A weekend in Venice is one of the most popular ways to see the floating city. If you’re spending two days in Venice you’re not going to see everything, so don’t try. But weekend breaks in Venice are a great introduction to the city, with enough time to experience plenty of Venice highlights and some of the best attractions in Venice.
As it is a relatively small city, it’s amazing what you can pack into a weekend trip to Venice. Many of the things you must see in Venice are very close to each other, especially around Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), and there are also beautiful outlying areas in Venice within reach a short boat ride away.
We’ve compiled a list of the very best things to do in Venice, Italy, ensuring you make the most of your Venice weekend, and that you get to visit the main sights to see in Venice, leaving ample time for you to wander this fascinating, endlessly beautiful city and explore its many backstreets and canals. We’ve also added information on an optional day trip to the lagoon islands of Burano and Torcello, and tips on finding your Venice accommodation and some of the best places to eat Venice has to offer.
- 1 A boat ride along the Venice Grand Canal
- 2 The best view of Venice
- 3 Piazza San Marco and San Marco Basilica
- 4 The Doge’s Palace
- 5 Getting Lost in Venice
- 6 The Best Location In Venice
- 7 Rialto Bridge
- 8 The best walk in Venice
- 9 Day trips from Venice
- 10 Where to Stay in Venice
- 11 Eating Out In Venice
- 12 Getting to Venice from the airport
A boat ride along the Venice Grand Canal
The most obligatory of all the must do things in Venice is a boat ride on the Grand Canal. You need to see the whole length of it to get the full effect, starting either from Piazzale Roma or Ferrovia, the railway station stop. The #1 vaporetto (waterbus) is the best way to do it, criss-crossing the Canal, stopping on both sides, chugging slowly along the most spectacular waterway in the world, taking 35 minutes to reach San Marco. It is the best possible introduction to Venice, passing the likes of San Geremia church in Cannaregio, the magnificent Ca’ d’Oro palace, the city’s fish markets, the iconic Rialto bridge, the many magnificent palaces and Venice hotels on the Grand Canal. You pass several of the best art galleries in Venice, including the Accademia and Peggy Guggenheim Collection, eventually reach the stunning Santa Maria della Salute church, before the final approach to the first of the two San Marco stops, Vallaresso. The second, San Zaccaria, is a short walk beyond the Doge’s Palace.
The best view of Venice
Admittedly, there are amazing views of Venice along almost every street and canal, but sometimes you need some height to get a different perspective. There are two places from which you can get this – the campanile (belltower) of San Marco which soars high above Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), and the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore church, which faces it across the lagoon. The views of Venice from both are astounding. If you can’t decide between them, so both. San Giorgio Maggiore is only a few minutes away by vaporetto from San Zaccaria, and a visit to this church is one of the best things to do in Venice.
You ascend both towers in a lift, so no hard slogs upstairs for this: you’re whisked up to the top in seconds. From the Campanile of San Marco gives you a bird’s eye view of Venice, with the domes of the Basilica, the gondolas along the waterfront, and the red tiled rooftops of this amazing city, punctuated with church towers and domes. It is one of the most amazing cityscapes on the planet, and the view is outstanding. If you go to the south side of the Campanile, you get the view of the Grand Canal, the lagoon and San Giorgio Maggiore resplendent in the sunshine.
The view from San Marco campanile probably wins out on balance, but the view from San Giorgio Maggiore campanile is one of the most special things to do in Venice. The one advantage the view from San Giorgio has over that from San Marco is that you can see the whole of the waterfront of the city from San Giorgio, with San Marco campanile dominating the medieval skyline. On a clear day you can see the distant peaks of the Dolomites, which are often snow-capped.
Piazza San Marco and San Marco Basilica
Piazza San Marco – St Mark’s Square – is one of the best-known and most beautiful squares in the world. Before the railway and road reached Venice it was the arrival point for visitors to Venice; nowadays it is the place where most visitors to Venice converge at some point during their trip. It has an incredible concentration of sights with many of the best things to do in Venice within a very short distance.
The Basilica di San Marco – St Mark’s Basilica – is the most wildly exotic of all the buildings in this city, with an ornate partly mosaic façade adorned with statues, with a cluster of onion domes behind.
It’s also the most popular attraction in Venice, and entry to the main body of the Basilica is free, so you can usually expect long queues to get in. The highlight of the visit is the amazing array of golden mosaics inside, but they’re only fully lit for an hour or so each day. You can see them without full lighting, but with full lighting they are much more vivid. I’ve managed to see them fully lit three times, chancing it each time for around 1130 am.
