Venice things to do: and why you should visit Venice at least once in your lifetime

Fragile, unique, immense Venice is a city which lives up to its promises: there’s really nowhere else in the world like it. If there’s one place you should go at least once in your life, that place is Venice. This city was built in another time, when access to the water was the essence of commerce, and that meant making money. Sometimes, big money. So an entire civilisation lived with all the inconveniences of island dwelling and coping with canals instead of streets because it promoted trade.

This is Italy, so along with that went aesthetics: making everything from those grand palaces on the lagoon down to the tiny fisherman’s cottage on the most remote island beautiful. If you didn’t have expensive stone or metal work, a cheerful coat of colourful paint could do it. Around all this, grew a unique food culture; ancillary trades; immigration and multiculturalism; and eventually, tourism.

If you’re lucky enough to make it to this most singular of precious cities, here are some Venice things to do over a few days in this extraordinary city. Read on for the top 25 things to do in Venice, Italy, over a weekend’s stay or longer. I suggest you also bookmark this guide to the top 10 free things to do in Venice.

Where to stay in Venice: my top hotel picks

I’ve stayed in these three hotel properties on different occasions in Venice and they’ve never let me down. Enjoy!

Ca’ Pozzo Inn is located just a 10 minute walk from Venice railway station, but is in a quiet location on the fringes of the Jewish Ghetto. That makes it extremely practical for travellers but also gives you a window on one of Venice’s most fascinating quarters. It was completely renovated last year and these bright, modern rooms with private bathrooms are perfect for a budget stay. Double rooms from €90

Casa Burano is a great romantic budget stay on the adorable coloured island of Burano. This diffused hotel is spread in cottages throughout the island, but features ultra modern private bathrooms. Perfect for a relaxed stay away from the chaos of the mainland. Double rooms from €80

Hilton Molino Stucky Venice is This amazing mid-priced 5-star hotel is one of the best kept secrets in Venice. The rooftop pool and bar enjoy some of the best views in the city. Located on the island of Giudecca, directly in front of St Mark’s Square, the hotel runs a free boat for guests. Doubles from €200 

If you don’t manage to get a room at any of these extremely popular hotels, check my expanded hand-picked list of great value hotels in Venice right here.

And if you’ve ever been curious about camping near Venice, check out my complete guide to staying at Marina di Venezia here.

1. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Take photographs. Lots of them

There are some cities and some circumstances where you feel embarrassed getting your camera out or looking like a tourist. Venice shouldn’t be one of them. You are akin to a wildlife photographer here, or an anthropologist capturing a dying city. Beautiful Venice is sinking: its delicate foundations being destroyed by the passage of cruise ships, by rising tides and climate change. Human damage is the most severe, as tourists leave tonnes and tonnes of waste each year, not all of it disposed of correctly.  If you’re looking for Venice things to do, start by taking photos of everything you see: from exotic doorknobs which recall the vast, global trade mecca that Venice once was, to black lacquered gondolas and gaily striped poles. Take photos of bridges and crumbling buildings, of colourful cottages and moonlight dancing in the wake of water taxis. Take photos of winged lions and cicchetti bars and dead-end streets which end in canals. Watch, look and remember.

2. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit St Mark’s Square

Venice’s centrepoint is right on the water: common with seaside places, but St. Mark’s Square is something special. Venice feels like a city built by giants when you stand here, peering up at the extraordinarily high bell tower, and the pillars by the wharf bearing the symbols of the city. Long before deluxe hotels invented infinity pools, there was Venice, with its impossibly large central piazza that had no end: it extended out into the sea and seemed to claim the water as a part of its realm. Today, when the rain comes, the water claims the city back, flooding the square and reminding all of Venice’s fragility.

Unless you really want to give a hefty wedge of your hard-earned cash to local (and not so local) restaurant-owners, don’t sit at a table cafè here: the prices are extortionate. If, however, you want to patronise a grand old café in Venetian style, I recommend popping into one of the iconic coffee shops such as Lavena 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 my favourite Venice things to do.

Venice things to do: The 25 best things to do in Venice, Italy, including visiting Murano and Burano, cheap gondola rides, and restaurant ideas in Venice.

3. Venice things to do: Visit the Basilica of San Marco – the church of St. Mark’s

The queues are often long, but this is an extraordinary church that you really shouldn’t leave off your list of Venice things to do. If you are a practising Christian, it’s worth noting that you can get in quite easily and avoid the queues if you’re attending a church service. But you will be expected to stay for mass. The most famous of Venice’s churches, it was only made the cathedral of Venice in 1807 – up until then, it was considered the chapel of the Doge. The last, great example of Italo-Byzantine architecture, its exotic shapes and opulent gold mosaics make it a symbol of mercantile Venice’s wealth and power.

4. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit the Doge’s Palace

If you have time and you’re looking for more Venice things to do in the St. Mark’s Square area, visit the Doge’s Palace. One of the city’s most fascinating museums, come here for a sense of Venice’s rich political past, a wealth of art, and the iconic passage across the famous Bridge of Sighs. If you can’t fit it in on this trip, you can always save this for your next visit. Actually, definitely save if for your next visit. Then you have another reason to come back to gorgeous Venice.

Venice things to do: The 25 best things to do in Venice, Italy, including visiting Murano and Burano, cheap gondola rides, and restaurant ideas in Venice.

5. 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit San Giorgio Maggiore and climb its tower

The iconic bronze statue on the top of San Giorgio Maggiore gets to enjoy this wonderful view for all eternity. But you can spend a wonderful half hour up here if you intend to include it in your Venice things to do. Visit the small island of San Giorgio to explore one of the city’s prettiest churches and  climb the belltower of San Giorgio Maggiore for sensational views of Venice. This 16th century Benedictine church houses two masterpieces by Tintoretto – The Last Supper and the Fall of Manna – plus his Entombment of Christ in the Chapel of the Dead. Enjoy the opportunity to get close to one of Venice’s most beloved artists and make the most of the fact that these days there’s a lift to go up the belltower (you would have had to walk it in the past!)

Venice things to do: The 25 best things to do in Venice, Italy, including visiting Murano and Burano, cheap gondola rides, and restaurant ideas in Venice.

6. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Get lost

Venice is one of those cities in which maps are no fun. Enjoy the insanely nonsensical signs to the Rialto and St Mark’s which abound on every corner and pick a new route each time. Enjoy the fact that tens of narrow streets finish in a watery end. Pound the streets and tiny piazzas, passing from crowded allies to deserted squares, putting your own, authentic Venetian itinerary together. Definitely an essential thing to do in Venice.

7. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit the Rialto Bridge and see the Rialto market

“So, what’s the news on the Rialto?” The chink of a gold coin and I am lost, plunged back in time to Shakespeare’s day, stepping in Shylock’s shadow through the cacophony of the Rialto market. It’s one of those eternal places, punctuated by the calls of fishmongers and tradespeople, the air alive with the briny tang of fresh fish at the start of the day and the stench of rotten guts by the end of it. Either side of the Rialto Bridge the mercantile theme continues to the present day – although you might be surprised by the concentration of international brands. This is a great area to go clothes and shoe shopping as well – so put it on your Venice things to do list!

8. Venice things to do: Go on a boat. Any boat (doesn’t have to be a gondola)

It’s almost impossible to find cheap gondola rides, but there is a useful trick I can recommend. Rent a gondola with two other couples to save money – they can hold up to six people – but remember that only two people can sit in the love seat! Prices are set at €80 for a 35 minute trip, so don’t let them charge you more. If you’re on a tighter budget and the whole deal looks a bit touristy to you, buy a day ticket and enjoy Venice’s remarkable public transport system by water – the vaporetto. Venice’s nippy public transport boats zip down the Grand Canal and round its most famous islands. Single rides cost €7.50, so you’ll want to buy a one, two, three or seven day ticket, starting at €20. One of the essential things to do in Venice.

9. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit the island of Murano

One of my favourite Venice things to do, 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.

Venice things to do: The 25 best things to do in Venice, Italy, including visiting Murano and Burano, cheap gondola rides, and restaurant ideas in Venice.

10. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit the island of Torcello

The quiet and unspoilt island of Torcello has the feel of a nature reserve and a superb church to explore. It’s on your way if you’re doing to Murano and Burano island trips by vaporetto so add it to your itinerary to enjoy one of the less well known things to do in Venice. Stop here for lunch if you’re feeling peckish at one of the pretty trattorias here.

11. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit the island of Burano

Burano is the furthest island away from the heart of Venice, but worth the journey, to stroll amongst its coloured houses and pick up some handmade lace – definitely one of the most traditional things to do in Venice. For a cheap lunch there, try Laguna Bar for a €6 cone of fried fish.

Best things to do in Venice - from island hopping to a Venice restaurant guide
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12. Venice things to do: Visit the cemetery island of San Michele

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 peaceful experiences on the Venice things to do list.

13. The 25 best 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 being transformed into luxury apartments, but squint and you might recognise the location of the incredible black and white film. One of the most iconic things to do in Venice.

14. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit La Fenice Opera House

Even if you don’t manage to book tickets for a show at the fabulous Teatro La Fenice, daily guided tours or entrance tickets with an audioguide included mean that you can still get a whiff of the greasepaint and hear about this theatre’s fabulous history. You can usually visit most days between 9.30 and 18.00 (shows permitting).

