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Home to over a thousand years of history and some of the world’s greatest architecture, art and culture, Venice is one of the greatest cities on earth.
Yet despite there being so many things to do in Venice, a huge number of people come to the city to tick off a handful of its headline sights, clogging up the Rialto Bridge and St Mark’s Square, before moving on.
Infuriated local residents, campaign groups and the city council are trying to change the way that tourists see Venice. With this in mind, we’ll show you how to experience Venice like a local, exploring each of Venice’s neighbourhoods to reveal a multitude of la Serenissima’s hidden treasures.
Maps and apps are often as befuddled by Venice as humans and accepting that you don’t know where you are is to be embraced. Even seasoned visitors to Venice often end up lost. It’s an essential part of experiencing Venice like a local.
The beauty of Venice is that you don’t need to stray far off the beaten track to stumble upon something momentous. One of the best things to do in Venice is to embrace the haphazard and the almost impossible to understand layout of the city. This way you’ll really get to see the real Venice.
From the quiet residential streets of Cannaregio, the bohemian student politics of Dorsodouro, and the characterful and charming Castello, there is so much to explore that it can be hard to decide what to see in Venice.
Our guide to this magical city will have you strolling the streets like a long-standing local.
Due to high demand accommodation in Venice is not particularly cheap, though there are always more affordable options available to be found.
If you’re on a tight budget consider looking at a B&B or guesthouse, and look at staying somewhere off the main island.
Accommodation on the nearby island of Lido is usually cheaper than Venice and with a number of vaporetto stops on the island you can be in St Mark’s Square in around 20 minutes.
You can search for a wide variety of accommodation in Venice to suit all budgets here.
If you need some suggestions here are a few hotels in Venice. that we recommend:
Perfectly located practically in the heart of Venice, Hotel Casa Petrarca is ideal for anyone looking for affordable yet truly Venetian accommodation. Hotel Casa Petrarca prides itself on its beautiful rooms, an excellent breakfast and incredibly friendly and helpful staff.
Another hotel in a beautiful old Venetian building, the Arcadia Boutique Hotel is situated on a bustling street in Cannaregio close to the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo in the north of the city. This grand hotel mixes old-world elegance with plenty of modern touches and beautifully styled rooms.
Top of the Range
If money is no object there are few cities in the world were you can enjoy a more luxurious stay than in Venice. Amongst the many 5 star hotels in the city, the historic Hotel Londra Palace is one of the finest.
Just a few minutes walk from St Mark’s Square many of the hotel’s exquisite rooms come with jaw-dropping views across the Grand Canal to San Giorgio Maggiore.
On the west side of Venice’s Rialto Bridge on the southern bank of the Grand Canal are the areas of San Polo and Santa Croce.
Slightly removed from the main tourist trail, the magnificent Campo San Polo, home to the 15th century Chiesa Rettoriale di San Polo, is one of Venice’s finest open squares.
The enormous Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is one of the grandest churches in the city.
Though deceptively plain from the outside the interior is exquisite, adorned with hugely important masterpieces by artists such as Bellini, Donatello and Titian. Titian is buried in a tomb within the church.
Just around the corner from the Basilica dei Frari is the lavish Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The headquarters of an ancient Christian confraternity, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco was built over several decades in the 15th century.
Much more than just a thoroughfare through to Venice’s train and bus terminals, Santa Croce is largely a quiet residential area with plenty of hidden treasures.
Two small squares, Campo Nazario Sauro and Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, are both lovely spots to stop for a coffee and watch the world go slowly by.
The Giardini Papadopoli is one of the largest gardens in Venice and a small oasis of calm around the busy bustle of Piazzale Roma bus station. Pop into Osteria Trefanti for some of the finest fish dishes in Venice.
On the western end of the Grand Canal is the excellent Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art, a former palazzo that is now a lavish gallery.
Further south in the district of Dorsodouro are some of the finest museums, galleries and churches in all of Venice. Dorsodouro is Venice’s academic heartland, with a noticeably younger population.
The vast pastel coloured square of Campo Santa Margherita could almost cause you to forget that you’re in a city of canals. Meanwhile the Fondamenta delle Zattere along the southern edge of the city is a great place to while away an hour or so.
Opposite Dorsoduro, the slower paced island of Guidecca is a wonderful place to take a leisurely break from the hectic pace of the main city.
