Venice is filled with iconic attractions, none greater than the living, breathing city itself. Rise early for a espresso and a brioche at a local bar, and then make a beeline to the Rialto Bridge to cross this Renaissance-era beauty in tranquility. The single ornate arch made the Rialto Bridge wildly unorthodox to 16th century Venetians. On the San Polo side, head to the Rialto Market, a people-watching and foodie spectacle where local chefs find the freshest fish and produce of the day.

Cheap Thrills in Grand Style

The best crash course in the many wonders of the Grand Canal can be had for less than eight euros: hop on the Number 1 vaporetto (passenger ferry) for an hour-long city tour of dozens of historic palazzi (mansions) and the city’s most famous bridges. To get the full experience, board at Piazzale Roma and ride to the Lido. If you can, get on board an older boat with seating in the bow: it’s ideal for photos, more fun all around, and kids (of all ages) love it. If you feel like you’re in a James Bond film, no wonder: the Grand Canal graciously provided the stunning background for many scenes.

Across the Grand Canal

When you’re strolling along the Grand Canal, say attraversiamo (“Let’s cross over”) at the Accademia Bridge to arrive at what many call la vera Venezia (“the real Venice”): the sestiere of Dorsoduro, where you’ll find some of the city’s best art museums, such as the must-see Gallerie dell’Accademia, as well as the city’s most intriguing mask shop, Ca’ Macana.

St Mark’s Basilica and Palazzo Ducale

After stepping off the Number 1 vaporetto at Piazza San Marco, marvel at the Byzantine-Gothic-Greek mélange of architectural influences and the dizzying display of mosaics that make St Mark’s Basilica so remarkable. In addition to the free-entry church itself, highlights include the Museo, where the Doge kept his extraordinary treasures.

Don’t skip the exceptional grandeur inside the 14th century Palazzo Ducale, otherwise known as the Doge’s Palace, once the political power centre of Venetian life. Walk up the stunning Scala D’Orso (Golden Staircase) and ogle the lavish frescoes by Tintoretto.

Sigh over the Bridge of Sighs

The only covered bridge in Venice, the Ponte dei Sospiri–or, as Lord Byron christened it, the Bridge of Sighs–is a baroque beauty best viewed from the nearby Ponte della Paglia. Legend has it the Bridge of Sighs provided the last view of freedom for prisoners condemned to life sentences as they were transferred to the Priggione Nove (New Prisons), across from the Palazzo Ducale. For a peek at the bridge’s interior, sign up for a guided tour of the Itinerari Segreti (Secret Passages).

Uno Spritz, Per Favore

After you’ve hit the highlights of Piazza San Marco, order a spritz (the local cocktail, with prosecco, a dash of bitter orange liqueur, and mineral water) and indulge in people watching at one of the historic cafes on the square, decked out with live orchestras and tuxedoed waiters: both Caffè Lavena or the circa-1720 Caffè Florian—which claims to be the oldest cafe in the world—will delight.

Summer Fun

Come summer, locals flock to the beach at the Lido. For a more tranquil atmosphere, rent bikes and head further south to the lovely Alberoni. It’s an ideal spot to pack a picnic to enjoy among the sand dunes, which are part of a protected nature preserve.

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