Venice in 48 Hours: Italy’s Floating City

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With its winding Medieval streets and majestic Grand Canal, not unsurprisingly Venice is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Often thought of as the ultimate romantic city, it also prides itself on cultural events like Venice Carnival (12 February to 1 March 2022), the Venice Biennale (59th: April 23 to November 27 2022), and the Venice International Film Festival (31 August to 10 September 2022). Although the city is hardly ancient by Italian standards, Venice has a rich and fascinating history. Two days is certainly a good start.

Gondolas on the Grand Canal in front of the Rialto Bridge in Venice.

Gondolas floating along the Grand Canal as it flows under the Rialto Bridge at sunset.

The floating city of Venice, also known as the Water City, was built on 118 islands in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon at the head of the Adriatic Sea. Historical sources suggest that the settlement emerged around the fifth century, amid the collapse of the Roman Empire. During this period, people from the Italian mainland fled to the island to avoid land-based Germanic and Hunnic raiders.

In the Early Middle Ages, the Republic of Venice emerged as a distinct state, soon forging a maritime empire across much of the Mediterranean. War with the Ottomans and the French had severely eroded Venice’s power by the 18th century, and in the 19th century it merged into the new Italian state.

The city’s medieval history combined with its unusual setting makes Venice one of the most extraordinary cities in the world. And one of the world’s most visited. The economy relies heavily on tourism. While this means that the needs of the visitor are well-catered for, it also means that the darker side of tourism is very much in evidence. Crowds, long queues, and a sea of tacky souvenirs.

St Mark's Square in Venice at sunset.

Early in the morning on Mark’s Square, after tables are set and before the tourists come. At the top of the piazza you can’t miss the Basilica and the Campanile.

Piazza San Marco

As with many of Europe’s cities, the heart of Venice has many heritage sites. Piazza San Marco, St Mark’s Square in English, is the main public square of Venice. Venetians refer to it as la Piazza . Many of the more important historical sites are to be found around the square. And, if you have only two days in Venice, this is probably where you will spend much of that time. This was certainly the case for me.

At the square’s eastern end is the Basilica di San Marco (St Mark’s Basilica), the island’s most grandiose place of worship. Although – like the majority of the Venetian population – the church is Roman Catholic, it has an obvious eastern influence, particularly Byzantine. Both the exterior and interior are highly decorated with intricate mosaics, lending the church its nickname as the ‘Church of Gold’. Although the basilica was built in the 11th century, it has experienced significant alteration since then. Among the highlights are the Life-Size Copper Horses standing above the entrance (these are replicas, the originals can be found inside St Mark’s Basilica), which may well be far older than the church itself.

The front façade of St Mark's Basilica, Venice.

Lit up at night, the spectacular western façade of St Mark’s Basilica.

Entry is free to the Basilica itself, but there are small fees to enter certain parts of the basilica (such as the Treasury and St Mark’s Museum). Photography is forbidden inside, but that does not stop many tourists from taking a few snaps on the sly. For security reasons, you can not enter when carrying backpacks and other bags. I learned this the hard way when I was turned away after queuing for twenty minutes to get in. The following day I returned (without my backpack) only to face another of the square’s recurring problems – flooding. Like other visitors, I had to remove my shoes and socks and walk through a foot of water to enter the building.

St Mark's Piazzetta at dawn.

Looking from the Campanile across St Mark’s Piazzetta and over the water of St Mark’s Basin to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance. The two columns are at the end of the piazzetta, just at the edge of the water.

Next to the basilica is the Doge’s Palace. The Doges of Venice were the leaders of the city from the 7th through to the late 18th century, during the existence of the Republic of Venice. They were elected to the position by the city’s aristocrats and served in that position until their death. The Doge system ended when Venice was conquered by France during the Napoleonic Wars, and rendered further obsolete following the 19th century unification of Italy.

The Doge’s Palace was constructed in the 12th century, although later centuries saw substantial renovation and expansion. Its current appearance owes much to the Venetian Gothic style of architecture, which differs from Gothic designs elsewhere in Europe through its clear Byzantine and Islamic influences.

The palace’s ornately carved internal courtyard is impressive, as are the various rooms open to visitors. These were the Doge’s private apartments and rooms used in the affairs of state, lavishly decorated with gold leaf, carved wood, and exquisite artworks during the 16th century. Far starker are the palace dungeons, which those suffering from claustrophobia may wish to avoid. Visitors are asked to place their bags in a locker room, while an audio guide is available for an additional fee.

The Senate Chamber within the Doge's Palace, Venice.

The extravagant interior of the Senate Chamber in the Doge’s Palace.

If you are interested in learning more about Venice and its history head to the west of the St Mark’s Square, here you will find the Museo Correr (Correr Museum) and Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia (Venice National Archaeology Museum). Although presented as separate museums, they are in effect effect two wings of the same museum, sharing a building and single entrance fee.

