A Perfect Two-Day Itinerary for Venice, Italy
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Prior to going, we heard a lot of mixed opinions about Venice. Either it was a completely overrated tourist trap or the most magical and romantic city in Europe. Our opinion sided closer with the later. This alluring floating city of marble palaces was the perfect first stop for our honeymoon. We visited Venice in late May, right before the busy summer season. While there was a fair amount of tourists crowding San Marco's square, it could have been worse. Two days felt like the perfect amount of time to spend in Venice. Here is an outline of what we did with our time in Venice.
As Venice was our first stop in Italy, we arrived by plane and took the Alilaguna boat from the airport to the main islands of Venice. After landing at 2pm, the hour boat ride, and checking into our Airbnb, we really only had 5 or so hours to explore Venice the first day. Even if you arrive by train, typically you first day will not be a full one.
After dropping off our bags and a quick change of clothes, we started our first day in Venice around 3:45 pm.
4:00 pm – Rialto Bridge
From where we were staying in Cannaregio, Rialto Bridge was about a 15-20 minute walk. You can also take public transport boats – Vaporettos – between locations, but for the first day walk as much as you can. There are no streets, just canals with walkways on either side or often narrow alleyways. The canals and alleyways are not set up in a neat grid system. You cannot just walk straight to get to where you need to go.
It is a maze and you will get lost in it. And you want to get lost in it.
While traveling, google maps is my best friend. Even with following the directions, you will likely face intersections of 5 different alleyways. You will not know whether to go down the one that is a bit right of due east or a bit left of due east. Just go with your gut and if you choose wrong, you get to see another beautiful area of Venice that you would not have seen otherwise. It is a win-win situation.
You can also put your phone and the beloved google maps in your pocket, and just try to follow the many signs that will point you to "Ponte di Rialto" or "Piazza San Marco".
Once we finally made it to Rialto Bridge, we just spent a few minutes watching the boats go by underneath and enjoying our first look at the grand canal.
4:30 pm – San Marco Square
Only a 5 or so minute walk from Rialto Bridge, San Marco Square is the main public square of Venice. This is where you will find Doge's Palace, St. Mark's Basilica, and the famous bell tower. It is also where you will find tourists and a lot of them.
5:00 pm – St. Mark's Campanile (Bell Tower)
To get a greater appreciation of the beauty and size of Venice, we went up the bell tower in the center of the square. It is a short elevator ride up to the top but you will likely have to wait half an hour or more during busy times to get a ticket and a spot on the elevator. The top of the tower is a bit small and you will likely have to wait your turn to take photos from each of the sides to get a full view of Venice. It was very much worth the wait.
Cost: 8 euros (Only cash accepted)
7:00 pm – Dinner
We knew not to eat immediately in or around St. Mark's Square to avoid overpriced and unauthentic Italian food. We walked a good 10 or so blocks away until we found a nice looking place with a good menu. It was not good enough for me to mention the name. They had pretty average Italian food (not bad by any means). We sat out in the courtyard, which would have been romantic if we were not squished in there with a whole bunch of other English or German speaking tourists. Be aware that even the higher-rated affordable restaurants in San Marco still solely service tourists. Venice is not the place to go if you want to be surrounded by Italians while enjoying a bona fide traditional Italian meal.
8:30 pm – Gelato while watching the sunset on the Rialto Bridge
While in Italy you have to have gelato at least once .. or twice ... a day. It is a requirement. Our favorite in Venice is Suso. Great selection of flavors and fast service. It is just around a corner or two from the Rialto Bridge so we took our gelato there to eat while watching the sunset.
On our way back to our Airbnb, we walked along Strada Nuova. This is a longer and wider street than all of the other alleyways in Venice. It is lined with churches, shops, and restaurants. It is packed with both tourists and locals but is a bit more empty during the night. While most of the shops were closed at this time, there were several bars and restaurants open.
