Nothing prepared me for my first sight of Venice. I stood on the deck of the vaporetto, the public ferry in Venice, with my luggage at my feet, mouth agog. As we puttered into the Grand Canal, the main waterway was alive with activity and I found plenty of things to do in Venice to fill my bucket list.
The islands of Torcello, Murano and Burano also offer hidden charms and plenty of things to do in Venice away from the main sights.
At the height of power, this mysterious city with a dazzling past and an uncertain future controlled the West’s trade with the East and was the door to its fabulous and exotic wealth.
The setting for Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Venice has put writers, poets and filmmakers under its romantic spell.
- 12 Amazing Things to do in Venice
- 1- Ride a gondola around the canals
- 2- Find a view of the Grand Canal
- 3- Walk the streets of Venice
- 4- Go shopping for masks
- 5- Explore Piazza St Marco
- 6- Visit the Doge’s Palace
- 7- Get lost in the backstreets
- 8- See the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
- 9- Watch a Murano glassmaking demonstration
- 10- Visit the lace shops in Burano
- 12- Attend Carnevale Venice
- Where to stay in Venice
12 Amazing Things to do in Venice
1- Ride a gondola around the canals
Gondolas glide smoothly over the shimmering water next to the private water taxis that cruise up and down the canal looking for tourists willing to pay their exorbitant fare.
A goods boat pulls up alongside the dock of one of the canal-side hotels and the driver unloads some daily supplies.
Boxes of fresh eggplant, fresh limes, juicy plums, yellow capsicums and bright red tomatoes are placed in crates on the dock.
From the water on a vaporetto or gondola, the houses, palaces and romantic bridges that line Venice’s canals seem to rise out of mist and fog like apparitions floating on a cloud of water.
The cold misty fog seems in keeping with Venice’s elegant decaying palaces, romantic bridges and maze of narrow twisting alleyways variously known as calle, salizzade and ruge.
Looking for more things to do in Italy? What about visiting beautiful Lake Como, where you might bump into George Clooney.
2- Find a view of the Grand Canal
At the Foscari Palace Hotel, which was once a sumptuous Venetian palace, I could easily pretend to myself that I’m a visiting noble staying at the mansion of a wealthy Venetian cousin.
Tall ceilings, velvet drapes and French doors with patterned glass panels create a feeling of opulence.
I throw open the French doors of my suite and the activities on the Grand Canal are a picturesque scene below.
Opposite the hotel, money changes hands as shoppers laden with fresh produce from the markets queue up for the short ride across the canal in one of the plain wooden gondolas.
While in Italy, another historic city to visit is Turin. Here are some things to do in Turin.
3- Walk the streets of Venice
All afternoon, I walk the streets of Venice finding a new delight behind every corner.
The aroma of Italian herbs and spices waft from the many cafes as people tuck into gelato and pasta.
There’s plenty of good food to eat in Venice and you can avoid paying high prices for a delicious meal if you look for restaurants and cafes away from the busy tourist spots. There are some excellent recommendations in this guide to finding good food in Venice.
A cavalcade of gondolas stream by, some with couples enjoying a romantic ride and others packed with tour groups snapping away at the moving scenery.
There are stands selling colourful masks and trinkets, shops with pretty glassware, fine silk-ties, delicious cookies and local wine.
I want to browse through every shop and buy as many trinkets as I could carry.
Gondoliers sit by the side of the canal, basking in the sun while masked buskers in gaudy Venetian carnival outfits entertained tourists along the sidewalk.
4- Go shopping for masks
At one stall, right in the middle of a courtyard, the romance of Venice overcomes one visitor.
Putting on a colourful carnival mask, he falls to his knees and proposed to his girlfriend.
The windows of these shops are filled with elaborately decorated paper mache and leather masks of all colours, shapes and sizes.
Masks have always been a central feature of the carnival since 1268. The masks of Carnevale personify Venice, a fantasy city whose real life is hidden behind a tourist veneer and hardly ever revealed to strangers.
To keep up with the demand, mask makers (mascherari) working in artisan’s studios called laborotorio, toil year-round to produce elaborate handpainted fantasies decorated with gesso, gold leaf, natural feathers and gems.
You can see them working in their studio-shops in the neighbourhoods of San Palo and Dorsoduro.
Traditionally masks were used to hide the wearer’s identity and social status, so Carnevale was a time for fun, but also obscurity.
As no-one can recognise you beneath your mask, it was an opportunity for illicit dalliances and the breaking down of social barriers.
5- Explore Piazza St Marco
The classic beauty of Piazza St Marco’s is spoiled by the myriads of t-shirt and souvenir sellers.
Masses of pigeons flap around the tourists, landing on their arms and heads.
One woman screams and jumps around flapping her own arms in fright while a small boy next to her stands as still as a statue with his arms raised towards the sky.
While visiting the piazza, make sure to marvel at the beauty of the 11th-century Italo-Byzantine architecture of St Mark’s Basilica.
