Aside from on boats, the only way to explore Venice is by walking -- and getting lost repeatedly. You'll navigate many twisting streets whose names change constantly and don't appear on any map, and streets that may very well simply end in a blind alley or spill abruptly into a canal. You'll also cross dozens of footbridges. Treat getting bewilderingly lost in Venice as part of the fun, and budget more time than you'd think necessary to get wherever you're going.
Street Maps & Signage -- The free map offered by the tourist office and most hotels has good intentions, but it doesn't even show -- much less name or index -- all the calli (streets) and pathways of Venice. For that, pick up a more detailed map (ask for a pianta della città at news kiosks -- especially those at the train station and around San Marco) or most bookstores. The best (and most expensive) is the highly detailed Touring Club Italiano map, available in a variety of forms (folding or spiral-bound) and scales. Almost as good, and easier to carry, is the simple and cheap 1:6500 folding map put out by Storti Edizioni (its cover is white-edged with pink, which fades to blue at the bottom).
Still, Venice's confusing layout confounds even the best maps and navigators. You're often better off just stopping every couple of blocks and asking a local to point you in the right direction (always know the name of the campo/square or major sight closest to the address you're looking for, and ask about that).
As you wander, look for the ubiquitous yellow signs (well, usually yellow) whose destinations and arrows direct you toward five major landmarks: Ferrovia (the train station), Piazzale Roma, Rialto (the main bridge), San Marco, and the Accademia (also useful as the only other Grand Canal bridge below the train station).
Cruising the Canals
A leisurely cruise along the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco to the Ferrovia -- or the reverse -- is one of Venice's must-dos. It's the world's most unusual Main Street, a watery boulevard whose palazzi have been converted into condos. Lower water-lapped floors are now deserted, but the higher floors are still coveted by the city's titled families, who have inhabited these glorious residences for centuries; others have become the summertime dream homes of privileged expats, drawn here as irresistibly as the romantic Venetians-by-adoption who preceded them -- Richard Wagner, Robert Browning, Lord Byron, and (more recently) Woody Allen.
As much a symbol of Venice as the winged lion, the gondola is one of Europe's great traditions, incredibly and inexplicably expensive but truly as romantic as it looks (detractors who write it off as too touristy have most likely never tried it). Though it's often quoted in print at differing official rates, expect to pay 80€ for a 40-minute tour (100€ 7pm-8am), with up to six passengers, and 40€ for every additional 20 minutes (50€ at night). That's not a typo: 150€ an hour for an evening cruise. Note: At these ridiculously inflated prices, there is no need to tip the gondolier. Aim for late afternoon before sundown, when the light does its magic on the canal reflections (and bring a bottle of prosecco [a champagnelike wine] and glasses). If the gondola price is too high, ask visitors at your hotel or others lingering about at the gondola stations if they'd like to share it. Before setting off, establish with the gondolier the cost, time, and route explanation (any of the back canals are preferable to the trafficked and often choppy Grand Canal). They're regulated by the Ente Gondola (tel. 041-528-5075; www.gondolavenezia.it), so call if you have any questions or complaints.
And what of the serenading gondolier immortalized in film? Frankly, you're better off without. But if warbling is de rigueur for you, here's the scoop. An ensemble of accordion player and tenor is so expensive that it's shared among several gondolas traveling together. A number of travel agents around town book the evening serenades for around 35€ per person. The number of gondolieri willing to brave the winter cold and rain is minimal, though some come out of their wintertime hibernation for the Carnevale period.
There are 12 gondola stations around Venice, including Piazzale Roma, the train station, the Rialto Bridge, and Piazza San Marco. There are also a number of smaller stations, with gondoliers standing alongside their sleek 11m (36-ft.) black wonders looking for passengers. They all speak enough English to communicate the necessary details.
By Boat -- The various sestieri are linked by a comprehensive vaporetto (water bus/ferry) system of about a dozen lines operated by the Azienda del Consorzio Trasporti Veneziano (ACTV), Calle Fuseri 1810, off the Frezzeria in San Marco (tel. 041-528-7886 for both offices; www.actv.it). Transit maps are available at the tourist office and most ACTV stations. It's easier to get around on foot; the vaporetti principally serve the Grand Canal (and can be crowded in summer), the outskirts, and the outer islands. The crisscross network of small canals is the province of delivery vessels, gondolas, and private boats.
A ticket valid for 1 hour of travel on a vaporetto is a steep 6.50€, while the 24-hour ticket, at 18€, is a good buy if you'll be making more than two trips spread out through the day. Most lines run every 10 to 15 minutes from 7am to midnight, and then hourly until morning; most vaporetto docks (the only place you can buy tickets) have timetables posted. Note that not all stations sell tickets after dark; if you haven't bought a pass or extra tickets beforehand, you'll have to settle up with the conductor onboard (you'll have to find him -- he won't come looking for you) for an extra .50€ per ticket or risk a stiff fine, no excuses accepted. Also available are 48-hour tickets (28€) and 72-hour tickets (33€). If you're planning to stay in Venice a while, it makes sense to pick up a Venice Card, with which you can buy 1-hour vaporetto tickets for 1€.
