Italy is definitely one our favorite countries, probably due to its amazing combination of cuisine, wine, and diverse geography. Verona and Venice were two new cities we had not previously visited, and both were festively celebrating Carnival while we were there in late February. Parades, parties and costumed revelers filled the streets (Read about our tips in Verona here). Venice, in particular, was wonderful; despite seeing countless pictures and reading about it beforehand, there is nothing like the experience of walking through the canals. Our top three experiences on this trip were a private gondola ride, walking 33 miles in three days, and wearing our Venetian masks around town!
Top things to do in Venice
If you arrive to Venice on the train, the first canal you will see is the amazing Grand Canal, with its bustling boat traffic. One of our favorite things to do was sit at cafes along the canals with an aperol spritz and watch the boats pass. Don’t miss out on taking a gondola ride while you are in Venice. Our private sunset ride included cruising through the Grand Canal but also a good amount of time exploring the quiet canals and backwaters of Venice -- an experience that will not be forgotten! You can also catch public water buses and private water taxis along the Grand Canal.
Tips: If you are staying somewhere accessible on the canals, you can ask your hotel to reserve a gondola for you and they will pick you up right outside your hotel. Otherwise, you can catch a gondola ride at various points along the Grand Canal. You may just have to wait a bit during busy periods.
The Rialto Bridge is best visited early in the morning or at night, around sunset, when there are far fewer people. The bridge offers great views of the Grand Canal and is the oldest of four bridges to cross it. Be sure to check out the shops located along the bridge and those in the nearby Palazzo dei Dieci Savi.
Located a few minutes from Rialto Bridge, the Rialto Market is the place to stock up on Italian herbs and spices to take home with you. The market also sells fresh fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts and more.
Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square)
St. Mark’s Square is the largest and busiest public plaza in Venice. Known as “la Piazza”, it is comprised of several notable buildings including Saint Mark’s Basilica, St. Mark’s Campanile (Bell Tower), Torre dell’Orologico (Clock Tower), and Doge’s Palace. The Bridge of Sighs is also located nearby. A visit inside St. Mark’s Basilica is free and well worth it. The inside of this Roman Catholic cathedral is really beautiful, full of opulent design and gold plated mosaics. From the 11th century, this cathedral has been nicknamed the Church of gold or Chiesa d’Oro.
Tips: Expect a long line to visit inside St Mark's Cathedral, but know that it general moves quite quickly. There are no backpacks allowed, and you need to dress appropriately (no short shorts or sleeveless shirts). Visit first thing in the morning for the smallest crowds.
Church of San Giorgio Maggiore
A visit to this church across from Saint Mark’s Square offers great views of the city. Take the ferry from Riva degli Schiavoni, near Saint Mark’s to the small island to visit this 16th century Benedictine church.
After visiting the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, take the ferry over to Giudecca and then to Dursoduoro and visit the Basilica di Santa Maria Della Salute. This area also boasts a lot of local artists and artisan shops.
Tips: Walk out to the end of Dorsoduoro, where the island comes to a point, for great views towards San Marco.
Located in the Dorsoduoro, the Ponte dell’Accademia is another one of the four bridges that crosses the Grand Canal. Another great spot for people watching and boat watching from the bridge.
A half day trip to Murano on the ferry is a great way to spend an afternoon and fun spot to shop for all things Murano glass, and visit glass factories and showrooms. The area also has some nice cafes and terraces to enjoy lunch or drinks.
Tips: Take the ferry from the ferry terminal “C”.
Campo Santa Margherita
Located in the Dorsoduoro area of Venice, the Campo Santa Margherita is a great spot to hang out and grab a drink or lunch at one of the many outdoor cafes. Some days you can find locals selling things like used books in the square as well.
The area of Cannaregio is the northernmost area of Venice’s six regions. Here you can visit the Chiesa dei Gesuiti, Campo del Ghetto Novo and the well known Ca d’Oro. The Ca d’Oro is located on the Grand Canal and is one of the older palaces in Venice, with its name given due to the polychrome and gilt external decorations it once had.
Chiesa di San Salvatore
Located in the heart of San Marco, this Catholic church dates back to the 15th century and has both Renaissance and Baroque architectural styles. Look for the embedded cannonball on the left column of the facade; it was left after an attack by Austrian forces in 1849.
Scala Contarini del Bovolo
Although somewhat difficult to find in the maze of canals and streets, this hidden gem offers some great views of Venice. The external spiral staircase is a mix of Renaissance, Gothic and Venetian-Byzantine styles and was built at the end of 1400 to decorate the nearby facade of the Palace of San Paternian, owned by an illustrious and wealthy Venetian family.
Venice’s main shopping street, where you can find leather goods, designer boutiques, and souvenir shops.
Tips: Be mindful that these streets get very busy and slow moving. Keep your valuables and personal belongings close!
Food and Drink in Venice
Pastry shop with some of the best frittelle (Venetian doughnuts) in the city. Frittelle is sold primarily during during Carnival, but you can still find it year round. This place usually has a bit of a line but totally worth the wait -- order the pastry cream, chocolate cream and zabaione… yum!
An easy lunch spot, located along the quiet canals in San Polo. The pizzas are great, and make sure to get your own as the crust is thin.
Any trip to Italy would be incomplete without enjoying some gelato. One of our favorites in Venice was Fontego delle Dolcezze, serving all natural gelato in 10+ flavours.
Located near the Rialto Bridge, this cafe and restaurant is a great place to enjoy an aperol spritz with some chips and olives, and watch the boats cruise by on the Grand Canal.
Paninos: A quick and easy panini takeaway shop (caprese, ham and cheese) and enjoy along the canal waters.
Harry’s Bar: Bar located near Piazza San Marco, Harry’s Bar has been around since 1930 and has been frequented by many famous people during its life, most notably Ernest Hemingway.
Osteria Oliva Nera: Cosy and quiet osteria, known for their traditional Venetian menu and amazing dishes, including fresh seafood.
Da Mamo: Quiet and candlelit trattoria located near Rialto Bridge, serving classics like pizza and pasta.
Where to Stay in Venice
Palazzo Giovanelli Hotel
Located right on the Grand Canal, this 16th century palace turned hotel is located in a great location, not too far from Rialto and Piazza San Marco, but far enough away from the tourist craziness. Our room was a nice size and had an unobstructed side view of the Grand Canal (we recommend a room with a view, if you can!).