Saul Schwartz took his wife Fern by the hand and crossed the great pond for the first time since the pandemic on a mission to fall in love with Europe again. And what better place to rekindle that romance than in Northern Italy?
What is the best way to spend 4 days in Venice? Let them show you:
By Saul Schwartz
The Grand Canal is just a Vaporetto ride away. These water busses usually set up the first rendezvous between the traveller and the historic canal. The Grand Canal is about 4 kms / 2.5 miles in length and by far the largest of the 177 canals in Venice, snaking through the city with a double curve. This was our first exposure to the exquisite palaces on both banks. The Grand Canal’s waters are full of Vaporettos, gondolas and commercial barges.
The weather in early May was ideal for touring, with high temperatures around 18 degrees Celsius / 65 degrees Fahrenheit and it only rained briefly on our first day.
We walked across the Accademia Bridge to the Galleries. This lovely wooden and metal bridge was built in 1832 and provides great views onto the Grand Canal in both directions.
We spent a part of the rainy afternoon at the Accademia Galleries. We purchased advanced tickets through the gallery’s website which allowed us to avoid the line and have a fixed time for entry. Tickets were 12 Euros each. We also got audio guides at the museum for 6 Euros. I recommend the audio guides because there are limited written descriptions within the gallery. The artwork is arranged chronologically throughout 24 rooms. The focus is on Italian art from the 18th century and earlier, especially from Venice.
The building dates from 1343 and is decorated on ceilings and doors with artwork. An interior courtyard has sculptures.
We thought that the most impressive work is the huge Supper in the House of Levi from 1573 by Veronese. This controversial version of The Last Supper includes dogs, drunks, buffoons and dwarfs! It occupies an entire wall of the one room. The museum is not as crowded as the Uffizi were in Florence.
Walking tour of Venice
Once again, we wanted to get an orientation and overview of the city before heading out on our own. Fern and I booked a two-hour tour through Guru Walk and Wonderful Venice, called Essential Venice – The Heart of Venice. On our first full day in Venice, we met our guide David in front of the Accademia Galleries. Although David was not born in Venice, he had become a local and we shared stories about our Jewish upbringing before the tour began.
The tour first took us across the Accademia Bridge to see palaces on the Grand Canal. We then walked by the Leaning Bell Tower of Santo Stefano. Built in 1544, the 66-meter tall tower has a 2 degree lean and can be seen throughout much of the San Marco area. David then led the tour over to the Gran Teatro La Fenice, a world-famous opera house, within the Campo San Fantin. The theatre was restored in 1996 after being destroyed by a fire. The neoclassical exterior features statues in niches representing the muses of tragedy and dance and the masks of comedy and tragedy.
I like that this tour took us by some less well-known sites. In Campo Manin, the bronze statue of Daniel Manin from 1875 honours the 19th century patriot. We then walked by Venice’s most impressive and admired spiral staircase, in the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, at the courtyard side of the Palazzo Contarini. The stairway from 1499 decorates the façade of the Palace of San Paternian, overlooking a lovely small garden. Our tour ended in Saint Mark’s Square.
Saint Mark’s Square
This crowded square is the central point of Venice and a gathering point for both locals and tourists.
We spent a portion of the afternoon at one of the cafes, Caffe Aurora, where we could people watch on the square and listen to the live orchestras, while having a drink.
Napoleon said this square was the most elegant drawing room in Europe! The square includes Doge’s Palace, a 9th century bell tower and Saint Mark’s Basilica. A variety of stores surround several corridors, as well.
We then walked over to the Rialto Bridge. This striking bridge provides some of the most iconic views over the Grand Canal.
The beautiful 26-foot-high stone bridge dates from around 1588 and is located at the narrowest point of the Grand Canal. We took pictures from the central portico in the middle of the bridge, where there are great views in both directions of the Grand Canal.
There are shops on either side of the bridge. We walked over the inclining ramps to travel to both sides of the Canal.
Gondola Ride & Serenade
Certainly, everyone who goes to Venice must ride on a gondola!
We booked our ride in advance through Viator at a cost of 90 dollars. Fern and I met the gondolier at Gondola Station Santa Maria del Giglio and learned that gondola rides have set prices, depending on the time of the ride, with evening rides after 7 p.m. at a greater expense (i.e. 80 Euros during the day and 100 Euros per vessel in the evening).
Although the ride was romantic, it was a little less enjoyable to have another couple with us in our gondola, as up to five individuals are placed within one gondola.
Our ride with two gondolas travelling together included a serenade of Italian songs by a baritone singer and a guitar playing who accompanied the singer. We went through the Grand Canal and several small canals during our 30-minute ride. There are about 500 black gondolas on the canals today with officially licensed gondoliers.
