Venice, Venezia, La Serennissima…everyone knows its name…it’s been dreamt of, written about, extolled, lauded, hated (by few) and now it’s your turn to experience it with a little help from my Venice itinerary for the first timer.
For the ultimate beginner, Venice is a hugely popular destination in Italy! Founded in the 9th century, Venice is made up of tiny islands at the top of the Adriatic Sea. These islands are joined by loads of bridges, including the Ponte dei Sospiri (famous Bridge of Sighs), and the streets are made of water – a floating city. Still there are only four bridges that cross its main thoroughfare, The Grand Canal: the Ponte Dell’Accademia, Rialto, and Ponte degli Scalzi and Ponte della Costituzione, near the Piazzale Roma.
There are no cars, buses, vans, motorbikes, bikes of any kind – only the water bus, the water taxi, etc…only boats! It is one of the best places to relax. If you venture out in the early morning, you can sometimes be alone in St. Mark’s Square and feel that you are right back in the Renaissance!
This is a pretty comprehensive guide of this ultimate romantic city, so don’t feel you have to do everything. You always want to leave something to come back to! Most people stay three days, but I think a week is the perfect amount of time to spend your first trip to get a a feel for the entire city.
A few rules and then you are on your way:
- It is completely and utterly touristy and one of the most popular places in the world. It has been that way since the Renaissance. The best way to enjoy it is to revel in it.
- It is hot, crowded and sometimes smells. The water is very old and cleaning up dog poo is not a priority, but if that’s all you see and smell then you have no heart and you should head out to Singapore instead.
- Avoid any restaurant that has a “menu turistico” sign outside – you can find great food in Venice. These have pre-made food and crank stuff out for the tourists! You just have to know where to look.
- Take a water taxi from the train/plane to the hotel. You feel like a movie star.
- Venice is made up of sestieres (sections): Castello – way at the end; San Marco – pretty much the center; San Polo & Santa Croce – cool and hip; Cannaregio – where the local people live; and my favorite Dorsoduro – “the golden back.”
- A street is called Calle, not Via, and a Piazza is called a Campo. There is only one Piazza in Venice and that is the famous Piazza San Marco.
- If you get lost, look up and you will almost always see a sign that says Per San Marco or Per Rialto, follow that sign to get home.
- And most important of all – take a gondola ride at night, no matter how cheesy you think this is!
As this is your first time in Venice, relax! It is the best walking city in the world. Bring really comfy shoes but saying that it is a very chic city, so throw on your coolest ones and start walking. Remember that Venice was always a tourist trap even in the 1400’s so don’t get frustrated by the crowds in St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco). Once you head out on your Venice itinerary and get lost (which is a good thing!), sometimes you will be alone.
Getting to Venice
It’s super easy to get to Venice. Almost every airline has a direct flight to Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. If you are flying, exit the airport to your left and keep following the signs to the boats – it is about a ten minute walk to the marina.
You can also drive into Piazzale Roma and park your car or arrange for your rental car to be picked up there.
The train station has fast trains from all the major Italian cities. As much as it hurts Venice, cruise ships also dock and let masses of people out on their day trip around this beautiful city. If you are on a cruise, please stop and eat lunch or buy something, it really supports the Venetian community.
Getting around Venice
Getting around: If you take one taxi in Venice, take it from the airport to your hotel! It is expensive, but so worth it. You feel super glam and you get a wonderful feel for the city. After that you can walk or take public transport, the vaperetto (bus), everywhere. You can take the LINEA ARANCIO (orange boat bus) from Venice to the airport when you leave.
If you can afford it, take as many water taxis as you can!
Sightseeing in Venice
Get a good map from the hotel or before. Some don’t have every calle, so it is worth the extra to invest in one that does.
- “The Finest Drawing Room in Europe”: Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square):
Listening to the sounds of the band as they play around him, while sipping his first cappuccino of the day, Napoleon knew he had to have this jewel of a city at his disposal and invaded in 1747. You will feel the same way. On your first day, before jumping into tourist mode, settle in to the perfect place to enjoy a bibita. Pick Florian or Quadri – two of the oldest cafes in Venice. Plan on it being the most expensive coffee you have ever had but you are paying for the view and it is divine especially when the music is playing!
- Palazzo Ducale / Basilica di San Marco / Campanile di San Marco (Doge’s Palace / St. Mark’s Basilica /St. Mark’s Campanile):
Once you’ve enjoyed the music and the coffee, time to jump into exploring the most famous buildings and its main attractions. The Doge’s Palace houses not only the world’s largest painting on canvas, but also the famous Bridge of Sighs. Explore every nook and cranny of St. Mark’s Basilica, especially its ceiling. The gold mosaics are outstanding and, if you can, return at night to see them glimmer in the candlelight. A must on your first trip is to take the elevator up St. Mark’s Campanile. Thank goodness, you no longer have to walk up all the stairs of this magnificent bell tower! There is also the Museo Correr on the square, which give you an insight into the history of Venice.
