Venice feels like it shouldn’t exist. Beautiful floating palaces of stone surrounded by a network of canals. Here are some of the best things to do in Venice for your first visit!
Venice is one of the most popular Italian cities for tourists, even with all the other beautiful & historic places there are in Italy.
But there’s a good reason. The City of Water is celebrated because of its unusual circumstances, sitting on 100+ small islands connected by over 400 bridges.
There are basically no roads, transportation is accomplished via boats on a confusing network of canals. It’s truly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before!
There are many quirky, unique, unusual, and secret spots to discover in Venice.
I traveled here with Anna for the famous Carnevale di Venezia in February, a crazy annual festival of costumes and masks. We had an awesome time!
Because most travelers visiting Italy stop by the city for a few days, I wanted to recommend some fun and unusual things to do in Venice during your trip.
Venice Highlights Map
How To Use This Map
Above you’ll find a map of highlights in Venice, Italy. Click on the top left of the map to find separate layers marking a route or points of interest. You can hide and show different layers, or click icons on the map to see the names of places I mention in this travel guide. “Star” the map to save it to your own Google Maps, or open the map in a new window for a larger version. Enjoy!
Best Things To Do In Venice In 2020
1. Explore Saint Mark’s Square
St. Mark the Evangelist is Venice’s patron saint. Signs of this connection can be found throughout the city, with an excellent example being St. Mark’s Square.
Also called Piazza San Marco, it is Venice’s main public square, basically the social heart of the city. There are a bunch of famous landmarks here, like the Clock Tower, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doges’ Palace, and the Winged Lion of Venice.
St. Mark’s is also home to many public events that have been held here for centuries. You’ll find TONS of friendly pigeons, although keep in mind that feeding them has been banned.
Cafes line the North end, so it’s a nice place to sit with an Aperol spritz or hot chocolate and people watch. Visit around sunrise to enjoy it peacefully before the large tour groups show up.
2. Libreria Acqua Alta Book Store
Perhaps unsurprisingly, flooding is a frequent problem for a city built on water. So various Venetian institutions have come up with unique responses to the problem.
A cool book store called Libreria Acqua Alta placed its books and magazines in bathtubs, waterproof containers, and even a full-sized gondola! It makes for a very unique and very whimsical setting.
This Venice book store has become an Instagram hotspot, with quirky little “backdrops” for photos around the store. Keep an eye out for some adopted stray cats who roam the shelves too.
Normally I’d tell you to pick out a good book, find a quiet corner, and do a little reading. Unfortunately, an onslaught of Instagram “influencers” yelling at you to get out of their shot is more likely…
3. The Bridge Of Sighs
The Bridge Of Sighs is a unique enclosed bridge of white limestone spanning the Rio di Palazzo in Venice. There’s an interesting story behind the name.
It once led to a notorious Venetian prison, the beautiful view through its stone “bars” was a convict’s last sight of Venice before losing their freedom… and often their life. Hence the “sighs” as they passed.
These days tourists can walk through the bridge during a tour of Doges’ Palace, or more frequently, line up for photos outside with it in the background. You can also book a gondola ride that passes under it.
Locals often lie and tell tourists that it’s named after the “sigh” of couples sailing under it, falling in love due to the magic of Venice. The reality is a bit darker!
4. The Grand Canal (Canale Grande)
Venice was once the capital of a maritime empire, and a center of commerce and culture during Europe’s Renaissance period. The Grand Canal is the most important channel running through the city.
It’s also the largest and forms a recognizable “reverse S” through Venice when the city is viewed from above. Some of the most spectacular buildings in Venice line The Grand Canal!
Many of these buildings can only be accessed by boat. So you’ll find boats of all sorts heading up and down the canal in a fascinating form of organized chaos.
You’ll see plenty of traditional wooden gondolas, the large public Vaperetto water taxis, fancy private water taxis, small locally-owned motorboats, police boats, and my personal favorite, the garbage collection boats!
5. Ponte Di Rialto Bridge
There are four large bridges that span the Grand Canal. The original of them all was Rialto Bridge, which started out as a pontoon bridge in the 12th century but has since been rebuilt into what you see today.
