How to spend a weekend in Venice

Venice is known as the city of canals. In Norther Italy it’s got the charm of all things Italian — great food, beautiful weather, gorgeous scenery. But it also feels a bit like stepping back in time. With no cars but boats for transport, and crumbling buildings falling away into the canals, there’s something captivating about the place. In this blog we’ve gathered all our insights from the past 10 years of trips to Venice.

Top Sights for a Weekend in Venice

Piazza San Marco

St. Mark’s square is the centre of Venice. In fact, Napolean called it “the drawing room of Europe”. It’s a place where everyone meets either as a tourist, for religion, or for politics.

The square is dominated by the church (basilica) at one end, with the Doge’s palace next to it, and then the bell tower reaching into the sky. Lining the edges of the square a mass of neat, ornate buildings stand regimented. Their columned archways beg you to walk through and explore. You’ll also notice the clocktower watching over the square. In particular, spot the infamous winged lion of St Mark above it. You’ll start to get very familiar with this figure around Venice.

Between the buildings a mass of people swarm, pigeons flock the skies and litter the grounds. It can be a cacophony of attention-grabbing sights that’s worthy of some admiration. Take your time to absorb it on foot.

Though San Marco is a lovely place to be it’s also one of the most expensive. On all my trips to Venice, I’ve never been able to justify lunch in the Square. There are some great ice cream shops (it’s Italy, so of course). But it’s also fun to window shop. At the high end, you’ve got sparkling goods, just as opulent as the buildings and art of Venice. At the other end, the tourist shops burst with colour and all manner of souvenirs.

In Venice, the souvenir of choice is anything made from Venetian glass. Chess boards, sculptures, magnets, jewellery. You name it, you can find it made of glass somewhere in Venice.

San Marco square is also home to the final resting place of St. Mark in the 9th-century basilica.

The Basilica of Venice

Rebuilt less than 100 years after a terrible fire in the 12th-century, the basilica has over 8000 square metres of shimmering mosaics. These cover its external walls and shine inside as they glint in the light from the windows. In fact, there’s so many of these mosaics it took several hundred years to complete. The result is a striking building inspired by cultures like the Byzantian, the Egyptians and the Palestinians.

Capturing the magic of the basilica’s exterior wall can be quite tricky. Venice is a tourist hotspot and San Marco is the beating heart of that. There’s normally a queue across the length of the square for people waiting to catch a glimpse of the inside of the basilica. Don’t let that put you off though. The queue moves fast, sweeping you along with the current of moving bodies. Let it sweep you up, through the vast entrance and into the cool interior.

Once inside it’s the swell keeps you constantly moving. Don’t let it drag you along the walkways and rush you out. Take a moment to step aside and let your eyes wander. See the sparkling mosaics and the rich gold leaf mingle with the light. Watch as the walls and the ceiling starts to glow from these mosaics, as if divinity itself was watching over you. Certainly, the figures of the Holy Spirit, Christ, the apostles and Madonna are never far from view.

It’s unbelievable to think something so opulent and rich as a building like this was once considered just a private chapel.

The Palazzo Ducale

The Palazzo (palace) rests right on the water’s edge looking out across the Dorsoduro district. Looking out over the water you see the island of Guidecca. Only a short boat bus ride away it’s a quieter area of Venice — one to bear in mind if you need some time away from the crowds. There’s not much to see there as such except some pretty houses, quiet streets and a 25-bed dorm hostel — the cheapest stay in Venice.

Behind you, San Marco square is alive with energy. You’ll have plenty of time to observe the comings and goings as you’ll likely have to queue for a while before making it inside the palace. Take the opportunity also to gaze up at the gentle off-white façade of the palace. Look at the striking lines made by columns, arches and patterns swirling on the walls. See how the shapes and colours stand out against the blues of the sea and the sky, and the terracotta’s of the surrounding buildings. In many ways, this exterior façade is more striking than what can be seen on the inside.

The 15th-century palace was once the private home of the Doge. The basilica originally his private chapel. The Doge was the most senior official in Venice so naturally, his home would show off his status. What’s more, it was also home to council chambers, courts and the dark, soulless prisons. I’m not sure many places in the world combine their palaces with places of filth and squalor like those. The palace has changed little since it was first built. Only a few fires have modified what we see of the building today.

