Few cities in the world are so immediately recognisable as Venice. Who hasn’t been enchanted by its beauty just by looking at pictures of the Grand Canal and the pastel-coloured palazzi lining it? Yet there is no shortage of stories from people who have been disappointed by the city. “It’s expensive”, “it smells bad”, “it’s too crowded” are the commonest complaints and they are not entirely ungrounded. Εspecially the latter. However, La Serenissima, as Venice is traditionally known, is a unique, almost unbelievably beautiful city. A fairy-tale destination unlike any other. So, what to do in Venice to fully immerse yourselves in its magic? First and foremost, understand its peculiarities and you will have the time of your life in this masterpiece of a city.
The wonder that is Venice
Venice is not an island. It is a complex of 117 small islands connected to one another by almost 450 bridges. An entirely man-made construction, Venice came to be when people from the mainland fled to the Venetian lagoon so as to escape the Barbaric invasions. It took quite a few centuries for Venice to become the city as we know it today.
Venice was always meant to be reached by water. This is why we only see the back of the buildings when we walk around its narrow alleys. The facades can be seen from the canals. Even nowadays there are no cars or even bicycles in Venice. This can only add to the city’s spellbinding effect of course. The only way to get around is by boat or walking. Also, all aspects of every day life, for instance carrying out construction and repair works, is made possible with boats. Ambulances are boats, firefighters ride on boats and there are also boats turned into grocery stores.
For us, visitors, Venice canals are a romantic backdrop but for residents they are of vital importance. Sadly, the increased numbers of visitors and the modern way of life have taken their toll on the canals. That’s where the “smelly” part comes in. However, the smell affects the narrowest of canals and only during low tide.
Finding your way around Venice
As of 1171, Venice is divided into six districts or sestieri: Cannaregio, Castello, Santa Croce, San Polo, San Marco and Dorsoduro. Finding your way around the city on foot is not an easy task. Keep an eye for the street signs every time you cross a bridge or ponte. You may have entered a different sestiere than the one you were aiming for. Getting lost in the narrow alleys is utterly charming. However, if you are in a hurry or simply too tired to aimlessly wander around, use a paper map or Google maps. Try to remember, though, that the latter may or may not give you the quickest route possible.
How many days in Venice
We arrived in Venice very early in the morning on the 18th of April and we left on the 22nd of April in the afternoon. While planning our trip to Venice, we thought that, given its relatively small size, four days and a half would be more than enough to fully enjoy the city and tick off everything on our sightseeing list. It turns out that you just can’t get enough of the place. We would happily stay for a lot more. We skipped seeing quite a few pieces of art so as to have more time to take in the beauty of the city itself.
Try not to spend less than three days in Venice. And, please, under no circumstances should you even consider seeing Venice in a day. Take our word for it: it’s not day trip material. The vast majority of the negative impressions about Venice comes from those who have only seen it on a day trip. The city is swarming with people from 11:00 to 17:00. It’s early in the morning and in the evening that you really get to appreciate the magic of La Serenissima. Not to mention that the sight of Venice at night is priceless.
What to see in Venice
No matter how long you are staying in Venice, you will inevitably fall in love with the city just by walking around its narrow streets, bridge after bridge and canal after canal. The omnipresent Canal Grande alone is a sight for sore eyes. Venice abounds in famous landmarks and hidden gems alike scattered around its six sestieri.
My personal favourite district in Venice. It has a laid-back feeling and it’s usually unaffected by the infamous crowds. It’s home to the most quiet Venice canals and also the Jewish Ghetto, the oldest one in the world. A sunset stroll along the Fondamenta della Misericordia stopping for an Aperol Spritz or three at the quaint canal side bars is Venice at its best.
Anyone who has watched the sunset from the Riva degli Schiavoni must have vowed to keep coming back to Venice. Walk its full length and watch the setting sun as it dyes the islands of Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore across the water in all hues of red. The Arsenale, Venice’s former shipyard reminiscent of the city’s glorious past, is also in this district.
