The first-time visitor to Venice arrives full of expectations, most of which turn out to be well-founded. All the photographs you’ve seen of the Palazzo Ducale, of the Basilica di San Marco, of the palaces along the Canal Grande – they’ve simply been recording the extraordinary truth. All the bad things you’ve heard about the city turn out to be right as well. As soon as you begin to explore Venice, though, every day will bring surprises, for this is an urban landscape so full of things to do that you can’t walk for a minute without coming across something worth a stop.
From Mudbanks to Modern ChallengesAlthough the city can indeed be unbearably crowded, things aren’t so bad beyond the magnetic field of San Marco, and in the off-season, it’s possible to have parts of the centre virtually to yourself. As for keeping your costs down, Venice does have some good-value eating places, and you can, with planning, find a bed without spending a fortune.
Steeped in history and renowned for its unique beauty, Venice's journey from its humble beginnings on the mudbanks of the Venetian lagoon to its current struggles with industrialization and tourism reflects a complex tapestry of growth, decline, and adaptation.
Venice's Origins and Early IndependenceAt the dawn of the Christian era, fishermen and hunters inhabited the Venetian lagoon's mudbanks. The arrival of Attila the Hun's forces in 453 and the Lombard invasion in 568 triggered significant migrations. Initially aligned with Byzantium, the islands formed loose communes, with the settlers appointing their first doge in 726, marking a shift from Byzantine control.
Venice's independence was solidified when the relics of St. Mark were stolen from Alexandria in 828, symbolizing a break from Byzantium's influence. The Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale became enduring emblems of Venetian power.
Venetian Ascendancy and Modern ChallengesBy the 10th century, Venetian trade networks flourished, benefiting from Byzantine concessions in Eastern markets. The 12th-century Fourth Crusade further boosted Venetian maritime dominance.
The 1204 Sack of Constantinople resulted in significant territorial gains and treasures. However, Venice's decline started after the 1527 Sack of Rome, while Ottoman expansion eroded its overseas territories. Napoleon's influence marked the end of Venice's political significance in 1797.
Industrial growth after World War I led to the development of Marghera, which connected to Venice in 1933. Post-World War II, Mestre-Marghera's expansion outpaced the historic centre's growth. Despite challenges like pollution and population drain, Mestre-Marghera's factories are vital to the province's economy. Yet, Venice's historic centre faced a significant population decline.
The city's reliance on tourism has become both a boon and a bane, sustaining it while posing threats to its heritage. Today, Venice navigates industrial expansion, tourism, and the preservation of its unique history amid the challenges of the modern era.
Venice in floodCalled the acqua alta, the winter flooding of Venice is caused by a combination of seasonal tides, fluctuations in atmospheric pressure in the Adriatic and persistent southeasterly winds, and has always been a feature of Venetian life. In recent years, however, it has been getting worse: between 2000 and 2013 there were eight highest-category floods, which is more than in the preceding fifty years.
If the siren sounds, you can expect a serious flood in three to four hours. A system of plank walkways is immediately set up in the low-lying parts of the city. The usual high-tide season is October to March, with the worst flooding between November and February. Most floods, though, are minor and not disruptive at all.
A grand plan is being implemented to protect the city, involving building a tidal barrier across the three entrances to the lagoon. The barrier has aroused considerable opposition, both to its cost and its potential environmental impact.
However, mounting concern about global warming gave the matter some urgency and work finally began on the barrier in 2003. Delays, corruption and engineering problems have dogged the project and few Venetians think it’ll be functioning ever.
- Plan ahead and during off-peak seasons: Venice is a popular tourist destination, so it is important to plan your visit. To avoid crowds and enjoy a more authentic experience, it is better to visit Venice during off-peak seasons (late autumn to early spring).
- Book accommodation in advance: Venice's accommodations fill up quickly, so book a hotel or Airbnb in advance. It's convenient to stay near major attractions like Piazza San Marco, but you can also stay in quieter neighbourhoods to feel more local.