Inside the Doge’s Palace in Venice

A few highlights that you simply mustn’t miss:

The Scala d’Oro (the golden staircase). As its name suggests, this spectacular staircase glints as it catches the light. It’s so dazzling you need to be careful not to miss a step or trip. Though at least if you did, you could lie in a heap on the cool, marble stairs. Then the paintings in their golden frames would fill your view until you had recovered from any injury.

Follow the visitor route and soon you’ll find a vast room, no doubt the scene of many a ball or dinner party. Once you get over the sheer size of this room check out the artwork lining each of its four walls. These paintings span so far across the wall, only breaking to allow a window to flood the room with light. Walking around your eyes are in a mad frenzy, never knowing quite where to settle. If you have time take a couple of laps. That way you might catch a fraction of what’s on show. Or better yet, rest those weary museum feet and take a seat at the edge of the room. Gaze up at the heavens and watch angles and Gods swirl in the brushstrokes of paradise.

The piombi, or ‘the leads’ prison is right underneath the roof of the palace. It was given this name because the roof was covered with lead. In the winter lead would let the cold seep through. In the summer the heat conducted. At any time of the year, it was tough to be a prisoner. But when the piombi prison became too full a new prison was built across the canal. To connect the two the beautiful Bridge of Sighs was built. As a visitor to the city, you’d never expect such a beautiful piece of construction to be used for this.

The Bell Tower in Piazzo San Marco

The bell tower was built to serve as a lighthouse to guide sea farer’s through the maze of small islands. Now visitors can find their way to the top of the bell tower (by stairs or lift) to indulge in stunning, panoramic views of Venice. Far beyond the islands of Venice, you can even glimpse the Alps.

Bridges of Venice

Ponte dell’Accademi

The Ponte dell’Accademia is one of only four bridges that connect each side of the Grand Canal. This is the main canal running through the heart of Venice. Ponte dell’Accademia links the districts of Dorsoduro and San Marco.

Because there are only four bridges across the Grand Canal you can pretty much guarantee they’ll be busy. They’re a main thoroughfare for anyone going about their business in Venice. But they’re also all beautiful and iconic pieces of Venetian architecture.

The original 19th century Ponte dell’Accademia was steel until it was replaced with wood in the early 1930s. Intended only as a temporary structure it was replaced again in 1985 and in 2011 they began working on a new one. Wood may not be the most durable but it’s the basis of a striking structure that makes for a brilliant photo. Make sure you get a snap looking straight at it but also from it. The views down the grand canal lead over the dome in San Marco square. Beautiful!

Rialto Bridge

The oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal connects the districts of San Marco and San Polo. Originally built as a pontoon bridge way back in 1173 it’s undergone several transformations. It’s now become a major tourist attraction. It’s distinct shape and stance across the river is a beautiful draw for people from around the world.

As you walk up and over the white marble stairs check out the views of the grand canal and take a stroll through the shops. If you love handcrafted leather goods and stationery fall in love with the family-run business of Rivoaltus Legatoria.

Rialto Market

A lively place filled with both locals and tourists. Rialto market has been Venice’s main market for 700 years. Come here to find fresh fruit, vegetables and fish in the pescaria. Or just come to explore and browse the seasonal produce. To truly experience the market be sure to stop buy in the morning when the market is freshly stocked, and the locals are out looking for the best.

Gondola Rowing Lessons

One of the classic must-do activities in Venice is taking a romantic ride in a gondola. Picture this: your lover in your arms as you sip champagne and float down the canals to the merry tune of a whistling gondolier. No doubt an unforgettable experience until you have to part with 80 euros (or 120 at night!) for the pleasure of a 30-minute private ride.

The alternative is to try your hand at rowing. Why let someone else do all the hard work when you can have a go yourself? Spend your weekend in Venice learning the art of a gondolier.

Row Venice offer private rowing lessons in a traditional hand-crafted wooden batellina boat. For two you can get a 90-minute lesson for 85 euros. Money well spent. It’s an absolute blast and such a unique experience. Read how we got on here.

The Museums of Venice

The Gallerie dell’Accademia is right next to the Ponte dell’Accademia, just across a short courtyard. It’s home to a collection of Venetian paintings spanning the centuries between 1400 and 1800. But before you get inside take a moment to marvel the exterior of what was once an old convent.

