Venice, Italy Travel Guide | Essential Tips for Where to Stay & What To Do
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I’ve traveled to Venice twice, both times by train, and there’s an unmistakable thrill as the land outside gives way to blue-green water, and in the distance, you catch glimpses of the floating city.
Once you exit the train station, Venice greets you like a vintage postcard. There are rows of houses and shops lining the canals while colorful gondolas and polished wooden water taxis bob along in the water.
VENICE ITALY TRAVELING TIPS
*Don’t worry about finding a water taxi to take you to your hotel. There are always taxi boats waiting near the train station.
*Be sure to have cash (Euros) on hand. Credit Cards are usually not an option.
*Even if you have quite a bit of luggage, the water taxi drivers are helpful in both loading and unloading your suitcases.
*A note on the Gondolas: The “decked-out” ones are quite pricey. But, if you’ve always dreamed of riding in one, by all means, do it! On the other hand, if you want to get from one canal to the next without all of the bells and whistles (and for a fraction of the cost), take a traghetto, which is basically a “stripped down” version of a Gondola. You get where you want to go, but there may be a bit less singing involved.
Although I’ve always taken a train in, you can fly directly to the Venice Marco Polo Airport.
One of the best things about Venice? No cars. Anywhere. The only engine hums are from the boats as they cruise the liquid paths back and forth between the canals.
Housed in a former convent, the Sina Centurion Palace is ideally located on the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro Sestiere next to the exquisite Santa Maria della Salute cathedral. This luxurious Venice hotel is also located within relatively easy walking distance to St Mark’s Square and other major Venice attractions.
A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the Centurion Palace features 6 floors, 50 rooms, and 1 restaurant. Antinoo’s Lounge serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with terrace views overlooking the Grand Canal.
*Note: As of 2018, there is a 40.00 tourist fee tacked on to every hotel bill, regardless of where you are staying.
If you’re looking for a more spacious room with a uniquely personal touch when you visit Venice, then you will love The Charming House, Apartment DD 724.
While the Charming House offers rooms all over Venice, the DD 724 room is located in the Dorsoduro Sestiere, with easy access to water taxis and ferries and within walking distance to most major attractions.
Torn between staying at a traditional hotel versus an apartment in the style of the Charming House? Consider the following:
*Cost: Charming House is less expensive than a traditional hotel. Most Venice hotels near St Mark’s Square are in high demand, making them difficult to reserve and also quite expensive.
*Convenience: Charming House offers a delicious breakfast and a friendly staff for concierge services, but there isn’t an on-site restaurant for those nights you want to dine on property or in the room.
*Space: If you want a more spacious room without breaking your travel budget, opt for the Charming House.
Dining in Venice
What’s on the menu in Venice? Basically anything you would like, but fresh seafood is their specialty. If you want more authentic cuisine and avoid the tourist trap (a.k.a restaurants with pictures of food on the menu outside), then getting a reservation is basically a must.
You can see what’s available on “The Fork” (an online reservation system similar to OpenTable) or call ahead. If you’re nervous about your Italian language skills, then ask a concierge to make the reservation for you.
However, since many Italians, particularly those in the restaurant industry, speak English, you’ll most likely be fine if you decide to make the reservation on your own.
Because Venice is such a vast tourist hot spot, finding authentic cuisine away from the crowds can be difficult; however, there are quite a few gems.
LUNCH & DINNER
Taverna San Trovasa: Situated on a corner, the Tavern is a bustling, friendly establishment with a satisfying selection of pasta and seafood options. Unlike most of the smaller osterias, this tavern can accommodate larger groups.
Ai Gondolieri: While a bit overpriced, Ai Gondolieri is a historically interesting spot due to many famous people who have dined there through the years.
After dining there myself, I can understand the reason for its popularity—truly delicious food with close attention to the tiny details. The appetizers of fried zucchini flowers and the traditional caprese salad were highlights, and their selection of housemade desserts was outstanding.
Al Vecio Marangon: This tiny, charming restaurant is easily missed but also quite popular with tourists and locals alike. The carciofe (artichoke) appetizer is tender and savory, and the eggplant ravioli topped with pomodoro sauce along with the cannelloni bolognese is stellar.
COCKTAILS & APERITIVO
Bar Dandolo at the Hotel Danieli: Whether or not you get the opportunity to stay at the grand and glorious Hotel Danieli, carve out a little time to sink into the velvet cushions of the Bar Dandolo and sample their aperitivo when you visit Venice.
To call it “opulent” doesn’t even do it justice. They offer an extensive cocktail list that they serve with a variety of tasty edibles consisting of large green olives, purple potato chips, and filberts.
The walls are decorated with ancient maps of Venice, and Murano glass chandeliers dangle above like colorful candies. *Note: the cocktails are priced in the 20.00 dollar range, so sip and savor slowly.
The Gritti Terrace at the Gritti Palace: Unlike the Hotel Danieli, the Gritti Palace is located directly on the Grand Canal, and its terrace offers panoramic views of the busy boats scudding back and forth along the channel.
If it’s sunny, umbrellas are stationed around the terrace to offer shade, or you can request indoor seating in the dim, cool richness of the bar. The prices are comparable to the Bar Dandolo at the Danieli.
VENICE ITALY ATTRACTIONS
Piazza San Marco, or St Mark’s Square, is the undeniable pulsing hub of Venice, Italy. People and pigeons flock to this vast, arcaded square.
Lining either side of St Mark’s Square are various luxury shops and large cafes and restaurants with grand pianos centrally positioned amongst the outdoor tables, filling the breezy air with classical music.
