Let’s be real- there are a plethora of cities that dazzle in Europe. For us, Venice dazzles and dazzles some more (although we know people who don’t love Venice). Anyhow, Venice definitely makes OUR favorite European cities list. Each time we travel to Venice, we all repeat the phrase from Indiana Jones “Ah Venice”, simply because it really does take your breath away. Venice also offers many fabulous experiences. Really, it is astonishing; with so many things to do in the city. To help with YOUR planning, we have decided to narrow it down to The Top Ten Things to do in Venice for First Time Visitors. Remember that when traveling, it is best to mix up cultural experiences with more relaxed experiences. So, of course, we have included a mix of both…that’s how we roll:)
The Top Ten Things to do in Venice for First Time Visitors
A little background on Venice
Venice is a stunning island city settled in a lagoon in the North of Italy. The actual city of Venice is made up of 118 individual islands (most of which are tiny) and are connected by 418 different bridges. Historically Venice was its own sovereign nation and was rather progressive in historical terms of both government and human rights. As a port, Venice ruled as one of the most wealthy locations in the entire world during its peak and because it was a trading center, it served as a meeting point for the Eastern and Western world (remember this is where Marco Polo was from). Venice was rather inclusive of the different cultural backgrounds which passed through. However, it also boosts some of the most impressive Christian art and Architecture.
It’s Historically Abject Past
What is so fascinating about Venice, is the city’s sordid past. It was ripe with promiscuity; there is even a bridge named after the breasts of the prostitutes who would wait in open windows for their next customer, and where men would flock hoping to catch a peek. Stories are rampant of hauntings from babies who were murdered by nuns who had become pregnant, hidden passageways and water escapes for famous lovers (Casanova was a famous Venetian). In fact, Venice was considered so seedy that the entire city of Venice was under interdict of the Catholic Church and was threatened to be excommunicated during the 17th century. HAHA! Imagine that, a whole city ex’d.
Why This Makes for an Amazing European Family Vacation!
It is the juxtaposition of mixed morals, religion, philosophy, trade, and culture which makes Venice so stunning and so unique. Each time I have been to Venice I am taken back by how something so old and so rundown can also be so incredibly beautiful. For sure the cracking stucco, uneven streets, and a gazillion pigeons only add to the charm. Also, this list is in no particular order because honestly, I couldn’t pick a favorite – I LOVE them all!
THE ABSOLUTE TOP 10 THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN VENICE WHEN YOU ARE VISITING FOR THE FIRST TIME
1- GONDOLA RIDE:
For sure this can be the highlight or one of the most disappointing experiences of your trip. Finding a good Gondolier is the KEY. There are Gondola stations (I am sure there is a more correct term but we don’t know what the heck it would be) all over the island (almost like a Taxi stand). You want to be VERY selective about which station you go to.
The ones by the really busy areas like Saint Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge should be avoided. We found the best location to get a gondola was over by the Accademia museum. We’ve seen gondoliers on their phones, paddling their guests and just going through the motions! We’ve also seen others singing, telling their guests stories about Venice and engaging personally with them. Talk to the gondolier first, see if he is personable. If you don’t like him/her (yes there are some female gondoliers as well) go with a different one. Remember, you are the customer, don’t be pressured into a ride.
2- WORLD CLASS ART MUSEUMS:
Even if you are not interested in art, these museums are some of the best, not to mention the actual buildings themselves which house the collections are beautiful and have stories to tell. Anytime you go to a museum, we suggest taking a look at what the collection offers and what you would like to see.
*For more info on handling kids in an art museum like a pro, see our 7 Steps to Actually Enjoying an Art Museum.
Our three favorite museums in Venice are Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia (Note: This museum is outstanding but is rather overwhelming and confusing. If you can’t find a piece you are looking for, or need help finding your way. Ask :), Ca’ Rezzonico – The entire thing is fascinating and is palatial like residence that is preserved as a museum and we cannot forget the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
3- HIRE A PRIVATE WATER TAXI TO TAKE YOU AROUND THE CITY AT SUNSET:
Some people wonder why take a water taxi tour AND a gondola ride? The reason being that each of the different vessels are allowed to go on specific waterways. If you only do one or the other, you are missing out on almost half of the city. Also, the best way to view Venice is from the water! Make sure you see the Grand Canal in all its glory and also the meandering tiny back canals. Both have their charms.
