What to do (and not do) in Venice

First time or fiftieth, the sight of this mesmerising city as you approach by water is enough to knock you unconscious. Venice is one of the most-visited destinations in Europe (not least because its days are likely numbered), so you’ll need to be a bit savvy if you don’t want to get swept along with the tourist crowd. Here are our do’s and don’ts…

Venice, Italy. Image: iStock


Stay in a historic hotel

As if Venice wasn’t enough of a fairytale, it’s crammed full of gorgeous historic hotels. Rickety, grand, centuries-old hotels with original features, often hidden away along the winding maze of streets – some accessible only by water taxi. There’s a time and a place to stay in a new-build hotel and an impending trip to Venice ain’t that time and it ain’t that place. If you can’t bear to scrimp on style, Palazzina G is a fabulous five-star on the Grand Canal that conceals chic Philippe Starck-designed interiors behind a 16th century facade. Itching for antiques? Try the Al Ponte Antico Hotel, Hotel Palazzo Stern or Hotel Ai Reali for gilding, elaborate wall coverings and knock-out views.

See a concert

When visiting one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world, there are few things better than gussying up in your fanciest frock and taking in a classical concert before strolling back to your hotel under the glow of the moonlight. The settings and costumes are quite spectacular – Teatro La Fenice opera house is breathtaking and probably the most famous, but there are plenty of smaller and less expensive venues to choose from. Even if opera isn’t usually your ‘thing’, a concert in Venice is an unforgettable experience to tick off the old bucket list.

Ca’ Rezzonico

The water-lapped mansions of the Grand Canal are without a doubt the grandest buildings you’ll ever see on stilts, but nothing can prepare you for what’s inside them. The 18th century Ca’ Rezzonico, a palazzo once owned by the socially upward and financially buoyant Rezzonico family, is one of the most rewarding glimpses of noble Venetian life you’ll find. A substantial collection of paintings from the period are exhibited here, but the finest riches are the rooms themselves; adorned with Murano chandeliers, hand-crafted furniture and ornate frescoes. Stroll from (lightly swaying) room to room and relax in the lovely courtyard to the side of the building.

(Window)shop for Carnevale

Whether you’re in town for Carnevale or not (a helluva spectacle if you can face the hordes and the inflated prices), mask-browsing is a must. There are a lot of mask shops in Venice, but only a handful of mask-makers, so do your research and suss out where the authentic craftsmanship is. Mondo Novo is the real deal.

Pack your paintbrushes

Venice is said to boast more artistic masterpieces per square mile than any other city in the world, so if you’re in the slightest bit creatively inclined, it doesn’t get more inspiring than this. There are countless galleries, the canal-side is the territory of art sellers and the entire place feels like a living oil painting. Bring a few materials with you and pitch up at a quiet viewing point with a coffee.

Venice, Italy. Image: iStock


St Mark’s Square

Mention Venice and people will tell you about St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco). It’s about as famous as Murano glass and gondola rides (we’ll come to those later). Sure, swing by and have a look – it is lovely and world-famous, but do yourself a favour – don’t eat anything (unless it’s at Caffe Florian which is delightful and an exception) and keep a close eye on your belongings. This tourist trap is all about professional pickpockets and overpriced restaurants serving average food. Same rule applies to the area immediately around the Rialto Bridge. Look but don’t guzzle. Instead, sidle off to a nearby back street and eat some authentic Italian grub for a third of the price.

Fly to Venice Treviso

Ryanair currently operates budget flights to this small airport, which is really nowhere near the City of Water at all, at 5km southwest of Treviso and a 30km transfer through gridlocked traffic. Given the choice, you’d be better advised to fly to Marco Polo, which is a more manageable 12km from the centre.

Expect much in the way of nightlife

What Bob Marley is to Jamaica, Vivaldi is to Venice. But if you were hoping to switch the tempo after dark, you’ll have to search hard. Plan a few pit stops in advance to save aimlessly wandering (Harry’s Bar is famed for its Bellinis – they were invented there!) and dine late to make the most of the evening.

Leave the hotel without a map

A good portion of any trip to Venice should be dedicated to exploring on foot. Don’t linger in the main tourist spots for too long if you’re only staying for a few days; this labyrinthine city is at its most enchanting in the more clandestine backstreets. As liberating as it might seem to lose yourself amongst the palazzi with nothing but an SLR and a heart full of adventure, you will just get lost. Tuck a detailed map in your back pocket or it will quite possibly take you all 400 bridges to find your way back to your hotel.

