As with most European cities, some of the best things to do in Venice involve visiting iconic sites. Think the Bridge of Sighs. And the Rialto Bridge. St. Mark’s Square and the Basilica. Beyond those, however, this island city offers a lot more to do, especially if you stay overnight.
Venice has a reputation for being one of the most romantic cities in the world, and for good reason. The absence of motor vehicles creates an unusual quiet, even with the throngs of tourists. Water laps at buildings, and the meandering narrow streets become a delightful puzzle. The distinctive architecture creates a beauty that defines Venice. Taken all together, you can feel as though you’ve fallen back to another era.
We visited Venice less than two weeks before a record-breaking acqua alta, or high tide, that caused devastating flooding. Given the resilence of Venetians and the economy’s dependence on tourism, they will tackle restoration as well as efficiently as possible. That said, some sites may still be damaged and/or inaccessible, so check in advance.
What to Know Before You Go
Venice floods easily, and if you’ve ever visited, you understand why. The city sits low on the water, with canals running through it. At high tide, water laps at the buildings, sloshing up the stone steps used to get into water taxis. Although the most flood-prone months are November and December, floods can happen at any time. When they do, you might not be able to get to the sites you want.
When to Go
The summer months tend to be the busiest and, because of the heat, the smelliest. Even so, when we visited toward the end of October, tourists teemed in the narrow alleys, made dinner reservations essential, and crowded the famous sites. I can’t imagine what it would be like in the summer.
Venice has no cars or trucks. Transportation is strictly by foot or by boat, usually water taxi. The Grand Canal uses public gondolas (not the same as the tourist type) to cross. From the airport, you can either take a private but pricy water taxi to get close to your hotel, if not right to its doorstep, or a slower vaporetto (ferry) that will require you to wheel your luggage through alleys.
Because of the congestion, you should always walk to the right, against buildings, and yield to locals trying to pass.
Google Maps is notoriously fickle in Venice. We found that pre-loading offline maps while on hotel WiFi or simply opening Google maps without data services (it still tracks you) worked as well as anything. In Venice, the “direct” in “directions” is absent. I learned to navigate my way back to the hotel by landmark.
To get to a location generally, look for the signs that point to Rialto, San Marco, Accademia, Ferrovia (the rail station), and Piazzale Roma (where cars, buses, and shuttles park.) As long as you know what’s in each section, you’ll get close to your destination.
Where to Stay
Because many tourists visit just for the day, Venice is much less congested at night. If you really want to experience Venice, book a hotel in the city. You’ll be able to explore a darkened, quieter city.
We absolutely loved the 4-star Hotel Ai Cavalieri. The front door opens onto a quiet alley street, and the back door, to a canal. The appointments are quintessential Venetian with Murano chandeliers throughout. Located within easy walking distance of both St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge, it became an ideal starting point for each day. It was well worth reserving a canal view room.
If you want a hotel with more bustle outside, book one of the hotels that line the Grand Canal or near the Basilica San Marco. When choosing a place to stay, it pays to chart walking distances from your possible hotel to where you want to go, just to gauge its location.
Peak season rates can double or even triple the low season rates.
Best Things to Do in Venice: Iconic Sites
Before we left home, we purchased tickets to several of the famous sites. The only absolutely necessary advance purchases are for the Campanile (unless you don’t mind waiting) and the Secret Itineraries tour of the Doge’s Palace.
We also bought a museum pass that gave us access to several museums, the Doge’s Palace, and a discount to the Secret Itineraries tour.
Piazza San Marco, the Basilica, and the Campanile
The square in front of St. Mark’s Basilica is probably the most iconic photo taken in Venice. Because of the surrounding water, fog can obscure the buildings, especially in the morning. At least in October, the expansive piazza holds lot of people without overcrowding except at the entrance to the basilica.
Because lines to the Campanile (the freestanding bell tower) can be long, I highly advise buying timed tickets in advance. You enter by a separate door, where you’ll wait for the elevator ahead of those without reservations. On top, the view of Venice is spectacular. When purchasing, book a time to best avoid the morning fog.
You can also buy timed tickets for the Basilica next door. General admission is free, but the skip-the-line tickets cost €3. It pays to plan the two together, allowing about 30 minutes (perhaps 45 minutes during peak season since you have to wait in line for the elevator back down) to do the Campanile.
The interior of the basilica exceeded our expectations. It is spectacular. Since photography is prohibited, you won’t find many photos of it, but, trust me, the intricate marble floors and the glittering mosaics will amaze you. (I understand that the crypt may still be closed due to flood damage.) I did take one photograph in the vestibule before I saw the sign.