Although an entry ticket for the Correr Museum and the National Archaeology museum can be purchased separately (at the ticket office), these two museums and the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St. Mark’s) are always included in the Entry Ticket for the Doge’s Palace from GetYourGuide. A good option if you are planning to visit all three attractions. I do suggest you buy a ticket online, in advance – as the Doge’s Palace is one of the most popular attractions in Venice, and there are long queues. You can buy a ticket online for the Doge’s Palace (and the the other three attractions) on the GetYourGuide website.

As with the Doge’s Palace, visitors to the Museo Correr are required to store their bags in a locker room. Most of the exhibits cover Venice’s Post-Medieval history, including its architecture, coinage and maritime heritage. The rooms are thematically well-organised and contain information sheets in several European languages. Upstairs, the museum contains an impressive collection of paintings, many of them on religious themes. Museo Correr was established by the wealthy aristocrat Teodoro Correr in 1830.

A collection of Classical sculptures in the National Museum of Archaeology in Venice.

Roman era sculptures in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia.

As the visitor passes through the Museo Correr to the National Archaeology Museum, so they are taken further back in time. There are several rooms devoted to classical sculpture, but there are also cabinets displaying ancient ceramics, coins and jewellery. Much of the material predates the settlement of Venice itself and has been sourced from elsewhere in the Veneto region or from other parts of Italy. There are even a few displays from further afield, such as a few displays, such as a small room of ancient Egyptian material.

Both the Correr and the archaeology museum juxtapose older artefacts with temporary exhibits of contemporary artworks, reflecting the city’s place as a hub in the global arts scene.

Walking Around the City

Venice is a city where a leisurely stroll through its streets is well rewarded. This is also probably one of the best ways to appreciate the city’s architectural heritage, with most Venetian buildings predating the 20th century. If you have two days in the city, and one is devoted to the sites of Piazza San Marco, then I think the second day is best spent exploring Venice on foot.

Deciding which part of the city to cover depends on one’s preferences and capabilities. If you have the stamina and a long day set aside, it would certainly be possible to visit most areas of Venice on a brisk whistle-stop tour. Alternatively, if you prefer a slower pace and more time at specific sites it would certainly be better to limit your explorations to one or two areas. Either way, a good map is advisable. Believe me, it is easy to get lost in the maze of tiny streets and alleys.

Narrow lanes catering for the tourist market dominate San Marco, the sestieri (borough) containing Piazza San Marco. Navigating your way through these you can find many noteworthy buildings, including the Palazzo Contarini San Bovolo (Snail Shell Palace). Created in the 15th century, this out-of-the way gem is known for its twirling external staircase that gives it its name. Entry to the palace is €7, or €6 for concessions, although the main architectural features can be seen from outside. If you want to go inside, Buy an Entry Ticket to the Palazzo Contarini San Bovolo in Advance.

San Marco can be escaped over the famous Rialto Bridge, an important 16th century structure and one of the most congested tourist traps in Venice. This leads into the San Polo sestieri, an area that contains many churches built or expanded during Italy’s Renaissance period. Including the Chiesa di San Polo (Church of Saint Paul), from which the area takes its name.

The northern sestieri of Venice is known as Cannaregio, much of which lacks the touristic domination of San Marco. Located here is the Venetian Ghetto, the historic hub of the city’s Jewish community. Jews were forced to reside here under the republic’s anti-semitic legislation, and today it is home to a living Jewish community as well as a Holocaust memorial and the Museo Ebraico di Venezia (Jewish Museum of Venice, Buy an Entry Ticket Online). Cannaregio also has a very visible Roman Catholic heritage; the 15th century Church of Madonna del Orto is the resting place of the famed 16th century painter Tintoretto.

Heading east from Cannaregio you reach Castello, an area best known for the Arsenale di Venezia (Venetian Arsenal), a complex of old shipyards and armouries that testifies to a time when Venice was an important naval power in the Mediterranean.

In the south of Venice is Dorsoduro, today home to several art galleries. Don’t miss the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (Basilica of Saint Mary of Health), a 17th century Baroque edifice built to mark the end of a devastating plague. While in southern Venice, hop on a vaporetto waterbus to the island of Giudecca. Although administratively considered part of Dorsoduro, Giudecca has a very different feel from the rest of the city. Much of the architecture here is early 20th century, reflecting an industrial heritage evident across many parts of Northern Italy. Those interested in industrial archaeology will be particularly intrigued by the way architects repurposed old factories as fancy restaurants and hotels. Those seeking something a little older should check out Il Redentore (The Redeemer), a church designed by the prominent architect Andrea Palladio during the 16th century.

Tips for Visiting Venice

When is the Best Time to Visit Venice?

Venice is a very popular destination. That means crowds and queues, particularly during the peak tourist season from May/June through to August. Most people I spoke before my visit recommended September to November. As Luck would have it, I went in November and the numbers were bearable. Remember that from October to January the water level rises, and parts of the city floods. During what is known locally as acqua alta (high water) Saint Mark’s Square floods as it is one of the lowest points in Venice.

Buying Tickets for Doge’s Palace

The Doge’s Palace is one of the most popular attractions in Venice. Although a separate ticket for the Museo Correr and National Archaeological Museum is available (purchase these at the ticket office), the ticket for the Doge’s Palace includes these two museums, as well as the monumental rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St. Mark’s). This ticket remains valid for three months from the date of purchase, however because of the proximity of the four attractions it is probably more practical to see them together on the same day.

