Make the most of your time in one of the world’s grandest cities
Venice is surely one of the most famous cities on the planet. Beautiful, glamorous, ancient and storied, it’s been attracting visitors for centuries, and today sees millions of people arrive all year round.
This has given it a reputation as somewhere that’s overwhelmed by visitors, a place bursting at the seams with immobile tour groups. And while we can’t deny that Venice gets a lot of tourists, we’re here to help you make the most of your time in the city, and plan your trip using Venice as the perfect layover point.
I’m here for less than 24 hours. What’s quick and easy to see?
Get on the water
Well, first of all, you’ll have to get from the airport to the city itself, not necessarily an easy task in a city built entirely on water! Happily — and unlike anywhere else in the world — there are direct boat services from Marco Polo airport to the city center, with interconnecting routes meaning your first view of the city will be from the water.
A water bus is called a vaporetto, and we recommend the Alilaguna public transport service. With two permanent and one seasonal line taking travelers directly from the airport to St. Mark’s Square (as well as a number of other stops), you’ll never have to wait for long before hopping on a boat.
Where else can you combine your airport transfer with ticking off a must-see? We can think of nothing more iconic and classic (maybe arriving in New York City by yellow cab?) than arriving in Venice by boat: and you get to do it simply by leaving the airport!
Early bird / night owl
Maybe your flight arrives or leaves at an unusual time? Well, why not turn that to your advantage? More than maybe anywhere else, Venice shines at times when the average traveler may well be in bed. See the sunrise over St. Mark’s Square, joined only by the sounds of shutters being raised, the occasional mad flapping of a flock of pigeons, and your own footsteps on the stone.
The St. Mark’s Basilica opens at 9am, so be one of the first and enjoy it at your own leisure before it gets too busy. Marvel at one of the most beautiful churches in the world, the seemingly endless mosaics, its grand, domed interior, and head back outside to gaze up at the adjacent bell tower, the very tower from which Galileo observed the heavens after constructing his first telescope in 1609.
On the other end of the scale, if most of your stopover takes place in the evening or at night, you’ll get a different, but no less special, eye on the city. Take a step back and find a more distant spot to watch the sunset. See the skies explode in color over the Rialto bridge, or see the pastel shades of the buildings lining the Grand Canal reflected in water doused in moonlight.
Browse the markets
The lively Rialto market is a heady mix of colors, sights, sounds, and smells, with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, meats and cheeses, as well as a seasonal Pescheria, or fish market. This neo-Gothic building with its own quayside is the location for a performance that’s gone on for centuries, as fishermen unload their catch early in the morning in preparation for the market opening at 7.30am.
For a wider range of goods, there are weekly or monthly farmers’ markets, bric-a-brac sales, organic and fair trade markets and a lot more. What you find will totally depend on the time you’re there and the time you’ve got to explore. But don’t wear yourself out! Remember to stop for a coffee and something delicious to eat as well!
Night time can be the right time
A lot of people who see Venice during the day treat it almost as a tourist attraction — which it may lay claim to being — but forget that it is, of course, a living, breathing, working city.
This extends to nightlife as well. In fact, when a large number of tourists are tucked up safely in bed, this is when you can experience another side of the city. It doesn’t quite have the lazy, do-what-you-feel vibe of somewhere like Catania, or the rolling-in-the-streets madness of Naples or Rome, but it has its charms.
The key here is to walk. Get slightly lost among the lanes and bridges and you might just find that perfect little wine bar or friendly trattoria that you’ve always dreamed of. As with most cities, if you’re brave enough to venture away from the main tourist areas, you’ll appreciate it more.
Try and get away from the sestiere (subdivision) of San Marco and have a look around Cannaregio (the most populous sestiere) which is home to canal-front bars and restaurants that tend to be lively and relatively cheap.
On the other side of town, Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro is a square surrounded by places to eat and drink and where the vibe is vaguely bohemian and where there are plenty of locals mingling and enjoying the night air.
There are a fair few places around the university that stay open late as well, so you’re sure to find somewhere to suit you. Such is Venice’s size that, even in the leisurely 30-minute stroll between these two places, you might get distracted and never even reach the other! No matter. That’s half the fun of not really having a plan.
Grab a souvenir
Even if you’re only here for a short time, it’d be a mistake to leave without something to remind you of your trip (and inspire you to come back!). Luckily, Venice has you more than covered on that front.
