Venice, the floating city, is one of the most picturesque and enchanting places in Europe. With its mesmerizing Grand Canal, lover-toting gondolas, strange masks peering out of shop windows complete with winged lions standing guard, it’s no surprise that it makes most travelers’ bucket lists. It is unabashedly one of the most magical places on Earth.
Located in northeastern Italy, Venice hosts travelers from near and far for many reasons. The city and its scenic lagoons are a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its long and rich history, its art and architecture, and because of its unique foundation of a petrified forest-like system of wood and stone. Many go simply to be swept away by its fairy tale charm, lining up for their turn to cruise the canals at sunset and be serenaded by the famous gondoliers. As they quickly discover, the beauty around every corner is truly captivating.
Unfortunately, many who visit Venice feel there isn’t enough to do or see to warrant staying longer than one day or night, but Venice is so much more than gondolas and St. Mark’s Square. It has a wealth of places to explore, from parks to palaces and neighbouring islands to leaning towers. So, I encourage you to stay a minimum of three nights to maximize your time, slowly make your way through, and give Venice a chance to put its spell on you.
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Getting To & Around Venice
You can travel to Venice by air or train. If flying into Venice, the closest airport is Marco Polo International approximately 30 minutes from Venice. From there, you can choose between taking the bus to the city’s bus station or going by airport-boat. The airport-boat makes various stops along the Grand Canal and prices range from €8 to €15 (one way), depending on where you get off.
The bus to Venice center is located right outside the arrivals lounge and it takes about 20 minutes to get to the bus terminal at Piazzale Roma. This is across from the St. Lucia train station where you can hop on a Vaporetto (Venice’s boat transit system) for further transportation.
One of the most popular ways of traveling through Europe is by train, and Venice’s main train station is St. Lucia. Coming down the steps of the station, the vaporetti (water buses) are all right there in front of you.
Note: Water taxis are available but prices are steep, costing €60 and up between Venice and the airport.
Getting around Venice is much easier than you may think. The Vaporetto has terminals (or stops) all over, with a one-way ticket costing €7.50. There are also ACTV Tourist Travel cards available for purchase for one day (€20), two days (€30), and three days (€40), for unlimited travel on the vaporetti. These are only a savings if you plan on using the vaporetti more than three times a day or if you go explore the nearby islands. That being said, Venice is a city meant to be explored on foot, and you can get nearly everywhere by walking, thanks to its over 400 bridges.
Tips for Venice
When using the vaporetti, be sure to validate your ticket or day pass before you board, or you may be fined. You can do this by holding your ticket (biglietto in Italian) or pass up to the white electronic card reader and wait until you hear the confirmation beep.
2. When to Visit
One of the biggest complaints about Venice is the sheer amount of tourists. Venice actually doubles in size during peak season. The peak season for crowds is in July and August. Even if you plan to go during this time, you can still plan accordingly by seeing main sights first thing in the morning or later in the evening when day-trippers have left, as well as by venturing further from hot spots where tourists tend to flock.
The best time of year to go is May or September when you won’t find crowds of tourists, but there is plenty of sunshine and temperatures are comfortable. Fall can be a beautiful time to visit, but be aware of “acqua alta” (high water), when much of the city is covered in high tide waters. This usually occurs in November and December and is a beautiful phenomenon that, when prepared with the right waterproof boots, is an unforgettable experience.
3. Get Directions Before You Go
With its countless winding alleyways, Venice can be difficult to navigate. To make sure you can get back to your hotel after a day exploring the canals, try dropping a pin in your map app on your phone before you leave, or print our directions from the nearest vaporetti stop.
Travel Planning Tip: Order a prepaid SIM card before you travel!
For North Americans accustomed to tip service workers, it’s hard to know what to expect while traveling. There are many places where tipping isn’t a norm, or it’s reduced, or like many cities in Europe, it’s already included in the bill. Save yourself from double tipping by checking your bill first to see if it’s included. If it is, it will say ‘servizio incluso’. There is much debate on whether you need to tip at all in Italy, most say no, while others like to at least round up to the nearest Euro.