Getting To and Around Venice

There are two international airports that service Venice. Marco Polo International Airport on the edge of the lagoon is the closest. The international airport in Treviso, although a bit further away – one hour, is also frequently used. Getting from both airports to Venice itself is pretty straight-forward.

Detailed Itinerary

Unless you are able to spend an extended period of time in Venice, two or three days is sufficient to see the highlights. Based on my experience, I recommend a day in St Mark’s Square and another day walking around Venice exploring the different neighbourhoods or sestieri.

For your convenience, the following is a list of links to all the tickets required for the attractions included on this itinerary.

► Buy your Vaporetto Tickets (options: single ride/1-day/2-day/3-day/7-day) from GetYourGuide

► Entry Ticket for Doge’s Palace, Museo Correr and Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia from GetYourGuide.

► Entry Ticket for the Palazzo Contarini San Bovolo from GetYourGuide.

► Entry Ticket for the Museo Ebraico di Venezia from Tiqets.

► Entry Ticket for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection from Tiqets.

The Afternoon Before

Make your arrival in Venice and your transfer to your hotel a special one. Certainly if you are arriving at Marco Polo International Airport. At the airport take a water taxi, and enjoy a stylish, scenic transfer to your hotel while experiencing the lagoon and canals. More Details and Book Online.

Day One

09h30 Enter the Basilica di San Marco as it opens to avoid the crowds. Thirty minutes should be more than enough for a good look around – just ensure that it isn’t Sunday, when the basilica only opens for tourists at 14h00.

10h00 Head over to the neighbouring Doge’s Palace, less than a five minute walk away. There will likely be a ten to thirty-minute queue to get it; once inside, buy a ticket that includes entry to the Museo Correr and Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia to avoid further queues later.

13h00 Lunchtime. Many of the cafes in San Marco Square are prohibitively expensive, so if you’re looking for something more reasonable, either bring a prepared pack-lunch or head away from the square into some of the side streets.

14h00 Museo Correr and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia. The two are connected, with one leading straight into the other. Don’t miss the painting collection on the upper floor!

16h30 Leaving San Marco Square, head over to the Palazzo Contarini San Bovolo. If you have time, head inside; last admission is at 17h30.

18h00 Time to see what is on offer at night. Start with a Meal in a Venetian restaurant followed by a concert in the historic Church of San Vidal. Or see a Traveling Opera in a Historic Palace on the Grand Canal: different parts of the opera are performed in different parts of the historic palazzo – Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto. Prefer a less high-brow activity? Venice has its own Hard Rock Cafe – a skip-the-line ticket in advance is probably a very good idea.

A view of the Grand Canal in Venice at sunset.

Take a sunset trip along the Grand canal in a gondola to a restaurant of your choice and enjoy some of the best views of Venice.

Day Two

With San Marco covered on the previous day, head on a whistle-stop tour of the rest of Venice.

09h00 Kick off at the famous Rialto Bridge before it gets too congested with tourists.

09h15 Crossing the bridge, start exploring San Polo. Head in a roughly north-westward direction, but feel free to divert through the side streets to fully appreciate the area. Take in Campo San Polo, a square containing the church which gives this area its name.

10h30 Cross the Ponte degli Scalzi bridge into Cannaregio, with its fantastic views over the Grand Canal. Head north, crossing the Ponte delle Guglie footbridge and entering the Venetian Ghetto.

12h30 Pick up lunch in Cannaregio.

13h30 Head east into Castello to see the Arsenale di Venezia.

15h00 Hop on a vaporetto at the S. Zaccaria (Danieli) stop on the southern waterfront. Take line 1 to Dorsoduro, getting off at the Salute terminal near the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute.

15h30 From the southern side of the Venice island, get on a vaporetto once more and head to Giudecca for an evening stroll along the island’s northern waterfront, taking in some of the industrial features on the western end.

19h00 Head back to mainland Venice via a vaporetto. Stay on the water and take a 2-hour Romantic Sunset Tour in a Typical Venetian Boat or a Private Gondola Ride by Night

Stay an Extra Day

Forty-eight hours, two or three nights, in Venice will give you ample time to see quite a bit of the city. If, however, you have more time or want to spend more time here, there is plenty more to see. These are some of my suggestions:

Explore the city’s art scene, even outside of the Biennale dates. There are a number of museums and art galleries to see. For modern art, a must-see is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection housed in an 18th century palazzo. Buy a Fast-Track Entry Ticket Online from Tiqets. Or save a few Euros and get a Combined Ticket for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Doge’s Palace.

Explore More Islands – buy a vaporetto day pass or get a water taxi, head over water to San Giorgio Maggiore Island. A joint ticket will get you into the Giorgio Cini Foundation, Borges Labyrinth, and Bosco with the Vatican Chapels. Otherwise head further afield to the islands of the Northern Lagoon, containing further historic sites. Take a Boat Trip to Murano, Burano and Torcello Islands – three of the most interesting of the northern islands.

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