- The Grand Canal
The Fifth Avenue of Venice. All the richest Venetians had palazzi (palaces) on the Grand Canal and it’s easy to see them all from the outside. For the best views, take the Red 1 Vaporetto Line from San Marco (starting point) toward the train station. It’s the local vaporetto so take a seat outside and settle in for the tour. If you don’t want to go so far then get off at the Rialto Bridge and grab a bite at the Rialto Market. Walk back and buy yourself an ice cream or two.
- Art – Venetian Style
The Old Stuff: It’s all about the Gallerie dell’Accademia – If you are an art lover chock block full of the greatest hits by Tinteretto, Veronese and Tiepolo, to name a few – it’s across the Accademia Bridge (only three bridges across the grand Canal (!)).
The New Stuff: The Guggenheim is pretty much unmissable and a popular destination for the first timer. What a women was Peggy! Come and see why she was so famous. The Punta Della Dogana & the Palazzo Grassi museums are also filled with contemporary art and not to be missed.
- Churches & Campi
Campo dei Frari – In this square are two wonders of Venice: Scuola Grande di San Rocca – this is Tinteretto’s masterpiece – really worth a visit and Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the largest church in Venice, is a wonder. Wander around and find the unexploded bomb hidden in the Frari.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli – find your way here through the tiny calli of Castello. It’s so lovely with its different colors of marble throughout. A favorite for weddings. There are so many others, like San Giovanni & Paolo, San Giorgio Maggiore, San Moise, etc…if you see an open door – go for it.
- Get Lost
Need I say more – the fun of Venice is discovering it for yourself.
Eating in Venice
I won’t lie to you – the food in Venice can be crap. Most of the places you find are geared to tourists and offer the already mentioned avoidable Menu Turistico. Avoid these place as the food stinks. On the other hand, good food comes at a price in Venice, so budget that in.
- Alla Testiere: Calle del Mondo Novo, 5801 30122 Venice, Italy+39 041 522 7220
Ask Luca, the owner, to choose the wine as they are local and delicious! Really my fav in Venice.
- Acqua Pazza: Campo Sant’Angelo
Fabulous pizza and pasta – the portions are huge – sit outside and share.
- Harry’s Dolci: Lunch here! Giudecca – the small island across from Venice
After your very long lunch. Walk back toward the Cipriani Hotel and you will the Church of the Rendetore. Pop your head in and see one of the two Palladian churches in Venice (the other being San Giorgio Maggiore). Delight in its simplicity after you have eaten a most fabulous drunken meal! (You know the Bellini was invented in its sister restaurant.)
- Other delicious restaurants: Corte Sconta, Osteria Da Rioba, Alla Madonna, Alla Carampane
- Where to eat cicchetti – Venetian tapas: I have a whole post all about these great places: Top Ten Venice Cicchetti Bars)
Shopping in Venice
It is all about glass, jewellery and art in Venice – make sure you buy from a reputable place or else you are paying for something made in China!
Discover your own favorites but, here is a great place to start.
- ATTOMBRI, Campo San Maurizio, S. Marco 2668/a (tel. +39-041-5210789) and they have a second shop near the Rialto Bridge at Sottoportico di Rialto 74 (tel. +39-041-5212524), Divine jewelry – really art, not jewelry.
- ESSEGI ART MURANO – 6060 Cannaregio (in the same square as Santa Maria dei Miracoli)
The website doesn’t do the products justice. What makes this place different from your average glass place is the quality of the wares. They represent five Venetian artists and the jewelry is divine and not too pricey!
- RIFLESSI VENEZIANI DI DANIELA LONGIN, 1867 Calle del Tentor angolo Salizada S. Stae, S. Croce, Tele: 041 524 0564
I am a lover of anything beaded – so when we stumbled upon this shop in the Santa Croce district of Venice – the girls went crazy. She sells jewelry, masks, flowers and the beads themselves. The prices are insanely low!
- RIALTO 79 – PERLE VENEZIANE, S. Polo, 79 after the Rialto Bridge Tel. 041-5220647
Amid all the cheesy touristy shops near the Rialto Bridge, there is one shining star: Rialto 79. It is the only shop in that area that has great simple clip-on and dangling earrings that are not only made in Murano, not China (they come with a guarantee) but are simple and chic. They are not super cheap nor super expensive but just right.
- NICOLA TENDERINI – ART & POSTCARDS
Campo Bella Vienna-Erberia – nr. the Rialto Fish Market – 041 5226532; 1183/b Ramo Toletto – 041 523 8691 (on the way from the Accademia to the Frari)
Nicola Tenderini is an artist based in Venice. I found his watercolors to be so charming and the products he creates are lovely, especially the cookbook of Venice specialties in three languages. There are also notebooks, calendars, cards, and other paper products.
I could go on and on about Venice but now it’s time for you to go out there on your on and enjoy it for yourself. Return often and you will never get bored.
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Sleeping in Venice
Venice has some of the best hotels in the world and I’ve been luck enough to stay in all of them. My top three are the Gritti Palace Hotel which has been like a home to me for the past 35 years, the Hotel Danieli, a stunning building with an incredible rooftop restaurant, and the celeb-favorite, the Belmond Hotel Cipriani on the Isola della Giudecca!
Best Bit of Venice
Everything about Venice is a best bit. You will be seduced by the first sight of this miraculous city and come back more and more! explore every area from the north to the south. In thirty years, you will find so much more to discover.