I hated Venice the first time I visited. I felt cheated, hustled and robbed (some of Venice’s prices should be criminal). Venice wasn’t the Italy I loved. It was an anomaly to write off as a bad experience. Yet, every city deserves a second chance, so I tried again, again and again. In those repeat visits, I’ve learned the best things to do in Venice and how to navigate this city for the best tourist experience. Here are the best things to do as well as my insider tips. I have included a map at the end, including all of the mentioned places.
1. Start in St Mark’s Square
St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) is a beautiful cacophony of tourists, pigeons, shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s also home to many of the best sights in Venice. If you’re new to Venice, start here, and in one compact area, you can explore St Mark’s Basilica, the Doge Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, St Mark’s Campanile and St Mark’s Clocktower (more details below). Fun fact: Winston Churchill called St Mark’s Square ‘the drawing room of Europe’.
Don’t miss St Mark’s Clocktower (Torre dell’Orologio) – a beautiful Rennaisance period clock tower in St Mark’s Square.
2. See the gold domes of St Mark’s Basilica
If you thought Venice’s main cathedral, with its gothic style, is impressive from the outside, wait until you go inside. You’ll be wowed with grand domes and a staggering amount of gold leaf. Completed in 1092, Basilica di San Marco has a thick history. I visited on a guided tour which turned out to be the best decision because instead of queuing around the building, we walked straight in with priority access. We also got to visit the mezzanine for close-up views of the gold mosaic basilica (it’s a mosaic because Venice is too humid for plaster and frescoes) and special access to the terrace, not available on most tours and with great views over St Mark’s Square.
Fun fact: the copper horses at the top of St mark’s Basilica are replicas. The real ones, thought to be the oldest at 2,000 years old, are located inside the terrace. Lifesize, it’s hard to imagine how these four horses have moved over the centuries from Constantinople to Rome and Paris (where they sat on top of the Arc de Triomph after Napoleon stole them).
Venice Travel Tip: Don’t try to see all the top Venice sights – pick a few and see them well. Venice is too crowded to pack in too much. My suggestion is to prioritise St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge Palace, which will also take you inside the Bridge of Sighs. I took the St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace Fast Track Tour (€74). This tour was one of the best things I did in Venice. Whichever tickets you buy, always get the skip the line option if you can. It will save you a lot of time.
3. Explore the 14th century Doge Palace
Palazzo Ducale – the Doge Palace – is another of Venice’s sights that looks like it’s out of a Disney movie. Outside, it’s a grand palace that looks like a lacy pink wedding cake. Inside, it’s a museum offering a glimpse of the residence of the Doge of Venice from 1340. Pretty sweet life. As mentioned above, I took the St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace Fast Track Tour (€74).
4. Go inside the Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs is a white bridge in Venice linking the prison, interrogation and execution rooms in the Doge Palace. Yet, most people go to Venice and only see it standing on the opposite bridge, which entirely misses the point.
The significance of the Bridge of Sighs is the views out across Venice – the bridge is named because prisoners would walk through the interior of the bridge on the way to their execution in St Mark’s Square. The bridge and the tiny lattice gaps gave prisoners their last view over Venice before they died. And that last view is thought to have induced a final sigh at Venice’s beauty, hence the name: Bridge of Sighs. So, dear tourist masses, you might be standing at one of the most popular places to visit in Venice, but – YOU’RE LOOKING THE WRONG WAY!
To see the Bridge of Sighs properly whilst avoiding the crowds, take a tour inside the Doge Palace. That way, you can look out over Venice (ignoring the crowds gawking in), sigh and be grateful you’re not off to be beheaded! A visit to the prisons and a walk inside the Bridge of Sighs are included in the St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace Fast Track Tour (€74).
Feeling superstitious? Executions once took place between the two columns in St Mark’s Square. On top of the columns are the two patrons of Venice – San Marco (the winged lion) and San Todaro (St Theodore), and even today, superstitious Venetians won’t walk between the columns for fear of bad luck.
5. Take a boat or gondola on the Grand Canal
The Grand Canal is Venice’s central canal that carves up the city, and it’s best enjoyed by boat so you can view the buildings that line the banks. Taking a Gondola ride on the Grand Canal is one of the most iconic things to do in Venice, and if it’s on your Italy Bucket List, these are the best Gondola Ride tours to book:
- Private gondola tour: If you can afford it, book this private gondola ride. It’s €180 for 2 people for 20 mins but comes down to €30 per person if there are 6 of you.
- Shared gondola tour: This is the best shared gondola ride in Venice (€30/30 mins).
Better than a gondola – take a full boat tour: There is so much more to Venice’s waterways than Gondola on the Grand Canal. Instead of a 30-minute shared gondola, I took a 2-hour boat ride down the Grand Canal, under the Rialto Bridge, past Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (picture above), and out towards the smaller islands. During my trip, I learned how vital boats are in Venice – from deliveries to daily commutes occur, school boats and even ambulances take the form of a boat. We sailed past the old customs house, which used to tax every vessel coming in to trade with the Merchants of Venice; we got to know a bit more about the Republic of Venice, the Italian government of old; we saw where the house of Prada sits, and we sailed past the Aman Grand Canal hotel where George Clooney got married. You won’t see much of that with a gondola.
