Top 5 Things to Do in Venice

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“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go,” American author Truman Capote had famously said.

And he couldn’t have been more right. Being in Venice is like time travel. And it is like magic, where every corner reveals something that takes your breath away.  Sometimes the city is like a dream – canals where streets should be, houses and hotels built on water, a quiet gondola parked next to a small bridge, winding alleys that feel like a maze, or the ancient cobblestone paths, water shimmering under the shining the sun, and the majestic churches. Sometimes it is more real than you can think – when the high tide leads to flooding, or when a narrow alley stinks of the water, or when you see hundreds of tourists cramming up every inch of the city’s space, or when you are at the Piazza San Marco and a pigeon shits over your head!

Venice is a city that needs to be experienced once in your lifetime. But be prepared for a beautiful, yet crowded experience.

The manager of the hotel where we stayed at told us that each day the Piazza San Marco (which is an important central square) sees anywhere around 60,000 visitors. The peak tourist season starts from April and the buzz doesn’t quite die down until November (we were there in last week of October, on a rather sunny weekend, and the number of tourists were crazy! That it also happened to be a Sunday when the Venice marathon took place, didn’t help either!)

If you are staying far from Venice, in mainland neighborhoods, it is best to get a day pass that allows unlimited access in buses and also in the water buses. A 24-hour travel card costs around 20 euros and the time count begins from first time you swipe or punch it. You must swipe it everytime you use it, because if you are caught without a valid ticket then the fine is around 50 euros or so. (PS: Unlike other places, in Venice you need to buy your bus ticket from corner shops before you begin your journey. It is possible to sometimes buy the ticket on board, particularly at late night, but during the day the driver wont always give the ticket. And if you are caught without a ticket, you will have to pay a fine.)

If you are only going to be in Venice for a weekend, like me, then here are my top recommendations on what you must do in the 48 hours in Venice:

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1. Piazza San Marco and Basilica: The Piazza San Marco or the Saint Mark’s Square is the most famous square and the major ‘tourist’ sights of Venice are located around this square. The square isn’t the most scenic part of Venice you will probably see, but the view of the Canal from here is pretty good. Take the water bus (NOT the private water taxis) line 1 or 2 and get off at the St. Mark’s station. At the Square, the St Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) is the most famous of the many churches of Venice. If you are here anytime after 10 am, be prepared to be greeted with long queues of crowd, sometimes taking as long as three hours before you turn comes to see the Basilica from inside. And rightly so. The Basilica is one of the finest examples of the Italo-Byzantine architecture in the world. The design is opulent and has gold mosaics, lending it a nickname as the ‘church of gold’. In 1807 it became the seat of the Archbishop of Venice, and since then has been the city’s cathedral.

A tip here. The Cathedral is very strict about the dress code: no bare shoulders, no shorts, and no deep necklines (or you will be asked to cover up with a scarf). Photography inside the Cathedral is not allowed.

A bird's eye view of Venice from the bell tower

A bird’s eye view of Venice from the bell tower

The Basilica also houses a museum and offers great aerial views of Venice from its roof.

Also at the Piazza is a bell tower, right opposite to the Basilica, that offers great views of Venice. At an entrance fee of 8 euros, you are treated to great panoramic views across the Venice lagoon. Again, be aware of the long queues. We were there in late afternoon so we didn’t have to wait long and a lift takes you up the tower. However, I was later told, that right across the Grand Canal is another bell tower, which remains relatively less crowded and offers great views without the trouble of having to queue up for long.

2. Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace): 

An inside view of the Doge's Palace

An inside view of the Doge’s Palace

I would put this as a must-see on your itinerary of Venice. Make sure you have at least two (or more) hours at your side when you visit the Palazzo Ducale or the Doge’s Palace. In the olden days, the Palace was the seat of the government and home of the Doge – the oldest and the highest political position in the Venetian republic.

An intricately done ceiling in one of the Palace's rooms

An intricately done ceiling in one of the Palace’s rooms

A tour of the Palace takes you through the various wings of the Palace and also to the prison. The work on the ceilings is beautiful and for most part of your visit, you will be keeping your head up as you admire the work! The most interesting part of the visit for me (and for a lot of other tourists there), however, is the view of the famous Bridge of Sighs – the name arriving from the so-called sighs of the convicts who would catch the last glimpse of Venice before being led to the prison.

(I will do a separate visual post on the interior of the Palace, because it is simply too beautiful!)

A view of the Bridge of Sighs from inside the Doge's Palace

A view of the Bridge of Sighs from inside the Doge’s Palace

You could either chose to do a tour of the Palace on your own or through the aid of an audio guide, available on request near the entrance for 5 euros. You could also chose to do the Secret Itinerary Tour, which is a guided tour available at selected time slots. It takes you through the Doge’s Palace and covers some of the rooms and chambers, palace of prisoners and the Bridge of Sighs, offering an insight into how the Venetian administration worked.

The regular ticket is priced at 16 euros for adults and is a combination ticket that gives access to various Museums under the network. The Secret Itinerary Tour is priced at 20 euros for adults.