4- TAKE A DAY TRIP OUT OF THE CITY:
Get a break from the heat and crowds and go to Vicenza and Padua. Visit the stunning Italian Villas like the Villa Rotunda (Thomas Jefferson’s home is modeled after this) and see the fantastic little gem of the Scrovegni Chapel. The frescos completed by Giotto in the Scrovegni chapel are incredibly stunning and mark the beginning of the early Renaissance. It is a must see and is thoroughly breathtaking.
5- SET ASIDE SOME TIME AND — GET LOST:
One of the great joys of Venice is literally getting lost in its allure. Become absorbed in the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, canals, and alleys. We know this sounds weird and most of the time we would say NO to just getting lost because most cities have areas that you do not want to venture out into alone. But, the best of Venice is to be found beyond the main streets and into the “real Venice”. The last time we went to Venice we were three women traveling alone and we did not feel threatened or scared once and we were lost plenty.
That being said, you still want to travel smart and be aware of your surroundings. The beauty of Venice is how old and confusing it is. The main thoroughfare that connects Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Rialto bridge is SO overcrowded and touristy. We have heard many people say that they don’t love Venice and when we ask them where they went, they mention they just stayed between these two landmarks. Get lost people. Wander and just enjoy the beauty. The best gelato we had was a tiny little stand that we found while we were lost and we were so disappointed because we weren’t able to find it again.
Don’t be stressed or worried that you do not know where you are. When you are finished with your adventure turn on your phone navigation or pull out your map, find a main canal and head on your way.
6- MAKE AN AUTHENTIC VENETIAN MASK:
This is one of the most fun art projects we can think of. It’s a Venetian mask make and take a class! We have done this a few times while in Venice and each time it has been a highlight for everyone involved. There are many mass-produced “Venetian masks” for sale in the tourist zones but making one with excellent guidance and instruction is sooo much fun. It is suitable for adults and children alike. The ABSOLUTE best place to make one is Tragicomica!
We promise you will all be delighted. You will have an excellent Venetian souvenir that actually means something. We have worn our masks for Halloween several times and they are still in good condition.
7- ST. MARK’S BASILICA:
Leave plenty of time to learn about the most recognizable landmark in Venice…the beautifully Byzantine, St. Mark’s Basilica. You will marvel at the interior with its remarkable artistic displays, glittering mosaics, and beautifully tiled floors. It also holds a few important pieces of art. We recommend touring with a guide who can help you understand the building’s significance. Also, you will not be permitted inside without clothing that does not cover your shoulders and your knees.
8- PIAZZA SAN MARCO:
This is the city’s premier square and gathering place (and it can be crazy crowded). Make sure to leave some time to wander about Piazza San Marco (and preferably early in the day before the crowds descend). The kids will have the time of their lives chasing pigeons (in Italy they call them flying rats), finding gelato, finding the lions atop pillars that once welcomed visitors to the dazzling city of Venice, and seeing and hearing the Campanile Bell Tower, and in general just enjoying the ambience of this Italian square.
9- RIALTO BRIDGE:
The Rialto Bridge area is touristy but we believe you still must see it. This footbridge spans the width of the Grand Canal (and is one of only four bridges crossing the grand canal in Venice) and has shops on either side, up and down the bridge. We suggest making this a short visit but be sure to see it. The colors of the setting sun in this area are fantastic. A great place to say goodnight to the day and watch the city light up for the night. What a wonderful sparkling ambiance. Love, love, love!
10- TAKE A FUN SPECIALTY TOUR:
Hone your photography skills, walk through the dark to hear true Venetian ghost stories of times past, experience the best food the city has to offer or even kayak through the canals of Venice. The sky is the limit, with so many different tour offerings. Break out of your comfort zone and try something new and different. We have used Avventure Bellisime and they have so many different options for either small group or private specialty tours in Venice. They are honestly FANTASTIC and we can recommend them without hesitation! We have taken at least 10 tours through this company throughout Italy and we have loved them! Take a tour that takes you out of your comfort zone a little bit because Venice is the perfect place to make a new discovery!
So book those flights and schedule your hotel and get to Venice already!
*Click here to check out our fun Venice coloring page for kids!