Venice. The name is enough to conjure visions of romantic gondola rides down the Grand Canal. This floating city is, undoubtedly, best known for its waterways — and deservedly so. However, move beyond these iconic channels, and you'll discover the art, history, and culture that make La Serenissima one of the most charming places on Earth. Today, we're docking our gondola and coming ashore for a walking tour of Venice. From the museums to the mausoleums, the shops to the secrets, we'll take you beyond the canals and through the backstreets of this unconventional gem of the Mediterranean.
Before We Begin: A Walkthrough on Walking Through Venice
Sure, the gondolas and waterways get the spotlight, but walking through Venice is pure joy. First of all, it's a surprisingly small city. You could make your way from one end to the other in about an hour if you hurry (but where's the fun in that?). Second, there are places the gondolas simply can't bring you. If you want to discover Venice and its charming backstreets, you'll have to do so on foot — and that's not a bad thing. For us, part of the magic of Venice is meandering its medieval streets as they open into breathtaking piazzas, sitting in cafes to watch the day pass by, or ducking into an unassuming restaurant for the meal of a lifetime.
Of course, a gondola ride should absolutely be on your bucket list, especially if you're visiting Venice for the first time. But make a point to step foot on solid ground to explore even more of the city — you’ll be happy you did.
Now, let’s get walking!
Stand in Awe of Basilica di San Marco
Perhaps the most iconic building in Venice, Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Basilica) sits at the eastern end of the Piazza San Marco — the city's main public square that is known as "the drawing room of Europe." Construction on the church began in 978, though it took more than 100 years to complete, with its basic structure dating to approximately 1100. In the 900-plus years that have followed, there has been plenty of work done to embellish elements of the church rather than outright replace them. Most notably, the external height of the church's signature domes was increased significantly in the 13th century.
Describing St Mark's as opulent might actually be underselling it. It's a breathtaking example of Italo-Byzantine architecture, complete with gold ground mosaics on the exterior walls. Look closely, and you'll discover they tell the fascinating story of the corpse of St Mark being smuggled to Venice from Egypt in a barrel of pork fat.
Step inside St Mark's, and you'll quickly learn how it earned the nickname Chiesa d'Oro (Church of Gold). Shimmering mosaics adorn the ceilings and upper walls, many of which feature 24-carat gold leafing. Inside the church is also where you can catch a glimpse of the stunning Pala d'Oro. This gold altarpiece is known as one of — if not the — finest examples of Byzantine enamel work, and is studded with more than 2000 precious stones.
If you're eager to learn more during your visit, make your way up to the Basilica di San Marco atrium and spend some time in the museum. Here, you'll find scale models and rendered drawings of St Mark's, as well as mosaics dating between the 13th and 16th centuries — a perfect stop for art and architecture buffs.
It's a Doge's Life
Commonly known as Doge's Palace, Palazzo Ducale was once the home of the Doge of Venice — the former Venetian Republic's supreme authority. Founded in 1340, Palazzo Ducale is an impressive example of Gothic architecture with a charming geometrically patterned facade that alternates between a soft pink marble and white Istrian stone. It remained the Doge's Palace until the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, ultimately passing hands through a series of rulers before Venice became part of a united Italy in 1866. It remained an administrative office until 1904, when extensive restoration work began, culminating in its transformation to a public museum in 1923.
Inside this palace-turned-museum, you can take a walking tour through the staterooms, armoury, and prisons, as well as the Doge's Apartments, which now house temporary art exhibitions. As with any historical building, there are certain rooms that have been deemed too small and too important to be opened to the masses. Don’t worry though, it’s still possible to visit them as part of the museum’s Secret Itinerary Tour. While not necessarily an actual secret (they are promoted on the Palazzo Ducale website, after all) these tours offer fascinating insights into political and civil life in the former Venetian Republic. If the Secret Itinerary is of interest to you, remember to book in advance to secure your spot.
You can visit both St Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace when you join us on shore excursion.
Stroll Through the Artistic Past of Venice
If you have a love of art history, Gallerie dell'Accademia must not be missed. Concentrating on works created between the 14th and 19th centuries, Gallerie dell'Accademia houses a who's who of the artistic heavyweights of Venice. Here, you'll find Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Hieronymus Bosch's Crucified Martyr Triptych, and Jacopo Bassano's Adoration of the Shepherds, to name a few.
To get the full experience at Gallerie dell'Accademia, we generally recommend setting aside at least 90 minutes. It's not as large as some of Europe's other iconic galleries, but the quality of the works here will keep you spellbound.
