Within minutes of your first steps through the narrow streets of the canaled city, you’ll realize why it’s the romantic capital of the world.
Couples abound, cuddling on guided gondola tours, sipping glasses of wine at canal-side trattorias, or hugging tight while taking a vaporetto ride across the lagoon. And you? Well, your backpack will have to be company enough.
The romanticism of Venice is evidently present in the minds of those who visit: with 20 million visitors coming each year, Venice is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy (and the world—Venice is even considering instituting a tourist cap to limit the number of annual visitors), making many of the city’s squares feel alarmingly like mosh pits rather than the far-flung getaways they were designed to be. In fact, the city was established by Romans for the very purpose of being inaccessible and inconvenient: they were fleeing from Barbarians (specifically, the Huns), and, upon reaching the area that would become Venice, they decided to start building on top of a seemingly-uninhabitable lagoon. By pressing wooden posts into the marshy wetland, they created the foundation of what would become one of the most powerful cities of the Middle Ages.
Thankfully for you, you’re not in danger of an Attila attack, but you may still need to flee from other tourists. Strolling through St. Mark’s Square is a must—the Palazzo Ducale, the Royal Palace, and the Campanile are unquestionably the city’s most awe-inspiring landmarks—but you’ll need to do a bit more digging to discover what it is that makes Venice so special. Put your map away and roam, far away from the crowds. You may find it in the twisting alleys of Cannaregio, on the nearly-uninhabited island of Troncetto, or on a lagoon-side park near the Arsenale.
You (and everyone else) will enter Venice from either the Ferrovia (the train station) or Piazzale Roma (the bus stop) in the part of Venice called Santa Croce. From there, there are signs clearly marking the route to the two major hubs of the city: Per Rialto (“to Rialto”) and Per San Marco (“to San Marco”). Follow these, or just let yourself be carried by the river of tourists flowing towards these tourist-dense destinations. The Rialto Bridge neighborhood is called San Polo, and the St. Mark’s Square area is, believe it or not, San Marco. Venice wraps itself around the Grand Canal, which serves to connect all its major islands.
To the south of these areas is Dorsoduro, where you’ll find the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, as well as some lovely lagoon-side restaurants facing the island of Guidecca. This is a good spot to get away from tourists (except for those staying in Giudecca’s famous five-star resort).
To the northwest is Cannaregio, the historic Jewish Ghetto (the first official ghetto, actually); this is your best bet for what little nightlife can be found in Venice, as well as local restaurants and cicchetti (the Venetian equivalent of bar food). On the northeasternmost reaches of the island you’ll find Castello, home to the Biennale’s world-renowned art pavilions, the Byzantine shipyard, cheaper accommodations, and cheap eats (and a much sparser tourist density).
There are three main island destinations for Venice’s tourists: Lido, Murano, and Burano. Lido, to the east, has a small airport and is known for good beaches (the island is really just a massive sandbar). Murano, a ten-minute vaporetto ride from Cannaregio’s Fondamente Nove, is the island most famous for its glass production: all of Venice’s glass-blowing factories were moved here in 1295 to prevent the spread of fires throughout the rest of Venice. Burano is a bit more far-flung (about 45min by vaporetto, including stops) and is known for lace-making and brightly-colored pastel houses.
When you’re getting ready to leave Venice, the same helpful signs helping you navigate “Per San Marco” will help you find your way back to the Piazzale Roma or the Ferrovia.
If you’re flying into Marco Polo airport, you have a few options. Taxis take around 15min. (Radiotaxi Venezia, 041 936222, €35) to get to Piazzale Roma. There are also two bus services. ATVO buses are more expensive, leaving the airport every half hour (5:20am-12:20am daily, www.atvo.it/index.php?lingua=en, €15), whereas ACTV buses (the public buses, Line 5) go for €8,and there is an option to get an extended ticket that will let you use the public transportation system in Venice for an extended period of time (http://www.veneziaunica.it/it). If you’re coming in by train, you’ll get off at the Santa Maria Lucia station (not Venezia Mestre), which is just steps away from the Venetian canals. There’s also luggage storage just left of the station, open daily 6am-midnight).