Sestiere Santa Croce
Although home to busy Piazzale Roma, this district has a very relaxed feeling once you’re inside its maze of narrow streets. Many of Venice’s best eateries are in this sestiere, too. Here you can see the controversial Ponte della Costituzione or Calatrava Bridge. A visual symbol of Venice’s connection to the rest of the world.
Sestiere San Polo
This is where it all began. The Rialto is the oldest part of the city. Perhaps the most iconic landmark in Venice is the Rialto Bridge. Its unique architecture, remarkable size and the views of the Grand Canal it offers, will amaze you. Visiting the neighbouring Rialto Market should be high on everyone’s what to do in Venice list, too. It’s open until 14:00 but fresh fish and seafood sell out a lot earlier. In the evening, its empty stalls serve as makeshift tables for locals to enjoy their drinks.
In the same district the Basilica dei Frari is also worth a visit. There you will have the chance to get a glimpse of Tiziano‘s superb work. Titian, as best known in English, was a prominent figure in the Venetian school of painters and his works can be seen elsewhere in the city, too.
If you are wondering what to do in Venice in the evening, head to Campo Erberia. Grab your drink from a nearby bar saying per portare via – the Italian way to say take away – and sit next to locals on the wooden platform right on the Grand Canal. If you are not already in love with Venice, it will happen there and then.
Sestiere San Marco
Although a relatively small district, San Marco receives the greatest number of visitors as it is home to the majority of top things to do in Venice. It’s best to visit early in the morning or from the afternoon onwards so as to avoid the crowds. Piazza San Marco, Basilica di San Marco (free entry), the Bell Tower of San Marco, Palazzo Ducale and The Bridge of Sighs are all Venice must-sees.
Piazza San Marco is home to a historic cafè or two, such as Caffè Florian and Caffè Lavena. Both have an air of times gone by with the orchestras playing live music as you sip on your high-priced Spritz. Harry’s bar is another pricey option but, hey, it’s where the Bellini cocktail was invented after all. If you’re not particularly keen on paying about ten times the price of your cocktails, though, head to the sestiere‘s back alleyway bars and mingle with the locals. That’s what we did anyway.
Art-packed Gallerie dell’Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a gondola boatyard (squero) in Campo San Trovaso, one of the most imposing churches in Venice, Santa Maria della Salute (free entry) and the romantic promenade from Punta della Dogana all along the Zattere claim your time and attention in this beautiful district. Keep in mind that the Peggy Guggenheim Collection offers super interesting, brief presentations on the life of Peggy and the making of the museum every day at 12:00 and 16:00. After you’ve seen the collection, sit at the museum’s terrace and have the entire Canal Grande right at your feet.
Furthermore, il Ponte dei Pugni has an interesting tale to tell. As its name suggests, the Bridge of Fists held many a fist fight back in the days when such spectacles were immensely popular. Nowadays you can see the marble footprints that once marked the fighters’ starting positions on the bridge.
In the evening, locals flock to lively Campo Santa Margherita, which is buzzing with life until late.
What to do in Venice
Believe it or not, Venice is a city for all budgets. There are so many incredible things to do in Venice ranging from free activities to very expensive ones. That said, if you have a few extra euros to spend or a special occasion to celebrate, there is no better place to do so than nella Serenissima. We have listed our top choices from the best free things to do in Venice to the ones that are definitely worth splurging on.
The view of a lifetime
What if we told you that the best view of the city and the Grand Canal comes entirely for free? A stone’s throw from the Rialto Bridge lies the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi department store. Marvelling at the view from its terrace is one of the best free things to do in Venice. There is a lift and you are allowed to stay up there for about 10′. You should pre-book a specific timeslot for your visit on their website so as to avoid queues. Needless to say that the best time to visit is around sunset. It was up there that we had the surreal feeling that we were actually looking at a moving painting rather than a real city.
Free walking tour
We love walking tours, either free or paid ones. We believe that a walking tour is the best way to get an overview of the destination we are visiting. Plus, we always learn something new that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
There are many free walking tours operating in Venice and our guess is that you can’t go wrong with any of them. We chose one offered by the La Bussola Association based not so much on its awesome reviews but on a hunch. It turns out we couldn’t have made a better choice. The Association offers a morning and an afternoon tour every day and you must definitely make a reservation beforehand on their website. The tours are entirely free. However, donating to the passionate and knowledgeable guides at the end of the tour is the least we can do. They are only volunteers but they are doing such an amazing job.
