5 Rialto Bridge
There are only four bridges that cross the Grand Canal. The one that gets the most attention, press and photo ops is the Rialto, and rightly so: it’s gorgeous, it’s old, and you can easily spend an hour walking across, exploring the shops and gazing out over the Grand Canal. Unfortunately, every other tourist in Venice will have the same idea, so expect the Rialto to be crowded.
4 Gallerie dell’Accademia
The Accademia is the preeminent art museum in Venice. The focus is on — can you guess? — Venetian and Renaissance art. Giorgione’s The Tempest is one of the highlights; there are also pieces by Titian, Tintoretto and others. Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is part of the collection, but it is not always on display. If you’re there at the right time, you might be lucky enough to see it.
3 Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace)
There’s one word to describe the Doge’s Palace: opulence. Think of a room filled with priceless treasures and ceilings and walls that literally drip with gold, and you’re on the right track. You will be able to explore the chambers used by the Doge of Venice, see armor, artifacts and paintings by Tintoretto and other Venetian masters, and cross the Bridge of Sighs to see the stark old prison (this tended to be a one-way trip for prisoners). The bridge isn’t as impressive from the interior as it is from the outside, but you’ll understand why prisoners would have cherished their last glimpses of the outside world. The promenade on the second floor provides beautiful views of the Grand Canal. It’s one of the few places from which you’ll be able to get a really good look at the Lion of Venice, which guards the entrance to St. Mark’s Square, on its pillar.
2 Gondola Ride
You’ll have no trouble finding a gondolier to hire to take you on a ride around town. Yes, they are expensive: the current fixed rate is 80 euros for 40 minutes, although that fare does cover up to six passengers (don’t get scammed by tour operators or gondoliers trying to charge far more than that!). No, the locals don’t usually travel this way, although you’ll see them on traghetti that cross the Grand Canal. However, there’s no better way to immerse yourself in Venice (please don’t literally immerse yourself; the water in the canals is rather, shall we say, unpleasant as they still serve as an integral part of Venice’s sewer system). Traveling down the hectic Grand Canal in a little wooden boat is exciting, but once the gondolier leaves the main drag and starts traveling down the narrower, smaller canals — where it’s quiet save for the waves, and you see laundry hanging to dry, apartments, shops and other signs of everyday Venetians going about their business — you will be charmed and seduced.
1 Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica)
St. Mark’s is a marvel of Byzantine splendor. The church dates from the 11th century, but has been modified and augmented over the years. The tiles on the mosaics in the domes are real gold and the relics and reliefs scattered around the building would fill an entire Art History course. Hearing a choir sing at a crowded mass at St. Mark’s is beautiful, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.
There’s a lot to explore in Venice. Get to it.