Hire a gondola

It’s the quintessential Venetian pastime, for sure, and you’ll want to climb aboard one even more when you see them bobbing under inky blue covers. But the thing is, it’s just as peaceful and atmospheric to stop on a bridge for a little while and watch other people shell out for the experience. More so, in fact. It’s not as romantic as you think being quite that close to the murky green deep for 40-plus minutes, especially if you haven’t paid extra for some be-striped local brawn to steer for you. It’ll set you back a minimum of €80 to explore the canals this way; €100 after 7pm. Admiring the city from the water is a must, of course, but you can do it on the open-air deck of the brilliant vaporetto (the water bus) or private water taxi – a service offered by many of the best hotels.

Venice gondolas

Venice gondolas. Image: Thinkstock

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  1. Would love to hear all comments as we are going march 1st for the first time , ages from 60 to 20

    • Caroline Thomas says:

      I went to Venice a few years ago and it was amazing, I’d definately recommend Harry’s bar for a Bellini, it’s pricey but it’s got to be done. St marks square and the Rialto bridge are lovely but I didn’t eat or drink there as it was extortionate! Beware of the smell of the canals in the very hot months, we went in January and it was still a little smelly in the cold! I would also recommend taking a train to Verona and checking out the Romeo and Juliet Balcony that inspired the play. The food and drink is just to die for, try a limoncello. Enjoy

      • Eleanor Cording-Booth says:

        It’s true, Caroline, spring and autumn are the best months to visit. The weather is milder but you don’t get the pungent smell that Venice is known for in summer. You’re absolutely right, If you’re there for more than a couple of nights, hopping on a train to Verona is a great (and easily doable) day trip. Thanks!

      • Just cause I can’t let incorrect stuff lie – the balcony did not inspire the play by Shakespeare. It was inspired by the political state in Verona at the time and then Shakespeare was inspired by an Italian play that became very famous – the balcony in Verona was added in the 20th century for a movie cause the original balcony was too high to be romantic

    • Eleanor Cording-Booth says:

      Keep checking back, Linda as I’m sure our readers will have plenty of tips that might come in handy for your trip. Have fun! Venice is such a wonderful city.

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  3. rita robinson says:

    When I went to Venice a couple of years ago I did a walking tour which was very informative and took you to areas that you may not normally find. The cost also included a trip on a gondola which was a much cheaper way of getting that experience if you don’t want to leave Venice without trying it! I think we booked through Viatour and was approximately 40 euros each including a guide and gondola ride.

    • Eleanor Cording-Booth says:

      Great tip, Rita! As much as we all sometimes prefer to do the exploring ourselves, if you’re visiting a new city and you’re short on time, sometimes the best option is to book yourself on to a guided tour. You’ll get to know the city in better detail and you can always go back to your favourite parts afterwards.

  4. Stay in Lido rather than main Venice it is such a short boat ride away and half the price of hotels in main venice itself, and do not sit down for a drink in resturants/bars as you will be charged double the price xx

  5. You HAVE to eat at the little street cafes – the bacari – stay away from the main squares and find little places off the beaten track where the locals eat. The food is fantastic and the bartenders and owners are friendliness itself. The guys we met threw me an improptu birthday party!

    Also, don’t miss the ghetto, it’s a real part of Venice’s history.

    Oh, to visit as a first timer again!

    • Eleanor Cording-Booth says:

      Thanks for the comment, Sophia. We couldn’t agree more about eating away from the main tourist areas. That’s where you find the best food and it’s so much cheaper! Any recommendations for particularly good restaurants that you found there?

  6. Don’t forget to visit San Giorgio , the view of the city is amazing from the campanile, probably best to go early it gets very busy. We spent a very gothic hour in the church during a major thunderstorm – a once in a lifetime experience (one of the monks started playing the organ, which definitely added to the atmosphere). Many of the churches have great art, which is even better to see than a gallery as it is where it was designed for.