The current bridge was built in the late 16th century, at a time when critics claimed that it would soon fall into ruin. But more than four centuries later, the Rialto Bridge still stands in splendid defiance.
The Rialto is Venice’s most popular bridge, with a great view of the city from the top. It gets a bit crowded, especially in the middle of the day during the summer!
Shops line the center of the bridge, the perfect place to pick up a Venitian souvenir — like jewelry or some famous Murano glass.
6. Ride A Gondola In Venice
Are the Venice gondola rides worth it? Well, it depends. Are you the type of person to visit Egypt and skip the pyramids? If so, go ahead and skip the gondola.
But if you’re genuinely curious about history and new travel experiences, suck it up and pay the €80 EURO price to rent one for 30 minutes.
One of the most iconic images of Venice is that of a traditional gondola being propelled by a professional gondolier. I will say, not all gondola rides are created equal. You could get a bored, unfriendly gondolier.
Or you could luck out with a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide (like we did), who also sings, as you float through the canals! It’s really just a part of the whole Venice experience.
7. Gallerie Dell’Accademia
The riches that once flowed into Venice made it a leading center for the arts, and artists. Examples can be found at Gallerie Dell’Accademia, a museum that specializes in pre-19th-century Venetian art.
Suffice to say that the Venetian art scene had a profound impact on European art as a whole in more than one way, thus making the museum that much more of a must-see for art lovers everywhere.
Inside you’ll find artwork by renowned artists such as Bellini, Da Vinci, Titian, and Canaletto.
The old building itself is pretty cool, a former convent that was converted to a museum in the 1700’s. It sits right on the water’s edge of the Grand Canal.
8. Visit Doges’ Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
The Republic of Venice came into existence in the 8th century and continued to exist until the late 18th century when Napoleon embarked on his conquest.
During that period, the republic was presided over by The Doge, a chief magistrate elected for life by Venetian nobles. Think of him as a combination of Pope & President.
Nowadays, the iconic Palazzo Ducale (Doge Palace) that housed the Doge has become one of the most famous landmarks of Venice, and a popular museum.
The interior of Doges’ Palace is quite opulent, with some wonderful views of the city. To walk through the Bridge Of Sighs mentioned earlier, this is how you do it.
9. St. Mark’s Basilica
St. Mark’s Basilica, located in St. Mark’s Square, is the most famous of Venice’s churches and the cathedral of the Patriarchate of Venice.
Style-wise, the church is a mix of influences, having been built in the 11th century before being embellished again and again over the course of centuries. Today it boasts gold-leaf mosaics and beautiful domed ceilings.
Make sure to visit the small basilica museum inside, as well as the outdoor terrace with excellent views of the public square below.
As a lavish and much-beloved symbol of Venetian history, it’s totally worth a stop. Visiting on your own is free, although keep in mind there are often long lines.
10. Go Up San Marco Campanile
St. Mark’s Campanile is one of the most recognizable landmarks in St. Mark’s Square, a massive 98 meter (323 ft) bell tower that looms over its surroundings.
Galileo himself used the tower as an observatory to study the skies and in 1609 he demonstrated his telescope to the Lords of the city.
There is an elevator that goes to the top providing you with an unforgettable view of one of the most magnificent parts of Venice, including the Venitian Lagoon and Santa Maria Della Salute.
The ride to the top costs €8 EURO, or €13 EURO to skip the line (buy tickets here). Because drones are banned over Venice, it’s one of the only ways to get a cool aerial and panoramic view of the city.
11. Take A Day Trip To Burano
Burano is one of the smaller islands that can be found around the Venetian Lagoon. It’s reached via a 40-minute water taxi from St. Mark’s Square.
This small fishing village is unique for its brightly painted homes of pink, blue, yellow, and green. It’s a kaleidoscope of color with its own network of canals too.
Burano is also a center for lace-making, though the traditional methods see very little use these days because of their complicated and time-consuming nature.
The main square is filled with bars and outdoor restaurants, make sure to order some fresh fish risotto for lunch! Burano is a nice half-day trip to get out of Venice and see something different.
12. Basilica Di Santa Maria Della Salute
In the 17th century, Venice suffered a particularly bad outbreak of the bubonic plague when 80,000 people died.