We took the morning tour which introduced us mainly to the Dorsoduro district. This tour focuses on how Venice was built and I can’t even begin to tell you how interesting it was. The afternoon tour focuses on the history of Venice and mainly covers the Castello district. If we had more time, we would love to go on this one, too. Our guide was Anastasiya. She is a Fine Arts student with amazing sense of humour and remarkable talent as a guide. Apart from sharing with us invaluable information about the city, she also took us to the best local spots for snacks and she gave us inside tips on what to do in Venice.
Apart from this walking tour being one of the best free things to do in Venice, we’re happy we joined it for yet another reason. La Bussola Association has a mission to try and change the mentality of the vast majority of visitors by encouraging them to get to know the real Venice rather than just use its most famous landmarks as the perfect background for their vacation photos. We find this remarkable and all of us who have fallen in love with this city should be doing the same. Instead of talking about the maddening crowds and all the negative aspects of Venice, we should encourage future visitors to experience, love and respect the real city and its residents rather than treat it like a Disneyland of sorts.
The traghetto experience
Strangely enough, of all 450 bridges in Venice only four cross the Grand Canal. Ponte della Costituzione, Ponte degli Scalzi, Ponte di Rialto and Ponte dell’Accademia. But what happens if you want to cross the Grand Canal but none of the four bridges is in your immediate vicinity? Instead of walking half of the city to get to the nearest bridge, you can hop on a traghetto.
Traghetti are gondolas without ornate seats and other luxurious decoration. Two gondolieri row them from one bank to the other from early morning until afternoon. Specific timetables are posted on each of the seven traghetto stops along the Grand Canal. You can simply take any street by the name Calle Traghetto towards the water and you will find yourself at a traghetto stop. However, I’m not sure if all seven of them are operative, as we only used the San Toma stop.
Apart from the obvious practical reasons, riding the traghetto is also a cheap way to live the gondola experience. Sure, a couple of minutes is way too short a ride, but for 2€ you can get the feeling of being on a gondola and decide whether you would actually want a full ride or not.
Vaporetto line 1 at night
Among the best things to do in Venice is seeing it from the water. If you want to do so on a budget, let us introduce you to Vaporetto line 1. Vaporetti, apart from being the commonest means of public transportation in Venice, can also offer opportunities for romantic boat rides. Ideally, take Vaporetto line 1 as late at night as possible for a serene, almost magic Venice boat ride along the Grand Canal. You will most probably be on your own except for the occasional elegantly dressed Venetian going back home after a night out.
By the way, apart from walking, il vaporetto is the only way to get around in Venice. However, a one-way ticket costs way too much: 7.50€ and it is valid for 75′. You’ll be better off buying a time-limited ticket for 1, 2, 3 or 7 days at the price of 20€, 30€, 40€ and 60€ respectively. Our advice is to divide your time between walking and taking the vaporetto during your stay. We did so. We walked for the first three days. Then we bought the 1 day ticket on our last day which allowed us to hop on and off the vaporetti for 24h.
Palazzo Ducale with The Secret Itineraries tour
If time allows you, do visit the Doge’s Palace. Il Palazzo Ducale is definitely on our list of top things to do in Venice. Instead of buying the standard ticket for 20€, though, which also gives you access to a couple of other museums that you most probably won’t have time to visit anyway, buy the Secret Itineraries tour for the same price. It’s imperative that you make a reservation through the official website otherwise you won’t be able to join this tour. There are two tours in Italian, two in French and three in English daily. Especially for the latter, you should book well in advance.
During the 75′ Secret Itineraries tour, a well-informed guide took us to rooms in the palace which are not accessible to the standard ticket holders. While passing through narrow corridors and secret passageways, we were provided with a wealth of fascinating historic facts. I wouldn’t like to go into more detail at this point so as to avoid any spoilers. At the end of the tour we visited the rest of the Doge’s Palace at our own pace.