Guided tour of Doge’s Palace & St. Mark’s Basilica
For our second full day, we had booked in advance a “skip the line” guided tour of of the Doge’s Palace through Viator and City Wonders. The price was $86 per person and was well worth it to avoid the huge lines and focus on the key aspects of both attractions.
The Doge’s Palace is a monumental and elegant piece of architecture. Construction began in the 14th century and the oldest portion faces the Grand Canal. The local affairs of Venice were governed by the Doge and the palace was home to 120 Doges. The other façade is a combination of Gothic, Byzantine, and Renaissance architecture. Pink and cream stonework stands above an arcade of columns.
Interior highlights included the Golden Staircase with 24 carat gold leaf framing frescoes, clocks with zodiac signs, 24-hour clocks and the great hall with portraits of the Doges. We went down one outside staircase which had statues at the top of the stairs of Mars and Poseidon and the winged lion, the symbol of Saint Mark, the patron Saint of Venice. The palace is filled with great artwork including the world’s largest oil painting, Paradise, which contains about 800 figures, which sits above the seats of the six council members.
The Palace contains a maze of cells linked by corridors and staircases on both sides of a canal. The infamous Bridge of Sighs crosses from the Palace to the prisons. Prisoners reputedly sighed at their last glimpse of sea and sky after they left the courtrooms of the Palace and headed to the prison cells. Built in 1602, the 11-meter-wide bridge is made of white limestone.
Our tour guide then took us to Saint Mark’s Basilica. Overlooking Saint Mark’s Square, the church is joined to the Palace. Exterior mosaics are located above the church’s front doors. The façade is an intriguing mix of domes, columns, arches and spires with evident Gothic and Byzantine elements. Construction began around 1071 and interior highlights include more mosaics including one from the 13th century on the central dome.
Walking tour of Jewish Ghetto
Our two-hour tour was purchased in advance through GetYourGuide at a cost of $57 per person. We met at the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo square within the Cannaregio section of Venice. Our guide Martina took us through the Jewish ghettos, which were first created in 1516. As the number of Jews increased in Venice, with many coming from Spain, the original ghetto was expanded to include Ghetto Vecchio. Gates locked Jews into the ghettos at night until 1797 when Napoleon conquered Venice.
The Jewish Museum was currently closed for renovations. There are five historic synagogues in the former ghettos, along with Kosher shops and restaurants. Two of the synagogues (the Spanish synagogue and the Levantina synagogue) occasionally are open for touring, but we were not able to tour either of them. Currently about 1000 Jews live in Venice.
Also, there are striking memorials in the ghettos related to World War 2 and Giuseppe Jona who saved Jews from expulsion to concentration camps. On one side of the Ghetto Nuovo Square there is a monument, created in 1980, which consists of seven bronze panels, by the artist Arbit Blatas (1908 – 1999), to remember the victims of the Nazi deportation. Only about 243 of the Jews who lived in Venice were deported to concentration camps during the Nazi occupation of the city in 1943, thanks to the courage and determination of Giuseppe Jona, head of the Jewish Community of Venice during the Second World War, who is credited with saving about 1200 Jews.
After the tour, for dinner we had great panini sandwiches at the Majer restaurant in the Jewish section, followed by several tasty bakery treats from the kosher Panificio Volpe Giovanni bakery. Majer has ten locations in Venice. The one in the Jewish ghetto was very informal.
In front of several houses, Venice also has stumbling stones to remember Jews deported from to concentration camps from these very houses. Fortunately, several of these brass bricks show that the residents were liberated from the camps, including Amalia Navarro and Lina Navarro who were freed from Auschwitz.
Evening Vivaldi Concert
Venice is linked with its native son, Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. He lived in Venice and Vienna in the late 17th and early 18th century. Inspiring Vivaldi concerts are available at several locations in Venice.
Fern and I were interested in a concert that featured Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The cost was 60 Euros for both of us. Seating was first come, first seated. The concert lasted about 1-1,5 hours and was performed by a chamber music group. We purchased our tickets several days in advance at the venue. The concert ended up selling out and it was an amazing experience.
The venue was a former church, Chiesa di San Vidal, which is now used as a concert and event venue. The exterior includes sculpted portraits of Doge Carlo Contarini and his wife. The interior of the church includes a display of musical instruments. The 17th century church has excellent acoustics. It is located close to the Accademia Bridge in Campo Santo Stefano. Highlights of the interior include two marble statutes of Faith and Fortitude on the alter and the main altarpiece of San Vidal on horseback.