Inside you’ll two large winding staircases lead you into the realm of art and the grand gallery. While the paintings take centre stage, let your attention wander up towards the ceiling. Far above the artwork an ornate ceiling dances with pink cherub heads and gold leaf. Little angels watching over the biblical artwork in the museum below.

A few hours in the museum is probably enough for most. Venice is bursting with beautiful art and architecture so there’s a lot to squeeze in one weekend. If you’re a big art fan though make time to check out the temporary exhibition. When I visited (summer of 2017) I was lucky enough to stumble on the work of Hieronymus Bosch. His weird and wonderful paintings depict hell and all its monsters. They’re dark and twisted in theme but show a vivid sense of imagination that’s easy to get lost in. The more you look, the more you see. This style became influential in Venice, being so unlike the refined and elegant artistry in the 14–1500s. Later generations took inspiration from this work and created a Venetian ‘Bosch-style’. They explored his dark and dreamlike worlds in their own way.

The islands around Venice

Venice is an island accessible from the mainland by boat or train (or on foot if you’re running a marathon). But it’s not the only island worth a visit even in a short weekend away in Venice.

Top Tip: Torcello is the less well-known island and least touristy. If you want a break from the crowds and a sample of life in a Tuscan village, this is definitely the spot for you!

Murano

Since the 13th-century Murano has been the home of Venetian glass. Nowadays you can watch glassmakers wield and strike molten glass as they pound it into shape. Then browse the art shops showing the scale of glass craftsmanship. From the bizarre glasswork fit for modern art galleries, to the souvenir shops where you can find a glass trinket of your own.

To learn more about working with glass head to the glass museum. Here watch a series of videos explaining the glass making tradition and craft. In particular, check out the exhibit on making the popular multicoloured glass beads. You’ll see these all over the place in your weekend in Venice.

Top Tip: Look towards the ceiling so you don’t miss the glass chandeliers dripping with grandeur. Made between the 14–17th century they show the best of Venetian glasswork.

Burano

Burano is famed for its handmade lace and colourful houses lining the streets. It’s picturesque, like something out of a children’s book. The brilliant blue sky is a backdrop to the pastel-coloured houses that wind around the canal. Small wooden bridges provide the meeting points between one side and the other. Nowadays most of the lace sold in Burano is imported and the primary economy is tourism. A familiar story across the Venice of our modern world.

But if you want to see the real thing there’s a small Lace Museum in the central square. You don’t need much time for a cursory explore. In fact, you can walk around the whole thing in about 15 minutes. There’s not a lot of information to read so if you’re looking for the history of the craft it might not be for you. But you can ponder over the marvel of some real handmade lace. And if you’re lucky, the final room in the museum is a place where local lacemakers get together to work on their projects. Definitely something worth checking out if you can time your visit right.

The most enjoyable thing about a visit to Burano is the scenery and the relaxed vibe. Take your time to stroll between the coloured houses, poke your nose in the shops and race back and forth over tiny bridges. It’s a playful island, so play!

Torcello

Torcello is the origin of the Venice as we know it. This humble island was the first island settlement that soon became a popular trading route. At its peak there were 20,000 people living there until the population was almost wiped out by malaria in the 14th-century. And now, there are only 14 permanent residents and 1, of the original 9, church remaining.

But this quiet nature is one of the absolute charms of Torcello. It’s so peaceful and the frantic hustle of Venice mainland is long gone. It feels more like a small Tuscan village than a stone’s throw from tourist central.

Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta

Following the path from the boat leads you over a small white stone bridge and towards the last Church. This is the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. Lonely Planet claims this as the top sight to see in these islands and I also can’t help but recommend.

Inside pick up your free audio guide (part of the entrance fee) and learn about this 7th-century hidden marvel. First, draw your attention to the gold glinting mosaics on the front wall. They’re the centrepiece of the entire building and worth a visit as a piece of art in their own right. These tiny, intricate mosaics paint a picture of the afterlife. Or actually, they paint two pictures. The first, a pleasant afterlife surrounded by saints and Madonna herself. The second is more sinister. It’s the fiery pits of hell where monsters are your only companions for the rest of eternity.

If you can tear your eyes away from the alluring mosaic wall, turn your attention to the floor. Notice the marble floor. Its multi-colour design represents eternal life. Using flowing patterns it shows the evolution of life.

