The Best Things to Do in Venice
Featured in countless films, novels, and TV shows, Venice can evoke a sense of deja vu in travelers who have never previously experienced the Grand Canal, Bridge of Sighs, and gondola rides. Those are worthy experiences, yet Venice also rewards those who seek out its small islands and give in to getting lost down quaint neighborhood side streets. Museums and a local’s cooking class round out the mix of must-do activities.
1050 Campo della Carità
The Ponte dell’Accademia is one of four bridges that span the Grand Canal, and will get you quickly from San Marco to the labyrinthine Dorsoduro neighborhood. Originally built in 1854 out of steel, the current wooden bridge was built in the 1930s and offers picture-perfect views over the most picturesque canal in the world. Visitors with walking challenges or ambulatory devices will find the Accademia with its long flat steps much easier to navigate than the other bridges.
Riva degli Schiavoni, 30100 Venezia VE, Italy
Riva degli Schiavoni is one of the most crowded areas in Venice—and understandably so. It’s a picturesque waterfront in the central Castello district of the city, right along the Bacino di San Marco and the narrow bridge over the Rio di Palazzo della Paglia. Some might say that holding hands or kissing while crossing this bridge will bring good luck and a long-lasting relationship.
Piazza San Marco, 1, 30122 Venezia VE, Italy
The Ponte dei Sospiri was given its English name by part-time Venice resident Lord Byron, who wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “I stood in Venice on a Bridge of Sighs, a palace and a prison on each hand.” Byron’s travelogue nails it: When you stand on the famous crossing, the Doge’s Palace and a public prison are on either side. A local myth (that turned into the plot line for the film A Little Romance) says that lovers who kiss on a gondola at sunset beneath the Bridge of Sighs will be granted eternal love. Access to the bridge itself is through the Secret Itinerary tour of the Doge’s Palace.
Venice, Metropolitan City of Venice, Italy
Near the base of the landmark Rialto Bridge, the historic Rialto Market is well worth a wander. Seek it out in the early morning when it provides an authentic local experience (and awesome social-media ops), with fishmongers hawking their fresh seafood catches and local produce merchants setting out seasonal fruits and vegetables. When you’ve finished exploring, go grab breakfast and a strong coffee at one of the nearby trattorias. If you’re a real foodie, consider exploring Rialto Market with a local guide who can delve into the history and also introduce you to Venice street food.
Piazza San Marco, 328, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
The Basilica San Marco is Venice‘s crown jewel. Situated at the eastern end of Piazza San Marco, the cathedral was built around 1078 on the site of an earlier house of worship. It is famously the home of the remains of the apostle Mark, which were said to have been smuggled from the Holy Land by Crusaders in a barrel of pork. The basilica is not just a wonder from the outside; its glittering gold mosaics make it one of the most breathtaking examples of Byzantine design in the West.
Dorsoduro, 701-704, 30123 Venezia VE, Italy
There’s plenty of art in Venice, from the churches to the Scuoli to the Accademia. But when you just can’t look at another Caravaggio, and even Titian hair doesn’t move you any more, refresh yourself with a visit to Peggy’s house. The renowned American heiress lived here for 30 years and houses a beautiful selection of her famous modern art collection. It’s a real jewel, small enough to feel manageable, significant enough to cover almost all of the modern art movements and include important pieces from Jackson Pollock and Mondrian to Picasso, Dalí and Kandinsky. The petite sculpture garden (above) has the kind of works that will make you smile, and there are also temporary exhibitions. I was there during a special Futurism collection and a young intern, seeing me with my 13-year-old friend Niambh, offered us a special one-on-one guide to the paintings. A joy.
Fondamenta Vin Castello, 30125 Venezia VE, Italy
Two things you need to know about gondola rides in Venice: They’re worth it; and the price is agreed beforehand. Knowing those two things, you can happily hop aboard this traditional Venetian mode of transport and relax, because, touristy as it is, it’s not a rip-off, and it’s a must-have experience. You can pick up a gondola almost anywhere in Venice, and you can see whatever sights you want from one... My own recommendation is to head away from the Grand Canal to the quiet backwater canals where you can really imagine yourself centuries back in time. We engaged our gondolier at the station near Rialto Mercato and asked him to take us across to Cannaregio, a more residential area that still boasts some extraordinary palazzi and churches. We barely met another boat, apart from the odd Venetian getting himself home on his motor launch, and unexpected delights loomed upon us silently and suddenly, like Marco Polo’s house, or the Chiesa dei Miracoli. All in all, much better than joining the heavy gondola traffic in San Marco.