Day tour of Burano, Murano & Torcello
We booked this tour in advance through Viator and the Consorzio Vidali Group at a very reasonable cost ($33 per adult). The boat left from the lagoon dock near the Doge’s Palace, at Palazzo Cornoldi. I had selected this vendor because they provided a trip to all three islands within the lagoon. We stayed about one hour on each island.
Our first stop was Murano, which is a series of seven islands connected by bridges over canals and channels.
We watched an extensive glass-making demonstration by a skilled craftsman in front of a furnace. Then we purchased a beautiful vase at that glass factory’s lovely showroom.
Murano’s glassware is world renown, and Murano has many glass shops. We sat in the shade of the clock tower and had an informal lunch. A local musician was playing nearby, adding a wonderful atmosphere to this stop.
Murano is a fun place to walk around with its alleys and canals.
Torcello was our second stop and the quietest of the three islands we visited.
The Torcello Basilica is the oldest building in the lagoon. The Romanesque cathedral with its Greek marble columns dates to 1008 and the Basilica’s 180-foot-high bell tower is visible throughout the island. We purchased drinks and cookies from a vendor next to the church.
On the way from the boat to the church, we walked over an interesting bridge that crosses a canal. The stone bridge is called The Devils Bridge based upon a local legend.
Our final stop was Burano, which contains four little islands connected to each other by bridges and separated by narrow canals filled with boats and geese.
Burano is most famous for its brightly coloured homes. We learned that there is a system in place selecting the cheerful colours. In addition, Burano is known for its needle lace trade. We watched one lace making demonstration by an older woman.
After walking along the streets and alleys, we stopped for a drink at Laguna Bar and watched tourists walk by.
Four days in Venice seemed like an adequate time to see most of the key attractions and to soak up the atmosphere, but I would recommend choosing an island trip that allows for more time on Burano and Murano. We felt that with more time, we would have enjoyed our day more fully!
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Getting there – and back!
Arriving from Florence, we took the high-speed train from Florence’s Santa Mari Novella train station to Venice’s San Lucia train station. The trip is a little over two hours, with only a few stops. The train is very comfortable and easy to use, with signage and announcements in both English and Italian. We had assigned seats based on our advanced purchase. Don’t make the mistake of getting off at the first train stop in Venice, the Mestre station! Cross the lagoon and get off at the second Venice stop. Otherwise you are in “suburban Venezia” rather than the historic city!
From the train station, we took the crowded waterbus (the Vaporetto) to the stop near our Airbnb, called Sant’ Angelo. The waterbus lines are a little crowded and confusing. We took line 2 instead of line 1, but it was easy to switch lines, as the stops are only a short distance apart. The daily rate was 8.50 Euros and tickets can be purchased at a stand outside the train station.
Getting to the airport is a little bit of a challenge. For 15 Euros each, we travelled to Marco Polo Airport on the Alilaguna water bus. The water bus runs on a frequent schedule from the Rialto vaporetto stop. Tickets can be purchased at a machine adjacent to the stop. Although the water bus was crowded, the seating was comfortable. Because the airport transportation to the heart of Venice was confusing, we were pleased to make that journey at the end of our wonderful Northern Italian Adventure, rather than at the start.
Fern and I were met by our host who walked us to our Airbnb apartment in the San Marco neighbourhood. This was helpful because the narrow alleys are confusing! The very lovely two-bedroom unit costs $235 per night, plus the local tax of 8 Euros per night. I liked that the unit was in a relatively quiet city square, the Campo Sant’Anzolo, but not far from the San Marco attractions.
Before we headed out to our first attraction, we went to the Despar supermarket to get groceries for meals to eat at the Airbnb or for on-the-go lunches between seeing attractions. Despar has several locations, with fresh produce and a wide range of food items at reasonable prices. We also purchased food items at Coop, the cooperative market. Both are near Rialto.
Tips and Resources
- Although somewhat outdated, Top Ten Venice from Eyewitness Travel gave us information to better explore Venice. We also relied on many audio guides from the Rick Steves Audio Guide app, as well as from his TV shows.
- Again, we needed Euros for the usage of public bathrooms, costing from 1 to 2 Euros per visit!
- Navigating around Venice is known to be a challenge, especially since the street and house markings are very confusing. Occasionally Fern and I saw helpful signage to certain areas (such as arrows to the Accademia or Saint Mark’s Square).
By using a combination of GPS directions and looking closely at street markings, we were able to get around without getting lost – much!
About Saul Schwartz
Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country.
Saul has previously shared his travel insights with us. Check out his story about Touring Southwest Ireland – Limerick, Clare & Galway or check out his trip to Modern Athens – Beyond the Acropolis or his fascination with The Vatican: Rome of the Popes.