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Venice for first-timers: 4 things not to miss in The Floating City

Grab a Bellini, hail a water taxi, and don your finest mask - you're invited to Italy's living masquerade.


Venice: the wonderland, the myth, the legend. It’s like a fairy-tale come to life; a delectable mix of weathered pastels, intricate masks, and streets made of water that will entice and charm you like a Renaissance magician. If you’ve yet to visit, you should make plans to do so right away – and not just because the city is sinking.

But where to begin? It could take you months to acquaint yourself with Venice’s crooked canals of secrets, but the following list has 4 must-dos for those on a time crunch. So grab a Bellini, hail a water taxi, and don your finest mask – you’re invited to Italy’s living masquerade.

Venice for first-timers

1. Eat your way through Venice.

It’s safe to say this is an obvious one, given that you’re in Italy (er…Eataly). But the food is without a doubt one of Venice’s highlights – which is why it’s first on the list.

Venice for first-timersStart each morning with biscotti and a famous Italian espresso, ideally at a waterside cafe. Then, tour your way through the city’s gelato shops, sampling every flavor from nutella to cotton candy, and see for yourself why the cold treat is one of Italy’s finest exports.

Chow down on handmade ravioli, mouth-watering gnocchi, and heavenly tagliatelle at the dozens of pasta houses in town, pairing your meal with a glass of Spritz, the 19th-century Veneto-born cocktail that you can’t escape anywhere in Italy.

And, of course, don’t forget about the most prized of carb-ridden heaven (and yet another thing we have to thank Italy for): pizza.

The two best pizzas I’ve ever had were both consumed in Italy – the first, in a restaurant down the street from the Parthenon in Rome; the second, at a little hole-in-the-wall near the Ponte Rialto in Venice. It’s called Antico Forno, and for 2 euro, you can grab an enormous slice for yourself and be ruined forever (in a good way.)

IMG_8269I can still picture both moments of superior-pizza-consumption perfectly, but particularly the one in Venice. After purchasing an entire pizza to split amongst our party, we had wandered over to the Grand Canal for dinner with a view. The weather was perfect and the colors on the buildings were slowly fading into a mirage as the sun began to set. Gondolas glided by as water buses cruised back and forth, and the buzz of distant travelers gave the city a feeling of being alive. Much like us.

Needless to say, one of your top priorities when visiting Venice should be indulging in its famed cuisine. Forget about counting carbs and go all out on this trip – I promise, you won’t regret it.

2. Follow the tourists (after all, you are one.)

If you’ve never been to Venice before, you have to do as the tourists do and check out the obligatory sights: among them, the Ponte Rialto, the Bridge of Sighs, and St. Mark’s Basilica.

Venice for first-timers
Inside St. Mark’s Basilica

The aforementioned basilica is situated in the aptly-named St. Mark’s Square, which is 50% restaurant, 30% gelato shop, and 20% pigeon.

The ceiling of the basilica seems to be plated in gold; it’s a stunning collection of tiles forming unbelievable mosaics across domes and spires. The cathedral is enormous but there’s something intimate to the delicate handiwork of its design. Due to the large volume of visitors, it may feel a bit like you’re being herded through, but – like every other European church – there’s so much to see it would take days to truly examine it anyway.

After you’ve explored the basilica, one of the best ways to take in the other sights is with a gondola ride. Settle into the (rather tipsy) confines of one of the famed boats and prepare to experience the city in all its intimate glory.

Venice for first-timers
Gondola views

You’ll likely begin in the Grand Canal and venture off down quieter alleys, soaking it all in as your gondolier points out the city’s wonders.  Be sure to chat with yours if you can – many of them have been steering the boats since they were 16, so they’ll likely have some fascinating stories.

Relax and enjoy yourself as the romance of the city settles atop your shoulders. Feel treated by the sugary display of old churches, gothic bridges, hidden canals, and Venetian flags rippling in the wind. Maybe you’ll find as I did that the design is pleasing to the eye the same way Parisian streets are, while housing a secretive, mystic allure that only Venice could achieve.

3. Explore Murano.

The next item on your agenda is to venture out of the Grand Canal towards the city’s 100+ lesser-populated islands.

Venice for first-timers
An artist demonstrates the process of glass-blowing

An easily accessible hotspot is the fascinating Murano, known for its superior hand-blown glass. You can get there by water bus, and the journey alone will give you an intriguing glimpse of the city’s main arteries from afar, as the crowded buildings and iconic towers set against the sky in a blur of beiges and tangerines.

Everywhere you go on Murano, you’ll find yourself surrounded by glass factories, studios and shops, all eager to show off their handiwork. If you’re interested, go inside one of the factories, where for a small fee you can sit and witness a glass-blowing demonstration.

A gallery window display in Murano

From there, spend the day wandering the dozens of galleries located along Murano’s canals. You’ll find your breath stolen by the exquisite handiwork demonstrated in the ornaments, bangles, vases, and chandeliers on display – and maybe return with a couple souvenirs.

4. Get lost.

Venice is known for being easy to get lost in, and a mere ten minutes spent on the edge of the Grand Canal trying to decipher a map on how to get virtually anywhere will be enough to confirm this notoriety.

Not only is Venice built over a series of islands (meaning most of the streets are water), but it fails to adhere to any intuitive sense of design (i.e. there’s definitely not a grid structure here). On top of that, there are about as many bridges in Venice as there are people, so you can’t even use those as markers (and you’ll have one hell of a time trying to lug your suitcases up and down each of them. Trust me on that one.)

Venice for first-timers
You never know what you might find while meandering through Venice

But, alas, the head-scratching mystery of Venice’s layout is half the fun of it. In fact, getting lost in Venice is quite exhilarating – and I 100% recommend you do it. You’ll find yourself uncovering fragments of what the city’s all about as you navigate its zigzagging streets and embed yourself in its gothic elements.

Perhaps you’ll find a tranquil square to lounge in for hours. Maybe you’ll uncover a hidden network of miniature canals shimmering with the reflection of crumbling paint and faded pastels. Possibly you’ll feel as if you’ve transported back in time to the pages of a fantasy novel, filled with masked balls and Carnival characters.

No matter what you discover, chances are, you’ll stumble across the feeling you’ve discovered a place that’s all your own – the happily ever after to one fairy tale of a trip.

Except for those damn bridges.

Venice for first-timers


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