Venice is sinking, there is little doubt about it. Which is why it was higher up my travel list than the likes of Naples or Florence when I visited Italy. But even without the clock potentially ticking on the future of the city, Venice has long been one of the country’s top tourist attractions. Appropriately named the “fairy tale city of the heart” (well done, Byron), the mysterious twisty alleys and canals lined with the crumbling glory of Renaissance mansions and Byzantine churches is what’s earned Venice a spot on practically every tourist’s itinerary.
The result, especially if you arrive in peak season, is a visit defined by slow-moving queues, some of Italy’s worst food (yes, I did say that and yes, it is true) and over-priced…well…everything.
Many people arrive in Venice with expectations as grand as the canal but leave with little more than a bag full of disappointment. This presents a fair conundrum for those who have not yet visited Venice. It would be a shame to miss this legendary city in all its magical, canal-laced grandeur. But is it possible to experience Venice without the disappointment? The answer, fortunately, is yes. How? Spend only one day in Venice. It may not seem like enough time, but with a good strategy and an early start, you can hit all the high marks of Venice’s artistic and architectural masterpieces while minimising your exposure to the crowds and overpriced tourist tat. Here’s what to see and do in Venice if you’re there for only a day.
Start your day as early as possible
If there is one thing you can guarantee in Venice, it’s that St Mark’s Square will be mobbed with tourists by mid-morning so head there first thing and revel in its splendour absent hundreds of fellow travellers. Rimmed by some of the finest Renaissance architecture in the city, the square is dominated by the magnificent Basilica di San Marco, a 900-year old Romanesque and Byzantine masterpiece crowned by five ornate domes.
You’re unlikely to have time to go inside most of the sights, thanks to the long lines and only having one day to play with, but don’t worry – many of the highlights of Venice can be seen just by walking (or sailing past).
The Torre dell’Orologio (Moor’s Clock Tower) is another spectacular in the square and the one-minute lift ride to the top of the Campanile gives some of the best views of the city.
As you leave St. Mark’s Plaza through the granite-columned gateway to the city, you can’t miss the Doge’s Palace with its ornate marbled façade that is reminiscent of a wedding cake.
Stroll along the waterfront
Stroll along the waterfront until you reach the bridge to the Arsenale. You can’t enter this 12th century military complex, but you can pause to admire the four magnificent marble lions guarding the entrance before stopping for a coffee in the square. From there, it’s a quick vaporetto ride to the most famous bridge in Venice, the Ponte di Rialto, 24 meters of Istrian Stone arching over the Grand Canal and lined with a lot of overpriced boutiques. Skip the shopping unless you absolutely must and just lean over the parapet and watch the boats pass beneath filled with everything from fruits and vegetables to building materials, the fascinating waterborne parade of a city without cars.
Take a boat to old Venice for lunch
Photo by: MorBCN
Take a traghetto from the Calmpo della Pescaria next to the Rialto Bridge to experience the more tranquil maze of alleyways and tiny bridges of this northeast neighborhood. Turn an unexpected corner and allow yourself to get lost in the Venice of long ago, a place of cobbled streets, narrow canals and seductive secrets. Look for the church of Madonna dell’Orto, home of Tintoretto masterpieces including The Last Judgment and the Martyrdom of St. Paul.
This is a great place to grab lunch. On account of your compressed itinerary, I suggest grabbing a piadini (like a pianini but more buttery and flakey) from a local bakery. Wash it down with an espresso – the locals drink their coffee standing anyway.
Relax on a boat as the sun sets
You don’t need to spring for a pricey gondola to experience the magnificence of Renaissance Venice. A half-hour vaporetto ride from the train station (near Cannaregio) to Piazza San Marco will take you past some of the city’s most impressive architecture and also give your feet a chance to rest.
Keep an eye out for Ca’Rezzonico is an intriguing museum housed in a handsome Grand Canal palace. Whether you sail past or pop inside, you’ll be whisked back to life in the last years of the Venetian Republic when families like the wealthy Rezzonicos lived in a glittery whirl of extravagant parties, lavish dinners and assorted frivolous pass-times. Awash in incredible period paintings including Tiepolo and Longhi, the exhibition halls include amazing furniture, tapestry, fashion and artifacts.
Try to go in the late afternoon (for its soft, golden light) and sit up front for the best view of banks lined with a parade of faded palaces and Byzantine churches that seem to float on the water. You’ll glide past elegant hotels, magnificent museums and around 200 spectacular palazzi built between the 12th and 18th century. Highlights include the pink-and-white Ca d’Oro, the church of Santa Maria della Salute and the Gritti Palace Hotel, once a haunt of Ernest Hemingway.
Choose your evening restaurant carefully
As I’ve already mentioned, it’s very easy to get bad food in Venice – the city is mostly made up of tourists and they don’t offer much by way of repeat business, so where’s the motivation? But don’t worry, I’ve eaten plenty of bad meals in Venice so you don’t have to. I’ve found some great restaurants and bars too, which I have written about in my guide to Venice’s Best Bars and Restaurants. Which one to choose? After a day cramming in the sights of Venice, I’d choose the one closest to your hotel. Then you won’t have such a long walk back when all you want to do is lie down in your bed after a day well spent.
That’s my guide to how to see Venice in one day. Let me know if you have any comments or questions below.
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