- Get a Venice Card or Venice Pass: Consider purchasing a Venice Card or Venice Tourist Pass, which provides discounts on public transport, museums and other attractions. The Venice Card also includes unlimited use of the vaporetto (water bus) system, which is an indispensable method of travelling around the city.
- Visit the main attractions in the morning: Popular sights such as St Mark's Basilica and Doge's Palace can be very crowded. To avoid crowds, it's best to visit them early in the morning or late in the evening. Booking tickets in advance or attending a guided tour will also help you avoid queues.
- Respect local etiquette: Venice is a vibrant city with a rich history and culture. Observe local customs and etiquette, such as covering your shoulders and knees when entering churches, not sitting on the steps of monuments and ignoring noise levels in residential neighbourhoods.
- Respect the environment: Venice faces environmental problems such as over-tourism and rising sea levels. Be responsible travellers: minimise plastic waste, avoid excessive noise and be mindful of the fragile ecosystem.
The best travel tips for visiting Venice
Best things to do in VeniceVenice offers a wealth of experiences, but here are 10 of the best things to do that truly capture the essence of this enchanting city:
#1 Admire the Basilica di San MarcoSan Marco is the most exotic of Europe’s cathedrals, and it has always provoked strong reactions. To Herman Melville, it was beautiful and insubstantial – as though “the Grand Turk had pitched his pavilion here for a summer’s day”. Mark Twain adored it for its “entrancing, tranquillizing, soul-satisfying ugliness”.
Herbert Spencer found it “a fine sample of barbaric architecture”; and to John Ruskin, it was the most gorgeous of holy places, a “treasure-heap…a confusion of delight”.
The Basilica di San Marco is certainly confusing, increasingly so as you come nearer and the details emerge, but some knowledge of the building’s background helps bring a little order out of the chaos.
#2 Embrace the art in Scuola di San Giorgio degli SchiavoniVenice has two brilliant cycles of pictures by Vittore Carpaccio – one is in the Accademia, and the other is in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, which sits beside a canal to the south of San Francesco.
By the mid-fifteenth century, though, Venice’s Slavic inhabitants were sufficiently established for a scuola to be set up to protect their interests. After several years of meeting in the church of San Giovanni di Malta, the scuola built itself a new headquarters on the church’s doorstep at the start of the sixteenth century and summoned Carpaccio to brighten up the first-storey hall.
Painted from 1502 to 1508, after the Accademia’s St Ursula cycle, Carpaccio’s pictures were moved downstairs when the building was rearranged in 1551, and the interior has scarcely changed since.
#3 Stroll through the lively Rialto marketIt was through the markets of the Rialto that Venice earned its reputation as the bazaar of Europe. Virtually anything could be bought or sold here: fabrics, precious stones, silver plate and gold jewellery, spices and dyes from the Orient. Trading had been going on here for over four hundred years when, in the winter of 1514, a fire destroyed everything in the area except the church.
The possibility of relocating the business centre was discussed but found little favour, so reconstruction began almost straight away: the Fabbriche Vecchie was finished eight years after the fire, and Sansovino’s Fabbriche Nuove followed about thirty years later.
Today’s Rialto market is much more modest than that of Venice at its peak, but it’s still one of the liveliest spots in the city and one of the few places where it’s possible to stand in a crowd and hear nothing but Italian-spoken.
#4 Take a tour of San Giorgio MaggiorePalladio’s church of San Giorgio Maggiore, facing the Palazzo Ducale across the Bacino di San Marco is one of the most prominent and familiar of all Venetian landmarks. It is a startling building, with an impact that’s enhanced by its isolation on an island of its own.
Ruskin didn’t much care for it: “It is impossible to conceive a design grosser, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard.”
Goethe, on the other hand, was sick of the Gothic art that was to Ruskin the touchstone of spiritual health and gave thanks to Palladio for purging his mind of medieval clutter.
#5 Enjoy the spectacle of the Regata StoricaHeld on the first Sunday in September, the Regata Storica is the annual trial of strength and skill for the city’s gondoliers and other expert rowers. It starts with a procession of historic craft along the Canal Grande course, their crews all decked out in a period dress, followed by a series of races right up the canal.