6- Visit the Doge’s Palace
Combine a guided tour of St. Mark’s Square and the Doge Palace, two of the city’s most well-known attractions,
The Doge’s Palace was the residence of the leader of the Republic of Venice.
Inside, see the Chamber of the Great Council, courtrooms, living quarters, secret rooms and exquisite frescoes. There’s also an impressive armoury room.
The Bridge of Sighs links the New Prisons to the Doge’s Palace.
7- Get lost in the backstreets
As I continued to walk, I find myself away from the main tourist area in the back streets of Venice where the charming shops were replaced by moss-covered walls and musty odours of Venice’s back canals.s
Wrinkly apron-clad grandmothers peered out of paint-peeled windows and rows of washing flap from the windows above my head.
The sun begins to disappear behind the buildings and darkness slowly descends upon these narrow lanes.
My heart beats a little faster as I realise that I’m lost.
I walk for hours until I somehow found myself back on the main canal.
If you don’t want to get lost, here are some Venice tours to help you find your way around.
8- See the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal is a collection of modern at worth seeing.
The collection is varied, from Picasso to Pollock and a range of styles including Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
Located in Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace works in the museum represent artists from Italy and around the world.
9- Watch a Murano glassmaking demonstration
Glassmaking is Venice’s second-biggest industry after tourism and the best glass originates from the island of Murano.
I’m astonished by the talent of the glassmakers who demonstrated their craft.
In a few deft movements, one artisan magically creates a delicately sculptured horse out of a shapeless lump of hot glass.
Venice’s glassmaking history is believed to date back before the first millennium.
By 1291, due to the many fires caused by the glass houses’ constant need for high heat, the Council of the Venetian Republic moved all glass houses to Murano.
The tradition has continued up until today where some of the worlds finest glass products still originate from this small island.
The Signoretti le Bricole factory is a favourite of actor Nicolas Cage and is best known for its chandeliers that hang in lobbies of grand buildings all around the world.
10- Visit the lace shops in Burano
Burano’s canals are filled with brightly coloured buildings, lace shops and cafes.
In the 16th century, it was traditional for the women of Burano to work on handmade lace creations while waiting for the men to return from the sea.
Burano lace became highly sought-after throughout Europe.
Although the more expensive creations in Burano’s lace shops are genuine Burano-made lace, watch out for the cheaper lace items imported from China.
11- Lunch like the rich and famous in Torcello
At the island of Torcello, I lunch at Locanda Cipriani, a rustic guest house and well-known restaurant.
The Bellini cocktail, a deliciously refreshing concoction of champagne and peach juice, was invented right there in Torcello by Giuseppe Cipriani.
The Cipriani name is legendary in Venetian circles and is linked to the world famous Harry’s bar.
Locanda Cipriani hosts celebrities who just want to get away from the Venice crowds.
I thumb through their guestbook, stopping at Nicole Kidman’s sprawling signature.
This unassuming rustic hideaway boasts a long list of celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill, many of Europe’s royal families, Prince Charles, the late Princess Diana and Elton John.
12- Attend Carnevale Venice
Venice is like a stage and the triangle between Rialto, San Marco and Accademia like a revolving play – never more so than during the celebrated Carnevale.
During this 10-day street party leading up to Ash Wednesday, costumed revellers fill the city’s streets but the centre of activities is Piazza San Marco.
Carnevale is a time for dressing up, merriment, dance, mime, theatre, opera and parties.
Before Venice became a region of Italy (in 1866), it had the most luxurious court in Europe. The wild celebrations of Carnevale went on for months at a time.
What many don’t know, however, is that for nearly two centuries, from 1798 until relatively recently, it didn’t happen and was even officially banned under the Fascists.
It was only reintroduced in the 1980s.
Carnevale, a pre-Lent celebration, begins each year two Fridays before Ash Wednesday, finishing on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.
But, even if you can’t visit Venice during Carnevale, you’ll still get the feel of the event in the many mask shops which grace the city.
Carnevale takes place in Venice each year in winter, the best time to see Venice, one of the few places that can claim to be more beautiful in winter than in summer.
Cloaked in mist and fog she wears her wintry cloak like a grand dame dressed for the opera.
While most cities are at their worst in winter, Venice is at her most atmospheric and magical.
And, when the tourist throngs thin out to provide near uninterrupted views of Venice’s visual masterpieces, you can stand in that amazing drawing room, the huge marble piazza known as San Marco with nothing between you and the white filigreed limestone dazzle of the Doges Palace, save your breath and the fluttering of pigeons.
It’s still one of the world’s greatest drawcards and the good news is, Venice hasn’t sunk – it’s better than ever.
Where to stay in Venice
Foscari Palace Hotel, Campo Santa Sofia, Venezia, tel: +39 041 5297611, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Locanda Cipriani, 13 Piazza S. Fosca, Torcello, Venezia, tel: +39 041 730150.