As thanks for its deliverance from the plague, Venetians built the Basilica Di Santa Maria Della Salute to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary who they believe saved them from much worse.
The result was a wonderful Baroque style structure which came complete with a beautiful dome that has become an iconic part of the Venetian skyline.
The basilica is positioned near the entrance to the Grand Canal. Entrance is free, and many people simply chill out on the church staircase. The Vaporetto water taxi has a stop right out front.
13. Climb San Giorgio Maggiore
San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the Venetian islands. Moreover, it is also the name of a Benedictine church that can be found upon said island.
Built in a Renaissance style out of shining white marble, one of San Giorgio Maggiore’s most stand-out features is the bell tower with an elevator to the top and excellent views of Venice.
If you only have time for one bell tower, I’d actually recommend this one over San Marco Campanile. Because this tower is on an island further away from the city center, you get a better view of Venice proper.
Entering the church is free, but if you want to go up the tower, it costs €3 EURO. San Giorgio Maggiore can be reached by public water taxi.
14. Check Out The Canareggio District
Need a break from the crowds? Canareggio is the northernmost of Venice’s six historic districts, and where the last of Venice’s true residents call home, and the former Jewish Ghetto of Venice.
The other areas of Venice which line the Grand Canal are popular destinations for tourists, but the Canareggio neighborhood is residential in nature, featuring various cafes, shops, and a more local experience.
One of the biggest complaints about Venice is the crowds, but it’s totally possible to leave the busy areas behind and explore less-crowded parts, like Canareggio.
15. Eat A Traditional Tramezzino
Tramezzini are Italian sandwiches that use two pieces of soft white bread with their crusts removed.
Venetian Tramezzini are famous for being stuffed fuller than most of their counterparts, with the most traditional examples using either ham or tuna.
They are great as a snack, particularly for people who want something substantial. Probably the best place to grab a Tramezzino is Bar alla Toletta (Bar at the Toilet).
This tiny local cafe & Tramezzini shop in the Dorsoduro district is always packed, but the food is excellent and a perfect example of this traditional Venetian snack.
16. Get Lost In Venice’s Narrow Alleys
Space comes at a premium in Venice. As a result, there are a lot of places with VERY narrow alleys, which can be a fun way to explore one of the most romanticized cities on the planet.
If you want to know what to do in Venice, my favorite was to just get lost in these narrow streets. Pick a direction and start walking. See what hidden places you can find!
There are all kinds of little shops, public squares, and lesser-visited canals and bridges if you are willing to be adventurous and put down your phone or map.
Not that your smartphone will help much, GPS doesn’t work very well in these confusing, narrow alleyways. You’ll almost certainly get lost even if you weren’t planning to!
17. Buy A Venetian Carnival Mask
Even if you’re not visiting Venice during their annual Carnival in February, it’s still possible to pick up one of the famous Venetian Carnival masks!
Scholars speculate the masks were a way to shrug off the structure of class, enabling participants to enjoy a temporary measure of freedom.
The upper class and peasants would mingle together, the masks hiding their true identity. But they’d also allow people to engage in gambling, robbery, assassination, and other illicit activities.
You can easily pick up one of your own as a souvenir. There are cheap versions sold from street carts, or the more elaborate hand-made art pieces can be bought in specialized mask shops.
18. Scala Contarini Del Bovolo
If you’re looking for a cool hidden attraction in Venice, there’s a palazzo in San Marco with a spiral staircase called Scala Contarini Del Bovolo, as it resembles a snail shell.
This curved set of stairs is a perfect example of Renaissance art spreading through the city in the 15th century. It became associated with not just the palace but the Contarini family who lived there.
On the top floor, you can walk out onto the “Belvedere”, getting a wonderful view of Venice, including the domes and Campanile of San Marco. Entry fee is €7.00 EUR.
19. The Fight Club Bridge
There was a time when Venice saw frequent fist-fights between rival factions on its bridges, which were popular spectacles for Venetian crowds.
The fist-fights were not held in high regard by the Venetian authorities, but they were tolerated for a time because they were an improvement on the earlier practice of stick-fights.
The Ponte Dei Pugni (aka The Bridge of Fists) was the most popular place for these fist-fights. The surface bears four footprints rendered in white marble, supposedly where fighters would stand to start their matches.
