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Episode #222: Must have experiences in Venice

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Venice is a city like no other, with every canal, every bridge, and every cobblestone alleyway telling a tale of centuries past. This floating masterpiece truly is a treasure trove of experiences waiting to be discovered. From the mesmerizing sensation of arriving by boat, to indulging in exquisite culinary delights, and soaking in breathtaking views, Venice offers a symphony of experiences that captivate the soul and leave an indelible mark on your heart.

Show notes

Untold founder Katy was recently in Venice for a few days with the Untold Italy team and they had a lot of fun exploring the city. It was a little bit cold and wet but Venice is always beautiful whatever the weather and they managed to see and do a few things new to Katy and discover some hidden pockets of the lagoon city that most visitors miss out on as they rush through the city’s well-trodden paths. During this trip, Katy reflected on the things in Venice that she thinks everyone should experience on a trip to Venice including those that no matter how many times you have been, are always worth doing, and in this episode, Katy shares her top 5 of these.  

What you’ll learn in this episode

Our top 5 essential Venetian experiences everyone should have, including the ones that she returns to time and again:

Experience the city from the water

It should be no surprise, with Venice being a city built on water, that we suggest enjoying some water experiences when you are in Venice – but it is surprising that so many people visiting miss out on experiencing life on the water Venetian style –  or perhaps only as far as a squashed trip inside a Vaporetto (the water buses). If you are going to Venice, it really is worth spending some time on a boat or water vessel of some sort to appreciate this incredible city built on a lagoon. Some options are:

Take a Gondola ride

  • The Gondola is the iconic symbol of Venice. The gondolas are sleek and romantic and simply one of life’s must-dos
  • You can pick up a gondola on a secluded side canal which we suggest, rather than on the main canal and then enjoy the serenity as it glides along the water with the gondolier expertly maneuvering the oar
  • Gondolas can hold up to 5 people and rides are for around 30 minutes at a cost of €80. It will cost a bit more at sunset. It is not a budget option but it is worth it to do at least once in your life. You might even experience your gondolier bursting into song – though that is not a guarantee – so you can just enjoy the element of surprise if they do

Learn some skills with Row Venice

  • Impressed by the skill of the gondoliers? Why not learn to row another traditional Venetian boat? At Row Venice, a team of expert female rowers share their skills with visitors
  • They will help you to navigate your own vessel along the back canals of Cannaregio and the lagoon if you’re brave to venture out
  • Rowing these vessels comes down to a technique that you can pick up fairly quickly
  • These young women tell tales of racing at speed in local regattas which are humbling to anyone who thinks they’ve mastered the rowing. They go incredibly quickly – at many tens of strokes of the oar per minute
  • This is a great activity for teenagers and anyone who has maybe seen enough churches and museums for one trip and fancies a change
  • Getting out on the water and trying out a new skill is a great and unique way to experience and connect to the city  

Take a Water Taxi ride

  • There is no question that the water taxis of Venice look cool. These wooden retro-style boats are sleek and look like they are for celebrities and VIPs only but anyone can take one
  • They are not, admittedly, the most cost-effective way to get around but they are undoubtedly the most efficient form of transportation to get you to and from the airport or around the city if you have a lot of luggage – which is a tricky issue on a visit to Venice
  • If your hotel has its own dock, which is usually the 5-star hotels, it does make it easy to swing up in style
  • On Katy’s recent trip, she organized a shared water taxi transfer from the airport to her hotel and loved seeing the huge smiles on the faces of the 1st time visitors as they cruised into the city in this fun and glamourous way
  • If you’ve ever seen photos from the Venice Film Festival – all the stars arrive this way

Take a Boat Tour

  • Katy’s favorite boat tour of the city uses one of these Water taxi boats to show you the different sides to Venice – learn more on this boat tour here
  • You join the tour close to Piazza San Marco and take the taxi boat across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore where you disembark and take in some of the best views of the city
  • This tour also visits several neighborhoods, the Arsenale shipbuilding yard and many small side canals before ending in a grand finale on the Grand Canal – zooming under the Rialto and Accademia bridges
  • You have an amazing local guide with you to share stories of Venice that reveal its unique culture and history
  • Katy has done this tour a few times now and would take it again in a heartbeat

