Best of Italy - Rick Steves (2016)
Venice. Central Italy
Venice is a world apart. Built on a hundred islands, its exotic-looking palaces are laced together by graceful bridges over sun-speckled canals. Romantics revel in the city’s atmosphere of elegant decay, seeing the peeling plaster as a metaphor for beauty in decline. And first-time visitors are often stirred deeply, waking from their ordinary lives to a fantasy world unlike anything they’ve ever seen.
Those are strong reactions, considering that Venice today, frankly, can also be an overcrowded tourist trap. While there are about 270,000 people in greater Venice (counting the mainland, not counting tourists), the old town has a small-town feel. To see small-town Venice away from the touristic flak, escape the Rialto-San Marco tourist zone and savor the town early and late. At night, when the hordes of day-trippers have gone, another Venice appears. Glide in a gondola through quiet canals. Dance across a floodlit square. Pretend it’s Carnevale, don a mask—or just a clean shirt—and become someone else for a night.
VENICE IN 2 DAYS
Venice’s greatest sight is the city itself, easily worth two days. It can be Europe’s best medieval wander if you make time to stroll and explore.
Day 1: In the morning, take the slow vaporetto #1 from the train station down the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square. Stop off midway at the Rialto market (Rialto Mercato) to grab an early lunch at the cicchetti (appetizer) bars nearby. Resume your ride down the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square. Spend the afternoon on the square, exploring St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace, Bridge of Sighs, the Correr Museum, and Campanile bell tower (open late in summer).
On any evening: Do a pub crawl for dinner (except on Sun, when most pubs are closed), or dine later at a restaurant. Enjoy a gondola ride (or, the budget version, a moonlit vaporetto, ideally one with open-air front seats). Catch a Vivaldi concert. Hum along with the dueling orchestras on St. Mark’s Square, whether you get a drink or just stroll.
Day 2: Spend the morning shopping and exploring as you make your way over the Rialto Bridge to the Frari Church for the art. Head to the Dorsoduro neighborhood for lunch, then devote the afternoon to more art—at the Accademia (Venetian art), Peggy Guggenheim Collection (modern art), and Ca’ Rezzonico (18th-century palace).
Too many museums? Go on a photo safari through back streets and canals. Or take a short vaporetto trip to the San Giorgio Maggiore island for a sublime view of Venice.
With extra time: Visit the lagoon islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello. For beach time, it’s the Lido (across the lagoon via vaporetto). The nearby towns of Padua (with Giotto’s frescoed Scrovegni Chapel—reserve ahead) and Verona (with a Roman amphitheater) make great day trips or stops to or from Venice.
Rick’s Tip: Venice is crowded with cruise-ship passengers and day-trippers daily from 10:00 to about 17:00. Major sights are busiest in the late morning, which makes that a delightful time to explore the back lanes. The sights that have crowd problems get even more packed when it rains.
Venice is shaped like a fish. Its major thoroughfares are canals. The Grand Canal winds through the middle of the fish, starting at the mouth where all the people and food enter, passing under the Rialto Bridge, and ending at St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco). Park your 21st-century perspective at the mouth and let Venice swallow you whole.
Venice has six districts (sestieri): San Marco (from St. Mark’s Square to the Accademia Bridge), Castello (the area east of St. Mark’s Square), Dorsoduro (the “belly” of the fish, on the far side of the Accademia Bridge), Cannaregio (between the train station and the Rialto Bridge), San Polo (west of the Rialto Bridge), and Santa Croce (the “eye” of the fish, across the canal from the train station).
▲▲▲St. Mark’s Square Venice’s grand main square. Hours: Always open. See here.
▲▲▲St. Mark’s Basilica Cathedral with mosaics, saint’s bones, treasury, museum, and viewpoint of square. Hours: Mon-Sat 9:45-17:00, Sun 14:00-17:00 (until 16:00 Nov-Easter). See here.
▲▲▲Doge’s Palace Art-splashed palace of former rulers, with prison accessible through Bridge of Sighs. Hours: Daily April-Oct 8:30-19:00, Nov-March 8:30-17:30. See here.
▲▲▲Rialto Bridge Distinctive bridge spanning the Grand Canal, with a market nearby. Hours: Bridge—always open; market—souvenir stalls open daily, produce market closed Sun, fish market closed Sun-Mon. See here.
▲▲Correr Museum Venetian history and art. Hours: Daily April-Oct 10:00-19:00, Nov-March 10:00-17:00. See here.
▲▲Accademia Venice’s top art museum. Hours: Mon 8:15-14:00, Tue-Sun 8:15-19:15. See here.
▲▲Peggy Guggenheim Collection Popular display of 20th-century art. Hours: Wed-Mon 10:00-18:00, closed Tue. See here.
▲▲Frari Church Franciscan church featuring Renaissance masters. Hours: Mon-Sat 9:00-18:00, Sun 13:00-18:00. See here.
▲▲Scuola San Rocco “Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel.” Hours: Daily 9:30-17:30. See here.
▲Campanile Dramatic bell tower on St. Mark’s Square with elevator to the top. Hours: Daily Easter-June and Oct 9:00-19:00, July-Sept 9:00-21:00; Nov-Easter 9:30-15:45. See here.
▲Bridge of Sighs Famous enclosed bridge, part of Doge’s Palace, near St. Mark’s Square. Hours: Always viewable. See here.
▲La Salute Church Striking church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Hours: Daily 9:00-12:00 & 15:00-17:30. See here.
▲Ca’ Rezzonico Posh Grand Canal palazzo with 18th-century Venetian art. Hours: Wed-Mon 10:00-18:00, Nov-March until 17:00, closed Tue year-round. See here.
▲▲Burano Sleepy island known for lacemaking and lace museum. Hours: Museum open Tue-Sun 10:00-18:00, Nov-March until 17:00, closed Mon year-round. See here.
▲San Giorgio Maggiore Island facing St. Mark’s Square, featuring church with Palladio architecture, Tintoretto paintings, and fine views back on Venice. Hours: daily 9:00-19:00, Nov-March closes at dusk. See here.
▲Murano Island famous for glass factories and glassmaking museum. Hours: Glass Museum open daily 10:00-18:00, Nov-March until 17:00. See here.
▲Torcello Near-deserted island with old church, bell tower, and museum. Hours: Church—daily March-Oct 10:30-18:00, Nov-Feb 10:00-17:00; museum—closed Mon. See here.
▲Lido Family-friendly beach. See here.
San Michele Cemetery island on the lagoon. Hours: Daily 7:30-18:00, Oct-March until 16:30. See here.
The easiest way to navigate is by landmarks. Many street corners have a sign pointing you to (per) the nearest major landmark, such as San Marco, Accademia, Rialto, Ferrovia (train station), and Piazzale Roma (the bus station). Determine whether your destination is in the direction of a major signposted landmark, then follow the signs through the maze. Obedient visitors stick to the main thoroughfares as directed by these signs...but miss the charm of back-street Venice.
Beyond the city’s core lie several other islands, including San Giorgio Maggiore (with great views of Venice), San Michele (old cemetery), Murano (famous for glass), Burano (lacemaking), Torcello (old church), and the skinny Lido (with Venice’s beach). The island that matters to drivers is Tronchetto, with the huge parking lot at the entrance to Venice.
Rick’s Tip: It’s OK to get lost in Venice. Remind yourself, “I’m on an island, and I can’t get off.” When it comes time to find your way, just follow the arrows on building corners or simply ask a local, “Dov’è San Marco?” (“Where is St. Mark’s?”) Most Venetians speak some English. If they don’t, listen politely, watch where their hands point, say “Grazie,” and head in that direction. If you’re lost, pop into a hotel and ask for their business card—it probably comes with a map and a prominent “You are here.”
Venice’s TIs are understaffed and don’t have many free printed materials. Their website, www.turismovenezia.it, can be more helpful than an actual TI office. If you need to check or confirm something, try phoning the TI at 041-529-8711. Other useful websites are www.aguestinvenice.com (sights and events), www.veniceforvisitors.com (general travel advice), www.venicelink.com (public and private transportation tickets), and www.museiciviciveneziani.it (city-run museums in Venice).
If you must visit a TI, you’ll find offices near St. Mark’s Square (daily 8:30-19:00, in the far-left corner with your back to the basilica), at the airport (daily 9:00-20:00), next to the bus station (daily 8:30-14:00, inside the huge white parking garage building), and inside the train station, along track 1 (daily 8:30-19:00). You’ll also find an info and ticket stand in a big white kiosk in front of the station near the vaporetto stop. This kiosk is run by local transport companies and mainly sells transportation and event tickets, but they provide helpful information (daily 9:00-16:00).
Rick’s Tip: Beware of travel agencies that masquerade as TIs but serve fancy hotels and tour companies. They’re in the business of selling things you don’t need.
Maps: Venice demands a good map. Hotels give away freebies, but it’s worth investing in a good one (around €5) that shows all the tiny alleys; they’re sold at bookstores and newstands. Also consider a mapping app for your smartphone. The City Maps 2Go app has good maps that are searchable even when you’re not online.
Venice offers an array of passes for sightseeing and transit. For most people, the best choice is the Museum Pass, which covers entry into the Doge’s Palace, Correr Museum, Ca’ Rezzonico (Museum of 18th-Century Venice), and sights on the islands: the Glass Museum on Murano, and the Lace Museum on Burano. At €24, this pass is the best value if you plan to see the Doge’s Palace/Correr Museum and even just one of the other covered museums. (Families get a small price break on multiple passes.) Buy it at any of the participating museums or, for €0.50 extra, via links on their websites.
Note that some major sights are not covered on any pass, including the Accademia, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Scuola San Rocco, and the Campanile, along with the three sights within St. Mark’s Basilica that charge admission.
Light sightseers could get by with just an €18 combo-ticket that covers both the Doge’s Palace and the Correr Museum. To bypass the long line at the palace, buy your combo-ticket at the never-crowded Correr (or online for a €0.50 surcharge).
I’d skip the Venice Card (a.k.a. “city pass,” covers 11 city-run museums and 16 churches for €40) and the cheaper San Marco Pack (covers Doge’s Palace and several sights for €26). It’s hard to make either of these passes pay off (valid for 7 days, www.veneziaunica.com).
Rolling Venice is a youth pass offering discounts at dozens of sights and shops, but its best deal is for transit. If you’re under 30 and want to buy a 72-hour transit pass, it’ll cost you just €20—rather than €40 (€4 pass for ages 14-29, sold at TIs and VèneziaUnica shops, www.veneziaunica.com).
To sightsee on your own, download my free audio tours that illuminate some of Venice’s top sights (see here).
Avventure Bellissime Venice Tours offers several two-hour walks, including a St. Mark’s Square tour called the “Original Venice Walking Tour” (€25, includes church entry, most days at 11:00, Sun at 14:00); a 60-minute private boat tour of the Grand Canal (€46, daily at 16:30, eight people maximum); and more. Rick Steves readers get a 10 percent discount on full-priced tours (email them for promo code, then book online, tel. 041-970-499, www.tours-italy.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Debonair guide Alessandro Schezzini organizes two-hour Venetian pub tours, including appetizers and wine at three pubs (€35/person, any night on request at 18:00, depart from top of Rialto Bridge, better to book by email—email@example.com—than by phone, mobile 335-530-9024, www.schezzini.it).
Artviva Tours offers many intro and themed tours (Grand Canal, Venice Walk, Doge’s Palace, Gondola Tour), plus a €80 “Learn to Be a Gondolier” tour. Rick Steves readers get a 10 percent discount (at www.artviva.com/ricksteves, username “ricksteves” and password “reader”).
Walks Inside Venice is a dynamic duo of women—and their tour-guide colleagues—enthusiastic about teaching in Venice and outlying destinations (€225/3 hours per group up to 6; €62.50 for a 14:30 Mon-Sat 2.5-hour walking tour; Roberta: mobile 347-253-0560; Sara: mobile 335-522-9714; www.walksinsidevenice.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Tour Leader Venice, a.k.a. Treviso Car Service, offers transfers (e.g., to/from airport) and tours outside of Venice, including the Dolomites (mobile 348-900-0700; www.trevisocarservice.com, email@example.com).
Theft and Safety: The dark, late-night streets of Venice are generally safe. Even so, pickpockets (often well dressed) work the crowded main streets, docks, and vaporetti. Your biggest risk is inside St. Mark’s Basilica, near the Accademia and Rialto bridges, or on a tightly packed vaporetto.
A handy polizia station is on the right side of St. Mark’s Square as you face the basilica (at #63, near Caffè Florian). To call the police, dial 113. The Venice TI handles complaints—which must be submitted in writing—about crooks, including gondoliers, restaurants, and hotel rip-offs (fax 041-523-0399, firstname.lastname@example.org).
It’s illegal for street vendors to sell knockoff handbags, and it’s also illegal for you to buy them; both you and the vendor can get big fines.
Medical Help: Venice’s Santi Giovanni e Paolo hospital (tel. 118) is a 10-minute walk from both the Rialto and San Marco neighborhoods, located behind the big church of the same name on Fondamenta dei Mendicanti (toward Fondamente Nove). You can take vaporetto #4.1 from San Zaccaria, or #5.2 from the train station or Piazzale Roma, to the Ospedale stop.
Sunday: While anyone is welcome to worship, most churches are closed to sightseers on Sunday morning. They reopen in the afternoon: St. Mark’s Basilica (14:00-17:00, until 16:00 Nov-Easter) and Frari Church (13:00-18:00). The Rialto open-air market’s fish and produce sections are closed, as are most pubs.
Monday: All sights are open except the Rialto fish market, Lace Museum (on the island of Burano), and Torcello church museum (on the island of Torcello). The Accademia closes at 14:00. Don’t side-trip to Verona today, as most sights there are closed in the morning, if not all day.
Tuesday: All sights are open except the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and Ca’ Rezzonico (Museum of 18th-Century Venice).
Wednesday/Thursday/Friday: All sights are open.
Notes: The Accademia is open earlier (daily at 8:15) and closes later (19:15 Tue-Sun) than most sights in Venice. Some sights close earlier off-season (such as the Correr Museum, Campanile bell tower, St. Mark’s Basilica, and Church of San Giorgio Maggiore).
Internet Access: Almost all hotels have Wi-Fi, many have a computer that guests can use, and most provide these services for free. A few shops with pricey Internet access can be found on back streets (€5/hour, marked with an @ sign).
Water: Carry a water bottle to refill at public fountains fed by pure, safe water piped in from the foothills of the Alps.
Public Toilets: Public pay WCs are near major landmarks, including St. Mark’s Square (behind the Correr Museum and at the waterfront park, Giardinetti Reali), Rialto, and the Accademia Bridge. Use free toilets in any museum or any café you’re eating in, or get a drink at a bar and use their WC for free.
Travel Agencies: If you need to get train tickets or make seat reservations, save a trip to the train station and head to Oltrex Change and Travel near St. Mark’s Square. They charge a €5-per-ticket fee (daily 9:00-13:00 & 14:00-17:30, closed Sun Nov-April; on Riva degli Schiavoni, one bridge past the Bridge of Sighs at Castello 4192, faces San Zaccaria vaporetto stop; tel. 041-476-1926, Luca and Beatrice). Otherwise, Agenzie 365, in the train station’s main lobby, sells vaporetto and train tickets and has shorter lines than the ticket windows (8 percent surcharge on train tickets, daily 8:00-20:00, tel. 041-275-9412).
GRAND CANAL CRUISE
Take a joyride and introduce yourself to Venice by boat, an experience worth ▲▲▲. Cruise the Grand Canal all the way to St. Mark’s Square, starting at the train station (Ferrovia) or the bus station (Piazzale Roma).
If it’s your first trip down the Grand Canal, you might want to stow this book and just take it all in—Venice is a barrage on the senses that hardly needs narration. But these notes give the cruise a little meaning and help orient you to this great city.
You can break up the tour by hopping on and off at various sights described in greater depth later in the chapter. Just remember: a single-fare vaporetto ticket is good for just one hour; passes let you hop on and off all day.
I’ve organized this tour by boat stop. I’ll point out both what you can see from the current stop, and what to look forward to as you cruise to the next stop.
Length of This Tour: Allow 45 minutes.
Cost: €7 for a one-hour vaporetto ticket, or covered by a transit pass—the best choice if you want to hop on and off.
Getting There: This tour starts at the Ferrovia vaporetto stop (at Santa Lucia train station). It also works if you board upstream from Ferrovia at Piazzale Roma, a five-minute walk over the Calatrava Bridge from the Ferrovia stop.
Catching Your Boat: This tour is designed for slow boat #1 (which takes about 45 minutes). The express boat #2 travels the same route, but it skips some stops and takes 25 minutes, making it hard to sightsee. Also, some #2 boats terminate at Rialto; confirm that you’re on a boat that goes all the way to San Marco.
Where to Sit: You’re more likely to find an empty seat if you catch the vaporetto at Piazzale Roma. Try to snag a seat in the bow—in front of the captain’s bridge—for the perfect vantage point for spotting sights left, right, and forward. Not all boats have seats in the bow, but some of the older vaporetti do. Otherwise, your options are sitting inside (and viewing the passing sights through windows); standing in the open middle deck; or sitting outside in the back (where you’ll miss the wonderful forward views). The left side of the boat has a slight edge, with more sights and the best light late in the day.
Stops to Consider: Some interesting stops are Mercato Rialto (fish market and famous bridge), Ca’ Rezzonico (Museum of 18th-Century Venice), Accademia (art museum and the nearby Peggy Guggenheim Collection), and Salute (huge art-filled church).
Audio Tour: If you download my free audio tour (see here), you won’t even have to look at the book.
The Grand Canal is Venice’s “Main Street.” At more than two miles long, nearly 150 feet wide, and nearly 15 feet deep, it’s the city’s largest canal, lined with its most impressive palaces. It’s the remnant of a river that once spilled from the mainland into the Adriatic. The sediment it carried formed barrier islands that cut Venice off from the sea, forming a lagoon.
Venice was built on the marshy islands of the former delta, sitting on wood pilings driven nearly 15 feet into the clay (alder was the preferred wood). About 25 miles of canals drain the city, dumping like streams into the Grand Canal. Technically, Venice has only three canals: Grand, Giudecca, and Cannaregio. The 45 small waterways that dump into the Grand Canal are referred to as rivers (e.g., Rio Novo).
Venice is a city of palaces, dating from the days when the city was the world’s richest. The most lavish palaces formed a grand architectural cancan along the Grand Canal. Once frescoed in reds and blues, with black-and-white borders and gold-leaf trim, they made Venice a city of dazzling color. This cruise is the only way to truly appreciate the palaces, approaching them at water level, where their main entrances were located. Today, strict laws prohibit any changes in these buildings. So while landowners gnash their teeth, we can enjoy Europe’s best-preserved medieval city—slowly rotting. Many of the grand buildings are now vacant. Others harbor chandeliered elegance above mossy, empty, often flooded ground floors.
Start reading the tour when your vaporetto reaches Ferrovia.
1 Ferrovia M
The Santa Lucia train station, one of the few modern buildings in town, was built in 1954. It’s been the gateway into Venice since 1860, when the first station was built. “F.S.” stands for “Ferrovie dello Stato,” the Italian state railway system.
More than 20,000 people a day commute in from the mainland, making this the busiest part of Venice during rush hour. The Calatrava Bridge, just upstream, was built in 2008 to alleviate some of the congestion.
2 Riva de Biasio M
Venice’s main thoroughfare is busy with all kinds of boats: taxis, police boats, garbage boats, ambulances, construction cranes, and even brown-and-white UPS boats. Somehow they all manage to share the canal in relative peace.
About 25 yards past the Riva de Biasio stop, look left down the broad Cannaregio Canal to see what was the Jewish Ghetto. The twin, pale-pink, six-story “skyscrapers”—the tallest buildings you’ll see at this end of the canal—are reminders of how densely populated the community was. Founded in 1516 near a copper foundry (a geto), this segregated community gave us our word “ghetto.”
3 San Marcuola M
At this stop, facing a tiny square just ahead, stands the unfinished Church of San Marcuola, one of only five churches fronting the Grand Canal. Centuries ago, this canal was a commercial drag of expensive real estate in high demand by wealthy merchants. About 20 yards ahead on the right (across the Grand Canal) stands the stately gray Turkish “Fondaco” Exchange, one of the oldest houses in Venice. Its horseshoe arches and roofline of triangles are reminders of its Byzantine heritage. Turbaned Turkish traders docked here, unloaded their goods into the warehouse on the bottom story, then went upstairs for a home-style meal and a place to sleep. Venice in the 1500s was cosmopolitan, welcoming every religion and ethnicity—so long as they carried cash. (Today the building contains the city’s Museum of Natural History—and Venice’s only dinosaur skeleton.)
