Venice is a timeless city, built to forever float in the lagoon waters of the Adriatic Sea. Follow the grand S-shaped canal snaking through her heart, and Venice will show you colorful, sinking buildings to opulent churches and palaces. Stocked with endless canals, bridges, history, and waterfront cafes, Venice is a canvas for the imagination and an artist’s paradise. After personally wandering her canals, sipping wine on her docks, and people-watching in her piazzas, I’ve come up with 5 things you must do in Venice.
Blue Sails Tip:
Arrive in style via water taxi. Nothing beats jet lag better than sun and sea mist on your face as you’re whisked away to your hotel by boat. Whether you’re arriving into Marco Polo Airport or Santa Lucia Train Station, a water taxi to your hotel or city center can easily be arranged online ahead of time.
There are private water taxis and shared ones. The shared option is lower-priced, and you get the same experience, just with about 6 new friends. I got lucky with my shared taxi as I was the last one off and got to enjoy the last half of the ride with the whole boat to myself. Be sure to bring a hat, as the ride is about 20-30 minutes from the airport to city center, and you don’t want to start your lovely Venice weekend with a sunburn.
1. Stroll Across Rialto Bridge:
Out of the 5 things you must do in Venice, Rialto Bridge is a quick and easy stop you can make while out exploring the city. This tall, stone bridge arches across the grand canal and provides amazing photo opportunities of the city below. It’s been rebuilt several times since it’s inception, and was at one point a draw bridge that would open for tall ships to pass through. This iconic city symbol is a popular tourist spot, so be sure to get there early or late to avoid crowds.
2. Visit Saint Mark’s Square:
This central plaza is the one you likely always see in photos. Surrounded by shops, cafes, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Doge’s Palace, it’s a gorgeous place to explore, take photos (especially at sunrise!), or stop for lunch and people watching. In the evenings in the summertime on opposite sides of the square, dueling bands and string quartets compete on the cafe stages set up outside. The music that fills this place is something out of a dream. Have a seat at one of the tables in front of the band, order a drink or two with an appetizer, and enjoy. I recommend staying at least one night in Venice, if not two, because nighttime in Venice to me feel likes one big magical movie set. The ambiance is so perfect that it doesn’t seem real, especially in St. Mark’s Square.
Here is where I will digress to share one of my favorite travel memories:
During our honeymoon in July, my husband and I were out for a nighttime walk after dinner, and the outdoor music drew us into St. Mark’s Square. The band was playing to a small audience, scattered throughout the cloth-lined bistro tables in front of the stage. Maybe it was the magic of Venice, maybe it was the romance of my honeymoon, or maybe it was one too many Bellinis, but I walked up to the side of the stage and asked the accordian player if they could play our wedding song “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis. He happily agreed and the band began to play the song we had come to know so well. I pulled my husband up near the stage and we proceeded to dance the choreography we had performed at our wedding days earlier, this time in the warm Venice breeze. This was my proud Zelda Fitzgerald moment. Two drunk beautiful Americans dancing in the square, madly in love. The song ended, we did the big dip at the end, the crowd and the band applauded, and we dropped one giant tip on the piano before we left.
I am really only myself when I’m somebody else whom I have endowed with these wonderful qualities from my imagination.Zelda Fitzgerald
3. Explore the Winding Venice Canals:
If you’re a free spirit, wing-it kind of person, you need no direction on this one. Give yourself a few hours and start early while the light is good to ensure you get awesome photos. If you’re more of a planner, I recommend planning out a route that includes some must-sees, and letting yourself wander in between stops.
I recommend the San Marco area. On my most recent trip I knew I basically wanted to see St. Mark’s Square, Bridge of Sighs, Rialto Bridge, Liberia Acqua Alta, and that plaza and library area in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (you know, X marks the spot?), among some other cool things I had looked up online. I figured out the general direction in which I needed to go and set off. In the end, all we accomplished was Rialto Bridge and the Indiana Jones library (a church/museum in real life), which we totally stumbled upon. I immediately recognized the area in which Indy pops out of a manhole in the middle of an outdoor plaza cafe, terrifying the locals as he stands there dripping wet, and says “Ah, Venice.” In between the bridge and “library,” we just enjoyed being lost. We came across an outdoor market, picturesque cafes, endless colorful canals and alleyways, and an amazing brunch spot with a view.
For my fellow Indiana Jones nerds out there, here is the address for that filming location: Campo San Barnaba, 30100 Venezia VE, Italy
4. Take a Gondola Ride:
One of the most iconic symbols of Venice is the beautifully decorated gondolas. Taking a gondola ride is one of the 5 things you must do in Venice. You can purchase a ride on the spot, any time of day, from multiple vendors in the city. You can’t miss the gondoliers, standing around in their black and white striped t-shirts, waiting to make a sale. It’s cheesy and really touristy, but it is so much fun. You can share your gondola ride with another family or couple, or pay extra for a private ride. You can pay even more and they will sing to you as you glide down the canals, their voices echoing under the bridges and through the small, algae-lined alleyways.
Blue Sails Tip:
Take your gondola at night, have the city to yourself, and feel like royalty. Wait until after dinner, when most of the day cruise tourists have departed, and get the gondola all to yourself. The city monuments, cafes, and hotels will be lit up as you cruise down the dark canals. A quiet falls over the canals at night and all you can hear is the lapping water on the sides of the boat. Bring some wine and you’ve got the romantic experience of a lifetime. There will be less gondoliers available at the end of the day, but when you do find one, chances are you are going to get a much lower price since it’s probably their last ride of the day.
5. Set Yourself up With Some Good Food and a View:
This is notoriously my favorite thing to do in any destination, anywhere in the world. Something about the cafes in Venice though, whether they are canal-facing or in the central piazzas, just seem like they were made for sitting and enjoying a cappuccino, a glass of wine, or a pizza and a beer (I think I could eat Italian pizza every day and never get tired of it). Adopt that relaxing, Italian pace of life, and just sit somewhere and enjoy. You can scout locations on your canal walk, and this can be done morning, noon, or night. Or all three if you like. Wherever you choose, make sure you’ve got some shade and a good view.
When to Go to Venice
Venice is a slow paced city. If you’re jam-packing your Italy itinerary, Venice can act as a nice relaxing stop for you. Located in the north of Italy, it’s a great way to start or end your vacation. From October – January the city is prone to flooding, so unless you want to explore the town in your wellies or waders, pick a different month to visit. I always recommend travel in Spring or Fall, as any summer month in Italy is going to be hot. But if summer is your only time for vacation, go for it. Just be sure to take a long break mid-day to avoid the peak crowds and heat. Whenever you do get there, take lots of pictures, remember the 5 things you must do in Venice, and prepare to get lost in the magic and colors of this gorgeous city.