5. Be Mindful
Venice is an incredible city, but it’s also in a fragile state, and we need to treat it with respect. Because of the mass amounts of tourists that trample through the city every year with their rolling suitcases, the beautiful stone bridges have experienced a lot of damage. So, if you have a rolling suitcase, pick it up when going over bridges to help prevent more damage.
Things to do in Venice
1. Cruise the Grand Canal
Venice is best seen from the water. The Grand Canal, which has been called “the most beautiful street in the world,” winds its way through Venice for nearly 4 kilometers. It is adorned with 4 majestic bridges and lined with over 150 buildings, most from the 13th through the 18th century. A cruise along this grand waterway is a must for any visit to Venice, whether by gondola or vaporetti. On a vaporetti through the Grand Canal, you can see palaces, churches, and many of Venice’s top attractions. If you can, get on the Grand Canal when the sun is setting and the city is shimmering in magic.
2. Take a Gondola Ride
One of the top things to do in Venice is to ride its canals in traditional, flat-bottomed rowboats called gondolas. Gondolas have been around since the 11th century and were once the main means of transportation, but these days they are only used for special occasions and, of course, carting around tourists. These sleek and expertly crafted boats aren’t just for lovers – groups and even solo travelers like myself can enjoy a ride in these stunning pieces of art. If you do plan a peaceful ride in a gondola, you are best to book ahead with a tour company, like Viator, which offers a walking tour along with a gondola ride for a good price.
If you don’t book ahead, expect to pay €80 and up for a boat (find friends and split the cost!). If you’re on a budget, don’t worry, there is a gondola for you, too. While not as romantic nor luxurious, you can still take a trip across the Grand Canal in gondolas called traghetti for as low as €2. These traghetti are also used by locals to get across the canal where there are no bridges and are set up in various spots along the Grand Canal.
3. Get Lost
Yes, you read that right, get lost. If ever there was a city to wander and let yourself get lost amongst its canals and narrow alleyways, it would be Venice. And, if you have a map, you’ll never be completely lost, you’ll always find your way back to one of the main squares, bridges or attractions. Charming neighbourhoods with laundry drying in the breeze, children playing soccer in the square, hidden enchanted bookshops, and some of the best cafes, shops and restaurants are some of the authentic and real sights you’ll see when you go off the beaten path. With over 400 bridges and over 100 islands, Venice is full of wonder and beauty. Away from the crowds and top sights, you’ll get a peek into the real lives of locals and find much of Venice’s hidden treasures like grand statues, the some 600 abandoned wells, and peaceful campos (squares). By getting lost, you’ll find the true Venice.
Related: 5 Ways Solo Travel Will Change You
4. St. Mark’s Campanile
In Venice’s iconic St. Mark’s Square, across from St. Mark’s Basilica, you’ll find its bell tower, or “campanile.” Standing at over 300 feet tall, it was originally completed in 1549 but had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed in a collapse. The present bell tower is from 1912 and offers epic 360-degree views over Venice. You can ride the narrow elevator up to the top observation deck for €8, but be sure to arrive early as lines can grow quickly. You may also consider going in the evening for sunset vistas, as it’s open until 9 pm in the summer months.
5. Explore Green Venice
When I say “Venice,” what comes to mind? Probably images of grand buildings and canals, but certainly not parks and green spaces. However, Venice is home to many hidden gardens and beautiful parks. Two must-sees are in central Venice while another is a short bus ride outside the city.
San Giuliano Park is actually the largest park in Europe at 700 hectares of fields, woodlots, and canals. Nature lovers will love a visit to this massive park, and it’s only a 10-minute bus ride from Piazzale Roma bus station.
Another favourite is the Public Garden (Giardini Pubblici), which is located in the Castello district. Here you’ll find a beautiful city park with cats wandering its paths, and it’s also home to various events and festivals throughout the year.