In order to cross the famous Bridge of Sighs, Il Ponte dei Sospiri, you need to have either the standard ticket or the Secret Itineraries one. The totally enclosed bridge connects the Palazzo Ducale, where the interrogation rooms were located, to the new prison. Legend has it that, while crossing the bridge on the way to their cells, convicts sighed as they laid eyes on beautiful Venice for the last time.
Indulge in a private gondola ride
What would Venice be without its gondolas? OK, it would still be magnificent but all we’re saying is that you just can’t leave Venice without enjoying a private gondola ride. It may sound overpriced and we’ve all thought that it might be a tourist trap but after our own experience, we honestly believe it is indeed one of the top things to do in Venice and one that should not be missed. Read all about our fabulous gondola ride in Venice here.
Venice boat tour
What to do in Venice if you have some extra money to spend? Join a Venice boat tour and enjoy the jaw-dropping charms of La Serenissima from the best vantage point: the water. Read all about our fantastic Venice boat ride here.
Day trips from Venice
The Venetian Lagoon Islands
Venice is the indisputable queen of the Venetian lagoon, but the latter is dotted with a number of other fairly smaller islands, of which we are only mentioning the ones we visited. Depending on the time you have to spare, arrange either a Venice day trip to see some of the Venetian lagoon islands or hop on and off the vaporetti to get a glimpse of a different island every day. We went to Murano, Burano and Torcello on the same day, thus making good use of our 1 day vaporetto ticket.
San Giorgio Maggiore is a tiny island overlooking Piazza San Marco. For 6€ you can climb the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore and enjoy jaw-dropping panoramic views of Venice and the lagoon. We visited as part of the Venice boat tour we joined.
Murano must be the most popular of the smaller islands in the Venetian lagoon. It is a miniature of Venice and it is famous for its glass blowing tradition.
Torcello was the island people from the mainland originally settled on after fleeing the Barbaric invasions. Nowadays, it is an utterly peaceful haven home to the magnificent Santa Maria Assunta Church.
Burano is hands down the prettiest of all the smaller islands in the Venetian lagoon. Its colourful houses seem to have sprung straight out of a dream. It is famous for its lace and we still regret not spending a night there. If you only have time for one destination on your Venice day trip, choose Burano over all the others.
Ferrara day trip
Ferrara is an utterly charming medieval town in Northern Italy and surely worth a visit if time allows it. Check out our Ferrara itinerary and get ready for one of the best day trips from Venice.
What to eat in Venice
Cicchetti are small sized bites of bread topped with a wide selection of delicious treats. They are cheap, about 1,50€ each, and they pair superbly with a glass of wine. When in Venice, do as the Venetians do. Order your wine and cicchetti at the bar. Then, instead of sitting inside, head to the nearest piazza or ponte and enjoy them there. Any bar packed inside and out with locals will do. However, we really liked Cantine del Vino già Schiavi (Dorsoduro 992, Fondamenta Nani, 30123, Venezia).
Venice is seafood heaven. Keep in mind that meal prices range from normal to outrageously high ones though. Avoid the most touristy areas and head to districts such as Cannaregio or Santa Croce. Do a bit of homework by checking reviews on Foursquare or TripAdvisor before making a reservation for a canal side table and save yourselves the unpleasant surprise when the check arrives.
We tried delicious fried sardines and fried squid as snacks at Bacaro da Fiore (San Marco 3461, Calle delle Botteghe, 30124, Venezia). However, for a proper canal side dinner we headed to reasonably priced Il Paradiso Perduto (Cannaregio 2540, Fondamenta della Misericordia, 30100, Venezia). We had the enormous mixed seafood platter and seafood pasta and they were all delicious. Especially the pasta. We washed all of this down with their fantastic house wine. The ambience was very easy-going and we genuinely had a great time. Do make a reservation otherwise you won’t stand a chance finding a table.
Pizza & Pasta
OK, Venice is not famous for its pizza. Actually, many claim that pizza nella Serenissima is the worst there is. But, hey, we’re in Italy and if we feel like filling up with pizza and pasta we should be able to do so, right? So, for what is referred to as the best pizza in Venice pay a visit to Rossopomodoro (San Marco 404, Calle Larga, 30124, Venezia). Pasta is also delicious but, most importantly, this Pizzeria Napoletana stays up until 23:30 which can prove life saving for people used to eating late like ourselves.