Re-enacting the return of Caterina Cornaro to her native city in 1489, the opening parade is a spectacular affair and is followed by a race for young rowers in two-oared pupparini. The women come next (in boats called mascarete), followed by a race for canoe-like caorline; and then it’s the men’s race, in specialized two-man racing gondolas called gondolini.
#6 Go on a day trip to Torcello“Mother and daughter, you behold them both in their widowhood – Torcello and Venice.” So wrote John Ruskin, and it’s almost impossible to visit Torcello without similarly sensing an atmosphere of bereavement. This outlying island has now come almost full circle.
Settled by the very first refugees from the mainland in the fifth century, it became the seat of the bishop of Altinum in 638 and in the following year its cathedral – the oldest building in the lagoon – was founded.
By the fourteenth century, its population had peaked at around twenty thousand, but Torcello’s canals were now silting up and malaria was rife. By the end of the fifteenth century, Torcello was largely deserted – even the bishop lived in Murano – and today fewer than a dozen people remain in residence.
Read more about the best day trips from Venice.
#7 Explore Burano and Murano islandsTake a fascinating day trip to the Venetian islands of Burano and Murano, each with a special charm that complements the glamour of Venice.
A short vaporetto ride from the main island takes you to the vibrant realm of Burano, known for its rainbow-coloured houses and intricate lacework. Wander through narrow streets decorated with colourful linens and observe the artistry of local lacemakers, whose tradition dates back several centuries. The island's serene canals and warm, welcoming atmosphere make it the perfect place for a leisurely lunch by the water's edge.
Then head to the island of Murano, considered the birthplace of Venetian glassmaking. Explore its rich history and modern innovations by visiting the glass factories, where master craftsmen skilfully mould molten glass into intricate shapes. Discover a fascinating variety of glassware, from exquisite jewellery to ornate chandeliers. See ancient techniques passed down through generations and learn about this age-old craft.
#8 Attend Venice BiennaleIf you have a keen interest in contemporary art and international culture, timing your visit to coincide with the Venice Biennale can be a fantastic idea. The Venice Biennale, Europe’s most glamorous international forum for contemporary art, was first held in 1895 as the city’s contribution to the celebrations for the silver wedding anniversary of King Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy.
The main site is by the Giardini Pubblici, with permanent pavilions for about forty countries plus space for a thematic international exhibition. This core part of the Biennale is supplemented by exhibitions in parts of the Arsenale that are otherwise closed to the public, such as the colossal Corderie or Tana and the Artiglierie.
In addition, various palaces and other sites throughout the city are used as national pavilions and as venues for fringe exhibitions, installations and performances.
#9 Make a pilgrimage to Santa Maria della SaluteIn 1630–31 Venice was devastated by a plague that exterminated nearly 95,000 of the lagoon’s population – one person in three. In October 1630 the Senate decreed that a new church would be dedicated to the Virgin Mary if the city were saved. The result was the Salute – salute meaning “health” and “salvation” – or Santa Maria della Salute, to use its full title.
Resting on a platform of more than 100,000 wooden piles, the Salute took half a century to build; its architect, Baldassare Longhena, was only 26 years old when his proposal was accepted. He lived just long enough to see it finished – he died in 1682, one year after completion.
Each year on November 21 (the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin) the Signoria is processed from San Marco to the Salute for a service of thanksgiving. The Festa della Madonna della Salute is still a major event in the Venetian calendar, with thousands of people making their way here to pray for or give thanks for good health.
#10 Discover the hidden gem of Palazzo Contarini del BovoloLocated in a charming labyrinth of Venetian alleyways, Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is an amazing hidden gem waiting to be discovered. This architectural gem, often unnoticed by the crowd, charms those who dare to discover it. The main feature of the palace is the "Scala Contarini del Bovolo", a spiral staircase that rises gracefully upwards and is decorated with elegant arches that create a complex play of light and shadow.
