Venice holds a special place in my heart. In 2014, I had the opportunity to study for a month through a special art history program at Queen’s University. Then I returned in 2016 as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Now I’m sharing my ultimate guide to Venice because it’s not the easiest city to navigate, so get ready because it’s a long one!
Venice can be a challenging city because it’s a city on water, without cars and where a map is almost useless. But these are also the reasons why I love it. One of the best things to do in Venice is get lost. Venice is also a city that is overrun by tourism, partly due to the number of cruise ships that come in, let people off for the day and then leave again. This kind of tourism is a huge threat to the people of Venice and even the foundation of the city as the ships pose an environmental threat. I often hear from people that they don’t like Venice because it’s too crowded and to those people I say “you’re visiting Venice wrong.” Like anywhere in Europe these days crowds are inevitable but you just have to manage them and also get away from the main sights.
As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in the city and had the chance to live as a temporary local I like to think that I know Venice pretty well. So I’m going to share my favourite places and some tips on how to have the best experience in this amazing, beautiful, storied city.
What To Do in Venice
I think the best thing anyone can do in Venice is just walk. Don’t try to go anywhere just wander and get lost, see where you end up. Venice really isn’t that big and as long as you have a basic sense of direction you’ll find your way back just fine. This is a great thing to do in the middle of the day when sights and museums are packed with people. The best time to do this of course is early in the morning before the city is flooded with people. It’s amazing how empty and quiet Venice can be. You’ll be able to walk across the Rialto Bridge without fighting through the crowds, see the Piazza empty and the Bridge of Signs without masses of people blocking your view. Wander the little streets away from the main sights and just look at everything because the city is so beautiful at every turn.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a museum I’m kind of partial to since I was an intern there but it really is a beautiful museum. The collection is amazing and is housed in the palazzo that belonged to the heiress Peggy Guggenheim when she lived in Venice, in fact she’s buried in the garden along with her many dogs. The museum has a great view of the Grand Canal from the terrace and the museum cafe is great too. The sculpture garden is the perfect little oasis in the city.
The Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace is one of the top tourist sights in the city and for good reason. It’s a beautiful palace with such an interesting history as the former palace of the Doges of Venice, essentially a king/prime minister/religious leader type. Arrive early before opening or later in the afternoon a few hours before close. You can also visit the Correr Museum (museum about Venetian history and art) with your ticket, which is the museum at the other end on Piazza San Marco, it also has a great view of the Piazza. If you have the time in your trip you can visit the Correr Museum first which rarely has long lines to get your ticket to the Doge’s Palace so you don’t have to wait in line there.
The Basilica San Marco is another one of those sights that every tourist visits in Venice but again for good reason. The church is just breathtaking with the inside covered in golden mosaics, the floors covered in marble and the brilliant jeweled altarpiece (which costs extra to see of course but is 100% worth it). The view from the balcony of the Piazza isn’t half bad either (it’s amazing!), you should go up to the balcony before entering the main part of the church since you may not be able to return after. This is another one that you’ll want to arrive early to or risk waiting in a massive line but it’s really unavoidable. If you don’t care so much about seeing the mosaics up close, visiting the balcony or altarpiece then consider going for Mass. I’m not religious or even a Catholic but Mass in San Marco is really amazing. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to experiencing the Basilica the way it was meant to be seen with dim lights so that the gold mosaics sparkle. If you go for Mass enter around the opposite side of the Doge’s Palace by the lion statues in the morning and say you’re there for Mass and not a tourist, make sure not to have your camera out since you’re not allowed any photos inside at any time even during regular hours (unless you’re sneaky).
The Accademia Gallery, not far from the Guggenheim is the best museum in Venice for historical Venetian art. The highlight is the Miracle of the True Cross series of paintings that depicts a very accurate representation of 15th century Venice. Also you’ll get to see other beautiful Venetian masters and The Tempest by Giorgione, one of the few paintings in the world that is definitively attributed to him.
My favourite place in Venice isn’t actually in Venice proper but rather in Burano, one of the islands in the Venetian Lagoon. This is one of the most colourful places in the world! Historically it was a fishing village and known for it’s lace making. It’s a 45 minute vaporetto ride (water bus) from Fondamenta Nove on line 12. It’s really only worthwhile visiting early in the morning otherwise it’s jam packed with tourists. And when I say early I mean early, like get there before 9am. Get off at Mazzorbo, (the stop just before Burano) and walk over to Burano via the bridge at the eastern end of the island.