In every Italian city we visit, we love to discover those tiny take-away pasta shops that offer delicious value for money pasta. In Venice, we found our favourite spot in Dal Moro’s Fresh Pasta to Go (Castello 5324, Calle Casseleria, 30122, Venezia). It’s a bit hard to find but their Pesto has me hooked for life.
I am Maria and I have a serious sweet tooth. In Venice, there is this small miracle in the form of dessert called Il Gianduiotto. Personally, I consider devouring one of these masterpieces one of the top things to do in Venice. It is a piece of iced gianduia, a hazelnut flavoured chocolate paste, topped with dollops of fresh whipped cream. You can also add sour cherries. I did and you should, too. Writing about it without having one in front of me is painful, enough said. Try it at Gelateria Nico (Dorsoduro 922, Fondamenta Zattere, 30123, Venezia).
No visit to Italy is complete without some handmade ice-cream or gelato artigianale. Suso (San Marco 5453, Calle della Bissa, 30124, Venezia) offers a wide selection of mouthwatering and original flavors sitting idly atop freshly made cones.
Venice is home to famous Prosecco wine. You can find it in each and every bacaro – the Venetian word for bar – or restaurant in the city and it starts from 2€ a glass. If you prefer dry wine, go for a glass of Soave. You don’t have to order a bottle of wine in Venice. House wine is of top quality and great value for money. Also, feel like a local and order un’ombra. Literally, it means “shadow” but the bartender will know that you mean a small glass of house wine to wash down your cicchetti. You can even go for a giro d’ombra which is pub crawl the Venetian way.
Spritz is the typical Venetian cocktail and we simply can’t get enough of it. It’s a mixture of either sparkling or dry wine with an Italian aperitivo of choice: Campari, which is way too bitter for our tastes, Select which is the truly Venetian aperitivo and our favourite by far Aperol which is the sweetest of the three. An Aperol Spritz can cost anything from 2€ to God-knows-how-much, so beware of the tourist traps. The highest we had to pay for an Aperol Spritz was 4€. Venice has a reputation for being an expensive city. Yet, when it comes to drinking, few places can beat its low prices.
Where to stay in Venice
One thing that really is expensive in Venice is accommodation. However, as we said before, under no circumstances should you do Venice in a day. Similarly, staying in more budget friendly Mestre or even Lido should not be an option either. The best place to stay in Venice is its very heart and spending the night in one of its sestieri is un unforgettable experience. It’s better to stay for less days rather than choose accommodation outside the centre of Venice. Booking your hotel early or avoiding the luxury of a canal view room can save you a lot.
All six of Venice’s districts, sestieri, are good choices. We stayed in the Santa Croce district in Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio and we liked it very much. We chose B&B La Patatina for our 4-night stay. For a spotlessly clean and elegantly decorated room overlooking the campo we paid about 125€/night. Our favourite thing about this B&B is that breakfast was brought to our room at the time agreed on at check-in. Our advice is to book your hotel from Booking.com well ahead of time so as to get the best deal available.
Perhaps you should avoid the San Marco area during peak season. If you want to feel like a local, consider staying in the Cannaregio district.
Best time to visit Venice
Venice doesn’t seem to have low or even shoulder season. It feels as if there is only high and peak season, so you’d probably want to avoid the latter. It runs roughly from May to September as well as during Christmas and Easter holidays. We visited mid-April and we couldn’t have done better. Crowds were not that large and the weather was magnificent.
Another thing you should keep in mind before booking your tickets to Venice, is the acqua alta (high water) period. From October to March you are likely to witness the city’s partial flooding. It is a phenomenon caused by high tides in combination with seasonal winds that blow in the area. Acqua alta poses no threat to the public. Tides are forecast with remarkable accuracy. Moreover, there is a system of sirens used to alert everyone about the coming acqua alta and its intensity. When there is acqua alta, wooden platforms on every main street in the city are used so as to facilitate pedestrians.
