Venice is a special place, and there is a lot to see and do there. I’ve spent up to a week there at a time, but you can have a great time over just a few days. For first time visitors, the most important thing is to stay in the centro storico (old center) where the action is, and be open to endless exploring with lots of walking.
From the hedonist’s perspective, I go for the food, the architecture, and the people watching. Venice is a sensory experience that builds great memories.
Visiting the top sights like St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the Rialto bridge, and exploring the art & mosaics in myriad churches are all musts – but here’s my list of top things to experience while you’re there:
- Get lost. Wander around the old city, and don’t worry about losing your way. Old Venice consists of a collection of islands (mostly man-made) linked together by little bridges. Just tell yourself “I’m on an island and I can’t get off.” Check out the back streets where the locals live, walk along the waterfront at sunset, get as lost as possible. When it’s time to head back to the hotel, just ask someone to point you in the direction of Piazza San Marco or the Rialto, and work your way back through the maze. I’ve had the most fun in Venice just exploring these byzantine walkways far off the touristic beaten path.
- Feed the pigeons on Piazza San Marco. For me, this is a ritual I never miss while in Venice. You’ll make thousands of friends in seconds by simply throwing some corn seed on the ground anywhere in St. Mark’s square. People with ornithophobia might want to skip this. In the past, you could buy pigeon corn from vendors on the square, but they’re trying to keep the population down and now there are only clandestine corn seed vendors walking around and whispering, “Pssst. Hey buddy. Want to buy some corn?” Bend the rules, buy a bag of corn for a couple of euros, and have some fun. Feeding the pigeons on St. Mark’s Square makes me feel like a kid again. For extra excitement while you have thousands of pigeons at your feet (or someone else’s), toss your jacket in the air and watch the square empty in seconds.
- Explore Piazza San Marco after dark. During the day, St. Mark’s square is jammed with tourists nearly any time of the year. At night, it’s a romantic’s paradise, with fewer people and a dimly lit ambiance that inspires the soul. You can while away the hours with a glass of vino or an aperitivo at a café on the square, listening to the dueling bands playing Vivaldi. For a moving experience, walk the square just before midnight when it’s nearly empty. Bring someone with you to share the peaceful and romantic moment.
- Do the Venetian “Giro d’Ombra” (pub crawl). Like clockwork, the locals head to tiny neighborhood Bacari (Venetian bars) around 5PM for a pre-dinner snack and a glass of vino or two, and a chance to catch up on the local gossip. This daily ritual is where you’ll get to meet the locals over some great cicchetti (little snacks on toothpicks) and local vino produced in the Veneto inland. You can make a meal of it by simply moving from Bacaro to Bacaro in pub crawl fashion, often making new friends along the way. The Bacari are easy to find, just head over to the small squares on either side of the Rialto bridge and look for a crowd of people spilling out of a tiny bar onto a piazza. I never miss this action while in Venice. Find out more in my blog post on the Giro d’Ombra.
- Tour the Rialto Fish Market. You haven’t truly experienced Venice until you get close to her food. Check out this daily (except Sunday) spectacle of fish, flower & vegetable mongers going about the business of selling their ultra-fresh food to locals & restaurant owners alike. Anything good that you eat while in Venice comes from these vendors. Check out my photo blog post to get an idea of what you’re in for. Don’t miss it.
- Eat like a local. Skip the touristy & overpriced restaurants along the canals and hit the backstreets where the locals live. Venetian food can be a highlight of your trip, but you have to go where the locals eat. Take a vacation from your comfort zone and try the risotto in squid ink, the sarde in saor (sweet & sour sardines in onions), a plate full of steamed garusoli (sea snails), and slabs of white polenta. Okay, if that’s all too much, go for the great pasta dishes with seafood or the grilled fish. Everything is fresh from the Rialto market. For vino, just go with the white vino sfuso (“loose” house wine) they siphon out of the demijohns, it’s all from the nearby inland vineyards (save your red wine for Tuscany). I’ve posted some Venice restaurant recommendations in another Forum post here.
- Explore Burano island. Just a 30 minute Vaporetto ride from old Venice, this quiet little island is a visual feast, with it’s brightly painted homes along narrow canals. There’s not much to do here except wander and marvel at the intensity of colors before you. Burano is known for its lace making, and you’ll likely see older local women carrying on the tradition of weaving lace. Pick up a hand-made doily for your mother at a tiny lace shop (if they’re open). Have a long lunch of grilled fresh fish & white wine at one of the 2 or so restaurants along the main street (if you can get in). Snap countless photos of the impossibly quaint homes along the canal. Burano is the perfect antidote to the touristic crush of central Venice. Note: if you’re there late at night, make sure you know when the last Vaporetto leaves back to Venice.
Staying in Venice
If you’re doing Venice right, you won’t be spending that much time in your room, so just find a place in the center that meets your sleeping comfort needs. I recommend consulting TripAdvisor and picking a hotel that meets your budget. Venice is expensive any time of the year, so expect to pay a bit more there than in, say, Tuscany.
I usually stay at Pensione Guerrato near the Rialto bridge & the Fish Market. It’s super convenient for exploring Venice, and Roberto (who runs the place) is a tremendously kind host. Roberto can help you get reservations at the truly local restaurants, and can point you to some great nearby Bacari for the Giro d’Ombra (his favorite is tiny Cantina do Mori at San Polo 429 — great wines by the glass).
Roberto also has some delightful top-floor apartments with great views, as well as some that are dead in the center of old Venice – just ask if you’d prefer some private space. Word to the wise: Pensione Guerrato is booked up by the Rick Steve’s Venice tours, so getting in while one of his tours are in town can be a challenge. Call or email Roberto to book your reservation, ideally well in advance of when you plan to arrive. Pensione Guerrato is located at Calle Drio La Scimia 240/a, 30125 Venice, tele: +39.041.528.5927, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope that helps.