Piazza San Marco, 1, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
This pink-marble waterfront edifice in Piazza San Marco dates back to the 14th century, when it was the residence and seat of government for the doges (rulers) of Venice. Today the ornate Byzantine- and Moorish-influenced Gothic Palazzo Ducale is a symbol of the city, and serves as a museum hosting some of Venice’s most important art, including the famous Bacchus, Venus, and Ariadne masterpiece by Tintoretto. It also runs the popular Secret Itinerary and Doge’s Palace Hidden Treasures tours. After you’re done, treat yourself to a glass of wine in the small on-site bistro, with windows looking onto the Grand Canal adjacent to the Bridge of Sighs.
Calle Briati, 8b, 30141 Venezia VE, Italy
The Abate Zanetti School of Glass has been home to masters of Murano glassblowing for 150 years, and today it provides an immersive experience into the island’s famed glass artistry. Located at the Glass Museum, a half-day program is offered here that includes the historical backstory and glassblowing demonstrations. More serious artists can sign up for Giancarlo Signoretto’s five-day primer in the furnace room that covers how to gather glass from the kiln and how to use blowing pipes, tweezers, and molds to fashion soft glass into functional pieces of art, from traditional Venetian goblets to modern vases.
1050 Campo della Carità, 30123 Venezia VE, Italy
The Gallerie dell’Accademia is the place to see Venice through the eyes of centuries of famous Venetians. The museum has a huge collection of paintings from the Byzantine and Gothic eras through the Renaissance and into the 18th century (including many of Canaletto’s paintings that helped draw travelers here from around the world). Before you visit, watch the Katharine Hepburn film Summertime, which has some great scenes filmed in the museum in the 1950s.
Dorsoduro, 2, 30123 Venezia VE, Italy
Controlled by the François Pinault Foundation, the same trust in charge of Christie’s auction house, this is a museum-worthy gallery in the heart of Venice. Set inside a 17th-century customs house, it showcases Pinault’s impressive private collection, comprised of some 2,500 pieces of modern art. The location, at the point of land where the Grand Canal meets the Giudecca Canal, is equally spectacular. After you’ve finished browsing the art collection, grab a pastry or a small bite at the in-house Dogana Cafe.
Campo San Fantin, 1965, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
Aptly named after the phoenix, this opera house has risen from its own ashes three times, the last in the 1990s when it was burned in an act of arson. It was rebuilt in the same ornate style as the building that had been destroyed—a choice that some critics said was not as courageous as building anew. But the Venetians like things the way they are: Take the Campanile tower in San Marco, rebuilt in the 1900s exactly as it had been when it collapsed. The venue is open every day for music performances and self-guided tours.
Piazza San Marco, 52, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
Few people know about the Museo Correr and yet it is in plain sight within San Marco square. For those looking for quality time within a museum dedicated to the history of Venice - from ships flags, to visiting Popes, books, maps and old coins (to name a few) - this is the place to get away from the crowds. Of course the Venetian greats can be found decorating the walls from Canova to Giorgione and Titian. The Museo also offers an ideal view of the square as you roam the halls that were altered to become the Napoleonic Palace in 1807. Previous to this the windows offered views into the square perfect for viewing the Carnivale festivities, corporeal punishment such as beheadings and quarterings or those who strolled the Venetian “stage” as it is often referred to since it was a place to see and be seen.
Sestiere San Polo, 30125 Venezia VE, Italy
The Rialto Bridge is the oldest of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal, and without question it’s one of the most iconic sights in Venice. There has been a bridge at this site since the 12th century, connecting the districts of San Marco and San Polo, and until the Accademia Bridge was built in 1854, the Ponte di Rialto was the only way to cross the canal on foot. Early versions of the bridge were made of wood and eventually succumbed to fire or collapse, until its current incarnation was constructed of stone by Antonio da Ponte in 1591. Beyond the mandatory walk across the single-span stone bridge, there is an open-air market at its eastern foot that is worth a wander. Skip the stores selling jewelry on the Rialto Bridge itself, however; you’ll find better quality and value in other parts of the city.
30126 Lido, Metropolitan City of Venice, Italy
Home of the Venice Film Festival, the Lido is also where you’ll find Venice‘s beaches—Shelley and Byron went horseback riding here back in the day—as well as the Grand Excelsior Hotel, whose bar is often crowded with celebrities during the festival (and other times of the year, as well). If you’re a classic film fan, the hotel might look familiar: Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice was shot here. The island has a decidedly lively feel compared with Venice itself, less a museum piece and more a buzzing destination, popular with Venetians and visitors looking to spend a day by the sea.
