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Added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1987, Venice is a dream destination, but what should you do in this unique city? Culture Trip speaks to some locals to find out their favourite things to do in the city of canals.
Venice is known around the globe, but its wonders go far beyond its reputation. As art collector Peggy Guggenheim once said: “It is always assumed that Venice is the ideal place for a honeymoon. This is a grave error. To live in Venice or even to visit it means that you fall in love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else.”
Here, Iris Pase, a Venetian local, walks you through the city’s narrow streets, colourful canals, and amazing landmarks. You’ll find out what are the best things to do and see in Venice – as recommended by Venetians themselves – so that you too will fall for this breathtaking city.
They may be crowded, but no visit to Venice would be complete without seeing St. Mark’s Square or the Rialto Bridge – landmarks that are pivotal to the city’s history.
The best advice is to be curious: customise your visit, know what you want to see before you arrive, and keep a keen eye out. For instance, if you’re a history fan with a bloodthirsty side, look for the red pillars when you visit the Doge’s Palace. They were the designated spot from which the Doge would sentence prisoners to death, who would then be executed between the two big columns of St. Mark. If you prefer fashion over history, have a look at Palazzo Mocenigo, the museum of fabrics and perfume, or stroll through Venice’s fashion-forward shopping streets, located just near Piazza San Marco.
Built on 118 islands to escape conquerors, Venice is the perfect city to be enjoyed from a boat. To see the best of the palaces, for example, one must sail along the canals around the city, as their facades overlook the water.
“Usually, when tourists ask us for something off the beaten path for them to see, we suggest a vaporetto ride on the Grand Canal,” says Maria Gabriella Emiliani, one of the owners of Antichità al Ghetto, an antique shop in the city’s Jewish area. “Take line 1 or 2 from the train station (or from Piazzale Roma) and sail along the Grand Canal, possibly on a sunny (and not too busy) day.
“Any time of the day is fine, be it sunrise, sunset, evening or night. The view is always unique: the sunlight on the palaces, the reflections on water, centuries of history sliding in front of you along with mosaics, architectural styles, sculptures and the final prospect of landing in St. Mark’s Square.”
“Most tourists stick to the main island when visiting Venice. It’s a pity,” says Lorenzo Cagnoni, a local basketball player. “They don’t realise they’re missing out. The islands are truly beautiful, like the most popular Murano and Burano or the lesser-known Pellestrina and Poveglia.”
Venice offers so much variety: you can enjoy a glass-blowing demo on Murano, a stroll along the colourful streets of Burano, look for the Devil’s Bridge in Torcello, or even venture to what is believed to be one of the most haunted places in the world: Poveglia.
Just walk up to an imbarcadero (water bus stop) and have a look at all the different routes. There are plenty of islands to choose from. The ACTV website is also a great tool to plan your visit, as it includes all the routes and prices you need.
Speaking of islands, it’s impossible not to mention San Giorgio Maggiore. Tucked away from the busy streets of the more touristy area of the city, San Giorgio is located just in front of Piazza San Marco.
Hop on a vaporetto and you’ll land on this tiny island that offers plenty of art and beauty. Visitors can enjoy San Giorgio Maggiore Church for free, where they can find the work of Palladio and Tintoretto. You’ll be able to spot the gleaming white facade of the church from a distance, shining brightly on a sunny day.
On the island, visitors can also find the Cini Foundation, which is a cultural organisation promoting art and literature. Located in a former monastery, entry is €14 (£11.90). Enjoy the beautiful architecture, priceless books and one of Venice’s secret gems: The Borges Labyrinth, a garden-maze that was dedicated to the Argentinian author on the 25th anniversary of his death.
Venice is a 360-degree experience. Once you’ve tried the water bus system, the city must be seen from above to catch every glimpse of its beauty. Climb one of the many bell towers, stairs, or palaces to see a kaleidoscope of colours, water reflections, and birds soaring above the skyline.
Stefania Cattelan, a fashion student in Venice, says: “My favourite spots to see Venezia from above are two: the first one is the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore Island, whereas the second is the Contarini del Bovolo staircase.” Both places require a ticket, but the views are extraordinary.
“Everyone climbs the bell tower in San Marco, which makes the one in San Giorgio way less busy,” Cattelan continues. “I love the peace I get there as well as the view, which is different from what most people are used to in Venice.”
Pro tip: if you’re looking for a cheaper way to see Venice from above, head to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi’s rooftop terrace; this department store rooftop needs to be booked in advance but is free of charge.
After boats, human feet represent the best means of transport in Venice, as any Venetian would tell you. “Venice is the emblem of slow travel, think of transport!” says Umberto Battagliarin, a Venetian local. “There are no cars; only boats or your own feet. That’s how you get to appreciate everyday life, you walk and have the time to value every moment.
“This is my advice: lose your way, look at shops, listen to Venetians talking or frantically look for some peculiarity. Immerse yourself in the surrounding environment.”
When asked about his favourite stroll in town, Umberto says: “If you want to see the basin in its splendour, walk from Zattere to Punta della Dogana. The view is just wide, beautiful, and peaceful.”
More than 500 years old, the Jewish quarter is a small area in Cannaregio, located just a few minutes’ walk from the train station. It has a difficult past; it was founded in 1516 as a secluded area where Jewish people were compelled to live.
Today the area offers some great museums exploring the area’s history, beautiful synagogues, and incredible food. Cross the bridge in front of Fondamenta degli Ormesini and have a kosher lunch, visit one of the area’s bakeries, and explore the narrow streets.
Italian food isn’t just delicious – it’s also a key element to understand and experience Italian culture, in all its regional nuances. Venetian food is no exception, and is especially spectacular if you love seafood. There are countless dishes unique to the city to try, including cucina povera (simple food) – sample some baccalà mantecato (creamed cod paste) or mouth-watering bigoi in salsa (a thicker kind of spaghetti, immersed in a rich sauce).
Also, don’t forget the drinks! Seafood goes perfectly with some Prosecco but if you’re moving on to enjoying the nightlife, a classic Aperol Spritz or Bellini will get you in the party spirit like a true Venetian.