Robie is an Italian artist who now lives in the US. She loves to share useful vacation tips and first-hand knowledge about Italy.
A lot has been said and written about Venice, so I’m sure you already know that it is a wonderful city. It has so much to offer that you could spend a full month in Venice and still not be able to see it all. But many first-time travelers to this city end up spending more time wading through crowds than they do exploring the authentic Venice.
In this article, I will share my favorite things to do in Venice, all of which will take you beyond the usual tours and landmarks of the city.
While you are in Venice, you should, by all means, do, see, and try some of the typical touristic things that are not listed here—for example, you wouldn't want to miss St. Mark's Square or the Rialto bridge. But I guarantee that the sites and activities in this article will give you a taste of the city that the travel guides won't.
My 9 Favorite Things to Do in Venice
- Get lost.
- Take a boat tour on the Canal Grande.
- Visit the Rialto Market.
- Visit the island of Murano and its glass workshops.
- Take a walk on the colorful island of Burano.
- Enter every church you see.
- See Venice after dusk, when there are no crowds.
- Enjoy the food in bacari or osterie.
- Visit a papier-mâché mask store.
Intrigued? Keep reading for more details!
1. Stay off the Beaten Path and Get Lost
If you have a few hours to spare and a lot of memory available in your camera, take the chance to get away from Venice's seemingly ever-present flow of tourists. Go where the big crowds don't and you’ll discover some amazing and fascinating things.
The least touristy part of the city is where the real Venetians live. It's also where you will find the most picturesque buildings, the coolest little shops, and the best, least expensive places to eat, like Baci&Pasta in Campo Santa Marina, where I got a plate of wonderful gnocchi on the go. It's close to the main paths between St. Mark's Square and the Rialto bridge, but in a very quiet square. (See images below).
By staying off the beaten path, you will avoid the hordes of people that typically plague the city, allowing you to enjoy the true feeling of Venice. Every turn you take has the potential to reveal wonderful churches, campi (Venetians squares) and palaces. If you get to a dead-end here and there, don't worry; it might still offer a surprisingly stunning view.
To get back on track, you can follow the yellow signs on the walls, use a map, or key in your next destination on a GPS device.
2. Take a Boat Tour on the Canal Grande
The Canal Grande is the biggest of Venice’s canals and is bordered by the city's most magnificent buildings. The best and cheapest way to take a tour is on the vaporetto, or waterbus, Venice's public transportation system.
Vaporetto tickets are quite affordable, and if you use the waterbus several times in a day or week, you can purchase a travel card to save a few euros.
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3. Visit the Rialto Market
The vendors at this open-air market offer the best selection of fresh produce and fish, and locals buy their food here on a daily basis. You can find all kinds of locally grown vegetables and fruits among this market's colorful and perfumed stands.
4. Visit the Glass Workshops on Murano
Among the many islands of Venice, Murano is one of the closest to the city, and it is easy to reach by boat.
Everyone going to Venice for the first time should visit a glass shop in Murano, many of which offer tours of their glass furnaces, where you can see how glass objects of amazing beauty are made by skilled artisans.
I still have vivid memories of the first time I visited a blown-glass furnace for the first time; I was in second grade. What an outstanding day trip that was!
Note: If you visit Murano, I highly recommend stopping at the osteria La Perla ai Bisatei for a bite to eat. This is a nice, cozy, and affordable restaurant with great local cuisine and friendly service. It's a place where the locals eat—need I say more?
5. Take a Walk on Colorful Burano
The island of Burano, 40 minutes from Venice via waterbus, is the perfect place for a field trip on a sunny day. Trust me, you won't want to miss a chance to enjoy the unique, cheerful atmosphere of this old fisher’s town. Burano is not crowded with tourists, and the homes are very colorful, making it a delightful place to see and visit.
Just as Murano is famous for its glass tradition, Burano is the capital of fine laces and doilies, all of which are handmade with skills that have been passed down through generations. There is even a nice Lace Museum (Museo del Merletto) on the island.