As you ascend this spiral staircase, you are transported to another era where the artistic vision of the Contarini family is brought to life with breathtaking detail. As you climb up, the panorama of red-tiled roofs and Venetian vistas opens up, giving you a glimpse of a timeless city.
Food and drink in VeniceVenice specializes in fish and seafood, together with exotic ingredients like pomegranates, pine nuts and raisins, harking back to its days as a port and merchant city. The surrounding Veneto vies with Lombardy for the risotto-making crown.
The end product tends to be more liquid than those to the west, usually with a seafood base although peas (bisi in the local dialect) are also common, as are other seasonal vegetables including spinach, asparagus and pumpkin.
The red salad-leaf radicchio also has its home in the Veneto, as does the renowned Italian dessert, tiramisù. Polenta is eaten, too, while pork in all forms features strongly, together with heavy soups of beans, rice and root vegetables.
Pastries and sweets are also an area of Venetian expertise. Look out for the thin oval biscuits called baicoli, the ring-shaped cinnamon-flavoured bussolai (a speciality of the Venetian island of Burano) and mandorlato, a cross between nougat and toffee, made with almonds.
The Veneto has been very successful at developing wines with French and German grape varieties, notably Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer.
The quintessentially Italian Bardolino, Valpolicella and Soave are all from the Verona area, while the increasingly popular prosecco is produced in vineyards around Conegliano. Grappa, the local firewater, is associated particularly with the upland town of Bassano di Grappa, where every alimentari stocks a dozen varieties. Made from grape husks, juniper berries or plums, grappa is very much an acquired taste.
Best areas to stay in VeniceInsatiable demand makes Venice’s hotels the most expensive in Western Europe. What’s more, the high season here is longer than anywhere else in the country, but many places don’t recognize the existence of a low season any more.
There are, though, a few good-value hotels to be found in the city, and an ever-increasing number of bed and breakfast places, as well as a plethora of apartments for rent.
San MarcoIf you want to spend time surrounded by luxury, San Marco is the most suitable neighbourhood to do so. San Marco is the heart of Venice, home to the famous St Mark's Square, the magnificent St Mark's Basilica and the majestic Doge's Palace.
This neighbourhood offers exclusive shopping opportunities, high-end restaurants and breathtaking views of the canals. Treat yourself to luxurious accommodation options, including five-star hotels that offer stunning views of the city's landmarks. However, be prepared for higher prices as San Marco is a premium neighbourhood.
DorsoduroDorsoduro is a neighbourhood worth staying in Venice for its artistic heritage and lively cultural life. Home to the prestigious Accademia Gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, this neighbourhood attracts art lovers from all over the world.
Dorsoduro is also home to the University of Ca' Foscari, giving the neighbourhood a lively and youthful energy.
San Polo and Santa CroceIf you are looking for a place to stay in Venice to experience local Venetian life, the ideal neighbourhoods are San Polo and Santa Croce. These neighbourhoods exude genuine charm with their narrow streets, small squares and bustling markets.
Also, a must-see in these neighbourhoods are the Rialto Bridge, the lively Rialto Market and the historic church of San Giacomo di Rialto. Accommodation options, from cosy guesthouses to charming boutique hotels, provide an authentic Venetian experience.
CannaregioThe Cannaregio neighbourhood may not have any major attractions, but it is a place to stay to experience the atmosphere of Venice. Cannaregio is a less crowded residential neighbourhood that offers a more local and authentic experience. It is known for its picturesque canals, historic synagogues and lively Jewish ghetto.
Central CastelloCastello, located east of San Marco, is Venice's largest and most traditional neighbourhood. With winding streets, small squares and local shops, this neighbourhood has a more relaxed atmosphere.
Castello is home to the impressive Arsenale and the Biennale Gardens, where the prestigious Venice Biennale art exhibition takes place. Castello offers a wide range of accommodation options, from budget guesthouses to elegant boutique hotels.
Browse the best hotels in Venice.
