Free Things to Do In Venice

I can’t believe that in March of next year it will be the 20th anniversary of my college trip to Venice, Italy. In honor of that trip, I am continuing my series on free or nearly free things to do in ports with a report on Venice. I traveled there with my college choir to give a concert and sing at the mass dedicating the opening of our “Study Abroad” program in Venice. As a college student, I had little money to spend on the trip other than the per diem given to us and the money I had saved working during the previous Christmas holidays. Even with little money and much of our time taken up rehearsing in a cold dark church, I came away realizing that I had just visited one of the great cities in the world.

As a student, I simply walked everywhere in the city stopping to take pictures of sites like the Grand Canal, Bridge of Sighs, Rialto Bridge, Gondoliers, and St. Mark’s. I also enjoyed quite a bit of shopping. In 1989, the US Dollar was very strong against the Italian Lira, so I enjoyed buying high quality Italian clothes at low US Dollar prices. My favorite purchase was a dark green wool fitted blazer that still looks fantastic and like new nearly 20 years later. I think I paid the equivalent of $80 for the jacket. I’m sure no such bargains could be found today with the strong Euro and weak US dollar. However, there is still plenty to see and do that is relatively inexpensive in Venice.

The least expensive way to see Venice is with a self guided walking tour. With a map or tour book to guide you, you can easily see much of the city on foot, even if you are only there for a day. For a great list of free or nearly free things to do in in Venice check out the Top 11 list on Venice for Visitors. Their list includes many of my favorites including the Rialto Bridge, Grand Canal, St. Mark’s and the many campos and plazas.

A word of caution. It can be easy to get turned around or breifly lost in Venice, so in addition to referring to your map, take note of “landmarks” that will help you navigate your return. I had a picture of me taken with one of the most unusual landmarks that helped me know where to turn when making my way to the department store and the Rialto bridge, a men’s underwear advertising poster.

If you are visiting Venice on a cruise there are several options for getting around. The cruise ships dock slightly away from the most touristy parts of the city, but the cruise port usually offers a free water shuttle that will take you St. Mark’s Square. However, if you are an avid walker with a good sense of direction and a map, you can probably start your tour from the cruise port.

Starting at the Bacino Stazione Marattimo or the San Basilio, you can follow your map through the winding streets and make your way to the Rialto Bridge. The walk there will be half your fun. In Venice there is a picturesque bridge or interesting plaza or campo around every corner. Keep in mind that you will need to be a pretty avid walker in order to enjoy the city this way. There will be a stepped bridge over every canal so if you are not used to walking long distances or stairs you’ll want to try some of the other means of getting around Venice.

If you don’t wish to walk quite that much or decided to take the free shuttle to St. Marks Square, this is great starting point for your tour. The two sights you don’t want to miss are St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Rialto Bridge. From there you may simply want to window shop or wander around the town.

St. Mark’s cathedral is both impressive in its exterior mosaic and interior. There are guided tours offered but as a college student I just went in and wandered around. After enjoying the sights of St. Mark’s Square you’ll definitely want to make your way over to the Rialto Bridge. You can follow serveral different options but looking at the map it looks like Calle del Fabbri running into Calle Bembo are good options. Calle Bembo ends at the Grand Canal where you’ll be able to have a nice picture opportunity for the Rialto Bridge. This stone bridge is now home many souvenir shops selling everything from Venetian lace to ceramic carnival masks.

After you have visited these two sights turn to your guide book or preplanned itinerary. Maybe you want to check out more of the beautiful churches, or the interesting architecture of the many palaces in the city. You might want to shop or perhaps see more of the city from the water.

There are three ways to see the city from the canals. (Well maybe four if you count falling in one, but since the canals have untreated raw sewage in them you don’t even want to touch the water) The least expensive way to see the city from the water is the Vaporetto water bus system. The site Venice for Visitors has some good information on schedule, fees and other information. The other ways of getting around include the water taxis. These are the “Limo’s” of Venice and fares can cost over €100. This is not really even a “nearly free” option.

Finally, the splurge that I would recommend would be to enjoy a gondola ride. Seeing the city from the canals provides you with a completely different and romantic perspective of this grand city. The fares are established: for max 5 people you should pay about €50 for 45 minutes and €25 for further 30 minutes. At night the fares go up to to €100, with €50 for an additional 20 minutes. These fares can vary according to how many people for gondola. It is definitely smart to make sure that you and your gondolier have clearly established the fare before embarking.

A nearly free way to “ride” a gondola are the 7 “traghetti” gondola stations. These are passenger ferries that carry people from one side of the grand canal to the other in areas that don’t have bridges. You only cross the canal and stand the whole time, but for €5 its the “cheapest” gondola ride around.

Venice is truly a memorable city and one so unique and steeped in history that half the enjoyment of visiting the city is simply soaking up the unique ambiance of this canal city.