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Venice St Mark’s Square
The Procuratie Vecchie, left, on St Mark’s Square. Photograph: Shutterstock

The 20 best things to do in Venice

Discover this famous beaut of a city with our guide to the best things to do in Venice - on and off the water

Written by
Rocky Casale
Contributor
Rosemary Waugh
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Few cities are as celebrated as Venice, and it isn’t difficult to understand why. The famous city has inspired romantic declarations of excitement for centuries, and it isn’t about to stop now. Sure, it gets insanely busy here during the summer, but you can’t fault the mass of visitors for their judgement. Venice is a dream come to life, the most beautiful city on a planet full of them. There isn’t anything left to say about Venice. 

Venice is, to state the blindingly obvious, Venice. The best things to do in Venice will help you get to know this city a little deeper, providing some handy tips for escaping the crowds and eating delicious food in the process.

Recommended: the best Airbnbs in Venice
Recommended: the best hotels in Venice

Best things to do in Venice

Grand Canal
Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Grand Canal

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 travelling the Grand Canal at night, a beautiful experience 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 a water taxi. Some boats even serve onboard champagne. This indulgence is pricier than public transport, but it is an excellent idea if you're travelling with a group and want to indulge in water-borne transport (it is often cheaper than gondolas, too). Water taxis are also easier to navigate down smaller, scenic canals. Plus, as it is only your group onboard, you can slow for photos as often as you like.

  • 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 Biennale is the perfect opportunity to see the best 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 several other cultural festivals, including ones dedicated to music and film.

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San Sebastiano
Photograph: Shutterstock

3. San Sebastiano

Millions loiter outside San Marco every year, waiting for their turn to catch a glimpse of the fabulously overwrought basilica. Why not take a detour to the church of San Sebastiano instead, where some of Venetian Renaissance master Paolo Tiepolo’s most significant works can be found. Save Venice Inc., the non-profit responsible for restoring 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.

  • 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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  • 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.

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  • 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, speciality coffees and ice-cold gelato. The patio is perfect in the summer.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Photograph: Shutterstock

8. Peggy Guggenheim Collection

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 just what it is. Guggenheim purchased the incomplete building in 1949 and filled 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. Visit the museum’s sculpture garden, filled with blooming shrubs and flowers, in the morning before the crowds flock here.

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  • Restaurants
  • Cafés

Tiramisu is the decadent Italian cake dessert made of ladyfinger cookies dipped in coffee and layered in cream. Founded in Venice in the 1960s, 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.

Murano Glass Museum
Photograph: Shutterstock

10. Murano Glass Museum

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.

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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 several 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 capture the perfect sunset picture on the way out.

All’Arco
Photograph: Shutterstock

12. All’Arco

Are you looking for a true Venetian breakfast or afternoon aperitif? All’Arco is the most authentic and delicious spot in town. You come here, of course, for the famous cicheti snacks, which are 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 cicheti and prosecco well before noon, as a Venetian does.

 

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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 (look for the bright blue building).

Rialto Food & Wine Tour
Photograph: Shutterstock

14. Rialto Food & Wine Tour

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 with 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.

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  • 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.

  • 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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  • Museums
  • Art and design

In medieval times, the Burano Lace School taught merchants how to make the intricate fabrics that 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).

Rubelli Showroom

18. Rubelli Showroom

In 2018, the famous Venetian textile house, Rubelli, transferred its showroom and historical archive to Ca’ Rubelli Pisani in the San Marco district. Founded by Lorenzo Rubelli in 1889, the company is known worldwide 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 honouring its rich heritage with fascinating exhibitions drawn from its archives.

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Hotel Locanda Canal
Photograph: Courtesy Booking.com

19. Hotel Locanda Canal

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, 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 – invented in the 1930s by Giuseppe Cipriani (and Hemingway adored them).

 

Hotel Heureka
Photograph: Courtesy TripAdvisor.com

20. Hotel Heureka

Venetian hotels, some grand, others dingy, rarely stray from the staid and stuffy designs they’re best known for. That’s why the 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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