15. Venice things to do: Visit during the Venice carnival

The Venice Carnival falls deep in the winter – usually culminating in February – so the weather can be challenging. But the grey skies set off even better the extraordinary costumes worn by passionate Venetians, so put this on your Venice things to do list. If you don’t get an invite to a masked ball, make sure you’re milling around in Saint Mark’s Square on the last Sunday of the Venice Carnival to catch the flight of the angel  – a celebrity zipwire performance across the square.

Venice things to do: The 25 best things to do in Venice, Italy, including visiting Murano and Burano, cheap gondola rides, and restaurant ideas in Venice.

16. Venice things to do: Buy a Venetian mask (from the right sort of shop)

Venice is overrun with mass-produced masks on gaudy stalls designed to attract tourists – but there are still masks made here in the old way. Carlo Setta, at La Pietra Filosofale, is one of only a handful of mask makers in Venice still working in the traditional way. His unmarked shop is an Aladdin’s cave of theatricality, with signature masks made from leather. One of the most authentic things to do in Venice.

17. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit the craziest bookshop in the world

Luigi Di Frizzo runs chaotic bookshop Acqua Altra 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 – one of the most eccentric things to do in Venice.

Venice things to do: The 25 best things to do in Venice, Italy, including visiting Murano and Burano, cheap gondola rides, and restaurant ideas in Venice.

18. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Sigh at the Bridge of Sighs

In case you thought the Bridge of Sighs took its name from inspiring gasps of admiration from tourists, think again. The bridge was the traditional route for prisoners making their way from the Doge’s Palace into Venice’s old jail, and legend has it that the sighs of the prisoners could be heard as they passed over the bridge, catching their last glimpse of freedom. One of the most iconic Venice things to do.

19. Venice things to do: Immerse yourself in art at the Scuola San Rocco

If you enjoyed the art by Tintoretto at San Giorgio Maggiore, go one step further and immerse yourself in the incredible halls painted by the artist at the Scuola San Rocco.

20. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Go to the Jewish Ghetto

Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, which was 500 years old in 2016, is located in the locals-only Cannaregio district of town – a fascinating mix of museums and places of worship, with typical bakeries and cafes hidden in side streets. Eat in a typical Jewish trattoria here to gain an insight into this fascinating corner of Venice.

21. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Explore Cannaregio

Few tour guides will take you to Cannaregio, so after checking out the Jewish Ghetto, make sure you explore the rest of this laid back district. Cannaregio is definitely  one of the coolest parts of town, where good-value wine bars and cafés enjoy peaceful waterfront views along green canals. Try lunch 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. One of the most enjoyable things to do in Venice.

22.  The 25 best things to do in Venice: Eat Venetian tapas – cicchetti

Grazing on Venetian tapas can become something of a obsession for me whenever I visit Venice. In olden days, wine sellers in Piazza San Marco moved round all day to follow the shade, which is called ombra in Italian. So wine became known as a glass of ombra, while cicchetti (cicheti in dialect) derives from the Latin word ciccus, meaning “very small”. To enjoy ombra and cicchetti traditions at their best, I like Vino Vero, on Fondamenta Misericordia, a hip spot specialising in delicious wholemeal bread cicchetti and organic wines. In the evening, 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.

23. Venice things to do: Have a look at one of the last original gondola makers in the city

At cult bacarò Già Schiavi down town, expect to pay just a euro for a glass of ombra while cicchetti start at €1.20 each. This timeless spot is located along Fondamenta Nani, opposite one of the original gondola makers in the city, Lo Squero di San Trovaso. Grab a glass of wine to go and peer across the canal to see how Venice’s iconic boats are shaped and primed before hitting the water. Definitely one of the most fascinating things to do in Venice.

Venice things to do: The 25 best things to do in Venice, Italy, including visiting Murano and Burano, cheap gondola rides, and restaurant ideas in Venice

24. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Drink a Spritz (hell, drink several)

 You can’t leave Venice without drinking its classic aperitif known broadly as a spritz. This is made from prosecco, a dash of soda, and a ruby-coloured bitter alcohol – usually Campari or Aperol. Try a cheap bar along the Fondamenta Ormesini or Misericordia in Cannaregio, or head for any ordinary looking bar in a back street and enjoy this legendary drink for a locals-only price of €3.50.

25. The 25 best things to do in Venice: Visit the island of Giudecca

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 and fun things to do in Venice and a great time to visit this incredible city.

Venice things to do: The 25 best things to do in Venice, Italy, including visiting Murano and Burano, cheap gondola rides, and restaurant ideas in Venice.
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That’s it – my ultimate guide to Venice things to do and making the most of your trip to this unique and fascinating Italian city. Thanks for reading the 25 best things to do in Venice and I’ll see you soon on Testaccina for more locals-only Italy tips!

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Rome blogger Isobel Lee