If you are spending limited time in Venice, perhaps you would miss out on many things during acqua alta. But, to be honest, we are intrigued to plan our next trip to Venice during the acqua alta period when the whole city must look like an apparition magically hovering over the water.
How to get to Venice
Venice Marco Polo is the city’s main airport. It is ideally located to offer spectacular views of the Venetian lagoon from above. There are many ways to get from the airport to Venice. It all depends on your budget and the time you have to spare.
Bus: There are two bus companies connecting Venice to Marco Polo Airport.
ACTV, the company responsible for public transportation in Venice, operates Aerobus line No 5. It’s a regular bus, which means that you may be standing all the way to the airport. It also makes many stops along the way.
ATVO is a private company operating Express line 35 to and from Marco Polo Airport. It uses coaches rather than buses and it’s a non-stop route.
Both companies are reliable and their buses run frequently. They start and finish their 30′ journeys at Piazzale Roma and a one-way ticket costs 8€. The only drawback is that if your hotel is not near Piazzale Roma or if you carry heavy luggage – which is advisable not to anyway, as you will have a fair share of going up and down stairs in order to cross all those bridges – you will also have to pay for a vaporetto ticket to get to your hotel.
Alilaguna: You are in Venice, the city on water. So why not see it from the water right from the start? Alilaguna’s blue, orange and red lines connect Marco Polo Airport to various locations in Venice. Check with your hotel for information on the nearest Alilaguna stop and the line you should choose. A one-way ticket costs 15€ and the journey lasts about an hour.
Taxi: Taking a taxi seems the least value for money or exciting way to get to Venice. A ride from Marco Polo Airport to Piazzale Roma costs 40€. From there, you’ll most probably need to also buy a vaporetto ticket so as to reach your hotel.
Water taxi: This is hands down the most luxurious, fast and comfortable way to reach your destination in Venice. It is also the most expensive as it will set you back about 110€. However, most water taxis can carry up to 10 passengers. Therefore, if your party is large, a water taxi is great value for money.
When we landed to Venice, we couldn’t wait to get on the water so we chose the Alilaguna. Moreover, the Alilaguna stop was really close to our hotel so it saved us the trouble of taking both the bus and the vaporetto. When it was time to leave, we took the ACTV bus to the airport. This way, we also crossed the Ponte della Liberta which connects Venice to the mainland.
Low-cost airline Ryanair flies to Treviso Airport which lies about 30km from Venice. There are buses and trains connecting Treviso Airport to either Piazzale Roma or Santa Lucia railway station in Venice.
Italy boasts a wonderful network of fast and reliable trains. Check out the Trenitalia website to plan your journey. Just make sure that your train arrives at Santa Lucia railway station which is located in the centre of Venice.
What if Venice is another stop on your marvellous Italian road trip? In that case, keep in mind that your car will take you as far as Piazzale Roma. From there you will take your luggage and you will either walk or take the vaporetto to your hotel. Parking at Piazzale Roma is expensive. As in 30€/day minimum expensive. Alternatively, you can park at Tronchetto which offers cheaper parking solutions. You can then get to Piazzale Roma using the super fast People Mover (one-way ticket costs 1.5€).
Did you know?
- Venice has a vast network of canals. Who could imagine that there used to be even more of them in the past? Venice has plenty of streets that are signalled as rio terà, rio meaning river and terà meaning earth. Every time you stroll along a rio terà, you are actually walking on what once was a Venice canal. Those canals were later filled up with earth or sand to become streets.
- When you start wandering around Venice, you will notice that squares are called campos instead of piazzas. Actually, there is only one piazza in the entire city, the renowned Piazza San Marco. Campo literally means “field” in Italian and that’s exactly what all those romantic squares used to be in the past. Each and every one of the 117 islands that comprise Venice has its very own campo. Complete with its corresponding cistern or pozzo, each campo provided Venice’s first residents with fresh produce and drinking water.
All in all, Venice is a thrilling destination and one of Italy’s treasures. Its beauty is beyond words and the feelings of awe and amazement it evokes are not easy to describe. Alongside checking things off your what to do in Venice lists, though, make sure you scratch the surface of this floating dream of a city and La Serenissima will reveal its soul to you.
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