1,000 years of beauty and strength perfectly credit this top Italian destination. Summer or winter, rain or shine, for however long — visit Venice and you’ll find an abundance of things to do
Article published in association with Venice Airport.
Venice is one of Europe’s most popular destinations. Beautiful, fashionable and ancient, it’s been attracting visitors for centuries. If you’re eager to jump on the bandwagon (and you should be), here’s our guide to help you make the most of your time in the city.
I’m just passing through Venice. What’s quick and easy to do?
Get on the water
Well, first of all, you’ll have to get from the airport to the city itself. This isn’t necessarily an easy task in a city built entirely on water.
Fortunately, you can join the locals and go with the flow (pun absolutely intended!) on the Alilaguna public transport service. With two permanent lines taking travelers directly from the airport to St. Mark’s Square (as well as a number of other stops), you shouldn’t have to wait long before hopping on a boat. Where else can you combine your airport transfer with ticking off a must-do? We can think of nothing more iconic and classic (maybe arriving in New York City by yellow cab?) than cruising into Venice on the water.
Catch the dawn and the dusk
More than maybe anywhere else, Venice shines at times when the average traveler may well be in bed. See the sunrise over St. Mark’s Square, joined only by the sounds of shutters being raised, the occasional mad flapping of a flock of pigeons, and your own footsteps on the stone.
St. Mark’s Basilica is one of Venice’s most famous sights, and a good place to get your bearings before venturing further into the city. Have a look inside before heading back out to gaze up at the adjacent bell tower, the very tower from which Galileo observed the heavens after constructing his first telescope in 1609.
On the other end of the scale, if you’d rather explore in the evening, you’ll get a different, but no less special perspective of the city. Take a step back and find a more distant spot to watch the sunset. See the skies explode in color over the Rialto Bridge, or see the moonlight-doused water reflect the pastel shades of the buildings lining the Grand Canal.
Browse the markets
The lively Rialto market is a heady mix of colors, sights, sounds and smells — with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, meats and cheeses, as well as a seasonal pescheria, or fish market. This neo-Gothic building with its own quayside is the location for a performance that’s gone on for centuries, as fishermen unload their catch very early in the morning in preparation for the market opening at 7:30.
For a wider range of goods, there are weekly or monthly farmers’ markets, bric-a-brac sales, organic and fair trade markets and a lot more. What you find will totally depend on the time you’re there and the time you’ve got to explore. But don’t wear yourself out — remember to pause for a coffee and something delicious to eat on the spot as well!
Nighttime can be the right time
During the day, when the tourists are out roaming with their cameras, it can be easy to forget that Venice isn’t just for show, but is actually a living, breathing, fully-functioning city. This becomes more noticeable in its nightlife. In fact, the very time when you can experience another side of the city is when a large number of visitors are tucked up in bed. It doesn’t quite have the lazy, do-what-you-feel vibe of somewhere like Catania, or the rolling-in-the-streets madness of Naples or Rome, but it has its charms.
The key is to walk. Get slightly lost among the lanes and bridges and you might just find that perfect little cafe or friendly trattoria that you’ve always dreamed of. As with most cities, if you’re brave enough to venture away from the main tourist areas, you’ll appreciate it more. Try to get away from the sestiere (subdivision) of San Marco and have a look around Cannaregio (the most populous sestiere), which is home to canalside restaurants that tend to be lively and relatively cheap.
On the other side of town, Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro is a square surrounded by places to eat and drink, where the vibe is vaguely bohemian and where there are plenty of locals and students mingling and enjoying the night air. Or, for your energetic summer beach parties, head to the Lido — the long island located southeast of the city center. Okay, you can’t walk all the way there, but the affordable cocktails and the gentle coastal breeze might just be exactly what you’re looking for, especially once the weather gets hotter.
Grab a souvenir
No matter how long you’re here, it’d be a mistake to leave without something to remind you of your trip (and to inspire you to come back!). Luckily, Venice has you more than covered on that front.
Castello, the sestiere to the east of San Marco, is probably the least touristy area of the city but perversely (or maybe because of this), it’s a decent place for shopping, and a good place to pick up a couple of things that the city is known for.