The spectacular magnificence of Ca’ Rezzonico on the banks of the Grand Canal is an absolute must.
This palace-turned-museum is laid out in the style of an 18th century home of abundant opulence, complete with priceless artworks and furniture. The upper floors also feature some of the most spectacular views over Venice.
From Fondamenta Nani, look out for the Squero di San Trovaso, where one of the few remaining gondola boatyards in Venice can be found.
Here you can peer in from across the canal as gondolas are made and repaired as they have been ever since the boatyard opened in the 17th century. It takes these craftsmen around six months to make a single gondola.
A little further east is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Though not exactly off the beaten track, this is one of the best art galleries in Venice and well worth a visit.
The gallery’s impressive collection features some of the finest works by many modern masters, such as Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee and Jean Miro.
Some of the most beautiful maze-like streets of Dorsodouro can be found near the sumptuous Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute.
From the steps of the basilica is a magnificent view of the colourful and elegant palazzos on the opposite bank of the Grand Canal.
The basilica is a Baroque marvel, with an exterior bedecked with statues of the saints and watched over by the Virgin Mary. The interior is equally as impressive.
Twelve works by Titan adorn the walls as light pours into the ornate octagonal church from all angles. The basilica’s eight chapels are crowned by one enormous dome.
For one of the best views of Venice take the number 2 vaporetto from Zattere to San Giorgo next to the island of Guidecca and head up the tower of the glorious Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore.
From here you can capture the entire iconic city from directly opposite St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace.
On the opposite side of the island, Cannaregio is where you’ll see the real Venice. Here you’ll find clothes hanging out from windows on washing lines to dry as children run through the streets on their way to school.
A leisurely stroll along the Fondamenta della Misericordia, reveals a part of Venice that operates at a far slower pace.
The Campo di Ghetto Nuovo is the area of Venice where Jewish settlers were forced to inhabit in the 16th century, and where the word ‘ghetto’ derives.
With only a limited amount of land available, the Jewish residents of the ghetto could only build upwards, hence the large number of six and seven storied buildings that line the edge of the square. These remain amongst the tallest houses still standing in Venice.
The Ghetto Nuovo is still the heart of Venice’s Jewish community. Tours of the ghetto and the historic Schola Tedesca, Schola Canton and Schola Spagnola synagogues are available from the Museo Ebraico.
To the north of the ghetto on the northern tip of Venice is the wonderful Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto, a 13th century church featuring paintings by Tintoretto, the Venetian artist who is buried in a tomb in the church.
Back on the Grand Canal the Ca d’Oro is another monumental palace that’s now an art museum.
Once one of the most magnificent palazzos in all of Venice, the Ca d’Oro has a fine collection of artwork as well as a beautiful courtyard and gorgeous views out over the Grand Canal.
A little to the east is the breath-taking Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli. This stunning church is a 15th century white marble masterpiece with an intricately detailed roof featuring fifty portraits of prophets.
Afterwards, wander north to La Colonna, tucked away off a tiny square, for authentic and truly sublime Venetian food.
Though San Marco dominates most itineraries on this side of the Rialto, the sprawling district of Castello, which stretches all the way to the far eastern tip of the island, is filled with delights and character.
The charming Via Giuseppe Garibaldi is a delightful place to wander. This most typically Italian of streets is lined with small bars and restaurants where local Venetians sip on spritz and chow on cicchetti.
For a truly Venetian bite to eat, Osteria Al Portego is perfect for light bite or a sumptuous meal. Minuscule and often crowded, try and get a table beneath the old black and white photo of the Grand Canal.
Libreria Acqua Alta is an incredibly unique bookshop drowning in books. Thousands of books are piled high throughout the shop, many stored in boats and bathtubs whilst also acting as a bed for the pampered resident cats.
In the garden at the rear of the shop a staircase constructed entirely of books leads to a viewing platform over the canals.
The Museo delle Icone is a treasure trove of Greek Orthodox masterpieces, featuring dozens of icons painted in dazzling gold. The Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni is just as spectacular.
Built by and for the Dalmatian community in the 16th century this magnificent two storey building has a stunning interior and walls adorned with paintings depicting moments from the lives of three Dalmatian saints
On the northern edge of Castello is the Arsenale, the shipyards that for centuries built the boats that ruled European seas. The domineering Porta Magna and its four protecting lions is one of the finest sights in the city.
