Venice is one of my favorite cities in the world, which is a claim about as cliche as saying Paris is the city of love. With its canal streets, thousands of bridges, and mask shops at every corner, it may be hard to imagine a Venice that’s unique. And if you’re a hipster like me, that means it’s hard to adore a city that everyone else loves.
But two trips to Venice and a load of reading in-between has taught me that Venice is worthy of its reputation. Not only is it beautiful, romantic, and otherworldly–it’s also full of surprising history, people, and nooks.
Here’s my guide to falling in love with a city, and making it fresh again.
The Doge Palace
On my first visit to Venice, I didn’t do many visits to the big sights. I was only in town for a day, and spent most of it running from place to place in an attempt to see as much as possible. (Pro tip: Venice deserves much longer than a day.)
When I returned for a longer stay, the Doge Palace was on my list. But not long into my entrance of this old government building, it quickly became one of my favorite places in the city.
The capital seats of government are fun places to visit if you’re a nerd like me who enjoys contemplating the propaganda hidden in golden embellishments and angel frescoes. But even for the layman, the Doge Palace is jaw-droppingly awesome (in both the modern and the old-fashioned sense of the word). There are information plaques in every room in multiple languages, so even if you walk in with no sense of the Republic of Venice you will soon get all you ever wanted to know about their quirky and cool traditions.
Highlights of the Doge Palace include:
The “Scudo” Room: A long stateroom with maps across the walls depicting every place Venice touched in trade or war.
The Council of Ten’s room: Where the super sketchy, very mysterious Council of Ten would meet. If you take the Secret Itineraries Tour, you get to enter through the hidden door and visit the places where the most prominent prisoners were kept. This includes Don Juan, who famously climbed out the window of his attic cell and then walked out of the building.
The prison: Crossing from the glory of the state rooms into the bare-walled, dank, cold prison cells is quite the change. As you enter the building again, you’ll walk over the Bridge of Sighs–the place where prisoners bound for death would get their last look at Venice.
The Chamber of the Great Council: As you progress through the palace, every room seems grander than the one before. My friend and I thought many times that we had reached the climax of the tour experience, but we were so very wrong. This room, bigger than any sane person’s house, is the real show-stopper.
The Doge’s Palace takes a long time to move through, especially if you’re reading the info as you go. So plan accordingly!
The Art of Wandering
Though there are the standard big-ticket items you should try to see (like the Doge Palace and towers, etc.), the true magic of Venice is in the wandering. If you are in a crowded part of the city, simply take to the nearest alleyways and turn blindly down the first several streets you see. In no time, you’ll find yourself free to explore the area virtually by yourself.
Plan to get lost. Go as far off the beaten track as you can, and enjoy the local bakeries, paper shops, and mask-maker stalls you find. Find the nooks and crannies that are charmingly gorgeous, like the archways between apartments or the narrow, tall bridges. And definitely pop in and out of the churches–you’ll be surprised by the relics and art inside. (My favorite was the preserved monk’s hand encased in glass.)
When it’s time to find your way again, I highly recommend using Venice Travel Guide and Offline City Map app. These are built by locals, and they’re invaluable if you ever want to find your hotel again.