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Grand Canal
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The 20 best things to do in Venice

Discover Italy's jewel of a city with our guide to the best things to do - on and off the water

Written by
Rocky Casale
Contributor
Rosemary Waugh
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Even if you’ve never set foot in Venice, you know what it looks like – right? Venetian gothic buildings arranged like a too-good-to-be-true film set, wide-open piazzas dotted with excited tourists, ornate bridges and as many waterways as streets. The happy truth about Venice is that the reality is genuinely as beautiful as the pre-visit image. Visit this historic city and you can amble around unmissable museums, recharge on stunning beaches and nibble delicious cicchetti at a local restaurant or bar. 

The only problem, of course, is that rather a lot of other people might be doing the same. Venice’s charms are so legion, it can feel like the whole world has flocked here. So here’s a top tip: allow yourself to get lost. Wander down and around the quieter streets and you’ll not only escape some of the tourist intensity, you’ll also discover a whole hidden Venice of hanging gardens, quiet(er) cafes and a more authentic Italianate vibe. Enjoy!

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Best things to do in Venice

During the high season, the water buses that troll up and down the Grand Canal can be oppressively crowded, especially during morning and evening commutes. Avoid the chaos by traveling the Grand Canal at night, which is a beautiful option as all the regal palaces are lit up, making the ceiling frescos and grand chandeliers visible.

Another way to bypass the throngs of tourists on the Grand Canal is to hire your own water taxi. Some boats even serve on-board champagne. This indulgence is pricier than public transport, but it’s a great idea if you're traveling with a group and want to indulge in water-borne transport (it’s often cheaper than gondolas, too). Water taxis are also easier to navigate down smaller, scenic canals. Plus, as it's only your group onboard, you can slow for photos as often as you like.

  • Restaurants
  • Cafés

Set in the heart of San Marco Square, Caffé Florian is legendary. This iconic slice of Venetian history has been a hallmark of royalty since 1720, attracting celebrities over the centuries from Charlie Chaplin to Andy Warhol, and its décor hasn’t changed much since the 18th century. Try the risotto or, for something sweet, the gourmet chocolates, specialty coffees and ice-cold gelato. The patio is perfect in the summer.

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  • Things to do
  • Festivals

Every two years, Venice plays host to the ‘Olympics of the art world’, where artists, curators, buyers and critics decamp from across the globe and descend on the Italian city. The most recent event was scheduled for 2021, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been rescheduled to open in April 2022 and run through until November. The biennale is the perfect opportunity to see the very best in contemporary art, including getting to know what’s going on in different countries. However, if you can’t make it in time for the art festival, the foundation behind it also organises a number of other cultural festivals, including ones dedicated to music and film.

Millions loiter outside San Marco every year, waiting for their turn to catch a glimpse of the fabulously overwrought basilica. Why not instead take a detour to the church of San Sebastiano, where some of Venetian Renaissance master Paolo Tiepolo’s greatest works can be found. Save Venice Inc., the non-profit responsible for the restoration of countless Venetian artworks and architecture across the city (such as the brilliant marble facade of the Santa Maria dei Miracoli), recently restored Tiepolo’s ceiling paintings and has spent over a decade repairing and restoring much of the church.

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The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the world’s premiere private art collections in Venice’s quiet Dorsoduro district. From the Grand Canal, this one-story institution looks like an unfinished palace – which is exactly what it is. Guggenheim purchased the incomplete building in 1949 and proceeded to fill its rooms with her vast collection of 20th century surrealism, abstract expressionism, avant-garde sculpture, cubism and more, by esteemed artists like Mondrian, Dalí, Pollock and Picasso. Also visit the museum’s sculpture garden, filled with blooming shrubs and flowers, in the morning before the crowds flock here.

  • Things to do
  • Festivals

Every February, the city hosts the traditional Carnival where more than three million people dress up in masquerade costumes and dance until dawn. What makes this party different? It dates to Renaissance times. Venetians wear gilded white masks and the theatrical outfits range from black capes to ball gowns and feathered hats. It’s a spectacular sight to see.

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All’Arco
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. All’Arco

For a true Venetian breakfast or afternoon aperitif, All’Arco is by far the most authentic and delicious spot in town. You come here, of course, for the famous cicchetti snacks, which are basically fresh meats, produce or cheese in various combinations that are delicately balanced atop small slices of crostini. Arrive in the early morning and elbow up next to the boisterous fishmongers from the nearby Rialto Market. They will be refuelling on cichetti and prosecco well before noon, as a Venetian does.

  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours

Castello is a quiet, residential region just 15 minutes from the bustling San Marco Square on foot. In this peaceful district you'll find calm canals, independent businesses to browse and food markets. If you're on a budget, it's worth venturing away from the tourist traps to Castello to save a few pennies.

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Burano Island
  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours

Burano might be a 40-minute vaporetto from the main island, but it’s worth the day trip. This island is filled with homes painted in every colour of the rainbow. Stroll past the 13th-century church of Santa Caterina to check out local restaurants, like the Trattoria Al Gatto Nero, which serves fresh seafood and homemade pasta (just look for the bright blue building).

