If you’re looking for the best free things to do in Venice, search no more. This list of top free sights in Venice encompasses culture, history and modern life. Venice is a beautiful destination any time of year but it doesn’t need to be expensive with some careful planning.
When you do spend money, it’s worth making sure it goes to authentic and good quality restaurants, bars and cafes, many of which are mentioned in this post. And don’t forget to check out my guide to sustainable tourism in Venice before setting off.
1. Best free things to do in Venice: Visit St Mark’s Square
There’s a reason why the Venetians call St. Mark’s Square just ‘the piazza’ – its sheer size and vision dwarfs any of the smaller squares or piazzas you might come across in the city. Nearly always full of people, it’s nevertheless one of the most essential free things to do in Venice.
Venice feels like a city built by giants when you stand here, peering up at the extraordinarily high bell tower or campanile of St. Mark’s, built in 1156 and last restored in 1514. The piazza is dominated by the Basilica of St. Mark’s at its eastern end, one of the best examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture in the country.
Beneath the elegant arcades sheltered by porticoes, Venice’s grand cafes still ply their trade. It’s one of the most expensive parts of the city to dine or even sit down for a drink, but there is a budget solution: don’t sit at a table cafè. I recommend popping into one of the iconic coffee shops such as Lavena – the former haunt of composer Richard Wagner – and ordering at the bar to pay a third of the price. Don’t let them talk you into taking a seat, insist on taking a drink like a local. One of the best free things to do in Venice.
2. Best free things to do in Venice: Visit Rialto Bridge and Rialto market
Venice’s handsome Rialto Bridge is stil one of the city’s most photographed sites, for good reason. Representing the heart of the city’s mercantile trade, it has featured in works of art and plays such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice over the centuries.
The neighbouring market space is characterised by lively fish, fruit and vegetable markets during the day, as well as crowded bars and restaurants. It’s also the location for a number of international retail brands so is good for a bit of clothes shopping, although there are fewer Italian designers here than foreign clothes stores. At least just walking around can go on your free Venice things to do list!
3. Best free things to do in Venice: Visit the island of glass, Murano
Although you will have to buy a Vaporetto ticket to reach Venice’s smaller islands, it is definitely worth picking up a day pass to visit three or four of them while in Venice. The day pass is good value and cheaper than single tickets.
The Island of Murano is famous for its glass furnaces, and many are free to visit. Enjoy peering in dim workshops and watching local artisans spin molten glass into wonderful, intricate shapes. Some of them will even let you have a go at holding the glass in the fire and glass pieces still make uniquely Venetian souveniers.
Look out too for some of the oldest and most prestigious glassmakers, such as Barovier & Toso, who helped shaped the industry here over the years.
4. Best free things to do in Venice: Visit colourful Burano island
Burano is the furthest of the famous islands when travelling from the heart of Venice, but worth the journey, to stroll amongst its coloured houses. It’s such a peaceful place that a great free thing to do is just to spend time here. If you’re after some souvenirs, pick up some handmade lace – definitely one of the most traditional things to do in Venice. For a cheap lunch, try Laguna Bar for a €6 cone of fried fish.
5. Best free things to do in Venice: Visit San Michele, the cemetery isle
On the way back, stop at San Michele, Venice’s iconic cemetery island where Stravinsky is buried and the local monks still make their own wine. Just remember that photos aren’t permitted on the island, out of respect for the dead. One of the most original experiences on the free Venice things to do list.
6. Best free things to do in Venice: Explore Cannaregio
Few tour guides will take you to Cannaregio, home to Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, as well as remaining one of the most authentic, unspoiled parts of Venice.
Of course, wandering round Cannaregio, taking in the sights (and the smells!) is completely free! Here, good-value wine bars and restaurants enjoy peaceful waterfront views along green canals, next to local artisan workshops and small, independent stores.
Try lunch or even dinner in a bacaro, a typical Venetian bar, for a kind of tapas called cicchetti – usually slices of baguette topped with cold-cuts and pickles, vegetables and fish, but also meatballs or hard-boiled eggs.