Castello, the sestiere to the east of San Marco, is probably the least touristy area of the city but, perversely (or maybe because of that!) is a decent place for shopping, and a good place to pick up a couple of things that the city is known for.
Firstly, masks. Even if you’re not here around Carnival time, you’ll surely be aware of the beautifully intricate masks that are such a key part of the city’s celebrations.
They range in price from around €20 to over €2,000… so we wouldn’t necessarily recommend jamming one carelessly in your hand luggage! Castello is also home to the legendary Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop, a seemingly disorganized jumble of thousands of second-hand books that does, in fact, have a system.
Secondly, there’s glass. From Castello, you can take a short boat ride to Murano island, home of Murano glass. Here is where you’ll be able to see the process of creating this very specific glass that is then fashioned into jewelry, vases, and almost anything else you can imagine. And, of course, getting a souvenir directly from the maker means you can be sure you’re taking a genuine piece of Venice with you.
I’ve got a couple of days in Venice. Any ideas?
Venice is shrouded in history of course, but there are a few things you can do that’ll give you a more rounded overview of the city.
One of the most interesting places to visit is the Doge’s Palace, former home of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority of the former Venetian Republic and, hence, the center of governmental life.
You can explore the palace and Doge’s apartments on your own, but this is one place where it’s truly worth getting the tour for further insight and context into the history of the Republic (also it means you get to skip the queues!). If you’re feeling flush, you can also pay for night tours of both the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica.
The precise moment of the birth of Venice has been lost in the mists of time, but one story traces its genesis back to the year 421 CE when the church of San Giacomo di Rialto was apparently founded. The story is possible, although the church isn’t documented until 1152. Seeing as much of the area was rebuilt in 1071, we’ll never be sure, but you can visit it in the San Polo sestiere to at least claim you stood at the birthplace of a great republic.
In the sestiere of Cannaregio, you’ll find an interesting side to the city’s history: the Jewish ghetto. Dating back to the 16th century, this was the only place Jewish people were allowed to live for two hundred years. There’s a small museum to ghetto life and a synagogue which also offers guided tours.
As you’ll have gathered, Venice is made up of six sestieri, and since the majority of the crowds tend to congregate in San Marco and San Polo, you can check out the others with a lot less hassle. You’ll discover that each one has its own distinct feel and style and, as already mentioned, nowhere is a terribly lengthy hike from anywhere else, so you’ll never have to worry about getting lost.
Dorsoduro is home to unusual places like the Ponte dei Pugni, or Bridge of Fists, so called as it was a place where mass brawls used to take place between two rival factions. The Castellani and the Nicolotti would attempt to send their rivals on a short but humiliating plunge into the canal below and the winners were the team that managed to keep the most men on the bridge.
It’s these districts that’ll reward you with more relaxed places to stop and take in your surroundings; places like the Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro, or Castello’s Via Garibaldi, Venice’s widest street. Cannaregio is more residential, more open, less frantic and much cheaper than the touristy parts. The thrill is simply seeing what’s around the next corner.
Embrace the weather
Perversely, if your stopover comes out of season, Venice can be even more rewarding. In winter the city becomes darkly poetic; the streets grow emptier and eerily quiet, mist hides the towers and cupolas, and the dark water looks as though it would swallow secrets whole.
It also means your choice of activities is different. Ice skating, for centuries a beloved pastime of Venetians, comes to the city center in the form of an outdoor rink on the Campo San Polo. The rink is surrounded by stalls selling mulled wine and local food, and for an even more incredible experience, visit it at night and skate surrounded by the twinkling lights of the city.
You’ll need to warm up of course, and where better place to do it than the legendary Caffè Florian? Opened in 1720, it’s all dark wood, plush red velvet, and banquettes on which to laze with one of their incredible cups of hot chocolate.
Wondrously creamy, devilishly thick and utterly decadent, it was said to be one of the reasons Florian was a favorite with literary figures looking for some warmth to go with their inspiration: Dickens, Goethe, Byron and Dumas were among its famous patrons.
Finally, who can ignore the main winter event in Venice? We’re talking about Carnevale, and it runs almost throughout February. Boat parades, balls, and the famous masked costume contests are all reasons to get excited, as locals and tourists alike enjoy weeks of music and dancing.
Getting out of the city proper can be a rewarding experience in itself, and as well as Murano, mentioned above, there are a number of other places within fairly easy reach of the main part of Venice.
Sant’Andrea is an island in the Venice lagoon and is home to a 17th-century fortress. It’s known as a popular spot for locals to come and lie on the grass in the sun, have a picnic, watch the stars away from the city lights and generally chill out.