Just 100 yards ahead on the left, Venice’s Casinò is housed in the palace where German composer Richard Wagner (The Ring) died in 1883. See his distinct, strong-jawed profile in the white plaque on the brick wall. In the 1700s, Venice was Europe’s Vegas, with casinos and prostitutes everywhere. Casinòs (“little houses” in Venetian dialect) have long provided Italians with a handy escape from daily life. Today, they’re run by the state to keep Mafia influence at bay. Notice the fancy front porch, which greets high rollers arriving by taxi or hotel boat.
4 San Stae M
The San Stae Church sports a delightful Baroque facade. Opposite the San Stae stop is a little canal opening. On the second building to the right of that opening, look for the peeling plaster that once made up frescoes (you can barely distinguish the scant remains of little angels on the lower floors). Imagine the facades of the Grand Canal at their finest. Most of them would have been covered in frescoes by the best artists of the day. As colorful as the city is today, it’s still only a faded, sepia-toned remnant of a long-gone era, a time of lavishly decorated, brilliantly colored palaces.
Just ahead, jutting out on the right, is the ornate white facade of Ca’ Pesaro, which houses the International Gallery of Modern Art. “Ca’” is short for casa (house).
In this city of masks, notice how the rich marble facades along the Grand Canal mask what are generally just simple, no-nonsense brick buildings. Most merchants enjoyed showing off. However, being smart businessmen, they only decorated the side of the buildings that would be seen and appreciated. But look back as you pass Ca’ Pesaro. It’s the only building you’ll see with a fine side facade. Ahead, on the left (just before the next stop), is Ca’ d’Oro with its glorious triple-decker medieval arcade.
Grand Canal Map Key
2 Riva de Biasio
3 San Marcuola
4 San Stae
5 Ca’ d’Oro
6 Mercato Rialto
8 San Silvestro
10 San Tomà
11 Ca’ Rezzonico
13 Santa Maria del Giglio
15 San Marco
16 San Zaccaria
5 Ca’ d’Oro M
The lacy Ca’ d’Oro (House of Gold) is the best example of Venetian Gothic architecture on the canal. Its three stories offer different variations on balcony design, topped with a spiny white roofline. Venetian Gothic mixes traditional Gothic (pointed arches and round medallions stamped with a four-leaf clover) with Byzantine styles (tall, narrow arches atop thin columns), filled in with Islamic frills. Like all the palaces, this was originally painted and gilded to make it even more glorious than it is now. Today the Ca’ d’Oro is an art gallery.
Look at the Venetian chorus line of palaces in front of the boat. On the right is the arcade of the covered fish market, with the open-air produce market just beyond (closed Sun). It bustles in the morning but is quiet the rest of the day. This is a great scene to wander through—even though European Union hygiene standards have made it cleaner but less colorful than it once was.
Find the traghetto gondola ferrying shoppers—standing like Washington crossing the Delaware—back and forth. There are seven traghetto crossings along the Grand Canal, each one marked by a classy low-key green-and-black sign. Driving a traghetto isn’t these gondoliers’ normal day jobs. As a public service, all gondoliers are obliged to row the traghetto a few days a month. Make a point to use them. At €2 a ride, traghetti offer the cheapest gondola rides in Venice (but at this price, don’t expect them to sing to you).
6 Mercato Rialto M
Boats stop here (but only between 8:00 and 20:00) to serve the busy market. The long and officious-looking building at this stop is the Venice courthouse. Straight ahead in the distance, rising above the huge post office, is the tip of the Campanile (bell tower), crowned by its golden angel at St. Mark’s Square, where this tour will end. The German Exchange (100 yards directly ahead, on left side) was the trading center for German metal merchants in the early 1500s (once a post office, it will soon be a shopping center).
You’ll cruise by some trendy and beautifully situated wine bars on the right, but look ahead as you round the corner and see the impressive Rialto Bridge come into view.
A major landmark of Venice, the Rialto Bridge is lined with shops and tourists. Constructed in 1588, it’s the third bridge built on this spot. Until the 1850s, this was the only bridge crossing the Grand Canal. With a span of 160 feet and foundations stretching 650 feet on either side, the Rialto was a massive engineering feat in its day. Earlier Rialto Bridges could open to let big ships in, but not this one. When this new bridge was completed, much of the Grand Canal was closed to shipping and became a canal of palaces.
When gondoliers pass under the fat arch of the Rialto Bridge, they take full advantage of its acoustics: “Volare, oh, oh...”
7 Rialto M
Rialto, a separate town in the early days of Venice, has always been the commercial district, while San Marco was the religious and governmental center. Today, a winding street called the Mercerie connects the two, providing travelers with human traffic jams and a mesmerizing gauntlet of shopping temptations. This is the only stretch of the historic Grand Canal with landings upon which you can walk. They unloaded the city’s basic necessities here: oil, wine, charcoal, iron. Today, the quay is lined with tourist-trap restaurants.
Venice’s sleek, black, graceful gondolas are a symbol of the city (for more on gondolas, see here). With about 500 gondoliers joyriding amid the churning vaporetti, there’s a lot of congestion on the Grand Canal. Pay attention—this is where most of the gondola and vaporetto accidents take place. While the Rialto is the highlight of many gondola rides, gondoliers understandably prefer the quieter small canals. Watch your vaporetto driver curse the better-paid gondoliers.
8 San Silvestro M
We now enter a long stretch of important merchants’ palaces, each with proud and different facades. Because ships couldn’t navigate beyond the Rialto Bridge, the biggest palaces—with the major shipping needs—line this last stretch of the navigable Grand Canal.
Palaces like these were multifunctional: ground floor for the warehouse, offices and showrooms upstairs, and the living quarters above the offices on the “noble floors” (with big windows designed to let in maximum light). Servants lived and worked on the top floors (with the smallest windows). For fire-safety reasons, the kitchens were also located on the top floors. Peek into the noble floors to catch a glimpse of their still-glorious chandeliers of Murano glass.
9 Sant’Angelo M
Notice how many buildings have a foundation of waterproof white stone (pietra d’Istria) upon which the bricks sit high and dry. Many canal-level floors are abandoned as the rising water level takes its toll.
The posts—historically painted gaily with the equivalent of family coats of arms—don’t rot underwater. But the wood at the waterline, where it’s exposed to oxygen, does. On the smallest canals, little blue gondola signs indicate that these docks are for gondolas only (no taxis or motor boats).
10 San Tomà M
Fifty yards ahead, on the right side (with twin obelisks on the rooftop) stands Palazzo Balbi, the palace of an early-17th-century captain general of the sea. This palace, like so many in the city, flies three flags: Italy (green-white-red), the European Union (blue with ring of stars), and Venice (a lion on a field of red and gold).
Just past the admiral’s palace, look immediately to the right, down a side canal. On the right side of that canal, before the bridge, see the traffic light and the fire station (the 1930s Mussolini-era building with four arches hiding fireboats parked and ready to go).
Best Views in Venice
✵ A slow vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal on a sunny day—or a misty early morning—is a shutterbug’s delight.
✵ On St. Mark’s Square, enjoy views from the soaring Campanile or the balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica (both require admission).
✵ The Rialto and Accademia Bridges provide free, expansive views of the Grand Canal, along with a cooling breeze.
✵ Get off the main island for a view of the Venetian skyline: Ascend San Giorgio Maggiore’s bell tower, or venture to Giudecca Island to visit the swanky bar of the Molino Stucky Hilton Hotel (free shuttle boat leaves from near the San Zaccaria-M.V.E. vaporetto dock).
The impressive Ca’ Foscari, with a classic Venetian facade (on the corner, across from the fire station), dominates the bend in the canal. This is the main building of the University of Venice, which has about 25,000 students. Notice the elegant lamp on the corner—needed in the old days to light this intersection.
The grand, heavy, white Ca’ Rezzonico, just before the stop of the same name, houses the Museum of 18th-Century Venice (see here). Across the canal is the cleaner and leaner Palazzo Grassi, the last major palace built on the canal, erected in the late 1700s. It was purchased by a French tycoon and now displays a contemporary art collection.
11 Ca’ Rezzonico M
Up ahead, the Accademia Bridge leads over the Grand Canal to the Accademia Gallery (right side), filled with the best Venetian paintings (see here). The bridge was put up in 1934 as a temporary structure. Locals liked it, so it stayed. It was rebuilt in 1984 in the original style.
12 Accademia M
From here, look through the graceful bridge and way ahead to enjoy a classic view of La Salute Church, topped by a crown-shaped dome supported by scrolls. This Church of Saint Mary of Good Health was built to thank God for delivering Venetians from the devastating plague of 1630 (which had killed about a third of the city’s population).
The low, white building among greenery (100 yards ahead, on the right, between the Accademia Bridge and the church) is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The American heiress “retired” here, sprucing up a palace that had been abandoned mid-construction. Peggy willed the city her fine collection of modern art (see here).
As you approach the next stop, notice on the right how the line of higgledy-piggledy palaces evokes old-time Venice. Two doors past the Guggenheim, Palazzo Dario has a great set of characteristic funnel-shaped chimneys. These forced embers through a loop-the-loop channel until they were dead—required in the days when stone palaces were surrounded by humble, wooden buildings, and a live spark could make a merchant’s workforce homeless. Three doors farther is the Salviati building, which once served as a glassworks. Its Art Nouveau mosaic, done in the early 20th century, features Venice as a queen being appreciated by the big shots of society.
13 Santa Maria del Giglio M
Back on the left stands the fancy Gritti Palace hotel. Hemingway and Woody Allen both stayed here (but not together).
Take a deep whiff of Venice. What’s all this nonsense about stinky canals? All I smell is my shirt. By the way, how’s your captain? Smooth dockings? To get to know him, stand up in the bow and block his view.
14 Salute M
The huge La Salute Church towers overhead as if squirted from a can of Catholic Reddi-wip.
As the Grand Canal opens up into the lagoon, the last building on the right with the golden ball is the 17th-century Customs House, which now houses the Punta della Dogana contemporary art museum. Its two bronze Atlases hold a statue of Fortune riding the ball. Arriving ships stopped here to pay their tolls.
La Salute Church
Is Venice Sinking?
Venice has battled rising water levels since the fifth century. Several factors, both natural and artificially-constructed, cause Venice to flood about 100 times a year—usually from October until late winter—a phenomenon called the acqua alta.
Venice sits atop sediments deposited at the ancient mouth of the Po River, which are still settling. Early industrial projects, such as offshore piers and the bridge to the mainland, affected the sea floor and tidal cycles, making the city more vulnerable to flooding. Twentieth-century industry pumped massive amounts of groundwater out of the aquifer beneath the lagoon for nearly 50 years before the government stopped the practice in the 1970s. In the last century, Venice has sunk by about nine inches.
Meanwhile, the waters around Venice are rising, especially in winter. The notorious acqua alta happens when an unusually high tide combines with strong winds and a storm. When a storm—an area of low pressure—travels over a body of water, it pulls the surface of the water up into a dome. As strong sirocco winds from Africa blow storms north up the Adriatic, they push this high water ahead of the front, causing a surging tide. Add the worldwide sea-level rise that’s resulted from climate change, and the high sea gets that much higher.
During the acqua alta, the first puddles appear in the center of paved squares, pooling around the limestone grates. These grates cover cisterns that long held Venice’s only source of drinking water. Surrounded by the lagoon and beset by constant flooding, this city had no natural source of fresh water. For centuries, residents carried water from the mainland. In the ninth century, they devised a way to collect rainwater by using paved, cleverly sloped squares as catchment systems, with limestone filters covering underground clay tubs. Venice’s population grew markedly once citizens were able to access fresh water from these “wells.” Several thousand cisterns provided the city with drinking water up until 1886, when an aqueduct was built. Now the wells are capped, and rain drains from squares into the lagoon—or up from it, as the case may be.
In 2003, a consortium of engineering firms began construction on the MOSE Project. Named for the acronym of its Italian name, Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, it’s also a nod to Moses and his (albeit temporary) mastery over the sea. Underwater gates are being installed on the floor of the sea at the three inlets where it enters Venice’s lagoon. When the seawater rises above a certain level, air will be pumped into the gates, causing them to rise and shut out the Adriatic. Will it work? Time and tides will tell.
15 San Marco M
Up ahead on the left, the green pointed tip of the Campanile marks St. Mark’s Square, the political and religious center of Venice...and the final destination of this tour. You could get off at the San Marco stop and go straight to St. Mark’s Square (and you’ll have to if you’re on vaporetto #2, which terminates here). But I’m staying on the #1 boat for one more stop, just past St. Mark’s Square (it’s a quick walk back).
Survey the lagoon. Opposite St. Mark’s Square, across the water, the ghostly white church with the pointy bell tower is San Giorgio Maggiore, with great views of Venice (see here). Next to it is the residential island Giudecca, stretching from close to San Giorgio Maggiore to the Hilton Hotel (good nighttime view, far-right end of island).
Still on board? If you are, as we leave the San Marco stop, prepare for a drive-by view of St. Mark’s Square. First comes the bold white facade of the old mint (marked by a tiny cupola, where Venice’s golden ducat, the “dollar” of the Venetian Republic, was made) and the library facade. Then come the twin columns, topped by St. Theodore and St. Mark, who’ve welcomed visitors since the 15th century. Between the columns, catch a glimpse of two giant figures atop the Clock Tower—they’ve been whacking their clappers every hour since 1499. The domes of St. Mark’s Basilica are soon eclipsed by the lacy facade of the Doge’s Palace. Next you’ll see the Bridge of Sighs (leading from the palace to the prison—check out the maximum-security bars), many gondolas with their green breakwater buoys, and then the grand harborside promenade—the Riva.
Follow the Riva with your eye, past elegant hotels to the green area in the distance. This is the largest of Venice’s few parks, which hosts the annual Biennale festival. Much farther in the distance is the Lido, the island with Venice’s beach. Its sand and casinos are tempting, though its car traffic disrupts the medieval charm of Venice.
The Campanile and Doge’s Palace dominate the waterside view of Venice.
16 San Zaccaria M
OK, you’re at your last stop. Quick—muscle your way off this boat! (If you don’t, you’ll eventually end up at the Lido.)
At San Zaccaria, you’re right in the thick of the action. A number of other vaporetti depart from here (see here). Otherwise, it’s a short walk back along the Riva to St. Mark’s Square. Ahoy!
San Marco District
▲▲▲ST. MARK’S SQUARE (PIAZZA SAN MARCO)
▲▲▲ST. MARK’S BASILICA (BASILICA DI SAN MARCO)
Map: St. Mark’s Square
Map: St. Mark’s Basilica
▲▲▲DOGE’S PALACE (PALAZZO DUCALE)
More Sights on the Square
▲▲CORRER MUSEUM (MUSEO CORRER)
▲CAMPANILE (CAMPANILE DI SAN MARCO)
Behind St. Mark’s Basilica
▲BRIDGE OF SIGHS
Across the Lagoon from St. Mark’s Square
▲SAN GIORGIO MAGGIORE
▲▲ACCADEMIA (GALLERIA DELL’ACCADEMIA)
▲▲PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION
▲LA SALUTE CHURCH (SANTA MARIA DELLA SALUTE)
▲CA’ REZZONICO (MUSEUM OF 18TH-CENTURY VENICE)
San Polo District
▲▲FRARI CHURCH (BASILICA DI SANTA MARIA GLORIOSA DEI FRARI)
▲▲SCUOLA SAN ROCCO
Map: Venice’s Lagoon
SAN MICHELE (A.K.A. CIMITERO)
Venice’s city museums offer youth and senior discounts to Americans and other non-EU citizens. When you see a in a listing, it means the sight is covered in a free audio tour (via my Rick Steves Audio Europe app—see here).
San Marco District
▲▲▲ST. MARK’S SQUARE (PIAZZA SAN MARCO)
This grand square is surrounded by splashy, historic buildings and sights: St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace, Campanile bell tower, and Correr Museum. The square is filled with music, lovers, tourists, and pigeons by day. It’s your private rendezvous with the Venetian past late at night, when it becomes Europe’s most romantic dance floor.
For a detailed explanation of St. Mark’s Square, download my free audio tour.
With your back to the church, survey one of Europe’s great urban spaces, and the only square in Venice to merit the title “Piazza.” Nearly two football fields long, it’s surrounded by the offices of the republic. On your right are the “old offices” (16th-century Renaissance). On your left are the “new offices” (17th-century High Renaissance). Napoleon called the piazza “the most beautiful drawing room in Europe,” and added to the intimacy by building the final wing, opposite the basilica.
The Clock Tower (Torre dell’Orologio), built during the Renaissance in 1496, marks the entry to the main shopping drag, called the Mercerie (or “Marzarie,” in Venetian dialect), which connects St. Mark’s Square with the Rialto Bridge. From the piazza, you can see the bronze men (Moors) swing their huge clappers at the top of each hour. In the 17th century, one of them knocked an unsuspecting worker off the top and to his death—probably the first-ever killing by a robot. Notice one of the world’s first “digital” clocks on the tower facing the square (the time flips every five minutes). You can go inside the Clock Tower with a prebooked guided tour that takes you close to the clock’s innards and out to a terrace with good views over the square (€12 combo-ticket includes Correr Museum—where the tour starts—but doesn’t cover Doge’s Palace; €7 for the tour if you already have a Museum Pass or Correr/Doge’s Palace combo-ticket; tours in English Mon-Wed at 10:00 and 11:00, Thu-Sun at 14:00 and 15:00; no kids under age 6). The Clock Tower tour requires reservations: call 848-082-000 or book online at http://torreorologio.visitmuve.it. You can also try dropping by the Correr Museum for same-day reservations.
Rick’s Tip: If you’re bombed by a pigeon, resist the initial response to wipe it off immediately—it’ll just smear into your hair. Wait until it dries, and it should flake off cleanly. But if the poop splatters on your clothes, wipe it off immediately to avoid a stain.
▲▲▲ST. MARK’S BASILICA (BASILICA DI SAN MARCO)
Built in the 11th century, this basilica’s distinctly Eastern-style architecture underlines Venice’s connection with Byzantium (which protected it from the ambition of Charlemagne and his Holy Roman Empire). It’s decorated with booty from returning sea captains—a Venetian trophy chest. The interior glows mysteriously with gold mosaics and colored marble. Since about a.d. 830, the saint’s bones have been housed on this site.
Cost: Basilica entry is free, but you can pay €2 for an online reservation that lets you skip the line (well worth it).
Three separate exhibits within the church charge admission: the Treasury (€3, includes audioguide); Golden Altarpiece (€2); and San Marco Museum (€5). The San Marco Museum has the original bronze horses (copies of these overlook the square), a balcony offering a remarkable view over St. Mark’s Square, and various works related to the church.
Hours: Church open Mon-Sat 9:45-17:00, Sun 14:00-17:00 (Sun until 16:00 Nov-Easter), interior brilliantly lit daily 11:30-12:30; museum open daily 9:45-16:45, including on Sunday mornings when the church itself is closed; if considering a Sunday visit, note that the museum has two balconies that provide views to some, but not all, of the church’s interior. The treasury and the Golden Altarpiece are both open Easter-Oct Mon-Sat 9:45-17:00, Sun 14:00-17:00; Nov-Easter Mon-Sat 9:45-16:00, Sun 14:00-16:00. On St. Mark’s Square, vaporetto: San Marco or San Zaccaria, tel. 041-270-8311, www.basilicasanmarco.it.
Rick’s Tip: To avoid crowds at St. Mark’s Basilica, go early or late.
Theft Alert: St. Mark’s Basilica is the most dangerous place in Venice for pickpocketing—inside, it’s always a crowded jostle.
Dress Code: Modest dress (no bare knees or bare shoulders) is strictly enforced for men, women, and even kids. Shorts are OK if they cover the knees.
Tours: Free, hour-long English tours (heavy on the mosaics’ religious symbolism) are offered many days at 11:00 (meet in atrium, schedule varies, see schedule board just inside entrance).
Download my free St. Mark’s Basilica audio tour.
Bag Check: Small purses and shoulder-slung bags are usually allowed inside, but larger bags and backpacks are not. Check them for free for up to one hour at the nearby church called Ateneo San Basso, 30 yards to the left of the basilica, down narrow Calle San Basso (daily 9:30-17:00). Note that you generally can’t check small bags that would be allowed inside.
Photography: No photos are allowed inside.
Rick’s Tip: Those checking large bags usually get to skip the line, as do their companions (at the guard’s discretion). Leave your bag at Ateneo San Basso and pick up your claim tag. Take your tag to the basilica’s tourist entrance. Keep to the left of the railing where the line forms and show your tag to the gatekeeper. He’ll generally let you in, ahead of the line.