Vaporetto

  • If time and/or budget mean that your only experience of the water in Venice is the Vaporetto (the water bus) it is still a great way to see Venice
  • Vaporetto number 1 in particular is a good trip – taking you all the way down the Grand Canal
  • If you do take the Vaporetto you need to be strategic. Make your way to the back outside section which is pretty small but from there, you have unfettered views of the canal and all the goings on
  • You can watch the Gondolas and water taxis weave their way across the waters, as well as trash boats and all sorts of water vessels keeping the city working
  • Watching the goings on on the canals is one of Katy’s favorite things to do in Venice. It is something we can easily take for granted – how your own city services are organized and run in the background. In Venice, this is doubly tricky logistically as there is always water to deal with

View the city from up high

  • On the boat tour, Katy recommends, you go to San Giorgio Maggiore a church on a small island on the other side of the lagoon to San Marco. You can get there by Vaporetto, take a taxi or go on the tour
  • For the view – when you arrive, enter the church and head straight through to the back where you will find an elevator to take you to the top of the belltower. Up here the 360-degree views are breathtaking. You can see right across the lagoon to the Doges Palace and the Basilica, as well as having all the tiny islands of Venice laid out before you. On Katy’s last visit, it was a very clear day and they could see the snow-capped Alps glistening in the distance. Katy believes this to be the best view in Venice
  • Another fantastic view is from the rooftop of the Basilica San Marco. You need to buy the special ticket that includes the museum to access the rooftop but it’s well worth it
  • Not only can you see the magnificent gold mosaics of San Marco from your unique high vantage point, but you can also step out onto the domed rooftop from where you can see the Piazza with all its elegant, historic cafes and across to Palazzo Ducale
  • Bonus tip – it is well worth a visit to spend an hour or so in one of these cafes – admittedly it will be the most expensive coffee of your life but there is no better way to enjoy the atmosphere of the piazza
  • There is sometimes live music but the main attraction is the people watching and simply admiring one of the world’s most beautiful squares. These are some of the oldest coffee houses in Europe and you can also admire not just the beautiful decor, but the dapper, uniformed waiting staff
  • Not quite as high as the others listed, but with dramatic scenes of the Grand Canal are the views from the top of the Rialto and Accademia bridges. You will see many photographers at the Accademia at dawn and dusk chasing the perfect pink sky against the glorious palazzi of Venice

Eat lots of cicchetti

  • A visit to Venice is not complete without tasting some of the city’s famous cicchetti. We’ve devoted a whole podcast episode to this Venetian eating style (episode 185), but if you are not familiar with cicchetti – it is grabbing yourself a selection of small snacks to go with your glass of wine. You can bar-hop your way around the city snacking and drinking. The Venetians do not like them described as being similar to the Spanish Tapas but…
  • You won’t find cicchetti anywhere else in Italy – it is totally unique to Venice so something to experience on a visit here – we say give it a go, whether on your own or on a food tour
  • It is good to try a few different types but one to definitely try is the Bacala or whipped salted cod fish – it might not sound appealing but this whipped, light, and fluffy cod has a subtle flavor and is delicious on crostini (little pieces of bread)
  • Unspurisingly seafood is big in Venice. The anchovies are fantastic.  Don’t think of the ones you might get back home this is refined – as are the sardines in saor which is a sour onion sauce
  • You’ll find cheeses and cured meats in a variety of combinations, vegetables prepared in different bite-sized ways, as well as polpette (a kind of meatball)
  • And you can try them all over the city – with hundreds of bars in Venice serving cicchetti
  • A favorite of Katy’s is Al Squero where the cicchetti are tasty but there is the added bonus of being in a prized position overlooking a Gondola workshop – one of the last in Venice
  • For lots of fantastic options, check out our guest from our cicchetti podcast episode – Monica Cesarato’s book on the bars of Venice Andar per Bacari

Peek inside a Palazzo

  • The Republic of Venice once dominated world trade – at least the European side and the Venetians were incredibly wealthy
  • They were also not shy about showing off this wealth and if you want to experience some of the glitz and glamour for yourself then include a visit to one of the city’s Palazzo

Palazzo Ducale

  • On top of the must-visit list should be the Palazzo Ducale (Doges Palace in English). The Doge was the ruler of Venice and wielded enormous power
  • The palace is one of the most extraordinary buildings in Europe and would have wowed great kings and queens with its opulence. Expect room after room of gilded walls adorned with works of art by the Renaissance masters
  • The palace has may stories to tell, including some famous prisoners and hidden secrets. You won’t regret arranging a Doges Palace visit or tour

