One thing you can be sure of when you visit Venice is….crowds. People flock to the city of canals during the high season, and for good reason. Venice is like no other place on earth, with the maze of waterways, crooked streets, and fascinating history. But the crowds can be stifling too. Massive St. Mark’s Square (Piazza di San Marco) can be packed with thousands of visitors during the busy season, making it hard to even move around without bumping into people. The trick is to find a local who can help you navigate the mazes of canals and tourist traps. For our recent visit to Venice, we met up with a local guide from The Roman Guy who got us through the crowds and showed us the best of Venice in a day.
St. Mark’s Basilica
We started our day at the famous St. Mark’s. Of course, there are a LOT of churches in Italy, and many of them are gorgeous. But St. Mark’s Basilica is special. Despite the fact that it’s one of the top attractions in Venice, and people line up for hours to enter the cathedral, it absolutely deserves a visit. The trick, of course, is to skip the long lines. Which we did, following our guide on a VIP tour through the famous cathedral.
One hint: there’s a dress code (no tank tops, no shorts) inside the basilica, and you also can’t bring backpacks inside the building. So, make sure to dress appropriately, and if you have to bring your backpack, check it into the checkroom around the corner of the building.
The entry to the basilica is adorned with the Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of Venice.
Before entering the basilica, we checked out the ornate clock tower which overlooks the square. Meant to be a symbol of Venice’s power and prestige, it was placed so it is visible from the sea. Interestingly, the clock itself is comprised of 24 hour periods, rather than the normal 12 we are used to. And of course, it’s adorned with the winged lion as well.
The inside of the basilica is covered in elaborate mosaics and ornate gold leaf painted images. There is no photography allowed inside the basilica, as we were informed right after snapping this picture in the entrance. Oops.
The View from the Top
After admiring the gilded paintings and elaborate mosaics inside, we climbed the steep, narrow stairway to the second floor of the basilica, and stepped out to the balcony. From here, the cathedral offers the best view of St. Mark’s Square and the harbor, depending on which direction you look.
Cruise the Canals through the Back Streets
There’s no shortage of water taxis, gondolas and private captains who will offer you rides down the Grand Canal, or around the back streets. The trouble is often that it can be challenging to know what you should be paying, rather than being charged with “tourist” prices. With our local guide, this wasn’t a challenge for us. Our private motorboat to explore the canals was waiting for us at the harbor.
The canals are an integral part of daily life in Venice. As we cruised slowly along the waterways, we dodged gondoliers, of course, but families in small motorized skiffs, construction workers unloading materials delivered by barge, and market boats delivering produce.
The real secret to visiting Venice is to find the hidden spots, off the tourist trail and away from the crowds. It’s easy enough to get lost in Venice, but it’s an island, so you’ll never get TOO lost. After disembarking from our boat, we wandered through the back streets, checking out old palaces that have been turned into museums or second homes for the rich and famous. And, even more important, our guide pointed out restaurants and bars that we had to try. We would be scurrying back to these once our walk was done.
Eat Like a Local
One of our general recommendations when visiting places known as tourist spots is to avoid restaurants that have menus printed in multiple languages. These restaurants typically cater to tourists, and of course, don’t need to rely on repeat business for their survival. This often shows up in their quality (and prices). Stop by the square or the Rialto bridge, and you’ll find these multi-cultural menus everywhere, packed with tourists and without a local Venetian in sight.
To save money and get a more traditional experience, you need to eat like a local in Venice. Search out the cicchetti bars. I like to think of cicchetti as the Italian version of Spanish tapas. These bars will have plates of various snacks, ranging from small sandwiches to skewers of meat to seafood salads, stacked up on the bar. You just peruse the various options, and point out a couple to try, usually with a glass of local wine. Typically, a small plate will set you back a couple of Euros. At Al Bottegon, one of the oldest cicchetti bars in Venice, they’ll ask you if you want to stay at the bar or have plastic plates and cups so you can sit outside by canal.
Each cicchetti spot has different specialties, ranging from simple to high-end. One of our favorite pastimes in Venice is to do a cicchetti pub crawl, having a roaming dinner wandering from spot to spot until we’re full.
The Best of Venice in a Day
If you only have a brief time to visit Venice then finding a fantastic guide who can get you out of the lines and into all the places that you want to see is really the way to go. Better yet, the local guides can point you to spots that are off the tourist trail. Interestingly, those places are just a few blocks away from the hordes of tourists. You just need to know where to look.
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Planning a trip to Italy? Check out our posts on our travels through Italy, about our explorations through this beautiful country that you might enjoy: You can also visit our Resources page to get our tips to save money and travel more comfortably that we’ve put together after two years of full-time travel.
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