built over the Rio di Palazzo, the Bridge of Sighs links the interrogation rooms in the Palace to the prisons. Supposedly, the name of the bridge refers to the last look at the outside world that prisoners would take through the small windows when passing from the courtroom to the cell in which they would serve their sentences.
After seeing Venice from the perspective of a prisoner through the Bridge of Sighs, we felt obligated to go outside and take a glimpse of the historic bridge from the standpoint of a free Venetian.
4. Explore Venice’s surrounding areas by vaporetto
Venice is best seen from the water. The vaporetto (waterbus), the main form of transport in Venice, is also an efficient and fun way to see the city from a unique angle. Hopping on Line 1 near the Rialto Bridge, we traveled towards San Marco. As it zigzagged along the Grand Canal, we were delighted with the view of houses with red brick or peeling ochre-painted stucco walls that rise three or four stories above the canal. There were countless photo opportunities of sights such as the iconic Rialto Bridge and Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute.
Another good route was vaporetto Line 42 from the San Zaccaria stop, near Piazza San Marco, to Murano. We enjoyed the picturesque views of Venice as we traced the Castello neighborhood until we reached Fondamente Nove. From there, we crossed the open lagoon, passed the Cemetery of San Michele, and reached Murano.
For a breathtaking, 360°, birds-eye view of the city, take vaporetto Line 2 from the San Zaccaria stop to San Giorgio Maggiore. On this tiny island, visit the church of the same name and take the elevator (€5 fee) to the top of the bell tower. The scene is like a postcard picture of Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace across the Grand Canal, plus the lagoon and other islands. Unlike the Campanile di San Marco, there were no long lines and no crowds.
Venice Vaporetto Fares
The Travel Card is an economical solution for visitors who want to get around Venice and its surroundings. While a single trip on a vaporetto costs €7.50 (valid for 60 minutes in the same direction), the Travel Card offers unlimited travel within the chosen time period (12, 24, 36, 48, or 72 hours). Time counts from validation done on machines conveniently located at each Vaporetto stop. We opted for the 24-hour day-pass for €20.
5. Go to Murano
Murano is much like Venice but on a smaller scale. Stretching 0.9 miles from one side to the other, it is made up of seven small islands connected by a series of canals and bridges. Whereas it is as charming as the San Marco district, it was much quieter.
We spent half of our time exploring the maze of canals and back streets and enjoying seafood and gelato, and for the other half, we focused on the internationally known glassblowing business, aka Murano glass.
Venice was the nucleus of the glassmaking business for centuries, but artisans who lived and worked in the island were forced to move to Murano by local authorities. They claimed that the use of fire was too risky for the wood bridges and homes of Venice. From there, Murano was born as one of the most well-known centers of glassmaking in the world.
As our vaporetto touched the pier, local glass shop workers greeted and invited passengers to watch the art of glassmaking in progress. Although afraid it could be a scam, we joined them. The presentation was short and informative. While glassblowers molded and shaped swirls of colored glasses, someone explained each step of Venetian glass technique. It really was interesting. Afterwards, they led us to the showroom, with its gorgeous, overpriced pieces. We immediately sneaked out and returned to the street.
Along the main canal, there are several colorful, eye-catching glass shops. Tons of them lay side by side. At first, we walked in and out of some shops admiring everything that caught our attention from a small, bright color ball to an enormous, wide-open vase. Then we visited Museo del Vetro, which has a large number of glass pieces made on the island over the centuries as well as contemporary objects donated by the island’s glassworks.
What did we learn about Murano glass? Although it was interesting and informative, know that the top art glass workshops focus on their craft rather than on tourism. If you are really interested in glassblowing, I recommend a better guided tour which will give you a deep understanding of the history and technique of the Murano glass blowing business. Last but not least, if you want to shop for an authentic Murano piece, look for Murano’s trademark “Vetro Murano Artistico” in the windows of shops. Some souvenir shops try to pass off cheap Chinese copies.
6. Take a gondola ride
It is a tourist trap, I know! Yet because it is one of the most recognizable images of Venice, you must do it at least once in your life. Years ago, when my husband and I visited Venice for the first time, we booked a gondola ride. My expectation was of a gondolier wearing a black and white striped sailor shirt and singing Italian songs along a quiet canal. Did it happen the way I expected? Not really. First of all, the ride lasted approximately 30 minutes. In the blink of an eye it was over. Then, instead of singing, our gondolier chit-chatted with us and his colleagues riding along the narrow, busy canals of Venice. Glad we did it, but definitely only a one-time thing.
If you want to ride a gondola and check the box, here is my suggestion: ride on a canal outside the main tourist area. It will not only let you see a different area of Venice but also skip the bumper to bumper gondolas. Good places to find gondolas away from the Grand Canal and St. Mark’s Square include the San Polo and the Jewish Ghetto.
7. See the Rialto Bridge from the Grand Canal
The original Rialto Bridge (built in 1181) was a wooden construction that collapsed several times. Rebuilt in 1591, the new Rialto Bridge is a stone-arch that, like the original, crosses the narrowest point of the Grand Canal connecting San Marco and San Polo sestiere. Today, the bridge is not only an important pedestrian pathway but also a famous tourist attraction.
This picturesque and jam-packed sight is gorgeous during the day and equally beautiful at night. Take a look at the Grand Canal and your surroundings as you stand on it. Likewise, go either on a gondola or vaporetto ride and see this engineering achievement from a different angle as you slide smoothly under the bridge.
9. Unwind in the Libreria Acqua Alta
After reading about Acqua Alta Libreria on a travel blog, we thought it would be something interesting to check out. Located near Campo Santa Maria Formosa in the Castello district, it is a library comprised of a number of rooms packed with books, magazines, maps, and small trinkets. What is unique about this place is the fact that they store books inside bathtubs and gondolas. This practice was a creative way to protect the new and used books from the acqua alta phenomenon. Walk all the way to the back of the store and find a pile of damaged books that became a fire escape leading directly out into a canal. Stop by if you are a book lover or if you find yourself in the area.