The Secrets of the Floating City
A city as captivating and mysterious as Venice is sure to be keeping a few secrets — which we're excited to uncover with you on the Secrets of Venice Shore Excursion. This four-hour walking tour provides the insider info you need to stroll Venice like a local. Grab a complimentary coffee and Venetian biscuit before making your way out to visit some of the city's most significant landmarks, including the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and the Grand Canal (where a local guide will share the best spots to catch a glimpse of the Rialto Bridge). Spend time in Campo San Bartolomeo, explore the history of Corte del Milion (where Marco Polo once lived), and take in the incredible Gothic architecture of Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo. This building is dedicated to Saint John and Saint Paul, not the Apostles (or The Beatles), but two martyrs of the Early Christian church.
A thorough guide through one of the world's great cities, complete with stops at some of its biggest landmarks? Sounds like a perfect way to do Venice with us.
A Reader's Dream
A 2000-year-old city floating in an enclosed lagoon of the Adriatic Sea? Sounds a lot like the setting for a fairy tale you might find in a book at Libreria Acqua Alta — the (self-proclaimed) most beautiful bookstore in the world. While we're not here to debate that title, we're fairly sure it's the most charming in all of Venice and worth a visit for any literary lover.
Translating to "Bookstore of High Water," Libreria Acqua Alta has dealt with flooding since it first opened its doors in 2004. This has led to some interesting solutions to prevent its collection from getting wet. Bathtubs, canoes, gondolas, and more line the store, all overflowing with books and stories waiting for you to discover on your great adventure. Look closely, and you may see one of the resident felines enjoying a lazy afternoon catnap atop a stack of bestsellers.
Truly, the charm is the major selling feature of this bookstore. Follow the signs to the fire escape, and you'll end up at a door leading directly into a canal (a popular spot for snapping photos). Or make your way to the courtyard, where you'll find a stairway of colorful books waiting for you to climb.
Stop in to see Libreria Acqua Alta for yourself, and search for a great read as you write an adventure of your own with us.
A Flood of Fascination
In a city built atop a lagoon, you need to prepare for a little water. And you may want to think twice about storing things in the basement. Perhaps somebody should have mentioned that to Antonio Gambello, the original architect of the Church of San Zaccaria — home of the flooded crypt.
The name may sound like a scary movie, but the reality is more hauntingly beautiful than horror show. Like many churches of the era, San Zaccaria has a crypt, highlighted by vaulted ceilings. And like many buildings in Venice, this subterranean level has amassed a permanent amount of standing water. While this might seem like a travesty for some, it's not the case here. The water actually serves to enhance the crypt, creating a reflecting pool that extends the length of its columns. And since the tombs are all on dry portions of the floor, they feel even more sacred.
Eight Doge's of the Venetian Republic are buried in the flooded crypt, making it an important piece of the city's history. It's also a little off the beaten path as far as tourist destinations go, making it a perfect spot for quiet reflection on a busy day of exploration.
Crossing the Bridge of Fists
Venice is a city that instantly captures your eye, so you'd be forgiven for missing the marble outline of four footsteps on Ponte dei Pugni (the Bridge of Fists) when walking across it. In fact, there's nothing especially remarkable about the structure of the bridge, but its name gives away that, once upon a time, something strange was happening here.
This bridge was once the arena for 100 years worth of fist fights between rival Venetian clans. Between September and December, from 1600 to 1705, fighters would gather on the bridge four at a time (one where each marble footstep is now) and engage in brawls. Ultimately, the goal was to defeat their opponents and toss them into the canal below.
In modern times, we have the ring, in ancient times they had the Colosseum, and in Venice, they had the Bridge of Fists. And while they weren't exactly legal, these fights were tolerated due to their immense popularity. Look no further than Antonio Stom's painting, La Guerra Dei Pugni (which you can see for yourself on a visit to Pinacoteca Querini Stampalia in Venice) to confirm that massive crowds often gathered to watch — as well as participate — in these knockdown, drag-out, last-man-standing battles.
Over time, these fights became more violent, and when one of the competitors pulled a knife in 1705, they were outlawed for good. While you won't find unsanctioned fistfights over the canals of Venice today, the Ponte dei Pugni serves as a reminder of the city's rough and tumble past.
It's worth noting, especially for movie buffs (which we are), that Ponte dei Pugni is mere steps from Chiesa di San Barnaba. This building will look familiar to Indiana Jones fans, as it served as the exterior of the library where Indy meets Dr. Elsa Schneider in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Make Your Visions of Venice a Reality
Venice is routinely referred to as the most beautiful city on Earth, and now is your time to see why. Whether you're joining us on a cruise, or staying longer as part of our incredible Stay Local Land Program, Venice is sure to capture your heart. Remember to pack your favorite walking shoes and a sense of adventure — you'll make use of both when you set out to explore the Queen of the Adriatic.
Discover our upcoming cruises to Venice today.