The Doge’s Palace
We recommend trying to see some art in Venice, as the city has so many outstanding artworks on display, whether in museums or churches. As it’s difficult to fit in many art museums in Venice if you only have two days in Venice, we suggest deciding on one.
We suggest the Doge’s Palace, or Palazzo Ducale, as it’s the best place to learn about the rise of this great city, and the workings of the Venetian Republic under its elected leader, the Doge. It’s also one of the world’s outstanding Gothic buildings, and filled with lavish decoration and art by Venetian greats such as Tintoretto, Titian, Carpaccio and Veronese.
There are several options for your tour of the Doge’s Palace. Everyone visits the sumptuous Doge’s Apartments, Institiutional Chambers and prison, which is reached through the interior of the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). You can also go on a ‘Secret Itinerary’, exploring further behind the scenes – for this you need to book in advance.
Getting Lost in Venice
There’s no doubt about it, one of the best things to do in Venice is to get completely, utterly lost there. It has such a unique cityscape, a network of canals and a labyrinth of narrow lanes, with wonderful discoveries to be made down every alleyway and sotoportego (a tunnel underneath a building) you walk along.
I’ve wandered around virtually every corner of Venice, and it never ceased to surprise me. As you’re on a weekend away to Venice you won’t want to spend too much of your time being lost, and I’ve always gone walking in Venice with a vague plan.
There are two areas of Venice I’d recommend walking around. The first is Castello, immediately to the east of San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. There are some gorgeous canals in this area, with some of the best around the church of Santa Maria Formosa. If you can find the correct exit from the square, follow the sign to the great Basilica dei Santi Giovanni & Paolo, often referred to as San Zanipolo in Venetian dialect. If you find your way, look out for the equestrian figure of Bartolomeo Colleoni, one of the great sculptures of the Renaissance, and the ornate façade of the building next to San Zanipolo. This is the entrance to the local hospital. This is Venice, after all.
The other area I’d recommend is on the other side of the Grand Canal, keeping roughly parallel with it as you make your way down from Rialto bridge and the adjacent Rialto markets, through the sestiere (district) of San Polo towards Dorsoduro. You can come across the floating greengrocer of the Rio San Barnaba, the vast cavernous Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, and the city’s student heartland and some of the best budget restaurants in Venice around Campo Santa Margherita. If you continue in a general southerly direction you’ll eventually reach the Giudecca Canal. One ‘block’ inland from this is the Rio degli Ognissanti, one of the most picturesque canals in Venice, and part of a regular gondola route, in a much quieter part of the city than San Marco. Follow this canal to the end, crossing the next one and look back to the Squero di San Trovaso, one of the last gondola boatyards in Venice. It’s only a short walk from here to the busy Zattere vaporetto stop, which is a quick ten- to fifteen-minute zip around the water to San Marco.
The Best Location In Venice
The Molo is the stretch of waterfront outside the Doge’s Palace and the Piazzetta, and I have to sat I think it is the best location in Venice and has the best 360° view in the world. You will almost certainly pass it at some point during your weekend in Venice, and one of the most romantic things to do in Venice is to see it at the best time of day to appreciate it most. That means either getting up early, ideally at least half an hour before dawn – or staying from sunset through to twilight. There is no more magical place in the world to experience either, and for me it’s the place to shoot the best photos of Venice.
As you look out over the lagoon, you have rows of gondolas before you, then the beautiful Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, one of Andrea Palladio’s greatest works. Scan to the right, and follow the skyline of the islands of Giudecca, including another of his churches, the Redentore. Then you see the old customs building at Punta della Dogana, and the distinctive domes of Santa Maria della Salute church, and the Grand Canal running alongside it.
Continue moving, so that you eventually turn 180°. Now you see the two pillars – one with the lion of St Mark, and the statue of St Theodore, patron saint of Venice until the relics of St Mark were acquired at the entrance to the Piazzetta, the ‘little piazza’ or ‘little square’ leading to Piazza San Marco, St Mark’s Square. To the left are the grand buildings of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. Directly in front of you is the clock tower and some of the smaller domes of San Marco Basilica, while on the right is one of the greatest Gothic buildings ever, the Palazzo Ducale, the Doge’s Palace. Somewhere behind that, 200 metres away, is the famous Bridge of Sighs. By now you’ll have turned 270°, and you can see the Riva degli Schiavoni, the Quay of the Slavs, stretching off into the distance, with its vaporetti, water taxis and gondolas passing by. Then you come full circle back to San Giorgio Maggiore.