Firstly, masks. Even if you’re not here around Carnival time (more on this later), you’ll surely be aware of the beautifully intricate masks that are such a key part of the city’s celebrations. They range in price from around €20 to over €2,000… so we wouldn’t necessarily recommend jamming one carelessly into your hand luggage! Castello is also home to the legendary Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop, a seemingly disorganized jumble of thousands of second-hand books that does, in fact, have a system.
Secondly, there’s glass. From Castello, you can take a short boat ride to Murano island, home of Murano glass. Here is where you’ll be able to see the process of creating this very specific glass that is then fashioned into jewelry, vases, and almost anything else you can imagine. And, of course, getting a souvenir directly from the maker means you can be sure you’re taking a genuine piece of Venice with you.
I’ve got a few days to explore Venice. What else can I see?
One of the most interesting places to visit is the Doge’s Palace, former home of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority of the former Venetian Republic and, hence, the center of governmental life. You can explore the palace and Doge’s apartments on your own, but this is one place where it’s truly worth getting the tour for further insight and context into the history of the Republic (it also means you get to skip the queues!). If you’re feeling flush, you can also pay for a night tour of both the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica.
The precise moment of the birth of Venice has been lost in the mists of time, but one story traces its genesis back to the year 421 CE when the church of San Giacomo di Rialto was apparently founded. The story is possible, although the church isn’t documented until 1152. Seeing as much of the area was rebuilt in 1071, we’ll never be sure, but you can visit it in the San Polo sestiere at least to claim you stood at the birthplace of a great republic.
In Cannaregio, you’ll find an interesting side to the city’s history: the Jewish quarter. Dating back to the 16th century, this was the only place where Jewish people were allowed to live for two hundred years. There’s a small Jewish museum as well as a synagogue that offers guided tours.
As you’ll have gathered, Venice is made up of six sestieri, and since the majority of the crowds tend to congregate in San Marco and San Polo, you can check out the others with a lot less hassle. You’ll discover that each one has its own distinct feel and style and, as already mentioned, nowhere is a terribly lengthy hike from anywhere else, so you’ll never have to worry about getting (too) lost.
Dorsoduro is home to unusual places like the Ponte dei Pugni, or Bridge of Fists, called as such as it was a place where mass brawls used to take place between two rival factions. The Castellani and the Nicolotti would attempt to send their rivals on a short but humiliating plunge into the canal below and the winners were the team that managed to keep the most men on the bridge.
It’s these districts that’ll reward you with more relaxed places to stop and take in your surroundings; places like the aforementioned Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro, or Castello’s Via Garibaldi, the widest street in Venice. Cannaregio is more residential, more open, less frantic and much cheaper than the touristy parts. The thrill is simply seeing what’s around the next corner.
Embrace the weather
There’s never a wrong time to visit Venice, and the city can actually be just as rewarding in winter. Everywhere becomes darkly poetic: the streets grow emptier and eerily quiet, mist hides the towers and cupolas, and the dark water looks as though it would swallow secrets whole.
It also means your choice of activities is different. Ice skating, for centuries a beloved pastime of the Venetians, comes to the city center in the form of an atmospheric outdoor rink on Campo San Polo. For an even more incredible experience, come after the sun has gone down and skate surrounded by the twinkling lights of the city.
You’ll need to warm up afterward of course, and where better place to do it than the legendary Caffè Florian? Opened in 1720, it’s all dark wood, plush red velvet, and banquettes on which to laze with one of their incredible cups of hot chocolate. Wondrously creamy, devilishly thick and utterly decadent, it was said to be one of the reasons Florian was a favorite with literary figures looking for some warmth to go with their inspiration: Dickens, Goethe, Byron and Dumas were among its famous patrons.
Finally, who can ignore the main winter event in Venice? We’re talking about the Carnival, and it runs almost throughout February. Boat parades, balls, and the famous masked costume contests are all reasons to get excited, as locals and tourists alike enjoy weeks of music and dancing.
