Venice at Dusk
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Of all the cities in the world, only Paris comes remotely close to matching Venice in terms of sheer beauty and romance. You've seen it in photos and films, but there's no substitute for the reality -- the shimmering Grand Canal, the gondolas slipping down watery alleyways, the elegant palazzos emerging straight from the sea.
Venice once ruled the Mediterranean as a shipping power, amassing vast wealth and producing some of Europe's greatest artistic and cultural treasures. But, over the centuries, Venice has declined a bit and now has less than half the population it had at its peak. What remains of its former grandeur -- the crumbling palaces, the sumptuous art in its museums and churches, the fantastic rituals of Carnevale -- makes Venice a living tribute to the past.
Aside from a number of charming squares, such as the famous Piazza San Marco, Venice is mostly composed of a warren of narrow canals and streets spread over more than 100 islands. These tangled passageways are an attraction among themselves. There are few better cities to simply get lost in, particularly if you want to escape the tourist hordes that clog the main arteries around San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.
So once you've seen the major sights, fold up your map, and set off on foot. You'll discover pretty, residential neighborhoods with colorful flowerboxes in the windows and clean laundry billowing in the breeze. You'll discover tiny trattorias where the locals enjoy the catch of the day. And, away from the vaporetti (water taxis) and motorboat traffic on the Grand Canal, you'll discover one more pleasure of this place, aptly dubbed La Serenissima -- the unexpected quiet of a city without cars.
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Venice is famous for its Murano glass (and a trip to the island of Murano, with its numerous glass galleries and handful of factories is a great way to get a feel for it) but whoever's made it, glass objects make great souvenirs and range from inexpensive glass necklaces -- sold on the street for about $5 -- to elaborate barware and chandeliers.
Venetians speak a unique dialect of Italian called Veneziano. English is not widely spoken (or comprehended), aside from tourist-oriented hotels, restaurants and shops.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro and ATM machines, which are plentiful, offer the best exchange rates. Visit www.xe.com for up-to-date exchange rates. Local "cambio" shops and banks exchange dollars to euros for a fee.
Where You're Docked
Large cruise ships dock at Venezia Terminali Passeggeri (www.vtp.it).
Smaller cruise ships can tie up at the Stazione Marittima by the lovely Dorsoduro neighborhood and fronting the Giudecca Canal. From the vaporetto, stop just outside the port gates. It's a quick water-bus ride to any of Venice's hot spots.
Riverboats are often given berth at a third spot, near the Bienniele, adjacent to the Giardini (public gardens), and a pleasant 10-minute stroll to San Marco. However, there's no port terminal.
With all of Venice spread before you, there's absolutely no reason to hang out in either port facility.
From the airport: A handful of options exist for transport between the airport and the city. The cheapest is the #5 bus from the airport to Piazalle Roma; from there, you can hop on a vaporetto (water bus) to get you closer to your hotel. You can buy tickets at Piazalle Roma. You can buy your bus ticket from a machine by the luggage carousels after arriving at Marco Polo Airport. Another decent option is the Alilaguna, which operates like water taxi but carries a larger number of passengers. The fastest and most exclusive (and also the most expensive) way is to hop aboard a water taxi.
A sleeker, more romantic way to descend on Venice (and an altogether less hassled option, particularly if you have a lot of luggage) is by water taxi. Follow signs at arrivals at Marco Polo; you can pay by credit card (Mastercard and Visa only) or by cash. Plan to spend about 90 euro for the one-way trip.
From the cruise ports: With luck, your ship will offer a complimentary water shuttle between the port facility of Venezia Terminal Passeggeri and San Marco, but if not, there are two options. Alilaguna offers water bus service from Stationze Marittima, direct from the end of the port (in front of the terminal) to San Marco. It costs about 8 euro one way or 15 roundtrip and takes about 15 minutes. Boats are scheduled every 20 minutes or so.
Another option if your ship doesn't provide a water shuttle to San Marco is to walk to the relatively new People Mover (about a 15-minute hike) that's adjacent to the port; it will take you to Piazzle Roma for about 1 euro, a major hub for water taxis and the vaportetti. Here you can get an ACTV water bus (cross the square towards a steeply-arched pedestrian bridge), which costs about 8 euro and is valid for an hour, so you can hop on and off the water buses if you want to get beyond San Marco. If you plan a lot of water bus travel, a 12-hour pass costs about 18 euro.
Tickets must be validated on all public transport. Hold the ticket against the card reader at the entrance to the bust stop.
If you're docked at San Basilio, you'll need to either take a complimentary ship shuttle (if one is offered) or hop on a port waterbus; there's a stop just outside the port gates. The charge for one-way drop-off at San Marco is about the same as you'd pay for a vaporetto ride, but you get a nonstop trip. Expect the ride to be about 20 to 30 minutes long.
Speaking of the vaporetti, Venice's fabulous public transportation system, the water buses run every 10 to 15 minutes and go just about everywhere. The cost is about 7 euro per ride, depending on where you go. If you plan to use public transportation several times, consider buying a one-day Venice Card. (there are also options for people staying for more than one day.) I bought a 48-hour pass for 28 euro on one visit and a 24-hour pass for 20 euro on another, and got my money's worth. You can buy in advance here: www.venicecard.com, or purchase a card at any ticket office (like the one at Piazzale Roma) or at shops that sell sundries. Prepare to pay cash. You can also purchase the pass onboard.
You can also hire a water taxi from the port, but it's pretty expensive; expect to pay around 60 euro to get from San Marco Square to your ship.
It's about a 25-minute stroll to San Marco, if you decide to walk. There are plenty of interesting places to stop along the way and it's pleasant and safe to walk back to the ship at night.
There's absolutely no reason to rent a car, as Venice doesn't permit them. However, if you are planning an adventure on the mainland, you can rent from major agencies like Hertz and Avis. They are located near the Piazzale Roma.
Watch Out For
Your feet -- Venice is a walking city, full of labyrinthian streets and tons of bridges (usually requiring steps up and down again), so wear your most comfortable shoes.
If you, like most visitors, plan to take a vaporetto, make sure you have your ticket stamped at the first station you visit. (All stations have automated ticket machines.)
Credit cards are accepted at most places, but we found that many restaurants and shops refused to accept American Express, so make sure you have a MasterCard or Visa handy.
Finally, Venice during the months of July and August in particular is a cautionary tale: It's overcrowded, maneuvering its narrow pathways is difficult at best, and it's often hot and steamy.
Piazza San Marco: According to Napoleon, this gracious plaza was Europe's first drawing room. It's a huge piazza surrounded by the Basilica di San Marco, the Torre dell'Orologio clock tower and the arcade of Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove. The Basilica is the primary tourist attraction; plan to wait in line during high season. It dates back to 1094 and represents a range of architectural styles, such as Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance. (Note: You will be denied entry to this and many other Italian churches if your attire is deemed inappropriate -- be sure your knees and shoulders are covered.)
Also check out the Bell Tower, a 324-foot structure originally built in the 10th century. It had to be rebuilt early in the 20th century when it completely collapsed. Climb to the top for a great city view. Almost as much of a Piazza tradition is a visit to one of the square's two famous cafes -- Caffe Florian and Gran Caffe Ristorante Quadri. Their outside tables offer fabulous people-watching; just be prepared for the stiff prices. Incidentally, San Marco is as big an attraction for pigeons as it is for people -- you may want to wear a hat.
Art galleries abound. The best-known include Gallerie dell' Accademia (Boat Line 82 to Accademia), featuring Venetian art from the 14th to 18th centuries and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, 701 Dorsoduro) for contemporary masterpieces and sculpture. Guggenheim was an American who resided in the Palazzo; she and her dogs are buried out back in the sculpture garden. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco (S. Rocco, Frari) features the work of Venetian artist Tintoretto.
The Grand Canal: The Venetian equivalent of a superhighway, this S-shaped canal runs through the heart of the city. It offers fabulous views of palazzos that date back to the 12th century and line the waterway. The best way to traverse the Grand Canal is via vaporetto, line #1. The Grand Canal also divides the city in a way; the east side contains most of the best-known tourist attractions (San Marco Square, et al.), while the western part is generally more residential, boasting wonderful trattorias and local shops. Pedestrians can cross over the canal in just three places: Rialto Bridge, Accademia Bridge and Scalzi Bridge.
Venice's lovely cathedrals and churches are too numerous to count; among the highlights (besides the Basilica) are Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (Campo dei Frari, San Polo), a huge 14th/15th-century Gothic church, and the 17th-century Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (Punta della Dogana, Dorsoduro).
A gondola ride: Yes, it's the ultimate touristy thing to do, but it's also incredibly romantic (particularly at sunset). And it also offers a different perspective of Venice -- from the water, along tiny canals, where vaporetti cannot go. Gondolas typically take anywhere from two to six people, and you pay per trip, not per person. The ride lasts anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes. Negotiate the rate before you get in, and plan to shell out about 80 euro.
Been There, Done That
First-timers who are interested in glass-making should trek to the island of Murano. (Boats run on a regular schedule from San Marco Square -- #7 is an express bus operated for tourists that runs every 20 minutes during the day.) There are numerous stops on Murano; the most central is Corinna. You can see the process and technique of glass-making, at several factories and there are numerous art galleries that specialize in glass. (In fact, that's pretty much the only type of retailer you'll find!) Although you don't have to go to Murano to buy glass designed by Murano and other artisans (numerous shops and galleries sell it), for the best selection -- from traditional to quite contemporary pieces -- you really should venture to the island.
A bit farther afield is the charming island village of Burano, known for its brightly colored houses and its exquisite handmade lace. (Note: These days, not all lace for sale there is made locally; be sure to ask before buying.) A Lace Museum (Museo del Merletto) is there if you want to learn a bit more about the art and history of lace-making. And don't worry if your cruise won't take you to Pisa -- Burano's campanile, or bell tower, has its own distinct tilt.
Giudecca, an island facing Venice (so you get gorgeous views), is where wealthy Venetians built their residences and where many locals have settled, as Venice itself has become tourist-clogged and expensive. Check out Chiesa del Redentore, built in the 16th century. The highlight of Giudecca for foodies is a meal at the fabulous Hotel Cipriani. (The hotel offers a free water shuttle from San Marco Square.)
The Lido, serviced by the vaporetti and fronting both the Venice Lagoon and the Adriatic sea, is Venice's beach island. It's a great place to escape the summer heat.
Take a gondola lesson in Venice -- If you're looking for a connection to a local's Venice try The Venetian Club (www.thevenetianclub.co.uk). It aims to introduce small groups of travelers to local arts and recreation. Why not try to pilot your own gondola? On a recent trip there, a two-hour lesson on rowing -- Venetian style -- offered not just a great excuse to get out on the water but also an introduction into a distinctive local tradition.
At lunchtime, eat at the poolside restaurant at Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca. For dinner, try the Cip's Club, an outdoor pizzeria-grill with tables that sit on a deck right on the lagoon. Tip: Reservations for the Cip's Club absolutely need to be made in advance.
There's also a branch of the famed Harry's on Giudecca. While it's breathtakingly expensive (pasta entrees start at 34 euros), the food is marvelous, the ambience is authentically Venetian, and fellow diners, more or less, are all locals.
Ristoteca Oniga is a small, cozy place at Campo Barnaba whose cooking philosophy is part of the Slow Food movement that's growing in Italy -- and even in America. It subscribes to the theory that you should take your time and rediscover your tastebuds. The restaurant, packed with locals rather than tourists and featuring an all-Italian menu that refuses to condescend to those who won't learn Italian, is a refreshing change.
Total Luxury: There are many, many options, but we'll offer a few suggestions. The lush, vibrant Danieli (Riva degli Schiavoni) fronts the lagoon, and parts of it date back to the 15th century. The Metropole (Riva degli Schiavoni) is a small, chic hotel, also located on the lagoon. On the island of Giudecca, Hotel Cipriani (Giudecca 10) is Venice's most deluxe hotel and is the only one with a pool and tennis court (not to mention its own vineyards).
Moderately Priced: Generally, any hotel called a "locanda," which means "inn" in Italian, represents a good value. Especially good for families, not to mention singles or couples on budgets, is Locanda Novo (Cannaregia 4529), located near the Rialto Bridge. Other reasonably priced options include Hotel Violino d'Oro (Campiello Barozzi) and Pensione Accademia (Dorsoduro 1058). On our last trip, we stayed on Giudecca at the Domina Home Giudecca (Palanca stop, vaporetto); the three-star, 58-room hotel was scrupulously clean, had superb staffers and was nicely located at the junction of two canals -- a five-minute walk to the vaporetti.
Best for Watching Your Ship Come In: The Hilton Molino Stucky (Giudecca 810), located on Giudecca Island, is a beautifully restored hotel that's housed in a former flour mill. Offering tons of ambience, comfy rooms with all the latest gadgets and views over Venice that are so compelling it'll be hard to leave, a rooftop pool and bar, and a couple of excellent restaurants, it's like staying on a cruise ship -- on land. The added bonus is that it's right on the waterway that ships take to come in to port -- and go back out again.
Get more Venice hotel recommendations from Holiday Watchdog.
Staying in Touch
Venetian N@vigator (www.venetiannavigator.com) is located about five minutes from San Marco and offers Internet, fax, printing and international calling services.
Editor's Note: Due to an anti-terrorism law passed in Italy in 2005, all passengers wishing to use the Internet in a public facility must present an internationally recognized document (or a passport) to the establishment providing public communication services.
Best for Music Lovers: Travel to the St Lucia area of Venice for a visit to Zen Palace, where you will watch a show of opera, classical music and famous Italian melodies, including pieces such as La Traviata, Nabucco and Il Barbiere.
Best for Romantics: Take a walking tour of Verona – the setting for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. You'll even see the balcony Romeo scaled to reach Juliet and pose for a photograph in the courtyard below. Verona is about an hour and half away from Venice.
For More Information
On the Web: www.turismovenezia.it
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
The Independent Traveler: Italy Exchange
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
--Image of the view of the canal appears courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief. Image of Carnevale is copyright Italian Government Tourist Board.