If you only have a limited time to visit Venice there are some things you must see and do. Of course it will depend on what you are into; if you love history, there is plenty of that in Venice; if you are an art lover, art is everywhere in the city from abstract to renaissance masterpieces; if you love to shop,
Venice is tough to beat from jewlery to housewares to the most magnificent glassware I have seen anywhere in the world; to fashions, whether your budget affords Prada, Versace and Gucci or you prefer to budget shop... it’s all here.
When I was mapping out my trip to Italy I had planned on about 36 hours in Venice followed by a train ride to Bologna for a 36 hour food experience. Unfortunately (or fortunately as it turned out) I couldn’t book a cookery class or a food tour on a Sunday in Bologna so I cancelled my trip to the city and opted to stay almost 4 days in Venice. Here now is my list of the top five things to do in Venice – enough reasons to love the city.
1) St. Marks Place and the Basilica – there is no better place in Venice to get a feel for the city, unfortunately every other visitor to Venice has the same idea and it is packed with tourists. The square
façade carvings, and even flags (they are the symbol of Venice). And the Basilica is spectacular and awe inspiring. Again a tour guide can explain all the symbolism and the highlights. But just a stroll through the square for an ice cream or gelato or to feed the pigeons or to watch the square change as the sun sets is worth the trip alone.
2) Right next door to the Basilica and also part of St. Mark’s Square is the Doge’s Palace. While it housed the Doge’s residence (the Doge was elected and is similar to the present day Mayor), it was also the legislature, courthouse and prison for Venice for hundreds of years.
3) When in Venice… you must take a ride through the canals on a gondola. It may be cliche because everyone does it, but it really is typically Venetian, and very romantic. As you cruise through the canals you are whisked back centuries when this was the only means of transportation, and most of the buildings are the same ones that have been seen by millions of eyes throughout the city’s history. You can opt for a very quiet and peaceful cruise or you can go all out and hire a gondola with your own accordion player and a bottle of Prosecco (Italian Champagne) or Chianti to really set the mood.
4) Browse the shops. Even if you aren’t much a shopper, you will appreciate the quality of the merchandise not to mention the things that are unique to Venice. I heard one young American comment ‘what’s with all the masks in all the shops?’ Most of the masks are unique, one of a kind because they are crafted from papier mache and are designed for the annual Carnival every year since the 13th century. It signals the transformation from winter to spring and is held at the end of
February. I found one shop that had the most unique masks I have ever seen, many of them intricate metal work, some adorned with Swarovski crystals; or if you are a fan of Carmen Miranda you can go for the fruit adorned masks. Fashion lovers will appreciate the amazing range of the high end designer boutiques. And bibliophiles and art lovers can spend hours browsing through the unique shops. I discovered one ceramic shop in a tiny little side street in Arsenale; Alessandro Merlin’s Ceramic Atelier that sells one of a kind pieces, some homoerotic, some just erotic and others depicting everything from fish to graphic elements. You won’t see anything else like it anywhere in the world.
5) Another stop on your Venice tour is Murano and Burano Islands. Murano Island is world famous for its’ glassware and Burano is famous for its’ lacemaking. But beware, it is probably the most exploited tourist trap in Venice. I spent the money for a boat tour of both islands, plus Tarantula Island and was very disappointed. We were given just 30 minutes in Murano and it is basically a lure to get you to spend your Euros. You are taken to a glass making factory where they put on a glass
blowing demonstration for a few minutes before you are escorted into the ‘gallery’ but don’t take out your camera. This stop is only for shopping, no photos allowed. After speeding each group through the shop you are back on the boat for the ride to Burano and it was much the same. You are taken to a lace boutique where a woman is sitting by the cash register making her lace. You can take a few photos (the demonstration lasted all of about 3 minutes) and then are taken to the showroom and again you are told ‘NO Photos’. I had enough and angrily asked the tour guide why she would take us on these tours when we are not allowed to take photos. She responded that they are retailers that want to protect their designs. I walked out and did my shopping at a nearby store that wasn’t on any of the tours. You are better served by taking the Alilaguna Red Line water bus to the islands and stroll through the shops at your leisure. One of the highlights though is the brightly painted homes in Burano, which is really a fishing village. When the men are out fishing, the women are back home tatting their lace (yes it really is still that traditional).
One money saving tip when you arrive in Venice, instead of shelling out 150Euros or more for a water taxi from the airport to your hotel, take the Alilaguna Blue Line water bus. You purchase your ticket in the arrivals hall for 15Euros, then go left outside the doors and keep following the path to the canal. Alilaguna is at the end, and you wait in the covered dock until you are shown into the water bus. It’s very easy plus you get a cheap tour of the canal, without commentary.
My final thoughts on Venice – don’t miss it! No matter what people tell you about it ("it’s not for everyone"), don’t believe them. See it for yourself… while you still can. Scientists are always speculating about how fast Venice is sinking into the sea. But Venetians aren’t too concerned. When you ask them about it, they say "it is blown out of proportion, Venice isn’t sinking, maybe a few millimeters every couple of years." And at that rate, it still has a long way to go.