The magnificent gates, the adjacent watchtowers and imposing high walls around the Arsenal give a real sense of the huge importance that the seas and shipbuilding played in the history and development of Venice.
Today the Arsenal is still a working dockyard though on a much smaller scale. Much of the site is now used as exhibition space, particularly during the world famous Biennale.
The Ships Pavilion houses some of the finest vessels built in Venice, including the glorious Royal Barge, resplendently decorated in stunningly ornate detail in gold leaf, topped with golden statues.
The Giardini della Biennale is home to the pavilions that are allocated to specific nations to display artworks during the world famous Venice Biennale.
The Biennale has taken place in Venice for over 120 years, held in odd numbered years and attracts close to half a million visitors a year.
The gardens are a wonderfully relaxing place to pause and take a break. From this far eastern corner of the city the familiar sight of St Mark’s Tower is still visible in the far distance.
Cross over the bridge at the norther end of Via Giuseppe Garibaldi and wander the beautifully peacefully streets on the island of San Pietro di Castello. The small garden in front of the tiny island’s basilica is another lovely place to relax.
A quick boat trip out to see the more laid back outer islands is one of the best things to do in Venice.
Here’s what to see on the nearby islands of Murano, Burano and San Michele.
There’s plenty to be seen on the outlying islands surrounding Venice. Murano and Burano are the two most popular islands to visit. Murano is a short vaporetto ride away from the ferry terminals in Cannaregio.
Away from the small centre Murano is a quiet residential island, not too dissimilar to the calm and colourful streets found at the eastern end of Castello.
Famed for the spectacularly high quality hand crafted glass that’s produced on the island, Murano is still synonymous with the very finest glass producers in the world.
The centre of Murano is as beautiful as anywhere in Venice. Walking south along the Fondamenta San Lorenzo from the incredible Chiesa de Santa Maria e San Donato brings you to Murano’s busy centre.
Further north the island of Burano is a riot of technicolor. Almost every home in Burano is painted bold and bright to the point of luminosity.
Burano is primarily a residential island, though with plenty of places to for a bite to eat and a drink it is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. Also of note is the Church of San Martino and its leaning campanile.
The cemetery island of San Michele just off the coast from Cannaregio is a fascinating if slightly different place to visit. With burial on the main island declared unsanitary in the 19th century San Michelle was selected to be Venice’s graveyard.
Still in use to this day the cemetery is the final resting place for a number of celebrated patrons, including Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky.
Venice Marco Polo Airport is on the mainland of Italy to the north west of Venice with flights to and from most destinations in Europe.
Budget airlines also fly in to Treviso Airport, which is around 15 miles away from Venice.
The easiest and most spectacular way to arrive into Venice from Marco Polo airport is by boat on the water.
Alilaguna runs boats on three different routes into Venice from the airport. The Linea Arancio (the orange line) first stops at Cannaregio before stopping at various points along the Grand Canal.
Note that the orange line does not stop at Saint Mark’s Square, though its final stop is Santa Maria del Giglio, which is just a few minutes’ walk away from St Mark’s.
The Linea Rossa and Linea Blu (blue and red lines) call at Murano and Lido first and then the eastern end of Venice around Castello. Both of the red and the blue lines both stop at Saint Mark’s Square.
There are also buses to Venice which is the cheaper and quicker option. ATVO runs two buses an hour from the airport to the Piazzale Roma bus terminal in the west of Venice in around 20 minutes.
From here you can take a vaporetto on to your final destination, or continue on foot.
If you need even more ideas on how to see Venice like a local then here are a few guidebooks that we recommend:
Lonely Planet’s guidebooks continue to be the authority on destinations worldwide. This guide to Venice and its outer islands is no different, packed with maps, itinerary ideas and detailed information on every nook and cranny of the city.
If you’re looking to really enjoy Venice in style then Magical Venice will tell you exactly where you need to go. Featuring beautiful photographs that make the allure of Venice pop from the page, Magical Venice shows you how to enjoy some of the city’s best known sights as well as the some of the lesser known of Venice’s delights.
Jan Morris’ seminal book remains one of the greatest works ever in the genre of travel literature. Morris’ unrivalled memoir of Venice, first published in 1960, is an incredibly engaging insight that beautifully observes how the people of Venice live in such a unique, historic and fascinating city. A certified classic, it’s almost the official biography of the city.
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