Spread over 118 small islands in a sparkling emerald-green lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, Venice is one of the most unique and unforgettable cities. Its majestic canals are lined with marble palazzi and sumptuous basilicas, and the narrow alleyways – filled with delightful boutiques and art galleries – open out into charming, secret squares.
Yes, the city is ridiculously expensive, but, with stunning sights and works of art around every corner, you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy it. Believe it or not, from picturesque bridges and mesmerizing piazzas to churches that double as art galleries, there are tons of free things to do in Venice for all ages and interests. Here are 7 worth adding to your next quick getaway to La Serenissima.
- 1 1. St. Mark’s Basilica
- 2 Go For an Aperitivo
- 3 4. Ponte di Rialto
- 4 Art Museums
- 5 6. Venice Lido
- 6 Relish In the Cuisine
- 7 7. Doges Palace
- 8 8. Bridge of Sighs
- 9 11. San Giorgio Maggiore
- 10 13. Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta
- 11 15. Torcello Island
1. St. Mark’s Basilica
Easily the most renowned and famous building in Venice, St. Mark’s Basilica is a sublime piece of architecture that has stood the test of time since its creation in 1092 and remains one of the most important religious buildings in Northern Italy.
Every aspect of this church is fantastic – From the ornate detail, sculptures and artwork of the front facade, to the beautifully painted frescos and Byzantine works of art on the inside of the domed ceiling.
Located in the Piazza San Marco, this basilica is easily accessible from the grand canal and is one of the best-known surviving examples of Italian Byzantine architecture.
Walk the Rialto Bridge
Built entirely of marble, the iconic Rialto Bridge is probably the best spot in town to watch the gondolas and vaporettos sliding up and down the Grand Canal. Nevertheless, this is the most famous of all the 400 bridges in Venice, and one of the city’s top tourist attractions. It was designed by Antonio da Ponte in the 16th century, and is considered a Renaissance architectural and engineering marvel.
In addition to the lovely canal views, you’ll also find a series of arcades and pricey souvenir shops filled with colorful jewelry and Murano glass. Walking the Rialto Bridge is free and brings up some wonderful photo opportunities.
Do Some People Watching in Piazza San Marco
Napoleon was right. Piazza San Marco really feels like the “drawing room of Europe”, especially during summertime, when the city is at its busiest. Framing the monumental square are some of Venice’s most recognizable landmarks and historic buildings, including the stunning St. Mark’s Basilica, the glorious Doge’s Palace, and the towering Campanile.
Being a popular meeting place for both tourists and Venetians, the swanky boutiques and alfresco cafes here are extremely expensive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t walk around, soak up the atmosphere, and marvel at the outstanding architecture.
Go For an Aperitivo
Do as the Venetians and go for an aperitivo in the evening. Tourists and locals alike go to bars to order a drink and eat some ciccheti (snacks), a quick and authentic Italian way of having dinner. The traditional aperitivo drinks are made with bitter alcohol, such as Campari and Aperol, and there are three main options: Negroni, Spritz and Americano. Try one of Venice’s rooftop bars – Skyline Bar has a great panorama – or go for a more informal setting at Osteria All’Arco, which is frequented by locals and known in Venice for its delicious bar snacks.
Skyline Bar | © Courtesy of Skyline Bar
4. Ponte di Rialto
As one of the bridges that spans the impressive Grand Canal, the Ponte di Rialto is undoubtedly the most famous and iconic.
Connecting the San Marco and San Polo districts of Venice, the bridge is an important pedestrian thoroughfare, but also a hugely popular tourist attraction.
Originally a wooden bridge, this culmination stood for hundreds of years until it collapsed in 1524. After this incident, an ornate stone bridge was built that still stands today.
The detail and design of the bridge is simply beautiful and its symmetry perfectly frames the grand canal.
Furthermore, the is also a series of shops on the bridge that sell a range of wares from souvenirs to jewellery.
Tour the Rialto Market
Nestled along the Grand Canal, in the district of San Polo, the bustling Rialto Market is a true feast for the senses.
The commercial heart of Venice for more than seven centuries, this is still one of the great medieval markets of Europe and the best place in town to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh meat, and locally caught seafood.
Sounds, smells, and colors apart, a visit to Mercato di Rialto (open Tuesday to Saturday) is a great way to gain some insight into the Venetians’ way of life and their food culture.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection houses the art of the most influential European and American artists of the 20th century, and is visited daily by hundreds of tourists. It is located on the Grand Canal, so it is very easy to reach. The Gallerie dell’Accademia displays Venice’s most important paintings. The site is made up of three buildings, which all used to have religious ties. Napoleon was responsible for the creation of this beautiful museum, not only because he closed churches all over Venice and took their artwork, but also because he set up the Accademia Di Belle Arti at this location and established that it should be a gallery as well as a school.