  • Museums
  • Art and design

In medieval times, the Burano Lace School taught merchants how to make the intricate fabrics which Leonardo da Vinci stopped by to purchase in 1481 (he bought fabric here for the main altar of his masterpiece at the Duomo di Milano). The Venice Lace Museum (Museo del Merletto) outlines the intricate lace history in a historic palace, Piazza Galuppi. Don’t miss the famous Church of San Martino, which has its own leaning campanile (just like the leaning tower of Pisa).

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The Rialto Bridge’s food market is widely known for its Italian produce and homemade pasta. The Rialto Food & Wine tour pokes around the fresh daily markets, offering samples of fresh cow cheese from the highlands of Asiago, polenta chunks with marinated seafood and olives from the nearby Lake Garda. The tour ends at Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, a popular square which has some great desserts.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth exploration of the market and the regional ingredients on offer, you’ll want to take a tour with the Enrica Rocca Cooking School – you’ll also get to prepare typical Venetian dishes with the chef.

  • Restaurants
  • Cafés

Tiramisu is the decadent Italian cake dessert made of ladyfinger cookies dipped in coffee and layered in cream. It was originally founded in Venice in the 1960s and its secret recipe has been preserved by local restaurants and bakeries. The I Tre Mercanti bakery offers 25 different kinds of fusion tiramisu, from strawberry to limoncello and passion fruit, but the traditional classic with cocoa is a must-try.

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Ponte di Rialto
  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites

There are over 400 Venetian bridges spanning the archipelago, yet none are as famous as the Ponte di Rialto. Memorably captured in all its stunning glory by Canaletto and his famous paintings of the city, the iconic bridge is one of the few in the world to have a number of shops artfully built onto it. Fun fact – the Rialto Bridge is the inspiration for several other bridges in Britain, including Pulteney Bridge in Bath. We love some late-in-the-day browsing of the bridge's boutiques for local jewellery and other treasures – especially when you get to capture the perfect sunset picture on the way out.

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  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours

When the Venice Film Festival hits town every September, the Hotel Riviera on Lido island becomes the star-spotting place of choice. However, don’t wait until early autumn for a trip to this achingly beautiful location. The hotel itself boasts an illustrious literary heritage that includes Ernest Hemingway, Lord Byron and Thomas Mann – the latter with a pen in hand to write ‘Death in Venice’. Take a break from writing your own novel with a lie-down on the serene sands of the unforgettable beach.

Rubelli Showroom

16. Rubelli Showroom

In 2018, the famous Venetian textile house, Rubelli, transferred its showroom and historic archive to Ca’ Rubelli Pisani in the city’s San Marco district. Founded by Lorenzo Rubelli in 1889, the company is known throughout the world for producing some of the most beautiful Damask and other fabrics used by international designers like Roberta di Camerino. Much of Venetian interior design has been influenced by the Rubelli family’s design genius. The new space showcases how director Nicolò Rubelli is advancing the company’s product line to include furniture and accessories while still honoring their rich heritage with fascinating exhibitions drawn from their archives.

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Known as the oldest part of Venice, Burano is the island where Ernest Hemingway lived in 1948 to write Across the River and Into the Trees. The book was written at the Hotel Locanda Canal, which is still owned by the same Cipriani family. If this five-star decadence is not your style, at least stay to order one of the world-renowned Bellini cocktails – prosecco and peach nectar – which was invented in the 1930s by Giuseppe Cipriani (and Hemingway adored them).

  • Attractions
  • Religious buildings and sites

Torcello Cathedral is a basilica church built in 639 AD and is the oldest building in Venice. This iconic piece of Venetian-Byzantine architecture is famous for its colourful mosaics: at the altar, find a gold-leaf masterpiece from the 11th century, ornate icons of Virgin Hodegetria and an expressive mosaic called the ‘Harrowing of Hell.’ This spooky church is decorated with the skull of Saint Cecilia, which has been kept here for hundreds of years.

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Make time for a trip to Murano and marvel at the traditional glass-making artistry the island is famous for. The beautiful light-altering products are still made at the Fornace Ferro Murano glass factory, where visitors are invited to peek inside an open studio, but you can also discover more about the history and artisanal craft at the Murano Glass Museum (Museo del Vetro). We question anyone who can come to this place and leave without a headful of dreamy ideas of rainbow chandeliers and miniature glass fruit.

Hotel Heureka
Photograph: Courtesy TripAdvisor.com

20. Hotel Heureka

Venetian hotels, some grand, others dingy, rarely stray from the staid and stuffy designs that they’re best known for. That’s why the new ten-room Hotel Huereka is so refreshing, even though it occupies a centuries-old palazzo. The rooms are an eclectic mash-up of vibrant abstract artwork or Asian antiques that blend well with the palace’s original wood beams and marble floors. One of the best things here is the private garden planted with ancient trees and visitable by anyone craving an excellent cocktail: you can’t find a better gin and tonic in the city.

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