Best time to visit VeniceChoosing the right time to visit Venice can greatly influence the experience one gains from this enchanting city. Spring (April, May and June) and early autumn (September to October) are often considered the best seasons to explore Venice.
During these periods, the weather is pleasantly mild, and the city is less crowded than in the peak summer months (July and August). Strolling through the labyrinthine streets, gliding along the serene canals, and marvelling at the architecture under the warm sunlight becomes an immersive experience.
The winter months (November and January) can be cold. Venice's renowned events like the Carnival in February and the Venice Biennale in odd-numbered years draw a diverse array of international visitors, adding a unique cultural dimension to the visit. December is usually busy with locals but a fun time to visit.
Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.
How to get aroundThe topography of Venice is uniquely complicated and at first glance, its public transport looks as convoluted as a wiring diagram. But the network is nowhere near as daunting as it first appears. There are clear main routes through the warren of Venice’s alleyways, and you’ll need to get to grips with only a few of the water-bus routes.
Venice has two interlocking street systems – the canals and the pavements. Taking a water bus is usually the quickest way of getting between far-flung points, but in many cases, the speediest way of getting from A to B is on foot.
You don’t have to break a sweat, for instance, to cover the distance from the Piazza to the Rialto Bridge quicker than the #1 boat, nor indeed to beat it in a race from the Piazza to the train station, which takes the #1 fifty minutes.
And once you’ve got your general bearings you’ll find that navigation is not as daunting as it seems at first: the main thoroughfares in each district are fairly obvious. Signs are posted high up on street corners all over central Venice indicating the main routes to San Marco, Ferrovia (train station), Piazzale Roma and Rialto.
How many days do you need in Venice?The ideal number of days to spend in Venice depends on your interests, the pace of your trip and what you want to see. Here are general guidelines to help you plan your visit:
If your schedule is tight, you can manage to experience the main attractions of Venice in one or two days. Focus on the main sights such as St Mark's Square, St Mark's Basilica, Doge's Palace, take a gondola ride and perhaps stroll the streets. However, this will not allow you to explore more than the iconic sites.
3-4 days will give you a better chance of experiencing the essence of Venice. You'll be able to see the main sights, take a day trip to nearby islands such as Burano and Murano, and in your free time wander off the beaten track, discover local restaurants and soak up the unique atmosphere.
If you have more time, you can truly immerse yourself in the culture and lifestyle of Venice. In addition to the above, you can visit less crowded areas, art galleries and museums, attend cultural events or festivals, and take day trips to neighbouring cities such as Padua or Verona.
How to get hereBefore you can lose yourself in its winding waterways and historic charm, you'll need to figure out the best way to get there. Whether you're flying in from across the globe or making your way from a nearby European city, various options are available to suit every budget and travel style.
- Flights from the UK and Ireland: Direct flights take around two hours from London. EasyJet flies between two and four times daily, while its chief rival, Ryanair, has one or two flights each day from London and less frequent services to Treviso from Bristol, East Midlands, Manchester and Edinburgh. Aer Lingus (Dublin) flies to Marco Polo up to five times per week, while Ryanair flies three or four times a week to Treviso in high season.
- Flights from the US and Canada: The only direct service to Venice from the US is with Delta, who fly from New York to Marco Polo up to six times a week in summer. Air Canada has direct flights from Montréal to Venice, and various indirect flights from Toronto and Montréal, usually via Frankfurt or New York.
By trainThe choice of rail routes and fares is hugely complex, but the cheapest route is to take the Eurostar from London to Paris, then change to the high-speed TGV from Paris to Milan, and change there for the “Frecciarossa” to Florence. The total journey time is 14–18 hours, and with some online research, you can put together a one-way ticket for a little over the cost of a return flight, though peak prices are considerably higher.
If you take a couchette, using the “Thello” sleeper for the stage from Paris to Milan doesn’t add much to the cost. Booking for these continental routes usually opens three months before the day of travel. Discounts for under-26s are sometimes available and advance booking is essential. If you’re planning to include Italy as part of a longer European trip you could choose to invest in an InterRail pass.
Find out the best ways to get to Italy.