Scuola Grande di San Rocco

  • Scuola Grande di San Rocco is an amazing palace and perfect for art lovers as it is full of paintings by Tintoretto
  • Despite being a well-known site, not many people visit it – why we do not know!
  • It is a beautiful building which really helps you imagine what Venice was like in its heyday
  • A great tip for a visit there is to make sure to check out the paintings in the mirrors provided

Ca Rezzonico

  • A favorite of Katy’s Ca Rezzonico can be found on the Grand Canal. Dedicated to Venice in the 18th century the rooms are restored to their magnificent baroque and rococo glory
  • No minimalism to be found here – it’s 100% excess and opulence which no doubt appealed to songwriter Cole Porter who rented the palazzo in the 1920s and staged incredible events including a flotilla of gondolas
  • The palazzo’s position on the Grand Canal is unparalleled and its cafe sits right on the water

Palazzo Grimani

  • Tucked away in a corner near the Instagrammer’s beloved Libreria Acqua Alta book store, the Palazzo Grimani has a small but delightful collection of art amassed by 16th-century Doge, including the sculpture Abduction of Ganymede suspended from a high ceiling

There are so many delightful palazzi to explore in Venice, each with its own, unique focus (not to mention the churches, many of which are like mini palaces in their own right)

Get lost in Dorsoduro and Cannaregio

  • You’ll hear many people say that the best thing to do in Venice is to get lost in the streets and Katy agrees
  • The further you stray off the Google Maps path the more intriguing this city becomes
  • We suggest heading away from San Marco and Rialto over to the Dorsoduro, Cannaregio, and Castello districts to get a true taste of Venetian life
  • In these districts, you can see how the people of this city adapted to life on water. A favorite spot of Katy’s is near the hospital Santi Giovanni e Paolo, off the Mendicanti canal where there is a row of water ambulances lined up ready for action
  • On Katy’s recent boat tour, their guide told them that she had to make use of one of these ambulance boats when she gave birth to her son 6 months earlier!
  • The resilience of the Venetians is incredible and such a contrast to the opulence of the city’s palazzi. It is endlessly fascinating on any walk around the neighborhoods and you can stop for some cicchetti to rest your legs

Enjoy!

Venice is truly magical and awe-inspiring and you only have to dip into some of its lesser-known experiences to find some unexpected treasures. Most visitors seem to stick on a very well-worn path from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge which actually a tiny area and gets crowded easily – in the midst of those crowds, just take a left or a right, keep walking and you’ll find a wonderful part of Venice waiting for you

Find some insider tips on Venice in Hidden gems in Venice and in some of our in-depth podcasts:

Places mentioned in the show
  • Piazza San Marco –  main square of Venice home to ritzy cafes, the basilica and Palazzo Ducale
  • Rialto bridge – famous white bridge of Venice spanning the Grand Canal
  • Cannaregio – the northernmost of the six historic sestieri (districts) of Venice
  • Dorsoduro  – University district in Venice
  • Scuola Grande di San Rocco –  building in Venice with an amazing collection of paintings by Tintoretto
  • San Giorgio Maggiore – a 16th-century Benedictine church on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore
  • Arsenale – historic shipbuilding yard 
  • San Marco Basilica – otherwise known as St Mark’s Basilica, it is the cathedral of Venice
  • Doge’s Palace – formerly the Doge’s residence and the seat of the Venetian government
  • Accademia bridge – wooden bridge, one of 4 spanning the Grand Canal
  • Ca Rezzonico – palazzo and art museum on the Grand Canal in Dorsoduro
  • Osteria Al Squero – cicchetti bar in Venice overlooking the gondola workshop
  • Palazzo Grimani – Renaissance-style palace found between the Palazzo Corner Valmarana and the Rio di San Luca
  • Abduction of Ganymede – famous sculpture found in Palazzo Grimani
  • Libreria Acqua Alta – famous book shop where you’ll find books piled in baths and gondolas
  • San Giovanni e Paolo civil hospital – historic hospital in the heart of Venice

Resources

  • Row Venice – learn to row your own batelina, Venetian style
  • sarde in saor – fresh sardine fillets in a fresh onion sauce
  • Cole Porter – American songwriter and composer from the early 20th century

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

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