There are so many questions when planning a trip to Venice. Will it be crowded? When should I go? What should I see, and how can I get off the beaten path? Whether you are a first-timer or a return visitor, here is my ultimate Venice travel guide.
Why Visit Venice?
There is a reason why Venice is so popular with tourists. Or rather, several reasons. Firstly, it is unique, its identity inextricably bound up with the water that surrounds it. That water has been at the heart of Venice’s history and its long maritime heritage. It is also the lifeblood of the city, with canals in place of streets and highways.
Then there is the city itself. The whole of Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place of staggering beauty and cultural importance. The architecture is remarkably homogenous, the Venetian Gothic style dominating the palazzi, churches and public buildings.
The combined effect is to make Venice a sort of outdoor museum, a place with something to see around every corner. And, if that isn’t enough, there are several important art galleries and museums, and the churches are full of artworks by major Renaissance painters.
Things To Do In Venice
For many visitors the must-see areas are clustered around the Grand Canal, Rialto Bridge and St Mark’s Square. The standard tourist itinerary would add in a few museums and churches and possibly a boat trip or two. But what if you want to escape the crowds and to find some less obvious sights?
My first recommendation is just to walk at random, peering into courtyards and turning down alleys and side streets. And don’t confine yourself to the central area of the city: there is lots to explore beyond the San Marco and Rialto areas.
The Districts Of Venice
Venice is divided into six districts (or sestieri). Many of the main tourist attractions are to be found in San Marco (St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace) and San Polo (the Rialto Bridge). However, to get the full flavour of the city you will want to spend some time exploring the other districts.
Dorsoduro is the university quarter, quieter than San Marco but with some spectacular churches and galleries. It also includes the island chain of Giudecca. And don’t miss Cannaregio. This primarily residential area has a slightly different feel from the rest of the city – more local and less closed-in. This is also where you’ll find the old ghetto area, one of the inspirations for Shakespeare in Venice.
The other sestieri are Santa Croce (the area around the railway and bus stations) and Castello. Castello is the largest district of Venice and home to the historic Arsenal. It is mostly neglected by tourists, but you will find gardens and peaceful places here.
Tours And Day Trips
To get the most out of your visit to Venice you might want to take a tour with a knowledgeable guide. This could be an in-depth exploration such as LivItaly’s Venice Evening Tour or Semi-Private Walking Tour. (Remember that readers of this website can get 5% on all of LivItaly’s tours with discount code BEWITCHEDBYITALY.)
Other tour operators have a range of offerings covering the hidden or quirky sides of Venice, like a Ghosts and Legends Walking Tour or Secret City Gardens. Better still, book a session with WithLocals – connect with a local guide to explore their passion or to have a tour tailormade for you.
You might also want to take a day trip, either to the islands of the lagoon or to the towns of the Veneto region. Have a look at these suggestions for Day Trips From Venice.
Venice is a water based city. This means that, once you leave the bus or train at Piazzale Roma at the entrance to the historic city, the only way of getting around is by water or on foot (no cars, no bikes, no Vespas). So, unless you’re willing to spend a lot of money on water taxis, you are going to be doing a lot of walking. Note, too, that your walk will be punctuated by frequent stepped bridges across the canals.
However, for those who are willing and able to walk, Venice is very easy to explore. Admittedly, at first it seems a bit like a maze game, with streets twisting and turning before ending abruptly at the water’s edge. But the city is compact and you start to find your way around surprisingly quickly.
Trains from other parts of Italy arrive into the railway station close to Piazzale Roma, where there is also car parking. Boats run to the islands of the lagoon, and there are ferries to Pula, Corfu and other international destinations. The easiest way to travel from the airport is by getting the bus to Piazzale Roma. Alternatively you can take the water bus to Piazza San Marco. (It is also possible to take a water taxi from the airport to your hotel but be warned that this is very expensive.)
LivItaly have a whole range of small group tours in Venice and throughout Italy. Readers of this site can get a 5% discount on all of their tours by using discount code BEWITCHEDBYITALY
When To Visit Venice
It remains to be seen whether the Venice Tourist Tax (to be implemented in 2022) or the cruise ship ban will impact on summer crowds. However on past experience the summer months are to be avoided because prices are high and the city can become unpleasantly crowded. Large numbers of visitors also arrive at the time of the Venice Carnival (the two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday).
Winter is much quieter, and cheaper, but you are at the mercy of the weather (floods are possible), and some museums and other facilities may have restricted opening times. The shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are probably a better compromise.
It is possible to eat very well in Venice, but unfortunately it is also possible to find places serving overpriced, low quality food. The best advice is to choose the less touristy areas if possible, and to avoid restaurants clearly aimed at tourists (recognisable by their menus in several languages and the “greeters” stationed outside to entice customers in).
As befits a maritime location, Venetian cuisine uses a lot of fish and seafood: anchovies and sardines seem to feature prominently. However, most restaurants also offer meat and vegetarian options.
If you are looking for a light snack, bars (or bacari) will sell cicchetti, the local equivalent of tapas. Often these take the form of slices of bread with various toppings, but you may also find other nibbles such as deep fried olives. And, wherever you go you will see people drinking Venetian spritz, a bright red cocktail of prosecco, soda and a bitter aperitif.
Where To Stay In Venice
Two things to consider when choosing accommodation are accessibility and cost. If you stay in the historic centre you will have a choice between walking to the hotel with your luggage, staying close to a vaporetto stop on the Grand Canal (likely to be expensive) or taking a water taxi to the hotel (very expensive). So far as cost is concerned there is a whole range of options, from small but acceptable rooms to grand suites in former palazzi.
If cost is a consideration there are ways of reducing your expenditure. High season is much more expensive than other times of year. Residential areas such as Cannaregio are generally cheaper than the tourist hotspot of San Marco. And self-catering – both basic and luxurious – is available throughout the city. However the ultimate budget option is to stay in Mestre – a 10 minute train ride from Venice – where there are hotels, hostels and campsites. Have a look on the booking.com site for a range of accommodation including hotels, guesthouses and apartments.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.