St. Mark’s Basilica Map Key
1 Exterior—Mosaic of Mark’s Relics
2 Atrium—Mosaic of Noah’s Ark & the Great Flood
3 Nave—Mosaics & Greek-Cross Floor Plan
4 Pentecost Mosaic
5 Central Dome—Ascension Mosaic
6 Rood Screen
7 Doge’s Pulpit
8 Nicopeia Icon
9 Discovery of Mark Mosaic
11 Golden Altarpiece
12 Stairs up to Museum
✵ Start outside in the square, far enough back to take in the whole facade. Then zero in on the details.
1 Exterior—Mosaic of Mark’s Relics: M The mosaic over the far left door shows two men (in the center, with crooked staffs) bearing a coffin with the body of St. Mark. Seven centuries after his death, his holy body was in Muslim-occupied Alexandria, Egypt. In a.d. 828, two visiting merchants of Venice “rescued” the body from the “infidels,” hid it in a pork barrel (which was unclean to Muslims), and spirited it away to Venice.
✵ Enter the atrium (entrance hall) of the basilica, and look up and to the right into an archway decorated with fine mosaics.
2 Atrium—Mosaic of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood: M In the scene to the right of the entry door, Noah and sons are sawing logs to build a boat. Below that are three scenes of Noah putting all species of animals into the ark, two by two. Across the arch, the flood drowns the wicked. Noah sends out a dove twice to see whether there’s any dry land where he can dock. He finds it, leaves the ark with a gorgeous rainbow overhead, and offers a sacrifice of thanks to God.
✵ Climb seven steps, pass through the doorway, and enter the nave. Loiter somewhere just inside the door (crowd permitting) and let your eyes adjust.
3 The Nave—Mosaics and Greek-Cross Floor Plan: M These golden mosaics are in the Byzantine style, though many were designed by artists from the Italian Renaissance and later. The often-overlooked lower walls are covered with colorful marble slabs, cut to expose the grain, and laid out in geometric patterns. Even the floor is mosaic, with mostly geometrical designs. It rolls like the sea. Venice is sinking and shifting, creating these cresting waves of stone. The church is laid out with four equal arms, topped with domes, radiating from the center to form a Greek cross (+).
✵ Find the chandelier near the entrance doorway (in the shape of a Greek cross cathedral space station), and run your eyes up the support chain to the dome above.
4 Pentecost Mosaic: M In a golden heaven, the dove of the Holy Spirit shoots out a pinwheel of spiritual lasers, igniting tongues of fire on the heads of the 12 apostles below, giving them the ability to speak other languages without a Rick Steves phrase book. One of the oldest mosaics in the church (c. 1125), it has distinct “Byzantine” features: a gold background and apostles with halos, solemn faces, almond eyes, delicate hands, and rumpled robes, all facing forward.
✵ Shuffle along with the crowds up to the central dome.
5 Central Dome—Ascension Mosaic: M Gape upward to the very heart of the church. Christ—having lived his miraculous life and having been crucified for man’s sins—ascends into the starry sky on a rainbow. In Byzantine churches, the window-lit dome represented heaven, while the dark church below represented earth.
Under the Ascension Dome: Look around at the church’s furniture and imagine a service here. The 6 rood screen, M topped with 14 saints, separates the congregation from the high altar, heightening the “mystery” of the Mass. The 7 pulpit M on the right was reserved for the doge, who led prayers and made important announcements.
North Transept: In the north transept (the arm of the church to the left of the altar), today’s Venetians pray to a painted wooden icon of Mary and Baby Jesus known as 8 Nicopeia M, or “Our Lady of Victory” (on the east wall of the north transept, it’s a small painting crusted over with a big stone canopy). In its day, this was the ultimate trophy—the actual icon used to protect the Byzantine army in war, looted by the Crusaders.
✵ In the south transept (to the right of the main altar), find the dim mosaic high up on the three-windowed wall above the entrance to the treasury.
St Mark’s Basilica: The altar and tomb of St. Mark
St Mark’s Basilica: Mosaic showing St. Mark’s body being carried into the church
St Mark’s Basilica: Noah’s Ark mosaic
St Mark’s Basilica: Central dome and the Ascension mosaic
9 Discovery of Mark Mosaic: M This mosaic isn’t a biblical scene; it depicts the miraculous event that capped the construction of the present church.
It’s 1094, the church is nearly complete (see the domes shown in cutaway fashion), and they’re all set to re-inter Mark’s bones under the new altar. There’s just one problem: During the decades of construction, they forgot where they’d stored his body!
So (in the left half of the mosaic), all of Venice gathers inside the church to bow down and pray for help finding the bones. The doge (from the Latin dux, meaning leader) leads them. Soon after (the right half), the patriarch (far right) is inspired to look inside a hollow column where he finds the relics. Everyone turns and applauds, including the womenfolk (left side of scene), who stream in from the upper-floor galleries. The relics were soon placed under the altar in a ceremony that inaugurated the current structure.
San Marco Museum offers close-up views of mosaics.
Additional Sights: The 10 Treasury M (Tesoro; ask for the included and informative audioguide when you buy your ticket) and 11 Golden Altarpiece M (Pala d’Oro) give you the easiest way outside of Istanbul or Ravenna to see the glories of the Byzantine Empire. Venetian crusaders looted the Christian city of Constantinople and brought home piles of lavish loot (perhaps the lowest point in Christian history until the advent of TV evangelism). Much of this plunder is stored in the Treasury of San Marco. Most of these treasures were made in about a.d. 500, while Western Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages. Beneath the high altar lies the body of St. Mark (“Marce”) and the Golden Altarpiece, made of 250 blue-backed enamels with religious scenes, all set in a gold frame and studded with 15 hefty rubies, 300 emeralds, 1,500 pearls, and assorted sapphires, amethysts, and topaz (c. 1100).
In the 12 San Marco Museum M (Museo di San Marco) upstairs, you can see an up-close mosaic exhibition, a fine view of the church interior, a view of the square from the balcony with bronze horses, and (inside, in their own room) the original horses, which were stolen from Constantinople during the notorious Fourth Crusade. The staircase up to the museum is in the atrium, near the basilica’s main entrance, marked by a sign that says Loggia dei Cavalli, Museo.
▲▲▲DOGE’S PALACE (PALAZZO DUCALE)
The seat of the Venetian government and home of its ruling duke, or doge, this was the most powerful half-acre in Europe for 400 years. The Doge’s Palace was built to show off the power and wealth of the Republic. The doge lived with his family on the first floor up, near the halls of power. From his once-lavish (now sparse) quarters, you’ll follow the one-way tour through the public rooms of the top floor, finishing with the Bridge of Sighs and the prison. The place is wallpapered with masterpieces by Veronese and Tintoretto.
Cost and Hours: €18 combo-ticket includes Correr Museum, also covered by Museum Pass—see here, daily April-Oct 8:30-19:00, Nov-March 8:30-17:30, last entry one hour before closing, café, photos allowed without flash, next to St. Mark’s Basilica, just off St. Mark’s Square, vaporetto stops: San Marco or San Zaccaria, tel. 041-271-5911, http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it.
Rick’s Tip: To avoid long lines at the Doge’s Palace, buy your combo-ticket at the Correr Museum across the square; then go straight to the Doge’s Palace turnstile, skirting along to the right, entering at the “prepaid tickets” entrance. It’s also possible to buy advance tickets online—at least 48 hours in advance—on the museum website (€0.50 fee).
Tours: The audioguide tour is dry but informative (€5, 1.5 hours, need ID for deposit). For a 1.25-hour live guided tour, consider the Secret Itineraries Tour, which takes you into palace rooms otherwise not open to the public (€20, includes Doge’s Palace admission but not Correr Museum admission; €14 with combo-ticket; three English-language tours each morning). Though the tour skips the palace’s main hall, you’re welcome to visit the hall afterward on your own. Reserve ahead for this tour in peak season—it can fill up as much as a month in advance. Book online (http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it, €0.50 fee), or reserve by phone (tel. 848-082-000, from the US dial 011-39-041-4273-0892), or you can try just showing up at the info desk. Avoid the Doge’s Hidden Treasures Tour—it reveals little that would be considered a “treasure” and is a waste of €20.
Visiting the Doge’s Palace: You’ll see the restored facades from the courtyard. Notice a grand staircase (with nearly naked Moses and Paul Newman at the top). Even the most powerful visitors climbed this to meet the doge. This was the beginning of an architectural power trip.
In the Senate Hall, the 120 senators met, debated, and passed laws. Tintoretto’s large Triumph of Venice on the ceiling (central painting, best viewed from the top) shows the city in all its glory. Lady Venice is up in heaven with the Greek gods, while barbaric lesser nations swirl up to give her gifts and tribute.
The Armory—a dazzling display originally assembled to intimidate potential adversaries—shows remnants of the military might that the empire employed to keep the East-West trade lines open (and the Venetian economy booming).
The giant Hall of the Grand Council (175 feet by 80 feet, capacity 2,600) is where the entire nobility met to elect the senate and doge. It took a room this size to contain the grandeur of the Most Serene Republic. Ringing the top of the room are portraits of the first 76 doges (in chronological order). The one at the far end that’s blacked out (in the left corner) is the notorious Doge Marin Falier, who opposed the will of the Grand Council in 1355. He was tried for treason, beheaded, and airbrushed from history.
On the wall over the doge’s throne is Tintoretto’s monsterpiece, Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world. Christ and Mary are surrounded by a heavenly host of 500 saints. The painting leaves you feeling that you get to heaven not by being a good Christian, but by being a good Venetian.
Cross the covered Bridge of Sighs over the canal to the prisons. Circle the cells. Notice the carvings made by prisoners—from olden days up until 1930—on some of the stone windowsills of the cells, especially in the far corner of the building.
Tintoretto, Triumph of Venice
Cross back over the Bridge of Sighs, pausing to look through the marble-trellised windows at all of the tourists.
More Sights on the Square
▲▲CORRER MUSEUM (MUSEO CORRER)
This uncrowded museum gives you a good, easy-to-manage overview of Venetian history and art. The doge memorabilia, armor, banners, statues (by Canova), and paintings (by the Bellini family and others) re-create the festive days of the Venetian Republic. And it’s all accompanied by English descriptions and breathtaking views of St. Mark’s Square. The Correr Museum is a quiet refuge—a place to rise above St. Mark’s Square when the piazza is too hot, too rainy, or too crowded.
Cost and Hours: €18 combo-ticket also includes the Doge’s Palace and the two lesser museums inside the Correr (National Archaeological Museum and the Monumental Rooms of the Marciana National Library); for €12 you can see the Correr Museum and tour the Clock Tower on St. Mark’s Square, but this ticket doesn’t include the Doge’s Palace; daily April-Oct 10:00-19:00, Nov-March 10:00-17:00, last entry one hour before closing; bag check free and mandatory for bags bigger than a large purse, no photos, elegant café; enter at far end of square directly opposite basilica, tel. 041-240-5211, http://correr.visitmuve.it.
▲CAMPANILE (CAMPANILE DI SAN MARCO)
This dramatic bell tower replaced a shorter tower, part of the original fortress that guarded the entry of the Grand Canal. That tower crumbled into a pile of bricks in 1902, a thousand years after it was built. Construction is underway to strengthen the base of the rebuilt tower. Ride the elevator 325 feet to the top for the best view in Venice (especially at sunset). For an ear-shattering experience, be on top when the bells ring. The golden archangel Gabriel at the top always faces into the wind. Beat the crowds and enjoy the crisp morning air at 9:00 or the cool evening breeze at 18:00. Go inside to buy tickets; the kiosk in front just rents €4 audioguides and is operated by a private company.
Rick’s Tip: Beat the crowds at the Campanile by going early or going late (it’s open until 21:00 July-Sept). Or head to the similar San Giorgio Maggiore bell tower across the lagoon. The lines are shorter and the view is just as good.
Cost and Hours: €8, daily Easter-June and Oct 9:00-19:00, July-Sept 9:00-21:00, Nov-Easter 9:30-15:45, may close during thunderstorms, tel. 041-522-4064, www.basilicasanmarco.it.
Behind St. Mark’s Basilica
▲BRIDGE OF SIGHS
This much-photographed bridge connects the Doge’s Palace with the prison. Supposedly, a condemned man would be led over this bridge on his way to the prison, take one last look at the glory of Venice, and sigh—a notion popularized in the Romantic 19th century. Though overhyped, it’s undeniably tingle-worthy—especially after dark, when the crowds have dispersed and it’s just you and floodlit Venice.
Getting There: The Bridge of Sighs is around the corner from the Doge’s Palace. From the palace, walk toward the waterfront, turn left along the water, and look up the first canal on your left. You can walk across the bridge (from the inside) by visiting the Doge’s Palace.
Across the Lagoon from St. Mark’s Square
▲SAN GIORGIO MAGGIORE
This is the dreamy church-topped island you can see from the waterfront by St. Mark’s Square. The striking church, designed by Palladio, features art by Tintoretto, a bell tower, and good views of Venice.
Cost and Hours: Free entry to church; daily 9:00-19:00, Nov-March closes at dusk. The bell tower costs €6 and is accessible by elevator (runs until 30 minutes before the church closes but is not accessible Sun during services).
Getting There: To reach the island from St. Mark’s Square, take the one-stop, three-minute ride on vaporetto #2 from San Zaccaria (single ticket-€4, 6/hour, ticket valid for one hour; direction: Tronchetto).
▲▲ACCADEMIA (GALLERIA DELL’ACCADEMIA)
Venice’s top art museum, packed with highlights of the Venetian Renaissance, features paintings by the Bellini family, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo, Giorgione, Canaletto, and Testosterone. It’s just over the wooden Accademia Bridge from the San Marco action.
Cost and Hours: €9, free first Sun of the month, Mon 8:15-14:00, Tue-Sun 8:15-19:15, last entry 45 minutes before closing, dull audioguide-€6, no flash photos allowed. At Accademia Bridge, vaporetto: Accademia, tel. 041-522-2247, www.gallerieaccademia.org.
Rick’s Tip: Just 360 people are allowed into the Accademia gallery at one time. It’s most crowded on Tuesday mornings and whenever it rains; it’s least crowded Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday mornings (before about 10:00) and late afternoons (after about 17:00). It’s possible to book tickets in advance (€1.50/ticket surcharge; online at www.gallerieaccademia.org or call 041-520-0345), but it’s unnecessary if you avoid the busiest times.
Renovation: A major expansion and renovation has been dragging on for years. Paintings come and go, and the actual locations of the pieces are hard to pin down. Still, the museum contains the best art in Venice. If you don’t find a particular piece you’d like to see, check Room 23, which seems to be the holding pen for displaced art.
Visiting the Accademia: The Accademia is the greatest museum anywhere for Venetian Renaissance art and a good overview of painters whose works you’ll see all over town. Venetian art is underrated and misunderstood. It’s nowhere near as famous today as the work of the Florentine Renaissance, but it’s livelier, more colorful, and simply more fun, with historical slices of Venice, ravishing nudes, and very human Madonnas. The Venetian love of luxury shines through in this collection, which starts in the Middle Ages and runs to the 1700s. Look for grand canvases of colorful, spacious settings, peopled with happy locals in extravagant clothes having a great time.
Medieval highlights include elaborate altarpieces and golden-haloed Madonnas, all painted at a time when realism, depth of field, and emotion were considered beside the point. Medieval Venetians, with their close ties to the East, borrowed techniques such as gold-leafing, frontal poses, and “iconic” faces from the religious icons of Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul).
Among early masterpieces of the Renaissance are Mantegna’s studly St. George and Giorgione’s mysterious Tempest. As the Renaissance reaches its heights, so do the paintings, such as Titian’s magnificent Presentation of the Virgin. It’s a religious scene, yes, but it’s really just an excuse to display secular splendor (Titian was the most famous painter of his day—perhaps even more famous than Michelangelo). Veronese’s sumptuous Feast in the House of Levi also has an ostensibly religious theme (in the middle, find Jesus eating his final meal)—but it’s outdone by the luxury and optimism of Renaissance Venice. Life was a good thing and beauty was to be enjoyed. (Veronese was hauled before the Inquisition for painting such a bawdy Last Supper...so he fine-tuned the title.) End your tour with Guardi’s and Canaletto’s painted “postcards” of the city—landscapes for visitors who lost their hearts to the romance of Venice.
Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi
▲▲PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION
The popular museum of far-out art, housed in the American heiress’ former retirement palazzo, offers one of Europe’s best reviews of the art of the first half of the 20th century. Stroll through styles represented by artists whom Peggy knew personally—Cubism (Picasso, Braque), Surrealism (Dalí, Ernst), Futurism (Boccioni), American Abstract Expressionism (Pollock), and a sprinkling of Klee, Calder, and Chagall.
Cost and Hours: €15, usually includes temporary exhibits, Wed-Mon 10:00-18:00, closed Tue, audioguide-€7, pricey café, 5-minute walk from Accademia Bridge, vaporetto: Accademia or Salute, tel. 041-240-5411, www.guggenheim-venice.it.
▲LA SALUTE CHURCH (SANTA MARIA DELLA SALUTE)
This impressive church with a crown-shaped dome was built and dedicated to the Virgin Mary by grateful survivors of the 1630 plague.
Cost and Hours: Free entry to church, €3 to enter sacristy; daily 9:00-12:00 & 15:00-17:30, 10-minute walk from Accademia Bridge, vaporetto: La Salute, tel. 041-274-3928.
▲CA’ REZZONICO (MUSEUM OF 18TH-CENTURY VENICE)
This Grand Canal palazzo offers the most insightful look at the life of Venice’s rich and famous in the 1700s. Wander under ceilings by Tiepolo, among furnishings from that most decadent century, enjoying views of the canal and paintings by Guardi, Canaletto, and Longhi.
Cost and Hours: €10, Wed-Mon 10:00-18:00, Nov-March until 17:00, closed Tue year-round, audioguide-€5; ticket office closes one hour before museum does, no flash photos, café, vaporetto: Ca’ Rezzonico, tel. 041-241-0100, http://carezzonico.visitmuve.it.
San Polo District
One of the world’s most famous bridges, this distinctive and dramatic stone structure crosses the Grand Canal with a single confident span. The arcades along the top of the bridge help reinforce the structure...and offer some enjoyable shopping diversions, as does the market surrounding the bridge (produce market closed Sun, fish market closed Sun-Mon).
▲▲FRARI CHURCH (BASILICA DI SANTA MARIA GLORIOSA DEI FRARI)
My favorite art experience in Venice is seeing art in the setting for which it was designed—as it is at the Frari Church. The Franciscan “Church of the Brothers” and the art that decorates it are warmed by the spirit of St. Francis. It features the work of three great Renaissance masters: Donatello, Giovanni Bellini, and Titian—each showing worshippers the glory of God in human terms.
Cost and Hours: €3, Mon-Sat 9:00-18:00, Sun 13:00-18:00, modest dress recommended, no photos, on Campo dei Frari, near San Tomà vaporetto and traghetto stops, tel. 041-272-8618, www.basilicadeifrari.it.
Tours: You can rent an audioguide for €2, or download my free Frari Church audio tour.
Concerts: The church occasionally hosts small theatrical performances (usually around €15, buy tickets at church, for details see the church’s website, www.basilicadeifrari.it).
Visiting the Frari Church: In Donatello’s wood statue of St. John the Baptist (just to the right of the high altar), the prophet of the desert—dressed in animal skins and nearly starving from his diet of bugs ’n’ honey—announces the coming of the Messiah. Donatello was a Florentine working at the dawn of the Renaissance.
Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels painting (in the sacristy farther to the right) came later, done by a Venetian in a more Venetian style—soft focus without Donatello’s harsh realism. While Renaissance humanism demanded Madonnas and saints that were accessible and human, Bellini places them in a physical setting so beautiful that it creates its own mood of serene holiness. The genius of Bellini, perhaps the greatest Venetian painter, is obvious in the pristine clarity, rich colors (notice Mary’s clothing), believable depth, and reassuring calm of this three-paneled altarpiece.
Finally, glowing red and gold like a stained-glass window over the high altar, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin sets the tone of exuberant beauty found in the otherwise sparse church. Titian the Venetian—a student of Bellini—painted steadily for 60 years...you’ll see a lot of his art. As stunned apostles look up past the swirl of arms and legs, the complex composition of this painting draws you right to the radiant face of the once-dying, now-triumphant Mary as she joins God in heaven.
