An Outsider’s Inside Guide to Venice
(Here is the link to the info below in a Google doc.)
Although Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, its charms can be obscured by the crush of other bodies jockeying for unobstructed access to many of its architectural, cultural and natural gems. In order to escape the hordes of tourists clogging up narrow walkways, visiting the same sites and eating at the same restaurants, here is a list of ways to visit Venice and get a real feeling for the magic of the place without contributing to overcrowding.
I compiled this guide over the course of a year (2022 to 2023) living in Venice and Murano with my family. Like any guide, this one skews towards my personal preferences and the way my family likes to live and travel: simply and without much of an agenda.
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When to Visit
If you can avoid visiting in the summer you will have a more pleasant experience. The best months to visit in terms of weather are: October, April and May. If you can withstand the cold, January is my favorite time to be in Venice; it’s foggy, moody and very quiet.
Getting to Venice from Marco Polo Airport
Cheap and effective: Alilaguna Water Bus (two lines depending on where you stay in Venice: orange and blue)
Easy and expensive: Water Taxi (80 -100 Euro)
Take vaporetti (waterbuses) around Venice. Buy a 1, 2, 3 or 7 day ticket and have fun jumping on and off the boats. The tickets are expensive, but it really is worth it to be able to see Venice from the water. Plus, ACTV is amazing, and supporting this efficient and well-run public transportation service is a great way of supporting Venetian public infrastructure.
Tips for walking around Venice
My absolute favorite thing to do in Venice is simply to walk around and explore. Straying from the busier calli (walkways) and wandering into less touristy neighborhoods (sestiere) like Castello, San Polo or Santa Croce, is a really wonderful way to spend your time.
Use your satellite filter on Google Maps to help you navigate. Then, allow yourself to get lost and don’t worry about getting anywhere quickly.
Act like a local and walk single file if there are other people around.
Don’t stop in the middle of walkways and bridges. Walkways and bridges are the “roads” of Venice.
If you need to look at your phone for directions “pull over” to the side of a building and get out of the way of the flow of traffic.
Touristy things to do that are totally worth it
Visit St Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace. The website for the Doge’s Palace is a nightmare. Save yourself the hassle and go to the box office directly. Best on a weekday morning.
Drink a spritz, espresso or non-alcoholic/non-caffeinated drink on a balcony or terrace overlooking the lagoon or canals.
Get on a boat (vaporetto, traghetto, taxi or gondola) and view Venice from the water.
Go to museums, churches and palazzos (see below for some favorites).
If you are staying for more than 2-3 days, visit some of the other islands in the lagoon. The Lido (rent a bike and explore!) and Torcello are my favorites. Murano (where we live) and Burano have their charms if you can stomach the crowds and are willing to stray from the beaten path. More info below.
Aside from wandering around, sitting and people watching is one of the most fun things to do in Venice. Plus, since there are no cars, you can completely let down your guard and let the kids run wild.
Great places to people watch outside:
Ospedale/Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo: The square outside of Venice’s main hospital is a meeting place for families. It’s where you’ll see kids running amok, playing soccer, and using the bronze monuments as climbing structures.
Campo Santa Margherita: A huge square in Dorsoduro with lots of cafes, shops and restaurants around. Ca Foscari (the big University in Venice) is located nearby, so it’s a place where students hang out and party later in the evenings.
Garibaldi: Both the street and the park.This is a wonderful place to both eat and relax. It’s also close to Giardini and St. Elena if you are looking for trees and quiet views of the lagoon.
Campo Maria Formosa: A great place to hang out in Castello after a visit to Querini Stampalia or St.Mark’s.
On the steps by one of the main canals on Misericordia: There is technically no “picnicking” allowed in Venice, but you can eat a picnic lunch here without being too conspicuous. Just be prepared to pack your trash with you as there are no trash cans in the area.
Places to loiter inside (ie: you’re hot/cold, tired, hungry, cranky and need to pee):
Fondaco dei Tedeschi is the fancy “mall’ in the middle of Venice. Get an expensive drink in the cafe (the Bellini here is pretty damn good), take a pee in their nice bathrooms, and wander around.
