What to do in Venice: aka Venice for Beginners

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Trying to decide what to do in Venice? Of all the fantastic places we saw in our three weeks in Italy, Venice is the one that captured our hearts and that we have returned to three times since that first visit. Each time we love it more.

Planning what to do in Venice

Venice was a last-minute addition to our first Italian itinerary. Everyone I asked said not to bother, it’s too crowded, too expensive, too smelly. I guess it can be those things if you visit in the middle of the high season, but our trip took place in late March. It was a little cold, a little rain one day, but it was not crowded, and it did not smell!

Below are the ten things we enjoyed most on our first visit to Venice. The biggest tip I can give you is NOT to visit in the summer. We have been in both early and late March and late October and it was never too busy.

1. Ride the Grand Canal

The feeling of being on the Grand Canal changes as the day progresses.

Grand Canal Venice 2011 on our first visit
A Venitian traffic jam

On this trip we had four full days in Venice, so we purchased a 3-day Vaporetto pass on our arrival at the train station. It was worthwhile for us as our hotel was just a few minutes from a stop on the Grand Canal and we planned to explore as many of the routes as possible.

Start with the #1 slow Vaporetto (water bus) that travels along the Grand Canal. If you have a pass get off anywhere, that takes your fancy. Try to ride this route in the very early morning when the sun is still rising; it’s fascinating to watch the city get ready for the day. Ride again after dark for some people watching, you can see inside the brightly lit windows of the grand homes at night.

These passes are expensive, so if you are travelling on a budget, then you could get a one day pass, take a morning ride in the Grand Canal and then head out to the islands. After dinner, take a nighttime trip before your ticket expires.

Three ways to get around the canals

  • Vaporetto (vah|poh|REHT|toh) – think of this as the public bus system – I loved it
  • Traghetto (trah|GET|toh) – A quick, cheap way to directly cross the canal
  • Gondola – I decided this was too $$$ and too much like Disneyland for me.

Tip: If you are travelling on a tight budget, take a Traghetto for just a euro or two and leave the Gondola for your next visit

2. Explore the Mercato di Rialto

There were so many seafood varieties we had never seen before

We got up early the second morning of our visit to head to the Rialto Market. This was one time I wish I had rented an apartment here; there was so much fantastic food that I wanted to take home and try to cook.

Rialto Market in Venice
As seafood lovers were amazed by the varieties of shellfish we had never seen before

Tip: Get there early – the action is just about over by noon.

After an hour or so exploring here, we bought some takeaway lunch and sat on the wharf in the sun relaxing and looking out over the water and watching life on the canal. It was one of my favourite mornings.

When: The markets are closed on Sunday and Monday. 7am-1pm. 
WhereCampo della Pescaia
How: Walk from the Rialto Bridge

3. Visit Murano and Burano

See the glass shops on Murano and the pretty coloured houses in the fishing village of Burano.

Our visit to these lovely islands coincided with our first cold and foggy day in Italy. Riding across the water to the islands through the fog was quite extraordinary, almost eerie, particularly when we passed the cemetery island and other small deserted islands along the way, it felt like we were travelling back in time.

Our first stop, Murano, felt a little like visiting a large glassware shopping centre. We did not go to the museum so I can’t comment on that but we toured one large shop with an attached workroom.

We were travelling around for a few months so buying glass souvenirs was not on our agenda, but there was so really gorgeous stuff here. We stuck to just a handful of small glass cute cats for our daughters.

Glass island Murano Venice cat figurines
We resisted large purchases and stuck to these cute little cats

Burano – the fishing village

Arriving in Burano to all the lolly-coloured houses after such a dark journey was a delight. We strolled around for a while, had lunch at a typical tourist restaurant just to escape the cold, and headed back to the main island.

Colourful houses in the fishing village of Burano
Burano’s colourful houses are cute but where are all the people?

We enjoyed seeing a different side to Venetian life. One thing I struggled with was trying to decide the order to visit the island and if we had time to see more than two.

If I was doing this again and the weather was better I would visit San Michele (cemetery isle)  and skip Murano although you do have time to do all three if you don’t spend too much time shopping 😉

Tip:  Make Burano your first stop and you will likely find it less crowded as most visitors stop at Murano first.