Campo San Moisè, 1390/A, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
Maria e Susanna Sent has several shops where they sell their glass jewelry, the cutest one of them all just off the Ponte San Moisè in San Marco. This boutique is about as big as a broom closet, and that is certainly part of its charm. The real impact, though, comes from the jewelry this artistic duo started creating on the island of Murano back in 1993. Their line of mostly necklaces and bracelets is made in a unique process that creates murrine and filigree glass and plates in glass fusion. They also have shops in Murano and in Dorsoduro near the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.
Murano, 30141 Venice, Metropolitan City of Venice, Italy
Famous for its long history of handblown glassmaking, Murano sits just a few minutes’ ferry ride offshore in the Venetian Lagoon. The main attraction is the Glass Museum (Museo del Vetro), which recounts the history of glass through the centuries, with the largest focus on important pieces of Murano glass produced between the 15th and 20th centuries. You can also join a guided tour and catch a glassmaking demonstration here. When finished, do a bit of shopping for locally produced glass at some of the boutique shops. Also check out the Romanesque-style Church of Santa Maria and San Donato, which may or may not house the bones of a slain dragon under its boldly hued mosaic floor.
Piazza San Marco, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
Since few areas within the city of Venice afford high perspectives of the entire city, take the elevator (no stairs) to the top of San Marco’s Campanile in Piazza San Marco. You may have to put up with a few elbows to get a spot against the railing, but it is all worth it for the spectacular panoramic views of Venice and the lagoon. While here, contemplate the history of this spectacular bell tower and observe the view from the same spot where numerous doges have stood, as well as Galileo. It was here that he introduced his telescope to the doge!
The Grand Canal is the no-brainer must-do Venice experience, and the best way to explore the city’s main thoroughfare is on a vaporetto, or water bus. For a great introduction to the area, ride the vaporetto from the railway station, at the edge of the lagoon on one end of the canal, all the way to its other end at San Marco’s basin. Along the two-mile trip the waterway makes a big reverse S-shape through Venice’s central districts and gives you a true feel for what makes this romantic, historically rich city tick. The banks of the canal are lined with Venice’s most expensive real estate. Here, you’ll find some 170 palazzi originally built for nobility between the 13th and 19th centuries. Today they house luxury hotels, private residences, and even art museums.
An address won’t help you much on Burano. If you’re looking for a specific spot on this tiny archipelago off the Venetian coast, let color be your guide. According to legend, island homes were painted in vivid hues to help fishermen find their way in the fog as far back as the 6th century. While neon shades of blue, green, orange, and lavender may seem random, they’ve been determined by a regulated system for centuries. Even today, property owners must request permission and a selection of permissible colors from the Italian government before slapping a new coat of paint on their aging buildings. Visitors who make the 45-minute vaporetto ride from Venice to Burano are rewarded with a kaleidoscope of tropical hues and a serene island ambience that seems worlds away from the madding crowds in Piazza San Marco. While edible vestiges of its roots as a small fishing village remain in waterfront restaurants serving up heaping plates of frittura mista, seafood risotto, and spaghetti vongole, Burano is better known today for its hand-hewn lace and colorful homes. In the 15th century, its artistic prominence surged when island women began making the famed lace. Demand peaked after Leonardo da Vinci visited to shop for the Burano lace that covers the main altar of the Duomo in Milan. If you’re lucky enough to visit Burano during the pre-Lent Venice Carnevale, you may find new dimensions of color on its four canal-laced islands and picturesque footbridges. A multicolored palette of some 3,000 islanders provides a rainbow of backdrops for costumed revelers. Primping and posing, the fantasy personae inspire storms of clicks from photographers eager to capture the visual feast.
2671 Campo San Maurizio, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
If you’re in the market for a handcrafted handbag, then head to Silvano Arnaldo and Massimiliano Battois’s storefront just off Campo San Luca. The Venetian designers’ fantastic leather creations are handmade by local artisans and showcased on Milan’s catwalks each year. The bags offer modern takes on early 20th-century travel bags and come in a range of bold colors. Although best known for its handbags, the Venice boutique also sells a womenswear line that focuses on deconstructed clothes not meant to be form-fitting. If you’re in town during January and July when the sales are going on, you’ll find big discounts.
Venetian Lagoon, 30133 Venice, Metropolitan City of Venice, Italy
Cruise the Venice lagoon on one of the few remaining bragozzo boats still working this body of water. The vintage double-masted, flat-bottom fishing boat, once a common type of vessel here, dates back to 1946. The captain and owner, Mauro Stoppo, is also an excellent chef, which comes in very handy. Charter a daytrip (the boat comfortably carries 6–10 people) and sail to a lesser visited portion of the lagoon. The pace is slow; the food and wine decadent. If you want to charter a longer trip, you’ll explore more of the lagoon by day, learning its history and ecology, and then sleeping in private villas at night.