Back in October, we flew to Rome and took a 4-hour train from Roma Termini to Venezia S. Lucia station. We were immediately welcomed by amazing sunny weather and took a water bus operated by ACTV to Rialto stop near our hotel.
Free audio guide
If you love exploring Venice without a group tour like me but also want to learn about the history of each sight, I strongly recommend the free audio guide by Rick Steve’s. I simply downloaded the app on my phone and printed out some of the maps in case the battery runs low.
St. Mark Square (Piazza San Marco)
Upon walking into the piazza, I felt like stepping into a different world. The piazza was surrounded by the impressive St. Mark Basilica, the Bell Tower, old office buildings, Correr museum, a historic clock tower, shops, and restaurants. I particularly enjoyed the orchestra that played various genres of music in the square, often classical and once they played the Phantom of the Opera. There were vendors and tons of pigeons in the piazza, with people putting pigeons onto their shoulders or hands for photos (I didn’t think it was great hygiene).
I’d recommend checking the hours when they ring the bell before going up there, especially if in less ideal weather conditions. We went up the bell tower shortly after it was open to avoid the crowd. The view was truly breathtaking, seeing all sides of Venice with its architecture, canals, and ocean. We wish we could stay longer for the bell ringing hour, but it was freezing up there in October and we had to retreat indoors to the St. Mark’s Basilica, our next stop just a few steps away from the bell tower.
After the bell tower, we got in a fast-moving line to the famous church of Byzantine architecture. The entrance was free, and some sections required payment including access to the museum that ends at the balcony. It was fascinating learning the history and the stories about the architectural details of the basilica. At the end of the route, we ended at the balcony with a full view of the St. Mark Square and surrounded by the replicated horses (the originals are in the museum indoors). I highly recommend paying for the museum entrance.
Secret itineraries at the Doge Palace [Reservation ahead]
The exterior of the Doge Palace was full of gorgeous details and colors, yet the deeper stories and scenes behind this palace were only accessible via the secret itineraries offered by the official or third-party tours. Reservations are required for the secret itineraries and the official one is available in Italian, French, and English. We were too late to book the official tours (about 29 euros) and eventually booked one on Tiqets for around 50 euros 😬. The tour was about one hour, with free time to visit the galleries in the palace afterward. I enjoyed learning about the history of this palace through rooms and tunnels, and pictured what might have happened in the exact same room while the guide told the story.
Riding a Gondola
We took a gondola ride from Campo San Barnaba, and this was probably the lowlight of our time in Venice. After waiting for a few minutes at the gondola stop, we got on a gondola and the gondolier asked us for the 80 euro official rate upfront. There were a few things I read to maximize the chance of a pleasant and fair ride, but we were shocked when our gondolier stopped the ride after 15 minutes. He asked us if it was okay to stop at San Marco, but we didn’t think that he meant the closest point in San Marco with a shorter trip. When we were approaching the dock, I asked him “I thought the ride is 30 minutes?” and his response was “your friend (my husband) said to stop at San Marco.” After this experience, I’d recommend checking the following before boarding a gondola:
- Make sure to go back to where the ride started, not agree to go somewhere like San Marco. Alternatively, agree on the duration of the ride.
- Ask to pay at the end, if possible.
This restaurant is most likely owned by the hotel we stayed in, and we went for lunch right after dropping off our bags next door. They had many pasta options and other entrees, and we got two pasta dishes and bread. Everything was tasty, and we received a fish appetizer and some amazing desserts on the house.
We came to this neighborhood further away from the St. Mark Square originally to visit the Peggy Guggenheim but it was closed that day. On the upside, we discovered this cozy restaurant/bar with an excellent panini selection and friendly service. We both picked a panini from the display at the counter, and they came toasted and warm. We also sat by the window with an amazing view. At lunchtime, we observed a few local workers and families dining at the restaurant.
We had a lovely dinner on our last night after a day of wandering around in Venice. The staff was extremely welcoming, and the main guy chatted with everyone with enthusiasm. We got focaccia, risotto, and chocolate pie. We enjoyed each dish so much, with live piano performance just two tables away.
Venice is famous for tourism and without a direct land connection, and the hotels in the areas within 15-minute walking distance to the St. Mark Square are mostly small given its price compared to other cities. We stayed at Al Gazzettino in San Marco, about a 7-minute walk to the St. Mark Square and walkable to most of the sights. The room was indeed small and a bit outdated, but the location was perfect and next to its restaurant, Trattoria Al Gazzettino mentioned above.
Despite our gondola encounter, my memory about Venice was dominated by the scenic walks around the bridges and along the canals, breathing the air of this once prosperous merchant city. About a month after our visit, we saw the news of flooding in St. Mark Square and the streets, which had happened a few times in history. Venice is a unique city to visit and I will always remember getting lost in the countless bridges and canals.