Venice feels like it shouldn’t exist. Beautiful floating palaces of stone surrounded by a network of canals. Here are some of the best things to do in Venice for your first visit!
Venice is one of the most popular Italian cities for tourists, even with all the other beautiful & historic places there are in Italy.
But there’s a good reason. The City of Water is celebrated because of its unusual circumstances, sitting on 100+ small islands connected by over 400 bridges.
There are basically no roads, transportation is accomplished via boats on a confusing network of canals. It’s truly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before!
There are many quirky, unique, unusual, and secret spots to discover in Venice.
I traveled here with Anna for the famous Carnevale di Venezia in February, a crazy annual festival of costumes and masks. We had an awesome time!
Because most travelers visiting Italy stop by the city for a few days, I wanted to recommend some fun and unusual things to do in Venice during your trip.
Best Things To Do In Venice In 2019
1. Explore Saint Mark’s Square
St. Mark the Evangelist is Venice’s patron saint. Signs of this connection can be found throughout the city, with an excellent example being St. Mark’s Square.
Also called Piazza San Marco, it is Venice’s main public square, basically the social heart of the city. There are a bunch of famous landmarks here, like the Clock Tower, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doges’ Palace, and the Winged Lion of Venice.
St. Mark’s is also home to many public events that have been held here for centuries. You’ll find TONS of friendly pigeons, although keep in mind that feeding them has been banned.
Cafes line the North end, so it’s a nice place to sit with an Aperol spritz or hot chocolate and people watch. Visit around sunrise to enjoy it peacefully before the large tour groups show up.
2. Libreria Acqua Alta Book Store
Perhaps unsurprisingly, flooding is a frequent problem for a city built on water. So various Venetian institutions have come up with unique responses to the problem.
A cool book store called Libreria Acqua Alta placed its books and magazines in bathtubs, waterproof containers, and even a full-sized gondola! It makes for a very unique and very whimsical setting.
This Venice book store has become an Instagram hotspot, with quirky little “backdrops” for photos around the store. Keep an eye out for some adopted stray cats who roam the shelves too.
Normally I’d tell you to pick out a good book, find a quiet corner, and do a little reading. Unfortunately, an onslaught of Instagram “influencers” yelling at you to get out of their shot is more likely…
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3. The Bridge Of Sighs
The Bridge Of Sighs is a unique enclosed bridge of white limestone spanning the Rio di Palazzo in Venice. There’s an interesting story behind the name.
It once led to a notorious Venetian prison, the beautiful view through its stone “bars” was a convict’s last sight of Venice before losing their freedom… and often their life. Hence the “sighs” as they passed.
These days tourists can walk through the bridge during a tour of Doges’ Palace, or more frequently, line up for photos outside with it in the background. You can also book a gondola ride that passes under it.
Locals often lie and tell tourists that it’s named after the “sigh” of couples sailing under it, falling in love due to the magic of Venice. The reality is a bit darker!
4. The Grand Canal (Canale Grande)
Venice was once the capital of a maritime empire, and a center of commerce and culture during Europe’s Renaissance period. The Grand Canal is the most important channel running through the city.
It’s also the largest and forms a recognizable “reverse S” through Venice when the city is viewed from above. Some of the most spectacular buildings in Venice line The Grand Canal!
Many of these buildings can only be accessed by boat. So you’ll find boats of all sorts heading up and down the canal in a fascinating form of organized chaos.
You’ll see plenty of traditional wooden gondolas, the large public Vaperetto water taxis, fancy private water taxis, small locally-owned motorboats, police boats, and my personal favorite, the garbage collection boats!
5. Ponte Di Rialto Bridge
There are four large bridges that span the Grand Canal. The original of them all was Rialto Bridge, which started out as a pontoon bridge in the 12th century but has since been rebuilt into what you see today.
The current bridge was built in the late 16th century, at a time when critics claimed that it would soon fall into ruin. But more than four centuries later, the Rialto Bridge still stands in splendid defiance.
The Rialto is Venice’s most popular bridge, with a great view of the city from the top. It gets a bit crowded, especially in the middle of the day during the summer!
Shops line the center of the bridge, the perfect place to pick up a Venitian souvenir — like jewelry or some famous Murano glass.
6. Ride A Gondola In Venice
Are the Venice gondola rides worth it? Well, it depends. Are you the type of person to visit Egypt and skip the pyramids? If so, go ahead and skip the gondola.
But if you’re genuinely curious about history and new travel experiences, suck it up and pay the €80 EURO price to rent one for 30 minutes.