I like Vino Vero, on Fondamenta Misericordia, a hip spot specialising in delicious wholemeal bread cicchetti and organic wines. (Pictured below).
Otherwise head for cosy, wood-lined Al Timon (from 6pm), where the house red costs €2.50 a glass (ask for an ombra) and plates of cheese and cold cuts keep hunger at bay. One of the tastiest things to do in Venice.
Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, which was 500 years old in 2016, is also located in Cannaregio – a fascinating mix of museums and places of worship, with typical bakeries and cafes hidden in side streets.
Historic baker Majer, for example, is a great spot to grab breakfast. For a great free Venice experience just wander around and soak up the atmosphere. Alternatively, eat in a typical Jewish trattoria to gain an insight into this fascinating corner of Venice.
7. Best free things to do in Venice: Visit a gondola maker
One of the original gondola makers in the city, Lo Squero di San Trovaso, is located in the San Trovaso part of town, named after the local church. The best way to see the gondola maker at work is to walk along the opposite bank of the canal, along Fondamenta Nani, for the best views of the boat yard at the rear.
If you arrive there before 1pm or after 4pm, grab a glass of wine to go from neighbouring wine bar or baccaro Già Schiavi and peer across the canal to see how Venice’s iconic boats are shaped and primed before hitting the water. Expect to pay just a euro for a glass of wine in this cheap, iconic place, while cicchetti, small snacks, start at €1.20 each. Put it on your Venice bucket list.
The San Trovaso neighbourhood in Venice’s Dorsoduro district, named after the eponymous church on the left of this image, is worth half an hour of your time spent in Venice. Grab a glass of wine and some cicchetti from legendary bacaro Già Schiavi, and then wander down the canal bank to watch the gondola makers at the Squero di San Trovaso. #testaccina
8. Best free things to do in Venice: Visit Giudecca island
If glorious views and somewhere even more laid back is your style, try visiting the island of Giudecca which is across the water from Piazza San Marco. Wander round this pretty, quiet island, today home to some gorgeous five star hotels as well as a trendy hostel.
Simple eatery La Palanca fills up quickly, and it’s not surprising: apart from unparalleled waterside tables looking across to the bell tower of St Marks, here you can gorge on freshly caught fish or polenta with squid in black ink.
Giudecca is home to three pretty churches, one of which, Il Redentore, is the central focus of Venice’s biggest summer party, La Festa del Redentore, held each year in mid-July, when it seems like the whole city launches boats to drink and celebrate on the water. Definitely one of the most exciting free things to do in Venice and a great time to visit this incredible city.
One of my favourite lunch spots in Venice is simple but perfect La Palanca, in front of the La Palanca vaporetto stop on the island of Giudecca. Expect the freshest fish, including this amazing antipasto plate with marinated anchovies, sarde in saor, swordfish carpaccio with orange and creamed baccala. I recommend the polenta with squid in black ink to follow. And don’t forget to start with a colourful spritz! #testaccina A post shared by Travel blogger Isobel Lee (@testaccina1) on
9. Best free things to do in Venice: Visit the Acqua Alta bookshop
Luigi Di Frizzo runs chaotic bookshop Acqua Alta Libreria, where books are piled in gondolas and bathtubs, and a flight of stairs at the back is made from bound volumes, leading to a stunning view over the canal.
Water is usually the enemy of booksellers but in this extraordinary store, the slightly damp books have made peace with their extraordinary location. Pick your way through this incredible shop and buy a book or two.
10. Best free things to do in Venice: Walk on the sands of the Lido
Another island worth visiting is Venice’s Lido, the main beach island and a destination associated with the city’s faded glories. Walk on the sands and look back at the grand hotels along this strip, one of which inspired Thomas Mann’s iconic tale, Death in Venice.
These days the former Hotel des Bains is undergoing a transformation into a new luxury hotel, but squint and you might recognise the location from the timeless black and white film. Put it on your free Venice things to do list!