Updated: May 21, 2015
Venice Walking Tours -DISCLOSURE: We received a complimentary tour from CityWonders.com while in Venice in exchange for an unbiased review. That is what follows...
Ahhh.... Venice! One of the most beautiful cities in the world, Venice is also a tourist Mecca, attracting more than 20 million visitors per year. Many people visit via cruise ships and have only a day to see the city, while others spend a few days there. However much time you spend there, the question is how to see the most and get the most out of your time. One option is to take some guided tours - the most popular tour is probably of the Doge's Palace. But there are also a variety of Venice walking tours you can take to familiarize with different aspects of the city. On our July 2014 trip, we took a tour with CityWonders.com. They offer guided walking tours in a number of countries, including Italy, France, and Spain. In Venice, they offer all day VIP tours, Night and Gondola tours, Murano glassblowing tours, Rialto Market tours - we were taking the Best of Venice and Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale), which includes a visit to St. Mark's Basilica. The price for this tour is $98. This was my 5th visit to Venice (my favorite city, along with New York City), so I was a little skeptical about taking a walking tour of Venice since I had "seen it all" - but it was the first visit for my kids and I hoped they would listen and learn a little more about the history of the city if a guide told them instead of Dad, and the tour included access to both St Mark's and the Doge's Palace, which are the top 2 tourist sites in Venice and very crowded, often requiring long waits to get in.. So a tour fit the bill of getting us some history and getting us into 2 busy, crowded tourist spots we wanted to see.
What to expect on a guided walk of VeniceOur tour began at the foot of the statue in Campo S. Bortolomio, near the Rialto Bridge. Our guide had a sign and a flag so it was easy to find her (they send you an email in advance with specific meeting details - we even got a cell-phone call right as we were arriving, with the guide making sure we were coming and could find it OK). After getting checked in, they began handing out little headsets and radios and I thought - "Wait, isn't this tour in English? Why the headsets?" Turns out the headsets are for being able to hear your guide clearly as you walk through the throngs of tourists, sometimes single file down narrow alleys - with the headsets and radios, she can talk the entire tour and you can hear every word said, even if you are 20 or 30 feet behind - what a great idea! And throughout the tour the headsets worked perfectly. The total time of the tour was 3.5 hours. We met at 9AM, and the first two hours were devoted to the Best of Venice portion of the tour, ending upon exiting St. Mark's Basicila (details below). The final 1.5 hours were devoted to the Doge's Palace tour.
Once everyone was organized, we headed off to our first stop, a scenic little courtyard along the Grand Canal called Campiello del Remer. This is a great spot with a little restaurant that serves lunch and happy hour snacks and drinks - but it is hard to find on an unmarked side alley - I had wanted to find it so was glad to discover it was part of the tour. Our guide (who was a Venetian native - what better source for info on Venice?!) took out maps and gave us a lot of background information about Venice - city layout, history, information on lagoon and tides, etc. Most of the stops we would make during the tour were similar - maybe a 10-15 minute pause while the guide provided a lot of historical and local information. With the headsets, you were free to wander a bit and snap some photos while still hearing everything said.
Our second stop was nearby, a small courtyard where Marco Polo used to have a home. We learned more about Venice's history as a trading and naval power, about the cisterns that would collect fresh water for the city, etc. More little backstreets and alleys and bridges (past a little building that was actually an elementary school, who knew?) brought us to the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, home of a church and hospital. Did you know there are Venetian ambulance boats? Another large open piazza, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, was our next stop. More facts and slice of life info about Venice - we even had a few minutes to use the bathroom or get some water at a little cafe (buy a bottle of water, you can use their bathroom!). We then made our way in behind the Bridge of Sighs and into the rear of Piazza San Marco, behind the famous church.
Our tour included entrance to the famous St. Mark's Basilica without having to wait in line (which can be a big time saver, however you can also reserve a specific timed entrance ticket online for 2 Euros - http://www.venetoinside.com/en/attractions/saint-marks-basilica/), so that was our next stop. We went upstairs first, where you get a terrific elevated view from the outside terrace looking over St. Mark's Square, standing among the (replica) grand bronze horses (the real ones are inside). (NOTE: The tour website suggests they have "special access" to this upstairs terrace - it is in fact open to anyone who wants to pay the 5 euros to go up there - you will see a staircase going up to your right right as you are about to walk into the church proper (along with pictures of the horses and the word "cavalli" which means horses) - just head up and buy your ticket at the top of the stairs). Inside, we also got a close up view of the majestic gold mosaics that cover the walls and ceiling of the church. Back downstairs, we did a fairly brief walk-thru of the church - it is very crowded and you have to kind of keep following the path through the church while listening to the guide. This truly is an amazing church with so much detail inside and out you can barely absorb it all - a must see when in Venice.
At this point the first part of the tour ends - some people only take the Best of Venice part and skip the Doge's Palace - about half our group departed before we headed over to the Doge's Palace. But we stayed and our group headed around the corner to the entrance of the palace and went into the main courtyard. The tour here covers all the sights you'd see on a normal tour of the Palace. If you were not on an inclusive, no-lines walking tour, you would pay 16-20 euros for entrance into the Doge's Palace (http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/home/). We made our way up the grand staircases, through all the very decorated rooms (paintings on all the ceilings and walls), had some great views looking out over the lagoon, crossed the Bridge of Sighs to check out the old prison cells. All through this, our guide continued to offer historical commentary and answer questions - again, the headsets doing a good job of letting you hear your guide over the 5 other tours buzzing around you. When the tour concludes at 12:30 you are still inside the Palace and have the option of exploring more on your own or heading outside, where we parted ways.
Venice Walking Tour ReviewSo to wrap it up..
As an experienced Venetian traveler, I did not learn a ton of new information about Venice, but again I had been here many times and read many books prior, so I wasn't expecting a lot of new information. But for a first time visitor, the tour really provides almost all you would want or need to know about Venice, without having to spend hours reading books and websites. And having access to a guide who is a native, local Venetian lets you learn about real life in this amazing city and ask all the questions that pop into your mind - something you can't do with a book! And getting access to the church and palace without having to wait in lines can save you a lot of valuable time if you are here for a short visit. If you are visiting from a cruise ship, for example, you could get in all your Venice history and background info you need to know, plus see these two major tourist sites and be done just after noon, leaving you the rest of the day to ride the vaporetto or gondola, see some of the other museums or churches, or just wander and get lost, which is one of the joys of Venice. So a tour like this lets you pack a lot of stuff into a single day. Our guide was very knowledgable, friendly, spoke very good English, and did a great job.
At almost $100 per person, this tour isn't cheap, but it includes access to the church and palace which would set you back about $30 if you did those on your own, so consider the real cost to be about $70 for a 3.5hr guided tour. So while a little pricey, I would still recommend it to first time visitors looking to cover the Venice basics. If you are a super organized traveler who does all their research in advance, plans all the tickets in advance, learns all the history in advance, you could probably save some money by doing and seeing the same things on your own. So overall, a good tour, great guide, great experience - consider a guided walking tour on your trip to Venice to help organize your day and save you time.