For many, these three pieces of art make a visit to the Accademia Gallery unnecessary (though they may whet your appetite for more). Before leaving, check out the Neoclassical pyramid-shaped Canova monument flanking the nave just inside the main entrance and (opposite that) the grandiose tomb of Titian. Compare the carved marble Assumption behind Titian’s tombstone portrait with the painted original above the high altar.
▲▲SCUOLA SAN ROCCO
Sometimes called “Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel,” this lavish meeting hall has some 50 large, colorful Tintoretto paintings plastered to the walls and ceilings. The best paintings are upstairs, especially the Crucifixion in the smaller room. View the neck-breaking splendor with the mirrors available in the Grand Hall.
Cost and Hours: €10, includes audioguide, daily 9:30-17:30, no photos, next to the Frari Church, tel. 041-523-4864, www.scuolagrandesanrocco.it.
The island of Venice sits in a lagoon—a calm section of the Adriatic protected from wind and waves by the natural breakwater of the Lido. The Lido is Venice’s beach—nice for a break on a sunny day.
Beyond the church-topped island of San Giorgio Maggiore (directly in front of St. Mark’s Square), four interesting islands hide out in the lagoon: San Michele, Murano, Burano, and Torcello. These islands make a good, varied, and long day trip.
Getting to the Lagoon: You can travel to any of the islands by vaporetto. Because single vaporetto tickets (€7) expire after one hour, getting a vaporetto pass (€20/24 hours) for a lagoon excursion makes more sense.
For a route that takes you to San Michele, Murano, Burano, and Torcello, start at the Fondamente Nove vaporetto stop on the north shore of Venice (the “back” of the fish). Lines #4.1 and #4.2 converge here before heading out to Murano. Catch either one (every 10 minutes); you’ll first cross to San Michele (whose stop is called Cimitero) in six minutes, then continue another three minutes to Murano-Colonna. Stroll through Murano, then leave that island from a different stop: Murano-Faro, where you can board vaporetto #12 for the 30-minute trip to Burano. From Burano, head to Torcello on vaporetto #9 (5-minute trip each way). To make a quick return to Venice from Burano, hop vaporetto #12, which returns you to Fondamente Nove (45 minutes).
SAN MICHELE (A.K.A. CIMITERO)
This is the cemetery island—and the final resting place of a few foreign VIPs, from poet Ezra Pound to composer Igor Stravinsky. The stopover is easy, since vaporetti come every 10 minutes. If you enjoy wandering through old cemeteries, you’ll dig this one—it’s full of flowers, trees, and birdsong, and has an intriguing chapel (cemetery open daily 7:30-18:00, Oct-March until 16:30; reception to the left as you enter, free WC to the right, no picnicking).
Murano is famous for its glassmaking. From the Colonna vaporetto stop, skip the glass shops in front of you, walk to the right, and wander up the street along the canal, Fondamenta dei Vetrai (Glassmakers’ Embankment). The Faro district of Murano, on the other side of the canal, is packed with factories (fabriche) and their furnaces (fornaci). You’ll pass dozens of glass shops. Early along this promenade, at #47, is the venerable Venini shop, with glass a cut above the rest, and with an interior showing off the ultimate in modern Venetian glass design (Mon-Sat 9:30-18:00, closed Sun).
Murano’s Glass Museum (Museo Vetrario) traces the history of this delicate art (€8, daily 10:00-18:00, Nov-March until 17:00, tel. 041-739-586, http://museovetro.visitmuve.it).
Rick’s Tip: Venetian glass blowers claim that much of the cheap glass you’ll see in Venice is imported from China. Genuine Venetian glass comes with the Murano seal.
Known for lacemaking, Burano offers a delightful, vibrantly colorful village alternative to big, bustling Venice. The tight main drag is packed with tourists and lined with shops, selling lace or Burano’s locally produced white wine. Wander to the far side of the island, and the mood shifts. Explore to the right of the leaning tower for a peaceful yet intensely colorful, small-town lagoon world. Benches line a little promenade at the water’s edge—a pretty picnic spot.
Burano’s Lace Museum (Museo del Merletto di Burano) shows the island’s lace heritage (€5, Tue-Sun 10:00-18:00, Nov-March until 17:00, closed Mon year-round, tel. 041-730-034, http://museomerletto.visitmuve.it).
This is the birthplace of Venice, where some of the first mainland refugees settled, escaping the barbarian hordes. Today, it’s marshy and shrub-covered, the least-developed island (pop. 20). There’s little to see except the church (a 10-minute walk from the dock; the oldest in Venice, and still sporting some impressive mosaics), a climbable bell tower, and a modest museum of Roman sculpture and medieval sculpture and manuscripts (€12 combo-ticket covers museum, church, and bell tower; €9 combo-ticket covers church and bell tower; both combo-tickets include audioguide; museum only—€3; church and bell tower—€5 each; church open daily March-Oct 10:30-18:00, Nov-Feb 10:00-17:00, museum and campanile close 30 minutes earlier and museum closed Mon; museum tel. 041-730-761, church/bell tower tel. 041-730-119).
Venice’s nearest beach is the Lido, across the lagoon on an island connected to the mainland (which means some car traffic). The sandy beach is pleasant, family-friendly, and good for swimming. Rent an umbrella, buy beach gear at the shop, get food at the self-service café, or have a drink at the bar. Everything is affordable and in the same building (vaporetto: Lido S.M.E., walk 10 minutes on Gran Viale S. Maria Elisabetta to beach entry).
Riding a gondola is simple, expensive, and one of the great experiences in Europe. Gondoliers hanging out all over town are eager to have you hop in for a ride. It’s a rip-off for cynics, but a must for romantics.
The price for a gondola starts at €80 for a 40-minute ride during the day. You can divide the cost—and the romance—among up to six people per boat, but only two get the love seat. Prices jump to €100 after 19:00—when it’s most romantic and relaxing. Adding a singer and an accordionist will cost an additional €120. If you value budget over romance, save money by recruiting fellow travelers to split a gondola. Prices are standard and listed on the gondoliers’ association website (go to www.gondolavenezia.it, click on “Using the Gondola,” and look under “charterage”).
A Dying City?
Venice’s population (58,000 in the historic city) is half what it was just 30 years ago, and people are leaving at a rate of a thousand a year. Of those who stay, 25 percent are 65 or older.
Sad, yes, but imagine raising a family here: Apartments are small, high up, and expensive. Humidity and occasional flooding make basic maintenance a pain. Home-improvement projects require navigating miles of red tape, and you must follow regulations intended to preserve the historical ambience. Everything is expensive because it has to be shipped in from the mainland. You can easily get glass and tourist trinkets, but it’s hard to find groceries or get your shoes fixed. Running basic errands involves lots of walking and stairs—imagine crossing over arched bridges while pushing a child in a stroller and carrying a day’s worth of groceries.
With millions of visitors a year (150,000 a day at peak times), on any given day Venetians are likely outnumbered by tourists. Despite government efforts to subsidize rents and build cheap housing, the city is losing its residents. The economy itself is thriving, thanks to tourist dollars and rich foreigners buying second homes. But the culture is dying. Even the most hopeful city planners worry that in a few decades Venice will not be a city at all, but a museum, a cultural theme park, a decaying Disneyland for adults.
Rick’s Tip: For cheap gondola thrills during the day, stick to the €2 one-minute ferry ride on a Grand Canal traghetto. At night, vaporetti are nearly empty, and it’s a great time to cruise the Grand Canal on slow boat #1.
Dozens of gondola stations (servizio gondole) are set up along canals all over town. Because your gondolier might offer narration or conversation during your ride, talk with several and choose one you like. Review the map and discuss the route; it’s a good way to see if you enjoy the gondolier’s personality and language skills. Establish the price, route, and duration of the trip before boarding, enjoy your ride, and pay only when you’re finished. While prices are pretty firm, you might find them softer during the day. Most gondoliers honor the official prices, but a few might try for some extra euros, particularly by insisting on a tip. (While not required or even expected, if your gondolier does the full 40 minutes and entertains you en route, a 5-10 percent tip is appreciated; if he’s surly or rushes through the trip, skip it.) While gondoliers can be extremely charming, locals say that anyone who falls for one of these Venetian Romeos “has slices of ham over her eyes.” Don’t be surprised if your gondolier answers mobile-phone calls during the ride (have you ever called your loved one at work?).
A gondola station
If you’ve hired musicians and want to hear a Venetian song (un canto Veneziano), try requesting “Venezia La Luna e Tu.” Asking to hear “O Sole Mio” (which comes from Naples) is like asking a Chicago lounge singer to sing “Swanee River.”
It’s worth the extra cost to experience a gondola ride at night. The moon sails past otherwise unseen buildings and silhouettes gaze down from bridges while window glitter spills onto the black water. Put the camera down and make time for you and your partner to enjoy a threesome with Venice.
Venice’s most famous festival is Carnevale, the celebration Americans know as Mardi Gras (usually late Jan to early Feb, www.carnevale.venezia.it). Carnevale, which means “farewell to meat,” originated as a wild, two-month-long party leading up to the austerity of Lent. In its heyday—the 1600s and 1700s—you could do pretty much anything with anybody from any social class if you were wearing a mask. These days it’s a tamer 18-day celebration, culminating in a huge dance lit with fireworks on St. Mark’s Square. Some Venetians don masks and join in the fun; others skip town.
Every year, the city hosts the world-class Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition, alternating between art in odd years and architecture in even years. The exhibition spreads over the Arsenale and Giardini park (take vaporetto #1 or #2 to Giardini-Biennale; for details and an events calendar, see www.labiennale.org). The actual exhibition usually runs from June through November, but other loosely connected events—film, dance, theater—are held throughout the year (as early as February) in various venues.
A gondola ride at night is worth the price.
You must experience Venice after dark. The city is quiet at night, as tour groups stay on the mainland and day-trippers return to their beach resorts and cruise ships. Gondolas cost more, but are worth it.
St. Mark’s Square
Streetlamp halos, floodlit history, and a ceiling of stars make St. Mark’s Square magic at midnight. After dark, dueling café orchestras entertain. They feature similar food, prices, and a three- to five-piece combo playing a selection of classical and pop hits. You can hang out for free behind the tables (allowing you to move on easily to the next orchestra when the musicians take a break). Dancing on the square is free—and encouraged.
If you spring for a seat to enjoy a concert, it can be about €13-22 well spent (for a drink and the cover charge for music). It’s acceptable to nurse a drink for an hour—you’re paying for the music with the cover charge. To save money (but forego proximity to the music), you can sip your coffee at the bar, because the law limits the charge for coffee at a bar.
Caffè Florian (on the right as you face the church) is the most famous Venetian café and was one of the first places in Europe to serve coffee. The outside tables are the main action, but walk inside through the richly decorated rooms where Casanova, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, and Woody Allen have all paid too much for a drink (cappuccino €9, €6 cover charge when orchestra is playing, daily 10:00-24:00, shorter hours in winter, www.caffeflorian.com).
Gran Caffè Quadri, opposite the Florian, has equally illustrious clientele, including the writers Stendhal and Dumas, and composer Richard Wagner.
The scene at Gran Caffè Lavena, near the Clock Tower, can be great, in spite of its politically incorrect but dazzling chandelier.
Gran Caffè Chioggia, on the Piazzetta facing the Doge’s Palace, charges a bit less than the others, and has just one or two musicians, usually a pianist, playing cocktail jazz. The touristy Bar Americano, under the Clock Tower, is lively until late (but lacks live music).
Rick’s Tip: You’ll hear about the famous Harry’s American Bar, which sells overpriced food and cocktails, but it’s a tourist trap...and the last place Hemingway would drink today. It’s cheaper to get a drink at any of the hole-in-the-wall bars just off St. Mark’s Square.
Venice is a city of the Baroque era. For about €25, you can take your pick of traditional Vivaldi concerts in churches throughout town. You’ll find young, frilly costumed Vivaldis hawking concert tickets on many corners. Most shows start at 20:30 and generally last 1.5 hours. Hotels sell tickets at face-value.
Tickets can usually be bought the same day as the concert, so don’t bother with websites that sell tickets with a surcharge. Musicians in wigs and tights offer better spectacle; musicians in black-and-white suits are better performers.
The Interpreti Veneziani orchestra, considered the best group in town, generally performs 1.5-hour concerts nightly at 21:00 inside the sumptuous San Vidal Church (€27, church ticket booth open daily 9:30-21:00, north end of Accademia Bridge, tel. 041-277-0561, www.interpretiveneziani.com).
Musica a Palazzo is an evening of opera at a Venetian palace on the Grand Canal. You’ll spend about 45 minutes each in three sumptuous rooms as musicians perform (about 2.25 hours total). They generally present three different operas on successive nights. With these surroundings, under Tiepolo frescoes, you’ll be glad you dressed up. There are only 70 seats, so book in advance by phone or online (€75, nightly at 20:30, Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, Fondamenta Duodo o Barbarigo, vaporetto: Santa Maria del Giglio, San Marco 2504, mobile 340-971-7272, www.musicapalazzo.com).
Check at the TI or the TI’s website (www.turismovenezia.it) for listings of church concerts as well as other entertainment and events. The free monthly Un Ospite di Venezia lists all the latest in English (free at fancy hotels, or check www.aguestinvenice.com).
While touristy restaurants are the scourge of Venice, my recommended places are popular with locals and respect the tourists who happen by.
First trick: Walk away from triple-language menus. Second trick: Eat fish. Many seafood dishes are the catch-of-the-day. Note that seafood (and steak) may be sold by weight—per 100 grams or etto—rather than a set price; be savvy or be surprised. Third trick: Eat later. A place that feels touristy at 19:00 can be filled with locals at 21:00.
Budget Eating: Unique to Venice, cicchetti bars specialize in small appetizers that can combine to make a quick, tasty meal (see “The Stand-Up Progressive Venetian Pub-Crawl Dinner” later in this section).
Takeout pizza is one of the cheapest ways to eat in Venice. Small hole-in-the-wall shops in every neighborhood sell takeout pizza—round, by the slice, or by weight. Takeout prices increase dramatically as you near the Rialto and St. Mark’s Square.
The Rialto open-air market is great for picnic gatherers (closed Sun), though any respectable grocery (alimentari) will do. As for supermarkets, a handy Co-op is between St. Mark’s and Campo Santa Maria Formosa (daily 8:30-20:00, on the corner of Salizada San Lio and Calle del Mondo Novo at Castello 5817). A Billa supermarket is in Dorsoduro (daily 8:30-23:00, vaporetto: San Basilio).
Gelato: It’s easy to find in any neighborhood. Several cafés on St. Mark’s Square have gelato counters in summer, including Gran Caffè Lavena (at #134) and Todaro (on the corner of the Piazzetta at #5, near the water and across from the Doge’s Palace). I like the inventive Grom chain, with branches on Campo dei Frari (facing Frari Church) and Campo San Barnaba. Gelatoteca Suso serves delectable flavors on the San Marco side of the Rialto Bridge (next to recommended Rosticceria San Bartolomeo, on Calle de la Bissa). Il Doge also sells Sicilian-style granita, slushy ice with fresh fruit (on bustling Campo Santa Margarita).
Venetian cuisine relies heavily on fish, shellfish, risotto, and polenta.
Antipasti: Popular choices include antipasto di mare (a marinated mix of fish and shellfish served chilled) and sarde in saor (sardines marinated with onions). Cicchetti are Venetian tapas, the finger-food appetizers served in some pubs.
First courses (primi): Venice’s favorite dish is risotto, a short-grain rice simmered in broth and often flavored with seafood (risotto nero is risotto made with squid and its ink; risotto ai porcini contains porcini mushrooms). Other first courses are risi e bisi (rice and peas), pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup), and bigoli in salsa (fat whole-wheat noodles with anchovy sauce). Pasta is commonly served alla buzzara (with a rich seafood-tomato sauce). You’ll also see plenty of polenta—boiled cornmeal served soft or cut into firm slabs and grilled.
Second courses (secondi): It’s mostly frutti di mare (seafood). The most common fish are farmed, not wild—such as branzino (sea bass), orata (sea bream), salmone (salmon), and rombo (turbot, a flounder-like flatfish). The weirder the animal (eel, octopus, frogfish), the more local it is. Baccalà is dried Atlantic salt cod that’s rehydrated and often served with polenta. Other choices are calamari, cozze (mussels, often steamed in broth), gamberi (shrimp), moleche col pien (fried soft-shell crabs), pesce spada (swordfish), rospo (frogfish, a small marine fish), seppia (cuttlefish, a squid-like creature; can be served in its own ink, often over spaghetti); sogliola (sole, served poached or oven-roasted), vitello di mare (“sea veal,” like swordfish—firm, pink, mild, and grilled), and vongole (small clams, often steamed with herbs and wine). Fritto misto di pesce is assorted deep-fried seafood (often calamari and prawns). Zuppa di pesce is seafood stew.
Pasta with shellfish is a favorite.
Cocktails: The most popular aperitivo (pre-dinner drink) is spritz, which mixes white wine, soda, and ice with either Campari (bitter) or Aperol (sweeter), garnished with an olive or skewer of fruit. Other options include the bellini (Prosecco and white-peach puree) and tiziano (grape juice and Prosecco). A popular digestivo (after-dinner drink) is sgroppino: squeezed lemon juice, lemon gelato, and vodka.
Near the Rialto Bridge
North of the Bridge
These restaurants and wine bars are located beyond Campo Santi Apostoli, on or near the Strada Nova, the main drag going from Rialto toward the train station.
At bright and alpine-paneled Trattoria da Bepi, chef Loris carries on his mother’s passion for good, traditional Venetian cuisine. Ask for seasonal specialties: The seafood appetizer plate and crab dishes are excellent. Enjoy good seating inside or out (€9-13 pastas, €14-20 secondi, Fri-Wed 12:00-14:30 & 19:00-22:00, closed Thu, half a block off Campo Santi Apostoli on Salizada Pistor, Cannaregio 4550, tel. 041-528-5031).
More expensive Vini da Gigio has a traditional Venetian menu and a classy but unsnooty setting that’s a pleasant mix of traditional and contemporary (€14-18 pastas, €22-24 secondi, Wed-Sun 12:00-14:30 & 19:00-22:30, closed Mon-Tue, 4 blocks from Ca’ d’Oro vaporetto stop on Fondamenta San Felice, behind church on Campo San Felice, Cannaregio 3628a, tel. 041-528-5140).
East of the Rialto Bridge
The next few places hide away in the twisty lanes between the Rialto Bridge and Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Osteria da Alberto is a tad farther north of the others, in Cannaregio.
Rosticceria San Bartolomeo is a cheap self-service diner, with different counters serving up different types of food—pastas, secondi, fried goodies, etc. Get it to go, grab a tiny table, or munch at the bar—but skip the pricier upper-floor restaurant. To find it, imagine the statue on Campo San Bartolomeo walking backward 20 yards, turning left, and going under a passageway—now, follow him (€7-9, €2 glasses of wine, prices listed on wall behind counter, no cover and no service charge, daily 9:00-21:30, San Marco 5424a, tel. 041-522-3569).
Osteria al Portego is a small, friendly neighborhood eatery near Campo San Lio. The cicchetti here (€1-3) make a great meal—best enjoyed early, around 18:00—but consider sitting down for dinner from the menu. For a table from 18:00 to 21:00, reserve ahead. From Rosticceria San Bartolomeo (listed earlier), continue over a bridge to Campo San Lio, turn left, and follow Calle Carminati straight 50 yards over another bridge (€14-15 pastas, €15-18 secondi, €1 glasses of house wine, daily 11:00-15:00 & 17:30-22:00, on Calle de la Malvasia, Castello 6015, tel. 041-522-9038).
Osteria da Alberto, up near Campo Santa Maria Novo, offers excellent daily specials and a good house wine in a woody and characteristic interior. Reserve ahead and request a table in front (€13-17 seafood dishes, €9-12 pastas, daily 12:00-15:00 & 18:30-22:30; on Calle Larga Giacinto Gallina, midway between Campo Santi Apostoli and Campo San Zanipolo/Santi Giovanni e Paolo, and next to Ponte de la Panada bridge, Cannaregio 5401; tel. 041-523-8153, www.osteriadaalberto.it).
Rialto Market Area
The market end of the Rialto Bridge is great for menu browsing, bar-hopping, drinks, and snacks, as well as sit-down restaurants. You’ll find lots of hardworking hole-in-the-walls catering to locals needing a quick, affordable, tasty bite. It’s crowded by day, nearly empty early in the evening, and packed with clubbers later.
My listings below include a stretch of dark and rustic pubs serving cicchetti (Venetian tapas), a strip of trendy places fronting the Grand Canal, and several places at the market and nearby. All but the last eatery (Osteria al Ponte Storto) are within 200 yards of the market and each other.
