If you were to ask the Venice tourism office what there is to see and do in the city, you’d likely be given a long list of “must-see” sights and attractions – but only a fraction of those are actually what most people would consider “must-see.” You want to know what the real top sights in Venice are so that you don’t miss anything – especially if you only have a short time to spend in the city – but you don’t want to be tricked into paying a hefty admission fee for some tourist trap.
So here are my recommendations for the Top 10 Things to Do in Venice. I’ve listed them in descending order from the one I think is most critical, so if you’re on a really tight schedule you can check them off from the top down and get as far as you can. And if you think I’ve missed something important here, or that I’ve got them in the wrong order, I welcome your input. It’s still a list of my recommendations, so I can’t guarantee I’ll agree with you, but I do welcome your input nonetheless!
>> Wanna know what’s fabulous? You can do all of these things in (and more) in my suggested 2-day itinerary in Venice.
Top 10 Things to Do in Venice
- Get Lost in Venice
There is nothing, I repeat nothing, that is as important when you’re visiting Venice than just wandering aimlessly through its streets and alleys. If you only had 3-4 hours in the city, I’d recommend that you do this before you set foot inside a single museum or attraction – it’s that critical to enjoying your visit. By wandering (especially if you point yourself in the exact opposite of the direction where the herd is going) you can find Venice’s many charming and often-empty squares and streets, which goes a long way toward helping you appreciate the city. I’d almost say you could ignore basically everything else on this list and just stroll around without a map… But although I might not go that far (again, unless you’ve only got 4 hours or less), I do consider the sentence “get lost in Venice” an order, not a suggestion.
- Visit St. Mark’s Basilica
I love visiting churches in Italy, but this is – by far – my favorite church in the country. It’s beautiful outside, with its big onion domes and multi-colored marble pillars, and the interior is floor-to-ceiling mosaics. There’s no fee to tour the main part of the basilica, and even booking an entry time online (so you don’t have to wait in the sometimes-long line out front) is free, so after you’ve wandered the city this should be your next stop. There are three smaller museums within the basilica which you’ll have to pay an entry to see; your budget and overall interest should dictate whether you visit all of them, but if you’re just going to pick one then by all means take the narrow and steep staircase in the entry alcove up to the museum that has the original horses which used to overlook the square – in addition to seeing the horses, you’ll also get to go out on the roof and overlook the square yourself.
- See St. Mark’s Square When it’s Empty
I know in #1 I said that you should point yourself in the opposite direction to where all the tourists are going, and since 99.9% of them are headed for St. Mark’s Square you may find it a little surprising to find this piazza so high on my to-do list in Venice. But the key here is to visit the square when everyone else isn’t there. Of course, in order to do this you’ll probably need to spend at least one night in Venice, but I can think of worse things to “need” to do. The best times to catch St. Mark’s Square at her most vulnerable are early morning and late evening, before the day-trippers arrive or after they’ve left. Venice isn’t a nightlife town, so it doesn’t take long after the restaurants close for the square to be emptied of much of the crowd. Personally, I like it best at night, but I’ll leave the choice to you.
- Take the #1 Vaporetto for a Grand Canal Tour
I think the easiest and most pleasant way to get around Venice is on foot, but the Grand Canal only has a few bridge crossings and taking a ride on Venice’s water-buses is a fun transport method. Even beyond the practical reasons for taking a vaporetto, however, there’s the fact that the slow #1 vaporetto that runs the length of the Grand Canal is the ideal equivalent to a city bus tour. I’d recommend either bringing along a self-guided tour (Rick Steves has a good one in his guidebook) so you can pick out the sights along the way, or just sitting back and enjoying the view no matter what the significance of the buildings is. You’ll enjoy the ride either way, even more so if you’ve got a good seat and some gelato.
