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Venice, Italy is one of those magical places that I still can’t believe actually exists. People who have visited Venice usually either love it or hate it. I knew I would love Venice before I ever stepped foot in Italy. The city built on water has fascinated me since I was a child. So naturally, the first time I ventured across the pond to Europe, I had to go to Venice. Although Venice is usually extremely crowded, particularly during the summer months or tourist season, if you visit in the off-season you’ll find fewer people and possibly have a better experience. Venice is also one of the more pricey cities to visit in Italy, mainly because it caters to tourists which ultimately drives the cost up. However, we found plenty of inexpensive and even free things to do in Venice, Italy to keep us entertained our short stay. If you are looking for a few ideas for what to do in Venice, Italy, we’ve broken down our top 5 favorite experiences in Venice to ensure you have a great time.
How to get to Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy is easily accessible by plane, train, or cruise, and is worth including on any Italian vacation itinerary. Many people visit Venice as a day trip from Florence or Milan. It’s also extremely easy to get to Venice from Verona. Although, if you have the time, I’d recommend spending a couple of days in Venice, one day in Milan, a few days in Florence, and possibly up to a week in Rome.
We arrived by train from Milan, Italy and Switzerland. But most often, people fly into Rome and train up to Venice as part of a multi-city Italian itinerary.
Getting around Venice, Italy
There are no cars in Venice, but there are still several options to get around the city. Venice does have both public and private transportation, but it all take place on the water.
Water ferries or vaporettis
Much like a city with streets has a bus route, Venice has a water ferry route. Their water ferries, also known as vaporettis, are like public buses that take you to various stops along the Grand Canal. You can buy a one-time pass, a day-pass, or a multi-day pass at the little kiosks outside the train station or at the ferry stops. They do take a credit card, so no need to have cash on hand.
If the water ferries are like public street buses, the water taxis would be like an actual taxi offering a ride in a private boat. They are smaller, motorized boats, similar to what you would see on a lake, that can carry small groups of people along the Grand Canal. They need to be booked in advance, usually. We personally did not use this form of transportation because we found the vaporettis so convenient.
Sure, it’s pricey, but when and where will you ever have the opportunity to ride in a gondola again? The small banana-shaped paddle boat will take you through some of the smaller, more charming canals in Venice, Italy. The gondola operator may even serenade you with an Italian song.
The canals of Venice are beautiful but so are the streets. Spend some time walking around, exploring and getting lost in this amazing city. You can join a guided walking tour of Venice or just wander aimlessly with no agenda. If you choose the latter, no matter how prepared you are, and even if you have a map, you will get lost. Embrace it. It’s part of the experience.
Traveling to Venice, Italy with kids
Children will love the fairy tale feel and maze of narrow passageways that make up Venice. If traveling with small children, one thing to note is that it isn’t the most stroller-friendly of cities. There are a lot of small bridges you will have to cross that only have stairs, and the streets are not all paved. Many are brick or stone, so pushing a stroller won’t always be smooth. I would recommend wearing your baby and even your toddler when he or she gets tired of walking.
Safety in Venice, Italy
As with any tourist city, petty crimes, pickpockets, and peddlers exist in Venice, too. But I never felt anything but safe in Venice. You should always be vigilant of your surroundings regardless of where you are, but you don’t have to worry about getting lost in the “wrong part of town”, so to speak, when you are in Venice. Just watch your phone, purse, and wallet and you should be fine.
What to do in Venice, Italy
There are definitely a few must-see attractions in Venice, Italy. If you only have one day in Venice or just a few days to spend sightseeing, you will likely want to stay somewhere within walking distance to a lot of those attractions. Although it’s one of the more expensive cities in Italy because it appeals to tourists, it’s still possible to visit Venice on a budget. Several of the things on our list of what to do in Venice, Italy are free or cost a very minimal amount of money. The number one thing to do in Venice is to simply enjoy the unique atmosphere of the city, and here are the six best places and ways to do that.
1. Visit San Marco Square at night
San Marco Square is the central gathering place in Venice, Italy. Make a point to visit the square during both the day and at night. You will be amazed at how different the same place can feel.
At the eastern end of the piazza stands St. Mark’s Basilica, which is a gorgeous cathedral, like all cathedrals in Italy seem to be.
The plaza is always busy with street entertainers, tourists, and vendors. Just outside of San Marco Square, the small streets that branch off are filled with shops selling everything from Murano glass to Venetian masks. You’ll also find a variety of high end retailers and a lot of restaurants and gelato shops.
2. Take a photo atop the Rialto Bridge
The Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy is one of the most famous bridges in the world.
It extends across the Grand Canal of Venice connecting the two sides of this island. But the bridge isn’t simply a means of getting from one place to another, the unique architecture of the Rialto Bridge makes it aesthetically beautiful.
Rialto Bridge Photo Ops
Tourists are drawn to the bridge and often pause for a quick photo at the top because it offers spectacular views of the Grand Canal.
Viewing the bridge itself is best done by water. You will get a great view of the bridge from any water taxi or boat. The Rialto Bridge is also one of the most popular water taxi or vaporetti stops, so you can always take a vaporetti to the bridge, get off there and walk up to the top to enjoy the view.
3. Steal a kiss at sunset under the Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs is another beautiful, historical, and legendary sight in the city of Venice, Italy.
