For the price of a Vaporetto ticket or bike rental, Venice offers history, local color and the pleasure of exploring hidden corners and seeing sights few tourists find. And Venice is all about the experience, and less about the museums and “attractions” – the city itself is the attraction. Here are a few ideas:
Get lost – Wander among Medieval and Renaissance streets or along canals lined by fading palaces. You’ll eventually come out at a landmark or the lagoon.
Visit the Basilica of St. Mark — This Venice icon is free to visit, although it’s wise to pay a euro or two for a reservation (unless it’s a very slow season) so you won’t have to stand in line.
Admire the art in smaller churches — A few other churches are free, including Santa Maria della Salute and San Zaccaria, where there are several Bellini paintings. Inside San Maurizio is the free Museo della Musica (music museum). Check for free concerts in churches, too.
Ride a “poor man’s gondola” — For two euros you can cross the Grand Canal between bridges as locals do, standing in a gondola called a traghetto. Find these crossing points near Santa Lucia Station, at Riva del Carbon below Rialto Bridge, at Palazzo Foscari and elsewhere.
Take a Vaporetto to Burano — Bright painted houses crowd along the canals, and the church tower, Campanile di San Martin, leans at a more alarming angle than Pisa’s. Take the Vaporetto to the glass-blowing island of Murano, but stay on the boat to the next island. Be sure to leave before dinner-time (there are no restaurants open in the evening), and before the last ferry. Service to the outer islands is not as frequent.
Visit Venice’s first settlements – Beyond Burano is the rarely visited island of Torcello. It costs only a few euros to go inside the early Christian basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, parts of which date from 638, and to climb its tower for views across the lagoon. The church has exquisite 9th–12th century floor and wall mosaics, including a Madonna surrounded in gold..
Explore the studios of San Polo — This neighborhood on the other side of Rialto Bridge is filled with tiny shops and studios of Venetian craftsmen; their shops are like free museums. Just wander around and get lost as you make your own discoveries of mask makers, engravers, wood carvers and paper craftsmen.
Bike the Brenta Canal — Go by bus to nearby Mira to bicycle alongside the canal, past the palatial villas where patrician Venetians escaped the summer heat. Admission to Villa Pisani’s gardens is available separately from the villa tour. A sign at the ticket office tells whether the famous hedge maze is open, and if it is, it’s worth buying the garden-only ticket. Rental bike service is handily located in Mira, at the Venetian end of the Brenta Canal, and they will deliver the bike to you at any bus station.