Maps will be your best friend in Venice: the city of canals was obviously not designed for intuitive navigation. Just try to look up every now and again to appreciate the cityscape. It is highly recommended that you spend at least some time exploring Venice by foot—it’s the best way to escape the most touristy areas. You might come up on some dead ends (some streets just end at the edge of a canal), but don’t resort to swimming: there’s almost always a bridge in the vicinity. Another option is to take a water taxi. Apparently, there are 159 kinds of water craft that paddle the canals of Venice, all operated by ACTV (the biggest public transportation provider). City Center lines (1 and 2) leave from Tronchetto and Piazzale Roma, and crisscross the main parts of Venice along the Canal Grande and the Giudecca Canal. City Circle lines (3, 4.1, 4.2, 5.1, 5.2, and 6) go to slightly more far-flung destinations like Murano and Lido, and the Lagoon lines (12, 13, 14, and 19) can get you as far as Chioggia, Fusina, San Guilano, Punta Sabbioni, Treporti, and Marco Polo airport. You can buy a 1, 2, 3, or 7-day unlimited water taxi pass (one day starts at €20) at http://www.veneziaunica.it/en/.
Tourist Offices: Tourist offices are just about as plentiful as tourists, so you should have no trouble finding one regardless of which island you happen to be on. Check www.turismovenezia.it for more information. Stazione Ferroviaria (Santa Lucia, 30121, open daily 8am-6:30pm); Piazzale Roma Tourist Office(Piazzale Roma Garage ASM, 30135, open daily 9:30am-3:30pm); San Marco Tourist Office (71/f, San Marco, 30124, open daily 9am-3:30pm).
Banks/ATMs/Currency Exchange: Venice wants you to spend your money. A lot of it. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a bank, ATM, or currency exchange center (or all three, right next to each other) in any of the city’s neighborhoods.
- BNL Venice (Rio Terà Antonio Foscarini, 877/D, 30123; 060060; M-F 8:35am-1:35pmand 2:45pm-4:55pm).
Post Offices: Look for Poste Italianes throughout the islands (bright yellow and blue signage).
- Poste Italiane Dorsoduro (Dorsoduro, 1507, 30123; 041 520 3218; open M-F 8:20am-1:35pm, Sa 8:20am-12:35pm).
- Poste Italiane San Marco (Merceria S. Salvador, 5016, 30124; 041 240 4149; open M-F 8:20am-7:05pm, Sa 8:20am-12:35pm).
Internet: There is a Wi-Fi network called VeniceConnected that works throughout the five main neighborhoods of Venice. You can purchase a special code for 24hr (€5), 72hr (€15), or a week (€20) at www.veneziaunica.it. A 24hr pass is also included with the Rolling Venice three-day public transportation package (students 26 and under €29).
Wheelchair Accessibility: Venice’s streets are especially narrow and its many canals require climbing flights of occasionally steep stairs. This is an important note for travelers who require a wheelchair, as they will need assistance navigating around Venice’s islands.
Emergency Number: 113
Police: As in other Italian cities, there are both the local police and the Carabinieri. Either can help in case of an emergency.
- Carabinieri Piazzale Roma (Piazzale Roma; 041 523 53 33).
- State Police, Santa Croce (Sestiere di Santa Croce, 500, 30135; 041 271 5586; open M-F 8am-10pm, Sa 8am-2pm).
U.S. Embassy: There is no US consular embassy in Venice; the nearest ones are in Milan (V. Principe Amedeo, 2/10, 20121 Milan; 02 290351) and Florence (Lungarno Vespucci, 50123 Florence 38; 055 266 951).
Hospitals: Hopefully you won’t need to find one, but Venice has two good options for hospitals, one of which is open for 24hr emergency care. Your next best bet is the hospital in Mestre, a bus ride away from Piazzale Roma or a train ride away from Santa Lucia station.
- Ospedale SS. Giovanni e Paolo (Castello 6777; 041 5294111,open M-F 3pm-4pm and 7pm-8pm, Su 10am-11:30am and 3pm-7pm).
- Ospedale San Raffaele Arcangelo (Fatebenefratelli)(Dell’orto,30100, Campo Madonna, 3458, Venice; 041 783111; open daily 24hr).
Pharmacies: There aren’t any 24hr pharmacies in Venice, but there are a few that are open 9am-7pm daily. For pharmacies open on Su, check the updated roster compiled at www.farmacistivenezia.it.
- Baldisserotto al Basilico (Castello): 041 5224109.
- Marangoni Internazionale, Lido (041 5260117).
- Zamboni San Francesco, Santa Croce (041 5286936).