One of the most iconic images of Venice is that of a traditional gondola being propelled by a professional gondolier. I will say, not all gondola rides are created equal. You could get a bored, unfriendly gondolier.
Or you could luck out with a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide (like we did), who also sings, as you float through the canals! It’s really just a part of the whole Venice experience.
7. Gallerie Dell’Accademia
The riches that once flowed into Venice made it a leading center for the arts, and artists. Examples can be found at Gallerie Dell’Accademia, a museum that specializes in pre-19th-century Venetian art.
Suffice to say that the Venetian art scene had a profound impact on European art as a whole in more than one way, thus making the museum that much more of a must-see for art lovers everywhere.
Inside you’ll find artwork by renowned artists such as Bellini, Da Vinci, Titian, and Canaletto.
The old building itself is pretty cool, a former convent that was converted to a museum in the 1700’s. It sits right on the water’s edge of the Grand Canal.
8. Visit Doges’ Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
The Republic of Venice came into existence in the 8th century and continued to exist until the late 18th century when Napoleon embarked on his conquest.
During that period, the republic was presided over by The Doge, a chief magistrate elected for life by Venetian nobles. Think of him as a combination of Pope & President.
Nowadays, the iconic Palazzo Ducale (Doge Palace) that housed the Doge has become one of the most famous landmarks of Venice, and a popular museum.
The interior of Doges’ Palace is quite opulent, with some wonderful views of the city. To walk through the Bridge Of Sighs mentioned earlier, this is how you do it.
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9. St. Mark’s Basilica
St. Mark’s Basilica, located in St. Mark’s Square, is the most famous of Venice’s churches and the cathedral of the Patriarchate of Venice.
Style-wise, the church is a mix of influences, having been built in the 11th century before being embellished again and again over the course of centuries. Today it boasts gold-leaf mosaics and beautiful domed ceilings.
Make sure to visit the small basilica museum inside, as well as the outdoor terrace with excellent views of the public square below.
As a lavish and much-beloved symbol of Venetian history, it’s totally worth a stop. Visiting on your own is free, although keep in mind there are often long lines.
10. Go Up San Marco Campanile
St. Mark’s Campanile is one of the most recognizable landmarks in St. Mark’s Square, a massive 98 meter (323 ft) bell tower that looms over its surroundings.
Galileo himself used the tower as an observatory to study the skies and in 1609 he demonstrated his telescope to the Lords of the city.
There is an elevator that goes to the top providing you with an unforgettable view of one of the most magnificent parts of Venice, including the Venitian Lagoon and Santa Maria Della Salute.
The ride to the top costs €8 EURO, or €13 EURO to skip the line (buy tickets here). Because drones are banned over Venice, it’s one of the only ways to get a cool aerial and panoramic view of the city.
11. Take A Day Trip To Burano
Burano is one of the smaller islands that can be found around the Venetian Lagoon. It’s reached via a 40-minute water taxi from St. Mark’s Square.
This small fishing village is unique for its brightly painted homes of pink, blue, yellow, and green. It’s a kaleidoscope of color with its own network of canals too.
Burano is also a center for lace-making, though the traditional methods see very little use these days because of their complicated and time-consuming nature.
The main square is filled with bars and outdoor restaurants, make sure to order some fresh fish risotto for lunch! Burano is a nice half-day trip to get out of Venice and see something different.
12. Basilica Di Santa Maria Della Salute
In the 17th century, Venice suffered a particularly bad outbreak of the bubonic plague when 80,000 people died.
As thanks for its deliverance from the plague, Venetians built the Basilica Di Santa Maria Della Salute to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary who they believe saved them from much worse.
The result was a wonderful Baroque style structure which came complete with a beautiful dome that has become an iconic part of the Venetian skyline.
The basilica is positioned near the entrance to the Grand Canal. Entrance is free, and many people simply chill out on the church staircase. The Vaporetto water taxi has a stop right out front.
13. Climb San Giorgio Maggiore
San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the Venetian islands. Moreover, it is also the name of a Benedictine church that can be found upon said island.
Built in a Renaissance style out of shining white marble, one of San Giorgio Maggiore’s most stand-out features is the bell tower with an elevator to the top and excellent views of Venice.
If you only have time for one bell tower, I’d actually recommend this one over San Marco Campanile. Because this tower is on an island further away from the city center, you get a better view of Venice proper.
Entering the church is free, but if you want to go up the tower, it costs €3 EURO. San Giorgio Maggiore can be reached by public water taxi.