When: Time your visit for lunch as there are some great restaurants on Burano
How: The No 12 Vaporetto from Fondamente Nova is the fastest direct route to both islands. You can also take the No 3 from the train station to Murano.

4. Enjoy the afternoon bar food

The best place to do this is far, far from St Marks Square – we found some great places in the outer edges of Cannaregio.

Cicchetti tasting plate
Most locals only seem to buy one or two pieces at a time – us not so much!

I loved the Cicchetti (chi-keh-tee) in Venice. So many little interesting morsels to try and wine by the glass. For this reason, alone I would like to move to Venice permanently!

Look out for small”osteria” or “trattoria rather than restaurants for affordable, authentic meals.”

Afternoon drinks time again
Afternoon drinks became a daily ritual – thank god we had 5 days!

Each day on our walks we could keep our eyes peeled for interesting looking bars and cafes to head back to at night. I had taken a list of recommended places, but I think this is probably a better way.

Discovering your own amazing place is so satisfying and finding a recommended one that has changed hands or upped prices and dropped standards since hitting the guidebooks is very disappointing.

Where: Try Chowhounds forum if you want some specific recommendations

Food tours can help you uncover lots of hidden spots and are also great if you are travelling alone.

Related: The Perfect Italian Itinerary

5. Eat Squid Ink Pasta or Risotto

I was determined to eat Squid ink pasta in Venice after reading it was a local specialty. It is my favourite dish at our local Italian restaurant in Sydney, so I wanted to see how the real thing compared.

Restaurant in Venice
Eating on the canal is pretty special

We walked from our hotel in the opposite direction to the crowds and discovered Trattoria dai Peochi after about 10 minutes. It was crowded with couples speaking Italian, which I thought was a good sign, and it turned out to be right. The meal was lovely and not expensive – about 50 Euro for two courses, a glass of wine and a child’s meal. The staff were friendly, and I would be happy to eat there again.

I will spare you the photo of my mouth covered in black ink. Take my word and try it. Take a walk along Fondamenta della Misericordia, and you are bound to find something good.

Related: Things to do in Rome of your first visit

6. Visit Santa Maria della Salute

Santa Maria della Salute is the beautiful Baroque church on the junction of the Grand Canal and the one that features prominently in many photos of Venice.

Big white church Santa Maria della Salute Venice
Santa Maria della Salute was as beautiful inside as out.

Known locally as “the wedding cake”It was built to thank God for ending the terrible plague of the 1600s. Translated into English, its name is St Mary of Health. The church has an impressive collection of masterpieces including a Turner, several Titans and one of my favourites is free to enter.

It is a brilliant spot to view St Mark’s from afar and also a good place to begin your walk exploring the Dorsoduro sestieri.

Where: Punta della Dogana
When: 9am-Noon and then 3pm-5pm
How: Walk from the Accademia Bridge (great spot for a photo) or take the No 1 Vaporetto

7. Tour the Doges Palace

Known as Palazzo Ducale in Italian
The Doges Palace is known as Palazzo Ducale in Italian

We did not have an itinerary for our visit to Venice, and despite every guidebook, I had seen saying the Doges Palace was a must-see I had not intended to visit.

None of us has a strong interest in Venetian art and we were trying to keep costs down, but after two days walking past this amazing building every day, the facade captivated me and felt I needed to go inside. Next time we visited I convinced my husband to join the night tour which was an amazing experience and one we highly recommend.

On this first visit, it was late afternoon, and we purchased the English audio tour. My 12 yr old daughter and I loved it, and I was glad we went. The ticket included free entry into another museum opposite, but we did not have time to visit that.

Where:  San Marco, 1, 30124 Venezia, Italy
When: 8.30am -5.30pm (7pm in summer)
How: It’s hard to miss in the middle of St Mark’s Square 🙂

Related: An Itinerary for 5 days in Rome

8. Stroll through the Jewish Quarter

The Jewish quarter is worth exploring 

By the last day in the city, we had walked all the main spots listed in the travel guides and taken many Vaporetti rides. Our pass had expired, so we decided to stay in our sestieri (area) and explore all its corners. Tucked away in the far corner near the train station is the Jewish Ghetto area. This place is where the word Ghetto originated.

