The best twenty things to do in Venice (plus two seasonal opportunities): my personal unmissable itineraries, activities and experiences in Venice
I often receive questions such as “what are Venice highlights?” and “how long should we stay?” So I put together the things I like to do when I’m in Venice, to share them with you. Whenever it made sense, I tried to make suggestions “beyond the obvious”, in order to make your Venice stay a really unique and memorable experience.
1. Navigate the Grand Canal
Ride the vaporetto (Venice ferry) along the Grand Canal, ideally sitting in the very front of it and admire all the incredible buildings facing the canal. The three and a half kilometer (two-mile) trip from the railway station to San Marco, passing under Rialto Bridge, provides a superb introduction to the city. Early in the morning is the best time, but I strongly suggest you also do it at night!
2. Visit St. Marks Square early in the morning and again at night
San Marco square is the most crowded place in Venice, but at dusk and after sunset it recovers all its charm and magic. Of course, during day do discover the byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s Basilica. From the outside, admire its big onion domes and multi-colored marble pillars, then get in for a breathtaking view of the interior floor-to-ceiling golden mosaics and marble decorations. Queues can be terrible, better to reserve your visit
3. Unveil Palazzo dei Dogi secrets
During the 1,000-year reign of the Republic of Venice, its headquarters – and the residence of its leader, the Doge – were at the Doge’s Palace, which adjoins St. Mark’s Basilica. Get a glimpse of the rooms occupied by Venice’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and schedule a “Secret Itineraries Tour”, which includes access to torture chambers, prisons, and the Bridge of Sighs.
4. Explore the less known side of Venice
Start at the Salute vaporetto stop, admire the spectacular view from there and then walk through the Dorsodoro area. Cut through one of the calli (any one!) and walk along the Zattare for a while, cut back up and walk through Campo San Barnaba, wind your way to Campo San Margherita. Sit at a bench and people-watch; get an aperitivo or a lunch in one of the many restaurants around the campo. My favorite: the Osteria alla Bifora.
5. Discover the art of glass making
Take a short ferry ride to Murano, where you will find a number of glass factories which offer workshops free tours. In the heat of the furnace, the craftsmen work quickly and deftly with molten glass ( just be wary of the salesmen who will follow you afterwards into the showroom – but you are not obliged to purchase anything if you don’t want to).
6. Escape the crowds in the laguna islands.
Take a ferry to Torcello for a day out in Venice lagoon. Torcello is a secluded island mostly made of open fields and undisturbed wetlands. Once there, follow the brick path to a cluster of old buildings that includes two magnificent churches side-by-side—Santa Fosca, which is low and round, and the more conventional Santa Maria Assunta, with its solitary bell tower. Don’t forget to stop at the renowned Locanda Cipriani, one of Hemingway favorite places, for a drink (or a lunch, if you think you deserve it!) Next, make your way to Burano, a tiny fishing village where the streets are a riot of color, lined with houses that are painted in improbable shades of blue, orange, green, purple, and red. Burano is an excellent place to have lunch. My recommended restaurant: Trattoria al Gatto Nero. This trip can be combined with a visit to Murano.
7. Browse local food markets
In the morning, the open-air Rialto Market is a feast for the senses, as local farmers and fisherman unload trays of fresh squid, cuttlefish, crabs and clams, as well as baskets of whatever produce is in season, from cherries and grapes to peas and artichokes. You will find many other similar open air markets, including a nice one in via Roma.
8. Have an aperitivo the way Venetians do
In Venice you can still find “Bacari”, the traditional wine bars, where you can taste local wines by the glass and delicious side dishes “Cicchetti”. Many of them are around the Rialto Market, my preferred is Cantina do Mori. On top of wine, you can also sip Venice own specialty: the Spritz, an aperitivo of white wine, Campari and a shot of seltzer or sparkling water. If you like bubbles, also try prosecco, the bubbly white made in the hills of the Veneto region.
9. Taste the true Venetian cuisine
Forget spaghetti Bolognese and Pizza, and try traditional dishes from the Veneto, such as Sarde in Saor and Granseola. My favorite restaurants: Osteria alla Madonna; osteria Alla Vedova; Vini da Gigio. Don’t forget to bring a print out of my Venice Food Guide post with you!
