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piazza san marco st marks square venice pigeons rain Piazza San Marco: According to Napoleon, this gracious plaza was Europe's first drawing room. It's a huge piazza surrounded by the Basilica di San Marco, the Torre dell'Orologio clock tower and the arcade of Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove. The basilica is the primary tourist attraction; plan to wait in line during high season. It dates back to 1094 and represents a range of architectural styles, such as Byzantine, Romanesque and Renaissance. (Note: You will be denied entry to this and many other Italian churches if your attire is deemed inappropriate -- be sure your knees and shoulders are covered. Also, backpacks are not permitted; they will be checked and stored in a separate area before you enter the church.)

Also check out the Bell Tower, a 324-foot structure originally built in the 10th century. It had to be rebuilt early in the 20th century when it completely collapsed. Climb to the top for a great city view. Almost as much of a Piazza tradition is a visit to one of the square's two famous cafes -- Caffe Florian (the oldest in Venice) and Ristorante Gran Caffe Quadri. Their outside tables offer fabulous people-watching; just be prepared for the lofty prices.

Incidentally, San Marco is as big an attraction for pigeons as it is for people -- you may want to wear a hat.

Art galleries abound in Venice. The best-known include Gallerie dell'Accademia, featuring Venetian art from the 14th to 18th centuries, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for contemporary masterpieces and sculpture. Guggenheim was an American who resided in the Palazzo; she and her dogs are buried out back in the sculpture garden. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco features the work of Venetian artist Tintoretto (and also requires backpacks to be checked and stored in a separate area upon arrival).

The Venetian equivalent of a superhighway, the S-shaped Grand Canal runs through the heart of the city. It offers fabulous views of palazzos that date back to the 12th century and line the waterway. The best way to traverse the Grand Canal is via vaporetto, line #1. The Grand Canal also divides the city, in a way; the east side contains most of the best-known tourist attractions (San Marco Square, et al.), while the western part is generally more residential, boasting wonderful trattorias and local shops. Pedestrians can cross over the canal in just three places: Rialto Bridge, Accademia Bridge and Scalzi Bridge.

Venice's lovely cathedrals and churches are too numerous to count; among the highlights (besides the basilica) are Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (Campo dei Frari, San Polo), a huge 14th/15th-century Gothic church, and the 17th-century Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (Punta della Dogana, Dorsoduro).

Lost in Venice: One Wrong Turn, and You May Never Leave

rialto bridge gondola venice Yes, it's the ultimate touristy thing to do, but a gondola ride is also incredibly romantic (particularly at sunset). And it offers a different perspective of Venice -- from the water, along tiny canals, where vaporetti cannot go. Gondolas typically take anywhere from two to six people, and you pay per trip, not per person. The ride lasts anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes. Negotiate the rate before you get in, and plan to shell out 80 - 100 euros, depending on the time of day (it's typically most expensive after 7 p.m). If you're willing to splurge, request an accordion player and/or singer to join you on the ride.

First-timers who are interested in glass-making should trek to the island of Murano. (Boats run on a regular schedule from Piazza San Marco.) You can see the process and technique of glass-making, and there's a gift shop. Although you don't have to go to Murano to buy glass made there (numerous shops and galleries sell it, but beware of knock-off suppliers), for the best selection -- from traditional to quite contemporary pieces -- you really should venture to the island.

A bit farther afield is the charming island village of Burano, known for its brightly colored houses and its exquisite handmade lace. (Note: These days, not all lace for sale there is made locally; be sure to ask before buying.) A Lace Museum (Museo del Merletto) is there if you want to learn a bit more about the art and history of lace-making. And don't worry if your Italy trip doesn't include a stop in Pisa -- Burano's campanile, or bell tower, has its own distinct tilt.

Giudecca, an island facing Venice (so you get gorgeous views), is where wealthy Venetians built their residences and where many locals have settled, as Venice itself has become tourist-clogged and expensive. Check out Chiesa del Redentore, built in the 16th century.

The Lido, serviced by the vaporetti and fronting both the Venice Lagoon and the Adriatic sea, is Venice's beach island. It's a great place to escape the summer heat between May and September. Several beaches charge fees for admittance and amenities, such as cabanas.

Want to pilot your own gondola? Take a lesson with Row Venice. A 90-minute lesson on rowing -- Venetian-style -- offers not just a great excuse to get out on the water but also an introduction into a distinctive local tradition. Learn more.

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