Pubs: The 100-yard-long “Cicchetti Strip,” which starts two blocks inland from the Rialto Market (along Sotoportego dei Do Mori and Calle de le Do Spade), is beloved for its conviviality and tasty bar snacks. These four places (listed in the order you’ll reach them, if coming from the Rialto Bridge) serve food all day, but the spread is best around noon (generally open daily 12:00-15:00 & 18:00-20:00 or 21:00, but the first two are closed Sun). Look for the list of snacks (€1.50-2) and wine by the glass (€1-2.50) at the bar or on the wall. Bustling one-room Bar all’Arco is known for its tiny open-faced sandwiches (San Polo 436, Francesco, Anna, Matteo). Cantina Do Mori has been famous with locals (since 1462) and travelers (since 1982) for fine wine and francobolli, a selection of 20 tiny, mayo-soaked sandwiches nicknamed “stamps” (San Polo 430). More of a sit-down place, Osteria ai Storti is run by Alessandro, who enjoys educating travelers (€10 pastas, €12-15 secondi, daily except closed Sun off-season, around the corner from Cantina Do Mori on Calle San Matio, San Polo 819). Cantina Do Spade is expertly run by Francesco and is also good for sit-down meals (30 yards down Calle de le Do Spade from Osteria ai Storti at San Polo 860, tel. 041-521-0583).
The Stand-Up Progressive Venetian Pub-Crawl Dinner
My favorite Venetian dinner is a pub crawl (giro d’ombra)—a tradition unique to Venice, where no cars means easy crawling. (Giro means stroll, and ombra—slang for a glass of wine—means shade, from the old days when a portable wine bar scooted with the shadow of the Campanile bell tower across St. Mark’s Square.)
Venice’s residential back streets hide characteristic bars (bacari) with countless trays of interesting toothpick munchies (cicchetti) and blackboards listing wines served by the glass. The cicchetti selection is best early, so start your evening by 18:00. Most bars are closed on Sunday. For a stress-free pub crawl, take a tour with Alessandro Schezzini (see here).
Cicchetti bars have a social stand-up zone and cozy tables where you can sit down with your cicchetti or order from a simple menu. Food generally costs the same price whether you stand or sit. Crowds sometimes happily spill into the street.
While you can order a plate, Venetians prefer going one-by-one...sipping their wine and trying this...then give me one of those...and so on. Try deep-fried mozzarella cheese, gorgonzola, calamari, artichoke hearts, and anything ugly on a toothpick. Crostini (small toasted bread with a topping) are popular, as are marinated seafood, olives, and prosciutto with melon. Meat and fish (pesce; PESH-ay) can be expensive; veggies (verdure) are cheap, at about €3 for a meal-sized plate. In many places, there’s a set price per food item (e.g., €1.50). To get a plate of assorted appetizers for €8, ask for “Un piatto classico di cicchetti misti da €8” (oon pee-AH-toh KLAH-see-koh dee cheh-KET-tee MEE-stee dah OH-toh eh-OO-roh). Bread sticks (grissini) are free.
Bar-hopping Venetians enjoy an aperitivo—a before-dinner drink. Boldly order a Bellini, a spritz con Aperol, or a Prosecco, and draw approving looks from the natives. A small glass of house red or white wine (ombra rosso or ombra bianco) or a small beer (birrino) costs about €1. Vin bon, Venetian for fine wine, is €2-6 per little glass. A good last drink is fragolino, the local sweet wine—bianco or rosso. It often comes with a little cookie (biscotti) for dipping.
Canalside Seating: What I call the “Bancogiro Stretch,” just past the Rialto Bridge, between Campo San Giacomo and the Grand Canal, has some of Venice’s best canalside seating. Unless otherwise noted, all are open daily and serve drinks, cicchetti, and somewhat pricey sit-down meals. While you can get a drink anytime, dinner is typically served only after 19:00 or 19:30. During mealtimes, table seating is limited to those ordering full meals. After dinner, this stretch becomes a trendy nightspot. I list them in the order you’ll reach them from the Rialto Bridge. Bar Naranzaria serves Italian dishes with a few Japanese options (€14 pastas, €17-24 secondi). Caffè Vergnano is the cheapest (€2 cover charge, €10-13 salads, pizzas, and pastas). Friendly Osteria al Pescador serves local specialties (€14-15 primi, €17-22 secondi, closed Tue off-season). Bar Ristorante Bancogiro has romantic dining upstairs, but no canal views (€17-18 pastas, €22-26 secondi, nice €17 cheese plate, closed Mon, tel. 041-523-2061, www.osteriabancogiro.it). Modern Bar Ancòra has a piano player during busy times (€13 pastas, €18 secondi, cicchetti at the bar).
At the Market: Al Mercà (literally “At the Market”), a few steps away and off the canal, is a lively little nook with a happy local crowd, welcoming to tourists. Stand at the bar or in the square—there are no tables and no interior (Mon-Sat 10:00-14:30 & 18:00-21:00, closed Sun, on Campo Cesare Battisti, San Polo 213).
Tourist-friendly Ristorante Vini da Pinto, facing the fish market, has a large menu and relaxing outdoor seating (fixed-price, three-course seafood meal €17, grander versions €20-25, €9-14 pastas, €14-28 secondi, daily 12:00-22:00, Campo de le Becarie, San Polo 367a, tel. 041-522-4599).
Romantic Canalside Settings
If you want a meal with a canal view, it generally comes with lower quality and/or a higher price. But if you’re determined to take home a canalside memory, these places can be great.
Near the Rialto Bridge: The “Bancogiro Stretch” offers fine places to enjoy a drink and/or a snack.
You’ll also see tourist-trap eateries lining the Grand Canal just south of the Rialto Bridge. These places usually offer lousy food and aggressive “service.” If you really want to eat here, ask if there’s a minimum charge before you sit down (most places have one). If you order just a simple pizza or pasta and a drink for €15 total, you can savor the ambience without breaking the bank.
In the Dorsoduro Neighborhood: Bar Foscarini, next to the Accademia Bridge, offers decent pizzas overlooking the canal with no cover or service charge. Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili, overlooking the wide Giudecca Canal, is nice just before sunset. Both are listed under “In Dorsoduro” eateries.
Farther Inland, off Campo San Aponal: Osteria al Ponte Storto, on a quiet canalside corner a block off the main drag, is worth seeking out for its good-value main dishes and peaceful location (€13-18 daily specials, Tue-Sun 12:00-15:00 & 19:00-21:45, closed Mon, down Calle Bianca from San Aponal Church, San Polo 1278, tel. 041-528-2144).
Near St. Mark’s Square
At Ristorante Antica Sacrestia, the owner greets you personally. This classic sit-down restaurant serves wonderful €14 pizzas, a humdrum €24 menù del giorno, and creative fixed-price meals (€35, €55, or €80), designed to overwhelm you with too much food. You can also order à la carte; try the €22 seafood antipasto (€14-18 pastas and pizzas, €22-35 secondi, no cover, Tue-Sun 11:30-15:00 & 18:00-23:00, closed Mon, behind San Zaninovo/Giovanni Novo Church on Calle Corona, Castello 4463, tel. 041-523-0749).
For a quick meal just steps away from St. Mark’s Square, try “Sandwich Row”—Calle de le Rasse. The lane is lined with places to get a decent sandwich at an affordable price with a place to sit (most places open daily 7:00-24:00, €1 extra to sit; from the Bridge of Sighs, head down the Riva and take the second lane on the left). Birreria Forst serves meaty €3 sandwiches with tasty sauce (daily 9:30-22:00, air-con, Castello 4540, tel. 041-523-0557, Romina). Modern Bar Verde offers fun people-watching (big €4-5 sandwiches, splittable €9-10 salads, fresh pastries, at the end of Calle de le Rasse facing Campo Santi Filippo e Giacomo, Castello 4526). Church-run Ristorante alla Basilica, just one street behind St. Mark’s Basilica, serves €14 fixed-price lunches, often amid noisy school groups (Tue-Sun 11:45-15:00, closed Mon, air-con, Calle dei Albanesi, Castello 4255, tel. 041-522-0524, www.allabasilicavenezia.it).
Rick’s Tip: Though you can’t legally picnic on St. Mark’s Square, you’re allowed to munch your meal at nearby Giardinetti Reali, the small park along the waterfront, west of the Piazzetta.
North of St. Mark’s Square
For a marginally less touristy scene, walk a few blocks north to inviting Campo Santa Maria Formosa.
Osteria alle Testiere is my top dining splurge in Venice. Its respected chef, Luca, serves up creative, market-fresh seafood, homemade pastas, and fine wine in “Venetian Nouvelle” style. It’s tight and homey, with the focus on food and service. This is a good spot to let loose and trust your host. Make reservations for dinner (€22 pastas, €26 secondi, €50 for dinner, lunch 12:30-14:30, dinner seatings 19:00 and 21:30, closed Sun-Mon, on Calle del Mondo Novo, just off Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Castello 5801, tel. 041-522-7220, www.osterialletestiere.it).
Osteria al Mascaron dishes up rustic-yet-sumptuous pastas with steamy seafood to salivating foodies. The pastas (€24-36) are meant for two, but it’s OK to ask for a single portion. The €16 antipasto misto makes a terrific light meal (€16-19 main dishes, Mon-Sat 11:00-15:00 & 17:30-23:00, closed Sun, reservations smart Fri-Sat, Wi-Fi; on Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, a block past Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Castello 5225; tel. 041-522-5995, www.osteriamascaron.it).
All of these recommendations are within a 10-minute walk of the Accademia Bridge and well worth the walk.
Near the Accademia Bridge
Bar Foscarini, next to the Accademia Bridge and Galleria, offers €10-16 pizzas and panini. The food is decent and the drinks pricey, but you’re paying for the memorable Grand Canal view. It’s best for lunch but also serves breakfast (daily 8:00-23:00, until 20:30 Nov-April, on Rio Terà A. Foscarini, Dorsoduro 878c, tel. 041-522-7281, Paolo and Simone).
Al Vecio Marangon, about 100 yards west of the Accademia, glows like a dream come true, tucked away from the frenzy of Venice. This stylish bar serves cicchetti and pastas within its tight and picturesque interior or at a line of outdoor tables. Consider the splittable piatto di cicchetti misti (€17). Arrive early or be prepared to wait (daily 12:00-23:00, on Calle de la Toletta, Dorsoduro 1210, tel. 041-523-5768).
Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili, overlooking the Giudecca Canal, takes full advantage of the romantic setting sun. Expect creative regional specialties at tolerable prices. The breezy seaside seating also comes with vaporetti noise from the nearby stop (good €9-13 pizzas, €14-18 pastas, €16-26 secondi, daily 12:00-23:00; from Zattere vaporetto stop, turn left to Dorsoduro 924; tel. 041-520-6895). On Wednesday and Sunday evenings in summer, there’s live music nearby on the Zattere promenade.
On or near Campo San Barnaba
This small square is a delight—especially for dinner. Make reservations for the first two places.
Ristoteca Oniga is all about fresh fish and other sea creatures, with a chic-and-shipshape interior and great tables on the square. The accessible menu always includes a vegetarian dish (€12-15 pastas, €18-25 secondi, daily 12:00-14:30 & 19:00-22:30, Campo San Barnaba, Dorsoduro 2852, tel. 041-522-4410, www.oniga.it).
Enoteca e Trattoria la Bitta is dark and woody, with a soft-jazz bistro feel, tight seating, and a small back patio. The small daily menu is focused on local ingredients (including rabbit but not fish) and a “slow food” ethic. It serves only dinner, not lunch (€10-11 pastas, €18-27 secondi, seatings 19:00 and 21:00, Mon-Sat 18:30-23:00, closed Sun, cash only, just off Campo San Barnaba on Calle Lunga San Barnaba, Dorsoduro 2753a, tel. 041-523-0531).
Pizzeria al Profeta, casual and convivial, is popular for its great pizza and steak, with a large interior and a leafy garden out back (€8-10 pizzas, €11-16 pastas, €15-25 secondi, Wed-Mon 12:00-14:30 & 19:00-22:30, closed Tue; from Campo San Barnaba, walk down Calle Lunga San Barnaba; Dorsoduro 2671, tel. 041-523-7466).
I’ve listed rooms in several neighborhoods: St. Mark’s bustle, the Rialto action, and the quiet Dorsoduro area behind the Accademia. Note that hotel websites are particularly valuable for Venice, because they often include detailed directions that can help you get to your rooms with a minimum of wrong turns in this navigationally challenging city.
The prices listed are for one-night stays in peak season (April-June and Sept-Oct) and assume you’re booking directly with the hotel (not through a TI or online hotel-booking engine). Prices can spike during festivals. Almost all places drop prices in July and August, and again from November through March (except during Christmas and Carnevale). A €180 double can cost €80-90 in winter.
Near St. Mark’s Square
To get here from the train station or Piazzale Roma bus station, ride the slow vaporetto #1 to San Zaccaria or the fast #2 (which also leaves from Tronchetto parking lot) to San Marco.
East of St. Mark’s Square
Located near the Bridge of Sighs, just off the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront promenade, these places rub drainpipes with Venice’s most palatial five-star hotels.
$$ Hotel Campiello, lacy and bright, was once part of a 19th-century convent. Ideally located 50 yards off the waterfront on a tiny square, its 16 rooms offer a comfortable refuge for travelers (Sb-€130, Db-€180, bigger “superior” Db-€200-210, air-con, elevator; just steps from the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop, Castello 4647; tel. 041-520-5764, www.hcampiello.it, email@example.com). They also rent three modern family apartments (the largest sleeps 6 for €380/night).
$$ Hotel Fontana, two bridges behind St. Mark’s Square, is a pleasant family-run place with 15 sparse but classic rooms overlooking a lively square. The quieter rooms are on the garden side (Sb-€120, Db-€180, family rooms, 10 percent cash discount, 2 rooms have terraces for €20 extra, air-con, elevator, Wi-Fi in common areas, on Campo San Provolo at Castello 4701, tel. 041-522-0579, www.hotelfontana.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Abbreviations: S=Single, D=Double/Twin, T=Triple, Q=Quad, b=bathroom
Price Rankings for Double Rooms: $$$ Most rooms €180 or more, $$ €130-180, $ €130 or less
Notes: Many Italian cities levy a hotel tax of €1.50-5 per person, per night (often collected in cash; usually not included in the rates I’ve quoted). Room prices change; verify rates online or by email. For the best prices, book directly with the hotel.
$$ Locanda al Leon, which feels like a medieval tower house, is conscientiously run and rents 13 reasonably priced rooms just off Campo Santi Filippo e Giacomo (Db-€170, Db with square view-€190, Tb-€220, Qb-€250; for the best rates, book directly with hotel, pay cash, and show this book; air-con, 2 apartments with kitchens, Campo Santi Filippo e Giacomo, Castello 4270, tel. 041-277-0393, www.hotelalleon.com, email@example.com). Their down-the-street annex, B&B Marcella, has three newer, classy, and spacious rooms for the same rates.
$ Casa per Ferie Santa Maria della Pietà rents 53 beds in 15 rooms just a block off the Riva, with a fabulous lagoon-view roof terrace that rivals more luxurious hotels. It’s institutional, with generous public spaces and dorm-style comfort. Shared bathrooms are down the hall (bed in dorm room-€35-50, S-€70-85, D-€120-135, higher prices are for Fri and Sat, 2-night minimum on weekends in peak season, only twin beds, air-con, 100 yards from San Zaccaria-Pietà vaporetto dock, down Calle de la Pietà from La Pietà Church at Castello 3701, take elevator to third floor, tel. 041-244-3639, www.bedandvenice.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
North of St. Mark’s Square
$$ Hotel Orion rents 21 simple, welcoming rooms in the center of the action. Steep stairs (there’s no elevator) take you from the touristy street into a peaceful world high above (Db-€130-190, Tb-€160-220, air-con, 2 minutes inland from St. Mark’s Square, 10 steps toward St. Mark’s from San Zulian Church at Calle Spadaria 700a, tel. 041-522-3053, www.hotelorion.it, email@example.com).
$$ Hotel al Piave, with 28 rooms above a bright, tight lobby and breakfast room, is comfortable and cheery in a nice neighborhood (Db-€165, larger “superior” Db-€220, Tb-€220, Qb-€270; family suites-€300 for 4, €330 for 5; lots of narrow stairs, air-con, on Ruga Giuffa at Castello 4838, tel. 041-528-5174, www.hotelalpiave.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Locanda Silva is a big, scruffy, but beautifully located hotel with a 1960s feel, renting 23 decent rooms. Some are cheaper, with shared bathrooms (S-€70, Sb-€85, D-€90, D with toilet but shared shower-€100, Db-€150, Tb-€160, Qb-€180, 10 percent off if you stay at least 2 nights, discounts valid only with cash, closed Dec-Jan, air-con, lots of stairs, on Fondamenta del Remedio at Castello 4423, tel. 041-522-7643, www.locandasilva.it, email@example.com).
Near Campo Santa Maria Formosa
Farther north, the quiet Castello area lies beyond inviting Campo Santa Maria Formosa.
$$ Locanda la Corte is elegant but not snooty. Its 14 attractive, high-ceilinged rooms border a small, quiet courtyard (standard Db-€150, deluxe Db-€170, suites and family rooms available, air-con, on Calle Bressana at Castello 6317, tel. 041-241-1300, www.locandalacorte.it, firstname.lastname@example.org, Marco).
West of St. Mark’s Square
These more expensive hotels are solid choices in a more elegant neighborhood.
$$$ Hotel Flora, almost on the Grand Canal, is formal, with uniformed staff and grand public spaces, yet the 40 rooms have a homey warmth. The garden oasis is a sanctuary for weary guests (generally Db-€280, air-con, elevator, family apartment, on Calle Bergamaschi at San Marco 2283a, tel. 041-520-5844, www.hotelflora.it, email@example.com).
$$$ Hotel Bel Sito offers pleasing Old World character, 34 smallish rooms, generous public spaces, a peaceful courtyard, and a picturesque location—facing a church on a small square between St. Mark’s Square and the Accademia (Sb-€110-200, Db-€200-320, “superior” rooms with view cost more, air-con, elevator; near Santa Maria del Giglio vaporetto stop—line #1, on Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo/del Giglio at San Marco 2517, tel. 041-522-3365, www.hotelbelsitovenezia.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Near the Rialto Bridge
These places are on opposite sides of the Grand Canal, within a short walk of the Rialto Bridge. Express vaporetto #2 brings you to the Rialto quickly from the train station, the Piazzale Roma bus station, and the parking-lot island of Tronchetto, but you’ll need to take the “local” vaporetto #1 to reach the minor stops closer to the last two listings (or take #2 and walk over Rialto Bridge to reach them).
$$$ Hotel al Ponte Antico is exquisite, professional, and small. With nine plush rooms, a velvety royal living/breakfast room, and its own dock for water taxis, it’s perfect for a romantic stay. Because its wonderful terrace overlooks the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge, its rooms without a canal view may be a better value (Db-€325, “superior” Db-€400, deluxe canal-front Db-€490, air-con, 100 yards from Rialto Bridge at Cannaregio 5768, use Rialto vaporetto stop, tel. 041-241-1944, www.alponteantico.com, email@example.com).
$$ Pensione Guerrato, right above the colorful Rialto produce market, has 22 spacious, charming rooms in an 800-year-old building. It’s simple, airy, and wonderfully characteristic (D-€95, Db-€135, Tb-€155, Qb-€175, Quint/b-€185, air-con; on Calle drio la Scimia at San Polo 240a, take vaporetto #1 to Rialto Mercato stop to save walk over bridge; tel. 041-528-5927, www.pensioneguerrato.it). The Guerrato also rents family apartments in the old center (great for groups of 4-8) for around €60 per person.
$$ Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo is a 10-minute walk northwest of the Rialto Bridge, but it’s a great value. This 16th-century Venetian palazzo has a garden terrace and 10 beautifully appointed and tranquil rooms. Take vaporetto #1 to the San Stae stop, head inland along the right side of the church, and take the first left down tiny Calle della Campanile (Sb-€115, Db-€160, “superior” Db-€180, extra bed-€25, air-con, Santa Croce 2063, tel. 041-524-4797, www.alpontemocenigo.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Near the Accademia Bridge
As you step over the Accademia Bridge, touristy Venice is replaced by a sleepy village laced with canals. This quiet area is a 15-minute walk from the Rialto or St. Mark’s Square. The fast vaporetto #2 to the Accademia stop is the typical way to get here from the train station, Piazzale Roma bus station, Tronchetto parking lot, or St. Mark’s Square (early and late, #2 terminates at the Rialto stop, where you change to #1). For hotels near the Zattere stop, good options are vaporetto #5.1 or the Alilaguna speedboat from the airport.
