In this Venice travel guide we give you our edit of what to see and do first in Italy’s extraordinary City of Water, plus! the best hotels-with-a-view and how to eat, and drink, like a local.
Venice Travel Guide: the Best of Italy’s Spectacular Floating City
Last updated: January 2023
Romantic, legendary, decadent. Just a few words that come to mind when thinking of water immersed Venice, “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man” as heralded by The New York Times in 1982. Its own kingdom for over a millennium (697 – 1797 to be exact), the former Republic of Venice has been welcoming, and enchanting, tourists since the 17th century.
Now the capital of Italy’s northeast Veneto region and a UNESO World Heritage site, Venice continues to dazzle visitors with its fascinating history, Venetian Gothic architecture, storied arts and theatre scene, romantic campos (squares) and winding streets and canals – not to mention fabled gondolas at every turn.
With so much to explore, you might be wondering where to start? Here, we have your self-attested Venice travel guide streamlining what to see and do first in Italy’s extraordinary floating city, plus! Venice’s best boutique hotels and how to eat (and drink) like a local.
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But first – travel insurance:
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Top 10 Things to Do in Venice, Italy
1) Free walking tour
Get your Venice crash course via a 2 1/2 hour free walking tour through the city’s historic center. *Almost* free, you’ll need to make a reservation online to secure your spot at $3 EUR per person, and you’ll also have the option to leave a tip at the end of the tour.
Take a romantic gondola ride through the winding canals. The 30-minute ride will set you back $80.00 EUR per gondola (not per person), and it’s a fixed price amongst all of the gondoliers – an ancient, noble profession stretching back centuries. Don’t even try to haggle.
3) Rialto Bridge
Stroll across the arched, 12th-century Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge, also known as “Lover’s Bridge”) the oldest of four bridges connecting the San Marco and San Polo neighborhoods over the bustling Grand Canal. Lined with shops, vendors and magnificent views on either side, be sure to stop and soak in the surroundings from one of Venice’s most iconic viewpoints.
4) Teatro La Fenice
Get tickets to see basically anything at Venice’s historic opera house. Dating to the 18th century, Teatro La Fenice is “one of the most famous and renowned landmarks in the history of Italian theatre.” Destroyed by fire and rebuilt twice (in 1836 and again in 1996) the opera house’s name is fitting: “La Fenice” meaning “The Phoenix,” a mythical bird that rises from the ashes.
If you don’t have time to see a show, you can also tour the storied theatre with an audio guide. Get your skip-the-line ticket here.
5) Spritz o’clock
Swap your Aperol Spritz for the local Venetian Spritz. Also known as the “Spritz Select”, the popular apértif is made with Venice-born Select: a ruby red amaro liqueur that’s more bitter vs. the sweeter, lighter Aperol – typically garnished with an olive.
Eat “cicchetti,” Venetian snacks or finger foods similar to tapas (…that they really don’t want you to call tapas!), at any of these authentic local “bacaros” (bars): Cantina Do Spade, Cantina Do Mori, Al Mercá, Bar All’Arco, Bacaro Al Ravano, Bacaro e Trattoria da Fiore, Bacaro Risorto Castello, A La Vecia Papuss.
Grab a table if available or do as the locals do and eat at the counter with an “ombra” (glass of house wine), standing up.
7) St. Mark’s Square
Head to iconic Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) to visit a number of spectacular sights, including Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica) and it’s soaring Campanile di San Marco (Bell Tower). While at the Basilica, don’t skip going up to the Loggia dei Cavalli (balcony) for breathtaking views of the square and Grand Canal.
You can also visit the Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower), Museo Correr (Venetian art & history museum) and the sprawling Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace, the former residence of the leader of the Republic of Venice) – plus its somber Bridge of Sighs: where condemned prisoners would take their final walk from the Palace, and last glimpse of Venice through the bridge’s tiny windows, before reaching their windowless prison cell…or executioner.
TIP: When planning your trip to Palazzo Ducale, keep your eyes peeled for special after hours tickets on the palace’s official website. Normal visiting hours are usually 10am – 6pm, but every once in a while they’ll offer extended hours through midnight. We happened to get lucky with after hours tickets during our visit and highly recommend scooping them up if you can! The palace is stunning at night – if not eerie while crossing the Bridge of Sighs to the connected prison cells on the other side – and you’ll have the place nearly to yourself.
If you’re looking for a guided tour of the square’s top sights, this 3-hour option takes you to St. Mark’s Basilica (including the Loggia) and Doge’s Palace, all with skip-the-line, priority access.
When you need to take a break from sightseeing, people watch over an espresso at any of the cafés that line St. Mark’s Square. Fair warning: they’re all VERY expensive, and the only one worth it in our opinion is the lavish, 18th century Caffé Florian.
8) Libreria Acqua Alta
Wander through Libreria Acqua Alta, a quirky bookstore filled with unique finds and vintage titles, resident cats and a climbable staircase (head to the back) made with stacks of repurposed, water-damaged books from Venice’s infamous seasonal flooding. PLUS: a floating gondola you can jump into for a quick photo op.
9) Venetian masks
Buy an authentic, handmade Venetian mask from a generational artisan like at Paper Maché Venezia (located right next to the above mentioned bookstore). Here you can witness the owner in action, who will even tell you the story and meaning behind each mask to help you decide on one.
History lesson: Venetian masks stretch all the way back to the 13th century. Notorious revelers, Venetians would hold lavish parties starting December 26th through the start of Lent – all while wearing elaborate, handmade masks to conceal their identity. These masks became a social equalizer and allowed aristocrats and peasants alike to seamlessly mingle together, all while indulging in illicit affairs such as gambling, romantic rendezvous and even political assassination.
10) Murano Island and Burano Island
Did you know? Venice is built upon 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. Outside of the primary few that make up the city’s historic center, you can (and should!) also visit Murano Island of glass-blowing fame and/or Burano Island: a picturesque fishing town known for its rows of colorful houses and history of lacemaking.
You can island hop DIY-style by taking the “vaporetto” (water bus) OR, visit both of the above plus Torcello Island, the first settlement in the Venetian lagoon, by embarking on this guided day trip in a comfortable motorboat.
Bonus: Venice’s Best Boutique Hotels
Catch up on some R&R in between Venetian adventures at any of these exceptional boutique hotels, all boasting rooms with beautiful canal views: The Gritti Palace ($$$$), Aman Venice ($$$$), Al Ponte Antico ($$$), Palazzo Stern ($$), Hotel L’Orologio Venice ($$)