The Campanile (Bell Tower)

Next door to the church the bell tower stands watch. At the time of my visit, it was undergoing some restoration work (large metal screws were holding the building together).

A trip up is not for the faint-hearted. There’s no lift in this old crumbling structure. There actually aren’t stairs either. Instead, it’s a constant steady incline winding up to the top. At least on the way up, there are plenty of tiny windows to gaze out of and out to the swampy ground below.

Up at the top, everything is open to the elements so it’s a windy walk around the bells. But the view was worth every step up the sloping path. In the far distance, you can see the familiar shapes of mainland Venice. In the foreground is the outline of Burano. Closer still the sleepy island of Torcello.

Top Tip: Once you get back down the bell tower walk behind the basilica. There’s a hidden viewpoint. It’s a small opening in the foliage, framing a picture-perfect shot of Burano.

Torcello’s Museum

Opposite the Basilica is Torcello’s very own museum. The entrance fee is included in the ticket to the basilica so it’s worth a stop if you have time.

The museum is in two sections — the medieval and the more modern. The medieval section documents the history of the island from up until the 19th century. Explore this section to learn about the beginnings of Venice and understand its Byzantine influence.

The more modern part of the museum is dedicated to more recent archaeological findings.

How to get to the islands

If you’re staying on Venice island it’s never too difficult to get anywhere. It’s just a short walk (unless you get lost which is rather inevitable) or a boat trip (they’re like public buses in Venice). To reach the islands head to Fondamente Nove and catch one of the frequent boats to the island of your choice.

  • Murano is the closest and about 25 mins from Fondamente Nove.
  • Burano comes next at 55 mins.
  • Finally, Torcello is the last at about an hour.

Of course, you can start at Murano, then head to Burano and Torcello to split up the journey. There’s plenty of time to enjoy all three islands in one day so do set aside one day of your long weekend in Venice.

Planning your weekend in Venice

  • Many of the museum’s in Venice are free on the first Sunday of the month. Be sure to include this Sunday in your trip if possible. Venice is not a cheap weekend away.
  • Check out the dates for the years Venice Biennale. It’s an art and film festival so either make sure to check it out if you fancy it. Or avoid it if you have no intention to visit. It can get pretty busy, and expensive, around those times.
  • Also check the dates for the water levels. We all hear that Venice is sinking and whether that’s true or not, it certainly floods!
  • If you’re planning to visit a lot of attractions in Venice, including the Doge’s Palace, the Glass Museum, it might be worth a look at the multi-museum pass. Plan your weekend in Venice before committing otherwise it could be a waste of 40 euros.

Budget Tip: If you decide to buy one of these, bear in mind there are often temporary exhibitions at extra cost.

Food & Drink in Venice

  • Chocolate lovers: try the hot chocolate. It’s not so much of a drink, it’s far too thick. Definitely to be eaten with a spoon and not drunk.
  • For traditional Italian in a cosy trattoria try the delicacies at Osteria Mocenigo. Indulge in primi and secondi plates. Bellisimo!
  • Treat yourself to a Venetian tipple — the Aperol Spritz.
  • Try a bottle of beer from Birraria La Corte — recommended as one of the best places for beer in the city.
  • Find your way to the district of Cannaregio before your weekend in Venice comes to an end. This may be home to the largest population of Venice, and the ‘Venetian Ghetto’ (the Jewish quarter), but is also a great place for restaurants and bars. For an afternoon tipple try Il Santo Bevirtore. It’s home to 20 brews on tap and has a small courtyard on the canal side where you can sip your beer in style.

Ditch the map!

Ditch the map. Put the phone away. Take a walk. One of the most alluring charms of Venice is getting lost in its beautiful narrow streets. Suddenly you’ll pop out alongside another canal. You can always catch a boat back so you’re never really lost! Take the time to explore without the rush of needing to be anywhere or do anything. Just be.

Here’s an example. These locals found their way hoisted out of the river. What a way to get off a boat!

Originally posted on Sage Adventures travel & wellness lifestyle blog: www.sageadventres.co.uk.

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Hannah

Hannah

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Travel blogger, student journalist, lover of adventure and climbing | 33 countries visited | Travel & Adventure Blog @ www.sageadventures.co.uk