What’s equally surprising to having done Italy but not Rome, is also doing Italy but never Venice. Even though I’ve passed through Venice Marco Polo International Airport on multiple occasions with frequent intentions to see the city within a layover’s time frame, I’ve never could accomplish the task, but was I really missing out on that much?
The short answer: a reluctant yes.
Despite warnings from fellow travelers about the city being “overrated,” “smelly,” “annoying,” or “tolerable if you see it within a day”, I’m afraid this city — among all its negative qualities — still had me under quite a spell. Yes, I must acknowledge there is a 2 to 1 ratio of foreigners to locals here, and that nearly everyone you’ll encounter will be another tourist who can probably speak your language. But there is something about not seeing a single car for days, or the evocative way the canals and the streets sound at night when they’re empty of tourists, can make even the most jaded of travelers begrudgingly admit to Venice’s uniqueness and understand why everyone around the world feels compelled to visit at least once before they die.
Anyways, you can’t judge a place without first experiencing it!
If you’re coming from the airport, you can take an 8 euro Airport Bus to one of the main watertaxi terminals (more on that later) which then will take you into the city, or take the Alialaguna Airport Watertaxi directly from the airport to the city center for 15 euros.
If you’re coming from Bologna, take the 85 minute train to Venice where you can step out from the train station to see the mouth of the Grand Canal in all its beautiful glory.
Wherever you arrive, one of your first decisions is whether you need tickets/passes for the public watertaxis (aka vaporettos). If you’re a big fan of public transportation, don’t mind waiting in crowds, and plan to explore up and down Venice’s larger waterways at some point, get the unlimited 3 day pass for 30-40 euros. Note that using the watertaxis at least 4-5 times within that timeframe will make up its worth as its ride costs about 7 euros.
If not, try your luck with haggling down a private water taxi instead. Or walk, as the main old city itself takes about 10-20min to walk from end to end.
If anything, do NOT follow Google Maps’ suggested directions for watertaxis; they get a lot of the stations wrong and will end up making you walk more than you need to. Just follow the watertaxi map and use common sense.
It’ll take about 20-30 minutes on a watertaxi to reach San Marco, the main city center of old Venice. Once you get off, you have finally set foot in the world’s only true pedestrian city: there is no car in sight and there never will be. The city is yours for the taking. Walk to your heart’s content!
With 35,000+ Starpoints that you can get instantly by signing up for SPG’s Amex credit card, you can snag free nights at Venice’s premier top 5-star hotel at The Gritti Palace.
The hostel is a historical sight in of itself, as the Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti, commissioned its construction in 1475. It was renovated only 4 years ago, perfectly blending historical opulence with modern extravagance.
It may not seem as much on the outside…
But wait ’til you see whats on the inside:
After settling in, walk on over to the city’s central square, Piazza San Marcao, aka The Piazza.
You’ll know it when you see it.
Directly facing you will be the western facade of St. Mark’s Basilica, aka the Church of Gold and a fine example of Italo-Byzantine architecture.
Entering the Basilica is free, although lines can take up to 5 hours to get inside (and it’s small enough that most people spend only 10 minutes there). If you want to skip the line, you can go online and buy “skip-the-line” tickets at pre-reserved time windows for 2 euros per person.
Bags are not allowed, so you’ll have to check them in around the corner (they’ll direct you where) at a cloakroom; it’s free to check them in up to 1 hour.
Although you’re not allowed to take photos inside Basilica San Marco, they’re not that strict with enforcing that rule:
Once you exit the Basilica on its northern side, you’ll be facing the Torre dell’Orologio, a Renaissance tower built in 1499:
A few meters in front of the Basilica is the Campanile, a newly restored cathedral tower from the 16th century.
You can take its elevator for 8 euros (no climbing any steps!) and get these views over Venice:
To the south of the Basilica and coasting the waters lies Doge’s Palace, which arguably is Venice’s main landmark. Built in Venetian-Gothic style, it was the residence of the Doge of Venice, once the supreme authority of the former Republic of Venice. It costs 20 euros to enter (and extra if you want the secret tour).
Be prepared for exquisitely ornate rooms that only could come out of a fairytale:
More interestingly in the lower levels are an elaborate network of prisons, one of which held the infamous Casanova.
If you’re visiting on an odd-numbered year you should take Watertaxi #1 a few stops east from San Marco to Giardini, an area of parkland built by Napoleon Bonaparte that now is recognized as the headquarters for a worldwide and yearlong arts exhibition that occurs every 2 years: La Biennale di Venezia, Within the park and arts showcase are a series of permanent pavilions, each hosting a country and its representative artist for that year’s Biennale.
Tickets cost 30 euros (15 euros if you have a student ID or are under 26):
The Biennale this year also hosts “open tables” where you can chat face to face with one of the artists around a large public roundtable over food.
Even the café is an eye-opener:
Have fun going from country to country! You can easily spend a whole day here.
From Giardini you can either take Watertaxi #1 a few stop west towards San Marco to Arsenale for more Biennale exhibits, or keep going to Rialto for Venice’s iconic bridge and its classic views over the Grand Canal:
On the western part of the bridge is the Rialto Market if you have a craving for fresh produce.
After Rialto, take watertaxi #2 west to S. Marcuola – Casino and walk about 5-6 minutes north to the Campo del Ghetto. A serene square to briefly collect your senses, this historic center is also known as the “Venetian Ghetto” where Jews were first compelled to live during the Venetian Republic.
Up to 1500 people had lived here, although most of them fled prior to the arrival of the Nazis during World War 2. Of the 250 or so who remained and then forcibly sent to concentration camps, only 8 returned.
Nevertheless, nearly 500 people now live in Campo del Ghetto, which remains a center of Jewish life in Venice.
At this point you should done with most of the major sights! Celebrate by hopping on Watertaxi #1 for a journey through the Grand Canal.
Once night falls and stores begin to close, you can explore the city some further:
The view from Academia Bridge is particularly nice (although Rialto’s Bridge has higher views):
Turn in with a riverside midnight snack back at your hotel:
And finally, before finishing with Venice, we must address the quintessential Venetian Gondola ride. Costing a whopping nearly non-negotiable 100 euros for a 35 minute ride (I say nearly non-negotiable because if you somehow get them to agree to anything less, you’re going to miss out on all of the secret canals they can take you to), a gondola ride could still be an experience you may regret not doing. Perhaps a way around this is to rally a group to split the 100 euros, as a gondola can fit up to 6 people.
Yes, I admit to paying a ton for this, but I definitely don’t regret it: there is something very different when you explore Venice from the level of a gondola while gliding through its lesser-known canals.
If you get a good gondolier, he (no women gondoliers are allowed yet in this male-dominated tradition) will lead you down some of better lesser-known canals while pointing out some of the top sights that can be seen in the 35 minutes that you have together.
Like, did you know Mozart had lived here, like, across the street?
Anyways, this is a 6am morning at The Gritti:
Necessary, because we needed to be out the door at 6:50am to catch the 7:01am Alialguna watertaxi to the airport. It runs every half an hour.
Say goodbye to Venice:
The watertaxi takes about an hour and 20 minutes before arriving at the airport:
Now currently enjoying some pastries and coffee at the Casa Alitalia lounge in the airport (thanks Delta status!) before the next flight to Paris.
- At time of posting in Venice, Italy, it was 66.2 °F - Humidity: 62% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: cleaar