We didn’t have time to go up to the Basilica’s terraces; however, that’s also an option. You can book that as an extra if you also reserve the Secret Itineraries tour below. You can also pay to go to the basilica’s museum on the second floor.
The Doge Palace (Palazzo Ducali), Bridge of Sighs, and the Secret Itineraries
The Venetian-gothic Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) is one of the most famous buildings in Venice. Located adjacent to the basilica, it once housed the seat of Venetian goverment and is connected, via the Bridge of Sighs, to the New Prisons.
Secret Itineraries Tour
The Secret Itineraries tour of the Doge’s Palace allows you small-group access, with a professional guide, to otherwise inaccessible areas of the palace. You get to see Casanova’s two prison cells, the Old Prison, the administration offices, the attic, and judicial chambers. Our guide spoke English well and gave an excellent overview of Venetian history in the context of the palace. The ticket also grants you general admission after the tour to the Doge’s Palace so you can explore the apartments, the New Prison, and the Bridge of Sighs.
The Secret Itinerary tour takes about 75 minutes. Exploring the Doge’s Palace and all its opulence takes much longer. Because we had the museum pass in addition to the tour, we made the mistake of trying to do part of the Doge’s Palace first without realizing that we couldn’t turn back. As a result, we almost missed our tour.
The Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
Even if you can’t fit in the Secret Itinerary, you absolutely must visit the Doge’s Palace. Art lovers will want to see whatever exhibit is currently showing. When we visited, we saw “From Titian to Rubens: Flemish Masterpieces,” an exhibit that lasts until March 1, 2020. If you skip the temporary exhibit, whatever that may be be at the time, your visit will be considerably shorter than ours.
If you love archaeology, make sure you visit the artifacts in the ground floor rooms on the left side of the courtyard as you enter.
Even if you skip the art exhibit, you won’t skip the art. Tintoretto paintings abound, but you’ll also see works by Titian, Veronese, Tiepolo, and Bellini. The extravagant rooms contrast dramatically with the more practical rooms seen in the Secret Itineraries tour.
The Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal
Especially during the day, the Rialto Bridge gets jammed up with the human version of gridlock. The Grand Canal can look like the aquatic version of an eight-lane highway. But you should not — and perhaps cannot — leave Venice without experiencing both.
I found the Rialto Bridge as impressive as I expected. Like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, this stone bridge has a center pedestrian street lined with shops. You’ll likely have to wait your turn for a spot at the railing to take a photograph of the Grand Canal.
If you book a tourist gondolier, you’ll like meet him on the Grand Canal. The wide body of water separates two halves of the city, and at times, you may seem impossibly distant from one of the five bridges that cross it. We learned near the end of our trip that public gondolas, called traghetti, cross between those points for a cost of €2. Locals ride free.
Best Things to Do in Venice: Churches
St. Mark’s is not the only church in Venice, even if it is the most famous. On the other side of the Grand Canal, you can visit the Venetian-gothic Basilica Dei Frari, more formally known as the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.
Inside the basilica, you’ll find important works of art by Titian, Bellini, and Donatello. Unfortunately, when we visited, the gigantic Titian had been removed for restoration and a printed version had taken its place. Titian’s body reposes here under a marble mausoleum.
Other notable churches, which we did not have time to visit: Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the Church of Santissimo Redentore, and the Basilica of San Giovanni e Paolo. Unlike in Florence, most, if not all, churches are free of charge, but you need to check their hours in advance.
Best Things to Do in Venice: Museums
A museum pass gets you into Venice’s civic museums for a single fee; however, you have to plan carefully. We really wanted to go to Ca’ Rezzonico but arrived to find it closed that day. Usually we are more careful, but we had changed our plans at the last minute.
The most well-known of the included museums (besides the Doge’s Palace) is the Museo Correr, located opposite St. Mark’s Basilica. The Marciana Library and the National Archaeological Museum can only be accessed through the Correr Museum, so you either must do all at once or only some since you get only one admission.
La Biennale: Contemporary Art Festival
We didn’t know until it was too late that the contemporary arts festival, La Biennale, was going on while we were there. Held every two years from the end of May to the end of November, it draws contemporary art lovers from around the world. You buy tickets for admission to two sites, the Giardini and the Arsenale. Both are closed on Mondays.
We plan to visit Venice again in two years so that we can include La Biennale in our trip.