Standing like a red-brick sentinal in front of St Mark’s Basilica is the 324-foot campanile, or Clock Tower, originally built in the late 14th century.
The tower actually collapsed in 1902 but was quickly rebuilt and completed in 1912. An elevator is available inside to lift you to the open-air belfry, offering panoramic views of St Mark’s Square and beyond. For the “Skip the Line” tickets to this major Venice attraction, click here.
VENICE ITALY ATTRACTIONS | ST MARK’S BASILICA
It seems like there is a perpetual line of people in front of this Basilica, so if you want to tour the basilica, reserve ahead (here’s the ticket link).
We actually missed our official skip-the-line entry time, but we were let in anyway and began the slow shuffle along with the rest of the crowd over the intricately patterned stone mosaic floor. Most impressive was the gold inlay of the ceiling, gleaming down and casting a pale sheen over the columns.
Construction began on the Byzantine-style Basilica in 829 and was completed around 1071. St Mark, the patron saint of Venice whose symbol is the winged lion, is said to be buried in the Basilica.
THE DOGE’S PALACE PRIVATE TOUR
If you only take one tour, I recommend the Walks of Italy “VIP Doge’s Palace Secret Passages Tour,” which also comes with a “skip the line” entrance to St Mark’s Basilica. It currently remains the best-guided tour I have ever taken.
The tour begins in the dungeons as you slowly climb your way to the top offices and then into the attic, where rows upon rows of silvery armor and weaponry are cased in glass.
You’ll also tour the rooms where Giacomo Casanova was imprisoned and see the chair where he kept his secret tunneling equipment used to break out eventually.
Inside the famous Bridge of Sighs (the path that led the way to imprisonment), you can peer through the crisscrosses to the horde of tourists on the bridge across.
The Doge’s (Duke’s) Palace itself, with its soaring ceilings and great halls, is overflowing with art and history. The tour comes to an end in the gift shop (where else?).
*Note: If you need a bite or an espresso pick-me-up before or after touring St Mark’s Square, venture into the back streets behind the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica.
There are loads of reasonably priced options where an espresso won’t cost you 8 euros. The area is also filled with beautiful shops that offer similar items (glassware and jewelry in particular) to those in the main piazza but at a fraction of the cost.
If St Mark’s Square is the hub of Venice, then the Rialto Bridge area is its ancient heart. Known originally as the Rivo Alto, this early settlement eventually became known as “Rialto,” and this central bridge served to link the separate islands and canals.
The area is filled with vendors, selling everything from leather purses to elaborate masks to fresh fish in the market. There are even establishments that offer foot treatments involving you submersing your feet into a tank while fish nibble off your callouses.
It’s easy to get turned around in this area, and some passages lead you to dead-ends where the only options are to retrace your steps or swim the canal.
But, even if you get lost, or your feet get tired, there are piazzas everywhere lined with cafes where you can collapse for a rest and a little spritz.
My thought? You’re in Venice, so why care if you’re lost? Just enjoy it. In this day and age, you’re bound to find your way again. It’s always much harder to lose yourself.
The Basilica Maria Della Salute is an exquisitely beautiful domed church that sits at the extremest tip of the Dorsoduro Sestiere.
The chuch is circular, and the interior is filled with intriguing sculptural details with a kaleidoscopic tile floor in shades of cream, black, and brown. Entry is free, but do remember to dress appropriately.
My suggestion? Stop and take a moment to admire the views from the Basilica’s steps, looking towards St Mark’s Square and the tiny island of San Marino.
The Guidecca Canal flows behind the basilica, where large yachts and commercial vessels are docked. There’s much to be said for doing, but there’s also much to be gained from choosing to “be” in a particular moment.
If you start to grow weary of touring basilicas and palaces, spend a morning or afternoon touring the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, displaying 20th-century works of art inside the Grande Canal palace that was her home.
The permanent collection displays art and sculpture from well-known artists such as Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Pollock, and many more.
If you want to see more of Venice, Italy, and get outside the tourist-centric areas, purchase a hop-on, hop-off ticket for the Vaporetti, which can take you basically anywhere you want to go.
You can cruise the outer perimeter of the floating islands, past gardens, and the shipyards of the Castello area, eventually leading you into the Cannaregio district.
A largely residential district, a walk through the Cannaregio offers a decidedly different perspective on Venetian life.
If you’ve ever wondered where the term “ghetto” comes from, look no further than the Jewish Ghetto located in the historic Cannaregio district.
According to Venipedia.org, the “origin of the term ‘ghetto’ derived from getto, which translates to casting.
In 1492, Jewish refugees were forced to leave Spain and settle in an area in Venice, Italy. This area was Cannaregio. The Jewish people were given a curfew, and armed boats patrolled the waters and the area.”
Thankfully, that is no longer the case, and the area is fairly quiet, with arching wooden bridges spanning the narrow canals. However, if you’re in the mood to gamble, the Cannaregio is also home to the Casino di Venezia, officially the oldest casino in the world, dating back to 1638.
*Note: I did not visit the casino during either of my trips, so I can’t officially recommend it. Also, based on the Trip Advisor reviews, it might not be the best way to spend your time; however, it is a historic site and worth a mention.
EVENINGS IN VENICE
“Venice at night is a strange, enchanting place”….I wrote that in my journal the first time I visited Venice, and I feel the same having re-visited.
If I had the chance to choose what city to spend my evenings, I think Venice would win out almost every time. Although, I find it hard to pinpoint why exactly. Maybe it’s because everything is just so quiet, hidden–mysterious.
I’m enamored with the feeling of going back in time, and Venice at night makes me feel like I can and maybe have.