Further north-east is San Francesco del Deserto, home to a medieval monastery with groves of cypress trees, stunning gardens, and silent cloisters through which to stroll accompanied only by your thoughts and the gentle sounds of the breeze and the birds.
Torcello, a tiny island with few residents is home to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the 12th-century Church of Santa Fosca, and two 14th-century palaces that now make up a museum devoted to the archaeology and medieval history of the island. It was also — briefly — home to Ernest Hemingway, who used it as a writing retreat in 1948.
You’re in Italy. Of course the food is going to be great. Venice is no different, but it pays to really seek out places that locals go, and not to be too touristy with your meal times. You might be just finishing your dinner at 9pm, but what’s this? A family arriving, complete with kids, to begin their meal as you’re leaving!
Two words will be very important if you’re eating in Venice: a bacaro is where you’ll go, one of the scores of tiny bars where patrons stand shoulder to shoulder at a small bar, nibbling on snacks, or lingering outside on the street, drink in hand. Politics, football, and the other usual subjects are discussed passionately while eating cicchetti, the other important word (don’t call them tapas!).
Actually, come to think of it, you’ll probably need a third word, as you’ll want to wash down your cicchetti with an ombra, a small glass of local wine. Ombra is Italian for shadow and, beautifully, a local might tell you they’re planning to “andar per ombre” or “go to the shadows” for a mid-morning pick-me-up or an evening aperitif.
Your cicchetti will consist of offerings like polpette (pork rissoles), sausages, sliced meats and cheeses, and an array of seafood such as oysters, prawns, langoustines, calamari and salmon.
Wherever you go, don’t expect a menu, and don’t expect to be pandered to as a tourist: bacari are firmly and proudly attempting to maintain their relationship with their loyal, local customers. However, if you’re friendly and respectful, you’ll get the best food and drink the city has to offer.
Lovely! How about outside the city though?
If these stopover ideas have inspired you and you’d like to explore some more, the areas surrounding Venice have enough to keep you occupied for days, weeks… maybe even longer! This is just a quick overview of some of the highlights.
Burano is one of the islands of Venice, but it’s almost another world when compared to the bustling squares and waterways of the main city. It takes about 40 minutes by vaporetto and is one of the most colorful places you’ll ever see!
The houses are painted in all the colors of the rainbow, and even though it looks like somewhere from a children’s book, it’s an island where people live and work: you’re more likely to see fishing boats and personal craft than gondolas.
To get there, take the vaporetto — line 12 — that goes from Fondamente Nove in Cannaregio to Burano; it usually takes around 45 minutes.
About 25 km south of Venice, you’ll find the port of Chioggia, a picturesque town that, like Venice, is built on a network of canals, but where the pace of life is slower, the streets less crowded and, at Sottomarina, a beach stretching almost 10 km along the coast. This is where sun-worshipping locals flock to in the summer, and gives stunning views of the Adriatic, glinting in the vibrant sunlight.
The beautiful city of Padua, around 40 km from Venice is home to just over 200,000 people, and is a gorgeously dense network of arcaded streets and alleyways, each leading to large squares, or bridges crisscrossing the Bacchiglione river which provided the city with a natural defense.
To reach Padua, you can either travel by FSBusitalia from the airport, or take ACTV line 15 (departing every 30 minutes) to Venice Mestre station and then jump on a train.
North-east of Padua you’ll find Treviso, a smaller town, but a foodie paradise, being the original area where radicchio was cultivated and Prosecco wine was produced, as well as laying claim to the invention of tiramisu. The center is a perfect walled medieval city, with narrow canals and mill streams turning (now purely decorative) water wheels, giving you a feeling of what life must have been like centuries ago. ATVO buses will get you there in around 35 minutes.
Heading further inland, the Trentino region is the place to be for the outdoorsy among you, offering mountain climbing, hiking, rafting, windsurfing and mountain biking in the summer, and skiing and snowboarding in the winter. There are also a number of spa and wellness retreats up in the mountains, meaning it’s the perfect place to escape the crowds for a while and breathe in that fresh, crisp Italian air.
That’s your Venetian stopover
We hope this has inspired you to travel using Venice as a stopover. After all, it’s a holiday within a holiday, so no matter how long you’re here, from a few hours to a couple of days, you’ll be able to get a real flavor of this most glorious of cities.
Article published in association with Venice Airport