Afterwards hop over to the quiet island of Torcello, the original settlement of Venice where there are two beautiful church and a lovely place for lunch. On your way back to the city you can also stop off in Murano, the island known for glass making but I’ve never been to fond of it. Or you can visit San Michele, the cemetery island which is interesting to walk around and it has a nice little church designed by Mauro Codussi.
Venice is really meant to be seen from the water, that’s why there are all those amazing palazzos along the Grand Canal. One of my favourite things to do is take a “cruise” down the Grand Canal, and by cruise I mean hop on the vaporetto (water bus) from either the bus station, train station or Piazza San Marco and ride it down the canal to the other end. If you can try to get on a vaporetto with outdoor front or back seating for the best view. Standing in the centre outdoor area is challenging since that’s where people get on and off so you have to move around a lot. Very early in the morning before it’s super crowded with people or around sunset are the nicest times but really any time of day in Venice is beautiful since the light is always changing.
Many people wait in line to go up the Campanile (bell tower) in Piazza San Marco but the view is pretty mediocre and the lines are long. For a better experience and shorter lines cross the Giudecca Canal to San Giorgio Maggiore, the big church across from Piazza San Marco, designed by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The church itself is beautiful with worked by Tintoretto around the altar. You can take an elevator up to the bell tower for an amazing 360 view of the city and great view of Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. The best way to get there is to the “2” vaporetto from San Zaccaria (east of the Doge’s Palace), across from the Hotel Danieli.
As I mentioned before one of my favourite things to do in Venice is just walk around and get lost, which really isn’t hard to do in Venice. Wake up at sunset and walk around an empty Piazza San Marco and over to the Rialto Bridge before it’s flooded with people. See the Rialto fish market early too when the real Venetians are out. Stop into some churches because in Italy you’re almost guaranteed to find some beautiful artworks inside. Some of my favourite churches are S.S. Giovanni e Paolo, a big church filled with interesting tombs of the Doges of Venice and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, nicknamed “the jewel box” because of the amazing marble covered interior. They are close together and not too far from Rialto. If you’re close by they’re worth walking by to see.
There are many, many more things to do in Venice and if you have the time I would also recommend visiting the Punta della Dogana, the former customs house that is now a contemporary art space. With your entrance ticket you also get access to the Palazzo Grassi which is another contemporary art museum. Of course if you visit during the Venice Biennale, one of the most important art fairs in the world then you should try to see some of the pavilions. The Frari Church and San Sebastiano both have beautiful artworks inside. Beside the Frari is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which was on of the most important confraternities in Venice established in 1478. Inside are large paintings by Tintoretto. If I kept thinking about it I could probably name a dozen more beautiful, historical and interesting things to do in Venice since the whole city is like a living museum of art and history.
Where to Eat in Venice
To be honest I didn’t spend that much time exploring the food in Venice because of the circumstances I was there for. The first time it was with school and the majority of our meals were taken care of. Then when I returned I was living there for a month so I couldn’t really afford to go to restaurants every night and I actually had a kitchen so I cooked. However, there were a few places I found that I really enjoyed and of course the best gelato in the city! One of my favourite places, Ostaria Da Simson that I visited many times and had the best tiramisu closed unfortunately. It was the type of family run place with like 5 tables, hand written menus, cash only and no English. These are the best and most authentic places in Venice that you want to look out for and eat at. Because of over tourism it’s tough for these small family places to stay open. So if you go to Venice try to avoid the restaurants with English menus and pictures and instead go to local family places so that they don’t all disappear.
Gelateria Nico – is the best gelato in Venice on the Fodamenta Zattere al Ponte Longo, it’s not far from the Accademia Gallery. Get the blueberry! Also they usually have pretty good pizza inside that you can get for lunch and stand at the bar and eat. It’s nice to take your gelato to go and walk down the Fodamenta towards the old customs house (now the Punta della Dogana museum) and Santa Maria della Salute church for a great view of the lagoon and the Piazza.