In the 16th Century, the leaders of Venice decided that rather than expelling all Jews from the city they would allow them to remain but confine them to one small area. As a result, the houses here are much taller and narrower than other parts of Venice. The residents had no option but to build up, and as they had limited finances, many of the structures were made of wood.

We happily strolled around by ourselves, but there are several walking tours that available if you want to learn more about Jewish history in Venice.

9. Visit the lesser-known squares

afternoon at Campo Santa Margherita Venice
Campo Santa Margherita is great for people watching

While it is nowhere near as attractive as St Mark’s Square Campo Santa Margherita was one of my favourite places to eat gelato and watch the world go by. It is less Disneyland and more real-life Venice with washing hanging from windows, old ladies gossiping in trios and kids running around having fun.

Another square we enjoyed was Campo Santa Maria Nova, not far from the beautiful Santa Maria dei Miracoli church and home of a cute second-hand market.

10. Get really lost

We enjoyed getting lost exploring this area behind St Mark’s Square immensely. Once you get away from the main attractions, there are so many hidden gems to discover.

Liberia Acqua Alta bookshop Venice
You never know what you might find when you just walk the back streets. 

We found the bookshop above in the Castello sestieri. A feature, books arranged inside an old gondola ensures the shop gets plenty of Instagram love. There is plenty of humour in the design of this place.

It’s pretty messy and caused slight anxiety in this ex-librarian, but I think it is worth a visit if you are walking in the area. It is called Libreria “Acqua Alta”, and I have since discovered it has its own Facebook page.

Addresses in Venice are almost meaningless to visitors. Ask for a landmark for your hotel or you may never find it!

Where: Castello 5176b, Calle Longa Santa Maria Formosa
When: 9am-8pm

Websites to help plan your holiday in Venice

  • Music in Venice – This website lists all the concerts and musical performances in Venice. All price ranges are catered to so take a look and see what is on while you are in town.
  • Chowhounds Italy Boards- If you want to discuss where to go and what to eat in Italy this Italy forum at Chowhounds will fit the bill.

Where we stayed in Venice

On all three visits, we have stayed in Cannaregio we really like this part of town and if you choose some corners away from St Mark’s and the Station you can find some really special spots that most visitors miss.

Have a question about something here? Want advice for planning your visit? Head to our Facebook page and we will do our best to help.

Have you been to Venice? Are you hooked on her magic like I am?

30 thoughts on “What to do in Venice: aka Venice for Beginners”

  1. When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

  2. I loved Venice. You aren’t joking about Getting lost whether deliberately or by chance as the narrow alleys are just too interesting not to explore. I agree with exploring the lesser known squares too as Piazza St Marco truly takes a bite out of a traveller’s budget 😉

  3. I love how you traveled to Venice, at last its not only about grand canal. I am now able to know more of the place because of this. Wonderful photos captured by the way.

  4. I always thought of grand canal when someone mentions Venice. And wow, I didn’t know you can see and do a lot of things in Venice aside from the grand canal. And from every post I read, they would always mention the gondola ride is expensive. Hehe. But I guess if it’s for experience then why not. I mean you only go to Venice once or twice (unless you always go there), so just go and ride. After Venice is always famous for the gondola rides.

  5. This is so thoughtful of you to create a blog just for the beginners. It is surely a great starter to know this beautiful city. I love the last part about getting lost. This is so true for so many incredible places that when you get lost, you find the best things!

  6. Man, I can’t believe people told you “not to bother” with Venice! It’s touristy, yes. But that’s because there is amazing stuff to discover there.
    It’s also one of the most beautiful, most unusual, most lively cities you could ever visit. I am happy to read you didn’t listen to the nay-sayers and I love your tips on what to do. Couldn’t have said it better 🙂

    Thank you & happy continued travels!
    C

  7. The places you visited are wonderful. And it’s nice to see other varieties of seafood. I would like to try that. It’s also helpful to know that they offer Vaporetto 3-day pass.