The most popular, though still not on every tourists’ radar, is the Napoleonic Gardens. The Napoleonic Gardens is one of Venice’s largest parks and includes a charming and inviting 200-meter long avenue lined with trees and benches. There are even busts of famous people hidden in the dense canopy, a great place to escape the crowds and heat of summer.
6. Explore Churches
Venice is home to over 100 churches, in fact, the first building you see coming out of the train station is the Church of San Simeone Piccolo, one of the last churches built in the city in 1738. Getting out and exploring its many churches can seem daunting, but I’ll recommend a few outstanding ones for you to start with. Santa Maria della Salute, completed in 1687, is set right along the Grand Canal and is full of stunning white marble and amazing paintings. Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo is one of Venice’s largest churches and has breathtaking ceilings. Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is another great one. It’s home to some of the famous Venetian artist Titan’s masterpieces, as well as his tomb.
7. A Night at the Opera
The opera has been a staple in Venetian life for centuries. In fact, the first public opera house was opened in Venice in 1637, and some say it is the birthplace of opera.
The main opera house is the world-famous Gran Teatro La Fenice, dubbed “The Phoenix” after its multiple fires and rising from the ashes again and again. If you want to experience the grand opulence of Venetian opera, consider a night at The Phoenix, where you can enjoy a performance in its stunning interior, just be sure to dress up, as there is a dress code. Tickets for the show start at €38.50.
If you’re looking for a cheaper and more intimate experience, check out Scuola Grande di San Teodoro. Founded in the 16th century, it is more of a concert hall with smaller audiences, but still a great show. Tickets range from €29 to €39.
8. Visit Murano & Burano
Venice has about 100 islands, some of which are great for half-day visits. Burano is a favourite for its colourful painted houses. Located a 40-minute vaporetti ride from central Venice, you can easily spend a few hours wandering its charming alleyways and checking out its famous lace.
Another favourite is Murano, famous for its stunning glassworks. Also a 40-minute boat ride from central Venice, Murano is home to beautiful churches, squares, and more colourful houses. Be sure to catch one of the glass making demonstrations to see just how talented these artists are.
9. Explore Museums
Venice offers a plethora of museums, and if you are hoping to visit a few of them, consider purchasing a Venice Museum Pass, which includes admission to 10 museums.
One top choice is the Gallerie dell’ Accademia, where you can find Venetian paintings. Another favourite is the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, home to some of the most famous modern artists from Europe and America from the first half of the 20th century, such as Picasso and Dalí. Another great option is Ca’Rezzonico, which houses Venice’s largest collection of 18th-century art inside a beautiful Baroque palace.
10. St. Mark’s Basilica
St. Mark’s Basilica, one of Venice’s famous icons, stands center stage in the city’s most famous square. With its stunning facade and mix of Gothic and Byzantine architecture, it’s hard not to be drawn inside. The interior is even more beautiful with grand chandeliers, dazzling floors and sparkling gold mosaics in every direction. To enter is free, but there is also a treasury (€3) and a museum (€5) available inside at an extra cost. If you are planning to visit during peak season, line up extra early or save yourself the time and book skip-the-line tickets in advance for only €2.
Note: As with other religious buildings, dress appropriately. No bare shoulders, so no tank tops or bring a scarf, and no bare legs above the knee.
Where to Stay in Venice
Budget – Generator Hostel Venice
The Generator Hostel Venice is a popular hostel located on the island of Guidecca, across from San Marco. It offers great views of Venice, a bar, restaurant, lounge, free Wi-Fi and a 24-hour reception. The atmosphere is young and fun, with a great social scene.
Dorm rooms from €34
Mid-Range – Hotel San Salvador
Located in the heart of Venice, Hotel San Salvador is a ten-minute walk to St. Mark’s Square and a five-minute walk to the Rialto Bridge. Surrounded by restaurants, cafes and also bank machines, this hotel is a great option for a budget traveler looking for some privacy. The hotel offers free Wi-Fi, a terrace, and has a cheerful and helpful staff. Rooms have gorgeous Murano glass chandeliers and mirrors, are clean and some have private en-suites while others have shared bathrooms.
Rates start at €54.