Venice was our first stop on a three-week first trip to Italy. As the airplane touched down at Marco Polo Airport, I wanted to leap for joy. My long-time dream destination was about to become reality!
Our time in Venice was everything we had hoped for…and much more. Our two days here were made up of one half-day each on the days of arrival and departure, and the one full day in between. We packed a lot into our two days, but we had a wonderful time.
From the airport, we took the Alilaguna water bus to our hotel, which was on the Grand Canal. It was late morning, and the waterway was busy, with all kinds of watercraft going to and fro. We stared out the large windows, greedily taking in all the sights.
Once we had dropped our bags at the hotel, we enjoyed our first pasta meal in Italy. A simple preparation of pasta, tomatoes and olive oil, but oh-so-flavorful. And my husband ordered tiramisu, which was served in a huge mason jar. He was in heaven!
After lunch, we made our way to the Piazza San Marco. The drawing room of Europe lived up to its name that afternoon. Waiting in line to go up the Campanile, the bell tower of the Basilica, we saw a literal sea of people (and pigeons!) in the square. We visited in mid September, which is supposedly shoulder season, but that afternoon it felt like we were bang in the middle of high season.
The Campanile di San Marco is one of the few towers we came across in Italy that has an elevator, because this version of the Campanile was constructed in 1912, after the prior structure collapsed in 1902. The line moved quite quickly, and soon we were whisked up the 300+ feet to the observation deck, where we had expansive 360-degree views of Venice and the outlying islands. It was not too crowded at the top either, so we could move around comfortably.
We then made our way to the edge of the Piazetta (the portion of the square that leads to the water), to a little bridge on the left. If you stand on that bridge and look away from the Grand Canal, you can see the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs). This is a great spot from which to photograph the famous white limestone bridge that connects the Doge’s Palace to the dungeons. The fanciful version of the story behind the name is that prisoners that were being led to the dungeons sighed in sadness as they got their last look at Venice through the little view holes in this bridge. Whatever the story behind the name, the bridge is beautiful and one that I was excited to see in person after looking at tons of pictures of it on Instagram.
Next, we headed to the Basilica di San Marco, with its lovely onion domes and mix of Italian and Byzantine architecture. The facade of the Basilica was partially behind scaffolding when we visited, but what we could see of it was gorgeous.
We were hoping to be able to enter the Basilica for the Sunday evening Mass, when the gold frescoes inside are illuminated. We were directed to the back of the Basilica (the courtyard at the back is beautiful) and allowed to enter a few minutes before the scheduled time.
After the crowds and noise of the Piazza, it was cool, quiet and calm inside. The gold frescoes, which cover the upper walls and ceilings, shimmer in the light, making you realize why this Basilica is called the Church of Gold.
It was not a good idea to sit down for the service, beautiful as it was, because jet lag kicked in and we started to nod off. Glad that we had chosen a pew well in the back, we crept out as unobtrusively as we could and walked back to our hotel, enjoying the stroll along the little roads and crossing bridges over side canals.
After a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel, we walked to the Doge’s Palace, to get in as soon as it opened for the day. We toured it on our own. There are information boards in each room, but this is the place where a guided tour or at least a self-guided audio tour would make the most sense in Venice. The Palace has been damaged and destroyed several times by fires, most recently in the late 1500s. The Palace houses works by many Venetian masters, including Titian and Tintoretto. Apart from being the Doge’s residence, this Palace was also used for government, and the public halls are grand and opulent.
From the Palace, you can walk through a corridor and through the Bridge of Sighs, to peer out at Venice, before touring the dungeons on the other side, some of which appeared remarkably well preserved.
After our tour of the Doge’s Palace, we walked towards the Dorsoduro district, directions in hand for the restaurant where we planned to have lunch. And of course we got lost! We wandered around for more than two hours before we eventually found the restaurant. This was one of the most fun parts of our two days in Venice, so the oft-repeated recommendation to “get lost in Venice” on purpose is on the mark. We walked along quiet side canals, seeing laundry hung out to dry on balconies, just like in Instagram pictures. We saw off-duty gondoliers shooting the breeze at a little bridge, an old gentleman sitting outside a cafe contemplating the sunlight on the water, women passing by with shopping baskets and sometimes nodding “Buon giorno,” and gondolas lazily skimming the water. It was a wonderful wander.
After lunch, it was time for a gelato, and we headed to Grom at Campo San Barnaba nearby. Grom is a gelato chain, with numerous outlets across Italy. They serve gelato artigianale, the real stuff that tastes so delicious that once having tasted it, you’ll never settle for the puffy brightly-colored gelato clouds in tourist-oriented shops again.