South of the Accademia Bridge, in Dorsoduro
$$$ Pensione Accademia fills the 17th-century Villa Maravege like a Bellini painting, with 27 comfortable, elegant rooms, grand public spaces, and breezy gardens (Sb-€180, standard Db-€300, bigger “superior” Db-€350, Tb-€390, Qb-€430, must pay first night in advance, air-con, no elevator but most rooms on ground floor or one floor up, on Fondamenta Bollani at Dorsoduro 1058, tel. 041-521-0188, www.pensioneaccademia.it, email@example.com).
$$$ Hotel la Calcina, once home to English writer John Ruskin, maintains a 19th-century formality. It comes with three-star comforts in a professional yet intimate package. The peaceful waterside setting faces Giudecca Island (Sb-€165, Sb with view-€190, Db-€280, Db with view-€370, price depends on size, check for discounts online, air-con, no elevator and lots of stairs, rooftop terrace, buffet breakfast outdoors in good weather on platform over lagoon, near Zattere vaporetto stop at south end of Rio de San Vio at Dorsoduro 780, tel. 041-520-6466, www.lacalcina.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$$ Hotel Belle Arti lacks personality but has a grand entry, an inviting garden terrace, and 67 heavily decorated rooms (Sb-€150, Db-€240, Tb-€270, air-con, elevator, 100 yards behind Accademia art museum on Rio Terà A. Foscarini at Dorsoduro 912a, tel. 041-522-6230, www.hotelbellearti.com, email@example.com).
$$ Casa Rezzonico is a tranquil getaway with seven inviting rooms, each overlooking the grassy private garden terrace or the canal (Sb-€140, Db-€180, Tb-€210, Qb-€240, air-con, near Ca’ Rezzonico vaporetto stop—line #1, a few blocks past Campo San Barnaba on Fondamenta Gherardini at Dorsoduro 2813, tel. 041-277-0653, www.casarezzonico.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Hotel Galleria has 10 tight, old-fashioned, velvety rooms, most with views of the Grand Canal. Some rooms are quite narrow (S-€95, D-€150, Grand Canal view D-€160, skinny Grand Canal view Db-€180, palatial Grand Canal view Db-€240, breakfast in room, ceiling fans, free mini-bar, 30 yards from Accademia art museum, tel. 041-523-2489, www.hotelgalleria.it, email@example.com).
$$ Don Orione Religious Guest House is a big cultural center dedicated to the work of a local man who became a saint in modern times. With 80 rooms filling an old monastery, it feels like a modern retreat center, but is also clean and peaceful. It’s a good value supporting a fine cause: Profits go to mission work in the developing world. From the Zattere vaporetto stop, turn right, then turn left. It’s just after the church at #909a (Sb-€98, Db-€170, Tb-€220, Qb-€264, groups welcome, air-con, elevator, on Rio Terà A. Foscarini, Dorsoduro 909a, tel. 041-522-4077, www.donorione-venezia.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
North of the Accademia Bridge
These places are between the Accademia Bridge and St. Mark’s Square.
$$$ Novecento Hotel rents nine plush rooms on three floors, complemented by a welcoming lounge, a stylish living room, and a small breakfast garden. The decor mingles Art Deco with North African and Turkish accents (Db-€270, bigger “superior” Db/Tb-€290, air-con, lots of stairs, on Calle del Dose, off Campo San Maurizio at San Marco 2683, tel. 041-241-3765, www.novecento.biz, email@example.com).
$$$ Foresteria Levi, run by a foundation that promotes research on Venetian music, offers 32 quiet, institutional yet comfortable rooms. The loft quads are a good deal for families. Reserve directly and pay cash to get the best rates (generally around Db-€200, Qb-€250, air-con, elevator, on Calle Giustinian at San Marco 2893, tel. 041-277-0542, www.foresterialevi.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Istituto Ciliota is church-owned, efficient, clean, and plainly furnished, with 30 dorm-like rooms and a tranquil garden. With industrial-strength comfort but little character, it’s a fine value. During the school year, half the rooms are used by students (Sb-€90, Db-€150, no extra beds possible, cheaper with longer stays, air-con, mini-fridges in each room, elevator, on Calle de le Muneghe just off Campo San Stefano, San Marco 2976, tel. 041-520-4888, www.ciliota.it, email@example.com).
$$ Albergo San Samuele rents 10 budget rooms in an old palazzo near Campo San Stefano. It’s in a great locale and the rooms with shared bath are a good deal (S-€80, D-€110, Db-€150, extra bed-€30, no breakfast, fans, on Salizada San Samuele at San Marco 3358, tel. 041-520-5165, www.hotelsansamuele.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, Judith).
Getting Around Venice
Narrow pedestrian walkways connect Venice’s docks, squares, bridges, and courtyards. To navigate on foot, look for yellow signs on street corners pointing you to (per) the nearest major landmark (such as Per Rialto). Determine whether your destination is in the direction of a major signposted landmark, then follow the signs through the maze.
Some helpful street terminology: Campo means square, a campiello is a small square, calle (pronounced “KAH-lay” with an “L” sound) means “street,” and a ponte is a bridge. A fondamenta is the embankment along a canal or the lagoon. A rio terà is a street that was once a canal and has been filled in. A sotoportego is a covered passageway. Salizzada literally means a paved area (usually a wide street). The abbreviations S. and S.S. mean “saint” and “saints,” respectively. Don’t get hung up on the exact spelling of street and square names, which may sometimes appear in Venetian dialect (which uses de la, novo, and vechio) and other times in standard Italian (which uses della, nuovo, and vecchio).
Every building in Venice has a house number. The numbers relate to the district (each with about 6,000 address numbers), not the street. If you need to find a specific address, it helps to know its district, street, house number, and nearby landmarks.
These motorized bus-boats run by the public transit system (ACTV) work like city buses except that they never get a flat, the stops are docks, and if you get off between stops, you might drown. You can purchase tickets and passes at docks and from ACTV affiliate VèneziaUnica (ACTV—tel. 041-2424, www.actv.it; VèneziaUnica—www.veneziaunica.com).
TICKETS AND PASSES
Individual Vaporetto Tickets: A single ticket costs €7. Kids age 6 and up pay the same fare as an adult (kids under 6 travel free). Tickets are good for one hour in one direction; you can hop on and off at stops and change boats during that time. Your ticket (a plastic card embedded with a chip) is refillable; put more money on it at the automated kiosks to avoid waiting in line at the ticket window. The fare is reduced to €4 for a few one-stop runs (corsa semplice) that are hard to do by foot, including the route from Fondamente Nove to Murano-Colonna, and from San Zaccaria to San Giorgio Maggiore.
Vaporetto Passes: Because a single ticket costs €7, an unlimited-use vaporetti pass pays for itself quickly (€20/24 hours, €30/48 hours, €40/72 hours, €60/7-day pass). For example, the 48-hour pass pays for itself after just five rides (for example: to your hotel on your arrival, on a Grand Canal joyride, into the lagoon and back, and to the train station). Smaller and/or outlying stops, such as Sant’Elena and Biennale, are unstaffed—another good reason to buy a pass. It’s fun to be able to hop on and off spontaneously, and avoid long ticket lines. On the other hand, many tourists just walk through Venice and rarely use a boat.
Passes are also valid on some of ACTV’s mainland buses, including bus #2 to Mestre (but not the #5 to the airport or the airport buses run by ATVO, a separate company). Passholders get a discounted fare for all ACTV buses that originate or terminate at Marco Polo Airport (€4 one-way, €8 round-trip, must be purchased at the same time as the pass; otherwise, the airport shuttle costs €6 one-way, €11 round-trip).
Travelers between ages 14 and 29 can get a 72-hour pass for €20 if they also buy a Rolling Venice discount card for €4 (sold at TIs and VèneziaUnica shops, www.veneziaunica.com).
Buying and Validating Tickets and Passes: Purchase tickets and passes from machines at most stops, from ticket windows at larger stops, or from the VèneziaUnica offices at the train station, bus station, and Tronchetto parking lot.
Before you board, validate your ticket or pass at the small white machine on the dock. If you’re unable to purchase a ticket before boarding, seek out the conductor immediately to buy a single ticket (or risk a €52 fine).
IMPORTANT VAPORETTO LINES
For most travelers, only two vaporetto lines matter: line #1 and line #2, which leave every 10 minutes or so and go up and down the Grand Canal, between the “mouth” of the fish at one end and St. Mark’s Square at the other. Line #1 is the slow boat, taking 45 minutes and making every stop along the way. Line #2 takes 25 minutes, stopping only at Tronchetto (parking lot), Piazzale Roma (bus station), Ferrovia (train station), Rialto Bridge, San Tomà (Frari Church), San Samuele (opposite Ca’ Rezzonico—an easy traghetto ride across), Accademia Bridge, and San Marco (west end of St. Mark’s Square, end of the line).
Sorting out the different directions of travel can be confusing. Some boats run on circular routes, in one direction only (for example, lines #5.1 and #5.2, plus the non-Murano sections of lines #4.1 and #4.2). Line #2 runs in both directions and is almost, but not quite, a full loop. The #2 boat leaving from the San Marco stop goes in one direction (up the Grand Canal), while from the San Zaccaria stop—just a five-minute walk away—it goes in the opposite direction (around the tail of the “fish”). Make sure you use the correct stop to avoid taking the long way around to your destination.
To clear up any confusion, ask a ticket-seller or conductor on the dock for help. Get a copy of the most current ACTV map and timetable (in English and Italian, theoretically free at ticket booths but usually unavailable—can be downloaded from www.actv.it). System maps are posted at stops, but it’s helpful to print out your own copy of the map from the ACTV website before your trip.
BOARDING AND RIDING VAPORETTI
Many stops have at least two boarding platforms, and large stops—such as San Marco, San Zaccaria, Rialto, Ferrovia (train station), and Piazzale Roma—have multiple platforms. At these larger stops, electronic boards display which boats are coming next, when, and from which platform they leave; each platform is assigned a letter (clearly marked above the gangway). At smaller stops without electronic displays, signs on each platform show the vaporetto lines that stop there and the direction they are headed. As you board, confirm your destination by looking for an electronic sign on the boat or just asking the conductor.
You may notice some vaporetti sporting a corsa bis sign, indicating that they’re running a shortened or altered route, and that riders may have to hop off partway (e.g., at Rialto) and wait for the next boat. If you see a corsa bis sign, before boarding ask the conductor whether the boat is going to your desired destination (e.g., “San Marco?”).
Handy Vaporetti from San Zaccaria, near St. Mark’s Square
Several vaporetti leave from the San Zaccaria docks, located 150 yards east of St. Mark’s Square. There are four separate San Zaccaria docks spaced about 70 yards apart, with a total of six different berths, lettered A to F: Danieli (E and F), Jolanda (C and D), M.V.E. (B), and Pietà (A). While this may sound confusing, in practice it’s simple: Check the big electronic board (next to the Jolanda C/D dock), which indicates the departure time, line number, destination, and berth letter of upcoming vaporetti. Once you’ve figured out which boat you want, go to that letter berth and hop on. They’re all within about a five-minute stroll of each other.
✵ Line #1 goes up the Grand Canal, making all the stops, including San Marco, Rialto, Ferrovia (train station), and Piazzale Roma (but it does not go as far as Tronchetto). In the other direction, it goes from San Zaccaria to Arsenale and Giardini before ending on the Lido.
✵ Line #2 zips over to San Giorgio Maggiore, the island church across from St. Mark’s Square (5 minutes, €4 ride). From there, it continues on to stops on the island of Giudecca, the parking lot at Tronchetto, and then down the Grand Canal. Note: You cannot ride the #2 up the Grand Canal (for example, to Rialto or the train station) directly from this stop—you’ll need to walk five minutes along the waterfront, past St. Mark’s Square, to the San Marco-Giardinetti dock and hop on the #2 there.
✵ Line #4.1 goes to San Michele and Murano in 45 minutes.
✵ Line #7 is the summertime express boat to Murano (25 minutes).
✵ The Molino Stucky shuttle boat takes even nonguests to the Hilton Hotel, with its popular view bar (free, 20-minute ride, leaves at 0:20 past the hour from near the San Zaccaria-M.V.E. dock).
✵ Lines #5.1 and #5.2 are the circulare (cheer-koo-LAH-ray), making a loop around the perimeter of the island, with a stop at the Lido—perfect if you just like riding boats. Line #5.1 goes counterclockwise, and #5.2 goes clockwise.
✵ The Alilaguna shuttle to and from the airport stops here as well.
Only four bridges cross the Grand Canal, but traghetti (shuttle gondolas) ferry locals and in-the-know tourists across the Grand Canal at seven handy locations. Just step in, hand the gondolier €2, and enjoy the ride—standing or sitting. Note that some traghetti are seasonal, some stop running as early as 12:30, and all stop by 18:00. Traghetti are not covered by any transit pass.
By Water Taxi
Venetian taxis, like speedboat limos, hang out at busy points along the Grand Canal. Prices are regulated: €15 for pickup, then €2 per minute; €5 per person for more than four passengers; and €10 between 22:00 and 6:00. If you have more bags than passengers, the extra ones cost €3 apiece. Despite regulation, prices can be soft; negotiate and settle on the price or rate before stepping in. For travelers with lots of luggage or small groups who can split the cost, taxi boat rides can be a time-saving convenience—and a cool indulgence. For a little more than €100 an hour, you can have a private, unguided taxi-boat tour. You may find more competitive rates if you prebook through the Consorzio Motoscafi water taxi association (tel. 041-522-2303, www.motoscafivenezia.it).
Arriving and Departing
A two-mile-long causeway (with highway and train lines) connects the island to Mestre, the sprawling mainland section of Venice. Don’t stop in Mestre unless you’re changing trains or parking your car.
Marco Polo Airport
Venice’s small, modern airport is on the mainland shore of the lagoon, six miles north of the city (airport code: VCE). There’s one sleek terminal, with a TI (daily 9:00-20:00), car-rental agencies, ATMs, a bank, and a few shops and eateries. For flight info, call 041-260-9260, visit www.veniceairport.com, or ask your hotelier.
Treviso Airport, the next-closest airport, is decribed later.
GETTING BETWEEN MARCO POLO AIRPORT AND VENICE
There are several good options (including by boat) to get from the airport to Venice.
Form of Transport
Airport bus to Piazzale Roma
Land taxi to Piazzale Roma
An advantage of the Alilaguna boats and water taxis is that you can reach my recommended hotels very simply, with no changes. Both kinds of boats leave from the airport’s boat dock, an eight-minute walk from the terminal. Exit the arrivals hall and turn left, following signs along a paved, level, covered sidewalk.
When flying out of Venice, plan to arrive at the airport two hours before your flight, and remember that just getting there can easily take up to two hours. Water transport can be slow, and small Alilaguna boats fill up quickly. In an emergency, hop in a water taxi and get to the airport in 30 minutes.
ALILAGUNA AIRPORT BOATS
These boats make the slow, scenic journey across the lagoon, shuttling passengers between the airport and a number of different stops on the island of Venice (€15, €27 round-trip, €1 surcharge if bought on boat, €1-2 less if bought online, includes 1 suitcase and 1 piece of hand luggage, additional bags-€3 each, roughly 2/hour, 1-1.5-hour trip depending on destination). Alilaguna boats are not part of the ACTV vaporetto system, so they aren’t covered by city transit passes. But they do use the same docks and ticket windows as the regular vaporetti. You can buy tickets for Alilaguna online at www.venicelink.com.
The two key Alilaguna lines—blue and orange—take about the same amount of time to reach St. Mark’s Square. From the airport, the blue line (linea blu) heads first to Fondamente Nove (on the “back” of Venice’s fish, 40 minutes), then loops around the “tail” of the fish to San Zaccaria and San Marco (about 1.5 hours) before continuing on to Zattere and the cruise terminal (almost 2 hours). The orange line (linea arancio) runs down the Grand Canal, reaching Guglie (45 minutes), Rialto (1 hour), and San Marco (1.5 hours). In high season, the red line takes you to St. Mark’s in one hour with fewer stops. It circumnavigates Murano and then runs parallel to the blue line, ending at Giudecca Zitelle (hourly, from the airport 9:40-18:40, from Zitelle to the airport 8:10-18:10). For a full schedule, visit the TI, see the website (www.alilaguna.it), call 041-240-1701, ask your hotelier, or scan the schedules posted at the docks.
From the Airport to Venice: You can buy Alilaguna tickets at the airport’s TI, the ticket desk in the terminal, and at the ticket booth at the dock. Any ticket seller can tell you which line you need. Boats from the airport run roughly twice an hour (blue line from 6:15, orange line from 8:15, both run until about midnight).
From Venice to the Airport: Ask your hotelier which dock and which line is best. Blue line boats leave Venice as early as 3:50 in the morning for passengers with early flights. Scope out the dock and buy tickets in advance to avoid last-minute stress.
Luxury taxi speedboats zip directly between the airport and the closest dock to your hotel, getting you to within steps of your final destination in about 30 minutes. The official price is €110 for up to four people; add €10 for every extra person (10-passenger limit). You may get a higher quote—politely talk it down. A taxi can be a smart investment for small groups and those with an early departure.
From the airport, arrange your ride at the water-taxi desk or with the boat captains lounging at the dock. From Venice, book your taxi trip the day before you leave. Your hotel will help (since they get a commission), or you can book directly with the Consorzio Motoscafi water taxi association (tel. 041-522-2303, www.motoscafivenezia.it).
AIRPORT SHUTTLE BUSES
Buses between the airport and Venice are fast, frequent, and cheap. They take you across the bridge from the mainland to the island, dropping you at Venice’s bus station, at the “mouth” of the fish on a square called Piazzale Roma. From there, you can catch a vaporetto down the Grand Canal—convenient for hotels near the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square.
Two bus companies run between Piazzale Roma and the airport: ACTV and ATVO. ATVO buses go nonstop and take 20 minutes. ACTV buses make a few stops en route and take 30 minutes. ACTV offers a discounted fare if you also buy a vaporetto pass (€4 one-way, €8 round-trip). The service is equally good (either bus: €6 one-way, €11 round-trip, runs about 5:00-24:00, 2/hour, drops to 1/hour early and late, check schedules at www.atvo.it or www.actv.it).
From the Airport to Venice: Both buses leave from just outside the arrivals terminal. Buy tickets from the TI, the ticket desk in the terminal, the kiosk near baggage claim, or ticket machines. ATVO tickets are not valid on ACTV buses and vice versa. Double-check the destination; you want Piazzale Roma. If taking ACTV, you want bus #5.
From Venice to the Airport: At Piazzale Roma, buy your ticket from the ACTV windows (in the building by the bridge) or the ATVO office (at #497g) before heading out to the platforms. The newsstand in the center of the lot also sells tickets.
LAND TAXI OR PRIVATE MINIVAN
It takes about 20 minutes to drive from the airport to Piazzale Roma or the cruise port. A land taxi can do the trip for about €40. To reserve a private minivan, contact Treviso Car Service (minivan-€55, seats up to 8; car-€50, seats up to 3; mobile 348-900-0700 or 333-411-2840, www.trevisocarservice.com, email@example.com).
Several budget airlines, such as Ryanair, Wizz Air, and Germanwings, use Treviso Airport, 12 miles northwest of Venice (airport code: TSF, tel. 042-231-5111, www.trevisoairport.it). The fastest option into Venice (arriving at the Tronchetto parking lot) is on the Barzi express bus, which does the trip in just 40 minutes (€10, buy tickets on board, every 1-2 hours, www.barziservice.com). From Tronchetto, hop on a vaporetto, or take the People Mover monorail to Piazzale Roma for €1.30. ATVO buses are more frequent and drop you right at Piazzale Roma (saving you the People Mover ride), but take nearly twice as long because they make more stops (€10 one-way, €18 round-trip, about 2/hour, 1.5 hours, buy tickets at ATVO desk in airport and stamp them on bus, www.atvo.it). Treviso Car Service offers minivan service to Piazzale Roma (minivan-€75, seats up to 8; car-€65, seats up to 3; mobile 348-900-0700 or 333-411-2840, www.trevisocarservice.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
All trains to “Venice” stop at Venezia Mestre (on the mainland). Most continue on to Santa Lucia Station (a.k.a. Venezia S.L.) on the island of Venice itself. If your train happens to terminate at Mestre, you’ll need to buy a Mestre-Santa Lucia ticket at a machine for €1.25 and validate it before hopping any nonexpress, regional train (with an R or RV prefix) for the ride across the causeway to Venice (6/hour, 10 minutes).
