A gondola glides swiftly down a narrow, glassy canal, passing by weathered marble palaces and drifting beneath arched stone bridges. It’s dusk, and the city has cooled and quieted down. Music from a string quartet drifts through the air, amidst the sounds of laughter, conversation, and clinking glasses.
Can you picture it? Are you imagining yourself there? Or, have you lived it? If you’ve been to Venice before you’ve probably experienced an evening like this. But the truth about Venice is that the magic never wears off. It’s a maze-like city with a romantic, mysterious aura that delivers new surprises and experiences with each encounter.
We certainly never tire of Venice. Most of our voyages to Venice embark, debark, or both, in the city. Savvy, wise travelers (that’s you) spend a couple of extra days in Venice before or after a cruise. After all, who can resist the magic?
We’re here to help you make the most of your time in Venice, whether it’s your first visit, fifth, or fortieth. It’s easier than ever to extend your vacation before or after an Azamara cruise with our City Stays packages.
There are so many beautiful sights to see, historic places to visit, and incredible foods to eat in Venice. But to show up to this city with a packed itinerary would be a mistake. Getting lost is part of the city’s allure. In this article, we’ll help you nail that balancing act with suggestions on things to do in Venice. Our suggestions will reintroduce you to old favorites and take you to new corners of one of the most enchanting places on earth. Are you ready to explore Venice with us? Let’s go!
1. See the main sights at Piazza San Marco.
Piazza San Marco is Venice’s main square and tends to be brimming with visitors during the day. Explore the area in the early morning or evening to best avoid crowds.
Basilica San Marco & The Campanile
Venice’s official cathedral is famous for its shimmering, golden mosaics and five Byzantine domes. Entry to the main basilica is free, while entry to the connected Treasury, Pala d’Oro (altar), and Museum have small admission fees. Hours of entry for the Basilica vary seasonally.
Be sure to dress conservatively to visit the basilica, and don’t bring luggage or large bags with you. Excluding time spent in queues, plan to spend between one and two hours in the basilica, depending on your interest level.
A trip to the top of the nearby Campanile (bell tower) will deliver breathtaking views of Venice, so keep your camera handy. You won’t even need to climb the stairs – an elevator will whisk you up to the top of the 323-foot tower.
Before becoming the official cathedral of Venice in 1807, Basilica San Marco was the private chapel of the city’s Doge (ruler). The Doge’s Palace, now a museum, sits next door to the Basilica and well worth a visit. The ornate Gothic palace was once the seat of Venetian government and home to the city’s ruler. Highlights include the Golden Staircase, the Council Room, and the Senate Hall.
History buff? Book the “Secret Itineraries Tour” ahead of time to get access to smaller, otherwise off-limits rooms.
Directly across the piazza from Basilica San Marco is the Museo Correr. The former palace now houses art and artifacts that exemplify the grand history of Venice.
2. Relish the vibrant flavors of Venetian cuisine.
Like every Italian city, Venice is heaven on earth for foodies. Indulge as much as you can when you visit.
Venetian cuisine has a centuries-long history and is unique from other Northern Italian fare. Polenta and risotto are common, and seafood is fundamental. Shrimp, anchovies, cuttlefish, and sardines are particularly popular. Prosecco is produced in the larger Veneto region, so take every opportunity to toast with a glass of bubbly. Or, enjoy it as a Spritz! Venice’s official cocktail is made with prosecco, Aperol, a splash of soda water, and an orange garnish.
When you visit Venice before or after an Azamara cruise with our City Stays packages, you can enjoy a cooking class with a local chef. You’ll even be cooking with ingredients you purchased at a Venetian market that day! Preparing meals using fresh, seasonal ingredients is at the core of all Italian culinary traditions.
Dining out while you’re in Venice? Here are five seafood dishes you simply have to try.
Scampi alla Veneziana
This simple dish of shrimp served in a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice is best ordered in late spring or early summer when shrimp is in season.
Risotto al Nero di Seppia
This risotto dish is jet-black thanks to squid ink, a traditional Venetian ingredient. Squid ink pasta (pictured below) is also a popular menu item.