Combo is a former convent turned hotel/bar/cafe/restaurant in Cannaregio. Their outdoor and indoor spaces are great – especially if you need a place to work, use the internet or pee.
Eating in Venice
Dining out in Venice is pretty expensive if you want to eat well. If you’re traveling around Italy and on a budget, save your money to eat out elsewhere, and keep things simple when you’re here. Cicchetti (little Venetian snacks) and panini are always great options for an inexpensive meal. And, as always, grocery stores and specialty markets are always the best option for affordable meals.
If you’ve got money to burn you can really indulge here, but that’s not really our situation. So, I’ve chosen a few options that are all pretty low key. If you’re looking for fine dining or romance, here is a link to a google doc for restaurants that fit that bill, and Katie Parla’s guide is great too.
The coperto: Most sit down restaurants will charge you a coperto (usually 2€ per person) to sit and eat. Think of it like a cover charge (and also your charge for bread and olive oil). Some places will also charge you a service fee; usually they will post this fee on the menu.
Sit Down Meals
Ai Nomboli in San Polo. This is my favorite restaurant. It’s a simple, delicious and legit neighborhood spot. Their specialty is sandwiches, but their daily specials are really good. It’s tiny, so don’t go with a big group.
Nevodi is more upscale dining in Castello. Try the pasta and definitely make a reservation.
Al Timon on Misericordia in Cannaregio specializes in grilled meats and vegetables. Great atmosphere.
Ristorante San Trovaso in Accademia. Delicious seafood in a really beautiful old building.
Antico Gatoleto in Cannaregio. Dependably good and not too expensive Venetian food and pizza. Service is brusque. Good if you’re in a pinch.
Acquastanca on Murano. I think this may be my favorite restaurant in the Lagoon.
La Perla Ai Bisatei in Murano serves simple, typical Venetian food. The calamari is especially tasty.
Bar Milan in Cannaregio. Cheap drinks, very local scene. Divey. GREAT people watching. Their plate of the day is usually decent (you have to ask for it) and they have inexpensive panini and cicchetti.
Caffe La Serra in Garibaldi. This light-filled cafe looks like a greenhouse and is a lovely place to stop if you are on your way to or from the Biennale or Giardini.
Ai Stagneri is near the Rialto. Tiny locals spot for a quick cafe (espresso), snack or panini, etc.
Bar Rialto dal Lollo in San Polo by the Rialto. Great place for inexpensive and good tramezzini; plus they’re kind.
Al Merca for wine and cicchetti by the Rialto.
Murano Artisan Ice Cream is hands down our favorite gelateria. It’s on Murano, so if you are there, make sure to go. And if they have the limone basilico, get it!
Bacaro del Gelato on Misericordia has the most delicious salted caramel gelato. Couple it with a chocolate dipped cone. You can thank me later.
Sualaluna Libreria Bistrot in Cannaregio is a sweet little place to stop for a tea or espresso and piece of lemon cake.
Gelateria il Doge in Campo San Marherita has a really wonderful lemon granita.
Vizio Virto is a fancy chocolate shop between Campo Maria Formosa and the Rialto.
My favorite shopping is for groceries. I also love visiting pharmacies (farmacia) and seeing what they have. If you want to branch out into other kinds of shopping, here are some locally-owned specialty shops:
Kooch (Migration) in San Polo. This store is owned and run by Yasra Pouyeshman, who is from Iran and has compiled a beautiful array of textiles, ceramics, jewelry and art from contemporary crafts people in Iran.
Paropamiso in San Marco. This is the most amazing antique jewelry/artifacts store (museum quality).
Chiarastella Cattara in San Marco. They have the most gorgeous handmade Italian linens and the shop itself is just really lovely.
Libreria Marco Polo in Dorsoduro is a really sweet bookshop. Everyone will tell you to go to the Acqua Alta in Castello, but it is so touristy at this point that it is almost impossible to enjoy.
Atelier Segalin in San Marco makes beautiful handmade shoes, as does leather goods maker Roberto at Kalimala in San Marco.
There is just so much to see when it comes to art in Venice. If you’re here during the Biennale definitely go! It’s absolutely worth it. Otherwise, you really can’t go wrong. Sometimes the most fun part of a show is the building itself – this is definitely true for museums in palazzos.