Guggenheim Museum Art @NathanRupert/Flickr
6. Venice Lido
If you are looking for a spot of relaxation and to get away from the bulk of the tourists, the Lido is the place to go.
This separate island creates a barrier between Venice and the Adriatic Sea and features a long stretch of beautiful beach to enjoy.
Home to approximately 20,000 inhabitants, the Lido also has a host of residential areas, shops, restaurants and hotels.
With a much calmer, laid back and relaxed feeling to central Venice, Lido is a true escape and provides a stark contrast to the busy streets and waterways surrounding the grand canal.
Relish In the Cuisine
Venetian cuisine is known around Italy, especially because of the high quality of seafood that is served in the area. The lagoon is a local source of fish that are freshly caught each day and served in many restaurants. Baccalà Mantecato is one of the most typical fish dishes, consisting of dried, salted cod that is blended with garlic, parsley, potatoes and cream to make a delicious mousse. Goose, meatballs and lobster are just a few of the other delicacies visitors can taste in Venice. The Veneto region is also known for its white wine, with some of the best vineyards in all of Italy.
Baccalà Mantecato | © Monica/Flickr
7. Doges Palace
One of the most renowned buildings in Venice aside from the Basilica and Campanile, Doges Palace also sits in St. Mark’s Square but looks out onto the grand canal.
This ornate palace is simply stunning and its front facade features a beautiful arched design made of white stone with a series of diamond patterns on the walls.
Inside, the palace is just as impressive and there is a series of immensely decorated rooms that all have original details, furniture and artwork.
Tours of the palace are available and it is advised to spend some time viewing both the exterior and interior in detail to truly capture a piece of the history of Venice.
Enjoy Some Window Shopping
Venice is notoriously famous for its pricey shops and exclusive fashion boutiques, but window shopping is almost as fun as the real thing, and it doesn’t cost you a dime.
Bursting with colorful Carnival masks, exquisite Burano lace, and Murano glassware, the city’s window displays immerse passersby into the local craftsmanship traditions and exceptional artisan scene.
Jewelry, leather goods, and antiques are very well represented in Venice, and so are luxurious textiles, fine wines, and cartapesta (papier-mâché).
For high-end designer fashion, head to the streets just off Piazza San Marco, where the latest collections from Gucci, Armani, and Versace are beautifully displayed in the shops’ lustrous windows.
8. Bridge of Sighs
Although only a small bridge in the relative scheme of Venice, the Bridge of Sighs is one of the most viewed structures in the city and is an important historic landmark.
Passing over the Rio di Palazzo, the bridge connects the Prigioni Nuove to Doge’s Palace.
Legend has it, that as criminals were taken from the Palace over the bridge, they would cast once last glimpse at Venice and sigh; considering their forthcoming punishment and imprisonment.
Whilst visiting St. Mark’s Square, it is an absolute must to glimpse this iconic bridge too.
11. San Giorgio Maggiore
This is one of the smaller separate islands that is not connected to the main canals of Venice.
San Giorgio Maggiore sits a short distance from the Venice Basin and the Grande Canal and can be reached by Vaporetto or private water taxi.
Located on the island is the fantastic San Giorgio Monastery, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore and the large campanile that mirrors the one standing in St. Mark’s Square.
Walk through the small harbour and see the various boats moored, visit the fantastic church and monastery, and climb the campanile for amazing views back across to the main city of Venice.
13. Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta
Located in the Cannaregio region of Venice, the Church of Santa Maria Assunta is a fine structure that is also known as I Gesuiti.
The front facade of the Church features several stone columns, ornate sculptured statues of religious figures, and a host of intricate detail – A huge bronze door serves as the main entrance.
Constructed in 1729, this is one of the newer churches in Venice but it is still important and the interior contains a number of impressive artworks such as the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Titian.
Furthermore, artwork, frescos and gold detail cover the ceiling of the church and some beautiful motif artwork lines the walls and columns.
15. Torcello Island
If you are looking for a peaceful escape, Torcello island offers just that and is much less crowded than the main areas of Venice.
Located to the far east of the main part of Venice, Torcello is nestled behind Burano and is approximately 45 minutes from Venice via a regular ferry.
Walk through the main street of Torcello and admire the beautiful canal until you reach the Church of Santa Maria Assunta which has a fantastic design.
Furthermore, there is a dedicated museum that displays the history of this chain of islands, and a variety of shops and restaurants.
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