Right next to the bridge there’s also a family-owned floating vegetable market, called “La Barca”, that was featured in the classic travel movie Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.
20. Crypt Of San Zaccaria
San Zaccaria is a central Venetian church built using a mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles. However, the church tends to be best-known because of its flooded crypt.
Curiously, the water has enhanced the overall feel of the space, perfectly suitable as a resting place for some of Venice’s earliest Doges (religious and political leaders).
The stone columns and vaulted ceilings combined with the standing water make for a creepy tomb. Totally worth a quick visit while you’re in Venice!
21. Catch An Epic Venetian Sunset
Venice has some amazingly colorful sunsets. They are complemented by the city’s magnificent architecture built along all the waterways and canals. Not to mention the gondolas floating about.
Sunsets often boast deep pink, yellow, purple, and orange colors. Unfortunately this partly due to all the smog hovering over the city… but it’s great for photography!
One of the best places to view the sunset in Venice is along the ferry pier at San Marco. There are a few docks that jut out into the Grand Canal, where you can set up a tripod [MAP].
22. Rialto Market Shopping
No visit to Venice would be complete without visiting the Rialto Market, seeing as how one of the city’s chief claims to fame was as a commercial hub.
The Rialto Market’s canal-side location means that it has played an important part in the day-to-day lives of Venetians for a very long time.
You can find fruit, vegetables, and fresh fish in the food section, plus countless souvenirs in the tourist section. The market is open from 9am to 9pm, and is situated near the big white Rialto Bridge.
23. Watch A Gondola Being Made
Squero di San Trovaso is one of the last remaining Venetian gondola boat yards, where local craftsmen build and repair the €20,000 traditional boats.
While the boatyard isn’t generally open to tourists, you can watch them work from across the canal. If you’re lucky, they’ll be outside varnishing one of the boats.
Only about 10 new gondolas are built each year, made from eight different kinds of wood including mahogany, cherry, fir, walnut, oak, elm, larch and lime. The last of a dying artform!
24. Cool Off With Venetian Gelato
After a long day wandering through the city, I recommend stopping by the Suso Gelatoteca for a cold and refreshing cone of tasty Italian gelato.
One way to know if you’re getting authentic, Italian gelato is to check the colors. Are they bright and florescent? Skip it! Real gelato is much more subdued.
Another great spot for gelato in Venice is Gelato Di Natura in San Croce. Make sure to eat it fast before it melts all over your hand!
25. Teatro La Fenice
Sometimes called Phoenix by English speakers, Teatro La Fenice is a beautiful old Venetian opera house.
It has been destroyed and rebuilt two separate times following different fires, hence the “phoenix” name.
The interior is the star of the show, designed in classic Italian fashion, with lots of gold and seating in closed boxes for an extra measure of privacy.
Just keep in mind that photos from inside aren’t allowed during concert/play rehearsals, which we didn’t realize on our visit. Make sure to ask at the door.
26. Grab A Drink At Hotel Danieli
If you want to see how the other half does Venice, stop into the lavish former 14-century palace Hotel Danieli and grab an evening drink at Bar Dandolo.
This 5-star hotel has hosted such notable people as Charles Dickens, Harrison Ford, and Peggy Guggenheim.
In the lobby, there’s also a beautiful grand staircase decorated in red and gold. The bar features antique furniture, Murano glass chandeliers, and even more gold.
The lobby bar was featured in 3 different James Bond films: Casino Royale (2006), From Russia with Love (1963) and Moonraker (1979). Totally worth a martini!
27. Basilica Of Saints John & Paul
The Basilica of Saints John and Paul is a smaller basilica that can be found in Castello, and the public square around it is a popular place for families to hang out.
Curiously, it isn’t named for John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle. Instead, it is named for a more obscure pair of saints who are said to have been eunuchs belonging to the Emperor Constantine’s daughter Constantina.
Regardless, the Basilica of Saints John and Paul is a treasure trove of art and culture, as well as the place where funeral services for the Venetian Doges were held following the 15th century.
28. Ride The Vaporetto Water Taxi
By now you’ve already heard me mention the Vaporetto water taxi a few times. This is the cheapest and most convenient way to get around Venice.
