A mosaic of stone and water, shadow and light, Venice floats at the northern end of the Adriatic like a renaissance painting come to life. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, Venice was a powerful maritime city state, the most prominent middleman in the flourishing trade between Europe and the exotic East. The vast wealth accumulated during that time funded the fabulous palaces, churches, and cobblestone squares for which the city is renowned today, including the famous Piazza San Marco, which is the first stop for many cruisers.
The city center comprises two islands separated by the Grand Canal, which is crossed by four bridges, including the oldest and loveliest Rialto Bridge. The two main islands are surrounded by other landfalls — including Lido, Murano, and Burano — that are worth investigating.
Splurge: Gritti Palace – There’s no better place in town to feel like a prince or princess than the renaissance residence of Doge Andrea Gritti, on the Grand Canal just west of Piazza San Marco. Recently reopened after a yearlong, $50 million renovation, the palace is flush with tapestries, silk damask, Murano chandeliers, heritage terrazzo floors, and enough original art to fill a museum. Book a signature Grand Canal room for panoramic views of the ancient skyline. Doubles from $552.
Steal: Oltre Il Giardino – Even the most modest Venetian hotels feel like palaces. Case in point: the small but fabulous Oltre, a six-room boutique in the heart of San Polo District that boasts a rare find: an olive garden out back. Early on, this was the home of Alma Mahler, the ballet dancer and Austrian composer’s widow, and the manse is imbued with her romantic spirit. Fortunately, it also has contemporary bathrooms, high-speed Internet, and flat-screen televisions. Doubles from $180.
Tip: Elbow-to-elbow crowds on the Rialto Bridge and in the Piazza San Marco, and hot, humid weather make Venice a trying place to visit during the summer. If you really want to see the city, early fall and late spring are better choices.
Breakfast: Caffè Florian – Spilling out onto Piazza San Marco, the Florian is rightfully famous, founded in 1720 and quite possibly the oldest coffeehouse in continuous business anywhere. Byron, Dickens, and Casanova are among those who have lingered here. Breakfast might be the only time you can snatch a table without waiting for hours. Choose from one of the set menus, like the hearty Colazione del Doge, a continental meal of coffee or tea, juice, croissants and toast, Venetian sausages, and cheese.
Lunch: Hostaria da Franz – This off-the-beaten-path restaurant is one of those “secret” places where Venetians escape the maddening crowds. Located in the quiet Giardini area, the family-run eatery specializes in fresh-from-the-Adriatic seafood. The selection ranges from sardines and shellfish to octopus, with homemade pastas and breads. For a lighter meal, order the seafood carpaccio and a glass of Prosecco.
Dinner: Ristorante Riviera – True to its name, the Riviera offers a chic waterfront setting in the Dorsoduro neighborhood near the Accademia and Guggenheim museums. Dine alfresco in this historic building on the Zattere embankment as the sun sinks over Venice Lagoon, and order the cuttlefish with black ink sauce and polenta, or prawns with madras curry and fresh vanilla.
Dessert: Gelateria Nico – After dinner, stroll east along the Zattere embankment and over the old stone bridge to this popular ice cream shop. We like to indulge in flamboyant desserts — like the hazelnut-flavored “Gianduiotto” — at a dockside table, but you can also grab a cone and join the locals on their evening promenade.
Tip: If you’re not into a full sit-down dinner, consider cicchetti —Venetian tapas. These “small bites” are served in the late afternoon and early evening with local white wine (ombra bianco). Choose olives, artichoke hearts, and prosciutto with melon, or seafood dishes like fried calamari and marinated sardines.
For Everyone: Vaporetto dell’Arte – A new hassle-free way to explore Venice is this hop-on, hop-off municipal water-bus that plies the sights along the Grand Canal. The boats are outfitted with comfortable seats, audio guides, and videos. A 24-hour pass also offers discounts to local museums and other attractions.
For Couples: Interpreti Veneziani – Venice’s homegrown music ensemble plays inside the acoustically gifted San Vidal Church. Their repertoire ranges from baroque and classical to modern standards, with an emphasis on Antonio Vivaldi and other locally born music prodigies. The performances — staged daily during the summer months and at least five nights a week during the rest of the year — are a romantic way to enjoy an evening.
For Families: Ca’ Macana – Carnival masks, costumes, and accessories are sold all over Venice, but only a few workshops create the real deal. Entering this shop in Dorsoduro is like stepping into a magical world filled with hundreds of strange, colorful faces, both human and animal. The shop also offers two-hour workshops during which children and adults learn how to decorate papier-mâché masks chosen from 50 different models.
For the Adventurous: Biking Lido – A long, slender sliver of sand, Lido is the barrier island that protects Venice from the open sea. Vaporetto water-bus is the way to get there from the central city, but cycling is the best way to explore once you arrive. Rent a bike from a stall near the ferry landing and cruise the island. In typical Euro fashion, you’ll have to pay for a chair and umbrella on most of Lido’s beaches, but the dune areas at the island’s northern and southern tips offer free access.
Insider Tip: Pack a copy of “Venice Is a Fish: A Sensual Guide,” and take off on an aimless wander through the back streets. Tiziano Scarpa’s literary love letter to his hometown is perhaps the best thing ever written about Venice, and certainly one of the more unusual travel books of recent years.