Caparossoi a Scota Deo
“Scota Deo” means “hot fingers”–because this dish of clams cooked with lemon and pepper is so tasty, you’ll reach for them while they’re still hot. It’s best ordered when clams are in season from May through August.
These small green crabs are only available in the spring, when the crustaceans shed their shells. They’re often served fried.
Bigoli in Salsa
This pasta dish is made with onions and anchovies. Think you don’t like anchovies? Keep an open mind until you’ve had fresh Italian anchovies, simmered until they become a savory, salty, sauce.
3. Ramble around the quieter sides of Venice.
There’s so much more to Venice than Piazza San Marco. Wandering the small city’s lesser-known Sestieri (neighborhoods) without a destination in mind should be a part of your itinerary.
Castello is centrally located, not far from Piazza San Marco, but quiet. It’s the perfect place to do a little window-shopping, as the streets are lined with butchers, bookshops, bakeries, and other quaint local businesses. Along the neighborhood’s canals, merchants sell wares from their gondolas. Look up, and you’ll probably see laundry crisscrossing the street, hung out to dry. Beautiful, weathered historic churches and lush gardens make Castello one of the most enticing neighborhoods in Venice.
Take your time enjoying Castello’s laid-back atmosphere and grab dinner or a drink in the area. Here are a few spots you could try:
- The Bat Bar at Hotel Ai Cavalieri di Venezia has a romantic atmosphere that’s perfect for couples.
- Osteria all’Alba is a local hangout that features lively music and a relaxed vibe.
- Frulala is beloved for its friendly service, fresh fruit drinks, and outdoor seating. It’s a great spot for people-watching.
Hop across the Grand Canal from San Marco – by bridge or by boat – and you’ll find Dorsoduro. This neighborhood is home to Ca' Foscari University of Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Dorsoduro has a youthful energy and artistic flair that distinguishes it from the rest of Venice.
You can easily spend an entire day and evening simply wandering Dorsoduro. Stroll past the church of Santa Maria della Saluta, buy some fresh produce from a bobbing gondola for a picnic lunch, and pop in and out of the neighborhood’s quirky shops. The further you wander from the Grand Canal, the more tranquil the neighborhood’s atmosphere (and your mood) will become.
While you’re shopping, pop into Ca’ Macana Atelier. This mainstay of Dorsoduro has been crafting beautiful Venetian Carnavale masks since 1984. The shop’s claim to fame is producing the masks for the film Eyes Wide Shut, but they’re nearly as famous for their mask-making workshops. Take a class, pick up a souvenir, or simply browse – but don’t miss such a quintessential Venice experience.
Dorsoduro’s distinctly homey, off the beaten track feel makes it a great place to enjoy dinner. Dine like a local at a bacari, a bar that serves ciccheti (snacks, like Italy’s answer to tapas). Check out Cantina dal Vino Già Schiavi (more commonly called Al Bottegon) for a stellar wine selection and lively environment.
After dinner, grab a cocktail at a café in the neighborhood’s lively central square, Campo Santa Margherita. Grab a seat and relax at Orange Bar, Red Bar, Blue Bar, and Noir Bar – you can’t go wrong with any of the colorful options.
The famous Ponte di Rialto connects this Venice neighborhood to San Marco. And like Dorsoduro, it’s busiest along the Grand Canal and quiets as you work your way into the labyrinth of alleys and canals.
The shops lining Ponte di Rialto might be touristy, but you can’t beat the views of the picturesque bridge. It was constructed in 1592 and took three years to complete. Engineer Antonio da Ponte’s hard work shows as the stone reliefs that adorn the bridge are simply stunning.
San Polo is Venice’s oldest neighborhood, and you’ll pass several historic churches as you wander its streets. Many of them, like the Church of San Giacomo di Rialto, the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, and the Church of San Rocco, are home to great works of art and frescoes.
Foodies shouldn’t miss the famous Rialto Market, which operates daily from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
4. Wander Venice’s winding waterways.
Venice is a floating city, comprised of a network of 118 tiny islands separated by canals. Traveling the city by boat is both practical and pleasurable and there are multiple ways to do it.