I took the Venice 2-Hour Boat Tour With Grand Canal & Tower Climb of San Giorgio Maggiori tower (2hrs, €98).
6. Stare up at St Mark’s Campanile
St Mark’s Campanile (Campanile di San Marco) is the bell tower to St Mark’s Basilica and an iconic sight in Venice. Located in St Mark’s Square, it’s a dramatic landmark previously used as a lighthouse for the lagoon. As the highest point in Venice, many people choose to go up in the Campanile (elevator only, no climb) for views over St Mark’s Square. However, you can queue forever to go up the Campanile, and the best panoramas aren’t from the top of the tower anyway (IMO). The best views are across the water from San Giorgio Maggiore, looking back at San Marco campanile. Plus, you’ll get great St Mark’s Square views if you take the tour of St Mark’s Basilica, which includes the terrace.
7. Visit San Giorgio Maggiore for the best views in Venice
If you want the best views in Venice, head to the small island of San Giorgio Maggiore and climb the bell tower – I say climb – it’s a lift/elevator, and there is no climbing option. By ascending the bell tower across the lagoon, you get panoramic views across the whole of Venice island, including the famous Campanile – one of my favourite views in Venice. A visit to San Giorgio Maggiore island is included in the Venice 2-Hour Boat Tour With Grand Canal & Tower Climb tour I took (€98). Otherwise, you can catch Vaporetto Line 2 from St Mark’s Square.
8. Explore the Rialto Bridge and Rialto Markets
One of the most famous bridges in Venice, the Rialto Bridge (Pont di Rialto), is the oldest out of only four bridges crossing the Grand Canal. Although it’s usually jammed with crowds, you really should take a walk across it, not least because it gives excellent views of the Grand Canal.
Underneath the bridge is the Rialto Market (Mercado di Rialto), a bustling fresh food market almost 1,000 years old. The market is also one of the best free things to do in Venice, provided you can resist buying 4 kilos of cheese, and especially useful if you’re staying in a rental apartment.
9. Take a Venice food tour with a local
One of the reasons I didn’t get along with Venice the first time was because of the food – high prices and low quality are not a good mix. On my second visit, I booked a food tour, which was invaluable because the local guide took me to hidden eateries and gave me tips for the best dinner spots. Here are some of the best Venice food tours to choose from:
- Food and Wine Tour with Chichetti Tasting – A very popular evening tour where you will visit old taverns and cute eateries where the locals gather (from €37).
- Venice: 2.5 hour Street Food Tour With a Local Guide gives you the best of both worlds combining Rialto Market and Chichetti (from €42).
- Private Evening Tour with Drinks & Bites in Cannareggio – a private tour with 3 stops in 2.5 hours / €108.
I’ve written a complete guide to the Best Bars and Restaurants in Venice.
Food Tip – skip the pizza in Venice: Did you know that there’s a law in Venice prohibiting wood-fired ovens (to stop the city from catching fire)? That means Venice is one of the few places in Italy where you can get lousy pizza. My advice – order the local dishes like risotto, polenta, seafood and tiramisu (and head to Naples if you want perfect pizza).
10. Explore the Peggy Guggenheim Museum
Venice has some great options if you’re a fan of museums, and The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is one of the best. Featuring modern art set in an 18th-century palace, expect works from the 1950s onwards from Peggy’s collection. As with most things in Venice, it pays to book in advance. Closed Tuesdays.
11. See the Old Grandmasters at the Academy Gallery
Prefer your art to have a few more centuries behind it? Head to the Academy Gallery (Gallerie dell’Accademia), Venice’s fine art museum. You’ll find art from the old grandmasters – a collection of work from before the 19th century with a focus on Venetian and Italian painters. Open daily but mornings only on Mondays.
12. See the islands of Murano, Burano, Libo and Torcello
Venice is a collection of islands in a lagoon, and while you’re likely to spend most of your time on Venice Island, it’s worth exploring some of the other Venice Islands. You can either take a tour or buy a Vaporetto pass and explore yourself. Here are the most popular islands to explore:
- Murano is the island known for its Venetian glass.
- Burano is famous for its lace and brightly coloured houses.
- Lido is most often visited for its sandy beaches.
Taking the water buses (Vaporetto) in Venice: Vaporetto is the primary way of getting around in Venice. It’s like a local bus system, except you travel on boats, not buses. Unless you plan to walk everywhere, which can mean long routes because of the canals, I’d recommend picking up a Vaporetto pass for however long you’re visiting Venice. You can buy Vaporetto tickets online in advance. There are also water taxis if you want to go privately and without waiting for the Vaporetto.
13. Drink coffee like a local and avoid tourist prices
We all expect to pay more for a coffee in a tourist hot spot, but did you know that at Caffé Florian, the oldest and most famous cafe in St Mark’s Square, you have to pay for the music. Nope, not joking. And that cover charge is in addition to your coffee price. At €6.50 for espresso / €10.50 for a cappuccino, it’s nearly €20 for coffee. You can take a tour of Venice’s La Fenice, one of the most famous opera houses in the world, for less money!