Just three bridges spanned the Grand Canal until 2008 when a fourth was added connecting the train station with Piazzale Roma. To fill in the gaps, traghetti skiffs (oversize gondolas rowed by two standing gondolieri) cross the Grand Canal at eight intermediate points. You'll find a station at the end of any street named Calle del Traghetto on your map and indicated by a yellow sign with the black gondola symbol. The fare is .50€, which you hand to the gondolier when boarding. Most Venetians cross standing up. For the experience, try the Santa Sofia crossing that connects the Ca' d'Oro and the Pescheria fish market, opposite each other on the Grand Canal just north of the Rialto Bridge -- the gondoliers expertly dodge water traffic at this point of the canal, where it's the busiest and most heart-stopping.
By Water Taxi -- Taxi acquei (water taxis) charge high prices and aren't for visitors watching their euros. The meter starts at a hefty 14.50€ and clicks at 1.80€ per minute. Each bag over 50cm long (20 in.) costs 3€, plus there's an 8€ supplement for service from 10pm to 7am and an 8€ surcharge on Sundays and holidays (these last two charges, however, can't be applied simultaneously). If they have to come get you, tack on another 6€. Those rates cover up to two people; if any more squeeze in, it's another 1.50€ per extra passenger (maximum 20 people). Taking a taxi from the train station to Piazza San Marco or any of the hotels in the area will put you back about 60€ for two people, while there is a fixed 95€ fee to go or come from the airport. Note that only taxi boats with a yellow strip are the official taxis sanctioned by the city.
Six water-taxi stations serve key points in the city: the Ferrovia, Piazzale Roma, the Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco, the Lido, and Marco Polo Airport. Radio Taxi (tel. 041-522-2303) will come pick you up anyplace in the city.
By Gondola -- To come all the way to Venice and not indulge in a gondola ride could be one of your biggest regrets. Yes, it's touristy, and, yes, it's expensive, but only those with a heart of stone will be unmoved by the quintessential Venetian experience. Do not initiate your trip, however, until you have agreed upon a price and synchronized watches. Oh, and don't ask them to sing.
If, after a few days in Rome and Florence, you were just getting the hang of correlating your map to the reality of your new surroundings, you can put aside any short-term success upon your arrival in Venezia. Even the Italians (non-Venetian ones) look befuddled when trying to decipher street names and signs (given that you can ever find any).
Venice's colorful thousand-year history as a once-powerful maritime republic has everything to do with its local dialect, which absorbed nuances and vocabulary from far-flung outposts in the East and from the flourishing communities of foreign merchants who, for centuries, lived and traded in Venice. A linguist could gleefully spend a lifetime trying to make some sense of it all. From Venetian dialect we've inherited such words as gondola (naturally), ciao, ghetto, lido, and arsenal.
But for the Venice-bound traveler just trying to make sense of Venetian addresses, the following should give you the basics. (And don't even try to follow a conversation between two gondolieri!)
ca' -- The abbreviated use of the word casa is used for the noble palazzi, once private residences and now museums, lining the Grand Canal: Ca' d'Oro, Ca' Pesaro, and Ca' Rezzonico. There is only one palazzo, the Palazzo Ducale, the former doge's residence. However, as time went on, some great houses gradually began to be called "palazzi," so today you'll also encounter the Palazzo Grassi or the Palazzo Labia.
calle -- Taken from the Spanish (though pronounced as if Italian, ca-lay), this is the most commonplace word for "street," known as via or strada elsewhere in Italy. There are numerous variations. Ruga, from the French word rue, once meant a calle flanked with stores, a designation no longer valid. A ramo (literally "branch") is the offshoot of a street and is often used interchangeably with calle. Salizzada once meant a paved street, implying that all other, less important calles were once just dirt-packed alleyways. A stretto is a narrow passageway.
campo -- Elsewhere in Italy it's piazza. In Venice, the only piazza is the Piazza San Marco (and its two bordering piazzette); all other squares are campi or the diminutive, campielli. Translated as "field" or "meadow," these were once small, unpaved grazing spots for the odd chicken or cow. Almost every one of Venice's campi carries the name of the church that dominates it (or once did), and most have wells, no longer used, in the center.
canale -- There are three wide, principal canals: the Canal Grande (affectionately called "il Canalazzo," the Canal), the Canale della Giudecca, and the Canale di Cannaregio. Each of the other 160-odd smaller canals is called a rio. A rio terrà is a filled-in canal -- wide and straight -- now used as a street. A piscina is a filled-in basin, now acting as a campo or piazza.
fondamenta -- Referring to the foundations of the houses lining a canal, this is a walkway along the side of a rio (small canal). Promenades along the Grand Canal near the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto are called riva, as in the Riva del Vin or Riva del Carbon, where cargo such as wine and coal were once unloaded.
ramo -- Literally "branch," a small side street.
sottoportego -- An alley that ducks under a building.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.