3. Visit the islands of Murano and Burano:  Another must-do if you are in Venice! One of the reasons to visit the islands is simply because it is a much-needed relief from the heavily crowded areas of Venice! The quiet beauty of these islands will relax you! To get to the islands, you can book any of the tours that start from San Marco. We booked a 3-hour tour on Viator that took us to Murano, Burano and Torcello. The tour was priced at 20 euros per adult and included a visit to the glass blowing factory that Murano is famous for. Once at the pier, we needed to go to the designated local operator (operated by Alilaguna) and get our tickets for the boat that takes you to all the three islands, stopping for 45-minutes each.

(Left) A worker at the glass-blowing factory working with molten glass.  (Right) The final product!

(Left) A worker at the glass-blowing factory working with molten glass.
(Right) The final product!

At Murano, we visited a glass-blowing factory and also got to see a demonstration. It was quite an experience! But too bad that the souvenirs are really expensive (at least the more genuine ones are). There is nothing else to do in Murano, but you’ll finally have some good photo opportunities, away from the maddening crowd of Venice.

The island of Torcello

The island of Torcello

Next stop was Torcello, an island that has less than a dozen inhabitants. After you dock here, a 10-minute scenic walk along the canal takes you to the island’s medieval church. We didn’t get much time to visit the restaurants, but the area has some very nice places, the most famous being Cipriani, where it supposedly Ernest Hemingway spent some time.

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The last and final stop of our journey was the colorful island of Burano, famous for its different-colored houses. My excitement here was unbeatable! Burano is also known for its lace work and here you can visit many shops that keep the tradition alive. The town square is a delightful little place, with many cafes and lace shops.

The Rialto Bridge at night

The Rialto Bridge at night

4. Tour around the Grand Canal, especially at night: A tour of Venice is incomplete if you don’t cruise along the Grand Canal. After all, what better way to appreciate a city built on water than a cruising along the Grand Canal as stories of Venice come alive in front of your eyes! And it doesn’t have to be expensive. Sure, many of you would have thought of a gondola ride in Venice as one of the top romantic things to do – the idea of sitting in a gondola, with a handsome gondolier in his striped shirt and hat, singing ‘Amore mio’ is how most of us have pictured Venice. But, the fact is gondola rides are expensive at 80 euros for a 40 minute ride. And nobody sings anymore. You might have to pay your gondolier a little extra if you want him to sing. Also, the cost is for a gondola that carries 4-6 people. If you want a gondola ride for just you and your partner, you will have to pay the full amount yourself. At night, the cost of gondola goes up t0 a 100 euros. I am not discouraging you to not take a gondola ride. I mean it is one of those things that are so intrinsic to Venice, that it can be very natural to feel that you need to do this when you are Venice, or something feels amiss. So i leave it upto you.

"A wondrous city of fairest carving, reflected in gleaming waters swirled to new patterning by every passing gondola" ~ Sylvia Pankhurst

“A wondrous city of fairest carving, reflected in gleaming waters swirled to new patterning by every passing gondola” ~ Sylvia Pankhurst

But here’s a good alternative: Take the vaporetti (the large shared boats that operate as water buses around the canal) line 1 or 2 from P. Roma. Find yourself a nice spot on the boat (try taking this towards the evening when most of the tourist crowd has gone so that you can get a place. For the first day when we took this line, it was so full that we had to stand cramped to a hundred other tourists.) and cruise along the canal, taking in the views. Line 1 ends at Lido, an island off Venice and it basically covers the entire Grand Canal in its route. At just 1.50 euro, for a single way ticket, you will be able to enjoy the Grand Canal in all its glory. Enjoy Venice at your pace!

And if you take the cruise at night, you will know why Venice is high on list of every person, traveler or not! The old style buildings, bathed in the night light, paint a beautiful picture. And you just have to, have to, see the Rialto Bridge lit up at night!

Discovering the hidden gems within the alleys of Venice is half the fun!

Discovering the hidden gems within the alleys of Venice is half the fun!

5. Get lost in the alleys: Forget all that is written here and learn the art of getting lost in the alleyways of Venice! You have done the sightseeing, you have ticked off all things to do from your itinerary, so now what? Get off the boat and put your sports shoes to work. If you thought Venice on boat is beautiful, just wait till you start walking in the alleys and the backstreets of Venice! Grab a map (or don’t) and start from one point. You will be amazed with how different the character of the city is.

We found this delightful bakery dating back to 1906 while walking around one of the many alleys!

We found this delightful bakery dating back to 1906 while walking around one of the many alleys!

I loved the narrow lanes and the cobblestone pathways. You will see the windows adorned with flowers. You will cross through a small bridge. You will find a lone gondola parked to a deck. Just lose yourself in the secrets of Venice – but don’t follow that too literally! It is very easy to get lost in alleys, and even the natives of Venice confess to having lost their way in the almost identical alleys.

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Keep a map handy with you, and keep looking out for the yellow signs on buildings that will always guide you to the major tourist point (P. Roma, Rialto or San Marco). And if you get too tired walking in the maze of lanes, use these signs to find your way out to the main streets to take the boat again.

A tip: Be careful of the street hawkers trying to sell you fake designer bags and other touristy stuff. Also, Venice is known for pick pockets, so keep your belongings safe.

Is Venice on your bucket list? Or you have been to Venice and have a great travel tale to share? Write in at backpackingcroissants@gmail.com if you’d like to write a guest post and share your travel stories with the world!

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