Venice, the city of canals and gondoliers, is truly a marvel of engineering. Constructed out in the middle of a lagoon, its vast network of bridges and canals are part of what make Venice such an amazing place to visit. There is no other city quite like it, which makes it easy to see why millions of people travel to Venice each year. I’ve been fortunate to see Venice a couple of times recently, and put together this guide to help anyone planning a trip to “The Floating City.”
The guide includes a mix of family run local eateries, some of the big attractions for which Venice is known, and some basic information on where to stay during your visit. All of the suggestions are located on the map below for easy reference (note: there are more things on the map than specifically mentioned in this post). It is by no means definitive, but features some highlights to get you started with the planning process.
What to see and do in Venice
Wander- Before heading off to the big attractions like St Mark’s Square, take some time to simply wander. Because it is so walkable, there is no better place than Venice to explore without any agenda or destination. The maze-like streets and criss crossing canals are an attraction all by themselves. Around every corner is another picturesque scene with centuries old buildings and gondoliers in striped shirts steering their fancy black boats through the water.
St. Marks Square- You really can’t go to Venice without visiting St. Mark’s Square. Do this very early in the morning, around sunrise. The square will be nearly empty, the light will be beautiful, and you will have a chance to experience the stunning architecture before the crowds show up. And the crowds will show up. By 10:00 am there will be thousands of people milling about.
Doge’s Palace- The famous home of the Doge of Venice. Lots of interesting history, art, and architecture here. The upper floors offer unique views of the city.
St Mark’s Campanile (tower)- This is worth battling the crowds for, but be sure to buy an advance “skip the line ticket“. From roughly 300 feet up in the air, the bell tower gives beautiful views of the city below. Time it just right and you can be up inside the tower when the bells go off. The bells are enormous and they start ringing a few feet above your head.
St. Mark’s Basilica- Also worth buying a “skip the line ticket” as it is only 3.00 Euro. Otherwise you will spend a great deal of time in the hot sun waiting to get in. The photo below was taken at around 6:00 a.m., so don’t let the lack of people or line fool you.
Rialto Bridge- Perhaps the most well known and photographed bridge in Venice. It is centrally located and crosses over the Grand Canal. Shops line both ramps, and great photo opportunities can be had on either side of the bridge.
Academia Bridge- Gorgeous wood bridge across the Grand Canal connecting to the Dorsorduro neighborhood. Since many of the bridges in Venice are made out of stone, this one is unique and worth checking out.
Guggenheim- The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a small modern art museum. It’s the perfect size to take a couple of hours and enjoy some modern art, but not so big that it leaves you exhausted. There is a fantastic terrace right on the Grand Canal accessible with admission to the museum.
Public transit- Venice has an extensive public transit system, and it is almost an “attraction” in and of itself. Where else are the public busses actually boats? The vaporettos, or water busses, are easy to use, with lots of stops throughout the city. While Venice is very walkable, the transit system is fun and can help save some energy if you are out all day long, or have a destination on the other side of the city. Below, a water bus leaving a stop.
In addition to the water buses, there is the Alilaguna service. These boats use some of the same stops as the vaporettos, but require a different ticket. Alilaguna also offers an airport shuttle for easy transportation to and from Marco Polo Airport.
Unica card- I recommend buying a Unica card, which allows you to purchase unlimited rides on the vaporetto system, as well as a round trip airport transfer with the Alilaguna service all in one transaction. Purchase the cards before you leave, and pick them up at the airport in Venice.
What to Eat in Venice
Cicchetti– Plan your lunch and dinner meals around cicchetti. These are a bit like Spanish tapas or pinchos, but uniquely Venetian. Consisting mostly of inexpensive small bites, served at bars and restaurants throughout Venice, cicchetti represent some of the best and most interesting food options that Venice has to offer. Many are served as toppings on small rounds of bread, others are served as small plated dishes. Everything from seafood, to marinated beans, caramelized onions, cheese, nuts, cured meat and fish can be found.
Most eateries offer cicchetti as part of a “bar menu” and they usually aren’t consumed in the dining room of a restaurant. Squeeze into a spot at the bar, or take your cicchetti outside and enjoy them by a canal. You are allowed to take your drink outdoors too as long as you can see the bar you ordered it from. Many places will ask if you are going outside and will serve your drink in a plastic cup.
Spritz- Don’t forget your spritz! Choose from Cynar, Compari, Aperol, Select, or any other aperitif of choice which gets mixed with prosecco over ice. The spritz pairs perfectly with cicchetti and warm Venetian evenings. Pass any bar or restaurant in Venice, and chances are you will see people sipping on spritzes.
Our favorite cicchetti spot is called Gia Schiavi. It’s a family run place in the Dorsoduro neighborhood. Get one of everything and walk five feet to the nearest canal. You won’t be disappointed. The map above has a handful of delicious cicchetti shops to check out. You can make an entire evening out of hopping from one cicchetti spot to the next.
You can easily make a meal out of cicchetti, but for something a little more hearty, I recommend a Venetian pasta speciality, spaghetti al nero di sepia, otherwise known as squid ink pasta. The black inky sauce is savory with a hint of fish, but not overbearing in any way. There are also pieces of squid served in the pasta.
Rialto Market- Check out the Rialto Market. Even if you don’t plan on doing any cooking on vacation, the Rialto Market is an experience any foodie can appreciate. Plus it is very close to the famous Rialto Bridge, so you will likely be nearby at some point during your visit to Venice. Explore the tables full of freshly caught fish as well as local vegetables. I recommend going in the morning.
Gelato- No trip to Venice (or anywhere in Italy) would be complete without mentioning gelato. Venice has it’s share of fine gelato shops. Our favorite is called Suso. The unique flavors and superb quality make this a can’t miss stop in Venice. Check out the map for a few more gelato suggestions.
Take a food tour- There is a fantastic food tour led by husband and wife team Adam and Maya. It’s called Venice Bites and will easily be one of the highlights of your trip. They include locally owned and family operated stops on their tours, and you will learn not only about Venetian food, but also some history and etiquette to help make your trip more enjoyable. Book one of their tours at the beginning of your stay and use everything they teach you throughout your trip.
Where to stay in Venice
Pretty much anywhere in the main area (Cannargio, Santa Croce, San Polo, San Marco, Castello, Dorsorduro) should be fine. The area around St. Mark’s square can be very crowded and busy, so unless that’s your thing, give yourself a 5-10 minute walking radius from that immediate area. Some of the neighborhoods are larger than others, so staying at the far end of one of them might force you to walk more, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Since pubic transit in Venice is so easy to use, you can get around fairly quickly as long as you are close to a vaporetto stop that services the Grand Canal. I have stayed at both of the places below and would recommend either one depending on your needs.
For a couple, check out La Villeggiatura. A small bed and breakfast with excellent service and a perfect central location.
For a larger group, check out Palazzina Canal. A larger multi-bedroom apartment with a spacious kitchen. Located outside the major tourist areas, but conveniently close to a vaporetto stop.