Getting out of the city proper can be a rewarding experience in itself, and as well as Murano, mentioned above, there are a number of other places within fairly easy reach of the main part of Venice.
Sant’Andrea is an island in the Venice lagoon and is home to a 17th-century fortress. It’s known to be a popular spot for locals to come and lie on the grass in the sun, have a picnic, watch the stars away from the city lights and generally chill out.
Further northeast is San Francesco del Deserto, home to a medieval monastery with groves of cypress trees, stunning gardens, and silent cloisters through which to stroll accompanied only by your thoughts and the gentle sounds of the breeze and the birds.
Torcello, a tiny island with few residents is home to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the 12th-century Church of Santa Fosca, and two 14th-century palaces that now make up a museum devoted to the archaeology and medieval history of the island. It was also — briefly — home to Ernest Hemingway, who used it as a writing retreat in 1948.
Two words will be very important if you’re eating in Venice: a bacaro is where you’ll go, one of the scores of tiny establishments where patrons stand shoulder to shoulder, nibbling on snacks, or lingering outside on the street, drink in hand. Politics, football, and the other usual subjects are discussed passionately while eating cicchetti, the other important word (don’t call them “tapas”!).
Your cicchetti will consist of offerings like polpette (pork rissoles), sausages, sliced meats and cheeses, and an array of seafood: oysters, shrimps, langoustines, calamari and salmon. Wherever you go, don’t expect a menu, and don’t expect to be pandered to as a tourist — bacari are firmly and proudly attempting to maintain their relationship with their loyal, local customers. Having said that, if you’re friendly and respectful, you’ll get the best food and drink the city has to offer.
Is it worth venturing beyond Venice?
If our suggestions so far have inspired you and you’d like to explore some more, the areas surrounding Venice have enough to keep you occupied for days, weeks… maybe even longer! This is just a quick overview of the highlights.
Burano is one of the islands of Venice, but it’s almost another world when compared to the bustling squares and waterways of the main city. It takes about 40 minutes by vaporetto (the waterbus) and is one of the most colorful places you’ll ever see! The houses are painted in all the colors of the rainbow, and even though it looks like somewhere from a children’s book, it’s an island where people live and work; you’re more likely to see fishing boats and personal craft than gondolas. To get there, take the number 12 varporetto from Fondamente Nove in Cannaregio. The journey takes around 45 minutes.
About 25 kilometers south of Venice, you’ll find the port of Chioggia — a picturesque town that, like Venice, is built on a network of canals, but where the pace of life is slower, the streets less crowded and, at Sottomarina, there’s a beach stretching almost 10 kilometers along the coast. This is where sun-worshipping locals flock to in the summer, and gives stunning views of the Adriatic, glinting in the vibrant sunlight.
The beautiful city of Padua, around 40 kilometers from Venice is home to just over 200,000 people, and is a gorgeously dense network of arcaded streets and alleyways, each leading to large squares, or bridges crisscrossing the Bacchiglione river which provided the city with a natural defense. To reach Padua, you can either travel by FSBusitalia from Venice Airport, or jump on a train from Venezia Mestre station on the mainland.
Northeast of Padua lies Treviso — a smaller town, but a foodie’s paradise, being a part of area where radicchio was originally cultivated, as well as laying claim to the invention of tiramisu. The center is a perfect walled medieval city, with narrow canals and mill streams turning (now purely decorative) water wheels, giving you a feeling of what life must have been like centuries ago. A train from Venezia Mestre station will get you there in less than half an hour.
Heading further inland, the Trentino region is the place to be for the outdoorsy among you, offering mountain climbing, hiking, rafting, windsurfing and mountain biking in the summer, and skiing and snowboarding in the winter. There are also a number of spa and wellness retreats up in the mountains, meaning it’s the perfect place to escape the crowds for a while and breathe in that fresh, crisp Italian air.
That’s your Venetian break! We hope these tips have inspired you to travel to Venice when you can. No matter how long you’re here, from a few hours to a couple of days, you’ll be able to get a real flavor of this most glorious of cities.
Visit Kiwi.com Stories for travel updates and inspiration.