We then walked to the Fondamente Nove vaporetto stop to take a vaporetto to visit Murano and Burano, outlying islands that make for a fun part-day or day trip from Venice. You can also add the island of Torcello to your trip.
Murano is a group of little islands just north of Venice, famous for its glass. In the late 1200s, all the glassblowers on Venice were expelled to Murano because of the risk of fires. Murano became famous for its glass production techniques, and today, glass made in Murano using traditional techniques developed over the course of centuries is protected with a trademark.
We wandered around browsing the glass shops. I loved the huge gorgeous chandeliers, lovely vases, and beautiful jewelry in different colors. We declined offers to view the glass production since we were short on time. Our wanders took us to the Campo San Stefano near the clock tower, where a huge blue glass sculpture is on display. It is called “Comet Glass Star” and is reported to be made with several hundred blown glass pieces in multiple colors. It looks stunning.
We then hopped onto another vaporetto to visit Burano, also a collection of small islands linked by bridges. It is known for lace-making, but what makes Burano a magnet for visitors like me is the in-your-face colors of the little homes on both sides of the canals. The colors are controlled by a governmental authority and they give you the color you must paint your home when you apply to paint the exterior. Apparently, the houses were painted bright in times past so that fisherfolk returning home could see them through fog. Whatever the reason, they make for beautiful photos that will make your Instagram account pop.
The sun was setting as we took a vaporetto back to Venice. We headed over to look at the Rialto Bridge up close, and to look for some of the cicchetti (Venetian tapas) we had read so much about, when we were researching our trip. One half of the Rialto Bridge was behind scaffolding. Talk about bad luck, with two of Venice’s most famous sights behind scaffolding on our visit! We walked up the stairs to look at the Grand Canal from the top of the bridge. It was crowded at that time of the evening, but the Grand Canal looked beautiful. The Rialto Bridge, made of stone, is the oldest of four bridges that span the Grand Canal.
We then wandered into the alleys near the bridge in search of cicchetti. I couldn’t find anything vegetarian but my husband sampled some polpette al carne (fried meatballs) and pronounced them good but not rave-worthy. We then hopped on to a slow vaporetto and settled down to enjoy touring the Grand Canal all the way to Piazzale Roma and then back to our hotel.
Our plan was to wake up early enough to be at the Piazza San Marco at sunrise, but we were just a few minutes late, and the very first rays of the sun were casting a beautiful glow over the buildings along the Grand Canal as we left. Venice looked golden and never more seductive as our vaporetto cruised towards the Piazza.
The silhouette of Santa Maria della Salute framed by the Ponte dell’Accademia at sunrise is one of my most cherished memories of Venice.
At the Piazza San Marco, it was quiet, with just a few early risers wandering around. We walked to the Piazetta to the water’s edge. Blue gondolas were bobbing in the San Marco Canal, and a golden glow was illuminating the little island of San Giorgio Maggiore across the water. This was the iconic image of Venice that I had carried with me through the years. It was an emotional moment, experiencing the scene in person.
Without crowds of people, it was possible to appreciate at length the beauty of the architectural elements at various structures around the Piazza and the Piazetta.
After wandering our fill, we took a vaporetto to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where we took the elevator to the top of the Campanile for gorgeous views of Venice and other outlying islands. The white marble church on San Giorgio Maggiore is beautiful. It houses several large canvases by Tintoretto.
A vaporetto brought us back to San Marco. After lunch at a restaurant near our hotel, it was time to say arrivederci to Venice, and head to the railway station to take the train to La Spezia on the Ligurian Coast, our next destination in Italy.
Where we stayed: NH Collection Venezia Palazzo Barocci, a lovely hotel on the Grand Canal between the Rialto Bridge and the Piazza San Marco. A vaporetto stop was just steps away. The room was a little on the smaller side (to be expected in Venice) but very well appointed. We had booked the breakfast option, and the breakfast was awesome.
Getting in and around: We bought a two-day pass for the vaporetto, knowing that we would be using the service extensively on days two and three. On day one, we just walked to the Piazza San Marco and back. The water bus from the airport is a separate service and the tickets have to be purchased separate from the vaporetto. You can also take the bus from the airport, or a taxi, which is very expensive. We just had a carry-on each so the Alilaguna water bus made the most sense for us.
Museums and Art: Our focus for Venice was to enjoy experiences that are uniquely Venice, so we skipped the museums and only saw the art on display at the Doge’s Palace and the churches we visited. The Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and Ca’Rezzonico should be on your itinerary if art museums are important to you.
Gondola ride: We chose to do the vaporetto cruise of the Grand Canal in place of a gondola ride. A shared gondola ride for thirty minutes didn’t appeal and a private ride is exorbitant.
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