Venice is notorious for changing and extending the opening hours of its museums and, to a lesser degree, its churches. Before you begin your exploration of Venice's sights, ask at the tourist office for the season's list of museum and church hours. During the peak months, you can enjoy extended museum hours -- some places stay open until 7 or even 10pm. Unfortunately, these hours are not released until approximately Easter of every year. Even then, little is done to publicize the information, so you'll have to do your own research.
Strategies for St. Mark's Square
Lines can be long at the Basilica di San Marco (average 45 min), but you can avoid waiting by reserving access in advance online (www.venetoinside.com; 3€), up to 10 minutes before your chosen entry time. This service is only available April through October; at other times try to arrive 30 minutes before opening time to avoid the worst of the crush (and skip holidays altogether). You can also use the same website to skip the line at the Campanile di San Marco.
It is possible (and not too exhausting) to see the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale in one day. Start at the church, arriving 30 minutes before opening (ideally get an online reservation in advance). Take a break before heading across to the Doge’s Palace, where you can spend the rest of the day. You can buy palace tickets in advance online (www.vivaticket.it); there’s no express entry option, unless you book a third-party tour, but there’s not usually a wait to get inside here. Your palace ticket also includes entry to the Museo Correr and Museo Archeologico Nazionale, but it’s safe to save these for another day—tickets are valid for up to 3 months.
Note: The guards at St. Mark’s entrance are serious about forbidding entry to anyone in inappropriate attire—shorts, sleeveless shirts, cropped tops, and skirts above the knee. Note also that you cannot enter the basilica with luggage, and that photos and filming inside are forbidden. Although the basilica is open Sunday morning for anyone wishing to attend Mass, non-worshippers cannot enter merely to tour the site.
Venice offers a somewhat bewildering range of passes and discount cards. For short stays, we recommend buying an ACTV travel card and combining that with one of the first two passes listed below. The more complex Venezia Unica card scheme is convenient once you’ve worked out what you want online, and is recommended if you intend to stay up to 7 days and do a lot of sightseeing. The Venezia Unica website (www.veneziaunica.it) is a one-stop shop for all the passes listed below.
The Museum Pass (www.vivaticket.it) grants admission to all the city-run museums over a 6-month period—it also lets you skip any ticketing lines, a useful perk in high season. The pass includes the museums of St. Mark’s Square—Palazzo Ducale, Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana—as well as the Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo (Costume Museum), the Ca’ Rezzonico, the Ca’ Pesaro, the Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) on Murano, and the Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum) on Burano. The Museum Pass is available online (for an extra 0.50€), or at any of the participating museums and costs 24€ for adults, and 18€ for students under 30 and kids ages 6 to 14. It’s a good deal, as the Doge’s Palace will set you back 20€ alone; visit one more major museum (the Ca’ Rezzonico and Ca’ Pesaro are both 10€ each) and you’ve made a decent saving.
If churches are your interest, consider the Chorus Pass (www.chorusvenezia.org), which grants admission to almost every major church in Venice, 18 in all, for 12€ (8€ for students under 30), for up to 1 year. For 24€, the Chorus Pass Family gives you the same perks for two adults and their children up to 18 years old. Most churches charge 3€ admission, which means you’ll need to visit more than four to make this pass worthwhile.
The Venezia Unica card (www.veneziaunica.it) combines the above passes, transport, discounts, and even Internet access on one card via a “made-to-order” online system, where you choose the services you want. The most useful option is the City Pass, which combines the Museum Pass and Chorus Pass plus free entry to the Jewish Museum and discounts on temporary exhibits for 39.90€ for 7 days (29.90€ for ages 6–29). Assuming you visit the Doge’s Palace, a couple of major city museums, the Jewish Museum, and more than four churches, this should save you 20€ or more. You can also buy various transportation packages and Wi-Fi access (from 5€ for 24 hr.). Once you’ve paid, you simply print out a voucher to use at museums and sights in Venice; to use public transport you must collect tickets by entering your booking code at one of the ACTV automatic ticket machines or by visiting one of the official Points of Sale in in the city, including one in the train station (open 7am–9pm) and at the Rialto vaporetto stop (open 7am–11pm).
Also, for visitors between the ages of 6 and 29, there is the Rolling Venice card (also available at www.veneziaunica.it). It’s valid until the end of the year in which you buy it, costs just 6€, and entitles the bearer to significant (20%–30%) discounts at participating restaurants (but applies only to cardholder’s meal) and a similar discount on ACTV travel cards (22€ for 3 days). Holders of the Rolling Venice card also get discounts at museums, stores, language courses, hotels, and bars across the city (it comes with a thick booklet listing everywhere that you’re entitled to get discounts).
The Art of the Gondola
Putting together one of the sleek black boats is a fascinatingly exact science that is still done in the revered traditional manner at boatyards such as the Squero di San Trovaso . The boats have been painted black since a 16th-century sumptuary law -- one of many passed by the local legislators as excess and extravagance spiraled out of control. Whether regarding boats or baubles, laws were passed to restrict the gaudy outlandishness that, at the time, was commonly used to "outdo the Joneses."
Propelled by the strength of a single gondoliere, these boats, unique to Venice, have no modern equipment. They move with no great speed but with unrivaled grace. The right side of the gondola is lower because the gondoliere always stands in the back of the boat on the left. Although the San Trovaso squero, or boatyard, is the city's oldest and one of only three remaining (the other two are immeasurably more difficult to find), its predominant focus is on maintenance and repair. They will occasionally build a new gondola (which takes some 40-45 working days), carefully crafting it from the seven types of wood -- mahogany, cherry, fir, walnut, oak, elm, and lime -- necessary to give the shallow and asymmetrical boat its various characteristics. After all the pieces are put together, the painting, the ferro (the iron symbol of the city affixed to the bow), and the wood-carving that secures the oar are commissioned out to various local artisans.
Although some 10,000 of these elegant boats floated on the canals of Venice in the 16th century, today there are only around 425, .almost all catering to the tourist trade. Tthe job of gondoliere remains a coveted profession, passed down from father to son over the centuries, but nowadays it’s open to anyone who can pass 400 hours of rigorous training—Giorgia Boscolo passed the exam in 2010, becoming the first ever gondoliera; her father was also in the profession.