9:00 am – Breakfast and mask shopping on Strada Nuova
We went back to Strada Nuova for breakfast at a small bakery and to find a couple small souvenirs. We pack very light and do not love having to bring home large souvenirs. However, I do love the occasional small trinket or ornament to remember our trip by. What to get when you are in Venice? A mask. There are several local mask makers with shops along Strada Nuova and elsewhere in Venice. Even if you do not want to buy a mask, just visiting a mask shop is a must do. We went to Ca 'Macana Atelier. There are hundreds of different mask designs covering the store and most of the time the owners are there making more masks in front of you. They also have very reasonable prices, we left with two small but very detailed masks for under 15 euros.
We picked up a 24-hour ACTV Vaporetto Pass for 20 euros, giving unlimited access to the public boats for the day. We then took the Vaporetto down the Grand Canal to San Marco Square.
11:00 am – Doge's Palace Secret Itineraries Tour
Doge's Palace was the former residence of the Doge (the leader of Venice) and housed governmental offices and the prison at one point. The Secret Itineraries tour is a guided tour through the inaccessible parts of the palace. Rooms that you can only visit if you are on this tour. The tour is offered in English, Italian and French at limited times throughout the day. There are few spots and it typically books up, so you need to buy tickets for it in advance online. The guide walks you through the old governmental administrative offices and meeting rooms, an emotional and physical torture chamber, and the prison. The guide explains the very interesting history of the Doges and tells the story of Casanova's escape from the prison.
After visiting the secret rooms of the palace, you are free to visit the rest on your own. Including, the famous Bridge of Sighs.
Cost: 20 euros (14 euros) for students or children
1:00 pm – Lunch
Similar to dinner the night before, we walked about 10 blocks away from San Marco's square (but in the other direction) to find someplace to eat. Once again, it was pretty unexceptional, especially for the price.
2:00 pm – Dorsoduro
Dorsoduro is on the other side of the grand canal from the San Marco neighborhood. You can get there either by vaporetto, crossing the Ponte dell'Accademia, or taking a traghetto. A traghetto is a large gondola operated by two gondoliers that just goes back and forth across the grand canal at spots without bridges. It is a great way to get on a gondola if you do not want to pay for an actual ride for only 2 euros.
There are shops and cute canals to explore. When we went, there were also several free art museums (for the Biennale).
3:00 pm – Basilica Santa Maria della Salute
The inside is pleasant but commonplace as far as Italian cathedrals go. It is free to enter so worth taking a quick peek or to sit down for a while if you running low on energy. It is not as busy as the other sights around Venice. The real reason to go is for the exterior and the scenic location. Outside basilica, there are steps with a picturesque view of Venice and the grand canal.
3:45 pm – San Giorgio Maggiore
This island is near the main island group of Venice, right across from St. Mark's Square. Not all Vaporetto lines go out to the island, so take a look at the map to figure out the best route. We walked around the residential area of Dorsoduro a bit more and got the vaporetto at Zattere and took the 2 or N line.
San Giorgio Maggiore is a retreat away from the hustle of St. Mark's Square. You get to see the iconic view of Venice in relative quiet. On the island, there is a nice church, a bell tower with great views of the main island of Venice, and gorgeous gardens.
Following San Giorgio Maggiore, we got the vaporetto back to the main island, having to change boats at S. Zaccaria, and then to our Airbnb for a short break
6:30 pm – Gondola Ride
There is a bit of a disagreement over whether a gondola ride is "worth it" for the price. If you are not comfortable with the price, then do not do it. It is as simple as that. Before 7 pm, the price is 80 euros for 40 minutes. After 7 pm, it is 100 euros for 30 minutes. We went right before 7 pm, so we could get a bit of the nighttime atmosphere for a cheaper price and a longer ride. The 80 euros is per groups/per boat. It was our honeymoon and a once in a lifetime experience, so we felt that the 80 euros was worth it.
We boarded the gondola near a bridge on the Strada Nuova in Cannaregio. There was one other couple there waiting, but no long line like found at the gondola stands in San Marco. We barely said two words to the gondolier the whole time. He helped us on the gondola and once we were situated, he guided us through the small canals of Cannaregio. Unlike some of the other areas of Venice, there was no other gondolas or boats in the canals at the same time as us. It was peaceful, romantic, and everything you would want a gondola ride to be.