Best Tours in Venice
I have only recently come to appreciate the advantage of booking tours at a destination. Our first ones, in New Zealand and Amsterdam, came about because we wanted to experience the country outside of the city. Now, we look for unique experiences that we wouldn’t otherwise have.
For Venice, we decided on a small-group walking tour on our first afternoon to give us a feel for the layout of the city. While in retrospect that goal was laughable, we did enjoy the local guide’s insights and advice in how to navigate Venice. He knew his history, and he knew what would interest us. The tour took two hours, all on foot, and we had to struggle not to be separated by the crowds. Although this was my least favorite tour of the three we took, the information we learned served us well. Note: Despite the description, you do not go inside any of the listed buildings.
Lagoon Sunset Tour
We also booked a late afternoon “sunset” boat tour of the lagoon. We loved this tour even though it ended before the sun truly set. Up to ten people can be on the tour, but on ours, we shared the small boat with only one other couple and the captain. Each of us was allotted a half-bottle of prosecco as we motored around the outside of Venice. Not only did we see Venice from the water, but also we were able to see Lido and a few other islands that we would not have otherwise learned about.
Cicchetti and Wine Tour
My favorite tour, however, was our last: a cicchetti-and-wine walking tour. Cicchetti, the Venetian version of Spanish tapas, are small appetizers meant to go with a glass of wine, eaten in early evening. Essentially, we went bar hopping. Our excellent guide led us through dark alleys to various establishments where we tried local specialties and wines. We stopped at WEnice (my favorite cicchetti, though the one with the least ambience), Cantina do Mori, Osteria Sacro e Profano, and Sepa. If you aren’t adventurous or if you dislike seafood and wine, this tour isn’t for you. But foodies should love it.
Best Things to Do Outside of Venice: Murano
While Venice is a man-made island, true islands do inhabit the lagoon. The most well-known of these are Murano, Burano, Torcello, and Lido. Tourists often combine the first three into a day trip, taking the vaporetto from one island to the next. We had time only for a half-day trip to Murano, the closest of the three and home to Venice’s glass industry.
Murano is a delightful island that gave us a break from the crowds of Venice. Although the area around the vaporetto stop and the largest glass factory bustled with activity, we could hardly have called it crowded.
Visiting a Murano Glass Factory
Our hotel offered a complimentary water taxi ride to a Murano glass factory, and we took them up on it. Although we had to find our way back to Venice, we figured out where to catch the vaporetto.
Unbeknownst to me, the glass factory where we were dropped off was not the huge touristy one near the ferry but rather a smaller, artisan one, LP Murano Glass Factory. We watched glass blowing in the studio before we entered the factory’s museum and shop. The sculptures and glassware were gorgeous, with prices to match. Some people complain that you’re pressured to purchase, but we did not experience that. Obviously, though, the staff was ready to assist and sell.
Shopping and Eating in Murano
Because LP Murano Glass Factory is located in an area somewhat removed from the vaporetto/ferry, across the canal from the cathedral and the Glass Museum, the stores in that area tend to have more reasonable prices than elsewhere. That said, stores are more plentiful, with more items to choose from, in the vaporetto area.
We ate lunch outside on the canal across from the Glass Museum at Trattoria Valmarana. This casual restaurant served excellent prosciutto and burrata as well as fresh pasta. Not surprisingly, they served our sparkling water in Murano glasses.
The best strategy for shopping and eating is to poke your head inside and see if it appeals.
Where to Eat in Venice
Reservations are essential, even at the beginning of the off-season. Fortunately, we made reservations at Local while we were still state-side; they turned away a lot of people that evening. Although we didn’t have reservations at El Magazen, we snagged the only unreserved table. Again, the staff refused many people. We also liked 6342 Alla Corte Spaghetteria. For more details, see my article on what and what to eat in Venice.
If you want to eat early, I recommend finding a bar that serves cicchetti. Any of the bars described in the tour section are excellent choices. You may have to stand up to eat, but you’ll be able to sample a variety of dishes.
For gelato, the best we found was Suso, followed by Venchi and then Gelato di Natura. We especially loved Suso’s mixed gelato flavor of pistachio and Amarena cherry. Gelato di Natura offered the same flavor, but it wasn’t quite as good.
We were thankful that our hotel room included breakfast because, unlike in some European cities, we didn’t see many cafés.
Venice is now my favorite Italian city — and one of my favorites worldwide. Next time, I would allow more time to visit the islands and plan better to see the Ca’ Rezzonico. For a four-day trip, however, we saw a lot.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann