Part of the joy of visiting Il Bel Paese is, of course, finally seeing those iconic sights you’ve admired for years in photos. But what really stays with you after returning home is less the blockbuster sightseeing and more the experience of getting to know a new country and its culture and cuisine. We know that one of the best ways to discover the more authentic side of Italy (or any country, for that matter) is with an expert, local tour guide. You want someone who can share both the A-list monuments and the hidden gems that make each town and city in the country unique.
Nowhere is this more true than Venice. This captivating “floating city” is much more than its elegant Grand Canal, resplendent cathedral, and famed island of glassmakers. Sure, you can explore the city on your own armed with nothing more than a good printed guide and GoogleMaps. But bring a printed map…there is very weak cell service in many of the narrow lanes. However, to really take a deep dive into the side of Venice’s history and modern daily life that only locals know, a guided tour is the way to go. Here are some of your options for tours in Venice:
Booking an introductory city tour is a great way to kick off a visit to Venice. However, the only way to do it is on your own two feet. A local guide can cover main sights, help you get your bearings, and move efficiently between sights. We definitely recommend that you set aside some time to get lost! A local guide will also give you an overview of the city’s history that will enrich your entire Venice experience.
You can book a private guide, a small-group tour, or a large-group tour. In Venice, we do not recommend booking a large-group tour. The streets are narrow and crowded, and you won’t be able to hear what the guide is saying if the group is too large. You’ll also move much more quickly with a private guide or in a smaller group. This means you’ll be able to cover main sights like the Bridge of Sighs, St. Mark’s Square and St. Mark’s Basilica, the Bell Tower or campanile, and the Rialto Bridge in a couple of hours. Visiting St. Mark’s Basilica with a guide has the added benefit of skip-the-line entry because tour guides use a special entrance.
There is no need to book a gondola tour in Venice. When you get to Venice, keep your eye out for Gondola signs along the Grand Canal and other canals. We recommend that you chat with gondoliers until you find one that you’d like to do business with. Rates are fixed and the amount of time you get is fixed. Booking a gondola tour ahead of time just means someone else marks it up, so there is no added value here.
Food tours, on the other hand, are money well spent. Venice’s cuisine is unique in Italy, and to appreciate it you should know what you’re eating. Venice is not the best place in Italy to order pizza, because pizza ovens are illegal in Venice proper. That’s also the reason all the glass-blowers are concentrated on the island of Murano. Venice is not really known for its pasta, either. In Venice, travelers should eat seafood and try the local small bites called cicchetti, which require some explanation. Many food tours also include a turn through the city’s historic outdoor market near the Rialto Bridge before touching on some of the more storied food and gourmet shops. Don’t miss visiting the bacari (wine bars) to sample the local take on tapas.
Unless you’re on a boat, all tours are walking tours in Venice, so wear appropriate footwear. Streets can be uneven cobblestones, and while the islands are naturally flat, there are hundreds of bridges with stairs that you’ll be crossing. There are fantastic walking tours of all types in Venice. Visit the Jewish Ghetto, see Venice from a Renaissance perspective. We also recommend exploring the city’s historic artisan workshops. Or, concentrate on taking a deep dive into just one of the city’s six sestieri (districts). Take your kids on a guided cultural treasure hunt, or admire Venice’s ornate “scuole” (many of which house the city’s top artworks). Photography buffs can even take a photo tour that includes the most evocative corners of Venice.
Booking a tour to these islands is another tour worth the money. If you board a public vaporetto boat to visit the glass-blowing island of Murano, you’ll be crowded in with other tourists. This means you’ll end up following the well-trodden path through the glass factories that are open when you get there. Book a tour with a private guide who can give you a more exclusive behind-the-scenes look at this special craft and can include a private speedboat transfer to and from the islands if you’d rather not deal with the crowds on public transportation and/or would like to have time to visit more than just an island or two. Many private Murano tours also stop for a stroll through the island of Burano, known for its colorful Instagram-ready houses and traditional lacework. Nearby Torcello was the first island to be settled in the Venetian lagoon.
Group tours of the Doge’s Palace and the Clock Tower tours sell out months ahead of time in high season and you can buy tickets online, so if you’re on a strict budget and know you want to tour these two sights, it’s wise to book ahead of time. The best tour guides in the city also tend to get booked out during the busiest months of the year (generally the summer). Therefore, the earlier you contact them, the better the chances of reserving these highly sought-out local experts.
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