It’s basically a floating public bus, that stops frequently at different docks around the city. It may not be quite as romantic as a wooden gondola or private boat, but it gets the job done.
Vaporettos usually run between 6am and 10pm, and you can buy a 24-hour ticket for €20 EUR, or 48-hours for €30. A single ticket costs €7.50.
You can also use them to reach some of the other islands around Venice, like Murano & Burano. If you’re traveling to Venice on a budget, this is the way to go!
29. Glass Making On Murano Island
Murano is another small island just outside Venice, reachable via water taxi. It’s become known around the world for its glass-making artisans.
You can stop into the Museo del Vetro – Museum of Glass to learn about the history of Murano glass and how its made, or even sign up for a glass blowing class and make some yourself!
If you are looking to bring home some souvenirs from your trip to Venice Italy, I highly recommend picking up some authentic Murano glass.
30. Attend Venice Carnival!
Modeled after ancient Greek and Roman festivals, Venice Carnival is a holiday that allowed regular citizens to dress up in anonymous costumes, making fun of the aristocracy without fear.
But it eventually backfired, allowing criminals to get away with all kinds of crimes behind the masks, and Carnival was banned in 1797. The celebration & parties returned though during the 1960’s.
These days, Venice Carnival lasts for two weeks in February, with all kinds of parades, concerts, private parties, and people dressed up in elaborate costumes.
We had a ton of fun photographing all the different costumes and masks, as people pose for you at the most iconic spots around the city.
Best Time To Visit Venice
High season for Venice Italy is during the summer from June to August, when everyone is on summer break. It’s hot and very crowded! Try to avoid the summer if you can.
The best time to visit Venice is during the shoulder seasons, March – May and September – November. Still busy, but not as bad as summertime.
If you are looking to travel on a budget, visit Venice during the acqua alta, or “high water” months of October through January. This is when the city floods on a regular basis.
Venice Carnival is during February. 2020 Carnivale de Venezia dates are February 8th to February 25th.
Where To Stay In Venice
Normally I’d recommend staying at an Airbnb, but for Venice, a vacation rental investment explosion has forced locals to leave the city because they can no longer afford rent. Which kinda sucks. So here are my hotel recommendations for where to stay in Venice!
Best Accommodation In Venice
Transportation Around Venice
Most people get to Venice by flying into Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. From there, you can jump on the ATVO airport transfer bus to Piazzale Roma, the main bus terminal. Buses run every 20 minutes and cost €6 EUR. From the terminal, you can pick up a Vaporetto and start floating down the Grand Canal.
The Venice public “water bus”. A single ticket costs €7.50 EUR. 24-hour unlimited ticket for €20 EUR. 48-hours for €30. 72-hours for €40. Timetables here.
For a slightly cooler experience, you can book a motoscafi (water taxi). It’s basically a wooden speed boat that travels much faster than the public Vaporetti. But it’s more expensive.
For up to five people, the price is €110 to or from the airport. Or €82 from the train station to Plaza San Marco. So if you’re sharing with a group, it isn’t so bad.
€80 for 30 minutes before 7pm, €100 after 7pm. The price is good for up to 6 people. This is more of a tourist attraction than a practical way to get around the city. I’d recommend trying it at least once though!
Budget Travel Tips For Venice Italy
- Don’t try and see absolutely everything in Venice if don’t have much time. Pick a few things to do each day. The large crowds can be stressful.
- Speaking of crowds, mentally prepare for them. Unless you’re visiting off-season, Venice is ALWAYS packed, like 60,000 – 80,000 people each day!
- To avoid the huge influx of cruise ship passengers that descend upon Venice, check out this Cruise Ship Calendar to help plan your trip around them.
- Buy a Vaporetto ticket for the whole time you’re in the city. Visiting for 3 days? It’s worth it to get the 72-hour unlimited ticket for €40.
- Don’t waste money on bottled water. Almost every public square has a free water fountain. Just bring a reusable water bottle!
- Buy a Venice City Pass for discounted rates on museums and galleries, around 20% -30% off.
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I hope you enjoyed my guide on what to do in Venice! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:
Any questions about things to do in Venice Italy? Do you have other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!