A romantic gondola ride is one of those bucket list travel experiences, an activity that you can’t leave Venice without partaking in. These flat-bottomed, narrow rowing boats have been the most common type of watercraft in Venice for centuries. Building them and operating them are considered practically an art form. When you extend your time in Venice with our City Stays packages, you can receive a private lesson from a Venetian gondolier during your vacation!
Sunset is the most popular (and thus, most expensive) time to take a ride, but don’t rule out late evening either. Venice is perhaps even more magical in the moonlight.
Everything is better in Venice, including public transportation. Vaporettos are the city’s waterbuses, but taking one is a decidedly more enjoyable experience than, say, riding in a stuffy subway car. The No. 1 Vaporetto route is most famous for its scenery, as it traverses the Grand Canal. You can catch it at Piazzale Roma and disembark in any of Venice’s neighborhoods.
Gliding down Venice’s canals in a gondola is romantic. Zipping through them in a motorboat, though? That’s downright glamorous. Channel your inner Amal and George Clooney and explore Venice on a luxury boat during your vacation.
Our Venice City Stays package includes a sunset motorboat tour of the Venice Lagoon. You’ll sip champagne and take in views of the Venice skyline, alit in the soft glow of dusk. Even if you’ve seen Venice a thousand times before, you’ll love seeing it like this.
5. Explore the outer islands.
Several larger islands are scattered around Venice’s lagoon, each with its own unique rhythm and personality. Here’s a quick guide to six Venetian islands that should be on your itinerary.
Giudecca is part of the Dorsoduro sestiere, and only a three-minute vaporetto ride from Piazza San Marco. Its proximity means it delivers stellar views of Basilica San Marco and Doge’s Palace, but the slight distance from the main tourist sights means it feels a world away from the rest of Venice. Visit the Il Redentore church while you’re on Giudecca. Each year, a pilgrimage to the church is made as part of Venice’s historic Festa del Redentore. You can learn more about that festival here.
There are some excellent restaurants on this small, narrow island. For delicious seafood and a homey atmosphere, dine at Trattoria Altanella. The same family has run the restaurant since the 1920s.
This lush, green island is often called “the orchard of Venice”, and visiting is a must for foodies. The fresh seasonal produce being sold via boat at the Rialto Market usually comes from Sant’Erasmo. A day spent touring the farms and vineyards of this island will be both relaxing and invigorating.
Lido is known for two things: beaches and the Venice Film Festival. The film festival occurs in late summer and brings red carpet glamor to the island. During high season, Lido’s beaches and promenade are bustling with tourists. But throughout the rest of the year, the island has the quaint charm of a quiet fishing village.
Murano is located about a mile away from Venice, and at first glance is very similar to its more famous neighbor. It’s a series of small islands connected by footbridges, its streets similarly lined with crumbling pastel buildings. Murano is known worldwide as the source of the beautiful Venetian glass you’ll see in restaurants and hotels throughout the area—artisans have been producing it on the island since the 13th century. When you go, bring your wallet. It will be hard to resist coming home without your own glass souvenir.
Murano has its glass, and Burano has its lace. Burano is less populous than Murano and further from Venice, lending to a sleepier atmosphere. The island has a rich history of producing intricate, beautiful lace. You can learn about the craft at the island’s lace museum. If you’d like to purchase Burano lace during a visit, keep a sharp eye out for fakes—much of the lace sold on the island these days has been imported from elsewhere.
Torcello is the furthest of these islands from the heart of Venice, and thus the most “off the beaten track”. There are only about 20 permanent residents on this island, despite its history as the birthplace of Venice. Today it’s more of a haven for history buffs, thanks to stunning Byzantine mosaics at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta the archaeological museum next door. The island is also home to the renowned Locanda Cipriani. The Inn and Bar is owned by the Cipriani family, proprietors of the most famous bar in Venice, Harry’s Bar. Since it opened in 1935, Locanda Cipriani has hosted many a celebrity in its day, including Ernest Hemingway, Princess Diana, and Angelina Jolie.
Experience Venice and the Mediterranean with Azamara
It’s hard to top a vacation in Venice. But we’re up for the challenge. Spending a few days in Venice will be one of the many highlights of a Mediterranean cruise onboard one of our ships. Where else will we take you? Browse all our upcoming voyages calling on Venice. Here’s one final secret: you can’t go wrong with any of the itineraries.
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