6. Enter Every Church You See
Venetian churches usually have free entrance (unless they have been turned into a museum), and most of them are just amazing inside. Upon entering any randomly found church, you are likely to admire superbly executed stained glass, spectacular architecture, and mosaics and paintings by the most famous medieval artists.
Note: In order to enter the city's churches, you must follow these simple rules:
- Be quiet.
- Be respectful.
- Make sure you are wearing clothes that are not too showy (e.g. avoid tiny tank tops and very short pants).
7. Explore a Crowdless Venice After Dusk
Don’t be in a hurry to leave the city just because the sun is going down. The best time to appreciate the magic atmosphere of Venice is when the tourists and the commuters are not out and about.
See Venice at night, either after dinner or very early in the morning. You will get a whole new perspective of the city's wonderful architecture, harmonious shapes, and colors and sounds when it’s quiet. It can make a nice walk a truly magical experience.
My absolute favorite time of day in Venice is twilight. When the sun sets, the city gets calmer and quieter. You can hear the steps and the voices around you, and the buildings take on a fascinating light from the sky's changing colors and the street lights that start coming on. It is simply wonderful.
8. Enjoy the Food in Bacari or Osterie
Venice has a wonderful selection of places to eat, and the food is exquisite. However, you must try to avoid highly touristic places.
Besides restaurants and pizzerias, the typical Venetian eatery is called a bacaro (plural bacari), which is, simply put, a bar where they serve local foods in small portions that resemble Spanish tapas. They also serve good wines and beers. Frequently, you will find that there are different prices if you eat at the bar as opposed to sitting down; sitting is the more expensive option.
Many people go for a “bacaro tour” where they walk around and stop at different places, eating and drinking a little at each one.
Osterie are also nice places to eat. They are usually family-run restaurants and are similar to bacari in some ways.
Red Flags for Highly Touristic Restaurants
Avoid restaurants and bars that fit the following description:
- Their menus are translated into several languages.
- There are Italian flags and symbols everywhere in the restaurant.
- The place is full of tourists.
- There is a waiter at the door luring people in.
Usually, these kinds of restaurants are much more expensive and deliver lower-quality food.
9. Visit a Papier-Mâché Mask Shop
In Venice, you will find many shops full of papier-mâché masks. They are handmade according to tradition (which dates back to the 13th century!), and they can get quite expensive. Beware of the cheaper masks found in many lower-quality shops. They are still good looking, but they are made in China and are therefore inauthentic.
Map of Locations in This Article
This Video Captures the Feeling of Everyday Venice
Questions & Answers
Question: I will be traveling to Venice with a heavy-set aunt. Is it going to be hard for her to get in and out of the boats?
Answer: In Venice, the public transportation, comparable to any city bus line, provides big boats called Vaporetto. They are easily accessible, and I don't foresee any problems with your aunt.
Gondolas are different, they are much smaller, and sometimes the ramp to get in and out requires some agility and balance. For those, you'd have to judge on a case-by-case basis. However, since the gondoliers are usually good businessmen, I bet they can find a way to get anyone willing to pay on their boat.
Question: What is the weather like in Venice during the summer?
Answer: Venice is quite hot during the summer and very humid, with the occasional thunderstorm, especially in the evening hours. The average temperatures in July are highs in the range of 28-32 Celsius (83-90 F), and lows at 18-21 C (65-70F).
Question: I’m trying to book a three night stay in December for 9 people and want a real authentic trip. Are there any companies that can organize a visit for 9 of us?
Answer: I'm sure there are companies that can organize your trip, tour operators or travel agencies - in Italy they are called "Agenzia Viaggi". I am not sure if you are asking for a company in Venice or near where you leave. Personally, I live in the US, but I grew up in Venice, so every time I go back and visit I basically stay with family and organize my own trips. I'm sorry that I can't help you. I would search for "Agenzia Viaggi Venezia" and maybe contact a few of them and see what they can offer.
© 2012 Robie Benve