First time in Venice: What to do and where to go

Venice is one of the most written about places in the world for a whole host of reasons. This also means it is extremely popular for tourists, especially in the summer. I know plenty of people who have visited Venice and didn’t like it because it was ‘too expensive and busy’. I didn’t think I would enjoy Venice for this reason but boy was I wrong! This little island is so magical, with winding canals and a multitude of boats around every corner carrying all the essential items Venice needs to carry on it’s daily life. It’s amazing to spend a few days in a place where there are NO cars! It’s like being transported back to a time before cars, where you totally forget they still exist until you get back to the airport! Also, if you keep reading my blog posts about what to do and where to eat while you’re there you won’t find Venice as expensive as everyone tries to say it is! As a quick aside now, please, for the love of God, don’t eat pizza in St Mark’s Square while you’re there… go to Naples if you want that.

We chose to take our first trip to Venice in the winter (December, to be exact) and explore when it was less crowded but everything we did can be done in whichever season you decide to visit! We are already planning on a trip back in the summer so we can sip on campari spritz all day long outside our favourite baccaro’s. I read plenty of blog posts before we went away talking about acqua alta so I decided to bring my wellies, just in case! This probably isn’t essential, it was gloriously sunny every day we were there (but it was very cold) and acqua alta doesn’t happen that often. Maybe just buy cheap wellies out there if you need them!

You can find details of where we stayed here.

I always try and have a rough plan of attractions I want to visit before I go away but Venice is one destination where it’s actually nice to get lost. Admittedly, I left most of the directions to my boyfriend, David, which obviously when we got lost (or lost signal, meaning maps couldn’t even guide us) I blamed him! But as much as I complained and moaned “this isn’t the right way!” (quite literally) all the time, getting lost in all the alleys became quite fun because we found areas we’d never been to before. My advice is let loose and embrace being lost! Just watch out for any dead ends that meet canals – the still water absolutely reeks (and this was in the winter when its cold!)

Getting to Venice

We arrived in Venice very early. Our flight left London Stansted at 6.40am so we were being picked up in our water taxi by midday, ready to explore!

We chose to fly to Treviso airport, which is slightly further away from Venice than Marco Polo airport but the flight times for Marco Polo weren’t great and were a lot more expensive. It’s only an hour-ish coach journey from Treviso to Piazzale Roma, the area from which you pick up a water taxi into Venice. You can buy tickets in advance or you can buy tickets when you get there, I don’t think there’s much difference in price. From reading other blog posts, the area of Treviso is quite nice to spend some time in before you head to the main island of Venice. We were only in Venice for four days, though. But if you are there for longer and fly into Treviso, it might be an idea to stay there for a night and see what Treviso has to offer!

Cannaregio

I had done some research beforehand and somebody suggested visiting Strada Nuova because they have Christmas markets. Well, this couldn’t have been further from the truth! It is true that this street is a massive market but it is not a christmas market!! It left us fairly disappointed to say the least. Not because of the lack of christmas market but because it was just a massive jumble sale and it was REALLY busy! Maybe the busiest street in Venice we ventured upon. Anybody that lives in London will know how busy this street is when I say Strada Nuova makes Camden Market on a weekend seem quiet! This did not paint a good picture of Venice for our first day there!

However, we did find that you pretty much had to walk along this street, or you end up on it at some point, whenever you want to go to the Cannaregio sestiere. Which, ironically, turned out to be one of our favourite places in Venice. The area has a trendy, laid-back feel about it. It has a similar feel to Shoreditch in London but not quite as popularised. It’s mostly locals in the bars and restaurants and its not as expensive as the touristy areas.

It’s also home to the Jewish Quarter of Venice. I had no idea but apparently the Venetian ghetto is the oldish Jewish ghetto in the world! We ended up stumbling across it in the evening so unfortunately a lot was closed and it was quiet but still fascinating.

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Little did we know, we were actually in Venice on the last day of Hannukah and a menorah statue was lit up!

Here we also purchased a lovely original print of Rialto Bridge from Plum Plum Creations. Arianna uses Venice as inspiration for her handmade prints. At the back of the shop is Arianna’s workshop, while she sits in the middle of the shop at her desk with her cute little dog at her feet, creating new prints while you browse. Its such a unique idea for a souvenir from Venice and helps support local artists. Theres a lot of art shops in Venice with their own original works, some more expensive than others! Arianna’s prints are a reasonable price so I highly suggest taking a trip here.

San Marco

The most touristy part of Venice is San Marco where you’ll find St Mark’s Square, the Basilica di San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and Rialto Bridge, which connects San Marco to San Polo.

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We really wanted to go inside the Basilica, Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs which you can’t do without booking a tour or buying tickets. So we booked Legendary Venice which was a great tour and I would definitely recommend it to anyone on their first trip to Venice! The tour providers were so knowledgeable and they made a 3 hour tour extremely engaging for the entire time.

They first explain the history of the clock tower and the paintings on the outside of the basilica and then take you inside where pictures aren’t allowed, so unfortunately I  haven’t got any to show of the inside.

They take you onto the balcony of the Basilica, where you can’t go unless you purchase tickets. They also tell you the history of the Basilica horses which is really interesting but I won’t spoil the surprise!

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In the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace. That detail!
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The ceiling above the stairs in the Doge’s Palace

They also take you inside the Bridge of Sighs which connects the inquisition chambers of the Doge’s Palace to the new prison cells. The view from the Bridge of Sighs is the last final view of beautiful Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment and what a view it is!

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Being inside the prison cells is extremely chilling – you’ll see messages and names written on the walls by long passed prisoners. But if you love history like me it was amazing to see and learn about.

Dorsoduro

On your way from San Marco to Dorsoduro make sure you go over Ponte dell’Accademia bridge which gives you a view of the Grand Canal and Basilica di Santa Maria. One of the most photographed views in the whole of Venice, so I obviously joined the tourists photographing it too!

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We didn’t spend too much time here but we did locate an amazing and authentic Venetian mask shop called Casin dei Nobili Showroom. I was dying to find a good quality, authentic Venetian mask to bring home. So many of the masks in Venice are of low quality. However, at this gem all of the masks are made in the shop by the owners. You can sometimes even see them being made! I can’t remember the exact price we paid but I know David quickly limited me to below €50 when I saw a seriously extravagant full head mask with feathers and jewels and all sorts… In the end we opted for a simple gold eye mask which is still as beautiful. You can’t take photos in the shop but i’ve included a picture of ours below to show the great quality!

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But seriously, when is someone going to throw a masquerade ball so I can show this off please?

Castello

We stayed in Castello and it was also home to Liberia Acqua Alta. I would suggest a quick trip here, its probably the quirkiest and most Venetian styled library you could ever imagine! They house all the books in bath tubs, on top tables, in gondolas etc. in case of occurrences of acqua alta. Acqua alta is basically Venices’ high tide – which potentially means some areas of Venice are covered by water for a few hours until the tide goes out again. It’s also home to a couple of stray cats who are trying to avoid drowning! Venice is a small island after all! In a couple of hundred years Venice may even cease to exist, so get your wellies on and visit while its still afloat!

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It’s pretty cool to walk around and you can climb a staircase of books to look out over the canal next to the library!

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We also visited the islands of Murano and Burano during our visit which I’ll be writing about next, stay tuned!

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