2. Venice: St. Mark's Basilica, Doge Palace, and Gondola Ride
Venice is a city packed with unique history and culture, but if you only have a short amount of time to experience it, then the best way is through our Venice in a Day Tour.
Your day starts early, near the Rialto Bridge, where you'll learn how the city literally grew from the mud of the lagoon. You'll learn to identify the ways that its sea-borne origins have influenced history and culture. Nowhere is this demonstrated better than at the bustling Rialto Fish Market, where you'll see professional chefs mixing with home cooks, competing for some of the freshest fish you'll ever see.
From there you'll stroll through the backstreets of Venice, passing quiet piazzas and picturesque bridges, occasionally stopping at landmarks like the childhood home of Marco Polo, or popping into churches, like San Giovanni Gristosomo, to see paintings by Venetian masters Bellini and Sebastiano del Piombo. Along the way, your guide will regale you with local history and lore to give you a feel for how Venice has evolved, and how this centuries-old society has survived for so long.
If you really want to see how the locals live, you have to hop on a boat. That's why this tour includes a 30-minute gondola ride that takes you through both busy thoroughfares and quieter, residential canals. In this way, you can see Venice the way it was meant to be seen - from the water.
After a break for lunch, during which your guide will give you recommendations on where to eat, you'll meet again in St. Mark's Square and stroll into St. Mark's Basilica with pre-reserved, skip-the-line tickets. This enormous church is one of the most unique and awe-inspiring in Italy. As you explore it, your guide will explain how a Byzantine-style building came to be Venice's greatest landmark, while pointing out some of the more unique stories featured in the golden mosaics that cover the ceilings.
Finally, you'll hop across St. Mark's Square to the Doge's Palace, which was once the political nerve center for an empire that stretched across the Mediterranean and into Asia. It was in this building that the Doge, or Duke of Venice lived and where he lorded over an empire of immense wealth, but almost no actual land. This wealth is on display all through the palace in ornate decorations, and beautiful paintings by Venetian masters like Veronese and Bellini. You'll also get to see parts of the palace that weren't as nice, like the prisons, and the inside of the Bridge of Sighs.
With a small group of 18 people or fewer, and a passionate local guide to give you the background on what you're seeing and answer all your questions, this is a terrific way to pack a lot of sightseeing into a small amount of time, and see a side of Venice that most visitors miss.