- Watch a Glass-Blowing Demonstration on Murano Island
This is kind of a tricky one, because so many of the glass-blowing demonstrations on nearby Murano Island are very tourist-trappy, but I have it on this list for a couple of reasons. First, most people I know have never seen anyone do glass blowing or glass sculpture, so it’s entertaining and educational even if it is touristy. Second, visiting another island in the Venice lagoon is a great idea during your stay, and since Murano is closest it’s the easiest one to visit (especially if you’re short on time). If you want to avoid the overly touristy glass demonstrations, catch a vaporetto to Murano (instead of a boat booked by your hotel or a particular glass shop) and walk around the streets until you find a studio that looks relatively open. There are more glass-blowing studios on Murano than just the touristy ones.
- Tour the Doge’s Palace
Right next (and partly connected) to St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace is arguably the second most important “attraction” in Venice after the basilica (if you don’t count the city itself as an “attraction”). While there are several good reasons to pay the hefty admission fee to tour the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale in Italian), probably the most popular stop on the tour is when you get to walk over the famous Bridge of Sighs. You can see the bridge from the outside without buying an entry ticket, but the only wa to walk on the bridge yourself is as part of a Doge’s Palace tour.
- Take the Elevator to the Top of the Campanile
While you can get a great view of St. Mark’s Square from the roof of St. Mark’s Basilica, you can’t get a great view of the church’s roof when standing on it. For a view that includes both the basilica and the piazza, buy a ticket for the short elevator ride to the top of the Campanile, or bell-tower, that’s in front of the church. The views are great, and you get an up-close-and-personal look at the big bells that you’ll hear ringing out the time all over the city. If you want to avoid getting your ears blown off, I’d advise making the trip to the top of the tower at something other than the hour mark.
- Wander the Streets of Burano Island
With a little extra time in Venice, after your visit to Murano take a vaporetto further into the lagoon for a trip to Burano Island. In general, the further you get into the lagoon from the core Venetian islands, the less crowded they get – Burano is usually less crowded than Murano, for instance. And with its almost cartoon-like brightly colored buildings, it makes the perfect backdrop for a stroll. Seriously, the colors are so brilliant and cheerful, I defy you to walk around Burano for even a half-hour and not have a smile on your face. Go ahead, try it.
- Take a Hike on Torcello Island
Got even more time? Even more sick of the crowds in Venice? Then get back on the boat and take the trip to my favorite of the lagoon’s islands – Torcello. It’s a short trip from Burano, but can take up to an hour if you go straight to Torcello from Venice. Either way, it’s the ideal spot if you’re in the mood for less structure and more nature. Most of Torcello is a nature reserve, and while you can’t actually go hiking out in the fields, you can certainly get away from the tourist hordes and enjoy the tranquil view. There are roughly 20 people who still live on the island, and there’s only one (super expensive) hotel, although there are a few places to eat. The main “sight,” which I happen to just adore, is a 7th century church on the island with more exceptional mosaics (a must if you liked St. Mark’s).
- “Window” Shop at the Rialto Market
If you’re not a foodie, this may not be something you’d put in your top 10 Venice experiences… But I love food, and I love food markets. In Venice particularly, I think a food market is as culturally interesting as it is food-related. After all, this network of islands isn’t exactly teeming with vegetable gardens or grocery stores (not sure if you noticed, but there’s a lot more water than earth going on here). So visiting the famous Rialto market is a great way to see how real Venetians get their food supplies. All the locals shop here, from restaurateurs to ordinary folk just stocking their kitchens. The Rialto market is particularly known as a fish market, but there’s plenty of fresh veggies and fruit for sale as well. If you’re doing more than just browsing, remember that you don’t handle the merchandise until after you’ve paid for it – point at what you want and the vendor will choose and bag it for you. (As a bonus, it’s within sight of the Rialto Bridge, which is certainly worth a little bit of space on your camera’s memory card.)
You may have noticed that going for a gondola ride in Venice isn’t on my list. I know that for many people it’s one of those things that they feel like they have to do in Venice or they’ll feel like they haven’t been to Venice. I may be in the minority on this one, but I feel like gondola rides are way overpriced, and not nearly the quiet/romantic experience you might expect them to be. So not only isn’t a gondola ride in my top 10, it’s not on my Venice to-do list at all.