One of the most unique cities in Italy, Venice, made up of 100 small islands, is filled with Renaissance and Gothic architecture, world-class museums, and an incredible 141 churches. Luckily, there's no need to spend a lot of money in Venice as many of the city's best activities are free. Spend your days strolling the canals and admiring the city's beautiful squares and buildings. Composed of six sestere (or districts), the city is easily navigable by foot. Pick your favorite neighborhood and take a stroll.
Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark's Square) is the main tourist destination in Venice. It's flanked by important monuments, elegant historic buildings, and expensive cafes, some with live music in the evening. You can hear the music for free as you walk around, but sitting at a table is usually very expensive. Take a peek at the famous Caffe Florian, popular since 1720, and visit Basilica San Marco, Saint Mark's Cathedral, an impressive Byzantine style monument.
The picturesque and crowded Rialto Bridge has been the main bridge crossing Venice's Grand Canal since 1591. The bridge's covered arches hold shops and the famous Rialto Market, a good place to visit in the morning. This lively food market with lots of little stalls has been in operation for centuries. Go early to see fresh fish being unloaded from the boats. In the Rialto Market area, you can see what was probably Venice's first church, San Giacometto, founded in 471 and rebuilt in 1071, around the same time that the Rialto Market was built.
Venice has more than 150 canals ranging from the Grand Canal, the city's main thoroughfare, to tiny canals that are barely accessible to small boats. The canals are lined with old houses and often decked with flowers. Wandering along the streets by the canals is a pleasurable (and free) past-time. You're likely to get lost but that's part of the charm of Venice. Find a bridge on a quiet canal and watch the gondolas glide under it or head to the Grand Canal and watch the many boats that ply the waters of Venice. More than 400 bridges cross the canals.
The octagonal Basilica Santa Maria della Salute is one of the most photographed churches in Venice—and for good reason. The Baroque church, built in the 17th century as thanks for the end of the plague, sits on the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro neighborhood and is visible from the entrance to Piazza San Marco. Dramatic steps leading to the entrance are made of white Istrian stone and more than 100 figures adorn the church's buttresses. The massive interior is awe-inspiring and contains several Titians. Each year on Nov. 21, a temporary bridge is laid across the Grand Canal and Venetians walk across it to the church.
The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George, San Giorgio dei Greci, is the oldest and possibly historically the most important church of the Orthodox Diaspora. The church, considered to be one of the best Orthodox temples in the world, was constructed by the Greek community in the 16th century. It's located in Venice's Castello district, once the home to a large Greek population. The iconography inside is accented with gold, post-Byzantine mosaics, wood stalls, and a frescoed cupola painted under Tintoretto's supervision. The church also has a leaning bell tower.
The word "ghetto" originated in Venice with the creation of the Jewish ghetto in 1516, when thousands of Jews were forced to live in a segregated area of Venice. There are two parts to the ghetto, the Ghetto Vecchio (old) and Ghetto Nuovo (new). Multi-story apartment buildings were built with low ceilings to accommodate the dense population and they can still be seen as you walk around. Two of the five historic synagogues are still in use, the Byzantine-style Schola Spagnola, used in summer, and the Baroque Schola Levantina, used in winter.
Near the Renaissance Scuola Grande di San Rocco art museum in the San Polo sestiere you'll find the free and interesting Museo della Musica. Besides a good collection of instruments and an exhibit about violin-making, the museum gives an interesting look at the life of Antonio Vivaldi, composer and musician from Venice, in an exhibit called "Antonio Vivaldi e il suo tempo."
Campo Santa Maria Formosa, in the Castello district, is one of the largest "campos," or squares, in the city. This campo is surrounded by an interesting collection of palazzi showing Venice's unique architectural styles. Each district has at least one major campo and many churches sit on a campo, too. These areas often serve as the neighborhood gathering place and are great spots for people watching.
Go Window Shopping
Venice is a window shopper's delight! Many small shops have inviting window displays, including artful blown glass (from Murano Island), jewelry, and beautifully decorated carnival masks. In the San Marco neighborhood, there are many upscale designer shops, but the Strada Nova, the wide main street of the Cannaregio district, is a mix of souvenir shops and local retailers. You can find art galleries and antique shops in the Dorsoduro district. Avoid buying items from vendors on the streets who may be selling counterfeit goods, as you can be fined for purchasing these.
Venice is home to many colorful festivals throughout the year, but perhaps the best known is Carnevale, which lasts about two weeks. Although many events are expensive, you'll see lots of free entertainment on the streets and canals, including gondola and boat parades along the Grand Canal, mask parades, elaborate costumes, and a huge fireworks finale. The historic regatta in September is an exciting historic boat race and parade of boats. The Festival of San Marco on April 25 honors Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, and kicks off with a huge procession to San Marco Basilica.