Cruising into Venice is a breathtaking experience, since ships take you right up the Grand Canal. No matter how many photos you see of the city's picturesquely decaying grandeur, nothing can prepare you for the moment you behold this northern Italian city. There are also many iconic things to do in Venice — from touring buildings that date back to the 9th century to, yes, taking a gondola ride — that let you experience the city in all its glory.
1. Join the crowds in St. Mark’s Square.
There is nowhere more famous (or more crowded) in Venice than the grand St. Mark’s Square. And despite the throngs, it's not to be missed. With ancient, elegant archways marching around its perimeter, iconic buildings framing the square, the waters of the lagoon lapping just outside, and the bell tower as the exclamation point, it's Venice distilled. After you've plunged into the swirling crowds, ascend the 30-story campanile for a pigeon's-eye view.
2. Tour St. Mark’s Basilica.
Venice's early link to glittering Constantinople and the east comes to life in the treasure trove that is St. Mark’s Basilica. Standing at the head of St. Mark’s Square, the 9th-century cathedral is crowned by a Byzantine dome and four bronze horses. Once you've soaked up the imposing facade, take a walk through the church to see the gold leaf mosaics and gem-encrusted gold altarpiece.
3. Explore the Doge's Palace.
The elected-for-life leaders of Venice called the Doge's Palace home, as did prisoners. The Gothic structure was also the seat of power for the republic. Today the 9th-century building is home to a vast museum starring a golden staircase, lavish art, the Doge's Apartments and throne — and the former prison. Follow the prisoners' footsteps across the famous Bridge of Sighs, the passageway where the doomed caught their final glimpse of the lagoon.
4. Shop the markets.
It may look like a postcard, but the open-air market northwest of the Rialto Bridge is the real deal. For 700 years, locals have flocked to the stalls for produce and ultra-fresh seafood. Join in the time-worn tradition: Cross the Grand Canal via the Renaissance-era stone bridge — originally built to deliver shoppers just like you to the markets — and join the colorful fray.
5. Get lost.
The best way to really see Venice is to submit to the labyrinthine network of canals and bridges and just wander. Let the jangling sound of modern tourism recede until you find yourself in a different world where the everyday magic of Venice reveals itself. You can't get too far off course, and can always rely on signs for Piazza San Marco to orient yourself.
6. Break for a spritz and some cicchetti.
To rest your legs during your wander, pop into one of the many little bars along the streets of Venice. The first step is to order a spritz — a fizzy, jewel-toned drink of white wine, Aperol, and seltzer garnished with an orange slice. It pairs perfectly with cicchetti, the Venetian version of tapas. Think crostini topped with sardines, shrimp, or charcuterie plus veggies and morsels of seafood on a toothpick.
7. Take a gondola ride.
It's the biggest cliché in town for a reason. A ride in one of the ornate, wooden boats is the quintessential Venetian experience. Just be sure to find one on a quiet canal where you can be away from the crowds and really feel like you have entered a time warp. Wherever you embark, the flat rate begins at 80 euros for a 40-minute trip (gondolas hold up to six people). If that's still too much for the vacation budget, you can cross the Grand Canal for just a couple of euros on the gondola-like ferries known as traghetti.