  8. I’ve always wanted to go to Venice! We haven’t made it to Italy (yet), but whenever we go, Venice will definitely be on the list. I’ll sadly have to skip the fresh seafood (boo, allergies), but I have to go to Murano to see the glassblowing. Even though it’s super touristy, I’d probably splurge on a gondola ride, too. 🙂

  9. Oh, Venice! Even in photos, it looks so romantic! I have always dreamed of going to Venice, especially when I started working as a gondolier in the Venetian Hotel in Macau. The Venetian was so beautiful, but I bet it cannot even come close to the grandeur of Venice! I love your last tip about getting really lost. I love wandering around and getting lost when I travel because we get to discover so many cool things that you don’t really see in blogs or guide books. And that library you discovered sounds so nice! Definitely trying the risotto if I ever go there!

  10. Visit to Murano and Burano tops my list here. I missed touring these 2 towns. The other one that I didn’t do is the Grand canal tour, but then it is okay. I wish to revisit Doges Palace in this list, it was so beautiful.

  11. Pia, I used to be an crazy planner but I have learnt to let go a little over the years. I still like to research like mad so I know all my options but these days I tend to let the days flow only making sure that I have the things that are really important to me covered 🙂 then letting the rest just happen. I save everything that catches my eye in Google maps so if we find outselves some place with some time to spare I can check what I marked nearby. That is a system that is working really well for us.

  12. I know what you mean Jill – all my friends who had been had visited in Summer when it was overcrowded and so so hot. Or they had done day trips. A day trip is OK if that is all you have time for but I think you need to stay for a couple of days to really appreciate it.

  13. I had a brow raised when you mentioned that you were told by people not to bother visiting Venice. I mean, it’s one of the places I’ve been longing to go to! I am just happy that you shook off their remarks and still went for it! 🙂

    I love your pictures, by the way. Especially of that Baroque church! I love its intricate details. Just so beautiful! <3 Getting lost is my motto especially when travelling! Thanks for mentioning that too!

  14. Ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to visit Venice. But, like you my friends who’ve actually been there have told me not to bother because it’s overrated. I’m glad to meet someone who found it just as fascinating. It renewed my interest in the city. 🙂 Beautiful pictures- but I also like how you shared interesting tips and tidbits about all the places you visited. I find the Jewish quarter especially interesting – I didn’t even know it existed! Plus, I love how you shared how you got lost and found a nice bookshop in the process- it reminded me of an argument my husband and I had when we went to Japan. He likes having no itinerary and getting lost and discovering new places. I’m little Ms. OC- so it drives me nuts! But yes, I have learned that letting go a little bit when you travel sometimes leads to the best experiences – so you guys were right all along. 😛 Thank you for letting me experience Venice vicariously through this post! 🙂

  15. Oh Venice. I dont know if I can visit this place. Only in movies I guess. A photographer friend went here last year and we were drooling on his photos. This place is really nice especially the architecture.

    I am still hopeful I can visit Venice someday 😀

  16. Venice is everything they say it is, isn’t it? Some positive, others negative. But who cares, what is important is that you took the time to visit and get to see a truly unique city. That alone, is quite an experience in itself.

    One thing I am curious about but have never once asked… because of the waters… are there pests like mosquitoes?

  17. Okay so I love Italy! Everytime I watch movies or dramas and their location is Italy, I really feel like I lived there in my past life. hahaha! I always wanted to ride the boat of grand canal, (though we have a man made grand canal here in the Philippines in Taguig). Plus the bird feeding sesh! I always see that in movies and I want to try to do it for myself too! hihi! Wish I can go there after college!

  18. Love the glass work that you photographed! I also love the brightly colored houses! Reminds me of Rainbow Row in Charleston South Carolina. It is amazing to me to see the various ways that different countries can be so similar.

  19. I had a very quick trip to Venice once…and it was super rainy the whole time! But I did manage to go to Murano, and it was so cool! I loved seeing all the glasswork…so amazing! I’d love to go back and spend time “getting lost”, as you suggest…I hear that’s easy to do in Venice!

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