10. Get a bird’s-eye view of Venice, the other way
St Marco bell tower is Venice tallest building, but queues to get to the top of it are terrible. Instead, take a Ferry and cross the canal to beautiful San Giorgio Island. There you can climb on the bell tower – better view than San Marco’s, with nearly no queuing, and admire the sunset over San Marco Square.
11. Admire Venetian masters of art
Venice is a unique and precious repository of art. From the late Middle Ages until the mid 18th century, artists of the highest caliber left thier mark all over the city and works by Venice’s grand masters Titian (c1488-1576), Tintoretto (c1518-94), Canaletto (1697-1768) and Tiepolo (1727-1804) can still be viewed in situ today. See Titian’s glorious ‘Assumption’ above the high altar at I Frari, Tintoretto’s epic masterpiece ‘Crucifixion’ at Scuola Grande di San Rocco, and Tiepolo’s monumental frescos at the Pietà and Ca’ Rezzonico.
12. Visit the Jewish Ghetto and Cannareggio
Cannaregio is one of the least visited areas of Venice, but has many sights to admire and will provide peaceful moments far from the crowds. There are many nice Trattorie (family restaurants) to have lunch where locals do.
13. Get lost in Venice
Take a walk in your favorite area, and go in the opposite direction of the one indicated by the yellow arrows. Get lost and discover the most incredible little campo or dead-ending lane, being amazed every single time that happens! Put away the map and get lost in this unique city built of islands, where there are 150 canals and 400 bridges! Walk on, and soon you’ll find yourself wondering what more there is to see just around the corner, and you’ll be tempted to devote the entire day to finding out.
14. Walk around at night and hear nothing but the click-clack of people walking and the water lapping of the Grand Canal
15. Attend a Vivaldi night concert
For many, experiencing Vivaldi in Venice is an absolute must. Fairly good performances are held in San Vidal church by the Interpreti Veneziani (usually Vivaldi Four Seasons). They have their concert dates posted on their website.
16. Enjoy top contemporary art scene
Visit the new Punta della Dogana museum which displays contemporary art from F. Pinault french billionaire private collection and admire contemporary giants including Dan Flavin, Jeff Koons, Jean Tinguely and Rachel Whiteread. The setting itself is noticeable: the museum occupies the modernly renovated XVIII century customs buildings, just in front of San Marco, on the other side of Canal Grande. An alternative/additional (and cheapest) dive in contemporary art can be done in the famous Contini art galleries (entrance is free of charge). You will find tem on your way from Piazza San Marco to Accademia.
17. Learn the ancient Venetian art of mask decorating at Ca’ Macana
Ca’ Macana, the world-famous workshop which still today produces magnificent masks made and decorated entirely by hand. Ca’ Macana’s specialized artisans will show and teach you all secrets and tips of this marvelous traditional technique (you will then go back home with your very own hand-painted Venetian mask)
18. Get around in a gondola
No trip to Venice would be complete without a punt down one of the city’s picturesque waterways in an iconic gondola. Yes, it is a little tourist-ish, but who cares? Budget 80€ for 40 minutes (but you can share your gondola among up to 6 people). For a cheaper (2€) and more “local” experience, you can take one of the many Gondola Ferries that cross the Canal Grande. The easiest to find links the Mercato di Rialto with Campo Santa Sofia.
19. Spend a night at the oldest gaming establishment the world, the Venice Casino
It is located in a beautiful Palace on canal Grande, worthwhile visiting. You can play at the slots machines if you don’t feel lucky enough…
20. Forget canals for one day and discover Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet
Verona is a delightfully town full of monuments and art works. It is just an hour train away from Venice.
Bonus tips: seasonal top activities
1) Slip on a mask and join the Carnevale
Visitors to the pre-Lenten event flock from all over the world to piazza San Marco, where both locals and foreigners in ornate (and exorbitant) costumes occupy prime spots and wait for the tourists to immortalize them. For two weeks Venice council organize events, private masked and costumed celebrations, both in sumptuous palaces and in smaller squares.
2) Visit the Biennale di Venezia
Venice has a contemporary art scene that lives up to its glorious art history. The Venice Biennale is a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every two years (in odd years) in Venice, Italy. The Venice Film Festival is part of it. So too is the Venice Biennale of Architecture, which is held in even years. A dance section, the “International Festival of Contemporary Dance”, was established in 1999. The formal Biennale is based at a park, the Giardini, that houses 30 permanent national pavilions, and at the Arsenale, the historical factory that has been building Venetian vessels for centuries.
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