Sure, if you order coffee knowing the price, enjoy! But if you walk a few paces to the right of Caffé Florian to Ai Do Leoni just to the right of St Mark’s Clock Tower, the coffee price plummets to €1.20 for an espresso. You will have to shuffle in among the locals and drink your coffee standing (how the Italians do it anyway), but it’s an excellent alternative for a quick caffeine fix while still enjoying being in the square. Bonus: you can hear the music drifting out of Caffé Florian for free. See my guide to How to Order Coffee in Italy.
14. Visit Canareggio for crowd-free Venice
The few locals left in Venice’s historic centre tend to spend their time in the Canareggio district, which has a modern shopping street but also the history of the Jewish Ghetto. It feels like a different part of Venice, and it’s where I tend to stay in the city.
How to get to Cannareggio: Take a vaporetto to Ca’ d’Oro and head to Strada Nova (New Street). Continue to Via Emanuele and ultimately onto Rio Tera S. Leonardo (it’s all the same street, but the names change as you cross the bridges). Look out for a tiny sign above an alley written in Hebrew, which will take you into the Jewish Ghetto. You can loop back via Misericordia. Canareggio is an excellent option for food and drinks without the tourist prices. If you want a local to show you around, book this Venice: Jewish Ghetto 2 Hour Tour (€74).
Don’t miss Ponte de Chiodo in Canareggio – one of only two bridges in Venice without a parapet (side).
15. Have a Bellini at Harry’s Bar
Having a Bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice is a bit like taking a Gondola ride – for some people, it’s a must-do, and if that’s you, I won’t waste a second talking you out of it. But be prepared, the 1930s charm of the bar has long gone, and as tourists queue up to hand over close to €30 per Bellini, it’s no surprise the process has turned into a conveyor belt. I sat with growing disappointment as I watched peach puree squeezed from a foil pack into glasses while Prosecco was squirted from a soda-style tap. No blending of peaches. No popping of corks. Not even a full 125ml champagne glass. (I’ve become an expert in Prosecco and now know that Prosecco only comes from a bottle, so whatever was in that tap was bog-standard sparkling wine). If you visit Harry’s bar, try to go when white peaches are in season (summer), to stand a chance of fresh fruit in your drink, not preserved puree.
Did you know: the Bellini was invented in Venice by the owner of Harry’s bar.
16. Then have an aperol spritz like a local
If you don’t want to set yourself up for an expensive disappointment, ditch the Bellini and order an Aperol Spritz at a locals’ bar. The most popular aperitif in Venice, the Aperol spritz is a cocktail made with a considerable measure of Aperol (similar to Campari but much sweeter), topped with Prosecco, chilled with ice and served with a slice of orange and a dash of soda water. Be warned, it’s hard to tell how potent this almost all-booze drink is, and it tends to evaporate (from your glass into your mouth).
Skip the waterfront (unless you want the view and want to pay for it) and head deeper into the historic centre to look for a local’s bar. My favourite was Bacaro Risorto with tasty chicchetti for €1.50 apiece.
17. Take a day trip to the Prosecco Region
Most people don’t realise that Italy’s Prosecco region is just an hour from Venice, and you can get there from the central train station in Venice. You will want a tour when you arrive, and you can easily fit in a half-day visit or even a full day tour if you plan your time. You can book tours with Visit Prosecco Italy (from €250 per group).
Did you know: Italy’s prosecco region, with its dramatic rolling hills, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
18. See Venice at night when the crowds have left the sights
Finally, if Venice’s day crowds make you want to jump into the lagoon, take some solace that once night arrives, the city quietens considerably. Venice at night is truly magical. St Mark’s Square seems to expand back to its grand size; the bridges are passable, and the narrow streets are near empty and inviting. Go out, explore, get lost, and enjoy. Simply wandering the quiet streets is one of the best things to do in Venice at night. Take a Ghost tour. Or pop into a bar if you must. Maybe I’ll see you there.
Where to Stay in Venice
- Best 5 Star Hotel in Venice: The Gritti Palace – Centrally located, this 5-star hotel has views over the grand canal if is the best pick for a luxury stay (around €1,500 a night).
- Best Boutique Hotel: Canal Grande – in a restored 18th century palace, this beautiful boutique hotel overlooks the Grand Canal. At around €200 per night, this is fantastic price for a great hotel and location.
- Most Popular Hotel: Hotel Antiche Figure – Hotel Antiche Figure has been voted the best hotel in Venice by travellers. It’s a boutique hotel with four poster beds near Canareggio (around €175 a night).
- Best chain hotel in Venice: Hilton Molino Stucky Definitely not a boxy Hilton hotels you might find elsewhere. The building was once a flour mill and part of the city’s pasta production. Now it’s a luxury space with a fantastic roof top terrace (around €300 a night).
- Best Hostel in Venice: Generator Hostel – Perfect if you’re on a budget in Venice. It’s very clean and has a great value happy hour (Apreol Spritz for only €2.50). Dorms and private rooms are available (around €15 dorm/ €65 private room).
That’s my guide to the best things to do in Venice. Got any questions or suggestions, leave a comment below.
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