Venice, once a major trading empire known as the most Serene Republic of Venice (la Serenissima), now takes her power from the ability to seduce visitors with her decaying beauty. Peaceful canals, pigeon-filled piazzas, and golden basilicas entice and delight. I encourage you to visit Venice for its history and soak up its rich ambience. You won’t lack places to visit—there are plenty of sites to see, places to shop, and entertainment venues to enjoy. I also highly recommend a trip to Murano and Burano (nearby islands). For fun on the island proper though, here is my list of the best things to do in Venice.
- Doge’s Palace—around the city you can see slits in the sides of buildings (mouths of truth) where Venetians once could slide slips of paper inside to “inform” on each other. The doge (ruler) would have his council investigate the claims. Those found unlawful might have found themselves residents of the doge, albeit in a decidedly less posh side of the palace—the prison. Today, you can explore the Doge’s Palace in its entirety. After seeing the gorgeous staircase that Venetian elite once ascended, you will pass through one sumptuous room after the next until crossing the Bridge of Sighs and entering the prison. Casanova, the infamous lothario, was once held there!
- St. Mark’s Basilica—next to the Doge’s Palace is Basilica di San Marco. Mosaics on the façade recount Venice’s heyday when the bones of St. Mark were brought over making Venice a proper Catholic city—one with relics. Inside the Byzantine-style basilica, the interior gleams gold. Biblical stories are played out in richly-colored tiles around the nave. You can enrich your visit by paying a little extra to see the gem-encrusted Golden Altarpiece, as well as the original bronze horses that once graced its loggia (replicas are there now). After viewing the horses, head out on the porch to see the current replicas and get a magnificent view of the piazza. I recommend taking the Roman Guy’s “Venice Walking and Boat Tour” where they not only take you throughout the entirety of St. Mark’s (without a line), but also on a private water taxi and walking tour.
- Ca’ Rezzonico—to get a sense of how the rich and famous lived in Venice in the 1700s, visit the palace named Ca’ Rezzonico. As you look at the algae-covered marble stairs, imagine how women maneuvered them in high heels and ball gowns! Why we don’t hear about drenched aristocrats falling in the Grand Canal is beyond me. For a fee (or included with Venice’s Museum Pass), you can wander through the bedrooms, ballroom, and sitting rooms of the mansion. The frescoed ceilings are delightful and the furniture and furnishings take one back in time (I probably wouldn’t have been rich in that time either, but it’s nice to dream). Seeing Ca’ Rezzonico gives you an idea of how wealthy Venice was—there are many more like it along the Grand Canal, which is one of the reasons I recommend a cruise down this main waterway.
- Grand Canal Cruise—a ride down the Grand Canal is a thrill. I recommend doing it the cheapest way and taking a vaporetto ride. As you glide past palazzos and under the Rialto Bridge, you can see how much wealth Venice boasted. Watch the boats “dance” with one another as they bustle past ferrying people from one location to the next—it’s like water ballet. Going on the vaporetto is nice and slow. I recommend loading Rick Steves Europe app to your phone and listening to his narration as you go along. If you’re lucky, patient, or pushy (I don’t advocate the latter), you’ll get a spot at the front of the boat to enjoy the view at its fullest.
- Libreria Acqua Alta—this Venice bookstore is one store you really should seek out. From the books that line the walkway in, to the books piled high in gondolas, to the emergency exit (the canal) out back, the place exudes character. An avid bibliophile, I’ve been to bookstores all around and have never encountered anything quite like it. They sell nice prints and cards for a reasonable price, too, if you’re looking for a souvenir that’s not written in Italian.
- Gondola Ride—I think taking a gondola ride is one of the best things to do in Venice. From the time we got in the boat, my husband and I had ear-to-ear smiles on our faces. It was romantic and enchanting. I loved seeing the city as people have for centuries. Our gondolier pointed out historical features as we glided along and gave us an overview of Venice’s past and present. It was well worth the price.
Venice is a city like no other. Without motor traffic, voices travel further. As fog wisps around, dusk sets in, and you hear faint voices in the air, Venice takes on a haunting charm. Wander around, get lost in the moment, gaze at the lagoon, listen to pianos play on St. Mark’s piazza, and revel in all that is la Serenissima.
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