Santa Lucia train station is right on the Grand Canal, an easy vaporetto ride or fascinating 45-minute walk to St. Mark’s Square. In high season, you’ll find an info/ticket stand run by transport companies in a white kiosk out front, next to the dock for vaporetto #2. The station has a TI desk and baggage check (daily 6:00-23:00, no lockers, along track 1). Pay WCs are at track 1.
Before heading into town, confirm your departure plan (use the ticket machines or study the partenze/departures posters on walls). Minimize your time in the station—the banks of user-friendly ticket machines take euros and credit cards, display schedules, and issue tickets. There are two train companies: Trenitalia, with most connections, has green-and-white machines (toll tel. 892-021, www.trenitalia.it); the red machines are for the high-speed Italo service (no rail passes accepted, cheaper in advance, tel. 06-0708, www.italotreno.it). Ticket offices for both Trenitalia and Italo are in the corner, near track 14. If you need international tickets or live help, head to the ticket windows (Trenitalia open 6:00-21:00; Italo open 8:15-20:10). Or take care of these tasks online or at a downtown travel agency (€5/ticket fee).
Getting from the Train Station to Downtown: Walk straight out of the station to the canal. You’ll see vaporetto docks and ticket booths on both sides. The electronic signs show which boats are leaving when and from which platform. The slow boat down the Grand Canal is #1. The fast boat is #2; make sure that “Rialto” is among the destinations listed. If you’re staying in the Dorsoduro neighborhood near the Zattere stop, take vaporetto #5.1. A water taxi from the train station to central Venice costs about €60-70 (the taxi dock is straight ahead).
Note that the departures listed below are operated by Trenitalia; a competing private rail company called Italo offers additional high-speed connections to major Italian cities including Bologna, Florence, and Rome but doesn’t accept rail passes (visit www.italotreno.it). When taking the train to nearby cities such as Padua and Verona, prices and journey times vary greatly depending on whether you take an express or regional train.
From Venice by Train to: Padua (2/hour, 25-50 minutes); Verona (2/hour, 1.5-2.5 hours); Bolzano/Dolomites (to Bolzano about hourly, 3-3.5 hours, transfer in Verona; catch bus from Bolzano into mountains); Milan (2/hour, most direct on high-speed ES trains, 2.5 hours); Cinque Terre/Monterosso (5/day, 6 hours, change in Milan); Florence (hourly, 2-3 hours, often crowded so make reservations); Rome (roughly hourly, 3.5 hours, overnight possible); Naples (almost hourly, 5.5-7 hours with changes in Bologna or Rome).
Venice’s “bus station” is actually an open-air parking lot called Piazzale Roma. The square itself is a jumble of different operators, platforms, and crosswalks over busy lanes of traffic. But bus stops are well-signed. The ticket windows for ACTV (local public buses, including #5 to Marco Polo Airport) are in a building between the bridge and vaporetto stop. The ATVO ticket office (for express buses to Marco Polo and Treviso airports and to Padua) is at #497g in the big white building, on the right side of the square as you face away from the canal (office open daily 6:40-19:35).
Piazzale Roma also has two big parking garages and the People Mover monorail (€1.30, links to cruise port and then the parking-lot island of Tronchetto). Baggage storage is next to the monorail at #497m (daily 6:00-20:00).
Getting from the Bus Station to Downtown: Find the vaporetto docks (just left of the modern bridge) and take #1 or the faster #2 down the Grand Canal to reach stops for the Rialto, Accademia, and San Marco (St. Mark’s Square).
The freeway dead-ends after crossing the causeway to Venice (drive under the speed limit or you’ll get a ticket thanks to the speed cameras). At the end of the road you have two parking choices: garages at Tronchetto or Piazzale Roma. As you drive into the city, signboards with green and red lights indicate which lots are full.
The Tronchetto garage is much bigger, farther out, cheaper, and well-connected by vaporetto (€3-5/hour, €21/24 hours, discounts for longer stays, tel. 041-520-7555, www.veniceparking.it). After parking, cross the street to the brick building. While you can head left for a long walk to the People Mover monorail (described earlier), it’s easiest to go right to the vaporetto dock (not well-signed, look for ACTV). At the dock, catch vaporetto #2 in one of two directions: via the Grand Canal (more scenic, stops at Rialto, 40 minutes to San Marco), or via Giudecca (around the city, faster, no Rialto stop, 30 minutes to San Marco).
Don’t be waylaid by aggressive water taxi boatmen. They charge €100 to take you where the vaporetto will take you for €7. Also avoid the travel agencies masquerading as TIs; deal only with the ticket booth at the vaporetto dock or the VèneziaUnica public transport office. If you’re going to buy a local transport pass, do it now—to get maximum use out of it.
The two Piazzale Roma garages are closer in and more convenient—but more expensive and likelier to be full. Both face the busy square where the road ends. The big white building on your right is a 2,200-space public parking garage, Autorimessa Communale (€26/24 hours, TI office in payment lobby open daily 8:30-14:00, tel. 041-272-7211, www.avmspa.it). In a back corner of the square is the private Garage San Marco (€30/24 hours, tel. 041-523-2213, www.garagesanmarco.it). At either of these, you’ll have to give up your keys. Near Garage San Marco, avoid Parcheggio Sant’Andrea, which charges obscene rates (€84/24 hours).
BEST OF THE REST: MILAN
For every church in Rome, there’s a bank in Milan. Italy’s second city and capital of the Lombardy region, Milan is a hardworking, time-is-money powerhouse. And it’s also an international fashion capital—the locals and the city itself are works of art. Window displays are gorgeous, cigarettes are chic, and even the cheese comes gift-wrapped.
Many tourists come to Italy for the past. But Milan is today’s Italy. While it’s not big on the tourist circuit, it has plenty to see.
If you’re flying in and out of Milan, you could save your exploration of this big, modern city for the end of your trip. Start your journey softly by going first to Lake Como, the Cinque Terre, or Venice. Then spend your last afternoon and night in Milan before flying home.
My coverage focuses on the old center. Most sights are within a 15-minute walk of the cathedral (Duomo), which is a direct eight-minute Metro ride from the Centrale train station. As in any big Italian city, be alert for pickpockets, particularly on the Metro and wherever tourists congregate.
Day Plan: On a short visit, tour the Duomo, dip into La Scala Opera House or the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, browse elegant shops at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and see The Last Supper (if you’ve reserved ahead).
Getting to Milan by Air: Most international flights land at Malpensa Airport (MXP, www.milanomalpensa-airport.com). Ride the Malpensa Express train into the city (€12, www.malpensaexpress.it): Take the Cadorna line to reach downtown (2/hour, 35 minutes) or the Centrale line to Milano Centrale train station (2/hour, 50 minutes). Airport shuttle buses cost about €10 for the one-hour trip downtown (www.malpensashuttle.it or www.autostradale.it). Taxis charge a fixed rate of €90.
Most European flights land at Linate Airport (LIN; www.milanolinate-airport.com), which is connected to downtown Milan by shuttle bus (€5, 25 minutes, www.airportbusexpress.it), taxi (about €25), and public bus #73 (reaches San Babila Metro station in 20 minutes; ride one stop to the Duomo on red line 1; a single transit ticket covers both journeys).
Getting to Milan by Train: Common connections are Venice (2/hour, 2.5 hours), Florence (hourly, 2 hours), Rome (2-3/hour, 3-3.5 hours), Cinque Terre/Monterosso al Mare (8/day, 4 hours), Varenna on Lake Como (nearly hourly, 1 hour), and Naples (hourly, 5 hours).
Most Trenitalia trains arrive at the Milano Centrale station; to get downtown, follow signs for Metro yellow line 3 (direction: San Donato), go four stops to the Duomo stop, surface, and you’ll be facing the cathedral. If you arrive at Milano Cadorna, take Metro red line 1 to the Duomo. Milano Porta Garibaldi (used by high-speed Italo trains and some Trenitalia trains) is on Metro green line 2, two stops from Milano Centrale.
Getting to Milan by Car: If you must have a car, use the affordable park-and-ride lots at suburban Metro stations (see www.atm.it).
Tourist Information: The TI is in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, at the end nearest La Scala (daily 9:00-19:00, Metro: Duomo, tel. 02-884-5555, www.turismo.milano.it).
Using Public Transit: A single ticket, valid for 90 minutes, can be used for one ride, including transfers, on all forms of transport (for more, see www.atm.it).
Private Guides: These guides know their city’s history (€150-190/3 hours)—Lorenza Scorti (mobile 347-735-1346, email@example.com) and Sara Cerri (mobile 380-433-3019, www.walkingtourmilan.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
▲▲GALLERIA VITTORIO EMANUELE II
▲▲LA SCALA OPERA HOUSE AND MUSEUM
▲BRERA ART GALLERY (PINACOTECA DI BRERA)
▲▲LEONARDO DA VINCI’S THE LAST SUPPER (L’ULTIMA CENA)
▲SFORZA CASTLE (CASTELLO SFORZESCO)
The city’s centerpiece is the fourth-largest church in Europe (after the Vatican’s, London’s, and Sevilla’s). At 525 by 300 feet, the place is immense, with more than 2,000 statues inside (and 1,000 outside) and 52 100-foot-tall pillars (representing the weekly liturgical calendar). If you do two laps, you’ve done your daily walk. A visit here has three parts: the church interior, a rooftop stroll, and the adjacent Duomo Museum.
Cost and Hours: Church—€2, daily 7:00-19:00, audioguide-€6, www.duomomilano.it. Roof terraces—by elevator-€13, via stairs-€8, daily 9:00-19:00, last ascent at 18:00. Duomo Museum—€6, Tue-Sun 10:00-18:00, closed Mon, audioguide-€5.
Visiting the Duomo: Begin by looping around the Duomo’s pink marble exterior, then head inside to enjoy its remarkable bulk, fine 15th-century stained-glass windows, and Baroque altar. Napoleon crowned himself King of Italy under the altar’s dome in 1805.
But the most memorable part of a Duomo visit is strolling between the frilly spires of the ▲▲ cathedral rooftop. You’ll do a one-way loop with great views of the city and—on clear days—the crisp and jagged Alps.
The ▲Duomo Museum helps to fill out the cathedral’s story, and lets you see its original art and treasures up close. The collection lacks description (in any language), so get the audioguide.
▲▲GALLERIA VITTORIO EMANUELE II
This breathtaking glass-domed arcade, next to Piazza del Duomo, is a symbol of Milan. Built during the 19th-century age of Eiffel, the iron-and-glass structure showcased a new, modern era. It was the first building in town to have electric lighting and, from its inception, has been an elegant and popular meeting place. Luxury shops have had outlets here from the beginning.
At the venerable Bar Camparino (at the Galleria’s Piazza del Duomo entry), turn an expensive cup of coffee into a good value by enjoying some of Europe’s best people-watching (Tue-Sun 7:30-20:00, closed Mon and Aug).
Two of Milan’s top sights—the Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II—are neighbors on the Piazza del Duomo.
▲▲LA SCALA OPERA HOUSE AND MUSEUM
Milan’s famous Teatro alla Scala opened in 1778 with an opera by Antonio Salieri (Mozart’s wannabe rival). Today, opera buffs can get a glimpse of the theater and tour the adjacent museum’s extensive collection.
Cost and Hours: Museum—€7, daily 9:00-12:30 & 13:30-17:30, Piazza della Scala, tel. 02-8879-7473, www.teatroallascala.org.
Museum: The collection features Verdi’s top hat, Rossini’s eyeglasses, Toscanini’s baton, Fettuccini’s pesto, original scores, diorama stage sets, and death masks of great composers and musicians. But the main reason to visit is the opportunity (on most days) to peek into the actual theater.
Performances: The show goes on at the opera house every month except August. Seats sell out quickly. For schedules, online sales, and info on same-day tickets, see www.teatroallascala.org. You can also call Scala Infotel Service (daily 9:00-18:00, tel. 02-7200-3744).
This oldest museum in Milan, inaugurated in 1618, features works by Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Titian—and, most important, a huge-scale sketch by Raphael (in Room 5) and a rare oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci (in Room 24, along with a big replica painting of The Last Supper).
Cost and Hours: €15, Tue-Sun 10:00-18:00, closed Mon, last entry one hour before closing, Piazza Pio XI 2, tel. 02-8069-2221, www.ambrosiana.eu.
▲BRERA ART GALLERY (PINACOTECA DI BRERA)
Milan’s top collection of Italian paintings (13th-20th centuries) was established in 1809 to house Napoleon’s looted art. Pick up an English map of the masterpieces. Highlights are Antonio Canova’s nude statue of Napoleon with Tinkerbell (in the courtyard); Andrea Mantegna’s tour-de-force The Dead Christ (a textbook example of feet-first foreshortening, in Room VI); Raphael’s Wedding of the Madonna (Room XXIV); and the gritty-yet-intimate realism of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (Room XXIX).
Cost and Hours: €6, Tue-Sun 8:30-19:15, closed Mon, last entry 45 minutes before closing, audioguide-€5 (useful as English info is limited), Via Brera 28, Metro: Lanza or Montenapoleone, tel. 02-722-631, www.brera.beniculturali.it.
▲▲LEONARDO DA VINCI’S THE LAST SUPPER (L’ULTIMA CENA)
Decorating the former dining hall of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, this fresco by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the ultimate masterpieces of the Renaissance.
Cost and Hours: €8 (some visits require €3.50 extra for provided English tour); open Tue-Sun 8:15-18:45 (last entry), closed Mon; fine audioguide-€3.50. Show up 20 minutes before your scheduled entry.
Reservations: Reservations are mandatory, as only 30 tourists are allowed in, every 15 minutes, for exactly 15 minutes. Timed-entry reservations for each calendar month go on sale about three months ahead. You can book online (www.vivaticket.it, type “Cenacolo Vinciano” in the search box), but you may get a greater selection of time slots if you book by phone (from the US dial 011-39-02-9280-0360, office open Mon-Sat 8:00-18:30, closed Sun). No same-day tickets are available.
Getting There: The church is a five-minute walk from Metro: Cadorna or Conciliazione. Or take tram #16 from the Duomo (direction: San Siro or Piazzale Segesta).
Rick’s Tip: If you can’t get a reservation for The Last Supper, consider a €60-70 tour that includes a guided visit to Leonardo’s masterpiece (try Veditalia, www.veditalia.com, or City Wonders, www.citywonders.com). Other possibilities are bus-and-walking tours (www.autostradaleviaggi.it or www.zaniviaggi.it) or hop-on, hop-off buses (www.milano.city-sightseeing.it) that charge extra for a reservation.
Visiting The Last Supper: As your appointed time nears, you’ll be herded between several rooms to reduce humidity before you reach the fresco, allowing you ample time to read this:
Hired by the ruling Sforza family, Leonardo worked on the fresco from about 1492 until 1498. It was essentially a bribe to the Dominican monks so that the Sforzas could place their family tomb in the church. Ultimately, the French drove the Sforzas out of Milan, they were never buried here, and the monks got a great fresco for nothing.
Deterioration began within six years of The Last Supper’s completion because Leonardo painted on the wall in layers, as he would on a canvas, instead of applying pigment to wet plaster in the usual fresco technique. The church was bombed in World War II, but—miraculously, it seems—the wall holding The Last Supper remained standing. A 21-year restoration project (completed in 1999) peeled away 500 years of touch-ups, leaving Leonardo’s masterpiece faint but vibrant.
The fresco is at one end of a big, vacant whitewashed room. Leonardo captures the psychological drama as the Lord says, “One of you will betray me,” and the apostles huddle in stressed-out groups of three, wondering, “Lord, is it I?” Some are scandalized. Others want more information. Simon (on the far right) gestures as if to ask a question that has no answer. In this agitated atmosphere, Judas (fourth from left and the only one with his face in shadow) clutches his 30 pieces of silver and looks pretty guilty. With the extremely natural effect of the light and the drama of the faces, Leonardo created a tour de force.
▲SFORZA CASTLE (CASTELLO SFORZESCO)
The castle of Milan features a sprawling museum whose highlight is one of Michelangelo’s final sculptures, the unfinished but powerful Pietà Rondanini.
Cost and Hours: €5, free entry after 16:30 (Fri after 14:00); open Tue-Sun 9:00-17:30, closed Mon, Metro: Cairoli or Lanza, tel. 02-8846-3700, www.milanocastello.it. If you walk here, take Via Dante, the pedestrian boulevard.
For evening action, check out the artsy Brera area in the old center, with several swanky sidewalk cafés to choose from and lots of bars that stay open late. Another great neighborhood for nightlife, especially for a younger scene, is Naviglio Grande, Milan’s “Little Venice” (Metro: Porta Genova).
Eating and Sleeping
Trattoria Milanese is family-run and traditional (Via Santa Marta 11). Ronchi 78 has dependable Milanese classics like risotto alla milanese (Via San Maurilio 7). Peck Gourmet Deli serves delectable fancy food for a superb picnic dinner (Via Spadari 9). Princi bakery is mobbed with locals vying for focaccia, olive breadsticks, and luscious pastries (Via Speronari 6, also at Via Ponte Vetero 10).
If you’re overnighting, $$$ Hotel Gran Duca di York is modern, bright, and near the Duomo (www.ducadiyork.com). $$ Antica Locanda Leonardo, just down the street from The Last Supper, has a romantic, Old World vibe (www.anticalocandaleonardo.com). $ Ostello Bello Grande, near the train station, is a well-priced hostel with hipster flair and some private rooms (www.ostellobello.com).
BEST OF THE REST: VARENNA ON LAKE COMO
Lined with stately 19th-century villas, crowned by snowcapped mountains, and busy with ferries and boats, Lake Como is a good place to take a vacation. It seems like half the travelers you’ll meet have tossed their itineraries into the lake and are actually relaxing. And the best place for it is the lakeside village of Varenna. Other than watch visitors wash ashore with the landing of each ferry, there’s wonderfully little to do. Varenna’s volume goes down with the sun. At night, it whispers luna di miele—honeymoon.
For the best mix of accessibility and scenery, Varenna can’t be beat. On the quieter side of the lake, with a tiny harbor, narrow lanes, and dreamy views, Varenna is the ideal spot to munch a peach and ponder the place where Italy is welded to the Alps.
Day Plan: Spend time exploring Varenna, then take a ferry to admire the scenery and lakeside villas, or to poke around in the picturesque town of Bellagio.
Getting to Varenna by Train: From any destination covered in this book, you’ll reach Lake Como via Milan. The quickest, easiest, and cheapest way is to take the train to Varenna (1-2/hour, 70 minutes) from Milan’s central train station (Milano Centrale).
Getting to Varenna by Boat via Como: For a less convenient, much slower, but more scenic trip, take the train from Milan to the town of Como (2/hour, 30-60 minutes), walk 10 minutes to the dock, and catch a speedy hydrofoil or leisurely battello to Varenna (hourly departures).
Arrival in Varenna: Pretty much everything is within a 15-minute walk of the train station and boat dock. A taxi from the station costs about €9-10. Drivers can park at the multilevel lot at the south end of town.
Tourist Information: The TI is on Varenna’s main square (closed Mon in season, open weekends only off-season, Via IV Novembre 7, tel. 0341-830-367, http://varennaturismo.com). The Tivano travel agency in the train station also operates as a TI, sells train tickets, and offers bus and boat tours of the region (open daily in season, www.tivanotours.com).
Map: Lake Como
▲HIKE TO VEZIO CASTLE
A generation ago, Varenna built this elegant lakeside promenade to connect the ferry dock with the old town center. Arcing past private villas guarded by wrought iron and wisteria, it’s romantic. After dark, it’s adorned with caryatid lovers pressing silently against each other in the shadows.
▲HIKE TO VEZIO CASTLE
A steep and stony trail leads to Varenna’s ruined hilltop castle, Castello di Vezio. Take the small road, Via per Vezio (about 100 feet south of—and to the right of—Hotel Montecodeno), and figure on a 20-minute walk one-way to the peaceful hamlet of Vezio. There, follow castello signs to the bar that serves as the castle’s ticket desk. Follow the little loop trail on the lake side of the castle for vistas over the rooftops, and climb the 62 steps of the castle tower for 360-degree panoramas of Lake Como.
Cost and Hours: €4, open daily in summer, closed Nov-Feb and in bad weather, www.castellodivezio.it.
Two separate manicured lakeside gardens sit next door to each other just a short distance from the main square. The first are the small but lush terraces of Villa Cipressi. Just beyond are the more open grounds of Villa Monastero, which also admits visitors into the villa. The former residence of the De Marchi family, the villa is now a museum filled with ornate furnishings from the late 1800s. It’s the handiest look inside one of the villas that line the lakeshore.