  7. Lesley mackenzie says:

    I’ve been to Venice four times on day trips, all in various summer months and can say hand on heart that there was no smell whatsoever. Would definately recommend a visit to St marks square and coffee and pastries at caffe Florian, expensive I know but worth it for the atmosphere and the handsome waiters in crisp white jackets 🙂

  8. Tina Comparini says:

    Hi Venice lovers-my partner and I stayed at the converted flour mill on Giudecca which is beatiful inside and out. Whilst the Hilton is expensive they do provide a lovely finger buffet ALL DAY which is great if you cannot find somewhere nearby to eat AND they have a rooftop swimming pool and bar with great views of the main island. Another trick we employed was to make our own lunch by using the mini-markets and supermarkets down many a side street. Select your own fresh Italian rolls, cold meats and simple salad with a bottle of something nice and search for somewhere nice to set out your picnic (there are many lovely parks or museum grounds that would do well) – then you have saved money that you can use later on in one of the better restuarants tucked away in the back streets and away from the tourist areas. Always take a light rucksack, empty plastic bottle, two plastic wine glasses and a fold-away knife with you and you are fully equippped for your picnic al fresco. Contrary to the advice in the main blog I would suggest to DEFINATELY go for the Gondola ride, especially if you feel you may only visit once-if you make an early start before too many toursists are around-get chatting to the Gondoliers who all have good English and with a little cheek you may be able to negotiate a discount for being the first clients of the day-there is nothing like a good bit of advertising by being the first in the boat as it encourages other tourists to also consider it whilst you have set the ball rolling! And it IS worth it, getting down little side canals too small for the waterbuses and taxis, being closer to the water and to some of the beautiful buldings on the main canal.
    Finally, do try to find a Vivaldi concert in the evening-it is atmospheric and the music is just sublime and Venice is the best place in which to experience it-often the concerts are done in period costume. Do plenty of reseach BEFORE you go on the main things you want to see and the cheapest way to book or see them-the planning is all worth while as part of your added enjoyment. Plan your routes daly to fit the most in and give your feet a break-aimless meandering is tiring and you can miss so much just by not realising what you are near to. Bon Viaggio amici !

  9. I have been to Venice three times and I do prefer September, I also stay in the St Marco area, its convienent and you can walk everywhere. Also go to Murano and Burano for a bit of a change. Visit the old luxury hotels, do some shopping and enjoy eating the wonderful food both inside and outside cafes away from the tourists and drink a Bellini and lots of vino.

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  11. Great article, it reminded me of my good time in this amazing city. I’ve been to Venice four times, and I did almost all the things listed in the arcticle – though, I disagree on some “don’t”s.
    For example, the economical effort to hire a fascinating gondola can be worth the price for the more romantic ones… and let me say this about the evening/nights in Venice: as a tourist, I also didn’t know where to go and what to do, but in my last trip there (just one month ago) I had the fortune to get into this website: http://www.venicewinetour.com . Give it a try, I enjoyed the Venitian couisine specialties and the great wine in this great walk through the city, discovering places I just would never had seen, and listening interesting stories about Venice… really worth it. And if you just want to try the thrill, you can go on a real gondola as well, included in the price! 😉

  12. Helen Buckley says:

    Don’t miss a trip by ferry to the island of Torcello which has a very old Byzantine church with a wonderful medieval wall-painting of the Day of Judgement, but wear mosquito repellant – that island seems particularly bad. If you have time do the island of Burano as well. It is renowned for its lace making but also has attractively painted houses and is relatively quiet.

  13. You are wrong about gondolas. Very wrong actually. You have no clue as to what training and theoretical education these men [and women] have to undergo to be a gondolier, it’s not as easy as you think and certainly not something everyone can do. I would love to see you train to become a gondolier and see how hard it is to row overweight tourists with one rod.
    Good luck.
    Please educate yourself.

  14. Hi, fun post and great seeing other’s opinions on do and don’ts. The one I did a double-take on: DON’T leave your hotel without a map. My advice: ABSOLUTELY leave your hotel without a map. First, most streets have at least 2 if not more names. Or are not marked at all. Most maps of Venice are useless for the small streets even without the naming problem. They are good for general orientation and finding vaporetto stops (kind of). I’ve lived 6 months in Dorsoduro and at least 4-5 times a week while walking my dog I get asked directions from my fellow tourists. If they have a map, usually it’s upside down. Last year one couple were convinced they were near the train station…wrong end of the ”fish”! So ditch the map and wander. You’ll still be lost, but not nearly as frustrated (and your eyes will be on the sights instead of the map). You can always use the ubiquitous ”to S. Marco” , ”to Ferrovia” signs to orient, but if you want to see the cool stuff and have entire squares to yourself, just go for it!

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