History of the Bridge of Sighs
Historically, the enclosed bridge was once connected to the city’s prison. Supposedly the last view of Venice convicts had prior to imprisonment was through the small square windows on this lovely bridge. It gets it’s name from the sigh of grief prisoners would let out upon seeing freedom for the final time.
Although the history is mildly – if not greatly – depressing, there is also a local legend associated with this bridge that isn’t as melancholy. Legend has it that if lovers kiss underneath this bridge at sunset while riding in a gondola, they will be granted eternal love and bliss. While we didn’t test out the legend, we did get to see this lovely bridge at sunset. Perhaps this legend is one of the reasons many people consider Venice to be one of the most romantic places in Europe.
4. Watch artists make blown glass on the Island of Murano
Murano is a small island located about 10-15 minutes away from the mainland of Venice. It is worth the water taxi ride over to explore the less crowded island and see some beautiful glass art.
Murano Glass is known worldwide. It is beautiful and elaborate and made right here on this small island.
You can watch glass artisans make blown glass sculptures for a very small fee (literally, it costs a couple of dollars.)
Be aware, there are sales people who will offer to pick you up from your hotel and take you to Murano for free on a tour of the glass factories. They work with the hotels, and from what I’ve heard, they expect you to buy something from the showroom after the glass-making presentation.
We chose to go to the island by vaporetti instead. Once there you can literally pop into one of the presentations to watch them blow the glass into beautiful art. They then escort you into the showroom where you can look around, purchase something, or simply leave.
5. Explore the colorful island of Burano
Burano was my absolute favorite Venetian island, and I highly recommend taking the water ferry over from Venice to visit this exquisite, colorful island.
Burano is a small fishing village, and the homes are all brightly painted. The vibrant colors were originally intended to help fishermen returning home in the fog find their house among the canals of buildings. But now, this charming village is more of a tourist attraction than anything. With that said, it is way less crowded than the streets, walkways, and canals on the main portions of Venice.
You will find plenty of small restaurants and shops in Burano. The small island also sells some beautifully crafted lace products, but the main draw is simply the colorful island’s photogenic appeal.
I would recommend spending a few hours in Burano, have lunch, and walk around. The island is small so even if you get lost, you will quickly find your way back to the main canal and eventually the water ferry stop.
The best way to get to Burano is by vaporetti. A day pass is reasonably priced, and the vaporettis run fairly regularly. You could visit both Burano and Murano in one day.
6. Get wonderfully lost
Venice, Italy is a maze… It’s a grown up maze. The streets vary in width, they dead end, they turn, they change names, they aren’t well marked, and all of them are surrounded by building several stories tall preventing you from seeing landmarks or other familiar sites that might help you gain your bearings. It is the perfect recipe for getting lost… and you will get lost in Venice.
Let me emphasize that: you will get REALLY lost. You will get completely, wonderfully, wander-around-for-hours-and-have-to-stop-for-a-glass-of-wine lost. But don’t let the thought of that stress you out.
Why you WANT to get lost in Venice
Before you panic, my advice is to just roll with it. Getting lost in Venice is part of the experience. Enjoy it, and discover all of the new, magical things waiting just around the corner.
When we were in Venice, my husband and I laughed like kids again as we tried to figure out where the heck we were. Even with a map in hand, we were clueless. But it was fun. And it was beautiful.
We wandered around, made wrong turn after wrong turn, and would stumble upon a quaint piazza or plaza, or a beautiful church, which was free to enter (unlike many of the churches in other parts of Europe).
Getting lost in Venice is not only a right of passage that every traveler who has ever been there talks about, but it is how you will find the best little restaurant or meet the nicest people, or find yourself far away from all the crowds centered around San Marco Square.
It is truly the BEST way to experience the city.
Where to stay in Venice, Italy
The Ruzzini Palace Hotel is perfectly located, charming, and elegant.
With a grand staircase and beautiful chandelier made from Murano glass, this hotel is a wonderful Venetian experience in and of itself.
You can access the Ruzzini Palace from either the Rialto Bridge water taxi stop or by private boat, which will drop you off directly at the entrance of the hotel. If you choose to arrive by water taxi, write down or save the directions to the hotel on your phone or else you will get lost. And you don’t want to get lost while carrying all of your luggage.
The hotel rooms are well furnished and large by European standards. The bathrooms are nicely renovated, and come stocked with toiletries. Our room even had a large walk-in closet, not a feature you find in many hotels.
And the view from our room was quintessential Venice!
Ruzzini Palace is approximately a 10 minute walk to the Rialto Bridge and to San Marco Square… That is, if you don’t get lost. The street side of the hotel is located in a quaint, little plaza where children play, and diners eat and drink at small outdoor cafes. I truly can’t say enough about this hotel. For the price, it can’t be beat!
With all of the great things to do in Venice, Italy, it is worth spending at least three days exploring the city. Although I’ve heard many complaints about Venice being overcrowded, expensive, and even dirty, I found it enchanting and unlike any other place on earth. Although Venice can be crowded, that is expected in a tourist city and shouldn’t stop you from visiting. But there are plenty of quiet canals and tiny alleyways where you’ll feel like you’re the only person in the city. Let yourself wander, and chances are you will fall in love with Venice, as well.
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