Birraria La Corte – in Campo San Polo for great pizza, they have a giant seafood pizza and a nice patio.
Dal Moro’s – originally when I visited Venice this take-out pasta place wasn’t called Dal Moro’s and the pasta was a little better but it still holds up. It’s great for a quick cheap bite to go and really close to San Marco on Calle Casseleria. It’s usually pretty busy but worth it!
Il Paradiso Perduto – is a popular restaurant with great seafood, it’s popular for late night drinks as its one of the few places open really late. If you want to go for dinner try making reservation because it get busy!
Spritz is the Venetian drink of choice. One of the best ways to past the time is sitting along a canal or in a campo drinking a Spritz and people watching. Find a quiet street with a little bar or a nice campo and relax with a drink in the afternoon when the tourist sights are just too busy.
Where to Shop in Venice
Venice is one of the few cities where I actually found the best places to get souvenirs thanks to my amazing professor Allison who I had in Venice. It’s easy to buy cheap imitation stuff made in China, especially “Venetian” glass and masks. These are some of my favourite authentic places to shop in Venice.
For authentic Venetian masks go to Ca’ Macana in the Dorsoduro, across the bridge from Campo San Barnaba and really close to Ca’ Rezzonico Museum. They have a great selection and there masks are made the traditional way.
For Venetian beaded jewelry and Murano glass Atmosfera Venezia on Calle Del Fuseri is a great shop if you don’t make it to the island of Murano for glass. Not far from Campo Manin and a short walk from Piazza San Marco. There jewelry is made from left over Murano glass and I regret only getting souvenirs for other people instead of myself because the pieces are so beautiful and much more original compared to the dozens of stores in Murano.
Plum Plum Creations on Fodamentadei Ormesini in Cannaregio is a great little shop for non-cheesy watercolours and etching prints of Venice. The owner is super friendly and creates all the works herself. This places wasn’t far from my apartment in Venice and I’m so happy we discovered it since her work is so pretty and original compared to much of the artwork for sale you’ll find in Venice.
Where to Stay in Venice
Out of moral principle I can’t recommend using Airbnb when in Venice. Just like in other cities around the world Airbnb is causing problems for locals with increasing rents and housing shortages. In Venice the problem is exacerbated because of its small size and the extreme over-tourism. 3 million people visit Venice each year but there are only 50,000 inhabitants. Using Airbnb in Venice adds to the problems, forces out the locals and does not support the local economy. So when you visit Venice stay in a hotel, just remember to book early.
My favourite neighbourhood to stay in is Cannaregio which is where my apartment was when I was interning at the Guggenheim. It was a bit of a walk for me but the area is really nice and much less touristy than around San Marco or even around the Guggenheim in the Dorsoduro neighbourhood. Cannaregio contains the Jewish Ghetto and the area feels more like locals actually live there, it’s an area where you can get away from the crowds so if you have a chance to stay in that area I would recommend it if you don’t mind a bit more of a walk to the main tourist sights.
I’ve stayed in three hotels in Venice and 2/3 were really great. The first, Locanda Silva is minutes from Piazza San Marco. This is where I stayed for a month when I was studying in Venice and it was a really nice home base. The rooms were simple and clean, the staff was nice and there was a nice little rooftop terrace. The location really can’t be beat though and it made it really easy to get around to see everything, not that Venice is very big but it was still nice. The other hotel I stayed at is Ca Fontanea. I was there for one night before moving into my apartment and it ended up being really nice since we got the top floor room with a terrace and kitchenette. It’s a little secluded on the edge of the city close to the train station but if you don’t mind walking it’s a nice little hotel.
If I go back to Venice I would love to spend at least one night in Burano to really have the opportunity to experience the island at night without people. There is a nice looking hotel called Casa Burnao, which is actually a group of a few houses. It’s run by the Venissa Wine Resort on Mazzorbo, the island right next to Burano that also looks like it would be really nice to stay in.
And that’s it for my guide to Venice, one of my favourite cities in the world. So many people only visit for the day and barely get to experience this unique, beautiful city. If you have the chance I would recommend at least 3 days in Venice but more if possible, I think 5 is really ideal. I spend a month studying in Venice, visiting different historical sights, churches and museums and walking around every day and I never got bored because there is so much to see and experience.