Cost and Hours: Villa Cipressi—€4, May-Nov daily 8:00-20:00, www.hotelvillacipressi.it. Villa Monastero—gardens—€5, gardens and museum—€8; gardens open March-Oct daily 9:30-19:00, museum open Fri-Sun only except in Aug, when it’s open daily, www.villamonastero.eu. Both villas are closed off-season.
There are three spots to swim in Varenna: the free little beach behind Hotel Royal Victoria off Piazza San Giorgio; the central lakefront area by Nilus Bar; and the lido, which is well-equipped for swimmers. Just north of the boat dock, it has showers, bathrooms, a restaurant/bar, and lounge chairs and umbrellas for rent (entry—€2).
Excursions from Varenna
The best simple day out on Lake Como is to take the battello navetta (mid-lake ferry) on its entire 50-minute Varenna-Bellagio-Villa Carlotta-Tremezzo-Lenno route. On the return trip, hop off at any sights that interest you: the beautiful Villa del Balbianello and its gardens (in Lenno, www.fondoambiente.it), the impressive museum and gardens of the Villa Carlotta (www.villacarlotta.it), and/or the resort town of Bellagio (see next).
Rick’s Tip: Because boats are frequent and the schedule is hard to read, I just show up, buy a ticket for the next boat, and wait.
Boats go about every 30 minutes between Varenna and Bellagio (€4.60/hop, 15-20 minutes; boat info: toll-free tel. 800-551-801 or tel. 031-579-211, www.navigazionelaghi.it). When you depart Bellagio (which has several docks), be sure you’re at the right dock—ask when you buy your ticket.
Taxi Boat Varenna organizes one-hour central lake tours (€30/person); their 2.5-hour tour adds a guided stop at Villa del Balbianello (€55/person, www.taxiboatvarenna.com).
A classy combination of tidiness and Old World elegance, Bellagio is easy to reach by boat from Varenna. If you don’t mind that “tramp in a palace” feeling, it’s a fine place to surround yourself with posh travelers. Arcades facing the lake are lined with shops (heavy curtains hanging between the arches keep the visitors and their poodles from sweating). If you don’t want to shop, the TI at the Bellagio boat dock has free brochures for well-crafted walking tours, varying from one to three hours, all of which explore the city and environs.
For wine tasting, step into the vaulted stone cellar of the funky Enoteca Cava Turacciolo to taste three regional wines with a sampling of cheeses, meats, and breads (€19/person, open long hours but closed Wed, Genazzini 3).
For lakeside dining, The Florence is nicely situated under a trellis of flowers (across from Florence Hotel on Piazza Mazzini). For dessert, try Bellagio’s best gelato—hike up to Gelateria del Borgo (Via Garibaldi 46).
Picnickers can stock up at Butti Macelleria e Salumeria (closed Mon, Via Garibaldi 42). Good picnic spots are the benches along the waterfront in town and lining the promenade south of town.
Varenna on Lake Como
An excellent viewpoint (that also works for a picnic) is Punta Spartivento, a park a few minutes’ walk north of town. Its Renoir atmosphere comes complete with the inviting La Punta bar-restaurant (open daily for lunch and dinner), a little harbor, and a chance to sit on a park bench and gaze north past the end of the lake to the Swiss Alps.
Eating and Sleeping
For fancy lake-view dining in Varenna, try Ristorante la Vista (Via XX Settembre 35) or Ristorante la Contrada (Via IV Novembre 22). Two simple eateries, both with great views and lakefront seating, are on the harborfront: Nilus Bar (cash only, closed Tue) and Bar Il Molo, next door (daily). Varenna’s two little grocery stores (at Via IV Novembre 2 and Via Venini 6) have all you need for a tasty balcony or breakwater picnic-dinner. Gelateria Riva, overlooking the water, makes its gelato fresh every day.
For overnighters, $$$ Villa Cipressi sprawls elegantly along the lake in a centuries-old mansion (www.hotelvillacipressi.it), the romantic $$$ Albergo Milano offers extravagant views (www.varenna.net), and $$ Albergo del Sole rents eight simple, comfortable rooms right on the town square (www.albergodelsolevarenna.it).
BEST OF THE REST: VERONA AND PADUA
If you want low-key Italian towns that have just enough sights and more than enough ambience, Verona and Padua make good stops. History buffs enjoy Verona’s impressive Roman ruins. The town is also the pick for star-crossed lovers retracing Romeo and Juliet’s steps. Art lovers head to Padua for Giotto’s celebrated Scrovegni Chapel (reservations required).
The towns are nearly next-door neighbors. Connected by frequent trains (2/hour), Verona and Padua are only 40-80 minutes apart (depending on the speed of your train). Either town makes a fine day trip or a pleasant overnight. They’re easy stops on the Milan-Venice train line.
Romeo and Juliet made Verona a household word, though the town’s top attractions are its ancient Roman Arena, its pedestrian-only ambience, and its world-class opera festival, held each summer. If you like Italy but don’t need blockbuster sights, this town is a joy.
The enjoyable core of Verona lies along Via Mazzini between Piazza Brà (pronounced “bra”) and Piazza Erbe, Verona’s market square since Roman times.
Day Plan: For a good day in Verona, take my self-guided walk, beginning with a visit to the Roman Arena.
Getting There: Every hour, at least two trains connect Verona with Venice (and Padua). To save money, choose a cheaper regional train (R or RV, 1.5-2.5 hours) instead of the more expensive Frecce express, which gets you there only a bit faster.
Arrival in Verona: From Verona’s Porta Nuova train station, catch a bus to Piazza Brà, the city center (bus #11, #12, #13, or #510 from in front of the station, buy ticket from station tobacco shop or on bus). A taxi to Piazza Brà costs about €8-10. Because the old town is closed to traffic, drivers can park in one of the well-marked lots or garages just outside the center.
Tourist Information: Verona’s helpful TI, just off Piazza Brà, offers walking tours on weekends (Sat-Sun at 11:30, 1.5 hours, call to confirm schedule; open daily, Via degli Alpini 9, tel. 045-806-8680, www.turismoverona.eu).
Verona Card: This tourist card covers entrance to all recommended Verona sights (€18/24 hours, buy at TI or participating sights, www.turismoverona.eu).
Private Guides: These Verona guides will tailor tours of the town and region to your interests: Marina Menegoi (mobile 328-958-1108, www.marinamenegoi.com) and Valeria Biasi (mobile 348-903-4238, www.veronatours.com).
Rick’s Tip: From mid-June through early September, Verona’s opera festival brings the city to life, with music fans filling the Roman Arena. Cheap day-of-show tickets are often available at the box office at Via Dietro Anfiteatro 6B (www.arena.it).
Allow two hours for this self-guided walk covering the essential sights in the town core, starting at Piazza Brà (at the Arena end) and ending at the cathedral.
If you’re wondering about the name 1 Piazza Brà, M it means “big open space.” Piazza Brà is all about strolling, by day or night. The broad, marble sidewalk circling the square was built by 17th-century Venetians, who made it big and wide so that promenading socialites could see and be seen.
The 2 ancient Roman Arena M looming over the piazza looks great in its pink marble (most of it is original). Over the centuries, crowds of up to 25,000 spectators have cheered Roman gladiator battles, medieval executions, rock concerts, and modern plays, all taking advantage of the arena’s famous acoustics. This is where the popular opera festival is held every summer. Inside, if you climb to the top, you’ll enjoy great city views (€10, Tue-Sun 8:30-19:30, Mon 13:30-19:30, closes earlier during opera season).
Find the 3 devotional column M (next to the arena and its ticket office) that blessed a marketplace held here in the Middle Ages. A bronze plaque in the sidewalk shows the Roman city plan—a town of 20,000 placed strategically in the bend of the Adige River.
Now, with your back to the arena, head down Via Oberdan (bearing left at the fork) and continue a couple of blocks until you see an ancient gate to your right, 4 Porta Borsari. M
You’re standing before the main entrance to Roman Verona. Back then, this gate functioned as a tollbooth (borsari means purse). Find the stone on the curb alongside Caffè Rialto—it’s from a tomb. In Roman times, the roads outside the walls were lined with tombstones because burials were not allowed within the town itself.
Cross under the Roman gate into the ancient city. As you walk down Corso Porta Borsari, you’ll discover bits of the town’s illustrious past—chips of Roman columns, medieval reliefs, fine old facades, and fossils in marble. If you want to take a break, the old-style 5 Enoteca Oreste M is a fun wine and grappa bar (closed Mon, detour a few steps right to Vicolo San Marco in Foro 7).
Corso Porta Borsari flows into 6 Piazza Erbe, M a bustling market square. Its pastel buildings corral the fountains, pigeons, and people who have congregated here since Roman times, when this was a forum. The stone canopy in the center of the square held the scales where medieval merchants weighed the goods they bought and sold.
At the far end of Piazza Erbe, a market column features St. Zeno, the patron of Verona. He looks at the masses flushing into the city’s silly claim to touristic fame: the 7 House of Juliet M (100 yards down Via Cappello to #23, on the left).
The tiny, admittedly romantic courtyard is a spectacle, with tourists from all over the world posing on the supposed balcony of Romeo and Juliet fame (free, gates open roughly 9:00-19:30). Was there ever a real Juliet Capulet? You just walked down Via Cappello, the street of the cap makers—logically, the Capulets.
Verona Walk Map Key
1 Piazza Brà
2 Roman Arena
3 Devotional Column
4 Porta Borsari & Corso Porta Borsari
5 Enoteca Oreste
6 Piazza Erbe
7 House of Juliet
8 Piazza dei Signori
9 Tombs of the Scaligeri Family
11 Church of Sant’Anastasia
12 Ponte Pietra & River View
Backtrack to Piazza Erbe and head right on Via della Costa to the harmonious 8 Piazza dei Signori. M Locals call it Piazza Dante for the statue of Dante Alighieri that dominates it. Dante—always pensive—seems to wonder why the tourists prefer Juliet to him.
At Dante’s two o’clock is the 12th-century Romanesque Palazzo della Ragione. Peek into its courtyard to see the only surviving Renaissance staircase in Verona. For a grand view, climb the palazzo’s Torre dei Lamberti (€8, daily 11:00-19:00).
Leave Piazza dei Signori, heading downhill (alongside the brick, crenellated palazzo). Just ahead, behind fine, original, wrought-iron protective cages, are the very Gothic 14th-century 9 tombs of the Scaligeri family. M The Scaligeri were to Verona what the Medici family was to Florence—and so powerful that they could buck the law about in-city burials. (For more on the Scaligeris, visit their residence-fortress, the ▲ Castelvecchio, at Corso Castelvecchio 2, museodicastelvecchio.comune.verona.it.)
At the next corner, take a left on Vicolo Cavalletto; then go right along Corso Sant’Anastasia. For a tasty diversion, pop into 10 two classic grocery stores: M Gastronomia, at #33, and Albertini, at #41.
Straight ahead is the big, unfinished brick facade of the 11 Church of Sant’Anastasia M (€2.50, open daily). It’s worth stepping inside this medieval church for its beautiful frescoes, especially Pisanello’s St. George and the Princess (1438).
Go along the right side of the church to Via Sottoriva and jog left. You’ll soon reach a small riverfront promenade that usually accommodates a few modern-day Romeos and Juliets. Belly up to the 12 river and Ponte Pietra views. M The white stones of the footbridge are from the original Roman bridge that stood here. (The Veronese fished the marble chunks from the river after it was bombed in World War II.) From here, you can see across the river to an ancient Roman theater, built into the hillside. Way above the theater (behind the cypress trees) is a 15th-century fortress, Castello San Pietro.
Piazza dei Signori
Continue walking upriver (watch for the excellent Gelateria Ponte Pietra, at #23) toward the tall, white steeple of the 13 Duomo M (€2.50, open daily). Started in the 12th century, this church was built over a period of several hundred years. Before entering, note the fine Romanesque carvings on its facade. Inside, the highlight is Titian’s 16th-century Assumption of the Virgin (last chapel on the left). Mary calmly rides a cloud—direction up—to the shock and bewilderment of the crowd below.
Adjacent to the church is a fine baptistery, with clean Romanesque lines, a 14th-century crucifix, and a fine marble font. The peaceful cloister (around the left side of the church, as you face it) has the remains of a fifth-century mosaic floor.
The nighttime highlight of Verona is the ▲▲ passeggiata. Join the slow and elegant parade of strollers in making a big circle from Piazza Brà through the old town on Via Mazzini to the colorful Piazza Erbe, and then back down Corso Porta Borsari to Piazza Brà. To complement your stroll, enjoy a spritz drink on Piazza Erbe (the most elegant bars are on the end farthest from Juliet’s balcony).
Eating and Sleeping
Verona is a great town to enjoy the aperitivo ritual. All over town, locals enjoy a refreshing spritz (Campari and white wine), ideally on Piazza Erbe between 18:00 and 20:00. Choose a nice perch, and then, for about €4, you’ll get the drink of your choice, a few nibbles (olives and/or potato chips), and a chance to feel very local as you enjoy the passeggiata scene.
For fine dining, Enoteca Cangrande offers great, well-matched food and wine (closed Sun, a block off Piazza Brà at Via Dietro Liston 19D). The bustling Trattoria al Pompiere serves classic regional specialties (Vicolo Regina d’Ungheria 5). Fun, family-run Osteria al Duca has locals lining up for its affordable, traditional dishes (Via Arche Scaligere 2b). Brek Cafeteria, a modern chain, makes eating on Piazza Brà affordable (Piazza Brà 20).
If you’re staying overnight, try the stylish $$$ Hotel Giulietta e Romeo (www.hotelgr.it), the homey $$ Hotel Torcolo (with a good family-style restaurant, www.hoteltorcolo.it), or the basic $ Albergo Arena (www.albergoarena.it).
Lively Padua (Padova in Italian) is sprinkled with surprises, with its university adding a youthful vibe. Lovers of early Renaissance art make a pilgrimage here for the remarkable Scrovegni Chapel and its Giotto frescoes (reservations required). The religious faithful come for the cult relics of St. Anthony, preserved at his basilica.
Padua’s main tourist sights lie on a north-south axis through the heart of the city, from the train station to the Scrovegni Chapel to the market squares (the center of town) to the Basilica of St. Anthony.
Day Plan: Your plan will be based on when you get reservations to see the Scrovegni Chapel. Here’s a possibility for a day trip: 10:00—Market action and sightseeing in town center, 11:30—Basilica of St. Anthony, 12:30—lunch, 14:00—Scrovegni Chapel tour. It’s roughly a 10-minute walk between each of the sights.
Getting There: Trains from Venice are cheap, take 25-50 minutes, and run frequently (2/hour). Baggage check is available at Padua’s station.
Arrival in Padua: To get from the train station to the city center, hop on the handy tram (purchase tickets inside station or from booth out front). A taxi into town costs €8-10.
Tourist Information: TIs are at the train station (open daily) and in the center (closed Sun, Vicolo Cappellatto Pedrocchi 9, tel. 049-201-0080, www.turismopadova.it).
Padova Card: This pass includes entry to recommended sights plus unlimited tram rides and free parking near Prato della Valle (€16/48 hours, buy at either TI, the Scrovegni Chapel, or online, www.padovacard.it).
Private Guide: Cristina Pernechele is a great teacher (mobile 338-495-5453, email@example.com).
Padua’s two main sights (Scrovegni Chapel and Basilica of St. Anthony) are, respectively, at the north and south end of downtown. But the city’s atmospheric, cobbled core—with flourishing markets and inviting sun-and-café-speckled piazzas—is its own attraction.
The medieval Palazzo della Ragione provides a dramatic backdrop for Padua’s produce market, which fills the surrounding squares—Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza della Frutta—each morning and all day Saturday (closed Sun). This market has been renowned for centuries for its great selection of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Stock up on picnic supplies here.
Don’t miss the indoor market zone on the ground floor of the Palazzo della Ragione, where you’ll find various butchers, salumerie (delicatessens), cheese shops, bakeries, and fishmongers at work. Piazza dei Signori, just a block away, is a busy clothing market in the morning and a popular gathering place for students in the evening.
▲▲▲SCROVEGNI CHAPEL (CAPPELLA DEGLI SCROVEGNI)
Giotto’s beautifully preserved 14th-century fresco cycle covers the walls of the renovated Scrovegni Chapel. Its nearly 40 scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary represent a turning point in European art and culture—away from scenes of heaven and toward a more down-to-earth, human-centered view. You must make reservations in advance to see the chapel. If you packed binoculars, bring them along for a better—and more comfortable—view of the uppermost frescoes.
Cost and Hours: €13 (also covers nearby Civic Museums). The chapel is open daily 9:00-19:00; Piazza Eremitani 8, tel. 049-201-0020, www.cappelladegliscrovegni.it. The nearest tram stop is Eremitani.
Reservations: Only 25 people at a time are allowed in the chapel for 15-minute visits, and prepaid reservations are required. Reserve at least two days in advance at www.cappelladegliscrovegni.it or call 049-201-0020.
Getting In: To reach the chapel, enter through the Eremitani building, where you’ll find the ticket office and a free but mandatory bag check.
Be at the chapel doors at least five minutes before your scheduled visit. If you’re even a minute late, you’ll forfeit your spot. At your appointed time, you first enter an anteroom to watch an instructive 15-minute video.
Visiting the Chapel: Although you have only 15 minutes in the chapel, it’s divine. You’re inside a Giotto time capsule, looking back at an artist ahead of his time.
Giotto painted the entire chapel in 200 working days over two years, from 1303 to 1305. In a sign of the Renaissance to come, Giotto placed real people in down-to-earth scenes, expressing human emotions. These frescoes were radical for their lively colors, light sources, emotion, and humanism.
The chapel was built from guilt. Reginaldo degli Scrovegni charged sky-high interest rates at a time when the Church forbade the practice. He even caught the attention of Dante, who placed him in one of the levels of hell in his Inferno. When Reginaldo died, the Church denied him a Christian burial. His son Enrico tried to buy forgiveness for his father’s sins by building this superb chapel.
▲▲▲BASILICA OF ST. ANTHONY
Construction of this impressive Romanesque/Gothic church (with its Byzantine-style domes) started immediately after St. Anthony’s death in 1231. As a mark of his universal appeal and importance in the medieval Church, he was sainted within a year of his death. For nearly 800 years, this glorious church has attracted pilgrims to Padua, both for the tomb and relics of its namesake saint and for the sumptuous main altar by the great Florentine sculptor Donatello. The basilica is a bigger hit with pilgrims than tourists. Enrich your experience by approaching it with a respectful mindset. Visit the holy relics with your hands folded, surrounded by others who came to Padua for this purpose. A modest dress code is enforced.
Cost and Hours: The basilica and chapel are free and open daily 6:15-19:45 (closes earlier off-season; the chapel closes at lunchtime year-round), Via Orto Botanico 11, www.basilicadelsanto.org. The nearest tram stop is Santo.
Visiting the Basilica: On your way into the church, take note of the equestrian statue of a Venetian general by Donatello. Though it looks like a thousand other man-on-a-horse statues, it was a landmark in Italy’s budding Renaissance—the first life-size, secular, equestrian statue cast from bronze in a thousand years.
Basilica of St. Anthony
Inside, gaze through the incense haze to Donatello’s glorious crucifix and statues gracing the high altar. Donatello spent a decade in Padua (1444-1455) creating the ensemble.
You’ll find Anthony’s tomb in a side chapel decorated with marble reliefs showing scenes and miracles from the life of the saint. The Chapel of the Reliquaries (behind the altar) contains prized relics of the saint, including his miraculously unspoiled tongue.
Of the four cloisters, you can wander in three. In one, picnic tables invite pilgrims and tourists to enjoy meals (it’s covered and suitable even when rainy, also has WCs).
Eating and Sleeping
Osteria dei Fabbri, with shared rustic tables, offers a good mix of quality and price (Via dei Fabbri 13). The popular Brek self-service cafeteria is at Piazza Cavour 20 (a block from TI). Bar dei Osei is a sandwich bar with some of the best outdoor seats in town (Piazza della Frutta 1). Pollodoro la Gastronomica is my pick of the takeout delis near the basilica (Via Belludi 34).
If you’re here in the early evening, get a spritz at a bar on Piazza dei Signori or Piazza della Erbe; grab a table, become part of the scene, and enjoy a discussion with smart, English-speaking students.
If staying the night, $$$ Hotel Majestic Toscanelli is old-fashioned but well-located (www.toscanelli.com); $$ Hotel Al Fagiano is bright and cheery (www.alfagiano.com); and the bare-bones $ Hotel Casa del Pellegrino is owned by the friars of St. Anthony (www.casadelpellegrino.com).