The only thing the gondolier did was point out Marco Polo's house (which is not that impressive from the outside). He took us out into the grand canal for a minute and then back into one of the smaller canals. At the end, without talking, we handed him the 80 euros. I am sure you can ask the gondolier to talk about the history of the surrounding buildings, but we enjoyed him not being too chatty. Not all speak fluent English.
Most gondoliers do not sing. Perhaps a few might if you pay them extra. If you really want a singing gondola ride complete with an accordion player, you can book one in advance.
7:30 pm - Dinner at Pizzeria Al Faro
This is the first meal worth mentioning the name of the restaurant. It was recommended by our host and was pretty good Italian Pizza. While it did not live up to Pizza we had elsewhere in Italy, it was our best meal in Venice. The staff was very nice and did not prey on tourists like other spots. Service was also faster than the other restaurants we visited in Venice.
Remember to always end the day with gelato.
If you have more time in Venice, check out some of these other Sights:
- Burano - An island in the Venetian lagoon, Burano is known for its brightly colored fisherman houses. It is also known for its lace, with several shops for you to buy lace direct from the families that make it. It takes about an hour to get there by public boat from Venice.
- Murano - Another island located in the Venetian lagoon. It is known for its long tradition of glass-making. Much of the glass products are quite pricey, but it is a great place to window shop. It is closer to the main island of Venice and only a 20 minute boat road.
- Gallerie dell'Accademia - If you are into art or history, this museum is worth a visit. It focuses on art from the renaissance with a lot of religious art. Not exactly our thing, but it is a very well frequented museum. Admission currently costs 15 euros.
- Teatro La Fenice - Venice's famous opera theatre with a gorgeous interior and interesting history. They provide an audioguide tour of the theatre. Maybe even see an opera here while you are in Venice.
- Ca' d'Oro - One of the oldest palaces in Venice, Palazzo Santa Sofia (also known as Ca' d'Oro or golden house) is located right on the grand canal. You will likely see the exterior as you pass by in a vaporetto or gondola, but inside is a beautiful art collection.
- Peggy Guggenheim Collection - Private modern art collection of Peggy Guggenheim. Compared to the other art museum (Gallerie dell'Accademia) in Dorsoduro, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is smaller, more modern, and has a quieter atmosphere.
Where to Stay
We stayed in an airbnb (use link for $40 off) in the more residential area of Cannaregio. Cannaregio is one of the more lovely quiet neighborhoods of Venice and home to one of the oldest Jewish ghettos. It is a bit further from the main sights of Venice. However, all of Venice is walkable or accessible by public transport, so it is not a major inconvenience. If you are looking for a quieter place to relax at night with more authentic restaurants, Cannaregio is the place to stay. It is also close to the train station if you are either coming or going by train. Great hotels in the area include:
- Casa Colleoni - Located within a basilica on a gorgeous square, this is a high rated Bed and Breakfast.
- Hotel Antico Doge - Extremely elegant hotel located right on the canal.
If you want to be right in the tourist center, able to walk out and be steps away from Rialto Bridge or San Marco's Square, this is the neighborhood. You will likely have to pay a bit more and book a bit earlier to get into the hotel or airbnb you want. Most of the restaurants in this area are solely servicing tourists, allowing them to get away with less authentic food at higher prices. Therefore, if you want a better meal, you might have to go a bit farther away from this area. About 98% of the people you pass in the streets of San Marco are tourists coming from around the world. If you like being amongst your fellow travelers or have mobility issues, San Marco is the place to be. Where to stay in San Marco neighborhood:
- Abatea - Amazing location just a few hundred feet away from San Marco square, but still nestled in a quiet corner.
- Rosa Salva Hotel - Nearly right in San Marco Square, this hotel has comfortable and spacious rooms for the location.
This is a great compromise if you ant to be close to the major sights, but also in a charming local neighborhood. This area has the two most famous art museums in Venice: Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim. It has a lot of great nightlife, but is tranquil during the day. You can find lots of cute shops and places for great food. Highly rated hotels in this area include: