The most atmospheric way to arrive in this city of bridges is undoubtedly by water, and with a Venice river cruise on the Po, you'll do just that. A bridge leads from the San Basilio Pier into the city's historic center, so it's easy for Venice river cruisers to explore (and get around before the mega-ship crowds arrive). Shaped by world renowned artists, sculptors, painters and architects -- including da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Tintoretto -- Italy is like an open-air art gallery, and nowhere more so than Venice, where you feel as if you've stepped right into an oil painting. Built on 120 small islands that are connected by more than 400 bridges, it is Italy's most unique and beguiling destination. The waterway you'll travel on, the Po, is the country's longest river at 405 miles, rising in the Alps and emptying into the Adriatic Sea.
Here are five tips to help you enjoy your time if you're taking a Venice River Cruise.
They're an iconic Venetian sight, but gondola trips along the canals are costly. The "official" rate is €80 ($87) for 40 minutes (more after 7 p.m.), plus a tip. Many tourists complain of being charged more and rides being cut short. Even the most romantic should remember that singing is not a requirement for the gondolier. (Some sing, but don't expect it.) So join the locals on the vaporetto waterbuses that criss-cross the canals for €6.50 ($7) -- less if you buy the Venezia Unica city pass -- or pay €2 ($2.20) to cross the Grand Canal on the traghetto, a small ferry.
St Mark's, the grandest square in Venice, is dominated by the cathedral or basilica of the same name. One of the world's finest examples of Byzantine architecture, with a fabulous gold interior and more than 85,000 square feet of mosaics -- enough to cover 1.5 U.S. football fields -- it's a must-see sight. There's always a wait for tickets (on average, 45 minutes), so skip the lines by reserving an entry time online, or sign up for an organized excursion. Also remember modest clothing is required -- no bare shoulders or shorts for men or women. Backpacks and large purses are also banned.
Wearing comfortable shoes is a standard tip for a trip to any European city, where historic streets are often cobbled or uneven. But in Venice, it's even more essential. Venice has canals where other cities have roads, and boats where other cities have automobiles, which means there are no taxis if your feet get sore. And without walking, you're not going to see the sights and get the best out of your visit.
In a city that's so popular, the odds of getting mediocre and overpriced food are high, so you need to find a memorable meal for all the right reasons. Avoid restaurants in touristy areas, particularly if the menu outside is translated into several languages, has pictures of the dishes and a smooth-talking greeter is trying to entice you inside. If you have an onboard concierge, ask for recommendations. Otherwise, track down places that seem full of locals and serve authentic Venetian dishes, such as risotto and seafood (rather than pizza and spaghetti bolognaise) by heading down the back streets.
After you've done the essential tourist center of St Mark's Square, Doge's Palace and Rialto Bridge, ditch the map. Wander down the side streets without a plan or timetable, and get lost. (It won't take long.) It's the best way to uncover some of the most interesting parts of the city that are off the beaten track, and because Venice is built on islands, you'll never stray so far that you can't get back again. When you're done, just stop someone and ask for directions to a major landmark (and be prepared to get lost a few more times before you find it).