It’s easy to get swept up in the romance of Venice: being serenaded as you ply the canals on a gondola; sipping spritzes at an open-air café in Piazza San Marco; succumbing to a Murano glass sales pitch—all of which can break the bank in an afternoon. With a little forethought, however, it’s possible to enjoy the Most Serene Republic (La Serenissima), as it was once called, on a shoestring.
The spectacularly Byzantine St. Mark’s Basilica anchors Piazza San Marco and the Floating City itself. Completed in the 13th century, it stands as a reminder of Venice’s prominence as a maritime bridge between the East and West. Once the private domain of the doges (the city’s rulers), the church opened to commoners in the early 1800s. Admission is free (there are separate fees to enter a few small museums within the basilica), but the wait for your ten-minute turn to peek inside is usually about 45 minutes. The breathtaking mosaics that decorate every inch of the interior are well worth the wait, but you can skip the queue by making online reservations for a specific time for about $3 (available only from April through October).
Napoleon reportedly called Piazza San Marco “the drawing room of Europe,” and at times it does seem as if most of the continent (and its pigeons) is congregating in the square. Avoid the day-trippers by visiting early in the morning or late in the evening. It may be tempting to while away a few hours at one of the outdoor cafés, but you’ll likely be charged for the mere privilege. Soak up the scene—the imposing Doge’s Palace, the Clock Tower—before the throng descends and then scram.
Of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal, the 16th-century Rialto Bridge is the most famous, and for good reason. Michelangelo was among those who vied for a chance to design the span, which stretches across the narrowest point in the canal, but the honor went to municipal architect Antonio da Ponte, who came up with the elegant stone arch. Watch the gondolas from the bridge and meander in and out of the souvenir shops under the arcades on either side.
The Venice Card can save you euros depending on the length of your stay and agenda. Good for seven days, passes start at around $41 for visitors ages 6 through 29 and $54 for those ages 30 and up. The card offers a host of perks, most notably free admission to the Doge’s Palace and ten other museums, including Ca’ Pesaro, an imposing Baldassarre Longhena-designed baroque palace on the Grand Canal. Its modern art exhibits feature many paintings acquired during the early years of the Biennale, such as Gustav Klimt’s "Judith II (Salomè)," and a huge sculpture collection featuring works by Auguste Rodin and Medardo Rosso.
Also free with the Venice Card are the landmark Clock Tower in Piazza San Marco and the Glass Museum on the island of Murano (which displays glassworks from the Roman era through the 20th century), as well as a collection of chorus churches, from the 17th-century Santa Maria del Giglio to the Chiesa di San Giobbe, one of the first examples of Renaissance architecture in the city.
An abridged version of the pass, the San Marco Pack is around $34 for all visitors ages six and up, and it includes the Doge’s Palace, Museo Correr, the National Archaeological Museum, and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Marciana, as well as three chorus churches of your choice.
The Music Museum is dedicated to liuteria (the making of musical instruments), with exhibitions on violin making and the life of Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; free admission.
Built by plague survivors in the 17th century to thank the Virgin Mary for sparing them, the octagonal Basilica Santa Maria Della Salute is a baroque masterpiece designed by Longhena. The interior features several major works by 16th-century Venetian artist Titian, including the ceiling painting of David and Goliath. A painting by another Venetian, Palma il Giovane, shows Jonah emerging from the mouth of a whale, said to symbolize the city’s survival from the plague.
Little stargazers ages six and up love the Sunday afternoon (4 p.m.) shows at the Planetarium on the Lido, founded by a group of amateur astronomers. Offered October through May; free admission. Arrive early to nab one of the 60 seats.
Every Sunday from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., the Peggy Guggenheim Collection hosts Kids Day for children between the ages of four and ten. The free program introduces kids to one of the works in the museum by letting them experiment with various hands-on techniques. The workshops are in Italian, but English instruction is available depending on the nationality of the group.
The stretch of sandbar known as the Lido hosts several family-friendly beaches, some of which are free, including Blue Moon beach and the World Wildlife Federation-protected Alberoni Beach, a sanctuary for seabirds.
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Head to the Rialto fish market before it opens to catch the fishmongers receiving their goods fresh from the barges on the canal. Stick around on Fridays and Saturdays to rub shoulders with locals and chefs stocking up for the weekend and to admire the staggering array of seafood. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; closed on Sundays.
Lunchtime and evening happy hours find Venetians at small, standing-room-only bars called bacari, which serve cicchetti, nibbles to enjoy while sipping an ombra—a small glass of house wine—or a spritz (prosecco with Campari or Aperol). Snacks, like crostini topped with whipped salt cod or wedges of mortadella, can cost as little as a euro or two (same with the drinks). Try the family-run Cantinone già Schiavi in Dorsodoru, across from one of the last gondola workshops.
Venice is made up of 118 islands connected by more than 400 bridges and crossed by some 175 canals. Vaporetti (water-buses) are a way of life but can be pricey, around $10 when purchased onboard as an afterthought. If you plan to explore the city to any extent, consider purchasing the ACTV, or tourist travel card, which allows unlimited travel from anywhere for periods of time ranging from 12 hours ($25) to seven days ($68). Those between the ages of 14 and 29 are eligible for the Rolling Venice Card, which is good for three days and costs about $27.
While not free, the traghetti are no-frills, mass-transit alternatives to gondola rides. The large ferries cross the Grand Canal at seven points, including near the Salute Church and Rialto market. It’s a great way to get out on the water, and tickets cost less than $3 (for non-Venetians).
Ditch your map: Getting lost is the best way to experience this labyrinth of a city. Once you want to come up for air, look for arrows and signs pointing you to major attractions like the Rialto or San Marco. The good news is that the city is surrounded by a lagoon, so it’s impossible to go too far.