I have been dreaming about visiting Venice for years. And our first trip there did not disappoint.
Everyone has heard of Venice because it is one of the most visited cities in the world. The entire city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Something intriguing and mysterious about this city when you just arrive. It feels like you are entering a different world.
This city crossed by the canals instead of roads with colorful palazzos sitting on the water’s edge is truly unique. And the mixture of Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture leaves anyone wondering if this magical city is real at all. The entire city is one work of art. And nothing quite prepares you for its beauty.
Here are the highlights of my first trip to Venice.
A little bit of history:
At the beginning of the 6th century, people came to live on the marshy islands of the Adriatic Sea blue lagoon to escape the hordes of Huns and other invaders. Later, this settlement built on swamps started to grow.
At the beginning of the 9th century, the Republic of Venice was formed. It was called “The Most Serene Republic of Venice” to reflect the desire to focus on trade and avoid wars with invaders who were constantly creating chaos.
The city of Venice was built on huge wooden supports that were cut and brought from the mainland. Those wooden legs have stood under the water for many centuries and have been slowly calcified with the minerals from the sea. In the end, the wooden footings worked as the foundations for all buildings in the city of Venice.
St. Mark’s Square
St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco in Italian) is one of the busiest squares in the city and the main tourist hub. The whole square looks enormous and usually crowded with tourists and all kinds of vendors during the day.
St. Mark’s Square is home to some of the stunning architectural attractions in Venice including St. Mark’s Basilica, St. Mark’s Campanile, and Doge’s Palace.
Another great thing about St. Mark’s Square is that there is no traffic. This piazza may be the only large public square in Europe with no noise from cars, buses, and scooters. You can only hear the melodious sounds of the bell rings coming from the St. Mark’s Clocktower.
It is hard to miss this early Renaissance building located on the north side of St. Mark’s Square. The construction of both the tower and the clock dated to the 15th century. The tower was placed where the clock could be visible from the waters of the lagoon and shows every one the wealth and glory of Venice. You can hear the bell ringing every hour.
We decided to stop for a drink at one of the glitzy cafes surrounding St. Mark’s Square. Even we paid double the normal price for the two Spritz Campari, we really enjoyed the moment of being part of Venetian life.
St. Mark’s Basilica
The St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) is the most famous church in Venice.
The church is considered one of the best surviving examples of Byzantine architecture with the construction completed in 1063.
The St. Mark’s Basilica is a real showpiece of St. Mark’s Square. The main façade is decorated with multicolored marble columns and sculptures of the griffons. These winged lions are a symbol of St. Mark. Over the centuries, the basilica’s opulent design and solid gold mosaics served as a symbol of Venetian wealth.
Touring the interior of the church is free but be prepared to wait in line to enter. The St. Mark’s Basilica opens at 9:30 a.m. and we arrived around 10 a.m. so the line was long and the wait time around 45 minutes.
As with all tourist attractions in Venice, I recommend booking tickets online, so you can skip the line.
St. Mark’s Campanile
The St. Mark’s Campanile towers high above St. Mark’s Square. It stands 323 feet high. It is easy to notice right away that this tower looks new compared to its surroundings. The tower had completely collapsed in 1902 and had to be rebuild.
You can climb on the top of the tower to get the best views of Venice. We skipped the climb even it is in an elevator and no stairs. But I saw many photos taken from the top and the views are really magnificent. From the top, you can have spectacular views of the whole St. Mark’s Square, the St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the Venetian Lagoon, and nearby islands.
But I would recommend buying tickets online in advance to avoid long lines.
The Doge’s Palace is one of the most interesting landmarks in the city of Venice. It was built in 1340 in Venetian Gothic style. For centuries the palace was the residence of the Doge of Venice – the supreme authority of the Republic of Venice.
The government was made up of several councils. And the largest committee was created of the male members of every noble family in the city.
While it is a palace you can still buy the tickets and tour the Doge’s apartments.
Bridge of Sighs
We walked between the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Campanile toward the blue waters of the Venetian Lagoon and found ourselves on the Riva degli Schiavoni – the lagoon’s waterfront.
It was a warm sunny day, and the views of the lagoon were absolutely beautiful. We could see the dozens of gondolas bobbing in the water, as well as the San Giorgio Maggiore across the lagoon. Walking along this wide waterfront promenade we reached the Bridge of Sighs on the left. You cannot miss this famous landmark because there are always groups of tourists taking pictures.
The Bridge of Sighs is one of the enclosed bridges in Venice. It was built around 1600 out of white limestone, and you can see that it has windows with stone bars. The bridge was built to connect the new prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace.
After it was built, the bridge became a symbol of Venice’s architectural beauty and a reminder of the cruelty of life. According to legend the name of the bridge comes from the sighs of prisoners who crossed this passageway on the way to their prison cells. Many prisoners who made their way across the bridge could have the last glimpse of Venice and its blue lagoon.
Rialto Bridge and Venice’s Grand Canal
Four bridges go across Venice’s Grand Canal. And out of all of them, the Rialto Bridge is the oldest and the most beautiful.
The first bridge was built around the 12th century. It was the only spot to cross the Grand Canal without boarding a boat. The current version of the Rialto Bridge dates to the late 16th century. There are all kinds of shops lining both sides of this stone bridge. But the best part is to pause at the top of the bridge and enjoy the incredible views of the Grand Canal.
We walked across the Rialto Bridge and found the bustling Rialto Market. Originally it was built as a fish market in the 11th century. Though parts of the market are filled with touristy stuff, this is still a local place where you can buy fresh produce and fish.
Gondolas and Vaporetto
The best way to explore Venice is from the water. And experiencing Venice’s canals is unforgettable. You can take a private (100 or 80 euro) or a group (60 euro) for 30 minutes gondola ride through the canals. Venice’s canals can be crowded, but we were traveling during the global pandemic times, so we didn’t see huge groups of tourists.
We didn’t book any gondola rides. Instead, we used Venice public transportation which is made up of boats. Taking a vaporetto or water bus is a great way to explore Venice from the water on a budget. We paid only 7.50 euros per person to get a ride along the Grand Canal which provides the same magnificent views of the city’s grand palaces.
Venice’s tiny streets and bridges
We walked towards the Ponte dell’ Accademia – one of the four bridges in Venice. This bridge was my favorite. We spent hours looking at the postcard-perfect view of the Grand Canal.
We liked to wander through many of the tiny pedestrian streets, alleyways, and bridges that make the real Venice. Unfortunately, many of the grand homes are boarded up and empty. Sometimes we noticed that the lower level already sits underwater.
Nevertheless, it is an amazing experience to get lost in Venice. You can find tiny dead-end bridges over the quiet canals that lead to hidden architectural gems. Small gardens grow in overhanging window boxes. And clothes drying lines span across the waterways.
If you want to learn more about Venice, I would recommend taking a 90-minutes walking tour. We have learned so much from our amazing guide about Venice’s history, art, and architecture.
Before this trip, I had seen images of Venice in guidebooks, Instagram, and tourist brochures. But nothing had prepared me for its beauty. I fell in love with this city at first sight. Many times I just stopped in awe of its canal views, piazzas, and old palaces. The whole trip was a real treasure I will never forget.
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Have you ever been in Venice? Share with us your best experience in this city.