The Rialto Bridge, Ponte di Rialto, is one of the most recognisable icons of Venice, a high-arched stone bridge with a row of shops either side. It’s the oldest of the four bridges over the Grand Canal, and it’s inevitable that you’ll be passing both under it and over it at some point during your weekend break in Venice.
Rialto is also one of the busiest places in Venice, and its wonderful markets are on the San Polo (western) side of the Grand Canal. This is where the city’s restaurants go to buy the day’s catch, fresh off the boat, and it’s a great place to spend an hour or so, stopping at some of the many cafes and bars for a while.
The Rialto Bridge is also one of the best vantage points in Venice, with elevated views over the Grand Canal from either side. It’s a great place to stop towards the end of the day, and watch the many boats – from vaporetti to freight boats to water taxis and gondolas – all jostling for position on the water below. For most of the year the south side is an amazing place to watch the sunset and twilight on the Grand Canal.
The best walk in Venice
I did this walk the first time I visited Venice almost twenty years ago, and loved it so much I’ve done it at least twenty times since. It’s one of the most atmospheric walks in Venice, running from Piazza San Marco to the Accademia bridge over the Grand Canal, and I’ve told many friends it’s one of the things they simply must do in Venice. You can double-back, cross the bridge and catch a vaporetto to San Marco or extend it to a circular walk via another of Venice’s best-known landmarks, Rialto Bridge.
This walk is one of the best things to do in Venice at night, ideally around dusk when the lights are just beginning to illuminate the churches and buildings along the route. You start at the west end of Piazza San Marco, but before you leave, turn back for a great view through the arch of the square, basilica and campanile. You then pass under the arcade before starting out on Salizzada San Moise.
This street is the place to go clothes shopping in Venice, with exclusive boutiques and high-end fashion in Venice – Prada, Balenciaga, Chanel, they’re all here. You soon reach the side of a church – continue alongside it, into a small square, then cross the bridge, pass the gondoliers and turn around. This is the church of San Moise (St Moses), a florid riot of Baroque sculpture. It’s not the most beautiful one in Venice, but after many years of familiarity I’ve become rather fond of it.
This is also a good place to make a short detour down the side streets to the Grand Canal, for some of the best views of Santa Maria della Salute church on the opposite side.
Once you’re over the bridge, Calle Larga XXII Marzo has more of the best shopping in Venice with more high-end fashion boutiques, and Gucci and Armani among the big names here. At the end you turn left and rather abruptly leave all this behind. The street now becomes the tiny Calle delle Ostreghe, the Street of Oysters, before you cross the bridge of the same name. The Bar Ducale does very good panini if you happen to be passing this way in the daytime. There’s also a beautifully situated restaurant, Da Raffaele, with canalside tables in summer.
You then pass through what is no more than a narrow passageway before coming to one of the best surprises in Venice – the gorgeous, graceful white marble Baroque façade of the church of Santa Maria del Giglio, also known locally as Santa Maria Zobenigo, the exuberant front is up there with the best architecture in Venice. It’s wonderful at any time of day, but most beautiful at twilight with the white façade standing out against the deep blue sky.
After Santa Maria del Giglio, you cross the Ponte Duodo o Barbarigo – the smaller of the two, to the right, continuing past a cluster of restaurants on Calle Zaguri, to Campo San Maurizio, home to a positively austere (by the standards of the previous two churches) deconsecrated church now used as a small museum dedicated to Baroque music in Venice.
Again, keep to the right of the square, and turn left onto Calle dello Spezier, continuing until you reach Campo Santo Stefano, one of the larger squares in Venice and one of our favourites. There’s a great gelateria to the right as you enter the square that serves some of the best gelato in Venice – you deserve it. At least, that’s what I’ve always told myself.
It’s only a short distance from here to the Accademia bridge, which is around the corner to the left of Campo Santo Stefano. On the way, you pass the former church of San Vidal, which is one of the best venues for classical music concerts in Venice. The Accademia bridge is a little further on, and the view from the left side towards Santa Maria della Salute is one of the best of the Grand Canal in Venice. The vaporetto stop is just to the right of the Bridge, and it’s only a few minutes from there to San Marco.
Day trips from Venice
As you’re only planning to spend 48 hours in Venice, there’s not much time or scope for making day trips from the city, but some try to fit one in.
One of the most popular is the Murano-Burano-Torcello run to three islands in the north of the lagoon. It wouldn’t be on my weekend Venice itinerary, simply because there’s so much to see in the city itself. But if you really want to have a trip out on the lagoon, I’d suggest trimming your itinerary to the islands of Torcello and Burano. The number 12 vaporetto leaves from one of the Fondamenta Nove stops, on the northern side of the city.