Also, here’s a link to a guide I made for making visits to museums more fun for kids/everyone.
Doge’s Palace is a definite must-see. As I mentioned above, go to the box office to get tickets. Trying to do it online is a nightmare.
Museo di Storia Naturale (Natural History Museum) is a great place to go with kids.
Collezione Peggy Guggenheim (The Guggenheim) houses a small but impressive 20th century art collection and the museum and grounds —her former residence— are really special.
Museo del Vetro & Le Stanze del Vetro are two glass museums worth your time if you’re into/curious about glass and glass history.
Museo Fortuny - is a really wonderful small museum of Mariano Fortuny’s art (he was a painter, sculptor, printmaker, theatrical lighting designer, photographer and textile designer) in a beautiful palazzo that he restored.
Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti in Campo San Stefano (by Accademia Bridge) has consistently great art shows.
Querini Stampalia is a museum as well as a place to see Carlo Scarpa’s architectural genius. Also, if you’re into Scarpa, head to the Olivetti Showroom in St. Mark’s.
Ca D’Oro is worth it for the mosaics alone.
Palazzo Grimani near Campo Maria Formosa in Castello is an incredible palazzo and also has an interesting collection of art.
There are 137 churches in Venice. My advice is to duck into any that you come across, there’s always something interesting to see.
St. Mark’s Basilica (San Marco): Obviously. It’s worth it to pay extra to go inside the “museum.”
Frari: Go to see Titian’s Assunta, one of the largest masterpieces of the Renaissance. Stay for the incredible woodwork, marble, stained glass and tombs of both Titian and Canova.
San Giorgio Maggiori: Taking a boat out to San Giorgio is a fun and worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours. You can explore the gardens, the labyrinth, and go up in the bell tower for an incredible view of Venice.
Scalzi (Santa Maria del Nazareth) near the train station (Ferrovia) is an over-the-top, decadent and dizzying marble monstrosity of a church (in the best way).
San Giorgio dei Greci: The Greek Church of the Icon. Small, gilded and ornate.
Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli : This may be the cutest edifice of any church in Venice.
Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato (Murano): The mosaics in this Byzantine era church are wonderful. It’s also one of the oldest churches in the lagoon.
Venturing further out into the Lagoon
If you are spending more than a few days in Venice I’d encourage you to venture out into the lagoon to explore some of the other islands. Be thoughtful about when you attempt to take a boat to Burano or Murano. In the height of tourist season you can expect to wait awhile if you try to go in the middle of the day. Burano is by far the “cutest” and the most touristed; the last time we went I wished I hadn’t . Visiting Lido is always a great idea if you are feeling overwhelmed in Venice or simply want to go for a swim or be somewhere with a completely different vibe.
Murano: Here is a link to an essay I wrote about the history of Murano, as well as living/visiting/understanding it. Go there first for more comprehensive suggestions. In short: the best place to watch glassblowing at a functioning factory (not tourist trap) is at Wave Glass. Also, don’t miss the Gelato at Murano Artisan Ice Cream - seriously.
Torcello: Torcello was the first inhabited island on the lagoon. To get there you need to take the boat to Burano/Mazzorbo and then continue on. Locanda Cipriani is the famous restaurant on the island (upscale) but it’s also fun to eat at the low key cafeteria style Taverna Tipica Veneziana. All the seating is outdoors and they have farm animals and play structures for little kids. Afterwards, walk to the Basilica Torcello to see the mosaics in the oldest church in the lagoon (7th century) and laze around on the grass.
Lido: Our favorite thing to do on Lido is to rent bikes and ride out to the beaches. Plan to have lunch in the medieval village of Malamocco and enjoy exploring the neighborhoods along the canals with their Liberty style villas and beautiful gardens on your way back to the vaporetto.
Thanks for mentioning the Fondaco (I used to work at this company so had the pleasure of visiting Venice every year)! I don’t know if they still have free rooftop access for the public, but if they do it’s worth the amazing view. They also have periodic art exhibits inside the building and I believe on the rooftop.
Ahhh! Great! Thank you!