Torcello is a tiny marshy island, much of it as the lagoon islands would have been before the city was built. It has one canal, a well-known restaurant, Locanda Cipriani, the church of Santa Fosca and the serene Torcello Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, with its glorious Byzantine mosaics.
Burano is the next island on the number 12 vaporetto route, and its main attraction is its vivid, colourful fishermen’s cottages. It’s a wonderful place for photography, with so much colour, and the canals providing reflections to include in your compositions. Burano is also home to a small lace industry, and plenty of restaurants catering for the many visitors on day trips from Venice. Burano is a better bet in the warmer months of the year, as it’s a cold trip out there in winter and the lower sun means the light doesn’t always reach where you want it to, whereas in spring, summer and autumn the higher sun will open up more photo opportunities for you.
Where to Stay in Venice
Our feature on the best area to stay in Venice describes all the options around the city and beyond. As you’re spending a weekend in Venice, I’d recommend looking for your accommodation in Venice somewhere central, either in the San Marco district, in the western part of neighbouring Castello, the eastern part of Cannaregio, or anywhere in San Polo or the eastern part of Dorsoduro.
One of the best hotels on the Grand Canal in Venice is the Hotel San Cassiano Ca’ Favretto, a gorgeous 14th century house which was home to the 19th century Venetian painter Giacomo Favretto. It’s in an ideal location, less than ten minutes’ walk from Rialto Bridge, and a much shorter stroll to the bustle of the Pescaria, Venice’s fish market.
One of my old favourites is Hotel Ala, one of the best three star hotels in Venice, located on Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, halfway along the best walk in Venice described above. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco and also a couple of minutes from the Giglio vaporetto stop.
The western part of Castello is also a great location for a weekend away in Venice, and one of the best hotels I’ve found in this area is the opulent 4 star Hotel Ca’ dei Conti, only five minutes’ walk from the Piazza.
Eating Out In Venice
There are so many restaurants in Venice to choose from. Over many visits, I have eaten at many, ranging from the outstanding to overpriced with mediocre food. We suggest trying for Venetian and regional food as much as possible, as opposed to the places serving generic Italian food such as lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese and pizza. In Venetian cuisine there’s a big emphasis on seafood, and delights I’ve sampled include sarde in saor, shrimps, anchovies, amberjack and the delicious risotto nero al seppie, black cuttlefish risotto. Vegetables also feature strongly on the Venetian menu, many grown locally on the lagoon island of Sant’Erasmo. Many bars also serve cicheti, appetiser snacks not dissimilar to Spanish tapas or Basque pintxos, helped on their way with a glass of wine.
Some of the restaurants I’d recommend include:
Le Bistrot de Venise – elegant, romantic restaurant a short walk from San Marco, serving a great range of historical Venetian classics;
Ristorante da Carletto – an old favourite on Calle Bande Castello, near the junction with Salizzada San Lio;
Cantina do Mori, San Polo 429, a standing-room only wine bar in the Rialto market serving cicheti;
Osteria Ca’ del Vento – we found this lovely little place out near the San Basilio vaporetto stop on the Giudecca canal.
Getting to Venice from the airport
The main airport in Venice is Marco Polo Airport, 13 km away on the mainland. There are several ways of getting to Venice from Marco Polo Airport, and as you’re in Venice for the weekend we recommend the quickest, most direct way – booking a return trip with Alilaguna. They have two routes to Venice, the Orange line down the Cannaregio Canal in the north-west of the city, then along the Grand Canal to San Marco, or the Blue line around the eastern edge of the city to the same destination. Alilaguna is also a much less expensive way of getting to Venice than water taxis, with return tickets booked online costing just 25 euros which can set you back 100 euros one way.
If you’re arriving in Venice by bus, your service will terminate at Piazzale Roma, which is served by several vaporetto routes.
If you’re planning to arrive in Venice by train, it’s a short walk outside the station down to the Grand Canal and the Ferrovia vaporetto stop. The waterbuses are run by ACTV and they have points of sale at many of the vaporetto stops around the city. Their website doesn’t have basic information such as prices for tourist tickets, but if you’re there for the weekend it’s worth investing in a 48 hour ticket (biglietto per due giorni) which at the time of writing costs 30 euros.
If you’re flying into Treviso airport, it’s a straightforward bus ride from outside the terminal to Piazzale Roma bus station in Venice.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.